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John Tranter: Prose

Three Australian Poets

Christopher Brennan, Lesbia Harford, Kenneth Slessor

[Noted in my Journal on 2012-06-18.]

This Introduction is taken from the extensive collections of poems by these three poets, curated and introduced by John Tranter, and presented by the University of Sydney Library’s SETIS site here:

Introduction by John Tranter

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John Tranter on pony

John Tranter on pony

I know what the tyranny of distance is all about. I grew up on an isolated farm five miles from the nearest country town, which was itself two hundred miles from the nearest city. Few if any of my school friends went on to university, and most became farmers. But I was lucky in my choice of parents: my father was a teacher, and my mother taught me to read before I went to school.


Not that my taste in reading was all that advanced. As a teenager my favorite books were about the adventures of the fictional air ace Biggles. I would visit the school library on Wednesday afternoons to search for the latest recounting of the aeronautical adventures of this plucky British chap. The so-called library was in fact a storeroom at the back of the Year Two classroom, and you had to push aside the cricket bats and scuffed leather basketballs to reach the shelf high at the back where the “B” titles began. When I had devoured the half dozen Biggles titles the school had invested in, I started over again, hoping that my lazy memory would make the twice-told tales seem fresh.


Printed books are wonderful things: containers for dreams, vehicles for instruction and propaganda, provokers of revolution, and in their ability to spread and magnify the effects of education, perhaps the most significant item of mass production the world has seen. But they cost money to make and to mass-produce, and even more to transport, store, display and sell. Distribution has always been the weak point of book publishing.


The Internet solves that problem: it’s relatively cheap, it reaches everywhere there’s a telephone line or a wireless link, and it costs the distributor almost nothing. In effect, the purchaser does the work of accessing the material and paying for its delivery, and since there are free Internet terminals in most schools, universities and libraries which are paid for out of taxes, the cost to the individual consumer is often nil.


In 1997, intrigued by the possibilities of the Internet and armed with a fortuitous armoury of skills including experience in writing, editing and compiling books, magazines and anthologies, printing, typography, graphic design, photography and some fifteen years of wrestling with computers, I started a free Internet-only literary magazine called «Jacket». The reach of the thing surprised me. In the first issue I published an interview I had recorded with the British poet Roy Fisher, and soon received an enthusiastic e-mail from a fan. The fellow was grateful for the chance to read an interview with his favourite poet, he said, and added that it was hard to find material on Roy Fisher, up there in Nome, Alaska.


The magazine has now (this was originally written in October 2004) published 24 issues, and has a wide readership. [The homepage had over 800,000 visits by issue 40. JT] Poetry has never been wildly popular and readership has always been a problem, since the days of Horace. I have worked on a fair number of poetry magazines, and most of them find it impossible to lift their circulation above one or perhaps two thousand. Even the «Paris Review» in New York, famous around the world, fails to reach more than twelve thousand subscribers. But the home page of «Jacket» has received nearly half a million visits since it began.


Encouraged by the wide reach of the magazine, in 2000 I established a small research sub-site with the University of Sydney Library to make one of my early (and out-of-print) volumes of poetry, «Parallax» (1970), available for research on the Library’s SETIS Internet site, along with dozens of pages of secondary material including contemporary reviews, articles and interviews. The site was funded with a modest grant from the University of Sydney and the Australian Research Council, and received valuable assistance from the English Department and the Library itself.


The success of the Internet in finding an audience for that work surprised even me. The borrowing date stamps in the back of the printed copy of «Parallax» held on the shelves of the University of Sydney Library tell a sad tale: the book has been taken out less than a dozen times in the last thirty years. The Internet site that features it, on the other hand, has been receiving over twelve thousand visits a year.


It seemed worth investigating whether the work of other Australian poets would find a response like that on the Internet. With a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and support from the literary agency Australian Literary Management and the University of Sydney Library, three books of poems were typeset and published on the University of Sydney Library SETIS site in 2004.


Christopher Brennan; Photography by Mitchell Library PXA47

Christopher Brennan
Photography by Mitchell Library PXA47

Christopher Brennan (1870 — 1932) is perhaps Australia’s first modern poet, though in many ways his vocabulary, his idea of the role of the poet and his understanding of what poetry could do all avoid the challenges of the twentieth century. He studied classics and philosophy at the University of Sydney, travelled to Berlin and back, corresponded with the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, worked at the Public Library in Sydney and after striving to obtain an appointment for many years became a lecturer at the University where he had studied. He life was damaged by alcohol; he led a bohemian existence, was fired from his position of associate professor of German in 1925, and died in poverty seven years later. His enthusiasm for symbolist ideas was ahead of its time in Sydney, where the «Bulletin» advanced the hearty ideals of the bush ballad school, but his fondness for grandiose themes and cloudy images delivered in a largely artificial poetic vocabulary prevented him from responding to the developments in poetry after 1890.

