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John Tranter: Reviewed

Andrew Taylor: John Tranter: Absence in Flight

«Australian Literary Studies», volume 12 number 4 October 1986. This piece is about twelve printed pages long. Notes are given at the end of this piece. To read a note, click on the highlighted name of the note; vice versa to return to the text.

“ It may well be that Humanism was a lie, dear gorgeous nonsense
etched with a mixture of skill, determination and delusion
over the face of the abyss. ”

In recent years a number of younger Australian poets have expressed distrust of the notion of poetry as a discourse bearing a moral or social message from an identifiable and unified subject, 'the poet'. The unofficial spokesman for these writers has been John Tranter, who in 1979 collected the work of twenty-four of them in the anthology «The New Australian Poetry». [note 1] In his Introduction to that volume he discusses modernism in Western art and literature, and aligns the work of the poets included in his anthology with this movement. In their poetry 'words - the fragments of language the poet places in the special framework of a poem - have a reality more solid and intense than the world of objects and sense-perception', thus producing poetry which 'demonstrates a value unencumbered by moralism, ego or social utilitarianism.' [note 2] Tranter argues that this sets these poets apart from what he considered the prevailing moralising atmosphere of Australian poetry at that time, an atmosphere typified by Vincent Buckley's poem 'Golden Builders'.

A number of things about John Tranter's Introduction to «The New Australian Poetry» are less than fully satisfactory, in particular the largely unexamined similarities and distinctions between modernism and post-modernism. There seems little point in discussing his arguments in detail, particularly in the light of the comment in an interview published in 1981 that his arguments are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. [note 3] However his running together of moralism, ego and social utilitarianism is of interest. Ego - which I would prefer to call, in line with current practice, the subject - is the central term here, the nucleus which keeps the other two in place. It is the source of moral opinion and the agent of social activity. If the subject's traditional constitution as identity is questioned, its function as author of moral and social concerns in poetry is also problematicised. Tranter puts it slightly differently in writing of a poem by John Forbes:

Whatever else John Forbes may have intended his poem to do, it is at least certain that he is not concerned with persuading the reader to accept his view of human destiny; ethics, morality, religion and mythology are distinctly absent from the writer's concerns.      (xxi)     [note 3A]

One may well ask just what the writer's concerns are when they so studiously avoid such large areas of human experience, areas which were central to much of the poetry of Eliot and Pound, to mention only two of the classical modernists. If the answer is simply that such poetry shows that 'words…have a reality more solid and intense than the world of objects and sense-perceptions' then we have more than a simple recipe for triteness and poetic narcissism. We have a lack of understanding of the ineluctably linguistic, textual nature of all poetry.

It would be doing Tranter a disservice to argue that he falls into this simple trap. Instead, we would do better to accept the pragmatic nature of his argument, interpreting it thus as an attack on a certain role which poetry had assigned to it by a Christian/liberal humanist tradition dating back in English at least to Sir Philip Sidney's «The Defence of Poesy». [note 4] This is the role which insists that poetry both delight and teach, and which led F. R. Leavis, an important influence in Australian university English Departments and, according to Tranter, on Australian poetry of the nineteen fifties and sixties, to praise Keats for his 'moral and spiritual discipline'. [note 5] Tranter is by no means alone in rejecting this role for poetry. The humanist tradition which has sustained it has been under attack for much of this century, not the least by the contemporary American poets in whom Tranter has shown most interest, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara in particular. [note 6]

It is not difficult to find an example from John Tranter's poetry to illustrate Archibald Macleish's modernist and highly paradoxical statement of distrust of poetry as idea or opinion: 'a poem should not mean, but be'. [note 7] Although most of the poems in «Parallax», his first book, are conventional enough in their procedures, later volumes take seriously Wallace Stevens' comment that 'poetry should resist the intelligence/almost successfully'. [note 8] The poetry's highly confident, dynamic rhythmic progression inducts the reader into a forward movement which we have come to associate with a clarity of purpose leading, in other poetry, to the disclosure of meaning. But in numerous poems an obscure reference, a plethora of proper names which may, or may not, refer to people or places, a frequently ambiguous or elliptic syntax, a predisposition for similes which reveal anything but similarity, and often a bewildering juggling of the discourse between possible speaking subjects or fragments of subjects - all this serves to defer meaning indefinitely. The result is often an obscurity which in the work of other poets might attract the charge of ellipsis or solipsism. However in Tranter's poetry this is accomplished with a purposive consistency which is not only stylistic but also stylish. Two examples will be enough for our purposes.

