The Long Poem, the Sequence, and the Concept Poem-Book

As a child two of my favourite poems were The Prelude and Paradise Lost – I suppose it’s not surprising that “the long poem” has been an obsession for me. But in terms of process I was more influenced by The Waste Land and the Cantos than any pre-twentieth century verse. I liked the fragmentation, the internalisation and breakdown of the narrative process which remains, nonetheless, like a ghost limb. Enzensberger’s book-poem Titanic was another work that had this effect on me, though its “narrative” is in some senses more available, and recent long, linguistically innovative texts by poets such as Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe are of particular interest. But my tastes are diverse and eclectic – for me, innovation and tradition are necessary to each other.

I’m interested in creating a hybrid poetry that incorporates elements of both. In recent years I’ve been involved in a number of long collaborative poems, such as D & G with Urs Jaeggi, and collaborative concept-book projects which include The Kangaroo Virus Project, with sound artist and photographer Ron Sims (to be released shortly as both a book and cd). My next volume of poetry, The Visitation (which Bloodaxe are looking to bring out some time in 1999), is also an interactive thematic novella-poem book, and I’ve also completed a long sonnet sequence.

In the early nineties I received a couple of grants to enable me to work on developing techniques for the writing of long poems. Eventually these experiments resulted in two very contrasting works Đ Syzygy and The Silo. Both of these poem “sequences” originated in work being done in the mid to late eighties but it wasn’t until 1993 (Syzygy) and 1995 (The Silo) that they appeared in their final forms. Both were opening gambits to more recent projects – the volume The Hunt and the cumulative work-in-progress Graphology. The long poem as “concept book” maybe.

The Hunt, like The Silo, is “pastoral”, or as I prefer to call it “anti-pastoral”, in tone – exploring issues arising out the introduction of European farming practices into what is now known as the wheatbelt area of South Western Australia. The world view is invasion rather than settlement, if you like. At the core of this project is the often unspoken destruction of indigenous cultures. The colonisation of environment, language, and culture. This is not a point that’s necessarily approached directly (out of respect to those who are in a better position to speak of the situation themselves – ie the Nyoongah people), but one that informs every line of the work. It is one of the subtextual narrative threads that makes these works “single” poems, rather than collections of purely individual pieces. The ordering of poems in both books is the key to a collective reading (I like to think of them as poetry novellas in a sense).

The Silo is shaped around the five moments of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, with each section working through and against the original model. Unlike Beethoven’s utopian rural construct, the rural world I portray is above all else human. It has its good and bad points. The dark world of destruction and a malignant Fate that parallels every rural image I convey has often been termed “wheatbelt gothic”, which is the title of a poem that appeared in my third full-length collection, Full Fathom Five. This connection isn’t arbitrary – all my work is connected in one way or another. I see my writing as a project, and it could be argued that all my poems are part of one long work or at least drafts towards one substantial piece of work.

The Hunt is not as rigidly constructed as The Silo, though the order of the individual poems is extremely important to the subtextual narrative that binds the work together. The blurb for the Australian edition of the book says:


“‘Wheatlands’ comes alive in this book – blacker and stranger than we’ve seen it before from Kinsella . . . ” It is both a portrait and the story of a particular place projected against the human condition in general. It is a dark book, but there’s also plenty of light in there; it’s just rare, especially in the Australian context, for anybody to question the “purity” of the bucolic construct. And that is, after all, what the pastoral is – a construct. So The Hunt, like The Silo, is a poetry novella. Around 40 separate poems, but all interacting whith each other and coming together in a distinct poetic narrative.

It utilises, like The Silo, colloquial speech, which also plays into the tradition of the epic – or anti-epic, another one of my “targets”.

I studied The Iliad and The Odyssey at university after reading them in numerous translations as a child – Lattimore’s Iliad capturing my imagination most vividly. I loved the idea of a poem being handed down by word of mouth, of the need for the “text” to be visualised. Maybe that’s why I deploy a variety of techniques that allow a poem, or section of a poem, to be more easily memorised. The thing that fascinated me most about Homeric poetry was the idea of interpolation, particularly in The Odyssey. How much was added by whom and when and why. What constitutes the “original” text? This is particularly relevant in a time when “appropriation” is a catch-cry. Eliot works this superbly in The Wasteland. With colloquial voice we are establishing a network of appropriations – alternative narrative threads are suggested within the primary story. Robert Frost has been a huge influence here and remains my favourite poet, despite our very different political concerns (coming from different “places” is not a problem!). These issues are explored in a variety of ways in both The Silo and The Hunt but are particularly relevant to Graphology.

Like Syzygy, Graphology is about the process of writing itself, as well as the language of observation. Graphology is the title of a booklet of mine published by Equipage (Jesus College, Cambridge) in 1997 but is also the name of a larger project. The eponymous Graphology was in fact part 2 – the first part being another booklet published by Equipage in 1996 entitled The Radnoti Poems. Since then there have been Annotations, Superstitious Bookes, Graphology 5, etc, published in journals or on the internet. Sheep Dip, the next instalment, is due out with the small press Wild Honey Press in Ireland shortly. If the project is ever “completedÓ” it will appear as one volume. My Australian publisher, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, is looking to bring the first few sections (about 120 pages) out in a couple of years as the first volume of this “epic”. So, Graphology has been conceived right from the earliest drafts as being the long poem that one writes over a lifetime.

Graphology is literally about how and why we write. It is about the word itself, about the line, the stanza, the typography, font, page itself. It is an interactive space. Parts of the text revert from palatino font into handwriting – my handwriting, which is not so easy to read! The pseudo-science of graphology is the analysis of handwriting. We ask ourselves – is speech closer to thought or handwriting? But itŐs also a work that encapsulates many of the concerns of The Hunt and The Silo, in the same way that Syzygy does. It is landscape poetry as well as wordscape or linguistic poetry. It is also a work in which the landscapes of South-West Australia merge, interact, and work against the landscapes of England, particularly the fens (I live in Cambridge now). This is something that links strongly with my belief in what I call “international regionalism’ – a respect for regional integrity but in an environment of global communication. The element that binds these diverse works together, apart from technical devices, is landscape.To map place is integral to mapping language. And that’s, for me, what a poet does:


a new kind of printing is learnt,the sans serif of the centre,

the clean roads between the pale

blue lines of flatland horizons,

the fens darkly coming to life

like underworld commons

dumped cars and evidence

too hot to be stored in the basement

settling into strata of lies

from Graphology, Canto 6

That the Theocritan ute has been versed

in country things seems obvious, the velour

on the dashboard crazy with fresh air

rushing through the doorless cabin, the cursed

skies blackened by night. Though a moon lurks

somewhere and the spotlight cutting through

the burn-back of summer detects the jerks

of nerves and tissue – the rabbits out to chew

the burnt prongs of stubble, the halogen’s

conflagration filling the omni-screens

within their eyeballs – the crack and whine

of a triple two mocks its rituals, a sign

of fading influence in a field where gravity

is a neck chop and the poem is framed by levity.

The Rabbiters: A Pastoral, from The Hunt