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John Tranter: Reviewed

Rae Desmond Jones

The Ambiguous Modernist:

Themes in the Development of the Poetry of John Tranter

Rae Desmond Jones reviews «the New Australian Poetry» edited by John Tranter, Makar Press, Brisbane, 1979, and other books of poetry by John Tranter. This review was first published in Australian Literary Studies v.9 n.4 October 1980 (pp.497–501).

Provenance: this text was scanned and edited from a photocopy of the article, by John Tranter, 2009.

“ The introduction displays Tranter’s strength as one of the best reviewers of poetry in this country. His treatment of specific poems is accurate, intelligent and generous. Yet where his grasp of the meaning and direction of the poems is confident, when he is obliged to treat the artistic/social milieu and the area of origins, he is tentative and uncomfortable. Critical integrity is indicated by this willingness to write in areas of his weakness, and not restrict himself to his strengths. ”

Rae Desmond Jones, Nimrod Theatre, Sydney, 2 June 1985, attending a benefit performance to support moves for free speech in Queensland, photo by John Tranter-m48-11

Rae Desmond Jones, Nimrod Theatre, Sydney, 2 June 1985, attending a benefit performance to support moves for free speech in Queensland, photo by John Tranter-m48-11


This article started out to be a review of The New Australian Poetry anthology, edited by John Tranter. As I contemplated the anthology, a number of different ideas came to me, all of them related in some way to the anthology, but by no means restricted to it. The first, was that the (in my opinion) highly successful anthology, and the polemical introduction, had only marginal relevance to each other. The second is the query, if the introduction is of little use in understanding the contents of the anthology, and yet is so obviously polemical in intent, then exactly what body of work does it relate to, and what is the nature of the relationship?


The possibility that the introduction could cast light on Tranter’s own work is fairly obvious. However, it seems to this reviewer that the relationship between polemic and accomplishment, at Tranter’s present stage of accomplishment, is more subtle and contradictory than a simple interpretation might lend itself to.

* * *

Paragraph 3

The faults of the introduction, in terms of recent history, are fairly obvious. When Tranter claims that ‘the poets of the generation of ’68 have left the duties of priest, psychotherapist and moral administrator to those who feel they are best trained to enact them’, he is telling perhaps a half of the truth. He cites an impressive list of quotations to support his case, all of them interpreted acutely, including my poem ‘The Front Window’. Yet the introduction methodically ignores those in the generation that he is talking about who do see their function, at least partly, as moral administrators. The morals which they are prepared to administer might be different to the kind traditionally administered, and might be administered in a different form. This is the tradition of anarchic moralism to which Tranter has, at various times in his poetry and criticism, referred: running through De Sade and Rimbaud to Henry Miller, Kerouac and Ginsberg; represented in Tranter’s own anthology by Robert Adamson, Vicki Viidikas, some of Nigel Roberts and some of John Scott. (This is aside from the eclectic Alan Wearne, on whom the moral Robert Browning might be termed the major obvious influence, even greater in Wearne’s major works than the ever-present Frank O’Hara.)


It might be said that the only poets in the anthology of whom the statement could be true in a comprehensive sense, are Martin Johnston, Philip Hammial, John Forbes (who will probably dislike it), and maybe Garrie Hutchinson. The extent to which it is true of Tranter himself is ambiguous, of which more later.


Despite this criticism, Tranter has made the most serious statement for the new poetry yet which does not fall back on ‘extraneous’ social criteria, and which still takes social criteria into account. There is such a tension between the demands of aesthetic consistency and the untidiness and inconsistency of the new poetry’s social and economic origins, that it is hard to reconcile the introduction and the poets that it seems to represent.


That some sort of consistency exists among the contributors to this anthology, can be seen easily enough by comparing them to the bulk of those who are not included, given that one excepts those who have extended and continued the new poetry, such as Ken Bolton, Stephen Kelen and Dorothy Featherstone Porter.


Yet perhaps the consistency of the contributors is less one of aesthetics, given Tranter’s broad demand for ‘commitment to the overhauling of poetic method’, than one of a shift in emphasis from rural and suburban to the urban, alienated and intensive.


Precisely this shift demands, in the Australian context, the kind of overhauling of poetic method that Tranter regards as a pre-requisite for inclusion in the anthology. While Tranter refers to the demographic and economic changes of the post-war period as a basic contributing cause, he does not consider similar social and economic growth as central to the continued existence of the new poetry. Nietzsche, Pascal and the reasoned derangement of the senses may be necessary to the forms of the urban avant-garde, but the ideological individuality of the pastoral Zarathustra who directs our government is one process and ‘becoming’ that is unpleasant and unwelcome.


