Sunday, August 10, 2008


2007 National Literary Awards, conducted by the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Victoria), announced March, 2008

Congratulations, of course, to every prize winner, including Marjorie Ward (for the John Shaw Neilson, sponsored by Collected Works Bookshop), but pride of place, here, to Judith Bishop (for the Anne Elder [first book award], sponsored by the Anne Elder Trust ), & John Kinsella (for the Christopher Brennan, honouring "work of sustained quality & distinction", sponsored by Sally Dugan). The awards were announced in Melbourne in March, 2008.

The FAW's arms-length policy ensures secrecy of the winning work in respect of the various award sponsors, thus the winners of the John Shaw Neilson were unknown to me until I saw the Results programme well after the event. I havent read the poems either, but at least recognized Anne Gleeson's & Leah Kaminsky's names in the commendeds. Marjorie Ward wrote to say she used to frequent the Shop years ago, during what must have been our Flinders Lane era (1987-99). Our judge, Garth Madsen, noted it had taken him several readings of her poem, The Last Picnic, "to trace how the poet traveled from one [gentility] to the other [brutality] through a succession of perspectives on death - the cosmic, the divine, the economic and the ecological..."

Judges Connie Barber & Phil Ilton noted the high quality of writing in this year's Anne Elder. The winner, Judith Bishop (Event, published by Salt , UK) and the two commendeds I'm most familiar with, Elizabeth Campbell (Letters to the Tremulous Hand, pub. John Leonard Press) & Petra White (The Incoming Tide, also John Leonard Press) --the other collections mentioned were Sarah French's (Songs Orphans Sing, Five Islands Press, & Hal Judge's Someone Forgot To Tell the Fish (Interactive Publications)-- certainly resonate with that description. Strikes me that it'll be seen as a rather special year in retrospect,at least in Melbourne circles, with Bishop pipping Campbell & White, three exponents of a fastidiously constructed & polished lyricism current now in new Australian poetry (Lucy Holt undoubtedly another). Although there's just a smidgin of the a la mode to Judith Bishop's collection --the concrete proposition leading into the tantalisingly oblique elaboration-- it cannot, at this stage be read as anything but her own conceptually & verbally exciting way, an original poet's signature. Event is a great choice! For the others, specifically Campbell & White, disappointment must have been tempered by appreciation of commensurate brilliance.

Event opens with After the Elements, a valedictory for Gustaf Sobin (d 2005), which immediately signals the particular American orientation of a new Australian poet --a new Australian poetics one might also say, confirming the whole world which nowadays constitutes a locale : the several-ways' traffic of poets, Australia, Europe, the States, via research, travel, internet. Judith Bishop has Jordie Albiston's gift for redeeming contemporaneity for something as antique as incantation or spell. "You and I, we are too far / from fire now: the chimney-pots / have driven out their smoke, / and stood alert for its return" the poem begins, cueing the reader for the alchemical order, fire, water, earth, air, whose predictability affords renewed pleasure in the old wonder. A marvellous construction, sensuous in its metaphysics. This applies to much of the rest of the book.
The Dona Marina first-person character poems (she was the indispensable translator, interpreter & mistress of Cortez we're told) beg performance. Of course, poetry always is theatre for the inner ear but in a formal sense the sequence is drama, a choral work. In my opinion they're taxed as poems when spliced into the collection. The best of Event are stand-alone poems where Bishop's almost Hopkins'-like anthropomorphism facilitates highly lyrical investigations of being & perception, of human being via nature. I couldnt help reading the poems against a memory of Hopkins in general, D H Lawrence (following her apt quotation, "Not I, but the wind that blows through me! " --which has spoken for my life & writing too as it happens), and serendipitously, Edwin Muir's The Animals.
Muir's poem turns upon a definition of world as the humanly known & therefore named, and consequential upon the conditioning of time & space. Animals or the non-human are otherwise : "From birth to death hurled / no word do they have, not one / were never in any place." They are beyond language's salvation, then, and cannot be "Snatched from deceiving death / by the articulate breath." But Muir's conventional dualism was already overridden by Lawrence's time, and Bishop's co-originary impulse, probably found in pantheism, noted by Peter Porter in his blurb, as in today's Buddhistic ecologism & Bachelardian phenomenology, applies the coup de grace. Her rejoinder to Muir might be this immaculate passage : "The heart, arrested muscle, is the end and in each. Birds / articulate death better, // worlded by their wings and song. They never see death coming : / it observes from their eyes // as they knit, faultlessly, the cumulus to mud."
Her question from von Herder --"Even the most delicate chords of animal feeling...are aligned in their entire performance for a giving out toward other creatures." --perfectly describes the empathy compelling anthropomorphism to the extent that reading Bishop the language coined seems to be that in which all nature is found!
The many superb poems in Event confirm the honour of her Anne Elder. Three cheers!


