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Delicate perceptions of the natural world

Andrew Frisardi is the translator of "The Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti," winner of the 2003 Raiziss/de Palchi Prize from the Academy of American Poets.

The author of 18 collections of poetry, two novels, four plays and an autobiography, Australian John Kinsella is well-known in this country’s literary circles. His reputation in the United States, largely as an experimental writer closely associated with the Language poets (writers whose poetry explores the nature of language and who are strongly influenced by postmodern theory), took off in the 1990s. Now Kinsella is making his major U.S. debut with “Peripheral Light,” a collection of 100 or so poems selected and introduced by the critic Harold Bloom, who considers Kinsella, now in his early 40s, one of the leading younger poets writing in English. “We are poised before the onset of what I prophesy will be a major art,” Bloom writes in the introduction to this volume.

A fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge University, a professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, the international editor of the Kenyon Review and editor of Salt, an influential literary journal, the hyperprotean Kinsella is usually said by critics to write in two modes: the Language one and a “neo-pastoral” one that is more conventional, representational, epiphanic and less self-reflexive.

This “neo-pastoral” mode brings out Kinsella’s greatest asset, his ability to draw perceptions from sensations, as in this description of a bright flower: “I’ve also seen / honey-eaters bob upside down / and unpick its light in seconds.” And elsewhere, “light empties / the crystals at this time of year” and a great white egret lifting off the ground has “lightning rod legs.” These are fine observations, made transparent by metaphor and memorably phrased. Like A.R. Ammons, Kinsella is in a line of poets who explore minute particulars of the natural world for thought, as if thoughts are embedded in things and one task of the poet is to ferret them out. The body of Kinsella’s poetry focuses admirably on the details of his experience in rural western Australia.

Kinsella grew up in the suburbs of Perth, but much of his earlier life was spent working on his relatives’ wheat farm and sheep farm. Images and words from this formative experience are everywhere in Kinsella’s poetry:

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And the absence of crow and parrot talk,

And the immense racket as stalk rubs on stalk,

Registers somewhere deep in the soul.

And as the sun begins to uncoil --

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The deep green of the wheat uneasy with light --

The golden flowers of wild radishes bite

Just before they are ripped from the soil.

I don’t see how this could be better. At his best and most engaging, Kinsella has a delicacy of detail, the genuine stamp of things, reflected in subtle, finely differentiated language. In such poems I enjoy the range of images, the surprising juxtapositions and the occasionally stunning metaphorical insight: “the grave is a magnet / that switches polarity / when you reach it.”

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Kinsella’s experimental side is the outlet for his strongly philosophical bent, and here his poetry runs into trouble, since so much of recent philosophy, conditioned by academic cliches, amounts to an infinite digression of self-referential thought, reason-bound even when it bucks against reason.

As Kinsella has written in an essay, Language poetry “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.” Postmodern theorists tend to be amorphously relativistic, skeptical if not actually hostile toward religious or aesthetic feeling. As a poem in “Peripheral Light” puts it, such an approach aims to excise “lyrical certainty, a linearity as / ‘comforting’ as / Leaves of Grass.”

A result of the self-consciously postmodern approach is that Kinsella’s effects sometimes seem forced, a willed simulation of imagination rather than a felt experience of it. Rather than thinking with “a marrow-bone,” in W.B. Yeats’ phrase, Kinsella tends to intellectualize the body:

stones skipping across the dam

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in the tonal languages

of investment, it’s what

you can’t give up

A related feature is the random quality of some of the associations in these poems, connections that don’t say much about the world but rather seem contrived. In “Bluff Knoll Sublimity,” an anti-romantic nature poem, the mountain climber is “hovering in the patriarchy / of a mountain” -- a reference, I guess, to the postmodern no-no of universal overviews. Theory aside, to see a mountain as patriarchal is far more of an artificial imposition than Shelley’s romantic vision of Mont Blanc alluded to in Kinsella’s poem.

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Another poem says, “everlastings / thick on roadsides broadcast / ethnographies and genealogies,” to which my response was: They do? There is perhaps an effective metaphor in the making here, but instead of being shown it, I’m flatly told it. In such passages, poetic argument is paraphrased rather than realized.

There is a dearth of the tactile sense in this aspect of Kinsella’s poetry, since images are often rushed past in the enthusiasm or anxiety of an abstract idea. Kinsella’s resources are impressive but the associations often aren’t engraved enough into the images and language. The poems are approached cerebrally, not along with the body and the emotions, the alliance that makes poetry memorable. For example:

It’s as if you want to anoint

this place again,

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as if you had this place

despite its fences

: to lay the gridwork

over the particulars as value

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should be added with imperial

measurement

...

though seasonal change

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retains always the essence of the

as we en-DUR{ATION}

measure against our spatial

configuration

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Such aesthetic dissociation is a natural byproduct of postmodernism, since another thing that makes poetic content memorable is its correspondence to contents in the mind or psyche of the reader -- the denial of which is a common tenet of postmodern theory.

"[F]ailings of grammar and syntax can / open whole new fields of ‘truth’ and ‘insight,’ ” says one poem, applying the usual scare quotes around the taboo words. And yes, it’s true that failings of grammar and syntax can do this, but they can also lead to trite obscurantism and pretentious anti-depth.

The abstract content has its counterpart in a language that is often prosy and flat. Bloom refers to such chatty language as Kinsella’s “populist” aspect, and that’s true enough in the poems where it’s done well. But in the sloppier passages there is not enough modulation, texture and rhythm to engage the reader in the content, as in the quote above.

In Kinsella’s poems that seem more wholly experienced by him in the writing, less bogged down by theory, the language is more convincing. (It should be noted that he experiments with regular forms -- villanelles, triolets, rhyming quatrains -- at times quite effectively.)

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It will be interesting to see where Kinsella goes with his various talent. Bloom may be right in his prediction of a “major art.” But major art doesn’t simply treat major themes, it does so in memorable ways. All art worthy of the name gives pleasure (although it certainly doesn’t have to be “pleasant” to do so). Postmodern theory, in its condemnation or dismissal of experiences that people have always found pleasurable and moving -- beauty, meaning, affections -- tends to attack art at the roots. The creative movement in Kinsella’s poetry often seems hindered by this.


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