Surviving Desire:The Poetry of John Tranter
By Andrew Johnston
'Approach the Poem with no less care
than you would
For 30 years John Tranter has been writing poems steeped in their own desire to be 'dangerous companions': unpredictable, alarming, ultra-urban, frustrated and rebellious, but 'companions' nonetheless. The poems and their dramatis personae—inflamed by desire of one sort or another—want us to know that they're 'bad company', but even so they want us to hang around long enough to get to know them, suggesting that there might be rewards if we do so:
. . . as though a harsh collection of
(Selected Poems, p.27)
Each poem's insistent tone teases us into thinking that the poem might be building up to something momentous, but what we usually get, however conventional the syntax, is a shifting stream of fragmented perceptions and sensations, at the end of which no single 'meaning' survives, only a kind of enervated after-image. The poems are pessimistic about reaching any conclusions about experience, and mock our desire for such conclusions; they seem to say 'This is what it's like living in the city, in the 20th century—it's ugly news, and it doesn't make much "sense", but you'd better listen up'. The poems' fin-de-sicle, end-of-history sort of twilight recalls Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower':
. . . you and I we've been through that,
Dylan's lyrics did have an influence on the poets of Tranter's generation.2 The difference between the American songwriter and the Australian poet points to an irony, though. For all their slick surfaces, their street-wise language, their scenarios of 'sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll' (the clichŽ is startlingly apt here), Tranter's poems are highly intellectual, and acutely aware of their own lineage and their own conditions of existence. The phrase 'dangerous companions' above, for example, occurs where a poet is talking about a poem within the poem. Tranter is as busy exploring the condition of poetry in the modern world as he is engaged with the possibility of surviving desire in that world. Such restlessness, his work suggests, is necessary if one is to avoid 'talking falsely' or forcing meanings onto experience. It sometimes results in forbiddingly difficult, self-absorbed poems but has produced many more that are startlingly fresh, funny and above all undeceived.
John Tranter is a consummate poet of the city—and of Sydney, in particular—but he was born (in 1943) in Cooma, in southern New South Wales, and grew up in the farming country of the South Coast. A 1990 article in The Bulletin supplies some biographical details:
His father was a schoolteacher and his mother, from a Scottish family, read insatiably. But otherwise there wasn't much. He acknowledges an odd bunch of very early influences. At 13, in bed with mumps, he read the collected short stories of Somerset Maugham. ("I can see now he wasn't very good but, at the time, I felt how well he handled the language," he says.) At 17, it was Matthew Arnold's narrative poem 'Sohrab and Rustum' and Arnold's use of language. More reasonably, he cites Eliot and Pound.
But in the '60s, stronger forces marked him: the general cultural slip from Britain to America, the trauma of Vietnam, jazz, the Beats, the American poet Howard Nemerov and Bob Dylan . . .
Tranter studied architecture for a year [at Sydney University] and after sporadic study took a bachelor of arts degree in 1970. He can count around 15 jobs in his working life. They began with ploughing a paddock for his father when he was 10 or 11 (he has no romantic view of the bush). He began at the ABC washing floors but rose to run Radio Helicon for two years. He worked as an editor in Singapore for Angus and Robertson for 18 months . . .3
The poems in Tranter's first book Parallax (1970) shared with the work of several other young poets of the time their radical opposition to the conservatism of the mainstream of Australian poetry. That this grouping of young writers was later known as 'the Generation of '68' gives an indication of their self-conscious rebelliousness. Nine years later, in his anthology The New Australian Poetry, Tranter was to chart the circumstances of this generation's rise—access to tertiary education, little magazines, poetry readings, rock music, drugs—and characterise their influences and their endeavour. As it was to some extent in New Zealand, poetry at the end of the 60s was part of young Australians' rebellion against the values of the previous generation—values which were seen as having led to the Vietnam War, to conscription, censorship, police harassment, and, according to Tranter, 'the handcuffs of rhyme and the critical strictures of the university English departments'.4
