Australian poet John Kinsella has written a massive trilogy of what he calls "distractions" (i.e., riffs) on Dante's Commedia, although, freed of Dante's just-so Thomist strictures, it arrives as a series of journal poems filtered through an up-to-date ecological prism. The poems track the fortunes of 5 acres of land (his mother's) in the Wheatbelt Region of western Australia. They also ray out to encompass flora and fauna, family, history, politics, and ethics, as these things, in their turn, hook up with larger (and older) themes of spiritual embodiment, moral escape, the climb to responsibility, judgment, and hope. Ambitious and accomplished it is, and like all epic-sized literary creations, it encounters problems, some inherent, some of his own making. Despite this, Divine Comedy should raise Kinsella's profile in America (he teaches at Kenyon) considerably.
Eco-poetry is as good a place to start as any to review the old debate over poetry's social utility. Every poet is haunted by Auden's terse, "poetry makes nothing happen," though that is as likely to be an expression of pique as an opinion once solidly held. Even so, it seems unlikely that poetry, as a subset of language, could ever completely escape the fate of language in being a social tool. Meanwhile, the epiphanic nature poem, as practiced most conspicuously from the two-and-a-half-century-old Romantic tradition, continues to maintain a busy store, if the adulation of Mary Oliver has any meaning beyond the longing of her bluestocking audience for "self-help and human potential," as William Logan sniffed. And Mary Oliver represents one of the most benign and evolved versions of this poem, one in which the benefits of natural communion don't all curve back to smooth the silhouette of the poet. Even so, at the end of the day, such poetry amounts to a kind of meliorism: in addition to whatever degree of subjective enlightenment it discloses, it also asks why we all can't just get along. What eco-poetry proposes is a difference in kind.
While the Romantic nature poem has made purchase on large tracts of the American imagination, it's become definitively clear to us in ways that were not available to John Keats (or, for that matter, Robert Frost) that "nature" exists for itself, not (just) for our improvement. Romanticism was itself in reaction to the rational rigors of Enlightenment over-reaching, a mode of reenchantment for a world where God had been sent packing by logicians. Like Jessie Jackson, we could say we were somebody, in this case by virtue of nature's self-judgingbut more to the point, approvingmirror. It should be noted that the spread of so-called "natural religion" was also guilty of contributing its bit of mischief to British and American poetry. Could it be, then, that with the arrival of eco-consciousness, the twilight of narcissism is at hand? Well, or course not, but the privileging of magic moments tied to subjectivityas in Wordsworth's "spots of time"has been put, like the figure of the human itself, way back on the shelf among the passing effects of nature, be its tale told by Darwin, Freud, or John Muir. Those moments are no longer hovering godlike before us and leading us forward into some handsome condition of humanity replete with wildlife parks and jardins as promenades.
By the 1980s, poets as diverse as Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and A. R. Ammons were charting a more naturalistic approach. Now, the pincushion effect of ego-plus-place, of leveraging eureka moments into beingwas avoided in favor of "the weathering land/The wheeling sky." The slow but perceptible (and seemingly inevitable) rise of eco-poetry has had more than a recalibration function, since its aim is didactic, though it is a didacticism steeped in aesthetics. What this fact has come to mean is that here we have yet another movement with a problematic relationship to "beauty." In the sense that beauty features and underlines its virtue, descriptions of beautiful things amount to discriminations, and that isbecause it is value-addedunnatural. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is that the leveling required of naturalism stands to put poetry at a disadvantage, not just because it refuses to reach deeply into the art's old kit bag, but more to the point because it requires a kind of refusal of that kit bag.
Meanwhile, because poetry will always be linguistic and so cultural, it will always be its own species of meliorism in relation to "nature," the very mention of which, as a category, is proof of my contention. There will never be a poetry whose relation to nature is not ultimately cultural. Saying so may say as much about the way we make categories as about how our imaginations engage things of the world, ourselves included. Which brings me back, scholium completed more circuitously than I had planned, to John Kinsella, and his audacious trilogy, a book whose audacity gets going with its title, Divine Comedy. Each of its three canticles goes by a host of descriptors, but one that recurs is that the poems areor comprisea "distraction" on one of Dante's canticles. While that may sound like ADD's fidgety response to the Middle Ages, it in fact suggests that the "responses" here go considerably outside the box of literary theme-and-variations. Kinsella's poems, although given Dantean-sounding titles ("Canto of Listening to Birds in a Tree") otherwise pass obliquely over the Florentine's topoi. Instead of topological allegories of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, Kinsella puts us out among landforms. His poems are descriptions that, because they aren't geared to do more ultimately than to edify and remind by patient accumulation and sharp detailing, automatically flatten dramatic possibilities, with their emotional heats and troughs, into a more narrowly discursive bandwidth.
