The Politics of Selection in Peripheral Light
This essay is about 2400 words or nine pages long.
When a poet compiles a volume of selected poems, he has an opportunity to assemble many years’ worth of writing into a single package, and thus possibly to present a new, more attractive — more technically skilled, politically aware, culturally prescient, thematically daring — writing self. But when someone does the selecting for the poet, the poet becomes distilled and repackaged according to another’s view of the work and career. In the case of the Australian poet John Kinsella’s Peripheral Light: Selected and New Poems (W.W. Norton, 2003), which is edited by the American critic Harold Bloom, this dynamic informs in significant ways how we approach not only the book, but also Kinsella’s work to date. By considering what Bloom saw fit to include as well as what he passed over, we can begin to understand how Kinsella is being presented in his first book published in the United States, and how that presentation fails to serve the work. Although every reader will have his or her own quibbles about the selections made for such a volume, Bloom’s selection process so clearly results in a dimunition of Kinsella’s true strengths as a poet that it must be addressed at length, not just mentioned in passing. In an apparent attempt to present Kinsella as a lyric poet in the tradition of John Clare, Hart Crane, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and John Ashbery — all of whom Bloom mentions in relation to Kinsella in his introduction to the book — Bloom omits almost all of Kinsella’s linguistically innovative and collaborative poems as well as his most politically oriented poems. Bloom’s editing of Peripheral Light distorts, dislocates, and diminishes Kinsella’s achievements.
Bloom’s ignorance of Australia and Australian poetry also presents problems. In his introduction to Peripheral Light, he mentions the poet’s “deep rootedness in Australian literary culture” — an unwitting pun, as “root” in Australian vernacular means to have intercourse, with “rooted” meaning “screwed,” or “fucked.” While this inadvertent pun confirms the fact that “Australia is (and will be) permanently undiscovered country” for Bloom, a more serious issue arises with his introduction. To edit and introduce a poet from another country while remaining purposefully ignorant of that country — its cultures, its landscapes, its histories, its poetries — constitutes not only shoddy scholarship but also a kind of literary colonization (and the condescension that goes along with it). The corollaries — e.g., introducing an Irish poet like Seamus Heaney without knowing Irish culture, geography, history, or literature — seem so unthinkable that I wonder why no one at least gave Bloom a copy of John Tranter’s and Philip Mead’s Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991), Peter Porter’s The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse (1996), Les Murray’s New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1996), John Leonard’s Australian Verse: An Oxford Anthology (1998), or Kinsella’s own Landbridge: Contemporary Australian Poetry (1999), or why he did not check out any of these books at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, which carries them all in the stacks, along with numerous individual collections by Australian poets. If Bloom had gone to the library to research his topic, he might have discovered important Australian poets like Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Dorothy Hewett, Les Murray, John Tranter, Robert Adamson, John Forbes, and Michael Dransfield, as well as some of Kinsella’s closest contemporaries — Kevin Hart, Gig Ryan, Philip Hodgins, Adam Aitken, Sarah Day — all of whose work provides as relevant a constellation of reference points as do Clare, Crane, Yeats, Frost, and Ashbery.
Reinforcing this ignorance, Bloom omits Kinsella’s reconsiderations of Australian history, myth, and legend — the Zimmermann series (10 poems), the Lasseter series in Night Parrots (22 poems), the Nebuchadnezzar series in Night Parrots (eight poems) based on Arthur Boyd’s Nebuchadnezzar paintings — thus further enhancing his lack of concern for Kinsella’s Australia. Similarly, he includes none of the 13 Cocos Island poems from Lightning Tree (1996), which convey the poet’s interest in other cultures. Although the Western Australia landscape has provided Kinsella with the physical, emotional, and psychological foundation for most of his writing, he has not ignored other landscapes or cultures in his work. His internationalism is as crucial to his writing as his Australianness is.
It is clear that Bloom is slotting Kinsella into his canon as the first and only Australian poet to deserve inclusion — an odd gesture considering his enthusiasm for Kevin Hart’s poetry and Kinsella’s own championing of Australian poetry, particularly that of Hewett, Tranter, and Dransfield. This gap in Bloom’s introduction calls into question his capacity to assess — and thus select — Kinsella’s poetry, a problem reflected elsewhere in his introduction, especially when Bloom claims to have found “the true voice of John Kinsella” in one poem (“Anathalamion”) and “the quintessence of John Kinsella” in another, quite different poem (“Wild Radishes”). Whether or not one agrees with Bloom’s assessments of these poems, locating “the true voice” or “the quintessence” of a poet as multivalent as Kinsella seems like a flawed if not pointless (or impossible) exercise: part of Kinsella’s project always has been to stretch the limits of the singular voice to the breaking point. If, as Bloom says, Kinsella demonstrates “improbable fecundity,” he cannot be contained by such limiting statements. Yet such statements give Bloom license to sweep away the less “true,” or pure, voices of Kinsella in Peripheral Light. The resulting effacement performs editorial violence on the work as a whole.