The new poetry has extended itself to such a multiplicity of forms and attitudes that it presents an enormous task to a critic concerned to present a united front to a self satisfied and righteous opposition. Tranter has attempted to do this. Yet the acceptance of an untidy pluralism retains the only accurate, if indefensible, stance. The aesthetic individuality of the writers breaks down almost all consistency except that of what they are opposed to (and even that is tenuous), and in a sense the problem of the polemic does reduce to one of style. The problem of its content does not.


If the new poetry is largely the consequence of intense urbanisation, with the concentration of colonies of artists; writers and intellectuals advancing sufficiently with the growth of an educated socially mobile elite, forming a social matrix not necessarily of great numbers but perceiving more in common with each other than of other areas of Australian society, then one would expect that the majority of the writers in the anthology would come from the most intensely urbanised areas of Sydney and Melbourne. Taking the sample of writers in Tranter’s anthology, this seems to be the case. Allowing for odd short term defections to the country or other areas, of the 24 poets, 11 have Sydney as their major geographical base and 9 are based primarily in Melbourne. Of the others, John Jenkins has shifted between the two cities for some years. Martin Johnston has similarly divided his life between Greece and Sydney, and Vicki Viidikas currently spends much of her time between Sydney and miscellaneous third world countries. Only one, Tim Thorne, can be identified with a place in Australia outside of the two large urban centres, and this is not something one could tell from the selection of poetry that represents him in this anthology.


Pockets of Bohemians are not new in Australia. Tranter points out the conditions of the post-war period that have favoured the spread of education on a level hitherto impossible, associated with a rising level of expectations, a growing population, and a growing potential for isolation amongst the newly-educated. The elements were certainly receptive to new literary forms. Small existing pushes have been modified with various exotic imported transplants to form a literature which is still vital, although the society from which it has evolved is now under threat.


Adelaide and Brisbane, in this scheme of things, and the other capitals, have simply not had the sheer size that is necessary for the kinds of societies that I am thinking of, to immerse themselves in. That they have a few contenders for inclusion in Tranter’s anthology is, for this purpose, not the point. Were Tranter to include the controversial exclusions, it would not change the basic demographic balance of the book. The smaller capitals and country areas have been represented strongly in all previous anthologies of Australian verse. In a broad, non-polemic anthology, they still would be.


That the models used by most of the anthologised poets have been American or French, is of less significance than the need to adapt the expression of perception to a kind of experience for which there is little precedent in Australian Literature .

* * *


Some examples of ‘moralistic’ writing in The New Australian Poetry:


          .... and
earth itself becomes a dump
something to be carted away,
to wait for seeds,
the pollen of time.

                                            — Ken Taylor


I keep remembering the photograph / of a girl zealot’s
corpse, she / against the Romans -- BC something, / preserved in
a thirsty cave at / a starving barricade: / the sockets / void
but fierce, / the face stubborn / quite vivid, blacked / &
slender with menace

                                            — Jennifer Maiden


  ... The game nowadays is / filling out the timeless spaces with / lines of the cleverest talk.
Not / the one about Everest or ‘Ross’s’ / desert song or even ‘have you got / the time’s infernal
variations. It’s / called sulking in the seventies.’

                                            — Kris Hemensley


There are a number of others. The ironical tone employed by these writers, and the context of their quotes, does not alter what they are saying: however cautious they are being, they mean it. The likely references to Pound in Hemensley’s poem point up rather than diminish the fact that the poem is as much a moral statement about a part of society in a particular time, as it is about the condition of language and the arts.


Tranter’s selection of poets has been attacked, verbally, and privately, for being sexist. There are two female poets out of twenty-four. Despite this, it seems to this reviewer that the sexism is a phenomenon of the time period and age group of the people anthologised, rather than of Tranter’s own preference. Reading through the poetry of women of the social and age-grouping that Tranter has selected from, there are only another two women that I think he could have included. And rather more men.


When Your Friendly Fascist started, I can recall almost having to beg such women writers as were available for poems. I don’t think it was only the style of the magazine that put women off, but the lack of confidence of a lot of women writers in themselves. This seems to have partly righted itself. The Fascist now has something close to a respectable representation of women, and were Tranter to bring the range of his anthology up to the present he would have to consider a much higher ratio of female contributors.