I wonder if the definition of the Christopher Brennan needs to be tweaked? Some of us have always taken it to be a lifetime achievement award. Perhaps "writing of sustained quality & distinction" opens too much of a door to the shorter-term success (how define 'sustained'?) --whatever, John Kinsella has been an enlivener of debate in Australia, Britain & the USA; a proselytiser for Australian poetry in amongst contemporary poetry & poetics around the world, never more so than as the publisher of Salt Books (Cambridge,UK); and a prolific poet in his own right across a range of styles whose subject is almost always post-Edenic calamity.
Reviewing his latest collection, Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful (FACP, '08), in Australian Book Review (number 302, June, 2008), Nicholas Birns spurns the shenanigans recently embroiling Kinsella --it's the poetry he wants not the celebrity & notoriety, though JK might not himself so clearly distinguish one persona from another given his volition as a militant for causes (--as he also says of biography in Fast, Loose Beginnings, "I am not really interested in biography, but in the residual nature of friendship and even indifference." --by which he might mean he's interested in dynamics, interactions, contexts of engagement rather than relationship as certain or settled, thus drama & not history, episodes not epics, reports & reportage not judgments & the sagely).
Whereas the brilliant raves in Shades (the long breath single sentence poems of Textures of the Wheatbelt, Sounds of the Wheatbelt, & Smells of the Wheatbelt, for example, ironically recalling for me some of the memorable, & formally composed poems in The Silo from ten or so years ago) amply demonstrate Kinsella's poetic gift for me rather than his rangier pastoral/anti-pastoral sorties, Birns is convinced of the latter's verity.Though he has his finger right where mine is regarding "sketchiness", his has the positive conclusion.
I'll quote the final paragraph of the ABR review : "In the soaring 'Lover's Leap', Kinsella quotes [Edmund] Burke as finding, in unfinished sketches, 'something which pleased me beyond the best finishing'. Kinsella's poems are not incomplete because of their sketchiness but because of their plurality, yet they also shimmer with unfinished potential. They demonstrate how poetry can parade a lack of plenitude, how privation can nonetheless 'fixate' transcendence." Marvelous ideas! I'd love to say I was similarly moved but that wasnt my first impression; however, Birns does cause me to think long & hard about the form & nature of poetry (he describes the hinge, really, of a discussion about contemporary 'open' & 'closed' poetries) and has cued me to return to JK's latest excursus.
Birns' favourable review & David Caddy's posting on Kinsella in his encyclopaedic British poetry blog (, which includes a potted history of the pastoral from Virgilian antiquity to the postmodernist reformulation, retrieve JK from scuttlebutt for serious consideration.
The revelations & confessions, particularly concerning Bob Adamson & Anthony Lawrence, in Kinsella's Fast, Loose Beginnings : A Memoir of Intoxications (Melbourne University Press, 2006) are hardly great scandals --diverting, amusing yet neither here nor there in this big, bad & wonderful world! But one passage stuck in my head. Almost in passing (pp. 70-71) JK observed, "Anthony [Lawrence] loves the sound of words and is really a shamanic bard. In his work, Dylan Thomas, G M Hopkins, and other musical poets, blur with contemporary songsters like Leonard Cohen (a romantic seduction device), Billy Bragg (an absorbable social commentary), and Van Morrison ... There's an obviousness, a romanticism, in all this, but the 'warp' in Anthony makes him unique and possibly a great poet." He refers then to Lawrence's disregard for Language Poetry & his depoliticised relation to language : "Even when he 'says' something political, the language seems separated off from a consciousness of its potential cause and effect. On the surface, he is entirely composed of stock epithets (like, 'at the height of his powers'), but underneath he is full of fear and predation -- the combination drives a socio-pathology in his poetry that makes it get under the skin." The passage hooked me even as it begged important questions.
I wondered if JK's somewhat parodic description of Lawrence mightnt describe a line in the sand concerning contemporary poetics. I sensed something there of Justin Clemens' pejorative use of 'romanticism' in support of Michael Farrell & a self-consciously new writing, against all the rest, in his a raider's guide launching speech a couple of months ago. I really should have read JK's text closer & earlier than I had and maybe heard then JC echoing JK that night! Not that JC has necessarily read Fast, Loose Beginnings, but perhaps there's a Kinsellian position more or less predicated upon Language School which Clemens & others share? And yes I know, it's postmodernism, postcolonialism, the political versus the literary --and eek! wasnt that a disposition circa late Sixties, early Seventies I'd also picked up?! --the radical disavowal of Art & Literature in favour of various species of The Real? --only resumed when the 'political', including the repositionings of the 'avant-garde', predominately presented itself as the figure of estrangement, out of sorts with most of the forms of the world, thus reducing the ambit of its address & correspondence --the previous contradiction, therefore, ameliorating in the Tradition's necessary renovation...
I'm certain Kinsella's book isnt written in anticipation of substantial debate --I even feel my objections are beside the point because of the book's running-commentary style obliged by racy reportage & celeb portraiture. Be-that-as-it-may... In my book a poet's love of the sound of words is definitive; sound & sense are the prerequisites of poetry even as each property is transmuted by the other; "sound & sense" is the essential equation of poetry. Yet the tone of JK's reference to sound & music followed by his italicising of 'says', has me doubting we're on the same page!