Tranter describes as 'incalculable' the effect on 'the generation of '68' of Donald Allen's anthology 1960 The New American Poetry, which was also hugely influential on young New Zealand poets at the time. But whereas the New Zealand writers took the poems of those American writers—and their immediate precursors, especially Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams—as their main points of departure, the Australian poets, with Tranter chief among them, looked further back, to the origins of modernism in 19th century French poetry. Perhaps it's an indication of how stifled Tranter's generation felt by the 'Common Room Humanism' of their elders that they felt they had to go back as far as Arthur Rimbaud's poems of 100 years earlier in order to acquaint Australian poetry properly with the modernist tradition. Tranter famously attempted to encapsulate modernism in his introduction to his anthology—'During the first half of the nineteenth century, a vast change began to make itself felt through every aspect of European society . . .'—but perhaps the best summary of the young generation's self-conscious project is Laurie Duggan's satire '(Do) The Modernism':
2. It started way back in 19th century
8. Well b-b-back in Australia they
Whether or not Australian poetry was so thoroughly ignorant of modernism as Tranter's generation claimed, the conservatism of the mainstream—and the strength of the young poets' antipathy to it—can be gauged by the amount of noise the young poets felt they had to make and, especially in Tranter's case, by the persistence of this rebelliousness through the 70s. In a similar way, the perceived repressiveness of the other modernist rebels' surroundings can be gauged by the vehemence of their protests: Rimbaud's lyrics, the eruptions of Dada and Surrealism, Ginsberg's Howl. But it was Rimbaud who provided the model for Tranter: 'The first, say, fifteen years of my writing was undertaken in the shadow of Rimbaud . . . I think he is the prototype of all modern poets and a very important one.'6
In comparison with the poems that follow, those in Parallax seem stiff, constrained rather than energised by Tranter's influences. They are like odd little movies, and work best when the use of special effects is kept to a minimum, when they strive least after the exotic, the self-consciously outrŽ. In his second book Red Movie (1972), however, Tranter has really found his voice, and it proves to be a voice which can accommodate the fragments of extreme experience beloved of modernist rebel poets. Many of them feature, or are spoken by, the kind of down-and-out characters whose disillusionment becomes a refrain in Tranter's work:
The traveller slouches at the table
He can see the bus crawling away
(Selected Poems, p9)
Such poems still begin and end within the same frame of reference; they may be about 'dangerous companions' but they're not yet dangerous companions themselves—their picture is still a coherent one, their terms reliable while their offer is open. The longer poems in Red Movie, however, flit about in the manner which Tranter perfects in later books. 'Conversations', quoted above; has a frame but goes all over the place within it. The book's title poem is a more adventurous collage—the poetic equivalent, as its title suggests, of a movie you might splice together from bits found on the cutting room floor. It's an experiment (it talks about its own experimentalism, of course) that succeeds intermittently, if that's possible: some of its scenes and sequences are brilliant, others—and this is a risk that Tranter's poetry runs constantly—get so overheated they melt down.
Tranter's third book, The Blast Area (1974), is dominated by 'The Poem in Love', a witty sonnet sequence, and 'Cheap Thrills', a bunch of poems about fast cars—the latter, from this distance, a quaint feature of Tranter's poems of the 70s, but a part nonetheless of the 'revolution in content' that the 68ers were promulgating. (Much of Tranter's work is concerned, as Martin Duwell says , with 'allowing the fast life of youth, drugs, sex and cars into poetry'7.) 'The Poem in Love' is a sequence of 15 sonnets in which 'the Poem' is literally in love with its creator. It may just sound like more 'poetry about poetry', taken this time to a ludicrous extreme, but the sequence is important in the scheme of Tranter's development for a couple of reasons. The constraint of the sonnet form seems to tune his syntax to a new pitch; these poems are technically superior to their predecessors, they're built for speed, you might say, and Tranter obviously realised he was onto a good thing—at the same time he was getting this book together, he had begun accumulating the 100 sonnets of his brilliant book Crying in Early Infancy.
