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book cover: Trio

John Tranter: Reviewed

Chris Wallace-Crabbe reviews
«Trio» and «Studio Moon», by John Tranter

(Subeditor’s headline:
“Playful poet intoxicates”)

Chris Wallace-Crabbe reviews John Tranter:
    «Trio», Salt UK, 162pp, $22.95
    «Studio Moon», Salt UK, 114pp, $21.95
This review first appeared in the «Weekend Australian», 2004–07–31

“ … this book sways between the trick-skating of absence and manifestations of a weather-saturated city. ”


Paragraph 1

FROM a trans-hemisphere publisher we have two volumes of poetry, one new, the other reassembled, from John Tranter. And who else but he would have thought of Old Dog Tray as a tin tray with a dog painted on it?

Old dog tray, Madison Avenue, New York City, c. 1980s. Photo by John Tranter.

Old dog tray, Madison Avenue, New York City, c. 1980s.
Photo by John Tranter.

2

Tranter has both a real and a caricatured reputation, especially outside Sydney. As a young man he was involved in poetry wars, between Paleface and Redskin groups, the former putative bohemians (or else actual, like Michael Dransfield) and the latter imaginary farmers, both gangs heavily male. The aes­thetics of the former mob involved post­modern misgiving about representation, which helps to explain young Tranter’s peculiarly intense attack on Vincent Buckley. [See endnote 1]

3

Such scepticism continues to underlie his mature poetry, some of the time at least but the solid city has struck back, as we can see in fine poems such as “In Praise of Sandstone” and “Storm Over Sydney”. His playfulness remains intact, along with his taste for anaesthetic slippage. It’s a nimble set of games, one in which “Your good taste is so packed with reading/ you can hear a coin drop at fifty paces.” Obliquely, I remember his fondness for wind-up Japanese tin toys.

4

Some poets can be worthless but not hopeless. One such was the New York charmer Frank O’Hara, who perfected a new, rubbishy style in verse. Poor though the poems were, their chatty enjambments were influential on John Ashbery’s wistful reveries and on Kenneth Koch’s delightful comedy. In Australia, this dolce stil nuovo was felt among the “generation of ’68”; it became elegant in the tight-knit lyrics of John Forbes, and it underlies the poetics of Tranter, a poet who has maintained his close ties with America.

5

In a parody of Shelley’s death, O’Hara was run over and killed by a beach buggy. Tragedy repeats itself as farce. [See endnote 2]

book cover, Studio Moon

6

Tranter, indeed, has a lively triptych in «Studio Moon» about witty Koch, including the pun that “a draught of Koch is known as a certain cure/ for flabby verse”. Here, as in so many poems and in his ’zine, «Jacket», Tranter gets around with one foot in the US; and yet he hauls himself back, writing of “My addiction to eucalyptus — the blue haze/ that intoxicates.”

7

His muse has surely been globalised, ever since those “early infancy” sonnets that were saturated with movies and with placelessness:

8

Its alright, Rod. I’m still living in
Gasoline Alley he says — he falters,
struck by millions of dollars. Goodbye, Rod!
This question has worried sociologists for years:
would we all end up like pop idols, drifting
westward, high over LA?

9

Although that final pun was amusing, Tranter’s youthful poems tended to lack an ear, as in the awful sociologist line above. Fortu­nately, he has come a long way in measure and modulation since 1977.

10

Two years later he published «Dazed in the Ladies Lounge», which now makes up the third part of «Trio», and does so with a good deal of panache: by which I don’t mean feathers. In a clutch of 30-line poems here, he has found just the right amount of space for his playfulness and fluency to be held in balance, and inner-urban pubs to be celebrated, with an imagined Leavis at the London and Foucault at (where else?) the Forest Lodge. In these lines, the syntax runs away like stormwater.

11

But those pubs were still phantasmal, essentially linguistic, a tray-full of ice-cold signifiers. What is new in the lyrics of «Studio Moon» is the presence of a world from time to time. Apart from eight pantoums (a Malaysian chant), tacitly recalling his period in South-East Asia, this book sways between the trick-skating of absence and manifestations of a weather-saturated city. A lyric such as «Capital Flow» is all nothingness, but Tranter’s rigour cannot keep the modern urban world at bay. Mimesis rises again,

12

The way the sun lifts up from the backdrop
so enthusiastically and lights up the windblown
clouds from behind, it's a knockout,
a patchwork canopy of blue and yellow.

13

Of course, all poets love clouds.

14

It was not tactful of a blurb writer to declare Tranter “the leading Australian poet of his generation”. Nevertheless, he is a writer of real substance, who has advanced far beyond the bobbish cuteness of «Crying in Early Infancy», those hundred sonnets that make up the middle part of «Trio». And the new «Studio Moon» displays his whole stylish bag of tricks.


Notes

[1]  When I first read this review (in a state of mild alarm, it should be said) I tried to remember my “peculiarly intense attack” on Vincent Buckley. I had never met the gentleman, and I couldn’t remember ever having written about his poetry. Eventually I realised that this comment probably referred to a section of my bad-tempered Introduction to my anthology «The New Australian Poetry» published a quarter of a century earlier, in 1979. My “intense attack” on Buckley is in fact a criticism of the language used by some reviewers of Buckley’s poem “Golden Builders”. Let me quote from that Introduction:

To show how far the language of this type of poetry [John Forbes’ poem ‘T.V.’, for example] has moved from the more generally accepted view of what type of rhetoric English verse is expected to embody, I’d like to quote a selection of phrases used in two typical reviews of a well-known and highly-regarded contemporary Australian poem, Vincent Buckley’s ‘Golden Builders’:

‘guarantees our belief, a change of heart, practical and positive, what gives life value, keeps alive our hopes, more humanly meaningful, sense of responsibility, convinced of the moral value, intelligence and moral judgment, the ‘God’ who guarantees human value, the artist’s responsibility, this responsibility forbids self-indulgence, honesty of approach, responsible for the world they have made, reverence, enlarge his sense of responsibility, honest acceptance, seriousness, something significant to say, the true, as against the false, life, freedom and responsibility, reverent, sensitivity, sensitive response, deeply-observed, deeply-felt sensations, full humanity, integrity, mature, (and) convincingly.’

These terms are of course appropriate to a discussion of a poem such as ‘Golden Builders’, a work with specific moral and religious overtones. But the kind of high seriousness we find in this language is quite inappropriate to most areas of most people’s lives, and its application to many of the poems in this collection that have a different kind of value can only result in their dismissal. 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. This is one of the crosses the new poetry has had to bear for the last ten years, and accounts for the anti-academic bias evident in some of its earlier works.

[2]  A new page on my Main Site presents some useful information about the life and death of the US poet Frank O’Hara, 1926–1966. A mistaken account of his death by Australian poet Bruce Beaver in a 1969 poem has spread misunderstanding, which Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography should have put to rest two decades ago. I quote Mr Gooch’s account in detail. Also, the page has links to the many features and poems in «Jacket» magazine that deal with the legacy of O’Hara’s life and work. The “searing, cauterizing” eulogy read by painter Larry Rivers at O’Hara’s funeral should dispel the curious notion that this widely-read poet’s tragic, drawn-out and agonising death was a farce.

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