The eponymous poem in John Kinsella’s latest book recounts a group of teenagers witnessing a sack being flung from a speeding car. The sack, they discover, is filled with tortured kittens. This shocking poem of human cruelty begins a collection concerned with Kinsella’s great themes: the degradation of the environment, human violence (particularly towards animals), and the potential for language – especially poetry – to represent, and intervene in, those things. Despite the extraordinary variety and output of Kinsella’s career so far, his works (poetry, novels, translations, plays, short stories, autobiographies, works of criticism) share a single, ambitious project: to imagine a relationship between political action and literary speech.
The first part of Sack contains anti-pastoral episodes, such as ‘The Fable of the Great Sow’, in which human interaction with the non-human is presented in both intensely sensate and hyper-rational terms. The great sow, for instance, is both a recollection from the poet’s childhood of ‘total pig’, and imaginatively linked to the poet’s future viewing of a late-eighteenth-century painting of pigs in the Fitzwilliam Museum by James Ward. The distances inhabited in ‘The Fable of the Great Sow’ – in time and space – are typical of Kinsella’s imaginative and intellectual leaps.
Distance and closeness are central to Kinsella’s poetry. This is seen in Sack through the motifs of breath and breathing, which are often associated with damage and danger: the kittens’ last breaths in ‘Sack’; the poet breathing in asbestos in ‘Blue Asbestos on my Bedhead’; the airborne toxins in ‘Yellowcake’. In breathing, distance becomes profoundly, disquietingly, intimate.
While Kinsella is best known for his anti-pastoral aesthetic, his poetry is not simplistically anti-lyrical. Rather, Kinsella revises and struggles with the lyric mode, always attuned to its traditional musicality and intense subjectivity. This is apparent throughout Sack, as in this description of a sheep’s skull from ‘On Contemplating a Sheep’s Skull’:
Neither herbivore nor carnivore,
earth and sky-eater, fire in its shout
or whisper, racing through to leave a bed
of ash on which the mind might rest,
drinking sun and light and smoke,
choked up with experience.
Such lines show how much Kinsella can be a poet of sound, attending to language’s sonic, as well as semantic, potential.
Kinsella’s interest in the lyric mode is seen especially in the second section of Sack, a sequence of poems that use the improvisatory Welsh song form of the penillion. This is something of a departure for Kinsella, whose poems are usually loose-limbed, longish, and free of end-stopped rhyme. Here he employs rhyming iambic dimeter quatrains. To use such a stanza is a risky venture, and Kinsella shows his inventiveness and technical prowess in both his surprising use of rhyme and half-rhyme (‘Tim’/ ‘storm’; ‘skin’ / ‘scansion’; ‘Laugh loud at us / Fashionistas!’), and in his artful use of enjambment, seen in the opening of his poem on the River Granta in England, ‘Granta Penillion: Mid-Autumn’: ‘Skein of light, fuel / or skin of pol- / yphonous sun: / surface tension’. These poems show that Kinsella’s poetry, for all its seriousness, is deeply playful. This playfulness is also seen in the poems’ range, from ancient history to the contemporary moment, from ‘Penillion of Winter Flowers’ to ‘Penillion for Pussy Riot’.
If Kinsella’s project is indeed to imagine a relationship between political action and literary speech, his poetry is too often dismissed in this country for facile reasons. In part, no doubt, this is a reaction from a section of an Australian literary culture that views politics with suspicion. Attempts at dismissal are partly, too, a condition of the masculinist agon for cultural authority that remains tediously present in our literary culture. (It is notable that only men seem to be programmatically averse to Kinsella and his work.)
‘Only men seem to be programmatically averse to Kinsella and his work’
There is also the issue of clashing personalities and complex interpersonal histories. For instance, one of Australia’s leading poets, Anthony Lawrence, who gave a bluntly negative review of Kinsella’s recent book of ‘activist poems’, The Vision of Error (2013), has had a long-running dispute with Kinsella, which makes it rather surprising that he should offer his views under the terms of a book review, and that Text – the journal in which it was published – should agree to run the review.
Whatever one thinks of his work, Kinsella has few equals when it comes to supporting poetry in this country, and placing it in a transnational context. In his editorial roles, in co-founding Salt Publishing, in publishing and materially encouraging scores of Australian poets, in keeping the work of important poets (such as Randolph Stow) in print, and in his inclusive and excellent anthologising (the inclusivity of Kinsella’s most recent anthology being dismissed with a shrug in a recent issue of ABR), Kinsella is an extraordinary advocate for Australian poets and poetry.
That is not to say that Kinsella’s support of poetry makes his own work off-limits with regard to criticism. ‘Liking’ anyone’s work is not, of course, obligatory, and one may recognise Kinsella’s support of Australian poetry without appreciating his writing. But so often dismissing one comes at the cost of ignoring the other. Dismissing Kinsella’s poetry often seems a disquietingly personal act, the personal investment masked by an intense appeal to the ‘self-evident’ and ‘objectivity’. (Little in literary criticism is either, I find.) For me, Kinsella’s latest collection of poetry is a compelling addition to an extraordinary body of work. Kinsella is not a stylist in the usual sense of the word, but his style is powerfully original. His poetry, while denouncing the problems of modernity, is also astonishingly inclusive, an inclusivity consistent with Kinsella’s extra-poetic work. Kinsella’s poetry is deeply humane, and entirely in touch with the traditions in which it works.
‘Dismissing Kinsella’s poetry often seems a disquietingly personal act’
The last part of Sack, an elegiac verse letter to a fellow poet, brings together, among other things, youthful reminiscences, Bon Scott (the late singer of AC/DC), and Nauru, that key site in the Australian government’s inhuman, and often-enough illegal, asylum seeker policy. Having been told that Scott, like Kinsella, worked at a fertiliser factory, Kinsella uses his own fertile imagination to muse upon the superphosphate that he and Scott, in their menial jobs, must have both swept up: ‘Phosphate burning never passes / and pickles us in its grave. It doesn’t / make you grow. Ah guano, ah, fertile Nauru: / you will echo in this country down the track: / Pacific Solution. Makes phosphate bones / creak. And rock phosphate from the island / where the unwanted are now incarcerated.’ Bringing together jokiness, an impressive use of internal rhyme, and politically directed anger in the space of a few lines is typical of Kinsella’s synthesising poetic skills.
Can poetry change the world? Perhaps; perhaps not. But poets and their readers are citizens like anyone else. To write, read, and think about a poem with openness can, as Sack eloquently demonstrates, be the beginning of a radical, and radically non-violent, act.