«Crying in Early Infancy» is a collection of one hundred sonnets published in 1977, and arranged in the order in which they originally appeared by the publisher, Martin Duwell of Makar Press, and not by Tranter himself. [note 9] While many of these sonnets are by no means unintelligible in terms of a conventional expectation of meaning in poetry, a number of them, including No. 92, are:

Every frightened smile prepares
blood for the borrowed floor and then
morning on the street disrobe
smiling as she glowered when
you and Dick, do the repairs,
fix the blue, the broken globe
in that storm we know how to treat,
now she licks her smile

it's thunder, Dad, a heady rain
froth beside the drifting dhow
the limpid waters of the Nile
below, beside, a lark, a drain.
Every newt with flickering fin
guesses right, and turns it in.      (p. 123)

Traditional strategies for deciphering this poem will not get us very far. The first three lines (to the word 'street') present little problem, and thus offer the reader a (delusory) hope of successful understanding. Still, one would want to ask why the floor is 'borrowed': are we being told of a situation in which someone has 'borrowed' a room, a bed, for the night? A one night stand? This might explain the fact that the smile is 'frightened' which in turn presages danger or damage ('blood'). But disrobe' introduces the poem's first major dislocation. Is it second person present tense, or an imperative? The poem reveals no subject for 'disrobe' yet provides no syntactical justification for it in relation to what has come before. And in fact syntactical uncertainty, indeterminacy, is one of the most obvious characteristics of this particular poem. However, other problems immediately arise at this point. Who is 'she'? Who is / are 'you': the speaking subject or someone addressed by the subject? We have no way of discovering who Dick is unless it refers to someone's penis ('you and [your] dick'?), nor who is being referred to as 'Dad'. As if this were not enough, the scene is suddenly located beside 'the limpid waters of the Nile' even though it is generally well known that Nile water can hardly be described as 'limpid'. Perhaps the whole exercise is 'a lark'? It would not be surprising then if the baffled reader, taking his cue from the newts, 'turns it in', having guessed right: this line of approach is getting nowhere.

A poem such as this cannot be naturalised to the meaningful coherence that a reading of much other poetry establishes. More accurately, a poem such as this gains its whole point by infinitely deferring this coherence. For it should be recognised that without the reader's conventional expectation of constructing such a coherence the poem would lack all point whatever. I have argued elsewhere that reading is not an innocent activity, but an ideological act which, in Jonathan Culler's words is 'charged with artifice'. [note 10] One expectation central to both liberal and Christian humanist thought is that a text should be meaningful, that a reader should be able to 'make sense', of it; thus it might not be fanciful to regard much twentieth century literary interpretation as based, ultimately, on the model of biblical hermeneutics. This would account for the frequent wish for a 'final' reading, a total revelation of the 'true' meaning. A poem such as the one we have been looking at thus gains its point by means of a kind of hermeneutic strip tease: offering to reveal all, promising glimpses of naked truth, it reveals only the surface of its own highly accomplished technique. Roland Barthes' comments on real, stage striptease in France seem apt here: '…we see the professionals of striptease wrap themselves in the miraculous ease which constantly clothes them, makes them remote, gives them the icy indifference of skilled practitioners, haughtily taking refuge in the sureness of their technique: their science clothes them like a garment'. [note 11] It may be this quality of remoteness which has led Les A. Murray, for example, to criticise Tranter's poetry for being 'disciplined out of any simplicity or largesse', since it eschews 'the memory and aspiration of community' which, according to Murray, 'have kept the best Australian poetry humane'. [note 12] Be that as it may, Tranter's poem seems the discourse of someone who refuses to 'take part', who remains visibly absent.

