The ‘lore’ of diminishing returns

Replying to bad reviews is a fatal pastime. For those opposed to the tenor of the review, it gives credence to a reviewer who deserves none. For those who agree with the review, the defensiveness of the respondent confirms their opinion. I was not going to reply, but have since decided to do so because there are larger issues at stake.

My Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful was written over three years and is not the third in my pastoral trilogy. That trilogy was The Silo, The Hunt and The New Arcadia. My Shades book has absolutely no connection with the Language school, and anyone who has any knowledge of that would find the reviewer’s comments laughable. The question of the lyrical self in this book is a variegated and not a negated one.

The reviewer claims to be ‘unable to detect a coherent aesthetic’ in my book, yet apparently makes no attempt, other than acknowledging a link between titles, to read it in the light of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful, which is a serious flaw when seeking to tackle a book that converses with not only Burke’s ideas but his actual words. Burke’s entire book is entangled in my poetry book, and every poem references it. My book is basically arranged along the lines of the treatise; it reconsiders the history of the literary sublime through a polluted and damaged world, and the necessity of redefining the sublime in this context.

The politics of the sublime have always been about possession and control. Poetry too often becomes the vehicle for oppression through creating a literary satisfaction or pleasure (or even, to use the reviewer’s word, ‘melodrama’). I am seeking to resist the capitalist military state in all its guises – including the rural. This is a particular sin in Australia, where so much of national identity (and a false white monadism) is inflected through an idea of a suffering or a joyous or a productive or a desiccated rurality. The state absorbs the good and the bad in equal measure. The suffering, as much as the bounty, is made part of the ‘strength’ of the national portrait.

I have never been one to write nice nature poems neatly packaged. Nature is a construct of those who would use it for their pleasure while convincing themselves they are conserving, preserving and respecting it. That’s the core of the pathetic fallacy, and the textual environment created by the reviewer becomes a pathetic fallacy via this construction.

The reviewer’s simplistic ‘use’ of Empson, which appears to be on the level of having read a cover blurb of the Penguin edition, is just not adequate. Unless you extend through an arc from Raymond Williams to Lionel Fogarty and others, you cannot know what you are critiquing in terms of contemporary post- and anti-pastoral in ‘English’. If the reviewer had considered the ‘violence’ in my work against Empson’s Some Versions she might have been on the right track – or at least an interesting one.

I am particularly amused by the idea of sentiment in my work – for what? Death, destruction, loss, colonisation? The reviewer comes across as an apologist for the rural. Is it ‘sentiment’ because I imply (maintain) that animals and ecology matter as much as anything else? That culture cannot exclude a regard for flora, fauna, the land itself? That these labels themselves need to be deconstructed? Or is ‘sentiment’ the reference to my children and partner? To family? To Auntie Elsie and Uncle Jack, or to my shearer-brother, Stephen? These are real people and all ‘rural’. The perception of the stereotypical is critiqued in the poems: the reviewer has imposed this perception on them, as is often the case. They are reflected against a nationalist literary trope: one I am trying to undo. Once written about, they are not those people. That’s the point. Real people can’t be in the poems, they can only be represented. It’s not a claim to ‘insider’ status but a participation in place. Through geography and not culture? This seems like an absolutist statement at best, and an opportunistic one at worst.

Given my very public opposition to Howard and Hanson and such figures, I find that association (‘lends credence’ – for whom? how?) on the reviewer’s part particularly ironic and repugnant. In any case, those repellent values were around long before either arrived on the scene. The rural world has been, in places, rather a strong supporter of Hanson. Shouldn’t that be said, and criticised? Does the rural world need to be protected as ‘idea’? This idea is a figment of the Australian dream of the bush. The idea of an absolute between the configuration of city and bush is one of convenience on the part of the reviewer.

Rural depression and economic collapse are as much a product of the capitalist state apparatus as of any individual government. It’s governments that are wrong. It’s the centralised state that’s wrong. It’s the money economy that’s wrong. The use of wheatbelt ‘gothic’ to interrogate the problematical nature of the rural allows, I hope, for a way out of the oppressed/oppressor binary that is the so-called ‘democratic state’. I need to rethink my ideas? Maybe the entire political spectrum needs to be rethought. My anarchist politics are not arbitrary. The disassociation of the geographic and the cultural is on the reviewer’s part – she seems unable to read a ‘hybrid’ (not a literal ‘mixing’ …) of these factors in their conversation within the poems. The choices I make in this regard are entirely deliberate.

