unglish for all!

(This review of Kinsella, Hartley Williams and Lumsden appeared in Poetry London in (probably) Winter 2005. On reflection, it was a near-perfect triumvirate of writers to give me, as each of them illustrates some aspect of what I think of as the rough music, that category-bursting energy of verse which can resonate across the cultures and the centuries.)

These three poets write from contexts which are to differing degrees extra-English, and their work offers us a survey of just how extensive the field of writing in other Englishes has become (and, by contrast, just how narrow some of the poetry of these islands is).

John Hartley Williams, still resident in Berlin, has the most recognisably English voice, but this is along the lines of Peter Didsbury or, elegized in this volume, Ken Smith. That is, he is open to both the influence of European poetry and a very British absurdism, both of which mark him as at his own precise angle to the mainstream.

Roddy Lumsden’s work, though seeming to offer the reader seductive variations on the standard English love lyric, is shot through with a quite distinct sensibility which is identifiably Scots. There is something about his forensic dissection of his own and others’ passions, and his frequent recourse to the list, which recalls both the Scottish devotion to reason, and the peculiar thoroughness with which Scots abandon rationality. ‘Facts, dear children,’ he claims, not entirely ironically, ‘is the new religion.’

John Kinsella may well appear the most un-English writer of the trio, writing what seems at times a species of Unglish. But like the ‘Yanglish’ which the Chinese dissident poet Yang Lian can force from his translators, this is often a salutary exercise for poet and reader alike. His characteristic stance is trans-cultural, uniting or confronting discourses, usually those of his rural Australian background and the experimental poetries of the US and Cambridge school. The breadth of the stride required for this has led some to regard him as a unique figure, though it is possible instead to view him as the first of many necessary bridge-builders between the sundered Englishes  of contemporary poetry.

John Hartley Williams’ new book is in two reflective halves. By opening with an extended elegy for Ken Smith and closing with a long fantasia on Dan Dare, he sets out his highly individual deck of cards. In a sense the whole first half of this book confronts tragedy head on, most specifically the suffering of the former Yugoslavia, where he has lived and worked. The second half proffers his characteristic wit and ludic powers not as an evasion of the loss depicted earlier, but rather as a kind of triumph of fancy over terror.

The elegy is a fine piece of work – as it says, a ‘blue archaic rap/on the answering anvil/of a man who likes talking/to a man who likes to talk’. It imitates the lean ranginess of Ken Smith’s voice whilst keeping the distinctive extensibility of Hartley William’s rhetoric. That capacity to conceptualise beyond the borders of what others would say is in evidence in several poems: ‘What I Ate in the War’ with its grotesque list of ‘Revenge soup’ and ‘Rumour parsnips’;  and ‘I Remember’ with its juxtapostions of physical detail and cultural insight leading to the lines

I remember

how Aca Ilic remarked casually, as one might say: ‘This is where we get the tram’ – ‘This is where they shot my cousin.’

The key poem in this part of the book is ‘Sarajevo Dancing’, where the dance dismantles  medieval and recent history, revealing progressively darker pictures of inhumanity.

The transition to poems which deploy fancy and comedy is deftly done by ‘Hungarian’, in which the impossible burdens the poet places on this language seem equally those placed on language by poetry itself, and those placed on any small European language caught up by larger conflicts: ‘I need to groan in Hungarian/…so I can answer/with what I did not know I knew.’

From here to the bizarrre perspectives of ‘Gnome Liberation Society’ or ‘Elbows’ or even the seduction of Dan Dare by Venus herself does not seem far. These are poems which, in the face of Coleridge’s distinction between fancy and imagination, are happy to redeem fancy. Their latter-day surrealism recalls that of the Balkan poet Tomaz Salamun, who finds Pythonesque contortions to be highly appropriate responses to the contemporary world. The darkness of tone which gives this book its title is never entirely forgotten, as in ‘The Mulefish’, a kind of hideous parody of Hughes’ ‘Pike’, but one which seems far more at home in the murky waters where we now find ourselves:

The mulefish is no prized morsel.

It tastes of excrement and daubs

(though no one’s tasted it),

of bricks of electricity, of wrong-fermented wine –

a flavour, they suggest,

of the sweat of someone being crucefied.

Roddy Lumsden’s new and selected poems marks him out as one of the most distinctive voices in  British poetry. The black wit, the brilliant phrase-building and the instantly-recognisably sensibility add up to a territory he has made his own. Tenderly lusting, capable of extravagent loucheness, ‘damaged goods’ as one poem overhears, he is the King of Lachrymosity, presenting both our nagging appetites and our little uglinesses with an expert eye.

