Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JOHN KINSELLA'S "THE VISION OF ERROR : A Sextet of Activist Poems"

LAUNCH SPEECH for John Kinsella's THE VISION OF ERROR : A Sextet of Activist Poems (Five Islands Press, Melbourne), given November 20th, 2013, Visual Cultures Resources Centre, John Medley Building, University of Melbourne

[The italicised section below was conceived &/or drafted but omitted from the speech


The words & thoughts in my head, when I began this take on John Kinsella's new collection, The Vision of Error : A Sextet of Activist Poems (Five Islands Press),  included such things as a line by Jack Clarke (one of Olson's students & friends, from the Institute of Further Studies in upstate New York) : "I want all my learning to go into this one" --a classic temptation!
[And I thought of Kinsella as similar to Richard Grossinger, introduced as prodigy to the yet kicking New American Poetry by Robert Duncan ca 1970, and whose one man band attracted & awed 40 years ago as he virtually created his own curriculum…
And thinking of JK as an international poet/figure, I serendipitously came upon the references to him from Harold Bloom & Paul Kane in Cassandra Atherton's In So Many Words : Interviews with Writers, Scholars and Intellectuals (ASP, '13); one of only a handful of Australian writers recognised overseas…
The Political Imagination issue of Southerly magazine (Vol 73, #1, '13), which had already fired me up, seemed a relevant context for JK; paradoxically, given my objections to the former how explain my accepting the brief to usher into the world his new collection? Incidentally, despite appearing to be a prime candidate for such a context, Kinsella's not included in that symposium...
Shirley Clarke's portrait of Robert Frost, made in 1962, seen during the Shirley Clarke season of documentaries at ACMI in Melbourne, October '13, was also strongly in mind regarding the discussion of the public if not political role of the poet in, more or less, our time…]
And from a first flick through the book in hand, p114, in the Hero section,

Our four-year-old, in the delirium
of fever, said: 'Dad, write a poem
to make them stop, to stop
them tearing down the tree'.
He has more faith in poetry

and people than I have,
though I'd like to honour his wish.

Finally, regarding his version of Milton's Comus, JK offered that this work is "tormented by its own celebration --the tension is in the need for constraint, a fear that the darkness of humanity will overwhelm the telling of the tale." --ditto, this collection too (perhaps). ]

So I started doodling, noodling, reading here & there--for example, Harsh Hakea (p9) --

This morning, to fire the day, a large golden fox
sprinted the fenceline along the reserve. Watched
by me, perched on the largest granites. Left be.

Instead of the natural or conventional observational authority, whereby "I" would have watched the fox --how would it go? -- : "This morning, to fire the day, a large golden fox / sprinted the fenceline along the reserve. Perched / on the largest granites, I watched it. Left it be." --And nothing wrong with that at all as poem. But instead of that, Kinsella has it : "Watched / by me, perched on the largest granites. Left be." --which maintains fox as arbiter --after all it is the golden fox that 'fires the day' --even though one understands the human watcher mediates it, --but so gently --sublimates normal authority to the fox's activity, as though fox & day is the superior relationship. The syntax facilitates the lovely rhyme (as rhyme can be lovely) --"by me" at the beginning of the line & "left be" at the end. Given Kinsella's philosophy, this begs the question as to whether "watching" isn't of the same terrible order of things an anarchist (& poet as natural anarchist) could also indict. And this is a book of many indictments.

Change tack.

I recall a conversation with Tasmanian poet James Charlton at Collected Works Bookshop, in the '90s. We were discussing other poets, as poets always do. It transpired neither of us were, or were any longer, ruffled by the supposed sins attributed to our more newsworthy friends & colleagues, and didn't particularly care for the kind of mischievous commentary that does the rounds --knocking off the 'tall poppies', older figures like Murray, Tranter, Gray, Adamson & younger ones --John Kinsella criticised for prolific writing & publishing --too young, too much, that sort of thing --And Anthony Lawrence for something or other --swank & swagger? --I cant remember. And after we'd shared memories of meetings &/or dealings with either of them, James said : Well, you look after John & I'll look after Anthony! Heaven forbid gross patronage & egotism be attributed since we only meant that we, who'd come of age in the '60s & '70s, could hold & critically embrace those young tyros only born around that time. (Such 'looking after' relates to one's sense of nurturing in the literary culture; a nurturing which of course includes resistance…)

Now it is true that John Kinsella has published forty-odd books --indeed it would have been perfect if this collection from Five islands Press, The Vision of Error : A Sextet of Activist Poems were his fiftieth --his fiftieth book in his fiftieth year! Even greater symmetry : Englishman in Australia launches Australian in England's fiftieth book in the poet's fiftieth year! But further to the 'writing too much' problem : I remember how screamingly funny we found Gilbert Sorrentino's  description, in his novel The Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, of the  rampantly fecund Robert Kelly writing a novel in his bath before breakfast! --funny because without wanting to side with Blake's 'destroyers' one's beholden to the restrained if not repressed psychology &, therefore, culture, which many of us were schooled in, thus the occurrence of over-careful & even timid attitude & style. Yet most creative practitioners would love to have the publishers queuing up, as indeed they seem to do for JK's writings. If it was a single & simply defined audience, there'd be more point to the criticism Kinsella receives. But that's not, or is no longer, the case. John Kinsella's publishers & publications are literally all over the place --different types of writing, different kinds of publication.

