John Kinsella’s Graphology

  Robert Wood

  John Kinsella’s Graphology

  JPR 08

[»»] 0. Introducing Poetics for ‘Australia’

[»»] 1. Closer to Home: Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses and the new suburbanism

[»»] 2. The Avant Garde in ‘Australia’: after Eddie Paterson, Philip Mead and Caitlin Maling

[»»] 3. From Wembley: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Carrying the World

[»»] 4. The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James’ Injury Time

[»»] 5. The Boys in Cambridge: John Kinsella’s Graphology

This file contains Endnotes. In the Endnote, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

Paragraph One follows: 1:

If one wanted to, one could find antecedents for Suburbanism anywhere in the network — Romanticism, Modernism, Negritude, Tabi, Sangaam have all mattered as cohesive bodies of poetic thought. But it is important to look closer to home, to interrogate a discourse that matters in ‘Australia’, namely John Kinsella’s ‘international regionalism’. In an interview with The Griffith Review, Kinsella stated that:


International regionalism is a way of discussing and viewing the local in an international context. It’s a means of exchange, of sharing knowledge and awareness. The integrity of the immediate, of the regional, is my primary concern — if you can’t respect the ecology of the place you’re in at a given time, the biosphere as a whole will suffer. I feel the regional is enhanced by an understanding of what happens elsewhere, but in the end it’s what happens where I am standing that seems most vital to what I have to write. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and there are many ways of seeing. In essence, I like to look at things up close, over a period of time, from different angles, but in wider contexts — social, historical, cultural, political — as well.


There are a few things going on in this passage — one is the sense that the international is coterminous with the natural world (‘biosphere’) but also that context is coterminous with intellectual fields or disciplines (‘historical, cultural, political’). This is not local in a world of mere nations. Expanding further, in Spatial Relations Kinsella suggests that international regionalism:


sounds like a contradiction, an oxymoron really, but the two factors can coexist and, I feel, need to. A concept of regional identity, retaining a sense of immediate spatiality, doesn’t mean we should — or really can — close ourselves off from what happens in the world at large.


But perhaps, we need to ask where is a place that is not regional? Where can one be unlocated? After all, one is always in a unique place and one is always part of the world. If you read, for instance, the letters of Rex Ingamells, an avowed nationalist, it becomes obvious that he existed in a dynamic, transnational literary milieu as well as having a firm sense of his immediate surrounds.


In his letters there is mention of Frederico Garcia Lorca, Maxim Gorky, Stephen Spender, Alfred Tennyson, W. H. Auden, Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Whitman’s ‘A Clear Midnight’, Clifford Whittington Beers’ ‘A Mind that Found Itself’ and Mark van Doren’s An Anthology of World Poetry yet there is also attention to where his body is at the present moment.[12] At its most basic then, every specific place is part of the globe considered as a whole and although Kinsella suggests that ‘these [Graphology] are all poems of resistance and protest, even when affirming’ it is hard to know what the negation of the international regionalist is.


Ironically then, international regionalism lacks a clear sense of what it opposes even as we can guess that might be a type of parochial universalism that flattens out distinctions of different ecologies — of the potato not the mardirra. Kinsella ends up being a defender for regional places, meant here in the sense that they are not the metropole, that York is not New York. This view is there when Kinsella writes that international regionalism:


comes out of a pacifist anarchism, though its application is general and increasingly adaptable (or so I’m finding!). It’s about language and cultural preservation in the face of globalism: creating a universal language of resistance, on the one hand, but a language of interaction and cooperation, on the other.


Globalisation, that historical movement of the 1990s, is what Kinsella is working against. Think NAFTA, think WTO, think World Bank, think President Clinton, think end of history. And in that resistance, Kinsella finds a kind of faith. As he says, ‘letters of protest are also ways of saying thanks. To protest against the destruction of bushland is to affirm the necessity or sanctity of that bushland.’ But,


In promoting an internationalism, I feel that one should be wary of ignoring responsibilities in one’s own backyard. This is the regionalism issue again. In my case, the degradation of land, the ecological disaster that is modern farming in the Avon Valley, a murderous history of displacement of the Nyungar people, and the obligation to actively support the pursuit of land rights, are just some of the issues that inform whatever I do or say, in whatever context.