I guess 'musical poet' is one for whom sound is foregrounded at the cost of sense and where the composition is an artifice far from speech, yet even Louis Zukofsky (I'm thinking of the influential poets of our own era, though why not quote Shakespeare & classics before & after the Elizabethans?) with his wonderfully crazy Latin derivations, for example, which dont diverge much from his general practice, is teeming with 'sense' & saying --and Bunting ditto, the famous opening of Briggflats for example, "Brag sweet tenor bull / Sing descant on Rawthey's madrigal", is the most perfect Northumbrian trill & steeped in meaning! In the Poundian provenance, music is both a particular quality & the whole biz. Olson's "like, tune into the music!" might well dub the Sixties --acid, New Age & all --but also represents a political & ecstatic construction upon music's traditional trope.
In Kinsella's critique of Anthony Lawrence, the coupling of 'sound of words' & 'shamanic bard' is probably shorthand but could be a misleading instruction. The point about the shamanic is its belief in the co-origination of words & things, thus every thing has its word & every word its thing (in nature, in the world). The bard is historian & magician and not merely, though also importantly, songster. The shamanic legacy, therefore, even to this day, resides in the 'magic' of word combinations, which is to say the describing & making of worlds. Anthony Lawrence, like Adamson, Beveridge, Murray, Anderson, Judith Bishop now, amongst many, many Australians, are poets of revelation via identification & invention, and share the magical legacy with all original coiners.
Regarding Language Poetry (as though it were homogenous, which it isnt) : I always agreed with David Bromige's distinction between the tendency & the party! --the potential of the former always preferable to the latter's template for us (--the "us" Bromige recruited me into in his recapitulation to me, late 80s of where & what Poetry was at, although I hazard to say that for many years now my experimentation hasnt sounded within his cooee!). Language Poetry's aesthetical & political connection is of two domains and in full regard, it seems to me, a poet or reader can disport in one or the other, in one & the other.
"All poetry is political" is more significant for the poet for whom political action is imperative but a bland generalisation otherwise. Ducking the difference between the application of politics to almost anything and the inherently political, one reiterates the obvious : Kinsella is a politically radical poet who can turn the lyrical on (can turn on to the lyrical), & Lawrence, more Kinsella's contrary than bete noir, is a traditional poet within contemporary lyricism. The former's practice summons the post-literary; the latter's carries its literary inheritance through whatever & wherever the radicals say we are. Ironically, Language Poetry isnt the last word for Kinsella as it never was or could be for Lawrence.
Regarding "warp" : good word for what defines the poet's individual signature, attached, therefore, as far as poet is concerned, to how the poem ultimately comes out. "Sociopathology" (as per JK's charge) isnt warp's distinction, rather warp is that accent which is languaged as voice. Warp is voice, original & inimitable; it is the life as spoken & sung.
How does this relate to what I suspect is JK's distinction between singing & saying? In the midst of Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful, in a poem written as though dead, Kinsella confides, "I am thinking on the run here", which I translate as thinking aloud, trusting to the run of thought (expression) without any other measure of composition --a writing that resembles transcription, hoping it will be trusted as these days' oral history --problematic though piquant investment such as that form is. I'm reminded of the late John Clarke, of Buffalo, & his confiding in his poem The Stance We Inhabit Predisposes Our Dimension (March, 1971), "I want all of my learning to go into / this one" : a poetry of knowledge, of reading as saying... Olsonish this poetry then? Olsonish, Whitmanish --but the leaking of biography is a kind of short to the system --JK's saying, in my opinion, sputtering, a discount on poetry's flare. The more I think on it, the 'saying' worth distinguishing from 'singing' is declamatory, & what Adamson decades ago, from out of his bower of song, called 'subject-dominated' (consistent with the conversation we were all having early '70s, Melbourne & Sydney, that time's eclectic anti-literalist perspective, intuitively hybridizing pure poetry's axioms & modernism's naturalist or objectivist overcoming of symbolism); otherwise it collapses into the purported opposite.
So, all in all, what can one say but, in praising his energies, following his project(s), joining the myriad discussion he invites, warmly congratulate John Kinsella on his Christopher Brennan Award.

--Kris Hemensley,
4th June-10th August 2008


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Andrew Burke said...

A good old healthy posting, Kris, read months later, but still enjoyed emmensely. Keep talking! Liked your brotherly correspondence too - warm and interesting every line.


collectedworks said...

Dear Andrew, A rare comment -from anybody!- and 'emmensely' appreciated! I must read through your blog also. A correspondent described mine as a magazine. I guess it is, though I define it as (1) an attempt to flag the bookshop's existence to the wider world, (2) an archive of my (largely Australian) art & literature commentaries, (3) the family literary archive so far consisting of writings by & about my brother Bernard, my late son Tim, and our dear friend Catherine (presently in Laos), (4) my own small poetry mag... When you say "keep talking", you're right : it's a talking-writing I do even if with some pieces theyre compiled, in handwriting, over a period of days & weeks and then transcribed. I've always enjoyed & promoted the idea of literature as a conversation & a a correspondence.
Best wishes, Kris