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John Tranter: Prose

Four diversions and a prose-poem on the road to a poetics

This piece is 2,100 words or about 7 printed pages long.

1 — Condensed Soup

A theory of poetry is usually cut to fit some ideal poem, using the methods of reverse engineering: ‘Take this ideal poem — now what poetic model would have been used to construct it?’ Most actual poems, on the other hand, are jerry-built on their own pragmatic scaffolding, a poetics which they construct as they grow.

In a poem transformations take place like geometrical translations of the real world: a sphere becomes a donut, a writer is expelled from the poem to make room for the reader. The word ‘you’ slips on its disguises, and the poem works with the reader to uncover the potential identities and actions which that pronoun represents.

The reader I really write for is me, and I want to write a poem that will surprise myself. In that sense, I am writing to reproduce a reading experience. In a subjunctive way, my reading constitutes my writing. When looking through a poem or piece of prose by someone else, the phrase Were I to have written this ... yet each successful poem I write is already written when I read it, by me. No poem I ever write — after I’ve rewritten and rehearsed every possible alternative — can surprise me. Unlike my lucky readers, I am doomed to stumble over the obvious on every page.

2 — Pastoral

The other day I read that the wrought-iron two-furrow plough revolutionised Australian farming in the 1880s. My memory ticked over, and I saw a mental picture of an ornately-scrolled plough handle made of wrought iron, rusty except for where it had been worn smooth and shiny with use.

We thought of it as Old Jack’s plough, because it was mainly Old Jack Green who used it — he worked on our farm. But I had laboured many hours behind it myself as a boy, stumbling over the clods, trying to manage a straight furrow as Old Baldy the draught horse sweated and stamped blindly ahead. Tears of frustrated rage stung my eyes as I screamed at him to ‘Whoa, you bastard!’

We sold the horses when I was about ten, which would have been towards the end of the Korean War, when the death toll had mounted to around four million. My dad bought a second-hand Farmall ‘M’ tractor, and Old Baldy the draught-horse disappeared — to the knacker’s yard, I suppose. I don’t remember being bothered by his fate, but Grimm’s story of Big Klaus and Little Klaus, a brisk and surreal tale that features the deft despatch and skinning of a farm horse, has always haunted me.

Old Jack was upset for more formal reasons — he’d never driven a tractor, and I think he was afraid of being found incompetent. His skills were manual — or pedual — his soles were as tough as boot-leather from tramping barefoot behind the plough and the harrows. He used to go bill-hooking blackberries with no boots on and never minded the thorns, and it’s said a rat once chewed half the soles off his feet while he was asleep in the barn, and he didn’t stir.

But his dislike of the tractor soon turned to fondness, and in fact he soon became quite possessive of it. By the time I was twelve I had learned to drive the tractor, and to handle the disk-plough, the harrows and the automatic sower. It was a hot, noisy, boring job, but in its repetitious logic it had a kind of purity about it. I think I learnt to day-dream on the seat of the Farmall, travelling thousands of miles across dusty soil. To paraphrase Delmore Schwartz, out of day-dreams come responsibilities, and out of idle work emerges poetry.

One of my earliest poems was a lyrical picture of Old Jack ploughing a paddock across the river from the main farm. You had to row across in a dinghy — there were no proper roads. A Chinese plum tree grew by the fence. The sun shone down, and the tractor puttered around at its dusty circular task again and again. As a young adult I built that poem, like a clumsy hologram, to recapture some of the sense and meaning that lay beneath those solitary hours.

It was an intense lyric function I had in mind for poetry in my youth, one not unconnected with the birth of rock’n’roll in 1956, when I was thirteen, and with my later search for religious meaning, my methedrine-fuelled arguments about the nature of time, and my nights of solitary meditation afloat on the waters of the void.

The Chinese poet Su Shih was my model for that poem, and behind him the great linguistic deconstructors of the Buddhist adventure through China and Japan, the old Zen masters. But those paths all lead to silence, as I discovered with mounting concern. ‘Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent,’ Wittgenstein had said. And though the only way to communicate the most important meanings takes place in exactly that domain on the other side of language, poetry is built of nothing but words, and must use what it finds to hand in the imperfect world of illusion and suffering. Where else?

Apparently I had a talent for writing, and for not many other things. Unhappily — or was I relieved? — and temporarily — or will I chatter forever? — I turned my back on that strenuous and solitary field, and left my enlightenment to some other incarnation.

After the Chinese poets, a dead French teenager was my tutor. I have dealt with him in another piece of writing, the poem ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy,’ and in a review of Somebody Else — Arthur Rimbaud in Africa by Charles Nicholl, on this site. He had a spiritual hunger — or was it greed? — to drive him, and he hoped poetry would make him the equal of his French Catholic god and his absent father. His motives were obvious, he was a shit of a human being, but he wrote like an angel, and I couldn’t help but listen and learn.

Arthur Rimbaud, 1854-91, at the time of his First Communion.

Arthur Rimbaud, 1854-91, at the time of his First Communion.

That path leads eventually to New York. And there — while I was growing to adulthood — something new was eroding the ‘heroic’ gestures of Modernism. Those heavy monosyllables — Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Stein — found agile trisyllables there to trip them up: Berryman, Ashbery, O’Hara, Kenneth Koch.

In the space between things, it seemed to me, leafing through the pages of foreign books in the early 1960s — between the high and the low, the ‘genuine’ and the quote, the noble gesture and the refusal to gesture nobly — lies an arena full of energy. Post-Modernism has become a quickly recycling set of fashion gestures, and a lot more fun than the granite statues of Social Realism or the rusting monuments of Modernism. The danger now is not from the philistines, as it was for the Modernists, but from the salaried enthusers.