The centre of this book is the decidedly un-Whitmanic song of himself, Roddy Lumsden is Dead , an anatomy of melancholy for our time, taking us from ‘My Reptilian Existence’ to ‘My Realm of the Senses’ in thirty-odd uneasy steps. As he admits, ‘I know I know I shouldn’t know such things’, but nonetheless, how seductively he shares them:

…and tomorrow I will wake in the Japanese annexe:

my pomegranate mouth, my yak flank hair,

the skin of my back busy with mill-sweat,

feet beeling and dinging like buck-rabbits

and a dispirited girl will play a Chopin Nocturne

over and over, through in the sunlit lounge

as if someone had written a script.

Sorry: as if someone hadn’t written a script.

His lines are always crawling with precise details, pitiless with themselves regarding their constant self-regard, and twitching between phrases to graph the sensibilities that lesser poets tuck away. Some readers will perhaps locate more of those in the earlier poems – ‘Then she rolled over, laughed, began to do/To me what she so rarely did with you…’;  ‘I’d been guzzling vinegar,/Tipping it on everything, falling for women who were//beautifully unsuitable’. But the more recent work, ‘The Bubble Bride’ and ‘The Drowning Man’ are full of intriguing experiments and unusual shifts in familiar perspectives.

One thing they work with more openly than in earlier poems is the list – a device that will be familiar to those who try to keep up with his spiralling encyclopaedias of trivia in print and on the Net. In ‘The Perfumes of Scotland’, ‘The Kitchens: A Guided Tour’, or ‘Overheard in a Scottish Larder’, the appetite for catalogue is almost as generous as the cataloguing of appetites itself:

Rasps straicht fae the Carse of Gowrie, cries ane.

Rain-fed brambles fae Fife hedgerows, says the ither.

The first goes, dinnae let on what a haggis is,

the ither goes, nivver let on what a haggis is.

A platefu’ o Scotch broth or Royal Game, mibbe?

Naw, a dish o cullen skink or cock-a-leekie!

Says wan, it’ll crawl roond yer hairt lik a hairy worm.

Eat up, yer at yer blind auntie’s, cries the ither.

As the language shift here into colloquial Scots indicates, the energy at the base of Lumsden’s ferocious capacity for lists has much to do with his background. MacDiarmid’s love of lists was merely a late form of that frenzy for particulars we find in Scots writing as far back as the mid-sixteenth century Complaynt of Scotlande. The will to encompass a subject by gathering together all the ways of saying it – all the regional variations of the psyche, as it were – is entirely characteristic of a nation poised between discourses for much of its history. In this sense, these poems enact a slow arc of exile from the self, but return to the sensibility of the nation.

John Kinsella’s two volumes of selected and new poems are typically gargantuan, and would seem to present the two extremes of his highly various art: the experimental work in Doppler Effect, and the more conventional ‘Wheatlands Gothic’ in Peripheral Light. And these volumes come armoured with appropriately-assigned prefaces by that critical doyenne of the US experimentals, Marjorie Perloff, and that unrecalcitrant American canon-builder, Harold Bloom. A British reader might feel outflanked by this combination of Down Under-osity and Over There-ness. But that would be to overlook a poet of great richness.

For one thing, as Marjorie Perloff points out, Kinsella isn’t exactly an experimental poet as she knows it:

‘Kinsella is not quite willing to suspend disbelief, to allow for uncertainty and indeterminacy. For someone as ecologically aware as Kinsella, someone who has strong feelings about the despoliation of Auustralian lands and the killing of the indigenous people, negative capability, Charles Bernstein or even John Ashbery-style, just won’t cut it.’

In other words Kinsella has a subject matter, one not too many thousands of miles removed from that of John Clare or Robert Burns, summed up by the lines of Burns’ which stand as epigram to ‘Akbar’: ‘I’m truly sorry man’s dominion/Has broken Nature’s social union…’ And as for ecology, so for epistemology: Kinsella is deeply opposed to poetry’s self-aggrandising assumptions about the proper way to contain meaning. Hence his restless boundary-crossing and occasionally irresistable energy for experiment.

The other reason to be suspicious of easy categories in Kinsella’s work is that key poems are reproduced in both volumes – ‘Skeleton Weed/Generative Grammar’, ‘Bluff Knoll Sublimity’ and ‘Approaching the Anniversary of my Last Meeting with my Son’ among them.

