TEXT review

The academy applauds

review by Anthony Lawrence

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John Kinsella
The Vision of Error: A Sextet of Activist Poems
Five Islands, Melbourne 2013
ISBN 9780734048691
Pb 126pp AUD25.95

John Kinsella’s latest book of poems is a tough read. The syntax is gnarly and convoluted, and the tone ebbs and flows between muted outrage and cool commentary. Most poems feel forced, some disingenuous, and all have the weary touch of a disengaged observer who seems to fear emotional involvement. For a book of poems promoting itself as activism, it fails palpably. As a collection of poems driven to remind the reader, once again, that its author is a vegan anarchist pacifist who uses a manual typewriter, who suspects the lyric and who likes to showcase his knowledge of science, philosophy, popular music, poetics and whatever else he feels compelled to throw into the mix, it succeeds brilliantly.

To be an activist, indeed to engage with any form of protest, should involve clear, concise information. The purpose should be to reach out to as many (in this case readers) as possible, to make a case against property developers, shooters, salination, gun-control, the mining industry, plasma televisions, computers, capital punishment, land ownership, pesticides or herbicides – these things are mentioned, given a cursory glance. Yet much of this book seems so intent on gazing in on itself, always with one eye fixed on the academy, that activism gives way to a cloying, self-indulgence. Kinsella moves swiftly from observations of lizards, spiders, weather, owls, ants, foxes and pigs, to what he is looking at while sitting before a manual typewriter. There is no sense of urgency, no empathy, just a confused cobbling together of whatever happens to be at hand, at any time. Part eight of the opening section, ‘Harsh Hakea (or Elements of the Subject’s Will)’, takes on pigs, a Dadaist sculptor, jury duty, a ubiquitous red shed and a direct, personal, platitudinous take on physical protest:

                         Hans Arp, I can’t worship you.
                       Hans Arp, I won’t worship you.
                     Hans Arp, would you really expect me to? (16)


                        ...I have seen pigs farrowing, and the shadows
                        of piglet dropping on piglet, the kind of occlusion
                        and sounds occlusion makes. (16)


                        Sans jury duty, which won’t do, no do, I don’t do, do you?

                        As relates to another personable.

                        Duty is forsaken? (17)

This is followed closely (connected by Kinsella’s need to inform us that ‘Nothing here is perfectly circular’) with a prescriptive, prosaic protest-list:
                        I will learn to block out the assaults of scramble-bike riders
                        I will learn to block out the gunshot that ravages animals and birds
                                                in the valley
                        I will learn to block out the riproar of U-turning jets while their pilots
                                    ready for war. (17)

Apart from being overburdened by Kinsella’s inability to resist showing off, it is bad writing. Examples of compelling rhythm, startling imagery, line-breaks that do justice to the tone and breath of a poem are sorely lacking in this collection, as they are in most of his books. It is as though he is happy enough to have crammed in as much information as possible, with a few connecting activist references, then walks away into the next project, hoping it all sticks. There is very little evidence of a poet in control of his material – Kinsella’s lack of editorial proficiency is widely known among poets, and this book is a classic example of profligacy-before-quality.

The Vision of Error is a grab-bag of much of what Kinsella has been doing for many years: relying on his extensive knowledge of many things and shoehorning them into poems that too often read either as bad cut-up prose, or hastily-written lines that contain a ghost-print of eloquence or lyrical ability, but then don’t achieve the sum of their potential parts. The poems in this book feel rushed. Packed into sections with clever titles, they don’t cohere. Kinsella’s ‘Linguistic Disobedience’ becomes a linguistic dumping-ground for ideas inside poems designed to impress a very small percentage of potential readers. That seems the antithesis of activism.

Charles Bernstein wrote:

That the political value of poems resides in the concreteness of the experiences they make available is the reason for the resistance to any form of normative standardization in the ordering of words in the unit or the sequencing of these units, since determining the exact nature of each of these is what makes for the singularity of the text. (Bernstein 1984: 139)

John Kinsella’s resistance to ‘normative standardization in the ordering of words’ is in evidence in many books, yet his resistance to clarity, when it is most needed, is disturbing. Kinsella has said that all poetry is political, yet too often his work is shackled by a refusal (inability?) to engage emotionally with his subject-matter, which gives the work a one-dimensional, didactic texture. If Kinsella believes that poetry is capable of, or has the potential to negotiate or arbitrate crisis, he should be inviting wide public involvement, not anticipating another nod from academe.

In part six of ‘Hero’, Kinsella quotes IA Richards’ Poetries and Sciences:

the business of the poet
is to give order and coherence. (104)

It is a pity he couldn’t take on that sage advice.

In ‘First Essay on Linguistic Disobedience’ (in Peripheral Light 2003), Kinsella wrote: ‘I give this language nothing’. That sounds right on the money.


Works cited



Anthony Lawrence has published fourteen books of poems and a novel. His latest collection is Signal Flare (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). He lectures in Creative Writing and Reading Poetry at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and lives on the far north coast of New South Wales.


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Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo