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Book reviews by John Tranter

Poetry books

[»»] Home By Dark (poems), by Pam Brown, Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2013. Paperback, 132pp. ISBN 9781848612884. This piece was first published in Southerly Magazine Vol 73, No 3, 2013.

[»»] «A Sly Mongoose» by Ken Bolton. “Ken Bolton, together with Laurie Duggan, Pam Brown and the late John Forbes, learned much from the poets of the New York School, and their work is interestingly different from mainstream Australian poetry.”

Lesley Allan Murray, 1962

Lesley Allan Murray, 1962

[»»] Popular Roosters: «The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2000–2010.» edited by Les Murray. First published in «The Australian» newspaper on 13 October 2012. [4pp] “… AS WITH MOST poetry anthologies, the impression given by Les Murray’s Introduction to this large collection is quite unlike the impression the poems in the book give. It’s only a page long, but manages to project a harsh spotlight of fear and anger onto a number of phantom enemies.”

John Ashbery, New York City, 1988, photo John Tranter

John Ashbery, NYC, 1988
photo John Tranter

[»»] «Chinese Whispers», by John Ashbery. This piece was originally published in «Poetry Review» (London, UK) Vol 92, No 4, Winter 2002/2003, p.66.

“The two most widely taken up inventions of the Industrial Revolution were steam engines and bottled scotch, but Romantic Poets come a close third. They were invented to soothe the bourgeoisie’s anxiety at the sudden absence of God from the blasted landscapes they created in their pursuit of mass production and profit. Ashbery is an inheritor of the Romantic project; a kind of nonchalant and unobtrusively productive Wordsworth to O’Hara’s nervous, intense and addicted Coleridge figure. His landscapes are large, sketchy structures — variegated, compacted, and full of a strange variety of animals, moody weather, and talking heads.”

[»»] «Collected Poems», by Michael Dransfield, edited by Rodney Hall, University of Queensland Press, paperback, $14:95. This review was first published in the Weekend Australian 21–22 November 1987; it is 800 words or about two printed pages long. “Whatever his faults, Michael Dransfield did write some wonderful lyric poems; his abundant talent and his generosity of spirit shine through them. ”

 
Robert Adamson: 2/56 Terry Street, Rozelle, 5 July 1985. The house has since been demolished. Photo by John Tranter.

Robert Adamson: 2/56 Terry Street, Rozelle, 5 July 1985. The house has since been demolished. Photo by John Tranter.

[»»] «Swamp Riddles», by Robert Adamson. This piece was originally published in «New Poetry» volume 22 number 4 (undated: 1974). [8pp]

“They will find in this book a skilled re-working of what are basically Romantic themes, an idiosyncratic exploration of a familiar Australian landscape, and a reaffirmation of faith in a personalised mythology that is as fruitful and energetic as it is essentially conventional, anachronistic and ego-centred.”

 

[»»] «Notes on some recent Australian Poetry;» being a survey review of six books and nine poetry magazines, published in «New Poetry» magazine in 1974. [15pp] “… the New York school is no more worthy of emulation than any other bright cluster of fads, yet the point remains that when a group of first books by new, young Australian poets can be seen to fit a framework which is already a generation into the past, the thinking reader must pause to wonder why.”

[»»] Modern Parables: John Tranter reviews «Neighbors in a Thicket» by David Malouf, 1974. “In one sense it is literature, a minor poetry of some distinction; in another, it is a remedy for the toothache of daily life.”

[»»] “Anchored in the local earth:” John Tranter reviews «Lunch and Counter Lunch» by Les Murray, 1974. “The avant-garde internationalist may find the scent of gum leaves a little overpowering in this book…”

[»»] «Tactics», by Jennifer Maiden; «Wild Honey», by Paul Kavanagh; «Creekwater Journal», by Robert Gray: Paperback Poets Series 2, University of Queensland Press, $3.50 and $1.50 (paper). First published in «The Australian» Weekend page 6, 26 April 1975. [3pp]

[»»] «The First Paperback Poets Anthology», ed. by Roger McDonald. 1975.[2pp] “The opening line of this poem could be taken as an apt description of many of the poems in the anthology: ‘The quiet domestic round proceeds…’ ”

[»»] “Experimental and Obscure:” «The Barbarous Sideshow» by John A. Scott. “The poems, therefore, are often both awkward and almost perfect, and thus approach clumsiness and sterility at the same time.”

[»»] «Translations From The Albatross», poems by Robert Harris, late 1970s. [3pp]

[»»] «The Vernacular Republic, Selected Poems», by Les A.Murray. First published in the «Weekend Australian», Saturday 29 January 1977. [3pp] “He has said in an interview (joking, I hope) that he belongs to the mystical wing of the Country Party. And when the reader ponders the evidence in many of the poems — avowed religious conservatism, belief in the native wisdom of the ‘people’ but not the ‘intellectuals,’ endorsement of the ritual elements in the killing of animals, praise of the warrior virtues, an obsession with ‘honor’ — it seems that this claim is not so much a joke as an understatement.”

