A Brief Poetics

It is often remarked of my body of writing that I work in two distinct streams: the experimental and the traditional (or “formal”). Michael Hulse, in his Introduction to my 1996 New & Selected Poems, The Undertow (Arc), says, “Critics have been quick to note that two bodies of work exist side by side in Kinsella’s writing. Lyn Hejinian, distinguishing between the ‘meditative, narrative’ and the ‘experimental’, goes on to suggest that the difference is in fact an epistemological or temporal one. It is a point well made. Even so, I think Les Murray’s famous distinction between the Athenian and the Boeotian is more fruitful in understanding Kinsella.”

While understanding what both Hulse and Hejinian are recognising, I’d like to emphasise that there is a third body of work in which these two disparate elements are active. It is this work that I would see as the “true Kinsella”. The poems that have been chosen by the editors of Artes from the batch I submitted in many ways belong to this third category. There are obvious meditative and narrative qualities in them, but there are also plays on language and form which I would consider in the context to be experimental. Of course it is not such apparent experimentalism as may be found in a poem such as Syzygy:

The point of impact
fabricates & inde
pend {ates} enhances – a disc plough
or slave cylinder
mixing mediums
with disaster
intra-personally: saltwash,
the creeks are storming

the river But there are plays with mode and content that separate them out from the “pastoral mode” to which they would normally be ascribed. I am fascinated by the effect modernism has had on the pastoral as a form. If we accept the general notion of a pastoral poem being an idyllicising of the rural by the comparatively urban poet, then I see no place for it, in contemporary Australian poetry at least. Of course this definition is purely one of convenience, but what I am interested in denoting is the poetry of an environment that has been much altered and damaged by humans, particularly those who came with European settlement or, as I would prefer, “occupation”. In the wrestling with this often harsh landscape, there are things worthy of admiration, but it is rarely idyllic. Australia tends to be a place of extremes, at least in my experience, be it drought or flood.

Much of my poetry is based in rural environments in which I have spent half my life; however, while admiring the grit and humour of those on the land, I am highly conscious of the fact that land “ownership” has come by way of disenfranchising and in many cases genocide. In my 1995 book, The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, I explore the south-west Australian wheatbelt environment and character through perceptions of both the European pastoral and Romanticism. It is a book that many have commented is devoid of nostalgia, but still open to the possibility of contact with the players in this community.

On the other hand, my interest in linguistically experimental verse has evolved from an intense interest in what it is that constitutes a particular language. There are certain codes that go across not only all language groups but all artforms. This is the language between the lines, between the notes, or hidden in the folds of a sculpture, or within the frames of a painting.

Borrowing a term from postcolonial dialogue, I see this third body of work I referred to earlier as being a hybrid. By hybridising, I don’t simply mean a mixing, or a production of a new strain from a set of specific “biological” material. A hybrid is not a possible next stage in a developmental sense, nor is it a “dilution” of the original. Nor is it a fusing of traditions. It is in fact a conscious undoing of the codes that constitute all possible readings of a text. It is a debasement of the lyrical I. It is a rejection not of frameworks but of contents. It recognises frames for what they are: empty shells. Charles Bernstein recently called this my Trojan Horse theory – get inside and dismantle. It is not an ideolectical poetry that replaces certain demarcations, borders, divisions, qualifications. In some sense it highlights those separations. I often use the sestina and villanelle. To utilise a traditional structure is to emphasise the undoing. The result is a denial that is cultural as well as linguistic, a refusal to accept that the component parts are relevant to the discourse. Suffice it to say, I believe that to be experimental one must have a thorough understanding of traditional forms!

Though my influences are wide and many, crossing the gamut from English poetry through European and Chinese poetry, and modern American poetry, there are a number of Australian poets I’d like to mention as having an influence either on my work or on that of my contemporaries. Les Murray and Dorothy Hewett are of course two, but there are also John Tranter, Robert Adamson, John Forbes, Gwen Harwood, Judith Wright and Gig Ryan.