Tranter has expressed his own awareness of this conspicuous impersonality, this absence, in his interview in «Meanjin»:

'On a personal level, I've always felt the need to maintain some kind of control over the way I think and act and speak. I don't know where that comes from but my personality is a reasonably self-aware, repressed one in lots of ways. That comes through in the poetry.'      [note 13]

This control takes on a formal aspect as well, apparent in many poems, which Tranter has described as follows:

'…I try one line of development and if that's no good I try another and see how far I can expand the original idea, and then I try to find a way of concluding that expansion and bringing it back to the start. Often my poems return in the last line or two to what has been posited in the opening, and I feel that's the way I have to get the poem completed. I have to tie one end up against the other so that it forms a circle, a box, or a complete unit.'      [note 14]

This formalist impulse, the desire to get the poems into a satisfying shape, is not surprising in a poetry which questions the shaping and concluding efficacy of statement or argument. It can be seen in the regular rhyme scheme of the sonnet I have been discussing. Even more significantly, it is found in the thoroughly traditional employment of a concluding couplet which appears to draw the preceding fragmented and unlocated discourse back into the frame of impersonal comment which the poem began with but which it somehow lost along its way. 'Every frightened smile prepares…' approaches us with the apparent authority of generality: it is of the same order of statement as 'Every person of good will …' or 'Every guilty conscience must …' The poem's further development, however, undercuts this bland authority by revealing the disorder and fragmentation to which it can so readily give way. The concluding couplet marks a stop in that fragmentation: it is preceded by the poem's first full stop. 'Every' repeats the poem's first word, marking that 'return in the last line or two to what has been posited in the opening'; but with a difference. It is actually a return which denies return. Whereas the poem opened with what appeared to be the assurance of a general truth, the concluding couplet is not, in fact, confident generalisation so much as descriptive of particulars ('Every newt with flickering fin/guesses right…'). And yet a further reversal occurs here too. Up to this point, the concluding couplet appears to be a statement of epistemological success, ('guesses right') of the kind which would underly such confident generality as that which begins the poem. But then the poem's final four words reverse this, acknowledging defeat ('and turns it in'). Starting with the kind of generalisation that can be based only on epistemological confidence, the poem ends by echoing that confidence but only as a denial of it.

John Tranter's sixth collection, «Dazed in the Ladies Lounge», was published in 1979. It contains a number of poems, each of thirty lines, which continue to resist the intelligence and which represent his most stylish and accomplished achievements in this mode.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Munich, late 1986. Photo copyright © John Tranter, 1986, 2000.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Munich, late 1986.
Photo copyright © John Tranter, 1986, 2000.

Five of these poems have alliterative titles linking prominent intellectual figures with various places in Australia which they have never visited: 'Leavis at the London', 'Sartre at Surfers Paradise', 'Foucault at Forest Lodge', 'Roland Barthes at the Poets Ball' and 'Enzensberger at Exiles'. [note 14A] With its reference to the German language and the Third Reich, only the last poem seems to be saying anything about the person mentioned in the title. 'Leavis at the London' is typical of the others in that even the title is puzzling. If we are expecting to learn something about the English literary critic, editor of «Scrutiny» and baleful moralising influence in Australian English Departments and Australian poetry, the poem's opening lines are of little help:

You need the money - your way of thinking's
going out of fashion, and you're growing old.
You need the make-up, and you need
the wake-up pills before the bombing run;
the flak is active tonight, you need
a glass of something sparkling and a deep
breath before you're ready for the fray.

The question that immediately poses itself is just who is 'you'? Is it F. R. Leavis, addressed by the poem's subject? Is it the reader, similarly addressed? Is it the poem's subject, being addressed by it/ him/ herself, the modern colloquial equivalent of 'one'? It is true that Leavis's 'thinking's/ going out of fashion' but it is not true that he is going on a bombing mission. What has that to do, anyway, with the need for money, make-up and 'a glass of something sparkling'? Does 'you' refer to a number of different addressees, each with his/ her separate needs? It might, but the poem does not enable us to distinguish them from each other. If the addressee is indeterminate at least this far into the poem can we determine just who is doing the addressing? Is it, as the title might suggest, Leavis? If it is, then all that poem tells us about him by means of this strategy is that he sounds remarkably like Sartre, Foucault, Barthes and Enzensberger, and they all sound remarkably like the voice of the other John Tranter poems in this group. If the speaker is not Leavis, it is hard to determine who it is because of its refusal to position itself in relation to any addressee. Perhaps the next few lines will help to clear things up, as it seems that we catch a glimpse of someone:

On your way to the affair in the back seat
of a taxi you catch a face in the mirror -
bandages and a black eye, is that really
you? It's not Humphrey Bogart - you
should have gone to Acapulco like
mother said, but no, you had to take
the youth cure, then the bandage
loops across the screen spelling out
'Mad Dog', and you guess it's true.

Well, one can understand the need for 'a glass of something sparkling' now; but who 'is that really', whose face is seen in the mirror? Being a reflection, an image, it cannot be 'really you', any more than the voice in the poem can be 'really' John Tranter's or anything more than the poem's subject's. As if to underscore this deferral of presence, the bandaged face in the mirror unrolls on a screen (the media have intervened) to reveal no face, no identity, but to spell out a title, a signifier which 'you' can only 'guess' is true. This indeterminacy is further suggested by the comically ambiguous syntax of the first line and a half (is it 'the affair', or 'you', which is 'in the back seat/of a taxi'?) and the mention of a film actor and a mother who could be the mother of both the addressor and the addressee or of either one of them (assuming, of course, that they are not one and the same). However it seems that indeterminacy can be dangerous, and that there is a 'test of strength' which cannot be evaded or argued away:

The shark pool looks inviting
when they turn out the lights,
but that's for after breakfast -
breakfast on the terrace with the Krazy Kats,
after the test of strength. Say goodbye
to the Kodachrome mirage and the heavy
petting, from now on your career
shrinks to a point and your many enemies
gather like a gerontology convention and

With the demise of the Kodachrome mirage we seem to be approaching closer to determinate meaning: perhaps age is the 'test of strength' which cannot be denied, the moment of truth which comes to us all? This is certainly not stated in the poem, which even seems to deny it, as 'breakfast on the terrace with the Krazy Kats' - which hardly seems an old person's way of starting the day - comes 'after the test'. Yet there is certainly - it seems - a stripping away of inessentials which is associated with getting older:

          After the Monkey Business, after
a famous middle age there's nothing left
but the engines turning over, the crew waiting
in the moonlight - and when you take off
the shadow on the speeding tarmac drops away.

Here is the return, towards the end of the poem, to what had been posited earlier: the reference to aircraft recalling the earlier 'bombing run' and the 'flak' (which is also a common metaphor for criticism of any kind). But if inessentials have been stripped away, what are we left with? Nothing, it seems, except a shadow which 'drops away'. The moment of truth, if and when it comes, reveals that truth will not be revealed.

The characteristic procedure of these poems, easily observed in 'Leavis at the London', is to hurry the reader on, always on, preventing lingering or rereading. This is achieved by the use of the second person which implies some kind of dramatic relationship between addressor and addressee which the reader is impelled to attempt to unravel, however unsuccessfully: 'You need the money…', 'Your good taste is so packed with reading….','You are painfully conscious…', 'You know it's dumb hippie magic, but….' are how some of these poems start. The language is colloquial, often slangy, and the sentences frequently run on over the line breaks, giving the impression of a voice in a hurry. This is accentuated by imagery which often refers to the world of fast cars, aircraft (often military), pop entertainment, movies, warfare. A thread of implied or impending violence runs through it, which also drives the reader forward in a search of comprehension. The result is a frenetic 'surface' to the poetry which refuses to succumb to the reader's conventional or habitual desire for epistemological resolution, for hermeneutic satisfaction. This frenetic surface stands therefore as both contrast and counterpart to the impersonality on which I have already remarked, since it is the discourse of a subject which refuses to reveal itself except as a style of being concealed by a multiplicity of cultural codes without a centre.