[»»] «New Devil, New Parish», poems by Alan Wearne; UQP Paperback Poets Second Series, $1.50 (paper). First published in «The Australian», 11 June 1977. [3pp]

[»»] «Fourth Quarter», poems by Judith Wright; Angus & Robertson, $7.95.
«Water Life», poems and linocuts by Judith Rodriguez, UQP, $5.00 cloth, $2.50 paper. 1977. [3pp] “Another fault in this book is an inability to find the right balance between the high and middle tone; “The gods are seldom seen in pubs,” she [Wright] announces at one stage, bringing the profound and the banal together with an effect rather like that of Nureyev slipping on a prawn roll.”

[»»] «In Casablanca for the Waters», by Nigel Roberts and «Seven Poets», 1978. [3pp] “Drugs are mentioned, but not in the technicolour psychodrama style of writers like Adamson, Dransfield and others. A joint is not a big deal: one poem, for instance, considers the fantasy that Waltons makes a bulk purchase of marihuana and holds a giant sale.”

[»»] Twelve books of poetry in «Meanjin» magazine, 1978. [10pp]

[»»] “Poems of subtle perception and ruthless intellect”: Three books reviewed by John Tranter: «The Sea-Cucumber», by Martin Johnston; «The Crystal Absences, the Trout», by Andrew Taylor; «Number Two Friendly Street Reader», edited by Andrew Taylor and Ian Reid. First published in «The National Times», week ending 26 August 1978, page 42.

[»»] «Product: Later Verses» by R. D. Fitzgerald, «Ethnic Radio», poems by Les A. Murray, «Words with a Black Orpington and other poems» by David Campbell. First published in «24 Hours», July 1978. [4pp] “Like Kenneth Slessor, Murray has the ability to capture an image in a memorable phrase… More important are his faults, which lie on a deeper and more widely relevant plane. ‘Black men and Rosenberg and I/ Have beliefs in common, I exclaimed...’ he says at one point; this blend of ingenuousness and crassness appears throughout his work, and there seems no prospect of its diminishing. In one poem he tells us confidently that he will meet his friends in Heaven, and, directly addressing Christ, says ‘it will amuse you to hear our discussions then...’ As Andy Warhol used to say: Oh, really?”

[»»] «Tense orchestrations of the Poetic Life»: John Tranter reviews «Where I Come From» by Robert Adamson, and «Greenhouse» by Dorothy Hewett, 1980 “With their shifting emphasis on ageing, literary myth and raw experience, many of these poems read like a permutational coupling of ‘Gerontion’, ‘Camelot’ and ‘Deep Throat’. She can shift from hot sex to cool sentiment without missing a stroke, from “Sodomised in the love hotel / we suck off to rain”, to “how sad this city has become for me / all love is mortal as all things must pass”.”

[»»] «Musicopoematographoscope» by Christopher Brennan, Introduction by Axel Clark. 1982. [3pp]

[»»] «The Younger Australian Poets», eds. Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983. [5pp] “For a start, that silly title, ‘The Younger Australian Poets’. ‘Youngish’ would have been more honest, and ‘The Middle-Aged Australian Poets’ would have hit the nail on the head.”

[»»] «The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets» ed. Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn. 1986. [3pp]

[»»] «Poetry Australia» (NSW issue) No 107/108, and «Scripsi» Vol 4, No 2, 1987. [3pp]

[»»] «The Clean Dark», by Robert Adamson, 1989. [3pp]“ Shelley’s role as vatic poet was as much a product of his own turbulent historical period as the development of the steam engine. And Adamson’s rehearsal of a similar role — notably in his previous books Swamp Riddles and Cross the Border — is perhaps as much a natural part of his 1960s Australian background as Indian beads and the musical Hair. Its un-naturalness is ‘natural’; its whims are adamant, its pose overwhelming.… In fact post-modern theories are attacked in one poem (‘Lady Faith’) that sets up the religious role of the poet — ‘the faith that pure song must employ’ — in opposition to these inhuman, complex fads; though any poet who writes ‘The heart of language’s desire wants to see / its blood back on the page’ is fighting a losing battle, in my opinion. These operating-theatre heroics have about as much to do with the actual production of modern poetry as Kirk Douglas with a bandage on his ear has to do with modern art.… I’m glad to say that Adamson’s attitudes to these issues is maturing. In one poem he says ‘as if we / were the gods we have so relentlessly / tried to believe through others…’ which puts the issue of belief in a more complex perspective.”

[»»] «Damaged Glamour» by John Forbes. 1998. [3pp] “For all their intellectual dexterity, his poems are easy to read, and Forbes was almost self-consciously Australian. There are a handful of poems in this book that pin down our larrikin style with grace and accuracy.”

Non-poetry books

[»»] «Landfall Magazine» No 222: Christchurch and Beyond. First published in «The Australian» newspaper, 25 February 2012. “Several things make us different, of course. The violence of earthquakes is one, the violent resistance of the indigenous people is another. White New Zealanders were forced to make a treaty with the Maori, one that gave the native inhabitants important cultural and land rights. That has yet to happen in Australia.”

