Thursday 29 May 2008

Letter 13

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John Kinsella teaches at Cambridge University and Kenyon College and is very much a global poet of place. Born in Perth, Western Australia in 1963, he arrived on the English poetry scene with a thud on the doormat in the form of Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (Arc 1997), Poems 1980-1994 (Bloodaxe 1998) and The Hunt & other poems (Bloodaxe 1998). More books followed and his prolific output was consolidated in Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems (W.W. Norton 2004). Selected and introduced by Harold Bloom and praised on the back cover by George Steiner, this book was followed by The New Arcadia: Poems (W.W. Norton 2005). He has now produced Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (Manchester University Press 2007), which represents his developing critical position.

Kinsella has consistently situated his poetry within the pastoral, yet his critical work is attempting to move beyond that tradition. In essence, there is a tension between his mainstream pastoral work and his more adventurous attempts at what he terms ‘linguistic disobedience’, as exemplified in his work Graphology (Equipage 1997) and a new lyricism. Disclosed Poetics is divided into four chapters on the pastoral, landscape and place; spatial lyricism; manifestoes; ageing, loss, recidivism, with some appendices at the end. It is less a study than a series of explorative approaches in notebook form or as he writes ‘a stretching out of the poetic line’ designed to open out discussion on possible ways forward.

I want to examine some of these ideas around the pastoral and anti-pastoral in the context of Kinsella’s recent creative and critical work.

Disclosed Poetics is concerned with what constitutes place and why and how we write about it. As he writes, ‘Landscape is part of time, and the lyric is a representational grounding of time. The singing of a poem, the rhythm and intonation of a poem, are also inseparable. This is a work that out of its disparate parts suggests a synthesis is possible, even desirable, but recognises the decay, pollution, and destruction of not only natural environments but the markers of place itself.’ He goes on, ‘The poem is either complicit with or resistant to the status quo, the state-sanctioned version of literature that feeds a stultifying nationalist and hierarchical agenda.’ This is the issue that drives his poetry and poetics and he is able to draw upon experience in Australia, England and America.

Kinsella poses two questions. Can the pastoral have any relevance in the age of factory farming, genetic modification, pesticides and the disenfranchisement of indigenous communities, and can there be a radical pastoral?

His answers are affirmative and involve challenging and dismantling the building blocks of the pastoral’s modes of presentation and representation. This linguistic disobedience involves writing within the rural space and the undoing of the mechanics of the pastoral. He cites Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ poem as marking the break with the pastoral idyll but gives us no history of the subsequent displacement of the pastoral. Instead he concentrates on the Elizabethan court wits idea of ‘arcadia as a playground for aristocratic or landowning sensibilities’ … ‘firmly grounded in the hierarchies of control – of the divine right ‘ … ‘and the ladder of authority that entailed using this as a vehicle for Christian hierarchies’ (p.1) and links this with the world-view of chemical companies that claim to improve the pastoral whilst establishing a hierarchy whereby they gain and the consumer and land face health risks. He thus sees the moral side of the Arcadian ideal as continuing through agencies, such as chemical companies, and being vehicles of hierarchy and authority.

This clearly then was the motivation and thinking behind The New Arcadia, although of course it has a wider and deeper context.

Pastoral poetry presents an idealized rather than realistic view of rural life. Dating back to the third century BC when Theocritus wrote his Idylls of Sicilian shepherds, the genre deals with shepherds and rural life. Virgil added a new dimension to the pastoral by making his Latin Eclogues a vehicle for social comment and setting his poems in a beautiful location, Arcadia, a Greek province, where plain speaking and death occurred. The shepherds are depicted with time on their hands and their thoughts turn to the erotic. Themes include love and seduction, mourning, the corruption of the city or court, invocation of the Muse, the purity of country life and complaints. The eclogues of the title are dialogues between shepherds. Arcadia for Virgil is not a heavenly condition but an earthly one.

By the time of the revived fashion for the pastoral during the Tudor and early Stuart period, Arcadia holds within it the prospect of a radical dimension. The English Arcadians were fiercely Protestant, anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic, and attempting to give roles to love, poetry, land and estate management, their own place as a bulwark between an over-arching monarch and the threat of tyranny. This involved attitudes to common law and the protection of ancient customs and statutes and a balance between the crown and court. They saw the manor as the model for the workings of Arcadia on earth. Here the lord needed to love his tenants as the shepherd needed to love his sheep. There was then a sense of honour involved in running a good estate that looked after its local population. This was the way to happiness and perfection. There was though a contradiction to be overcome. There was continuing protest against land enclosure and this radicalism was linked to an understanding in the Old Testament that saw all men as equal in the sight of God. This tension then is the site of the early radical pastoral. So within the writing there has to be space for old English radicalism in the form of the complaint. Thus in Edmund Spenser’s The Shepherdes Calender (1579) dedicated Sir Philip Sidney, which sets the template for the English pastoral, there are twelve eclogues, one for each month of the year, written in different metres and including four on love, two laments, one on the neglect of poetry, four allegories and two complaints. The complaint here is a pointer for the Arcadian towards matters that need to be addressed. It represents as it were the social tension between the movements from communality to individuality in land arrangements. English Arcadia came from a world in gradual transition from feudalism to capitalism and is such is looking backwards to communal custom as the font of English law in opposition to court corruption. The pastoral complaint is clearly an anti-pastoral convention that transforms the landscape of innocence into one of conflicted experience. This is clearly where Kinsella’s work should be placed.

