John Kinsella: Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful (Fremantle Press, ISBN 9781921361098, $24.95)
John Kinsella: Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language (Fremantle Press, ISBN 9781921361050, $29.95)
John Kinsella has published, as poet, essayist and editor, more than forty books. The latest are the poems, Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful, and the collection of essays, Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language. The essays set out material for the poet’s main thematic preoccupations: the Western Australian wheatbelt, its history, culture and environment. There is some interesting autobiography and anecdotal history in this.
Despite the book’s title, it contains little close examination or theorising of language. The essays, open and wide-ranging rather than closely analytic, do not at any point provide a coherent definition of terms. None of their content is particularly original or groundbreaking, which would be fine, except that it is presented as if it were. The essays are thick with autobiographical digressions, references to Kinsella’s own professional projects, previous publications, reported conversations with his wife, lengthy quotations from private correspondence, journal extracts and detailed apologia for his own poems, all infused with a steady implication of his work’s privileged status as a critique of the ‘traditional pastoral’.
Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful, according to Kinsella, is the third of a ‘wheatbelt trilogy’. The first two were The Silo and The New Arcadia. The poems in these last two books share a uniform style and reach, blending the ‘traditional’ style of his earlier work with the ‘experiment’ of 1993’s Syzygy.
Regarding the pastoral, one of the biggest problems William Empson identified in his seminal Some Versions of the Pastoral was its tendency to resolve and hide conflict through a false and complacent simplicity. These poems, in their ‘anti-pastoral’, present themselves as complex. There is much reference and display of erudition, beginning with the title’s reference to Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime. But none of this is consolidated, as problems of craft inhibit ideas from full development and prevent the reader’s curiosity being engaged.
Many poems in Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful deploy gestures of so-called Language poetry. Other poems evince the same naivety, or sentimentality, that Language poetry has critiqued: the assumption of the possibility of mimesis, the pathetic fallacy, the attempt to connect with some immediacy to the empathy and emotion of the reader. Most of the poems mix these two modes in a jarring way that, instead of sparking thought, is just distracting.
‘Joy and Grief’ uses what should be good material. The image of a sunburned neck linked to the ‘redneck’, the setting of the country dog cemetery, the image of the ‘utes and dogs’ processions. But better lines – ‘still caught up/ in the myth/ of growth through poison/ proud of its spray services/ its spray rigs’ – are closely followed by this: ‘and so, in my myth of self-belonging,/ of a classless/ participation in what I know best but remain alienated from,/ that I can’t leave,/ can’t get away from’. Why? The answer – and the reason to care – is not set up in the poem. The answer is in biography and, as in most of the poems, the poet and the speaker are collapsed utterly.
Many poems – ‘Nyctalopia,’ ‘Novelty,’ ‘Intermitting,’ ‘Terrible Darkness (Against the Racism of the Sublime)’ – are blighted by clumsy attempts to make all of the works of (white) man equivalent to war. This is based, presumably, on the fact of Aboriginal dispossession and genocide, on Australia’s involvement in contemporary imperialist wars, and Australia’s silence on the atrocities of its allies. There is potential for effective melodrama here, but it’s the flatness of the diction which prevents interest and alienates the reader from any real engagement with the politics (the many ellipses are his):
The light, intermitting, is kind of … unclean. You can shift blame just like that; just like Harry S. Truman: ‘The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war …’, just like Einstein. Light, intermitting, collates violence; each step closer it doesn’t strengthen: salivate perspire … deaths in the Australian bush take a long time to clear up … if ever: tin can on gate post clicks with the easterly, times perfectly, phase-switching … four-veined vacuumed, a hand held out blackens and silvers, turns … rabbit shooter, sniper, thrill killer. from ‘Intermitting’
Is the use of the second person here an attempt to implicate the reader in colonial denial, or to have a go at destabilising the lyrical ‘I’ (to what purpose?), or to mask the looseness of association in Kinsella’s stream of consciousness, or vaguely, all of the above? This is not complexity but gesture and confusion.
Unable to detect a coherent aesthetic, I consulted an essay ‘A Brief Poetic’, on the poet’s website. Kinsella acknowledges three strains in his work – the ‘formal’, the ‘experimental’ and something in between which he sees as the ‘true Kinsella’. As in ‘Is There An Australian Pastoral?’ in Contrary Rhetoric, he describes this third strain as a ‘hybrid’ form (an example of his continual borrowing of the jargon of postcolonial studies, without any of the rigorous theory of that discipline).
These poems are not hybrids: a form which moves beyond ‘simply mixing’, which subverts and deconstructs its parent forms. They are simply mixing, a mixing which doesn’t work, as it looks like an attempt to have a bet both ways. In attempting to take an (albeit unclear) theoretical stance on language, the poet looks rather foolish when he reaches for sentiment. Are we meant to have this reaction? The mix is jarring, but not interesting, as both the sentiment and the quick associative references which cloak it are touched on too lightly and never developed. The attempt to flit between modes leaves the reader with a sense that some external expediency is guiding the poet’s style, rather than an inner tuning or poetic.
Empson looks at pastoral in the way that it approaches working people – as written ‘about’ but not ‘for’ or ‘by’ the people. This is exactly the problem with Kinsella’s portrayal of the inhabitants of the wheatbelt. In Shadesof the Sublime and Beautiful, country people are noticeably absent. They exist as the names of dead family members, deployed to exhibit the poet’s generational belonging, and as menacing cardboard cut-outs: ‘Heavily/ armed, young men out here will torture -‘, ‘the shire rangers cruise the district/ searching out compliance’, ‘Tailgating us in their four-wheel drives … Aim: to rip it up, drink beer.’
This violence is continually contrasted, in essays and poems, to the poet’s veganism, pacifism and sensitivity to nature. And yet he harps on the point, and perhaps protests too much. In the essay ‘Myths of the Wheatbelt’, he comments on The Silo – ‘it never condemns outright – other than the persona, who is full of self-condemnation for the role (he) plays in experiencing, in telling the stories’. This is a particularly uninteresting piece of masochism and self-regard. It is not a persona’s but Kinsella’s experience which is related, continuously, obsessively.
There is little reference to rural depression: the crisis of economics and infrastructure which has contributed to the dire state of many communities. Kinsella’s work, with its dabbling in the gothic, in the pathetic fallacy, contributes to the pernicious idea that values are geographical rather than cultural. This lends credence to the Howard and Hanson-era hysteria about disdainful city elites and their attitude to country people, however often Kinsella may drop ‘Uncle Jack’s’ and ‘Aunt Elsie’s’ names to legitimise his claims of insider status.
Quoting a letter of his own, Kinsella laments naively that ‘People have noted only one direct poem in the The Silo (‘The Sale of the Century’) regarding the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The whole book is actually about that!’ Faith in authorial intentionality? A strange confession from a poet of the postmodern textual hybrid!
In both the poems and essays, there are enough flashes of interest to indicate that a poet may well exist behind this work. However, from their contents, as well as the regularity of the publication of Kinsella’s lengthy volumes, it is obvious that these books were produced extremely quickly. For the sake of the poet’s reputation in the long judgement of literary history, it would be better if he took some time, published less, reworked, edited and rethought.
Though it is not Overland’s usual policy to publish rejoinders to critics, John Kinsella’s response to Elizabeth Campbell’s review seemed likely to interest readers, and so justified inclusion in the same edition.