I was lucky enough to be sent John Kinsella’s Armour by Mark Antony Owen, back when the kerfuffle over the TS Eliot Prize still seemed like it might be something important. It has been reviewed quite comprehensively (see links at the bottom of this post), but I wanted to use it to put down some thoughts about scale, within the space of a poem & within the space of the collection. I fear that much of this is going to seem negative, when I think Kinsella to be a very talented & thoughtful poet, & Armour is an accomplished & rewarding collection. Nevertheless, it provides some interesting examples for language, metaphor, & the space of the collection.
For a running example, here is ‘Owl’:
Massive owl in redgum surprised
in heavy moonlight by my passing:
a barn or boobook, quite different
though even a grey-white glow
could not illuminate identity.
So I went back to the place today;
a thin dead branch, not much more than a twig,
that took your eerie weight, phantom bird.
And below, an answer. A component
of the algorithm: a freshly dug mousehole.
A vengeful or indifferent or hungry bird
perched in calculation? Whatever the answer,
I went again tonight to see if your hunting
took you there: opportunistic or logical.
And clouds sweeping over the harsh moon,
what weight their stains would bear.
But you were not there; and why should you be?
It’s spring and the mice are opening gateways
everywhere: a vast burrowing and surfacing,
the small weight of their bodies adding up.
The ‘scientific’ words in this poem stand out; “component/of the algorithm”, in particular. The incorporation of technical words (scientific, mathematical, linguistic, etc.) is an overt part of Kinsella’s style, & perhaps one of the only ways in which one can now seriously & conscionably write poems about nature. The type of scale I’d like to talk about first is the breadth of Kinsella’s choices of vocabulary, or the scale of the conceptual spaces which Kinsella mines for his comparisons.
Doubtless, a poet should cast his net as widely as possible. Language is so fundamentally insufficient for reality that we need as many words as possible to express ourselves meaningfully; however, this only holds if the words used are saying something significantly different from what could be said another way, otherwise the reader out-steps the poet, & the poem paraphrases itself. But with precepts aside, using a word like “algorithm” is a device. In the same way that each poem creates its own grammar, each poem creates its own new space of language (generally with the illusion that language is not arbitrary). The poet has the choice of which registers to introduce to this space, & each of these words will have the impact of being unfamiliar (as, of course, whilst all words carry some traces of register, the more register-bound words are consequently less commonly used).
Technical words can easily feel indecorous, & Kinsella’s complete unconcern for register boundaries means that he can sometimes seem to use words in the same way that some middle-aged men wear clothes. But the relevant thing to look at is what these words actually do. In ‘Owl’, there are a few instances of technical/unexpected words. Foremost is the previously mentioned “component/of the algorithm”, which carries “calculation” & “adding up” with it. I shall be looking at this the most. Finally, there is a hint in “gateways”. ‘Gateway’ could be simply a metaphor from actual gates (& therefore not technical vocabulary), but it seems to me to come from gates via its use in computing to mean a “device or interface which connects two or more separate computer systems, networks, or programs” (OED, which lists the first usage in this sense from 1974). We have already been primed to think of “mouseholes” in computing terms by thinking of them as “components/in the algorithm”, ‘algorithm’ being “now used esp. in computing[…]”(OED again). The main issue then is the complex around the algorithm of mouseholes, & the value of bringing in these words.
First of all, to think about technical words themselves: technical words, or indeed all infrequently used words, have much less depth to them (as depth comes from usage), not least because few readers will have anything more than a dictionary definition-level understanding of the technical words which Kinsella uses. (He generally only uses them for their dictionary-level meaning anyhow.) Few readers are likely to hold any emotional meaning in any of these words, & few of the words have any double-meanings (as technical language is necessarily as unambiguous as possible). This already limits what Kinsella can do when using technical vocabulary, but it also means that these words have a certain clarity, & can be attached with little doubt about what disruption they could cause. This clarity means that they are ripe for being used for metaphors, partly because with a inexactly understood concept the comparison can only be simple, & partly because with inexact understanding the reader (in a strange reversal of metaphor’s logic) is going to be willing to think of what they don’t really understand (algorithms) in terms of what they do (owls hunting mice). (& if there is some confusion in this post between whether I am talking about metaphor or whether I am talking about technical words, it is because of this tendency that technical words almost always become metaphors, if only because that is how the reader understands them. Kinsella is, after all, mostly writing about nature & not science.)
Metaphors can (& should) map onto multiple points. Whilst an initial grounds allows the reader to see the tenor in terms of the vehicle, further points of similarity should then be suggested by the relationship. This is one of the ways in which we feel that poetry can discover something new in things we think we already know. Metaphor is, after all, how we come to understand anything new (e.g., what a ‘gateway’ is between two computers). The inverse is when the opportunity of the metaphor is wasted, when the metaphor is a single-serving one & doesn’t stay to do anything beyond being a different way of referring to the tenor. This is a common feature in bad poetry, & comes up when a writer becomes too attached to the cleverness of an idea on its own. It is the quickest way to produce a cliche, if it isn’t one already. Sometimes in Armour I suspect Kinsella to be guilty of this.
To look again at ‘Owl’ in light of all of this pontification, the question is: what does “component/of the algorithm” do in the poem. The owl, which is ‘wise’ (from tradition) & cold & emotionless (from the fact that it kills mice), has its patient hunting described as “calculation”, & so for a mousehole to be a “component/of the algorithm” is supposedly to see things like an owl. But the metaphor required this information about the owl to turn up for it to make sense, for the reader to comfortably settle back into a place in which he isn’t called upon to know very much about what these words mean. The technical language is used for dramatic effect (which brings not-irrelevant parallels of the mumbo-jumbo of the ‘hacker’ character in films, before he/she hammers his fingers on the keyboard for a bit until something pops up saying ‘ACCESS GRANTED’. Now imagine that character is an owl.). The reader doesn’t know enough about algorithms to learn anything from it, & so, dramatic effect aside, there isn’t much to this metaphor. It’s a bold stroke, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that “component/of the algorithm” is unnecessary, or that it is only propped-up by the rest of the poem. This same doubt besets many of Kinsella’s usages of technical language, as if they were put in for the clatter of their entry rather than for themselves. We come to the odd conclusion that Kinsella’s use of technical language, at least here, is not technical enough, that he has traded depth for width.
The table of contents in Armour is four pages long. There are one hundred & twenty three pages of poems. Including those within sequences, Armour contains sixty seven poems. Somewhere between John Kinsella & Don Paterson it was decided that all of these poems deserved publication. I’m not saying that all or even some of these poems are bad, but the sheer volume of them is intimidating (another reviewer would call it ‘generous’, perhaps). I think one of the reasons why older, well-known artists either move into obscurity or plainness, & produce longer works, is because they can expect an audience to read them. They have won out the space for their art, & can afford to spread out (as when happily married one can get a little fat, perhaps). The young poet produces a short pamphlet full of lean, hungry poems, in part because that is all the publisher is willing to invest in them, & in part perhaps because that is all an inexperienced poet can produce & be satisfied with, but the result is almost always better for the reader.