In other words the distinctions don’t quite apply: for him, the experimental can be just as conventional as the conventional can in turn be experimental. That’s not to say you won’t find numerous dedications to Lyn Hejinian and Jeremy Prynne. It’s just to imply that Kinsella rarely imitates where he can reappropriate and recycle.

The last of those titles, ‘Approaching the Anniversary,’ is a good way for a new reader to approach what is distinctive about Kinsella’s utterance:

It’s almost the anniversary

of my leaving, and you don’t

know my voice on the phone

when you ring Nanna.

Told it’s Daddy,

you say, ‘I’d better go,’

your mother erupting

from another room;

it’s not safe using the phone

during a storm.

The use of distance, both literally and in terms of the setting of intimacy against impersonal phenomenon, occurs again and again in his work, whether in farmlands viewed from the air, or in a different discourse from that conventionally expected of a poem:

and as the host grows wizened

the spores make as if airborne

delivering yesterday’s news

you are only living

through the communications

with a self that offloads

a myriad of voices

into autopilot, collecting

black box date


This somewhat reductive picture of the act of writing uses a similar set of distancing devices: plant metaphor, the technologies of flight and recording, and above all a distance of tone, to convey much the same message of the gaps between us and our intentions. Sudden lines will cut across conventional themes: ‘Sontag’s democratizing of beauty/foams like witness’ (in an elegiac piece on Radnoti) is characteristic both in its cultural specificity and its essayistic tone. What Kinsella is doing at such moments is introducing perspective, insisting on a democracy of the elements in a poem. If that sounds somewhat counter to Wordsworth’s principle that a poem should give pleasure, then it’s important to note that Kinsella’s poetry is richly sensuous, almost unable to stop recording intensities of perception:

Sun crisp on the curve of Bakewell

is lymphatic in the gulley – coldest point

fused with flock of pink-and-grey galahs

scattering enigmatically; sear flux

in confused canopy, what is light,

flesh, feathers?

He asks, in ‘Lighting the Bushman Fire Before the Others Rise’, and almost replies later

The door

nudged open, and the wood deposited

at the foot of the Bushman stove. Iron box.

Window to conflagration.

Everything here is Biblical – you don’t

choose to write it.

I quote Kinsella at length to demonstrate what is particular about his approach to writing: it is a poetry of declaration – patterning and juxtaposition of discourses stands in for the blending of tones we often expect. It uses metaphor drawn from strictly delineated areas – usually the Australian landscape. While we perhaps tend to be more opportunistic with metaphor, it contributes directly towards the integrity of a Kinsella poem. Lastly, he is always admitting the process of writing into the subject matter of the poem – in a matter of fact rather than a self-conscious way. So we encounter the subtitle ‘why I despair of poetry having any meaning beyond the page’ in a poem which begins ‘Snakeskin shucked and pinned under tin shed walls…’.

Of the two books I would certainly suggest you start with Peripheral Light: as a one-stop volume it will serve you well whether you remain with a masterpiece like ‘The Hunt’, or use it as a springboard into the related waters of Doppler Effect.

Kinsella has been described somewhat lazily as a phenomenon simply because he has published a great deal. He might more accurately be called a writer in full command of the means of his production, and some of his poetry displays the flaws of such proximate access to print. But Kinsella doesn’t write as many British poets do, with one eye too self-consciously on posterity: he seems happy to let what will fall away, fall away. And while much of what Bloom says about him (like much of what Bloom says) falls into the area of patrician puffery, it is nonetheless the case that this is a major talent.

These three poets would seem to have little in common with each other except their ability to extend our definition of contemporary poetry. That’s not a negligible trait for any writer to possess, but I would suggest it is in the way they challenge preconceptions that their underlying similarity emerges. All three are poets who can push beyond the idea that rhetoric in a poem is only there to persuade us of something: the grim fantasias of Hartley Williams, the eroticised lists of Roddy Lumsden and the distancing critiques of John Kinsella all accrue aesthetic value, setting out a unique grammar of poetry, and finding beauty in it. Accept nothing less.

(John Kinsella, Peripheral Light: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 194pp, £15.95); Doppler Effect (Salt, 422pp,); Roddy Lumsden, Mischief Night: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 176pp, £8.95); John Hartley Williams, Blues (Cape, 86pp, £9.00))

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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