The Avon Valley does belong next to or within or besides ‘Australia’ somehow, the latter simply being a frame of reference even as it is not located or local enough. The other discourses that structured thought in 1990s ‘Australia’ when Kinsella coined his phrase included the Keating-led rhetoric of multiculturalism, republic and reconciliation. Yet Kinsella seems not to offer a utopian model of how we might cultivate a self-determining sensibility that builds from that moment. There is slippage then between his located location of the Avon Valley and the narrative myths of ‘Australia’ when he can write in ‘International Regionalism and Poetry etc.’ of ‘Aboriginal literature’, itself a colonial invention, that:


I am strongly against the publication of Aboriginal song-cycles that have been collected by white anthropologists. It’s simply not the non-indigenous publisher’s right to access such materials at will.


In no passage in this piece does Kinsella define his terms. Kinsella might be right when it comes to private and sacred songcycles, but he essentialises all Indigenous songs as well as assumes that all relations between people cannot be complex or continue to unfold in situations where people do not definitively articulate how they identify. Those things are contested and it is incumbent to see through conservatism towards community forms of acceptance and identity rather than remaining indebted to outdated models that reify an identity politics.


In other words — how would Kinsella critique the work I have done with my brother-in-law who is Ngarluma on tabi (an open song poetry genre from the Western Pilbara)? Does Kinsella not simply festishise authorial identity without recourse to collaboration or the fact that one can be conversant and expert in traditions that aren’t one’s ‘own’? Should Kinsella himself be working on Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Lionel Fogarty or does he judge himself by a different standard? To think that one cannot be a fellow traveler to struggles one is not ‘essentially’ part of denies imagination, empathy and poetry itself.


These are some of the vexing questions for international regionalism, but what are we to make of Kinsella’s poetic expressions of it in Graphology?


I agree, in general terms, with Thom Sullivan’s reading of Graphology in Plumwood Mountain, which stated:


The energies and impulses of the poems, or clusterings of poems, remain in flux, creating a sense of impermanence or capriciousness. It requires some trust that an individual poem, or clustering of poems, is of-a-piece with the sequence, and creates a sustained tension in the work. A resistance to closure also allows the sequence’s inclusiveness of reference, from the organic to the cultural, which is itself an exploration and substantiation of identity.


These are poems that are in flux, that are open, that sustain tension, but I think the referents are the opposite of what Sullivan claims, namely that they are ‘inclusive’. In its three pages, ‘Graphology: Canto 2’ states the names of Engels, Beauchataud, Governor Macquarie, Prynne, Yeats, Bismarck, Klages, Pulver, Virgil, Nadjamerrek. The apparent eclecticism of Kinsella’s signposted referents appears superficially impressive, like any suburbanite namedropping, but what it cultivates is a readership that might, on a good day, get less than everything intended.


Thus, at a constitutive level his poem is a code that relies on a historical celebrity of dead men and a liberal cult of personality for the speaking poet himself. I do not mean that one might not know who this roll call is, but that to know the roll call and to also know Kinsella’s region seems difficult despite the prolix description of the latter by the poet himself. In other words, we do not know what the synthesis between the international and the regional is other than through Kinsella alone, which might explain the dearth of truly attentive criticism to his oeuvre as a whole — Kelmscott is a long way from Klages and to yoke them together critically would take admirable skill that avoided the undialectical quality of the poetry alone, or indeed the unreconciled phrase of ‘international regionalism’ itself.