Five Islands Press's author's bio notes Armour (published by Picador) & Jam Tree Gully (Norton) as recent publications. But as or more recent is his collaboration with Niall Lucy (the co-dedicatee, with Tracy Ryan, of this book) in The Ballad of Moon Dyne Joe (FACP), & the collaboration with Forest Gander, Redstart : An Ecological Poetics (published by University of Iowa Press). Now, Redstart is particularly apropos for both essayistic style & content & for its caveats, for example from Kinsella's Note on Ecopoetics (which might yet characterise The Vision of Error) : "I have grave doubts that an 'ecopoetics' can be anything but personal. And a luxury that few have…" / "In reaching a desire to record one's own coordinates in a damaged ecology, an ecology trying to cope, I realise how much of the data of background is contrary to any idea of 'nature'. There's some grim stuff in there. Most of our own biographies have grim stuff. Place is about event as much as location. place is interstice. Place is also a reckoning of intrusion and damage and the labeling of forces (greed, security, self and communal empowerment, spiritual materialism) that seem adverse to the health of a biodiversity…" Redstart in its register might be the reflective half of the project which bursts into the rattier, testier, aktion of The Vision of Error ("activist poems" after all)!

Thinking all this or about this, I was suddenly reminded of Olson's Projective Verse essay, which one read in the '60s, in Melbourne, before the super highway to Buffalo or San Francisco or Cambridge,UK for that matter --and not the typewriter as stave or the head, ear, syllable / heart, breath, line passages but this from the essay's second part, how the human "conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl he shall find little to sing but himself [we understand : nudge, nudge Walt Whitman]… But if he stays within himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share [this is predicated upon Olson's understanding of objectivism, "the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the 'subject' and his 'soul'" etc] --Olson continues, "For a man's problem the moment he takes speech up in all its fullness is to give his work his seriousness, a seriousness sufficient to cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature…"

An aside : that the basic difference between the Olson poetic & Kinsella, or between Kinsella & any number of others, is political, philosophical, and might all reduce to the fact that War is not his father (after Heraclitus) --he doesn't seem to politically accept the life & death cycle he's caught in for he suffers for want of equanimity but will not, like Robinson Jeffers, "go down the dinosaurs' way" before trying all possible alternatives…

Addressing The Vision of Error one cant help but address the poet as per his accumulated production, his massive & multivalent project, and his international reputation current as he is in Australia, the British Isles & the USA. Do we read it or read John Kinsella in it? --tracking him, as apparently one can do with a wrist-banded felon, a micro-chipped dolphin or Tasmanian devil or an English badger?

The Vision of Error may have begun its adventure as the inversion, The Error of Vision --second-guessing the common assumption that 'seeing' is most of the poet's calling --from Whitmanesque journalism to anything from the portmanteau of soothsaying, that which'll always 'walk beside you'… And 'seeing' might be named the apparent --the 'apparent' only ever what seems to be so --and the real, the harder quality which coagulates as quantity… Poet in this space (this head-space &/or physical environment) committed to a speaking which flies in the face of the assumptions. But The Vision of Error it is, and poet here will call the shots --will catalogue crime & calumny --weave it into a hair-shirt, knot it into a cat o'nine tails…

On p19, state-of-the-world diatribe, "Try living / here, you collaborating wankers / who vox populi niche markets, / stereotypical beatings of prisoners, / the bullies who make / semi-useful foot soldiers." is juxtaposed (grand simile) with esoteric lit-crit cum biog : "Please place on my grave, "he resisted , / and wasn't hoodwinked by the lyric or its digressions, remouthings / or retextings. Not by epics, / nor damned elegies." --Kinsella here, the postmodernist hussar whose juxtaposition clearly elides all human acts within the pessimistic register of the Fall. Poet therefore (& there's poetry aplenty in these poems --beautiful alliterative & onomatopoeic runs, wild & wacky imagery) --whose ability to articulate outrage cannot for a second earn favour or furlough. Po-mo mix & match : bellicose pamphleteering and exquisite permutating of sound & sense --same difference within world's valedictory. No wonder James Joyce is inscribed very early in the piece : (p11) "HARSH hake // what blossom coveted by spikes / whose calling? Flower/blossoms, / I know no Anna nor fallings into line / cause precedent matters sublime river pocks / bonding drain and gutter, though round rain sounds / anna anna anna falling into a bright new tank, we / will drink a river, we will gurgle our puns, / giraffe;…"  Again on p61, "And so, I turn to St Augustine's Confessions / and the isles of the I declaimed through ontology / and a singular perfection manifest as core / of Western self-narrative, as Baby Tuckoo / or the resplendent self-damnation of Rousseau…"

What we read in The Vision of Error is the eternal if not infernal battle of the citizen, advocate, political-activist and the witness, artist, poet --and their ameliorations understood; the eternal battle between the urges of graffiti and the surges of literature --and their ameliorations understood; the eternal battle of action & reflection, of mortal living & immortal art, of infinite imagination & limited body-world --and their ameliorations understood…

I declare The Vison of Error : A Sextet of Activist Poems hereby launched!