Something like this is remarked by David Carter, in an excellent review of Tranter's «Selected Poems» in the journal «Scripsi». [note 15] He observes that the 'problem' with such poetry is not that it is non-referential, 'but rather that it is overreferential… Rather than absence there is an abundance, an excess, or, in different terms, what looks like an overdetermination of its symbols'. This excess of reference fails to resolve itself into a coherent subject, or what Carter calls a 'self': 'As signifieds seem to slide beneath signifiers so the self, any self which the poetry appears to uphold, is divided and dispersed, found everywhere and nowhere, like "style" itself. Nevertheless, a hypothetical unconscious persists, felt in the process of reading as that which is resisted, displaced and over-laid'. I am not so happy with the notion of a 'hypothetical unconscious', which would seem to bear on the reader's desire to feel that someone or something is producing the poetry, rather than on the poetry itself. Instead, I would prefer to say that insofar as the reader experiences this desire, Tranter's poetry problematicises it - and the whole question of the subject in poetry - by offering the subject as nothing but a style of being not visible.

There is a danger of becoming predictably repetitive in poetry of the kind we have been looking at. If every poem were infinitely to defer meaning, or even the illusion of meaning, then at least in this respect every poem would be the same. And although the same can be argued for poems which do satisfy our hermeneutic imperative (i.e. they all 'get somewhere', so we already know in advance how they will end) nonetheless in many cases each poem 'gets' somewhere different. Besides, poetry of epistemological striptease, fascinating and enticing as it is, depends on its opposite for its ability to function, every bit as much as does real striptease. If we had no desire for sexual fulfilment, its arousal- only- to- be- frustrated could not take place; if the desire to 'make sense' of a poem were not a major factor in the reading of any poem, then a poem's resistence to this desire, its refusal to comply, would achieve nothing for either reader or poem. I am not implying here that such poetry is parasitic on conventionally 'meaningful' poetry, nor that it is some kind of sport or game which poets can play in their less serious moments. On the contrary, it represents the other side of the discourse of that poetry, the side which it is one of the tasks of the more conventionally 'meaningful' poetry to obscure, even to appear to conquer. Yet as T. S. Eliot's 'Burnt Norton' [note 16] puts it:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision. will not stay in place.
Will not stay still.

Within the coherences of more conventional poetry one can read the threat of incoherence; and within the incoherence of some of John Tranter's poetry, as in John Ashbery's, one is tantalised by the possibilities of coherence - but coherence deferred. In the world of visual art, the paintings of the late Russian-American Arshile Gorky [1904–48, born in Armenia] are as close an equivalent as I can suggest. There are also distinct similarities with the current vogue in sculpture for building machine-like objects which function mechanically, but to no conceivable mechanical end. However not all of Tranter's poetry is as enigmatic as my account might suggest. Many of the sonnets in «Crying in Early Infancy» can be construed into meaning in a thoroughly traditional manner, which perhaps accounts for the popularity of that book among critics who are sympathetic to Tranter's work.' [note 17] These sonnets certainly contain obscurities of reference, and almost all of them are characterised by that impersonality which unsympathetic critics such as Les A. Murray would consider an evasion of human communality. But a number of recognisable themes recur in these sonnets: art, including pop art and entertainment, alienation, a general sense of malaise (it would be interesting to count the number of headaches that are suffered in Tranter's poetry) and war:

In a crude circle of dust and stubbled grass
children are playing soccer. All else
is olive brown and blue reduced to powder.
Outside the boundary the referee
draws a line, cutting off an easy talent
from originality. A small dog like a movie star
drags a grown man across the field,
and his friends follow, asking what to do

with the stricken afternoon, and why is the man
crying. The circle of burnt grass grows
smaller, and somehow the game is accommodated
in the grip of politics. In a dark brick
building on the other side of the world
a man is carefully inspecting a clip of bullets.      (p. 111)

John Tranter has rather disingenuously denied that «Crying in Early Infancy» is 'a book written in the surrealist mode with dreamlike poems', claiming that 'That's not true at all. It's not a catalogue of dreams, it's a collection of poems!" [note 18] Of course it is a book of poems, but a number of them, like No. 60, work to create a dreamlike fluidity which in this case generates a claustrophobic tightening such as one experiences in nightmares. The 'crude circle' of the soccer field shrinks to 'the grip of politics' in the third last line. The dust and burnt grass slip easily into a suggestion of warfare, as does the game of soccer, which is itself a contest ritualised by the presence of a referee. It may be the case that the man is crying because he realises that warfare is a contest without a referee who 'draws the Line'. The claustrophobic effect is further generated by the shrinking of the outdoor, summer-struck playground or playingfield to 'a dark brick/ building' in which the minute inspection of 'a clip of bullets' is being menacingly performed by an anonymous man. This poem thus works by means of the same referential 'slippage' as the two other poems we have looked at. But whereas in those the result was a deferral of meaning, this sonnet generates a tightening sense of menace all the more intense for its apparent inexplicability and anonymity, as things refuse to stay peacefully in place.

