Paddocks and Pastorals

by John Kinsella
[201pp, h/b, £14.95, Norton]

John Kinsella is a prolific Australian poet, with already, at forty-two, seventeen books of poetry to his credit. This ambitious new work (we are told it has been twenty-five years in the making) is meant to be read as an 'organic unit'. That said, it is not an easy read. Parts of it are, like a forest of densely-packed tree-ferns full of rattling birds, hard to negotiate. It is one of those books that has you wondering whether further readings - provided one had stomach for them - would make you more at ease with the conciseness of the description offered in the blurb's suggestions of a clear construction. For one thing we are informed that Kinsella's book is 'radical and antipastoral…a response to a classic of romance - Philip Sidney's The 'Old' Arcadia'. This begs the question: would reading Sidney's great work be of assistance, in the same way that knowledge of Homer's Odyssey allows for meaningful parallels and contrasts in Joyce's Ulysses to go to work? Or is this an unfair demand? Is it one of those books one puts down having gained a general impression of good things going on but the relief that comes from a decision not to read it again - as in my case it would be with Moby Dick or Vanity Fair?  In any event, are readers satisfied with the sort of 'intense impression' Eliot once said we should expect of 'difficult' poems like The Waste Land?  And then again, as Kinsella surely knows, there are two versions of Sidney's Arcadia: the 'Old' referred to, which he wrote in 1580 at Wilton, the estate of his sister, Mary Countess of Pembroke, with the stated aim of simply amusing her, describing it as 'an idle work…a trifle, and that triflingly handled', and the 'New' version published in 1593. Four years after writing the 'Old' and having done some serious thinking about what literature was and what it was for, and having, as a result, written his thoughtful and charming Apology for Poetry, Sidney set about revising it with the intention of converting it into 'an absolute heroical poem', full of 'notable images'. His friend Fulke Greville said of Sidney's aim in writing The Arcadia, that 'In all the creatures of his making, his intent and scope was, to turn the barren philosophy precepts into pregnant images of life' - clearly also one of Kinsella's aims here.  Sidney's general aim was the neo-classical one of combining delight with teaching: in other words, it was highly moral. This version, despite Sidney's alleged 1580 deathbed insistence on its being destroyed, was published some thirteen years later. He had, by the time of his death, only revised half of the Old Arcadia. The concluding two-and-a-half 'acts' were added, after careful editing, by his sister. This version, like Kinsella's, is known as the New Arcadia. One might not unfairly suggest therefore that Kinsella's isn't new after all. Both of Sidney's Arcadias, as in Kinsella, are divided into five 'acts' and may be more likened to the dividing up of a classical play. Sidney, it is conjectured, may well have intended to convert the five 'acts' of the Old Arcadia into a twelve-book epic, like Spenser's The Faerie Queene Kinsella's book is advertised as an 'epic'…though both writer and readers have been spared the need to confront the daunting challenge of a twelve-book work!

Perhaps we are merely to understand Sidney's
Arcadia vaguely as a prime example of pastoral idyll, an aristocratic daydream, the 'trifle' Sidney self-deprecatingly termed the Old Arcadia. But this represents a failure to recognise the its intrinsic value as an instance of Renaissance projections of the Good Life - like Gonzalo's famous speech in The Tempest or Montaigne's essay on which it is based or Ben Jonson's fine poem To Penshurst. It is not simply a matter of idealised landscapes where the sun shines forever and aristocrats, disguised as nymphs and shepherds, play at being innocent, forever young and in love. Sidney's work in fact deals with intrigue, deception, sexual politics, treason - in other words it sharpens our awareness in the matter of good and evil; it subverts the pastoral as well as delighting in it.

To state the obvious, Sidney's book is a prose romance interspersed with songs and poems; Kinsella's is all poetry. However, structurally, like the
Old Arcadia, its five 'acts' each contain 'an eclogue or eclogues' - what in pastoral writing is usually termed singing-matches; they also each contain opening poems in which the persona each time takes the same ruminative journey by car. In among these are poems about various aspects of Australian landscape, its weathers, flora, fauna (particularly birds): it is the placing of these that may make one loose sight of the overall structure. That said, there is no doubting the Eliotesque intense impression. But in a work this size, written in a variety of styles and measures, it is not always easy to keep one's bearings or sustain the required concentration. There are times when particular stretches of writing are strikingly accessible - the so-called eclogues being good instances. But a lot of the writing feels like a rarified stream of consciousness, images and phrases that fail to achieve a verb cascading down the page, many of them startling and original, a fair number of them, however, puzzling and ending up simply coagulating. Too much richness isn't good for the digestion or the palette and the incidences of virtuoso performance can have you switching off whether you wish it or not. There are times when you feel Kinsella, as my granny used to say, has swollied the dictionary. The blurb is perhaps rather sanguine in its statement that Kinsella has provided us with 'an organic unit whose components accumulate and complement one another' to create 'a multi-angled view of the specific'. For one reader at least there is often too much to take in, to keep going back over, and not always make obvious sense of.

Part of the problem may lie in the unfamiliarity of Kinsella's territory and lexis (a small example: it takes a little while before you realise that a 'twenty-eight' is a bird); and no doubt Australian readers will get more from the work. My own short time spent down-under did help me 'see' some of the landscapes, flora and fauna referred to but certainly not all the book would require me to see.

So we are left with the intense impression. And, yes, it is intense. The anti-pastoralism is patent: the stubborn arrogance and brutality with which human beings destroy the landscape and its wildlife, and dispossess its indigenous peoples is clear enough. And, yes, on offer is a corrective to the idealisms of pastoral, the old aristocratic daydream of innocence and dalliance; it is not the Tennysonian 'known landscape…an old friend that continually talks to me of my own youth and half-forgotten things': rural existence here is shown as red in tooth and claw; and on the evidence of this book getting worse.

An aspect of the intense impression I was left with was the undeniable passion and energy of the work. It is dazzling in two senses - as (1) bravura performance and (2) the unfortunate overwhelming of one's vision, the Conradian desire to make the reader 'see'. But find out for yourself; see if you agree with the blurb's judgement that 'Viewing his native Western Australia with different lenses zooming in and out - macro and macro and wide-angle - it's a snapshot and a time lapse, a "new" pastoral that recognises the cultural inheritance as well as the cultural baggage of the bucolic.'

            © Matt Simpson 2005