The affectation of rustic life creates a distancing effect that allows the Arcadian poet to step back and criticise the court and comment on deeper matters. A good example is Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1600), which contrasts court corruption with the idealised Forest of Arden and invites the viewer to meditate on what constitutes natural behaviour, the nature of love and gender, the connections between language and truth and the abuse of language.

The threat of State power during this period is ever present as writers and poets are imprisoned and murdered and there is also the potential threat of the landed aristocracy, the courtier and lord of the manor as alluded to in Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets 94’

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

Performed at Wilton House, the home of Will Herbert and his mother the Countess of Pembroke, Sidney’s sister, in 1603 in front of James I, at a time when Ralegh, a banished courtier like those in As You Like It, was imprisoned nearby at Winchester, the play contains echoes of Marlowe’s poetry (‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’) and death, as in Touchstone’s speech in Act III Scene iii, and with its happy ending perhaps calls on divine intervention in favour of love and goodness from a benevolent lord or monarch. It clearly draws the viewer into another world where characters can try on different identities and this openness and its unresolved debates create the space for the audience to probe. It is one of the best examples of the pastoral process being used to make readers think.

William Empson in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) famously saw the pastoral process of ‘putting the complex into the simple’ (p. 23) and that the pastoral has a unifying social force and is a means of bridging differences and reconciling social classes. In his rapid sketch of the pastoral, Kinsella is against the construction of new pastoral idylls and sees the pastoral as a genre of closure, which perhaps forgets the achievements of As You Like It, and yet he also sees that the pastoral has moral, spiritual and gender aspects in our time. In a moving passage, he writes about his teenage years spent shooting and trapping parrots in Western Australia and his writing about parrots, symbol of the destruction of beauty, as an act of atonement. I find that Kinsella is far more effective in this writing than in his unstructured thinking on the pastoral. Disclosed Poetics essentially records the progress of his own thinking about the pastoral and linguistic disobedience, making use of his own poems and recent examples of the radical pastoral by Peter Larkin, Andrew Duncan and Lisa Robertson. The spatial lyricism and manifestoes chapters are full of provocative notes and thoughts that draw upon a wide range of recent poetics and theory. However, there is no underlying coherent overall approach, although the possible directions are clear. By implication he rejects two recent ideas that seem to me to be misleading. One that the pastoral is solely a discourse of retreat and two that its age has ended, as suggested in Terry Gifford’s Pastoral (Routledge 1999) and elsewhere. He sees the radical pastoral as occupying the fringe areas between the rural and urban and between speech / writing and thought. (p.67) Although the pastoral is a discourse of ideological accommodation the anti-pastoral can be read as breaking new ground and making us think anew as Ralegh, Shakespeare, Milton and Courbet, the painter, have shown. I would like to suggest though that the response to the pastoral, and that arguably includes the anti-pastoral, is to do its opposite that is as Elizabeth Cook has written of my work ‘to repeatedly unpack the simple to examine the latent complexity of implication and relationship’ (Elizabeth Cook ‘Man In Black: David Caddy’ The Use of English Vol. 60 No. 2 Summer 2008) within the context of a localised and deeper social history.

Coming to The New Arcadia after reading Disclosed Poetics, it is surprisingly orthodox and simple. Promoted as a response to Sidney’s Old Arcadia (1580) it employs irony to present the ‘new’ Arcadia not in a ‘feigned’ or fantasy realm but in modern rural Western Australia with all the downsides of rural life being used to present the anti-pastoral.

The Old Arcadia, a prose romance with poems and Eclogues, is a virtuoso performance of French and Italian forms transposed into English verse. Sidney wrote this way for the music and passions that the words could excite. The Eclogues are largely songs and recitations on such themes as marriage, melancholy and death presented during singing competitions that provide the pretext for the metrical complexity and experiment introduced by each singer. The work’s success is derived from the tension between the formal experiments and thematic exploration involving enormous inventiveness and a full command of English.
The New Arcadia is divided into five acts, each beginning with
a narrative drive poem that provides a temporal snapshot and ending with an Eclogue, and employs a range of registers characterised by a modulated musical language. It has a graceful flow with flourishes of higher pitched narration depicting the Avon Valley, east of Perth, beset with unsettling relationships between people, animals, birds and plants.
Compared to the Old Arcadia, it is not a dramatic literary construct designed to advance thinking about moral and emotional behaviour. There is plenty of death and invention and a relative lack of love poems. It is written at speed as if there is a need to cover a wide region rather than localised space and consequently the speakers have more neutral than dialect voices. The lack of rough edges to the poetry somewhat mitigates against seeing this as a true opposite to the Old Arcadia where all the characters portrayed are good poets. The narrator explains that ‘People measure lives by the miles / they’ve chewed up’ and that there’s ‘a lot of bad poetry here’.
The New Arcadia is best seen as anti-pastoral rather than radical pastoral. Anti-pastoral has a long tradition at least going back to Ralegh’s ‘The Nymphs Reply To The Shepherd’ (1600) satirical riposte to Marlowe’s poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd To His Love’ (1600) and would include Stephen Duck’s The Thresher’s Labour (1736), Mary Collier’s reply The Woman’s Labour: An Epistle To Mr Stephen Duck (1739). Interestingly, these and other anti-pastoral poems became read as pastoral poems and that may eventually happen to Kinsella’s work. Indeed rather than seeing the touchstone of the break with the pastoral in Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ there is an alternative tradition provided by Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1794, which involves a much different use of language. The anti-pastoral satirical tradition of Ralegh and Milton is relevant to this tradition and I was surprised not to see reference to this work in Kinsella’s largely autobiographical chapter on ageing in Disclosed Poetics. Briefly the Arcadian world of conventions and cycles of conflicting judgements about country and city, male and female, and the contrary states of youth, maturity and old age, are brought under great strain from within. As Ralegh says in ‘The Nymph’s Reply To The Shepherd’

