John Kinsella, Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful
Fremantle Press; $24.95; 112pp
Eleven years ago, Australian Book Review published a letter from John Kinsella responding to Ivor Indyk’s review of Poems: 1980–1994 – an extensive selection of Kinsella’s poetry published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Indyk had used his review to suggest that Kinsella’s improbable productivity was not necessarily conducive to his gift, citing his rapidly expanding oeuvre and a forthcoming book on aesthetics, Authenticities, as evidence of literary overproduction. Kinsella responded that Indyk’s review more closely resembled character assassination than serious literary criticism and corrected him on a point of fact: Authenticities was not, he said, a book on aesthetics but a book of poems, though he conceded that separating the two could be difficult.
The concession was a revealing one. Kinsella is indeed a poet-aesthetician, a fact that his latest collection of poems, Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful, makes explicit. Taking its title from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), in which Burke discusses the distinction between beauty, which consists in smallness, smoothness and brightness, and the sublime, with its associations of infinity, darkness, solitude, vacuity and dread, the book is a fragmented essay on aesthetics. To be sure, it follows Burke’s argument closely, with titles such as ‘Joy and Grief’ and ‘Novelty’ lifted directly from his treatise.
The notions of solitude, infinity and dread are especially relevant to Kinsella’s poetry, which is often described as ‘anti-pastoral’. Most of the poems in this collection are set in the farmlands of Western Australia and Kinsella is as alive as ever to the uglier side of that environment: to salinity, bushfires, pesticides, drought, farmland sinkholes and rusty Utes. Conflagrations of crows and grasshoppers inspire a kind of fear in the poet but also a sort of spiritual transcendence. Burke’s notion of terror as productive of sublimity is entirely at home in Kinsella’s poetry, attuned as it is to violence and the threat of it.
Nor can Kinsella resist exploring the political associations of the concept. From ‘the terror of road-widening’ to the war on terror – the observation of some local detail will often occasion a meditation on an aspect of the global situation, though the link is seldom, if ever, clear. Perhaps the most successful linkage comes in ‘Of the Effects of Tragedy’, taking as it does a specific image and a specific idea from Burke’s Enquiry and relating it to the bombings on the London Underground. The result is an eerily moving passage:
I delayed the typing
of this poem by a few days, not able to formulate
my exact meaning, or thrive on my errors
and then I was going to utilise Burke’s image of a fallen
London as one more enticing to those who might never
visit in its ‘glory’, and not actually wishing
collapse, would find annihilation, the remnant of its
immensity, a thrill, a frisson, delight … a prompt to consider
their own mortality – a lens for the night-song
of the tawny frogmouth? And then, London was bombed.
Here, the incongruous local detail – ‘the night-song / of the tawny frogmouth’ – actually underscores the distance between aesthetics and the real world by emphasising the physical distance between the event and the poet contemplating it.
Unfortunately, the great majority of poems in Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful are in thrall to Kinsella’s other ‘aesthetic’: the deaf poetics of the ‘Language school’. Like John Ashbery, Ron Silliman and J. H. Prynne, Kinsella is happy to ‘thrive on [his] errors’, stressing the materiality of language and how it breaks down in the face of reality. The result is a sort of anti-poetry tediously enamoured of its own textuality. Thus ‘the “boo-book” anagrams’ of the Boobook owl in ‘Novelty’ and, in ‘Like Power’, ‘those threatening foxes, dragging / chunks of the dead around / like what / Jakobson said / about Xlebnikov’s syntax’.
Occasionally Kinsella forgets himself and seems to discover some residual faith in poetry’s ability to represent the world. In one poem, his son is ‘mesmerised / by the liquid flick’ of a snake’s ‘seamless body’, while in ‘Sympathy – Bogged’ he describes an attempt to dislodge a car from a muddy puddle. Note how the vowels and run-on lines convey the sense of the thing described:
Low-geared he tries to ease it out,
Semi-grip then centrifugal
Rip, spinning wildly, flywheel blitz.
Bogged – no traction.
Later in the poem a mud-bespattered tail-light is likened to a supernova remnant – a brilliant simile by any standards. The reader-for-pleasure wants more of this.
Alas, there is very little of it. Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful finds Kinsella at his least accessible and will leave most readers bored and bewildered. Try as they might to gain some traction, they will find themselves irretrievably bogged.