* * *


In his introduction, Tranter claims that ‘...modernism tends to be on the side of experiment rather than conservatism. Its body of tradition is always conditional, as it depends on flux, enquiry, social change and growth rather than stasis, traditional values, social stability and consolidation.’ The possibility that the norms of flux and social change (in certain prescribed areas), once accepted and subject to pressure from actively reactionary forces, might in themselves become static, its conditionally limited, has not been stated by him. The New Australian Poetry could represent precisely this process.

* * *


Tranter’s introduction was first conceived as a lecture at the American Model conference held at Macquarie University in early 1979. It was originally conceived outside the context of the anthology.


The anthology itself has been put together with great skill and intelligence. That Tranter has perceived the poetry which he has defended in his paper, and the poetry that he has anthologised, as synonymous, is odd, given the deliberation that has gone into the anthology. He has weakened both his polemic and his anthology by presenting them together.

* * *


The introduction displays Tranter’s strength as one of the best reviewers of poetry in this country. His treatment of specific poems is accurate, intelligent and generous. Yet where his grasp of the meaning and direction of the poems is confident, when he is obliged to treat the artistic/social milieu and the area of origins, he is tentative and uncomfortable. Critical integrity is indicated by this willingness to write in areas of his weakness, and not restrict himself to his strengths.


The partial failure of Tranter’s introduction may have exposed areas of strength in his poetry, even while it exposes weaknesses in his criticism. Tranter has been commonly accused of coldness and lack of feeling in his poetry. This introduction has confirmed what might have been suspected for some time, that there is a great deal of emotional weight behind the poems which the author has concentrated within the text, and which should not be read as any reflection of the emotional condition of John Tranter.


Tranter lacks the capacity of an Edmund Wilson to grasp the aesthetic detail and to illuminate through it the character of a context, whether cultural, social or historical. The common denominators that he perceives as characteristic are most likely to be interesting when considered as the creative introspection of a remarkable writer. The introduction, when considered as critical writing, rather ironically shares a number of the characteristics of the academic criticism that it attacks. It is exploring, albeit delicately, the possibilities of a new conservatism. The conception of the poet ‘as a creative artist constructing fictions out of his or her experience in a world qualified by language’ as a statement relating to the poems that it is linked with, is perfectly legitimate; as an introspective comment on Tranter’s own creative process it is very accurate; as a statement of policy, it is a justification for an indifference completely contrary to the principles of fragmentation, kinetic energy and disruption, cited as attributes of modernism.

* * *


Tranter’s first book, Parallax [1970], has many of the attributes of the Tranter of the later books, not yet fully developed. There are remarkably familiar images:


The shabby soldiers wheeled in the street
or loomed out of helicopters, fondling guns.
Their movements are elegant and simple;
a sundial for a face, and memories
of Birmingham and postcards of the sea.


Also a habit which will develop later, of battering the reader with strong emotive images and words, and then withdrawing to a comment which is light and almost irrelevant and mocking:


                     ... Morning again,
another room batters me awake
you will be haunting the mirror like silver
Now the nights punish me with dreams
of a harbour in Italy – you are there
hung in the sky on broken wings
as you always have been, dancing,
preparing to wound me with your
distant and terrible eyes.


Yet the weight of the poems is toward a seriousness with irony and a pessimism that is genuine (!!) and romantic:


memory whispers through; / someone visits me,
I know, who loves me well / whose eyes are rich with fear,
whose lips lead I part of me out of this night, hear, forgive, true/
my eyes bleed truly from the broken head. / pity me in the kingdom of the dead.


The same intensely emotive elements recur in Tranter’s second book, Red Movie. In the later sequences in the book, in [the poem] ‘Red Movie’ itself, the Tranter we know begins to put in a consistent appearance. Images begin to shift into other images, or fail to resolve themselves and remain, disturbing artefacts without a context:


he thinks he is ready to go somewhere / but the gasoline
reeks out of the tank / blood runs from the fingers like red ink /
from a leaking pen. / / now the girl stands in the concrete yard. /
her eyes go white, reflecting / the sky she has come to love, /
that has so little of the human in it. / / her look returns back against
her with a jealousy / beyond repair.