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckonong yields:
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

The gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten, -
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

It may be then that Ralegh and Milton were interested, as Kinsella is now, in undoing the mechanics of the pastoral from within. However, the anti-pastoral should move forward and explore the tensions and contradictions between the human and non-human, masculine and feminine selves, the country and city, the workings of globalisation as it impacts upon rural economies, landowner and tenant and farm worker, tenant and farm worker.

One of Kinsella’s strengths is his eagerness to be open about his various subject positions and an ability to acknowledge his own prejudices. As he writes in Disclosed Poetics (p. xi), ‘Ploughing a field on Wheatlands when I was eighteen is every bit as important to me as first reading Deleuze and Guattari, and being a vegan as essential as enjoying the poetry of Shelley. In my adult life, the teaching of poetry has become inseparable from my poetics: I teach what and how I have learnt so others can learn for themselves. I am interested in offering approaches and processes, not end results. The unfinished intrigues me.’
Although his family and farm, Wheatlands, are mentioned in The New Arcadia, his exact relationship to the land is not examined or presented. Although it is possible to infer that parents within the range of large landowner to smallholder raised him, the exact conditions and status are excluded. The value of this information is relevant to questions concerning who worked and originally lived on the land.

His ‘Eclogue Of Presence’ (pp. 96-101) does though raise the question of ownership and land access.


Everything you see stretched between river and hills
is mine, and you need my permission to cross even the
that run along the fenceline - I’ve see you hanging
around in the scrub,
looking the place over – well. I’ll warn you, I hear a noise
and shoot first …. you think being up so early in the
will keep me from knowing, think again – and my eyes see
into the evening.

Young Bloke

This scrub is for anyone to walk through, unna? And when
comes we don’t hang around anyway, there’s spirits that
come of the hills
that’ll get even a bloke like you. In the early morning
we come from town to watch the roos leap the gullies
and escape from your farm before machine-noise
makes them afraid, before they vanish into the scrub.


If a kangaroo has a go at my crops and takes to the scrub
I’ll go straight after it, or waiting until evening
where I’ll catch it on a trail with a spotlight, and the noise
they hear will be the sound of death come down from the
down from my house where guns are loaded, no gullies
will protect them, and they’ll never see morning.

Young Bloke

My dad says your family brought mourning
to my cousins, unna? And though the mallee scrub
hides your killing, and though the gullies
are choked silent with wire and sheep carcasses, evening
brings a light that shows the dead the way up to the hills
where they fill the darkness and occupy every noise.

The Eclogue continues giving voice to the Farmer and young
Aborigine and effectively contrasts their different views of the land as an unresolved debate. Many other poems perform the same function of presenting unresolved tensions and conflicts.

White Cockatoos

Spectres inverting sunlit
paddocks after late rain
field into quadrature out

of blind-spots, raucous
it’s said, like broken glass
in a nature reserve

but that’s no comparison;
cowslip orchids’ yellow parameters
curl like tin, or cowslip orchids’

yellow parameters reflect clusters
of white feathers from canopies
of wandoos or sheaths of flight,

down in deep green crops
ready to turn when rains are gone,
beaks turned back toward

whereabouts unknown,
but almost certain to appear,
at least as atmosphere. (p. 56)

Disclosed Poetics provides the poem’s context by explaining the role and function of parrots in Australian poetry and culture as political and environmental symbols. The poem plays on the knowledge that white cockatoos are pests that eat crops and fruit and the paradox between its familiarity as an object of splendour and derision. The poem’s own acknowledged failure in the ‘broken glass’ simile thus leads to the larger realisation that the poem only partially grasps the actual impact of such birds on the psyche.

Given the way that the pastoral ideology works to incorporate its opposite within its own dialectic The New Arcadia, despite its flourishes in poems such as, ‘Extreme Conditions Occasion The Fox’, ‘Dead Wood And Scorpions’ and the Reflectors poems, does lack in linguistic disobedience. It is to Kinsella’s enormous credit that he has produced a most unusual book that more than questions the foundations of his critically successful poetry.