Bloom’s Kinsella is, above all, a poet in the lyric tradition. In his introduction to Peripheral Light, he refers to Kinsella as “an Orphic fountain”; and on the back of Zoo (2000), Kinsella’s collaboration with animal activist Coral Hull, Bloom writes, “Kinsella is a prodigy — a kind of fountain of Parnassus all in himself.” A solitary voice in the outback, Bloom’s “Orphic fountain” evidently does not collaborate; he did not write any of the poems in the collaborative books Zoo, Kangaroo Virus (1998), or voice-overs (1997). Kinsella’s collaborations seem intended to downplay the significance of — if not do away with altogether — the individual author, to reject Romantic ideology and the privileged self, and (most practically) to tackle subjects with another artist. By omitting all of the poems Kinsella created in collaboration with others, Bloom insists on Kinsella as a singular voice, which contradicts much of what Kinsella himself has been working for. Also, because both Kangaroo Virus and Zoo have explicit political agendas — raising awareness of a mysterious disease killing kangaroos in Western Australia in the first, and presenting zoos as concentration camps for animals in the second — Bloom takes some of the bite out of Kinsella’s work.
Peripheral Light also dampens Kinsella’s political activism, at least as it is presented in his poetry. For example, Bloom selects seven poems from The Hierarchy of Sheep (2000) but omits the book’s four-part title poem and “The Shooting Party” — two of Kinsella’s most convincing poems about cruelty to animals — thus dulling the force of the poet’s animal rights position. A similar omission occurs with “Shootings,” a 12-part sequence in The Silo in which Kinsella does penance for killing so many animals in his youth. The Kinsella of Peripheral Light — Bloom’s Kinsella — does not write so much about his own violent past as about others’ cruelty to animals; and even then, Bloom significantly downplays the role of violence against animals in Kinsella’s work, thus inaccurately representing the poet’s ethical system and process of implication, which always includes the self.
Bloom’s omissions from The Hunt (1998) are among the most perplexing, in that he largely omits scenes of farm violence, whether by accident (“The Well,” “The Disappearing,” “The Tower,” “Jackknife,” “Death of a Roo Dog,” “The Rearing Tractor,” “Death of a Farm Boy”) or by cruelty (“Emu Hunt,” “The Trap,” “A Lynching Under the Southern Cross”), opting instead for the more metaphysically harrowing “Drowning in Wheat.” Considering that violence is so central to The Hunt and so important to Kinsella’s oeuvre, taming this part of Kinsella’s poetry distorts it. Whatever Bloom’s reason for doing so — those poems do not move him, do not fit into his view of Kinsella, are too political and therefore suspect, are simply not as aesthetically pleasing as the less disturbing poems, etc. — the effect is one of distortion. Also missing from Bloom’s selections from The Hunt are two of the book’s most political poems — “Relics” and “Reticulating the Avocados” — and several of its most interesting — “Echidna,” “Firebreak,” “Dematerialising the Poisoned Pastoral.” The political urgency of his poetry has been muted.
By locating Kinsella squarely in the lyric tradition — or what Bloom refers to, on the back covers of both The Undertow (1996) and The Silo (1995), as “the central tradition” — he affixes the poet directly to the tradition Kinsella works against even as he works within it. Bloom does Kinsella’s poetry a disservice by failing to honor that tension in his introduction. Though it comes in many styles, Kinsella’s poetry is indeed best described as “lyric” — even his anti-lyrical work like Syzygy (1993) can be viewed as a testing of, rather than a rejection of, the lyric — but the swiftness with which Bloom drops Kinsella into a chain of non-Australian lyric poets under-represents the role of struggle in his poetry. This under-representation is made manifest in Bloom’s selections of poems for Peripheral Light.
Most obviously, Bloom’s selections diminish the formal range of Kinsella’s poetry. He includes nothing from Syzygy, a 30-part poem that is his most linguistically innovative book to date; Graphology (1997), a poetic sequence published as a chapbook and, as evidenced by the appearance of new sections in various literary magazines, an ongoing project; The Benefaction: Vicissitudes on Interior (1999), an astonishing sequence published as a chapbook; or The Cars That Ate Paris: A Romance (2002), a book-length poem published as a chapbook. The omissions of Syzygy and The Benefaction seem especially unfortunate since Syzygy is Kinsella’s most controversial and experimental book and The Benefaction is his most poignant confrontation of Australian history as well as a formal tour de force. On purely aesthetic grounds, which must be the grounds on which Bloom has made his selections, poems from Kangaroo Virus, Zoo, voice-overs, Syzygy, Graphology, and The Benefaction certainly deserve inclusion in Peripheral Light.
