There is little doubt that Kinsella’s vibrant and voracious poetic intellect is a prodigious event on the horizon of international poetry. As a poet, critic, teacher, pamphleteer, publisher and activist, Kinsella has fast become one of the most widely known Australian voices of his generation.
Since his first collections of poetry in the 1980s, The Frozen Sea and The Night Parrots, John Kinsella has been prolific on all fronts, establishing not simply a significant oeuvre which has won high praise internationally from critics such as Harold Bloom, George Steiner, Marjorie Perloff and fellow-poets such as Les Murray, Lyn Hejinian and Peter Porter, but as a dynamic, perhaps unequalled force in the promotion of contemporary poetry at various levels through publishing, editing and essaying, and literature more broadly as a vehicle for social change and political activism.
Over the last two decades, Kinsella has managed to juggle being a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, an Adjunct Professor to Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and Professor of English at Kenyon College in the United States, alongside numerous ventures as an editor for journals such as Westerly, Overland and The Kenyon Review, editing numerous anthologies, including key anthologies of contemporary Australian poetry, including Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry (1999), The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (2009) and The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poets (2013), while—with around one hundred published works as writer and editor—maintaining an output of work largely unmatched in Australia. Poet and publisher, novelist and playwright, essayist and critic, editor and promoter, activist and academic, Kinsella is currently rolling many lives into one, across time-zones, poetics, and national borders.
Kinsella's poetry is a working of environment: its creation, questioning, evocation, testing. For Kinsella, language is the natural environment. Poetic discourses or traditions such as the pastoral or the avant-garde form layers in the geology of the same. Critics and editors approaching Kinsella's work often drive it into two apparently discrete regions of the experimental and the more plainly lyrical, at the expense of the interweaving of these not mutually-exclusive preoccupations, as can be seen by the 2003 releases of Peripheral Light, edited and introduced by Harold Bloom, which gathers together "pastoral in the last ditch", and Doppler Effect, introduced by Marjorie Perloff, that brought together Kinsella's 'experimental', or as Perloff corrects, 'innovative', work. That said, a poem such as 'Warhol at Wheatlands' offers a pretty good insight into the hybrid nature of Kinsella's imaginative world:
. . . maybe he's asleep
behind his dark glasses? Wish Tom
& Nicole were here. He likes the laser
prints of Venice cluttering the hallway,
the sun a luminous patch trying
to break through the dank cotton air
& the security film on the windows.
Deadlocks & hardened glass make him feel
comfortable, though being locked inside
with Winchester rifles has him tinfoiling
his bedroom – he asks one of us but we're
getting ready for seeding & can't spare a moment.
Ringnecked parrots sit in the fruit trees
& he asks if they're famous.
While not as patently 'experimental' as poems such as the iconoclastic (at least in terms of Australian poetry) Syzygy, 'Warhol at Wheatlands' displays the process of linguistic displacement and interrogation that characterizes much of Kinsella's work. Drawing the doyen of Pop Art and surface into the rural realities of Kinsella's imaginative heartland, the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, Kinsella mines this clash of ontological modes not simply for humour and distraction, but to question notions of surface and depth. The strange force of 'Warhol at Wheatlands' – and of Kinsella's best work generally – is that in its dislocations and dislocutions, it captures a commonality across the variegation of experience entering poetic discourse.
The pastoral idyll of 'Wheatlands' is complicated not simply by Warhol's presence (or that of the polaroids or laser-prints for that matter) but by the reality of the season and the climate which themselves defy and deny attempts to idealise. Equally, the superficiality Warhol in part represents, the exhaustion of meaning in humanist terms, is neatly inclined against the pathos of Warhol's paranoia ("tinfoiling his bedroom") and his very basic and human fragility ("the sudden change has left him wanting"). Akin to, and no doubt influenced by, John Tranter's series of displacements such as 'Enzensberger at Exiles Bookshop', 'Warhol at Wheatlands' creates an environment where humanist and linguistic codes conflict but also cross-generate, where the lyrical and the linguistic 'I' co-exist.
For Kinsella, poetry is always political. Not simply as proselytizing or propaganda, poetry becomes a site of linguistic and social revolution. Kinsella's poetics are indivisible from his politics, which are orientated around his practices as a pacifist-anarchist-vegan. Similarly, it is hard to view much of Kinsella's work without the lens of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for the theories of which Kinsella has been something of an Australian conduit, influencing several younger Australian poets and generally broadening and deepening the level of recent critical engagement with poetics in Australia.