'The Poem in Love' is also important for the way in which Tranter's 'poetry about poetry', his habitual public re-invention of his means of addressing us, becomes looser, lighter, more inclusive. 'The Poem', in this poem, might stand for the variety of strategies we employ to make sense of the world, and for the fleeting, unstable patterns we think we perceive in our experience. It's as if having reached an extreme of cynicism about 'meaning', Tranter lets it in through the back door, and a new-found humour with it:
Then it moves on, and you are
put on some coffee and the aromatics of
(Selected Poems, p62)
Tranter's following book, The Alphabet Murders (1976), is wholly taken up with a long poem in 27 parts which is even more preoccupied with what kind of poetry might be adequate to the modern world, or rather what kind of poetry emphatically is not adequate any more:
. . . And so
(Selected Poems, p89)
With a penchant for exposing his antipathy to rival poetries in as vitriolic a manner as this, it's no wonder Tranter has made a few enemies among rival poets along the way. At times like these—during several parts of 'The Alphabet Murders' (but not all)—Tranter's insistence on pursuing self-consciousness in art to the bitter end, and his bleak view of art that does not follow suit, make one wonder why he doesn't just give it all away. Rimbaud did, after all. Where can you go from here?
Tranter has said of 'The Alphabet Murders' that it 'ended up as an argument with myself on one side and the entire tradition of literature on the other; an attempt to demolish what I though was bullshit and rebuild out of the wreckage what could be a possible contemporary poetry. "The Alphabet Murders" isn't necessarily an example of the possible contemporary poem, it's more a record of the struggle I went through in attempting to find one.'8 The struggle was worth it if Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets (1977) is any indication. Tranter wrote the earliest of these sonnets in 1971, and the latest in 1977; they're not really a stylistic advance on his poetry up to and including 'The Alphabet Murders', but rather a distillation of its best qualities. Crying in Early Infancy is one of my favourite books of poetry; perhaps I'm biased towards it because I read it well before any of Tranter's other books, and have had time to become familiar with these poems. It's true, also, that these sonnets are more approachable than much of Tranter's other work; after the sometimes baffling arguments of 'The Alphabet Murders', for example, one falls upon them with relief.
Like the sonnets that form 'The Poem in Love', each of those in Crying in Early Infancy mimics, in its structure, syntax and tone, a kind of wholeness that, on closer inspection, isn't actually there. The division into octet and sestet suggests a proposition is being made and dispatched; the emphasis with which each poem is concluded suggests we've arrived somewhere. Equally the narrative tone with which each poem opens suggests we'll be told some kind of story. But there's no guarantee that we'll even be on the same planet at the end of the poem: non-sequiturs and unlikely comparisons abound, as the poem moves by means of bizarre, baffling or deliberately banal associations towards its pseudo-conclusion. B-movie-type sequences are spliced together with gnomic utterances about culture and politics; all the 'revolutionary' content of the earlier poems is there, as Tranter sticks to Rimbaud's dictum that one must be 'absolutely modern':
They burn the radio and listen to the
We should leave them soon, for their
The ingenious thing about the book, though, is the way the poems mimic and echo each other. (There's an interesting comparison to be made with Ian Wedde's 1975 book Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos —and indeed between Tranter's and Wedde's careers). The sonnet above, for example, forms a group with sonnets 4, 6 and 7: they share several references, and the first line of sonnet 5 echoes the first line of its predecessor ('She turns off the radio and listens to the news'). We are constantly given hints of an organising pattern behind the poems, but as Tranter says, 'there simply isn't one. Even though some of the poems relate back and forth to one another, and there are similar concerns that recur through the book, it really is a collection of one hundred fairly disparate pieces that were done at different times.'9
Tranter, as always, is out to subvert conventional expectations of poetic form and content. But rather than doing so by furiously, insistently trying to frustrate those expectations, he's playing with them, teasing our desires both for a pre-wrapped wholeness of experience and for patterns to give meaning to experience. It's as if he understands better that part of being 'absolutely modern' is keeping your sense of humour; it would be a brittle type of 'cool' that had to take itself seriously the whole time, after all—'dangerous companions' are pretty exciting at first but then they get really dull. Tranter seems to have learned this lesson, partly at least, from New York poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, evidence—and acknowledgement—of whose influence permeates the sonnets. It's the beginning of a shift in Tranter's poetry from mocking the gestures of the putative conservative mainstream to mocking its own gestures; from scorn to irony; from Modernism, one might nervously suggest, to post-Modernism (and eventually to 'postmodernism' which I suspect is something altogether different).