For me, post-Modernism’s attractiveness lies in its revival of interest in complex art skills and the strategies that underlie them. It’s valuable, too, for its great reach across areas of high, demotic, technical, foreign and common speech, its use of humour, and its ability to forge works embodying all these things at once. In that sense, it’s Elizabethan, if not Renaissance. England doesn’t seem to handle that blurring and crossing of class lines with much grace; but American and Australian writers appear to thrive on it.

And the lyric impulse? I’m a slow learner, and part of my development as a writer was learning — gradually, almost poem by poem — to blend the cocktail of poetry using less and less of the syrup of lyricism.

Van Gogh: self-portrait minus one ear

Van Gogh: self-portrait minus one ear

The emotion that gives rise to the lyric impulse may be genuine. Humans have been gaping at sunrises and attractive members of the opposite (or the same) sex for some time, and seem likely to go on writing poems about their subsequent emotions forever. But for poets who want their writing to find an audience, the next step introduces problems — you redraft, consult the thesaurus, check the spelling, type up a clean copy, and engage with what Marx called the means of production, distribution and exchange. What happens to the blossom of lyrical inspiration among the steam and racket in the factory of literature?

Usually, the means of production et cetera are denied, concealed or hidden. The role-performance of the occupation ‘poet’ makes them appear ‘unnatural’ and therefore incongruous. But that role — the ‘Romantic Poet’ — was constructed amid the clamour of industrial England as a projection, for the bourgeoisie, of the ‘nature’ they were doing so much to destroy. It’s as fake as the Mills & Boon/ Hollywood scriptwriter’s idea of it.

Kirk Douglas pretending to be Van Gogh

Kirk Douglas pretending to be Van Gogh

The difference between a poet writing a poem and a poet having a lyrical impulse is the difference between Van Gogh working on a painting and Kirk Douglas cutting his ear off.

And, since French poetry made the shift from Baudelaire to Rimbaud, and English-language poetry the shift from Rossetti to T.S.Eliot forty years later, hasn’t all that lyric fakery been left behind?

3 — Poetry as the Expression of Emotion

The poet who believes in Poetry as the Expression of Emotion addresses two kind of readers, the Professional and the Common.

To the Professional Reader, this poet says either: ‘My emotion is finer and more authentic than your emotion,’ (F.R.Leavis) or: ‘I can express my emotion more richly and allusively than you can.’ (T.S.Eliot).

To the Common Reader, such a poet says either: ‘If you read this, you’ll discover emotions you didn’t even know existed, emotions that only wild, free, sensitive souls are vouchsafed.’ (At its most effective, Mills & Boon); or

‘Your life is cramped and dulled by the daily grind, isn’t it? You can’t feel things intensely any more. Well, I can; that’s my job. Let me feel things intensely for you; you can look over my shoulder.’ (At its most effective, pornography.)

4 — Epigraphs

An epigraph is a way of casting a tiny pencil of coloured light — the tint of a different mind — onto a poem, or book. Epigraphs can proclaim an alliance, revive a disagreement, or give away a secret. They can lend the tang of irony, or permeate a book with the flavour of alien philosophies or ancient beliefs. They also suggest a poetics. Some epigraphs I have used:

‘The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of my own voice, did not exist in English at all; it was only to be found in French.’

‘The whole of my admiration goes to the Great Mage, inconsolable and obstinate seeker after a mystery which he does not know exists and which he will pursue, for ever on that account, with the affliction of his lucid despair, for it would have been the truth.’

Einstein, Relativity:
‘It requires the idea of the field as the representative of reality, in combination with the general principle of relativity, to show the true kernel of Descartes’ idea; there exists no space “empty of field”.’

Harry S.Sullivan, in Tensions That Cause War:
‘That which can be studied is the pattern of processes which characterises the interaction of personalities in particular recurrent situations or fields which “include” the observer.’

Wallace Stevens:
‘Money is a kind of poetry.’

5 — Where Is My Father?

The tyre had been fixed, and was being pumped up, when the photographer — a lonely young man of eighteen — asked the world to stand still, just for a moment. His stepfather straightened his aching back. The blond-haired kid clambered out of the driver’s seat and faced the camera.


John Tranter with his father c. 1947. Photograph of John Tranter and his father by Peter Hellier

John Tranter with his father c. 1947. Photograph by Peter Hellier


The man in the torn overalls is a schoolteacher; the kid squinting against the light is his only son. His stepson took the photograph. The man will die within fifteen years, bleeding to death internally, in a hospital bed in a large city, alone, at night. The youth taking the snapshot — the invisible third person in this tableau — will live abroad for twenty years, survive two broken marriages, and develop a problem to do with alcohol. Then he will come home to die, the same way as his stepfather, in the same hospital.

The blond boy will leave the little country town that lies dozing in the background. In thirty-seven years’ time, a critic will write a review about his poetry and the poetry of his friends subtitled ‘Where Is My Father?’ In this article, published in a journal funded substantially by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States government for many years, the critic will write ‘The irrationalism, violent gestures, evocations of futurism and terroristic avantgardes suggest affinities more with Fascism than with democracy.’ The critic will be talking about the new Australian poetry of the late 1960s.

But here, in the village of Bredbo, in the southern mountains of New South Wales in the summer of early 1947, none of this has happened. The war has been over for a year. The wind is moving the air just enough to turn the six blades of the rusty windmill. The sun is shining, and everyone is alive.

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