There are a number of poems of this kind which would serve to conclude this discussion. The cheerfully satirical and parodic 'Ode to Col Joye' (S.P. 138) displays one aspect of Tranter's poetry which a concentration on the less referentially located poetry might serve to neglect: the witty, deft, satirical mode, often choosing as its targets contemporary Australian poets. In fact a satirical streak runs through a great deal of the poetry, producing an intriguing blend of acerbic astringency and irreverent fun. Or there are the two ambitious sequences, 'The Alphabet Murders' (S. P. p. 69) and 'Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy' (S.P. p. 126). The first is a complex, elusive poem which seems to characterise itself at the start of its eighteenth section:

Reaching the excuse for verbal intemperance we find
the best argument persuades us to strain out from poverty
to excess, though the profit of this striving
is not in the final chapter but in the zooming
between two worlds of action, neither being of interest
without the gasping towards the other, which is the circus
where we get whatever valuables we come across
and it is not 'reality' nor 'art' that keeps us hot
but the idea of 'hurtling', down the road between
the promise and the freaky now.      (p. 83)

And although, as the poem goes on to acknowledge, Yeats did not work this way, it is not very far from Wallace Stevens' claim that 'Natives of poverty, children of malheur, / The gaiety of language is our seigneur' [note 19] The latter poem, 'Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy', is an extended consideration of the French writer as poet, rebel, renegade and radical. It is one of Tranter's more pressing poems, acting out a radical assessment of its own possibilities. The sequence starts and ends with what seems a firmly locateable subject:

Sitting by the river under damp trees
I listen to the wind in the leaves
whispering hatred and loneliness ...


Learning, where the deeply human
is the object of a fierce knowledge,
can reach an imitation of the style of love,
but in that future under whose arrogant
banner we have laboured for our own rewards
we shall both be gone into that
unforgiving darkness.

Such a subject constitutes or situates itself as the romantic rebel; but like the historical Rimbaud, and like the poem itself, it refuses to stay fixed. The result is a poem which seems both deeply concentrated and remarkably elusive, the subject again revealing itself as that which has no visible nature of its own with which to authorise such roles as that of Romantic rebel. These roles come to it from outside, from culture or from history, and are not an expression of the subject but an impression on it. The subject itself appears only, as I said before, in a style of remaining invisible within their multitudinous flux.

Rather than examine these rather long poems in any detail, however, my ends will be as well served by looking at a recent poem which was awarded first prize in a national competition run by The Australian newspaper in 1985. Written since the publication of «Selected Poems», 'Lufthansa' is too long to quote in full, but brief enough to encompass in this discussion. [note 20]

Since one must oversimplify, we can start by saying that the poem is 'set' within an aeroplane flying over the Alps, as the subject drinks a glass of lemonade, observes the skill of the aircrew which keeps them safe, and thinks of a woman called Katharina who is 'sleeping elsewhere/ under a night sky growing bright with stars'. From such a resume, it should be clear that the subject of this poem is firmly located as an 'I', who appears in the third line and whose observations and musing form the substance of the poem. Although the 'I' becomes, in the ninth line, 'you', and then later 'we', 'us' and 'me', this fluctuation between pronouns articulates a casual colloquialism rather than the subject's multiplication or fragmentation. (Still, the fact that it can address itself as 'you' indicates - as surely as the colloquialism does the subject's lack of identity with itself. However, this is not foregrounded in this poem.)

At the poem's centre lies the question, 'And what is this truth that holds the grey/ shaking metal whole while we believe in it?' The lines immediately following this question fail to locate any salvational truth:

The radar keeps its sweeping intermittent promises
speaking metaphysics on the phosphor screen;
our faith is sad and practical, and leads back
to our bodies...