That this poetry has so often been called cold and lacking in feeling seems to me to be a basic confusion of tone with content. Because the tone is distant, precise and objective, and the subjects of the poems cannot be identified with the author himself, it is neat to claim that the author is some kind of idealised classicist creating poems out of the icy realms of pure intellect. But, back to ‘the modernist conception of the poet as a creative artist constructing fictions out of his or her experience in a world qualified by language.’


Crying In Early Infancy is Tranter’s masterpiece. In it, he has assimilated what he needs to take of Ashbery, and the compelling sense of an irredeemable world present in the earlier books (and which is not all that different to the world view of Matthew Arnold or early Eliot complete with disillusioned humanism), is mitigated by the sheer comic effects of language. Language did not manage to qualify the world enough, in the earlier books, to enable the reader to get away from an overpowering sense of its blackness. The comic was always present in Tranter’s poems, but in this book the sense of mockery balances the experience and the world. His use of the sonnet form was fluent and clever in The Blast Area, his earlier Makar book, but nothing like this:


It’s bad luck with a coughing baby
and it’s just as rough inside the pleasure resort
so don’t bother with the mandrax any more.
You’ll get to sleep, and find a business there
that you’ll just have to get used to once again.
These palaces you build, or auditoriums,
someone forgot to put the windows in and
all night long you’re troubled by a noise outside

so that every day at daybreak you find yourself
asking the keeper ‘Was that me? Was that
me and my trouble again?’ And he answers variously
according to your face, ‘It was a flock of birds,
sir, of red plumage,’ or he guesses ‘That, Oh,
that was you again sir, pleading to be let in.’


Images that could be overpoweringly dark and depressing are presented to the reader with such confidence and elegance that the reader laughs, but is not quite comfortable when the build-up begins next time. The audacious mixture of tones and images, the shifting of contexts from the world to the creative act that is transforming the world to the illusion of the perception of the creative act that etc., within the poem, and even through some of the poems as plausible but doubtful sequences, have occurred before in Tranter’s poetry. But Crying In Early Infancy is where the elements that he has struggled with in his poetry before, and which always tipped slightly one way or another, balance tenuously. Tranter’s experience is in it, but not Tranter. Fictions have been constructed out of this experience, and are seen to be fictions. Significantly, the world is not only qualified by language through an extraordinary control of tone, but the language is still modified by the world.


           Sonnet 99

Yes, it’s gruesome, but underneath
all that shit there’s a moral. Yes,
you’re dropping, due for the chopper,
but underneath the gritting teeth
the stink hate the horrible foam
you know in your churning gut that
tomorrow morning bonk! you’ll come upon
a loose new blonde at the office…


The Blast Area precedes Crying In Early Infancy. As a work representing Tranter in his maturity, it is as good; the words are as brilliant, it is as consistent as the later book. Because of some indefinable charm, I suspect that I might like it better, and it includes my personal favourite Tranter poem, ‘The Guadalcanal Motel’. However, it is not as sustained nor does it as successfully practise the demolition of all that has been regarded as holy in the Australian Literary temple.


Tranter’s latest book, Dazed In The Ladies Lounge, is, of all Tranter’s books, the most accessible. The wit and ease of tone is there in abundance, the non-specific threats still hover, in many the reader is still waiting for something nasty and rude:


‘There’s a huge germ behind the glass –
break it, and a terrible plague
will decimate the galaxy!’ As he spoke
the Commander grunted agreement…

Rae Desmond Jones at the launch of his book Blow Out at the SUmmer Hill Hotel, Sydney, 15 March 2009. Photo by John Tranter.

Rae Desmond Jones at the launch of his book «Blow Out» at the Summer Hill Hotel, Sydney, 15 March 2009. Photo by John Tranter.


The book is entertaining and successful. It is not as compelling as the earlier books, nor is it as consistent as Crying In Early Infancy, but by a slightly contradictory procedure it may be that Tranter is now gaining a public voice and may be losing the ‘world qualified by language’.

* * *


The power of Tranter’s poetry has been his capacity to present precise disturbing images in an overall context which is either vague or non-existent. I feel that in the introduction to The New Australian Poetry Tranter was obliged to fill in a context at a time when its meaning was changing for him. The tone that he is such a master of, has not completely enabled him to get away without a considerable amount of contradiction. These contradictions have been the source of his best poetry, and it would be unfortunate as well as ironical if Tranter finds his introduction demolished on the basis of its advocacy of social dishonesty when its real fault is its stringent and eccentric honesty.


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