To L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, all language is viewed as political, and it is the poet's task not to fall back into the rhetoric and complacency of simply producing lyrical poetry centred upon the reaffirmation of egocentric logic or a logocentric ego. Language, the symbolic system within which we come to the world, is set upon the semiotic, the vital presymbolic, alogical forces and rhythms that flow below the level of the symbolic and break out, disordering its logic and disrupting its established flows and currents of power.
Much of this is taken from contemporary French thought, most specifically Julia Kristeva's reading into the works of Lautréamont and Mallarmé. For Kristeva, the excavation of language executed by these two quite disparate poets, does not represent simply a revolution in poetic language but in the social body as well, as it reorientates the very structures through which the human subject comes to the world through ruptures in the repressive forces of the symbolic. One criticism that has been raised against the various assimilations and redeployments of these ideas – criticisms that have equally been raised against the work of Lautréamont and Mallarmé – is that of needless obscurity and of over-theorisation. Such criticism smells of bad blood and elitism, as much as labeling more plainly spoken lyrical poets as 'diarists' or 'kitchen-sink poets'. Each world has much to offer, not least for its sense of strangeness and estrangement.
It is important to note here that when I first approached John Kinsella about contributing to the Australian magazine of PIW in 2004, he raised a series of concerns regarding the very nature of the 'Australian' magazine, and the development of discrete sites orientated around the idea of 'nation' as a way of presenting literature or indeed any form of discourse, premised as it is on closed notions of community. In his essay 'Anthologising the Nation', he writes:
To open lines of communication between different kinds of poetries coming out of a spatial zone that implies shared language, geography, social and cultural concerns, and political frameworks, can be useful in presenting a picture of how that place works subtextually. But it is also limiting, and tends to help establish a nationalist discourse, a collective identity that places those outside the fabric as Other. This Other varies in degrees of rapprochement and alienation, but all those outside the place denoted by the rubric 'Australia' become the necessary counterpart in a binary that defines collective identity. This can easily become the machinery of oppression, the emotional and potentially propagandist means of oppressing those who aren't of the nation.
Over a decade later, Kinsella's view has remained consistent, as can be seen in his introduction to a recent special issue of Kenyon Review devoted to Australian literature:
I am profoundly antinationalist … The Western Australian wheatbelt is who I am, even if I am tormented by the fact of living on stolen land, of my culpability in what I (and others) perceive as an ongoing injustice in terms of reconciling land rights claims of Aboriginal Australians, and this is an identity I carry with me all around the world. I believe in place and people but not government labels, not government propaganda of allegiance, and razzamatazz that puts others down in putting oneself up.
My loyalties are local, my loyalties are internationally regional, my loyalties are to those who don't get a fair go or a right to speak; my loyalties are to community, and my loyalties are to language itself, which I see as the key to liberty on personal and broader levels. Where there is exclusion on the basis of faith, ethnicity, material "worth," gender, sexual identity, or any other falsity looking to differentiate for empowerment, then language and literature need to travel to challenge and undo.
The poems selected here are but a small sample from Kinsella's voluminous work. Several of these poems offer cautionary tales about the risks humans take in presuming authority over our environment, be it the phenomenal (such as 'Drowning in Wheat' and 'Death of a Farm Boy') or the linguistic (such as 'Tarot'). In these poems, the environment – equally land and language – is a force reckoned with and which comes not so much simply to question and subvert human presumptions of authority and sovereignty, but to press us toward a poetics and politics of interconnectedness and care, open relation and community.