And in fact the search for truth is abandoned as 'the Captain/lifts us up and over the final wall' of the threatening Alps and the subject recalls Katharina, perhaps tenderly, perhaps gratefully. Is this all the truth' that is needed to keep us safe, the memory of human friendship? Such an answer seems inadequate. Memory, after all, is not truth, any more than it is the ding an sich [thing in itself]. Memory is what stands in for truth: the memory of Katharina occupies the space made available to it by her physical absence. Furthermore, in this poem, memory is entrusted to the 'grey/ shaking metal' along with the subject who holds or experiences it: they are simultaneously vulnerable.

In effect, 'Lufthansa' is constructed back to front. What keeps the concern going - the poem on its journey across silence, just as much as the plane on its flight over the 'ice reefs' of the Alps - is the skilful exercise of technique. The first half of the poem is a celebration of it:

I'm struck by an acute feeling of precision -
the way the wing-tips flex, just a little
as the German crew adjust the tilt of the sky

A similar skill characterises the cabin crew:

you notice how the hostess, perfecting a smile
as she offers you a dozen drinks, enacts what is
almost a craft: Technical Drawing, for example,
a subject where desire and function, in the hands
of a Dürer, can force a thousand fine ink lines
to bite into the doubts of an epoch, spelling

This is the same skill which maintains 'the smile behind the drink/ trolley and her white knuckles as the plane drops/ a hundred feet'. Precision, skill, craft: fusing desire and function, they bite into doubt just as Dürer's etchings bit into the doubts of the late Middle Ages and helped to spell out Humanism. This is what keeps 'the grey/ shaking metal whole while we believe in it'. The poem has answered the question before it has been asked. But the question is asked where it is, because the subject desires something more metaphysically satisfying than the provisional, than the practice of skill or technique. This is why the poem continues by searching for an absolute which will replace the 'sweeping intermittent promises' which both hold out the possibility of a wholeness of truth, and testify to its absence.

It may well be that Humanism was a lie, dear gorgeous nonsense etched with a mixture of skill, determination and delusion over the face of the abyss. Whatever it was, it certainly was not Truth - any more than poetry, which proceeds with its own mixture of precision and unjustified confidence to navigate the pitfalls of life and the hazards of language. Yet both Humanism and poetry were, and continue to be, effective praxis. It is too early to tell whether 'Lufthansa' marks a rapproachment with Humanism on John Tranter's part. David Carter comments in his review of «Selected Poems» that some of the latest poems return '… to the representation of a 'slice-of-life' or a brief dip inside character … Perhaps this represents an attempt at sentiment, a search of a kind of 'breakthrough' that the premises of the earlier poems seem to deny or resist'. [note 21] Certainly 'Lufthansa' conforms to this pattern, while holding no illusions about any successful outcome to a search for truth. And apt though it may at first seem to be, Frank O'Hara's famous statement that 'You just go on your nerve' does not sum it up. [note 22] As the moment of danger passes and the plane approaches 'a dictionary of shelter', the subject's demand for truth is supplanted by memories of friendly contact. Memory speaks out of absence, it exists only by virtue of the absence, the non-presence of what is remembered, including truth. But here it is not the absence of the subject, as in many earlier poems, that accomplishes the poem's direction. It is someone else's absence that facilitates memory in the subject, so that memory supplements skill, or nerve, or technique - such as that of the efficient aircrew - and humanises them. This is how 'desire and function' combine at this point in the poem, bringing it to a poise, a repose, 'under a night sky growing bright with stars'. No destination has been reached, least of all truth. Everything is all, still, up in the air. But for the moment, even if the poem is still 'hurtling', down the road between/ the promise and the freaky now', we feel that it is being guided by more than meticulous skill.


Note 1. John Tranter. ed., «The New Australian Poetry» (St Lucia: Makar Press, 1979).

Note 2 «The New Australian Poetry», p. xxiv.