Kenneth Slessor, Second World War correspondent

Kenneth Slessor, Second World War correspondent


Kenneth Slessor (1901 — 1971) is much more a creature of the twentieth century. His father Robert Schloesser was a mining engineer, and his mother Margaret was a committed Presbyterian whose Scots parents came from the Hebrides. The family name was changed to Slessor in 1914 to avoid anti-German sentiment. Slessor published his first poem in the Bulletin magazine while still a schoolboy. His first book was «Thief of the Moon» (1924), followed by six more volumes. His collection «One Hundred Poems» (1944) was his last published book of poems, and the volume published on the SETIS site is based on that. He worked all his life in journalism, in Sydney and Melbourne, and was appointed an official war correspondent in 1939. During the Second World War he reported from England, Greece, Palestine, North Africa and New Guinea. He returned to journalism in the mid 1940s and from 1956 to 1961 was also editor of «Southerly», a literary magazine based at the University of Sydney. Philip Mead in an essay on Slessor says that he was probably the most talented poet to have written in Australia, and was ‘the first renovator of twentieth-century Australian poetry.’ His writing avoids political or academic issues, and has a richly decorative surface.

Lesbia Harford, book cover

Lesbia Harford, book cover


Lesbia Harford (nee Keogh) is different in every possible way from both Brennan and Slessor. She was born in 1891. She was the eldest of four children, and had a defective heart which left her constantly tired and eventually killed her in her late thirties, in 1927. Raised in moderate comfort, she soon saw her family slide into poverty with the bankruptcy of her father, who abandoned the family when Lesbia was around ten to twelve years old. Her mother’s struggle to provide and give her children an education helped Harford to develop feminist and socialist views. She practiced free love and though she had a number of involved and serious relationships she always kept an independent outlook and way of life. She studied Law in Melbourne, but ended up doing factory and clerical work, and joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”), a socialist workers’ group. As a IWW member she fought so hard against conscription in the First World War that she ended up in hospital. In 1916 the IWW was banned and twelve of the group’s members were charged with conspiracy and sentenced to long periods in prison. Unlike many socialist writers, she kept her poetry free from propaganda, and though it reflected the social and economic conditions of her life in a direct way, it always had a frank and personal tone. Her poems were not published as a collection in her lifetime, and her reputation has not been amplified by fame nor buttressed by widespread academic interest. The edition published on the SETIS site is a selection from her manuscripts and published work made by Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer and published by Sirius Books (Angus and Robertson) in 1985. It is a responsible and generous selection, and I hope it will find a new generation of readers for her work.


The 1985 Harford book is out of print, and that brings me to my final point. Apart from the way the Internet reaches out to new audiences, it has another virtue which is not often realised, except by thoughtful librarians: with a bit of care, the Internet can act as a very useful archiving medium.

Word 5.5 for DOS


Nostalgic writers often yearn for the felicities of Word version 5.5 for DOS (screenshot above)  — blazingly fast, reliable, easy to use. The very best word processor ever made, they sigh.

XyWrite screen


Others pine for the days of fast, elegant XyWrite for DOS (screenshot above), modeled on the Atex mainframe text-composition engine in common use at newspapers in the pre-desktop publishing era. I used it regularly during the early 1990s, to typeset poetry for the Sydney business magazine «The Bulletin». Now that’s gone too. “A writer would type simple commands into a command line to manage operations ranging from formatting to printing without ever taking his hands off the keyboard. You could also write custom command shortcuts and macros, which were widely shared. The program lives on, sort of, in the academic word processor Nota Bene.” [Thanks to Jake Widman at InformationWeek.] Though the program lacks support for Unicode, alas, which means it cannot easily reproduce foreign alphabets such as Chinese, Hebrew or Arabic.

WordStar screenshot


For decades I used WordStar for all my writing needs. It came along before the birth of the mouse, and its elaborate keyboard-menu system allowed touch-typists to type text and also computer commands quickly on the keyboard. Screenshot above, complete with a few typos.


Now they are all gone, and the files they created are seen as gibberish by most contemporary computer systems.


Unlike these obscure and ephemeral formats used by commercial typesetting programs or word processors, the typesetting format used on the Internet, XHTML or Extensible Hyper-text Markup Language, is a standard used world-wide and designed to last. (See screenshot below.) HTML (with the help of some added fancy stylesheets) is more or less what you are reading now. It is transparent, non-proprietary and royalty-free, and as long as a few backup copies are made and kept on different sites, an Internet publication should survive just about any disaster and still be easy to decipher and read in a thousand years’ time.

J.T., Sydney 2004

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The Internet address of this page is

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