[»»] «The Atrocity Exhibition» by J.G. Ballard. This review was first published in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: Vol. 50 No. 21, September 17, 1970. [2pp] “The book’s two main attractions are the sharp-edged power of the surreal imagery and the freshness of the montage technique. The first can be found working to better effect in his earlier books, and the second is already out of date.”

[»»] John Tranter comments on David Malouf’s review of the movie «Easy Rider» This Letter to the Editor first appeared in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: 28 April 1970. [Noted in my Journal on 2012/06/16.]
“…the barbiturate effect of such a comforting juxtaposition is purchased at the cost of a certain failure to appreciate the importance of the intervening variables: Fonda, though essentially a creature of the seventies, could not have existed without the youth revolution of the fifties.”

[»»] «The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography» by G. Legman. This review first appeared in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: 2 November 1970.

[»»] «The Cure: Recollections of an Addict» by Kevin Mackey. This review was first published in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: 1970.

Kevin Mackey, 1970

Kevin Mackey, 1970

“Though the story is shapeless and repetitive, as life mostly is, and though the writing is occasionally loose and occasionally over-tense, Mackey manages to bring a fair amount of insight to the world of the glorious high and the vomit-streaked comedown.”

 

[»»] «Brett Whiteley», Bonython Gallery, Victoria Street, Paddington, Sydney. This review was first published in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: 1970. “A vast hymn to copulation, featuring some of the old Whitely power of line, is decorated with a tired collage of pin-up photos cut from magazines. One supposes, wearily, that some comment about the cheapening commercialisation of sex is being pushed, in that the “real thing” (graphically real it is) is handled with sympathetic line and colour, while the ersatz commercial product (but aren’t these paintings for sale?) is represented only by clumsy poses, nasty coyness and poor-quality photography.”

The Whiteleys

The Whiteleys

[»»] ‘The artist seen as a young trendy’: «Brett Whiteley», by Sandra McGrath. 1979. [4pp] “The picture of an artist boiling in flowing white silks is one to treasure, but the leap from one cliché (what the bride wore) to another (the artist struggles with his demon) is the more important clue to Ms McGrath’s problems as a biographer: spanning the gamut of emotions from Teen Vogue to The Agony and the Ecstasy, she paints a gaudy portrait of the Artist as a Young Trendy.”

 

[»»] «Bliss», by Peter Carey, 1981. [3pp] “… [W]hen I began to read Bliss I hoped I wouldn’t have to end up saying this — but it must be said. I see this novel as a collection of thematically very disparate short stories, yoked together by an inadequate narrative structure.”

Auden book cover


[»»] «Auden» by Richard Davenport-Hines. 1995. [6pp] “It’s true he produced a lot of bad verse, silly drama and mulish dogmatic prose, but he also wrote dozens of brilliant poems. He was curious about old and complex technical forms, and explored them exuberantly and thoroughly. Intrigued by a seven-line rhyming stanza used by Byron, he wrote a poem addressed to Byron containing nearly two hundred such stanzas. “A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,” he wrote; all his phrases were crammed with meaning, sometimes more than the reader needed.” Noted in my Journal.

 
Coombs book cover


[»»] «Sex and Anarchy» by Anne Coombs, about the Sydney ‘Push’. 1996. [3pp] “For all their faults, it should be remembered that they were better people in many ways — more frank and honest, more socially aware and concerned — than those who chose the way of conformity and the compromises and hypocrisy that went with it.” Noted in my Journal on 2012/06/16.

 

[»»] «Kenneth Slessor: critical readings», edited by Philip Mead. University of Queensland Press, 1997. [3pp]

book cover


[»»] «Somebody Else — Arthur Rimbaud in Africa» by Charles Nicholl. 1998. [10pp] “When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a sodomite… His eyes were a dazzling blue, and he had the face of an angel. His hands were large and awkward: a peasant’s hands. He was a poet, and I thought — and I still think, in my middle age — that he was one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen. He belongs in the company of Callimachus, and Sappho, and Horace.”

 

[»»] «Hypnerotomachia Poliphili» by Francesco Colonna, trans. Joscelyn Godwin, 1999. [4pp]

[»»] «BUCKY WORKS: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today» by J.Baldwin. Late 1990s. [3pp]

[»»] «Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist» by Philip Furia. Late 1990s[?]. [3pp] “The teaching of English has so degenerated these days that it’s hard to believe that Ira’s school curriculum included a rigorous training in classical verse forms such as the ballad, the triolet, the rondeau, the villanelle and the sonnet, but it did. In the first decades of the [twentieth] century the daily newspapers in New York were full of poetry too: there were columns devoted to light verse, and often a theatre review or sports notice would be written in couplets or quatrains. Ira used to cut out his favourite poems and paste them into a scrapbook, and imitate them in his school magazine… He drew on all that knowledge for his songs.”

[»»] «Photocopies» by John Berger. Late 1990s. [5pp]

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