The Frozen Sea: Poems, as John Heywood (Perth: 1983)
Night Parrots (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1989)
The Book of Two Faces: Poems, with artwork by Mona Ryder (Perth: Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1989)
Eschatologies (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1991)
Poems, with Philip Salom (Applecross, WA: Folio, 1991)
Ultramarine: Poems (Applecross, WA: Folio, 1991)
Full Fathom Five (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993)
Syzygy (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993)
The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995; Todmorden, UK: Arc, 1997)
Erratum/Frame(d) (South Fremantle: Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995)
Intensities of Blue, with Tracy Ryan (Applecross, WA: Folio, 1995)
The Radnoti Poems (Cambridge, UK: Equipage, 1996)
Anathalamion (Cambridge, UK: Poetical Histories, 1996)
The Undertow: New and Selected Poems (Todmorden, UK: Arc, 1996)
Lightning Tree (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; Todmorden, UK: Arc, 2003)
Graphology (Cambridge, UK: Equipage, 1997)
voice-overs, with Susan Schultz (Honolulu: Tinfish Communications, 1997)
Lines of Sight, with Tracy Ryan (Applecross, WA: Folio, 1997)
Poems 1980-1994 (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997; Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1998)
The Hunt and other poems (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press; Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1998)
alterity/poems without tom raworth, (U.S.A. & Czech Republic: X-poesie, 1998)
The Kangaroo Virus Project, with Ron Sims (South Fremantle: Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998)
Pine, with Keston Sutherland (Applecross, WA: Folio, 1998)
The Benefaction: Vicissitudes on Interior (Cambridge, UK: Equipage, 1999)
Sheep Dip (Wicklow, Ireland: Wild Honey Press, 1999)
Fenland Pastorals (Kenilworth, UK: Prest Roots Press, 1999)
Counter-Pastoral (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 1999)
Visitants (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1999)
Wheatlands, with Dorothy Hewett (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999)
Zone (South Fremantle: e-matters and Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000)
Zoo, with Coral Hull (Sydney: Paperbark, 2000)
The Hierarchy of Sheep (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001)
Outside the Panopticon (Kenilworth, UK: Prest Roots Press, 2001)
Rivers, with Peter Porter and Sean O'Brien (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2002)
Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems, selected and introduced by Harold Bloom (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press; New York: W.W. Norton, 2003)
The Cars That Ate Paris: A Pastoral Romance (Woodbridge, VA: American Association for Australian Literary Studies, 2003)
Doppler Effect: Collected Experimental Poems, introduced by Marjorie Perloff (Cambridge: Salt, 2004)
The New Arcadia (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press ; New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).
Love Sonnets (Cambridge: Equipage, 2005)
America, or, Glow, introduced by Peter Porter (Todmorden: Arc, 2006)
Sacré Coeur: A Salt Tragedy (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2006)
Divine Comedy: journeys through a regional geography (New York: WW Norton, 2008 in US and UK; Brisbane: UQP, 2008 in Australia)
Shades of the Sublime & Beautiful (Fremantle: FACP, 2008; Picador, 2008).
Sand (with Robert Drewe; poetry, fiction, and memoir; Fremantle Press, 2010)
Rapacity: A Death's Jest-Book Intertext (Cambridge: Equipage, 2011)
Armour (London: Picador, UK and Australia, 2011)
The Ballad Moondyne Joe (with Niall Lucy, cross-genre work, Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2012)
Jam Tree Gully (New York: WW Norton, USA, UK and Australia, 2012)
The Jaguar's Dream: Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, and Afters (Richmond: Herla imprint of Alma Books, 2012)
Redstart (An Ecological Poetics) with Forrest Gander (Iowa: Iowa University Press, 2012)
Paradise Lust, Book 1 (Canada: Bookthug, 2012)
Echoes - Poems (in Luminous World: contemporary art from the Wesfarmers collection)
Graffiti: Artworks and Poems from Churchill College (Churchill College, Cambridge, 2012)
Vision of Error: A Sextret of Activist Poems (Melbourne: Five Islands Press, 2013)
Sack (London and Fremantle: Picador, UK and Fremantle Press, 2014)
A Remarkable Grey Horse (poems with Thurston Moore, Vallum Chapbook Series, No. 16, Montreal, 2014)
Marine with Alan Jenkins (Enitharmon, London, 2015)
Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (London: Picador UK and Australia, 2016)
Firebreaks (New York: WW Norton, New York, 2016)
A Shared Wonder of Light (with photographer John D'Alton, Whyte Books, Ireland, 2016)
Speaking from Here to There (with Kwame Dawes; Peepal Tree, UK, 2016)
Graphology 1996-2015 (Five Islands Press, Melbourne, 2016)
On the Outskirts (forthcoming: UQP, St Lucia, 2017)
NOTE translations into other languages of works above: into Spanish, Swedish, Italian, and Russian. French edition in preparation and Albanian edition of Peripheral Light was due out late 2016.