*The mesostic, a la John Cage, on p31, spelling SOLVENCY IS MUTE, probably not the poet's/poem's secret habitat or even the secret to habitat, though it could be!
I recently heard 'solvent' mentioned on a news report about a variety of the drug GBH, and also know it as a term in the world of corporate finance. But the book does carry secrets if one accepts FIP's promo that "John Kinsella lays down his vision of an urgent and uncompromising poetics and politics of land…" 

For instance, let's follow his God trail :

(p17) "maybe it's only the shape, choreography / of praying we're interested in;"
(pp35) "I need to participate, / I need the risk of being struck, / burnt to a crisp / by lightning, this devotion that forgets God / in the rush…"
(p36) "I pray compulsively, / always just before sleep and again if I wake during the night / in case I forgot before sleep"
(p65) "God is fable is duty"
(p75) "Religion is a technology"

And family :

several invocations of his son Tim;
wife (p37) "it's not order I look for in Tracy's eyes"
brother Stephen (p54);
(pp55/56) "Tracy locates the vanquished house's ache / by the fruit tree stubs, introduced like water towers, / tarred seams opening - Gleneagle, alongside / Kinsella Road, where sixty-year-old pines / were recently harvested and new plantings inculcated"

And language :

(p9) Jumping from died-and-reborn York gums to "The dead have been gathering. / And, to be frank, accruing. / They are phenomenally heavy, / like self-doubt or self-belief "
(p14) another grand simile : "Mispronunciation is a joy as great as fog / and fog lifting in tears…"
(p19) "You see, there's no getting away from sentences / all places visited, been, occupied, / even / passed /thru. // Says something about reading. / Maps and diaries not kept. / / Artifacts are not something / I need to create."
(p22) "Psychedelia is my trap. I watched wooden / finches fly and hid from spiders in a nun's / closet --that's my biography told by the / outside myself self."

--diaristic, solipsistic (not that there's anything wrong with that), poet talking to himself…

(p89) "Maybe you need to know [Paul] Goodman precedes with 'Language /
is behaviour' …


Regarding headspace & physical environment : Imagine Husserl ("perception is environment") & Jung ("mind is matter"), tapping their white canes around the poet's tripping feet…


(p17) "I will learn to block out my shifts in body chemistry and reception theory / that undo the way I see" : as if natural seeing & telling were his standpoint rather than political shirt-fronting finessed with science --'objectivity' sufficient to render the lyrical porous if not specious. But I'm not convinced --undoing seeing, a la John Berger, is the blinder Kinsella seeks to play here, despite categorical anxieties, --politics & philosophy's tectonic plates squeezing, squashing, ructioning poetry…


I had thought Jack Clarke's line [quoted in launch speech above] was "I want all my knowledge to go into this one" and that it occurred in one of the sonnets, The End of This Side (Black Book, Ohio, 1979). However, I've found it isnt one of the sonnets at all but the poem The Stance We Inhabit Predisposes Our Dimension, published in the John Clarke issue of Duncan McNaughton's Fathar magazine (Buffalo, NY, June '71). And the key word is 'learning' not 'knowledge', notwithstanding a certain convergence of the reader & doer, library & world within that practice. And so it all comes back --the era of poetry & research on the wing of Olson, --and Olson dying in 1970, then George Butterick in '88, five months after Robert Duncan, & then Jack Clarke himself (1992) --of which I heard with a shock, ditto Butterick --poets I'd corresponded with, published --felt all over again as I googled for information… And what then of John Thorpe & Duncan McNaughton? Where are they now? Too many years spent in other circles, I'm embarrassed by my absence but, because of the focus upon John Kinsella, am serendipitously returned!
I quote Jack's poem here :


as the sun coincides with the heart
I want all my learning to go into
this one & leaps across the Pacific
at a known spot just North of the
Solomons I am reminded it was I who
refused to believe you would join
me in the Rose garden & was wanting
proof of that Future which never
thus comes being thrust deeper into
the past which is its burden to
overcome the moment I saw that I'd
never be a True Scientist until
I believed absolutely you had not gone over
to the King of Death but had stayed
to feed me raisons and grains and
black strap molasses for iron for
energy to combat Depression so that
the only cold I had all winter was
this one from Friday to Sunday the
Day of the Equinox



[Typed up 21/27 November, '13
Kris Hemensley]

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