John Tranter: Reviewed

‘Original of his generation’

John Tranter in conversation with Rosemary Neill

This article first appeared in the Weekend Australian, 12–13 August 2006, Feature 7. Provenance: this text was scanned and edited by John Tranter in 2008.

Experimentalist or traditionalist? John Tranter cannot easily be categorised, writes Rosemary Neill.


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JOHN Tranter has never been persecuted by feminists, Marxists or arts bureaucrats, though he was once told off by a policeman for driving under the influence. In a letter spruiking Tranter’s new poetry collection, Urban Myths (University of Queensland Press, $26.95), his agent and wife, Lyn, cannot resist a sly dig at Australia’s most successful poet, Les Murray.

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Murray has long maintained he is hounded by the Left, including arts funding body the Australia Council, despite having been (until the early 1990s) generously subsidised. “No one persecutes Les, no one ever has, he has this fantasy view,” says John Tranter, mildly.

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One of the most original poets of his generation, Tranter was an aesthetic foe of Murray in the fierce poetry wars that pitted traditional, nationalist poets against the internationalist avant-garde.

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In the ’60s and ’70s, while traditionalists such as Murray wrote lyrical hymns to the bush, experimenters such as Tranter wanted to clear-fell gum trees from the collective imagination. Despite this, Tranter says there has never been any animus between himself and Murray, whom Tranter describes as a “major poet”. Indeed, Tranter once joked that he and Murray might have been twins, separated at birth. Both are in their 60s, both were only children reared on isolated farms and both were one-time drop-outs from the University of Sydney.

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Like Murray, Tranter has grappled with depression but has never spoken about it publicly until now.

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In his 100-year-old Balmain terrace, with the Sydney skyline visible through eruptions of greenery, Tranter reveals that while he has learned to manage his black periods, “I have to be aware of it all the time and try not to let it get control of me ... Nothing would be worse than going through to the end of your life and thinking, ‘Gee, I’ve been such a shit because I’ve been irritable and cranky.’”

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Tranter, 63, tells Review that on the cusp of middle age, he slid into deep depression: “I was out of work, I was drinking too much, I was on the dole, very depressed. I’d lost a job because I was on a grant for a year. I had a Selected Poems come out in ’83 and it didn’t win any prizes and no one took any notice of it. It was like closing a door on a whole writing career. I didn’t think I’d write much any more. All of that was wrong. I was looking inwards too much.”

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This seemingly mild-mannered poet who admits to a near-obsession with order, agrees that working in isolation can be a trap: “It is a difficulty ... If you’re alone all day typing in a room you start to become a bit crazy. And you get a distorted view of your own importance.”

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Urban Myths spans 35 years and 210 poems, distilling a career that has segued between the jarringly experimental and the soothingly familiar. In 20 collections, Tranter has drawn on wildly varying metrical forms, including Sapphic stanzas and haibun from 17th-century Japan. Recently he created a series of poems by feeding Rimbaud’s poetry, in French, into a computer program that transcribes words dictated to it, but only in English.

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Urban Myths also features sunlit tributes to family and domestic life. Because of these extremes, Tranter claims he is mistrusted in the still-factionalised poetry world: “The experimental poets sort of distrust me because they think: ‘This guy’s great, he does weird, experimental stuff’, and then they read a conventional poem and think: ‘Oh, we were wrong.’ It works the other way around, too.”

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Certainly his earlier works divided critics. Some found them remote and opaque, their meaning buried in obscure references and symbols. Others maintain he is a master ironist, a technical whiz and a deft exploiter of natural speech rhythms. Publishers Weekly has speculated that Tranter may be “Australia’s most important poet”, while The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature says his 1992 collection, The Floor of Heaven, confirmed his status as “one of Australia’s most impressive and influential writers”.

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Tranter admits that as a young man he wrote off poets who were the age he is now: “I definitely felt that the older poets should make room for us and move aside, but every generation does that. I was quite opposed to any older writer just because they were old and they had their books out and we didn’t.”

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If Tranter’s early, postmodern views could be so trenchant, his comment in the ’90s that “poetry is meant to be read by other people” was seen as a significant change of heart, according to the Oxford Companion.

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Tellingly, he included Ern Malley — the imaginary poet at the centre of the notorious hoax — among the poets listed in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, which he co-edited in 1993. But Tranter, much given to psychologising his and others’ motives, insists the Malley poems are the genuine article: “They released a lot of energy in the minds of the writers that they wouldn’t allow into their normal work.”

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Tranter has also devoted an issue of Jacket, the online poetry journal he edits, to Malley. Although this editing job is unpaid, Jacket is considered one of the best publications of its type anywhere, The Guardian calling it “the prince of online magazines”.

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As mainstream publishers retreat from publishing poetry, Jacket, Tranter contends, “has a huge impact” on the poetry world. It is unapologetically internationalist in outlook and has taken poetry to a global readership. “The problem with poetry is not writing it or publishing it,” he says. “The problem is distributing it, getting it to the readers... the net can do the distribution for nothing.”

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Throughout his career Tranter, who has two adult children, has alternated as breadwinner with Lyn. He enjoyed the closeness with his children that this afforded but was also glad to go out to work, to leave behind the sometimes oppressive stillness of his study.

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He has worked in publishing, as a radio drama producer and as The Bulletin’s poetry editor, and in 1975 he helped devise Radio National’s Books and Writing program.

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He recently became a grandfather and a postgraduate student: he is studying for a doctor of creative arts at the University of Wollongong, partly because his course carries a scholarship.

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Tranter rates Under Berlin, which won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 1989, as his best work. And although his 1993 collection, At the Florida, took out a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and The Age poetry prize, he declares that this “is not a good strike rate” over a 35-year career. Again, he feels he has missed out on prizes because his collections rarely qualify as the compromise entry that won’t offend or perplex judges. (Not that prizes concern him much: he is unaware his gongs aren’t listed on his website until I point this out.)

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In the ’90s he won a lucrative Keating Fellowship and he still feels that government support for poets in Australia is better than it is in the US or Britain.

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He recalls lecturing David Malouf in the ’70s about “how international we have to be these days, get away from the gum trees”. Malouf agreed, but apparently added: “Wherever you go, you’ll always have an Australian accent and an Australian way of thinking.” Tranter admits Malouf was right and that “the older I get, the more Australian I become”. Perhaps Murray is having the last laugh after all.

Copyright © News Limited and Rosemary Neill and John Tranter 2006.

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