Note 3 '… most of the arguments I've had about literature are really pragmatic, conditional arguments that are there for the time being because they're needed'. «Meanjin» 4 (1981). 431. He also says in the same interview. 'One thing that must be said about the polemical arguments about Modernism in the anthology is that they're not to be taken too seriously … So the discussion of it was very basic, and not really worth going into in any great detail'. (429)

Note 3A I should mention that John Forbes strongly disputed this interpretation of his poem 'TV', and he was probably right. [-John Tranter, 2000]

Note 4 See Sir Philip Sidney, 'The Defence of Poesy' in «Selected Poetry and Prose» ed. Robert Kimbrough (San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1969), p. 111: 'These be they that, as the first and most noble sort may justly be termed Vates, so these are waited on in the excellentest languages and best understandings, with the foredescribed names of poets: for these indeed do merely make to imitate, and imitate both to delight and teach, and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger, and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved …'

Note 5 F. R. Leavis. «Revaluation» (London: Chatto and Windus. 1965). p. 272. Tranter writes of humanism and of Leavis's influence on the reception of Australian poetry: ' … this quasi-religious rhetoric is a natural outgrowth of Australian university English departments. and is probably inevitable, given their peculiar ancestry: by Matthew Arnold, out of Doctor Leavis, via Victorian England. Common-Room Humanism is as apt to sermonise as any other fervid minority belief.' «The New Australian Poetry». p. xxii.

Note 6 c.f. 'I hadn't read Ted Berrigan up until a couple of years ago, although I do admit to having been influenced by John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara over the last five years. I think those influences are fairly liberating ones. Martin Duwell. «A Possible Contemporary Poetry», (St Lucia: Makar Press, 1982). p. 23.

Note 7 Archibald MacLeish 'Ars Poetica' in «New and Collected Poems» (Boston: Houghton Mifluin, 1976), p. 106.

Note 8 Wallace Stevens. «Opus Posthumous» (London: Faber and Faber, 1959). p. 171.

Note 9 All except one of the poems referred to in this essay are to be found in John Tranter. «Selected Poems» (Sydney: Hale and Ironmonger, 1982). Page numbers refer to this edition.

Note 10 Jonathan Culler. «Structuralist Poetics» (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 129.

Note 11 Roland Barthes. «Mythologies» (London: Jonathan Cape. 1972). p. 86.

Note 12 Les A. Murray. «The Peasant Mandarin» (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press. 1978). p. 196.

Note 13 «Meanjin» 438.

Note 14 «A Possible Contemporary Poetry». p. 33.

Note 14A Hans Magnus Enzensberger did visit "Exiles" bookshop in Oxford Street, Sydney, during a visit to Australia, after the poem had been published in «Polar Bear», a magazine published in only one issue (dedicated to Enzensberger's work) by Nicholas Pounder, who worked at the bookshop; the poem was on display in the window. [ - J.T.]

Note 15 David Carter. 'John Tranter: Popular Mysteries' «Scripsi», 2 (1984). 117-122.

Note 16 T. S. Eliot. «The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot» (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 175.

Note 17 See for example Rae Desmond Jones. 'The Ambiguous Modernist: Themes in the Development of the Poetry of John Tranter', «Australian Literary Studies» 9 (1980). 497: 'Crying in Early Infancv is Tranter's finest piece of work so far, not least because it is engaged in tormented dialogue with anti-art … Tranter is less concerned with purely verbal effects than with the serious, puritanical need to test stringently the art that is so valuable to him'. (500-501)

Note 18 «A Possible Contemporary Poetry», p. 32.

Note 19 Wallace Stevens. «The Collected Poems» (London: Faber & Faber. 1955), p. 322.

Note 20 'Lufthansa' first appeared [in book form] in Judith Rodriguez and Andrew Taylor. eds., «Poems Selected from The Australian's 20th Anniversary Competition» (Sydney: Angus & Robertson. 1985), p. 85: and is reprinted in Les A. Murray. ed., «The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse» (Melbourne: OUP. 1986), p.324.
[Author's note: the poem 'Lufthansa' was written on a flight from Venice to Munich on Saturday 24 March, 1984.]

Note 21 «Scripsi». 122.

Note 22 Frank O'Hara. 'Personism', in The «Selected Poems» of Frank O'Hara ed. Donald Allen (New York: Random House, 1974). p. xiii.

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