Frank O'Hara is also a major point of reference in Tranter's next book, Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), whose long poem 'Ode to Col Joye' is in the key of O'Hara's 'I do this I do that' poems. But the book begins with a longer poem, in 15 parts, that addresses at length Tranter's debt to Rimbaud. 'Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy' has some interesting things to say, and its quieter, more contemplative tone means it's easier to get into than 'The Alphabet Murders', for example, but at this stage I find myself getting a little tired of Tranter's self-regarding identification with the line of Modernist rebels, and the poem's sonorous ending rings hollow:
. . . in that future under whose
(Selected Poems, p.137)
The better poems in Dazed in the Ladies Lounge are among the 30-line ones of the 'Radio Traffic' section. 'I just felt the sonnet was a bit restrictive and decided to expand it,' Tranter has said. These poems resemble the sonnets in tone, and include some of Tranter's most enjoyable work: 'American Women' and 'The Revolutionaries', for example, and the quintet starring Great Modern Thinkers (Leavis, Sartre, Foucault, Barthes, Enzensberger).
One of these 30-line poems, 'Telephone', ends with the banal realisation 'You are older than you were before'. In the same year that Dazed in the Ladies Lounge was published, Tranter's anthology The New Australian Poetry appeared; however significant its grouping of writers, it was something of an after-the-fact exercise. There is a sense of something ending, a sense that whatever gave impetus to the young poets has begun to dwindle. This is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but in an interview at the turn of the decade Tranter said:
I'm still looking to find different ways of writing about different things. It has something to do with the fact that about a year ago I decided to put together a Selected Poems. I started looking over my early stuff and I got the impression that I'd written a fairly complete body of work by the time I'd got the the end of Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. It seems to complete a whole group of things that I'd started out trying to do fifteen years before. In a way I'm still waiting for another kind of poetry to write.
The sixties and seventies were one kind of age to live in, and a particular kind of poetry grew out of that naturally. I've no idea what kind of poetry is going to grow out of the eighties but I don't really feel part of whatever it might be.10
Tranter's comments amount to an astute analysis of his own work. His Selected Poems came out in 1982, a generous selection from the six books that preceded it, plus 10 new poems. One of them, 'At the Criterion', begins thus:
I don't go to the pub much any more—
(Selected Poems, p.174)
Ten years later, the counter-culture that Tranter was part of as the sixties turned into the seventies has to some extent been absorbed into the wider culture,11 and Tranter finds himself on the inside looking out at a new generation of rebels—for whom poetry doesn't have the same importance. Tranter's poems at this time start to take on a slightly archaeological quality, in the sense that one can glimpse in them layers of experiment, of self-invention and self-renewal. It's important to realise, I think, the consequences of Tranter's choice of Rimbaud as precursor. Rimbaud was a very young man when he wrote his poems (he stopped writing when he was about 21), and Rimbaud's was very much a modernism of experience rather than a modernism of ideas. It's all very well following Rimbaud's demand that 'one must be absolutely modern' when you're a young poet, but what happens when you're heading for middle age? The spectre looms of the 'ageing artist' in Tranter's later epigram 'The Latin Motto': 'Sporting a lurex T-shirt/ and a spiked haircut several/ years too young for him . . .' Laurie Duggan's 1982 witty verse autobiography 'Adventures in Paradise' captures the same moment:
Poetry too was beginning to wear its
There were six years between Tranter's Selected Poems and his next book, Under Berlin. In the meantime Tranter had turned 40, occasion for his poem 'Having Completed My Fortieth Year':
. . . I'm stocking the fridge with
and I'm hoping that the disk drive holds
as I did some twenty years ago,
and hardly guessing then what would turn
This poem exhibits both the 'change' that reviewers of Under Berlin made much of—the quieter, steadier, less 'dangerous' tone of voice, the easier, less fraught and more humorous discussion of the poet's predicament—and the elements of Tranter's work that have stayed the same: the characterisation of 'the conservatives', the references to drink, technology, Rimbaud (Frank O'Hara gets a mention, too), and the twilight at the end of Empire. Under Berlin is a fascinating mixture of characteristic Tranter rebelliousness, toned down only a little (the sequence 'Sex Chemistry', for example); some much more sober, reflective poems that were seized upon by some critics as evidence of a conversion ('Backyard', 'Country Verandah,' 'North Light'); and some long poems ('Those Gods Made Permanent', 'During the War', 'The Subtitles') in which Tranter explores his penchant for narrative at greater length.