The idea that the rural cannot be critiqued from inside or outside is ludicrous. The rural is a construct and those who have a vested interest in the exploitation of animals (to eat, to ride, to amuse themselves with) are always going to be defensive about the defined space of rural living. My poetry is against all oppressions, including the oppression of animals. My poetry is also entirely based on the premise that land needs to be returned to Indigenous peoples – rural and urban land! It’s all there if you read it. For those interested, I have written a book on pastoral and related issues: Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism. I would point the reviewer to the chapter entitled ‘Can there be a radical “western” pastoral?’.

The reviewer praises postcolonial theory by implication, but cites none. Why does it deserve the privilege that attends it? Coloniality is unfortunately an ongoing state of presence, and much postcolonial theory has been inadequate in addressing this. Furthermore, my takes on ‘hybridity’ are many; the reviewer’s total displacement of context seems lazy. For some of us, it has been part of a dialogue that’s been going for many years. One shouldn’t need to explain its possible usages every time. Poetry doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is not a complete science. It is okay to wander a little outside genre confinements.

All manners of writing are available in an attempt to prevent human destruction of environment. That’s cultural as well. And as there are no single takes on any culture or cultures, there are no single takes on a geography. What I see as a geography is not what, say, the Indigenous artist Julie Dowling sees. In fact, she might point out that I can’t see what she sees. But I at least want to be aware of the inevitability of this.

I do not care how literary history perceives anyone. I care about the wrongs of the world as it is now. Take risks, suffer the consequences – don’t worry about what people will think of you down the track.

The larger considerations of the Contrary Rhetoric book are nationalism, the flag, racism, Western Australian ‘colonial’ poetry, Wagner, letterboxes, protesting and abuse of forests – yet none of this is conveyed in the review. And pathetic fallacy? It is ironised and deconstructed throughout my work. How could a vegan do otherwise?

I write this from wheatbelt Western Australia. Sure, not all my neighbours love my values but I am as much part of the region as they are. Rural is not an absolute, and people suffer in the city as much as here. The idea that one’s ‘intentionality’ in poetics is a default accident is wilful misreading. Craft is a choice, and the subtexts of ‘craft’ seem to be ones the reviewer is not familiar with. The creative-writing-speak she employs regarding ‘good material’ is the give-away. The collector of items that make for good poetry fodder …?

Poetry, for me, must be about vision and belief, not about an aesthetic that serves a purpose of approval or gratification. The idea that I would want melodrama for its own literary sake – ‘There is potential for effective melodrama here’ – is beyond me. Or is this irony? I don’t write to entertain.

Finally, the comment regarding The Silo (a book, despite its criticisms of the rural world, that has been much taught in rural high schools and, I’m told, much bought by farmers). All my work is based on the premise that the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples was and is wrong. It is an ongoing condition. The work is based on observations of rural exploitation because it’s where my family mainly is and I most often am. It is based on ecological concerns that have in times past seen me locked up, and more recently giving lectures to deconstruct my own position and possible complicity in all of it.

Like anyone, I am often in the wrong, and open to criticism in many things. But this neoconservative misreading is just plain erroneous and intentionally misrepresentative. As a friend said on seeing the review, in it, ‘writing is associated with all the liberal niceties of reason, decency, moderation and grammatical control’. Indeed. I subscribe to none of these. As I admire the sourcing of Indigenous histories through stories, telling, aunts and uncles, so we need to reconsider and maybe reconstitute the non-Indigenous histories. We might get closer to the ‘truth’ then.

My family on one side escaped the Irish famine in the early 1850s. They were invaders in the south-west of Australia, made farms, lost them, worked as foresters, group settlement leaders and so on. At the basis of their rurality is the dispossession of Nyungar people. My Irish forebears were dispossessed, and yet sadly they dispossessed in turn. I have been hearing many family stories of late. They are part of what I write and will write.

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.

John Kinsella

John Kinsella’s new work includes the story collection Pushing Back (Transit Lounge, 2021), Saussure's Kaleidoscope Graphology Drawing-Poems (Five Islands Press/Apothecary Archive, 2021) and The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume 1 (UWAP, 2022).

More by John Kinsella ›

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