And what of Hell? Kinsella writes, "I do not like Dante's Inferno. I do not like his judgements nor punishments." Kinsella's work, with its own Inferno, is as much about judgment as Dante's. Kinsella complains that Dante is "not adequately deconstructive in terms of the self," but Dante operated in registers where the buck always stops, where, in the case of the Inferno, the process of spinning the truth freezes in the absolute zero of death. So Kinsella has to be on the watch for the way language snakes around truth. He exercises his vigilance against Orwellian language in part by deconstructing his own self, and showing that the language he wields as a prophetic and therapeutic tool can never prove its own premisesit can only embody them. Our own "distraction" is to have followed his journey on the parallel track of our own subjectivity.
So how does the descriptive act hook up with the Dantean template? Well, the connection is not necessarily intuitive, but there is one indisputable similarity and that is that both poets see a call to action, not elegyi.e., memoryas the final stage of the poem's journey. Don't get me wrong: memory is crucial, as it is literally information over time, but of the shrines that have been built to memory as such, Kinsella has no interest here. These poems, composed in loose tercets, offer another kind of homage, and yet they also prove able forms for journaling because of their ability to process highly articulated conversational descriptions and to contain summaries and dismissalsthat is, to legislate the manifest thought of the poem. Still, I am often reminded not so much of the poetry of Dante (nor am I supposed to be, in another sense) as of Alfred Corn, another poet of conversational specifications. By "conversation" I refer not just to colloquial quickness and people-pleasing language, but to the give-and-take mode of higher literary discourse, where judgment runs alongside the laissez-faire of casual talk, not runs into it. Here is the ending to "Canto of the Uncanny":
Tim says he can remember
being in Mum's tummy, or likes
to be told ... to be shown the soundings
taken of him in the world of liquid.
He suppresses nothing. And we
answer what he asks. There's something
familiar about this white-faced heron,
stuck over the downed obelisk patch
of pasture. The tales told me by my
grandmother whose mother's mother
was Scots held no birds. Later,
she filled in the blanks with crows
and cockatoosnot quite generic,
but a loose amalgam of species
seen out and about, as if something
familiar had been stirred up,
stuck up there in the sky.
Like early Dante, Kinsella is fond of commenting on his own purposes. Each of the three collections is prefaced by an essay expounding its aims and purport. These are helpful in their way, though one senses that he can also sound hyperventilated when, as he sometimes does, he goes off on a stem-winder. For example, of Paradise, he explains that
[t]his work of mine is an attempt at exorcism, exhortation, reclamation, rebuilding, celebration, respect and just working out how best to survive what I perceive as a massive and unjust assault on the natural world by largely self-serving and indifferentor at best hypocritically 'caring'humans."
In writing, diversity, not condensation, is a devil's bargain: you extend articulation's reach at the expense of dramatic structure. And although the Dantean model offers organizational standards, the temptation to resist restraint, even to expand into bagginess is strong. Likewise, the temptation to fall into prose: "land prices/are on the rise and the State looks to secure/its own gas needs." ("Canto of the Beach"). I am reminded of Pound's wonderfully inverted command that "poetry must be at least as well written as prose." But happily in this case, the poems are much better written than the prose. Indeed, as much as Kinsella wants to embody an allegiance to progressive environmentalism (with its jeremiads and caveats, even its jargon), he mostly comes across at last as a lover of style who can't wait to get to the blank page, a connoisseur of the verbal conjoinings that stand at odds with the gloves-off methods of purpose. This, too, he knows. Moreover, he finds himself, as an artist, implicitly recommending a similar ironic stance for the reader's pleasure. After all, the irony of the situation does not subdue the passion of the project, nor the pleasure subdue the duty.
Blood is the history of horses,
of centaurs. We are cautious
passing a horse, a centaur:
not wanting to spook
it from its path. Well-worn trails
in the long paddock: runnels
blooded, skinned patches
of bush. The flow between
city and country: roads, traffic:
shoes on the track.
As suburbs bulge into bush,
cleared quicker than night, blood
still boils in the tannery's vats.
("Canto of Boiling" [Seventh Circle,
first subcircle, 12Inferno])
This is an impressive, even magnificent work of late youth. Kinsella makes a big deal of specifying differences among these canticles, but practically speaking, the differences seem to matter more to the poet than I suspect they will to the reader. The whole readsas does Dante's Commediaas one long poem, and it is a formal predilection that more closely favors the tradition of Anglophone poetry. It actually reminds me more of The Revolt of Islam, in rhetorical reach and sinew, than of the poetry of Dante, who, in his severity, inspired more laconic children: the Eliot of Four Quartets, for instance, and the Seamus Heaney of Station Island. For ordering is not order; nor is loquacity dynamism. But his is another way of saying that its ambition drives home the hope that the circumstances of postmodernity will prune, without brutally downsizing. And we have already had an earful of pessimistic prophets, all of whom are also of a didactic persuasion. Perhaps it's time to allow for the possibility that ecological hope is unabandoned to the very degree that it seems most under threat. If that is so, then Kinsella stands to be one of its more intelligent, authentic avatars.