The book that followed, The Floor of Heaven (1992) consisted entirely of four entertaining verse narratives, whose characters move in a kind of amber-lit twilight zone that seems both to extend and to parody the milieu of Tranter's earlier mini-narratives. Their fictional world of desire and decline is as self-consciously post-modern as that of Tranter's early poems is self-consciously modern. In between was published The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, edited by Tranter and Philip Mead, whose 'emphasis on enjoyment' was greeted, with a predictable mixture of praise and complaint, as a generous, vigorous new reading of the landscape of Australian poetry or an attempt to create a new orthodoxy from among those poets who had already attained some measure of establishment recognition; in Australia, as nowhere else, editing an anthology of poetry seems to be an activity as politically fraught as investigating the Mafia.
Tranter's latest book, At the Florida (1993) shares with its two predecessors a fondness for narrative, and in a new formal departure mixes poetry and prose in a group of hybrid 'haibun' based on the 17th century Japanese form. The new book's mixture of perennial concerns and a gathering sombreness—expressed in some intricate formal schemes—echoes that in Under Berlin. (At times, though, the persistence of Tranter's themes—all that sixties stuff—gets embarrassing; one is reminded a little of Tranter's exact contemporary Mick Jagger , at 50, swaggering and pouting his way through 'Time is on My Side'.) Tranter's restlessness leads, in Under Berlin and At the Florida, to several poems—Tranter has placed them near the front in each book—that could almost be by some of 'the conservatives' (except that his technique is better). It's as if he's saying, 'hey I can write that sort of poem too, if I want to'.
The funny thing is that in this, as in his various departures of the 70s, Tranter reveals himself as being very much of his time—and this, I think, is one of the reasons why his work is so valuable. The range of Tranter's poetry over the past 25 years stands as testimony to a kind of survival—of its own continual self-renewal, of the perils of 'talking falsely', of desire and its consequences. 'The years/ punish those of us who survive them/ is one way to look at it', begins the last sentence of Under Berlin's 'These Gods Made Permanent'. Another way to look at it, Tranter's latest work seems to suggest, is that meaning can be one of the things survivors escape with. In a 1991 interview he says of his poems that 'Those that survive survive by being able to mean things, but not by the easy route.'13 I'm glad he took the hard way.
1. John Tranter, Selected Poems (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982) p.27.
2. The Bulletin, September 4, 1990, p 91
4. The New Australian Poetry (St Lucia: Makar Press, 1979), p xvii
5. Laurie Duggan, The Great Divide (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1985) pp 49-50
6. A Possible Contemporary Poetry, ed. Martin Duwell (St Lucia: Makar Press, 1982) p 21
7. The 'New Australian Poetry' in The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, ed. Laurie Hergenhan (Melbourne: Penguin, 1988) p 499
8. A Possible Contemporary Poetry, p 20
9. ibid, p 31
10. ibid, p 36
11. See Erica Travers' interview with Tranter in Southerly 4, 1991: 'Many of the aims of the revolution were achieved through changes in Australian society. It's hard to realise just how different Australia was in 1965 '.
12. The Great Divide, p.79
© Andrew Johnston