However, like all poets, Kinsella has his backers (David McCooey who launched this collection for example but also Harold Bloom, J.H. Prynne and Jacques Derrida) and his attackers (Ivor Indyk), but he has worked in so many different ways that we must play the ball and not the man. It is a case of choosing which Kinsella we like, not should we like him at all. From Graphology, there were several passages that approached the suburbanist, and it is there even in the précis, when it states:


But yesterday I was nearer
a potential epicentre, wandering the eastern outskirts
of Northam town, noting newbuilds uneasy
alongside lozenges of haybales, a dry downslant
creek storm-drain rehabilitation where trees
lose title deed, and a pitbull and bull terrier
rise up in their half-wired verandah pen to rip
my proverbials out — I ritualise smile and move on,
interiorise compassion, like the plaster-concrete
white-swan planter peering up into the high hooks
of power poles, the pressure of rural services –
revelations of locality and self.


Although we are located in Northam, not far from Kinsella’s property Wheatlands, we are in the unfolding suburbs that spring up all over the world. There are of course local variations, such as the ‘lozenges of haybales’, that locate us. Yet, I recognise the ‘plaster-concrete / white-swan planter’ from visits to my aunty’s home in Noranda in suburban Perth as well as the Mainline suburbs of where I was educated in Philadelphia.


In other words, the scene is recognisable to me precisely because I think of the suburbs as a type of internationalism here. And yet, for Kinsella it becomes a poem about place and the rural, about ‘locality and self’, the body being the place he writes from in order to speak of the ecologies of his immediate surrounds, of ‘what happens where I am standing that seems most vital to what I have to write.’ This is anarchism as a type of ecological liberalism against the nation that refuses to see the possibility of the state and its popular style of life, which must always be engaged with and negotiated.


The persistence of land, meant here as nature, is marked in Australian poetry and poetics with less attention paid to the city and even less to suburbia. Kinsella himself is part of that, part of a frame that has been determined by globalisation’s gaze that projects onto the continent what it assumes must be frontier, nature, outback rather than apprehending the ways in which a style of life here is distinct. In that way, it is a recurrent trope of commentary to look to an idea of ‘Australia’ rather than apprehend it immanently.


This is not to lament the passing of the farm like Les Murray or to rail against the superphosphates as Kinsella has, but to suggest that even in my country patch (Redgate) this outdated idea of land is constantly being remade, either to furnish the suburban majority with commodities or to accommodate them in a literal way. This is the sprawl as it comes from a regional town, which is surely what the long-term future has in store for Bunyah and York as well.


Suburbanism, however, does not preclude either the possibility of international regionalism nor post-Negritude creolisation as it applies to colonised people as a whole, nor even the aesthetics demanded by updated and remixed imagism as a precursor to conceptualism in a digital age. But it comes after them all.


What might matter for reading Kinsella however is that we continue to rebel, as he himself has, including against his very influence. That might not only mean situating ourselves in a geography from where he comes from, but regarding that as a country within a nation, country being, of course, not the same geographic sensibility precisely because it is based in land and not the attempted monopolisation of violence, which defines the modern state.


This would allow us to engage with Kinsella’s anarchism beyond mere negation and towards a creative act that seeks a new polis in a philosophy that has Indigenised itself and offers a reality check to the fantasies that the landmass of ‘Australia’ is simply a colonial outpost. What that means is less a reification of the pastoral, including its internal antitheses, and more the establishment of a tradition that sits beyond ‘the West’ as an organising principle. That might be the suburbanist rebuttal of an international regionalism that has become stale.


This file contains Endnotes. In the Endnote, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[12] All taken from Ingamell’s correspondence archived at the State Library of Victoria: Lorca in Mudie 18/1/25, Box 1469; Gorky in Vance Palmer 11/12/44, Box 1469; Spender and Auden in Ballantyne, 3/10/42, Box 1467; Tennyson in Deveney, 17/11/45, Box 1466; Shaw Nielsen in Robinson, 6/6/44, Box 1470; Longfellow in Ewers, 8/8/41, Box 1466; Whitman, undated from Robinson, (5/76-78), Box 1470; Beers and van Doren in Hart Smith, 2/8/43, Box 1467.


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