What astonishes about Kinsella is that this vast, dilating rhizome, this meme of global poeticising, coexists with an intense dedication to craftsmanship on the level of the individual poem. One does not know whether to admire Kinsella more as the author of poems in the traditional sense, or, to redeploy a concept of Kinsella’s compatriot Les Murray, a ‘poeme.’ In the 1990s, it was popular to speak of Kinsella’s poetry as inhabiting two modes, the ‘dark pastoral’ or ‘ruined pastoral’ of volumes like The Hunt and The Silo and the more experimental, language poetry-influenced mode of Syzygy. This influential scheme seems less adequate to describe Kinsella’s poetry in the 2000s. Kinsella himself says the Graphology series, ‘encapsulates many of the concerns of The Hunt and The Silo, in the same way that Syzygy does. It is landscape poetry as well as wordscape or linguistic poetry.’ The Graphology series represents, not the synthesis between Kinsella’s alleged two modes, but the rupture of any sort of solid membrane separating them.
Kinsella’s idea of the series is reminiscent of series of numbered paintings by abstract painters. With such, we are not so much concerned with how and if the series will end, or even with a sense of progress or development through a series, as we are with the total effect of a set of instances that we know will never add up neatly. There is a sense of a background generativity that produces endless possibilities, not limited by the exemplification in the ‘actual.’ Amid all the proliferation of the Graphology series, there are still interstices kept in reserve. Kinsella has the courage, and the prudence, to keep his unwritten book unwritten. He does not try to leverage the unwritten book into a more incarnate form, one more determinate and marketable.
Despite the strong elements of ferocious satire and robust political protest in the Graphology series, the servility of the poem expands beyond even discursive assertions in which they passionately believe. Just as landscape is eaten, not adorned, by foliage, so is Kinsella’s language refracted by his own self-consuming verbal energies. That he gives up so much, such ground at the core, to language makes us admire even more his staunch sociopolitical engagement.
From ‘Landscape Eaten by Foliage: John Kinsella’s Graphology Poems’, by Nicholas Birns. Read the full essay here.
Graphology can be purchased as a limited edition three-volume set (individual volumes are not for separate sale).
David McCooey’s speech