The faults of Bloom’s selection process become clearer if we consider that Peripheral Light is actually Kinsella’s second volume of selected poems. The first, The Undertow: New and Selected Poems, appeared in England from Arc Publications in 1996. Though only half the length of Peripheral Light, The Undertow includes all of Syzygy, an indication of the sequence’s importance to Kinsella and his view of his career. Surprisingly, though published just eight years apart, Peripheral Light and The Undertow have only ten poems in common — “Eclogue on a Well,” “Pipeline,” “Inland,” “Plumburst,” “Rock Picking: Building Cairns,” “The Silo,” “Parrot Deaths: Rites of Passage,” “Warhol at Wheatlands,” “Black Suns,” “Skippy Rock, Augusta: Warning, the Undertow.” This seems to indicate that Bloom’s Kinsella differs from Kinsella’s Kinsella in substantial ways. Also, The Undertow is a truer volume of “selected poems” than Peripheral Light, which includes only 19 poems from the poetry Kinsella wrote between the ages of 17 and 31. Only 52 of the book’s 100 poems appear in the numerous books Kinsella published between 1983 and 2002, which means that the “new” poems in Peripheral Light — all written within the past four years — are given nearly as much weight as the poems in Kinsella’s 16 earlier books. Thus, more than 80% of Peripheral Light was written between 1995 and 2003, or between the ages of 32 and 40, which makes the book primarily a digest of the second half of Kinsella’s prolific career.
Bloom includes only one poem (“Finches”) from Kinsella’s first full-length collection, Night Parrots (1989), and just two poems (“Eclogue on a Well” and “Wheatbelt Gothic or Discovering a Wyeth”) from his third book, Full Fathom Five (1993). Of the poems in Erratum/ Frame(d) (1995), one of Kinsella’s more linguistically disruptive books, only “skeleton weed/ generative grammar” makes Bloom’s cut. Similarly, just two poems from The Radnoti Poems (1996), a chapbook that is one of Kinsella’s strongest individual volumes, are included. Only three poems from Visitants (1999), Kinsella’s personal favorite of all his books, appear in Peripheral Light. Kinsella’s books most favored by Bloom — Eschatologies (1991) and The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, which are represented by nine poems each, or more than one-third of the previously published poems in Peripheral Light — are, predictably, among his most lyric-oriented. He leaves out almost all of Kinsella’s poems based on visual art, which forms an integral part of his work during the first half of his career. Bloom also omits most of Kinsella’s sequences — “Dissertation on a Flea,” “The Tiger Moth Poem,” “Sexual Politics in Eadweard Muybridge’s Man Walking, After Traumatism of the Head” (one of Kinsella’s most disturbing poems) — perhaps for reasons of space, though I suspect those poems’ weirdness and un-Orphicness also contribute to their being left out.
Clearly, Bloom’s view of Kinsella’s work and career cannot help but affect his selections for Peripheral Light. Because of Kinsella’s immense formal range and political commitment, though, Bloom does not present a weak book; one would be hard-pressed to select 200 pages of ineffective poems by Kinsella. Although Bloom’s strong preference for the Orphic Kinsella does the work a disservice, almost all of the previously published poems he has selected for Peripheral Light are worth reprinting, and the new poems demonstrate Kinsella moving into some previously untested territory, particularly the grammar-defying long sentence and the poetic “essay.” The issue of selection, then, is ultimately one of balance: how to showcase Kinsella’s strongest poems while allowing for the fact that Kinsella has written many kinds of poems. The most apparent solution would have been to allow the poet himself to decide which version(s) of himself — which “John Kinsella” — to present to readers in his first book published in the United States. As it stands, Peripheral Light is a bittersweet achievement: it introduces the work of an essential Australian poet to American readers, but does not present precisely what is essential about that poet.
 Because of the visibility and widespread distribution of books published by W.W. Norton, Bloom’s selection puts forward the Kinsella that will endure in American readers’ minds, at least until Kinsella publishes enough books in the U.S. to displace Peripheral Light as his defining volume.
Brian Henry’s most recent book of poetry is Graft (2003). His criticism has appeared recently in the TLS, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Jacket, Antipodes, and several scholarly books. An edited collection, On James Tate, appeared from University of Michigan Press in 2004. A Fulbright Scholar in Australia in 1997-1998, he is currently Associate Professor of English at the University of Georgia.
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