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John Tranter: Reviewed

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Jennifer Maiden reviews John Tranter: «The Alphabet Murders» (Angus and Robertson, 1976)

Jennifer Maiden reviews John Tranter: «The Alphabet Murders» (Angus and Robertson, 1976), A&R Poets of the Month, No.2, $1.00. This piece first appeared in «New Poetry» magazine, volume 24 number 2 1976, pp. 91–93.

“ Tranter, of course, is the world’s best ‘anal’ poet, not only in semantic terms but in simple Freudian creative / retentive ones, and he uses it marvellously. The Poem as presented here is a difficult achievement, a futile wastage and a social peril, since both its appearance and its destruction crave and simultaneously reject reward. ”


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The poems in Tranter’s last two collections, this new A&R production, and last year’s Gargoyle «Blast Area», are approximately contemporaneous in his poetic development, and their structure is in general much denser and more traditional than those of the earlier «Red Movie» collection or even the first collection «Parallax». It is as if Tranter, having exhausted his experiments with time and space — some of the poems in «Red Movie» were in fact exhilarating and intimate free-form dances (which sometimes became elegiac pavanes) between reader and writer — is concentrating on his conceptual preoccupations for a while. Like «The Blast Area», «The Alphabet Murders» stabilizes around the fourteen line stanza form, often now to the extent of internally rhymed sonnets.

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Certain preoccupations of the three previous collections, however, are developed much more freely and abstractly here, and it is worth noting one or two. The link between the automatic (noun) — car, machine, weapon (“logic turns into mathematics & automatics turn into moonlit driveways”, first page) — and the ambivalent idea of the automatic (adjective), in the form of poetic technique or verbal cliche, is stressed often. Deliberate cliches are piled up passim here in long dismissive mounds marked by excretory terminology.

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I once wrote a list of “everything not to write about in a poem”, and at the end of the page found that the thing had grown its own energy, and probably was a poem. Tranter’s technique here is a superb refinement of this tendency in the conceptual elimination process. He fastidiously manipulates the catalogues until they develop the hammering ritual force of an exorcism. The saving clause here, though, is that the poem is itself a continuation, a new fertilization, however messy. This paradox is armoured in cynicism and lovingly polished by Tranter throughout, in wry juxtapositions and intentionally dubious editorials.

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Tranter, of course, is the world’s best “anal” poet, not only in semantic terms but in simple Freudian creative/retentive ones, and he uses it marvelously. The Poem as presented here is a difficult achievement, a futile wastage and a social peril, since both its appearance and its destruction crave and simultaneously reject reward.

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The ambiguity of this excrement idea is emphasized in the second last poem, in which the first four lines are so neat as to be downright suspicious: “Zera is the shape of the volean’s orifice / as seen from above, as it is of the human’s as seen / from below, & this witless natural joke is a clue / to the purpose, function and economic value of art”. Sure enough, the stance assumed by Tranter (“once the Romantic Emotion has ejaculated we find / a vast bed of cooling lava, bare and empty, giving meagre nourishment to those who follow, / and baneful and pernicious in its influence,) later in the poem is splendidly fallacious (broken-down volcanic soil is really the most reliable and rich, hence the penchant civilizations have for settling fatalistically around volcanoes) and the concept of the fecund dung and the igneous mud (the two are dutifully interchangeable in Tranter’s imagery) thrives on in its “repression”.

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Literary tradition has always been deeply involved in this inspirational amalgam of volcano and dungheap, and the Romantics most especially so, hence their fascination with Promethean theft, and the haunted guilt of Free Will. Perhaps as a result of this, Tranter in this work is fascinated by the Romantics, and the “literary” aspect of his own poetic technique. In the tradition of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sterne and Eliot, Tranter has always tended to encorporate his reading in his writing, which therefore occasionally seems, as does their’s, to be a poignant Commonplace Book. The effect of this technique, however, is not to ennervate his own writing but to vivify it, and the borrowings, in the ironies and pulsing nerves of their new context. Far from being obscure or elitist, it is a literary method which pays the reader the most civilized compliment of regarding reading itself as a vital experience.

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Again, however, Tranter defines the technique in a brilliantly devious way, postulating the old academic approach to Literature as an insensate and inhuman natural monolith — which becomes his “volcano”, with its void and voiding lips — and then plays on the monolith (sometimes personified in these poems by Matthew Arnold) until it asserts its humanity its retentive dilemmas and its enriching remnants, and his own poetry can accept it, if pensively, and transmute it: “So we slog on / to navigate the fading resonance of our capacities / and find the luminescent map of armies / burning on the plain”

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This searing of Arnold’s “ignorant armies”, however, is also volcanic, and the ash it leaves behind is fertile. The academic edifice destroys itself, and creation springs up on its remains, and Tranter’s blatant geographic lie on the last page is in this context a superb relaxation. He is so safe in this process of literary continuity that it doesn’t signify if he denies it or not. The zero — the negative — expresses its creativity, but the alphabet can’t murder. These preoccupations, whilst they do seem to me to be central to this volume are only aspects of its sharp and thorough intellectual powers. I’ve mentioned Sterne, and the comparison seems to me apt: the same comical grieving rote (No.9: “I find myself alone in a room full of dirty poems / I find the girl naked under dry leaves I find / I have a searching pain in the neck / I am not happy. I am full of elephants” continues for twenty-five lines), literary self-awareness and stylistic skill. And there are, too, in Tranter as in Sterne, always those transition points (“run away into the beautiful ‘life’ that awaits you. Goodbye”) where the reader is free to leave the writer (almost never with the writer’s fingers still gripping his coat) or stay, but as a consenting adult.

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The last section of the work is a prose (the stanzaic structures allow this conventional distinction) epilogue in which the shifting person of Tranter’s grammar has settled into a cautious mutuality. “We” seems to have become the reader and writer, and not a substitute for the personal or impersonal. Likewise the romantic imagery is too hard-won to be discarded, and its banality becomes a shared irony “the flowers in the mud live and breathe for a short time and then return us to our dreams”, which mitigates the earlier “Legendary Profile” poem (25) in the second person: “its piercing sorrow is forever unattainable once you have touched its lips and faded off to sleep”

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Other guises the Legendary Profile has assumed in the book include Batman, Superman, Arnold, and the driver or carrier (or maybe the utterer) of the automatic. At the last the Profile seems to me to have been successfully shattered (pun intended) as a repressive icon and assimilated as a natural process. The ideal edifice becomes the dangerous volcano, but the volcano itself becomes human, necessary and beautiful in its fertile decay.

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On a practical note, I must urge the reader not to be discouraged by the format of this present collection, the cruelly cramped printing and spacing of which has permitted its publication as a booklet for future binding with others in this series. I suppose this defect does have the compensation that you needn’t feel guilty about battering it with use or enthusiasm, and it merits much of each.

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