Genre (fiction) (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1997)
Grappling Eros (fiction) (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998)
Conspiracies, with Tracy Ryan (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2004)
Post-Colonial: a récit (Brisbane: Soi 3 [an imprint of Papertiger Media], 2010)
In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Stories (Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 2012)
Morpheus: a Bildungsroman (USA: BlazeVox, 2013)
Tide (Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2013)
Refuge: a novella (in Griffith Review, 46: Forgotten Stories, Griffith University, Brisbane, 2014)
Crow's Breath and Other Stories (Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2015)
Old Growth (Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2017)
Lucida Intervalla (forthcoming 2018; USA, Dalkey Archive; Perth: UWAP)
Divinations: Four Plays, by John Kinsella, edited by Stephen Chinna (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2003)
Comus: a dialogic masque (Todmorden, UK: Arc, 2008)
Auto (Applecross, WA: Salt, 2001)
Fast, Loose Beginnings: On Poets (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006)
Criticism and Commentary
Disclosed Poetics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, June 2007)
Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language by John Kinsella, ed. Glen Phillips and Andrew Taylor (Edith Cowan University and Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2008)
Activist Poetics: Anarchy in the Avon Valley (Ed. Niall Lucy; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010).
Spatial Relations (Ed. Gordon Collier in two volumes; Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2013)
Polysituatedness: a poetics of displacement (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017)
Crop Circles (Cambridge, UK: Marlowe Society, 1998)
Smith Street (Between Heaven and Hell), with Tracy Ryan and Steve Chinna (Western Australia, UWA Players, 2001)
The Wasps (Cambridge, UK: Marlowe Society, 2003)
Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung, an adaptation commissioned by the Perth International Arts Festival, 2003 Golden Anniversary Celebrations)
Comus: a dialogic masque (Cambridge, UK: Marlowe Society & Christ's College, June 2008)
Signature at Ludlow: a radio play (The Verb, BBC3, June 2010 and separate production Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2012)
Three Plough Plays (Cambridge, UK: Marlowe Society, 2012)
Ecumenical (Cambridge, UK: Marlowe Society and Churchill Gods, 2012)
The Forest Tattoo (extract performed on The Verb, BBC3, 2013)
Grimm Tales (libretto; composer Gordon Kerry, performed by Opera Scholars Australia, Victoria, 2015)
The Snow Queen (libretto; composer Gordon Kerry, to be performed by the Victorian Opera Company, forthcoming 2017)
Works as Editor include:
The Bird Catcher's Song: A Salt Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, ed. John Kinsella (Applecross, WA: Salt, 1992)
A Salt Reader, ed. John Kinsella (Applecross, WA: Salt 1995)
Sightings: Poems for International PEN 62nd World Congress, ed. John Kinsella and Dennis Haskell (Applecross, WA: Folio, 1995)
Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry, ed. John Kinsella (South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press/Arc, 1999)
The May Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge Poetry 1999, ed. John Kinsella (Cambridge: Varsity/Cherwell, 1999)
Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective, selected by John Kinsella (St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2002)
Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems, ed. John Kinsella and Rod Mengham (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2004)
Western Australian Writing: an on-line anthology, ed. John Kinsella [Electronic Resource] (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Library)
School Days: Essays by Australians on their Schooldays, ed. John Kinsella (Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2006).
Anthology of Australian Poetry to 1920, ed. John Kinsella [Electronic Resource] (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Library)
Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, ed. John Kinsella and Alvin Pang (Singapore and Fremantle, 2007)
Persian Whispers: an anthology, ed. Ali Alizadeh and John Kinsella, (Arc Publications, Todmorden, 2012)
Contemporary Australian poetry, ed. Ouyang Yu and John Kinsella, trans. Ouyang Yu (Shanghai: Shanghai Arts and Literature Publishing House, 2007)
Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, ed. John Kinsella (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 2009)
The Land's Meaning: new selected poems of Randolph Stow (incl. introduction), ed. John Kinsella (South Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2012)
The Turnrow Anthology of Australian Poetry, ed. John Kinsella (incl. introduction; Munroe: Desperation Press, University of Louisiana at Munroe, 2015)
The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, ed. John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2017)