Martin Duwell reviews John Tranter: Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006), 322pp. This piece first appeared in Australian Book Review August 2006, page 41
The poet’s interest, as it has developed, lies increasingly in the
different origins a poetic text can have, and in the different pathways
that it can take on its journey to completion. ”
This new and selected poems reminds us, if we needed reminding, just how powerful John Tranter’s cumulated work is. There is a density, an intensity, and a many-sided explorativeness that probably cannot be matched in Australian poetry. Surprisingly, at 210 poems, it is a comparatively small book and has been pretty ruthlessly selected, but there is no doubting the size of its author’s achievement.
When you put together a selected poems in your early sixties, you are often trying to make sense of your career, some definitive, even canonical sense. I think there is a strong element of this in Urban Myths. The first six books — from Parallax (1970) to Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979) — make radically different explorations into the nature of poetry itself, and often have quite different answers to issues such as what poetry can do and what it should be doing. The fact that the books look and feel entirely different (they vary from the stylish, if rather lush, Crying in Early Infancy  to the toilet paper and cramped format of The Alphabet Murders ) reinforces the sensation we have when reading them that each is a new beginning.
Urban Myths eliminates a lot of this variousness in the interests of what seems to me a consistent view, on Tranter’s part, of his writing history. Merely collecting the poems in a single format, of course, does this, but there are other features. The sonnets of Crying in Early Infancy, for example, were simply numbered in their original publication; now they are given the kind of snappy titles (‘Artefact’, ‘Ballistics’) that recall the poems of the later Under Berlin (1988) and At The Florida (1993) phase. I can’t help but feel a positivist bias to all this: the early poetry is meaningful for the poet only insofar as it prepares for the poetry being written now. Complicating this is the fact that Urban Myths has a sort of textual doppelgänger in the extensive notes available on Tranter’s website. These notes are recent, and their comments and perspectives are very much that of the 2006 version of Tranter.
In earlier critical visits to the Tranter corpus, attempting to provide some sort of crude description of what he is doing, I have often taken refuge in the tension between abstraction and expressionist content. There is a lot of autobiographical stuff (especially about Tranter’s childhood in the country and his adolescence in Sydney), together with a lot of social history forming the basis of poems that often wanted to be surreal or, at least, abstract. This slotted him neatly into Australian poetic history as an example of one of our responses to the various surrealisms.
The Tranter of Urban Myths seems quite a different poet, or one who requires a quite different description. I would describe the poetry of Urban Myths as obsessed by exploring the ways in which texts are generated. One has the sense of a poet with a clear idea of when a completed text is poetically satisfactory — though it has to be said that the issue of satisfactoriness, or the preferability of one line over another, is not explored in the poems. The poet’s interest, as it has developed, lies increasingly in the different origins a poetic text can have, and in the different pathways that it can take on its journey to completion.
There is a bewildering variety of methods on show here. Some poems are rewritings in the sense of loosely following an original: ‘Having Completed my Fortieth Year’ is a magnificent rewriting of an equally magnificent poem of Peter Porter’s (itself a response to Byron) that, funnily enough, sounds eerily like a Tranter poem. There are poems called, according to the notes, ‘terminals’, in which the words concluding the lines of an existing poem are retained and a new poem written to fit these words. The whole collection is introduced by ‘After Holderlin’, from Borrowed Voices (2002), which is an example of this method, being based on a translation of ‘Dar ich ein Knabe war’. It is also a marvellous and significant poem whose dedicatory position is a clue to its importance:
You characters caught up in your emotions
on the screen, how I wish you could know
how much I loved you; how I longed
to comfort the distraught heroine
or share a beer with the lonely hero.
These dreams were my teachers
and I learned the language of love
among the light and shadow
in the arms of the gods.
Other poems (‘What Mortal End’, ‘Her Shy Banjo’) are derived by heavily editing text generated by a programme that, based on character frequency calculation in a given text, produced a parody which, though interestingly meaningless, retained the quality of voice of the original (in these poems, those of Matthew Arnold and John Ashbery). Others were derived from reading Rimbaud’s Illuminations in French into a voice recognition programme responding only to English; others by blending texts so that, although not all the words of the two texts are used, those that are used appear in the order of the original.
What are we to make of all this? Firstly, it is important to register that Tranter does not subscribe to what might be called ‘the Oulipo heresy’, whereby the method of generating a text is the source of its interest. In Tranter’s poetry, the final text bears the responsibility of being attractive, compelling — and whatever else we gather under that vague term, ‘poetic’. It doesn’t rely for its force on our interest in the processes of its genesis.
More and more, as these poems appear in the book, the stress of the creative act is moved away from originating a text towards working on one. Tranter’s online notes are useful here because they show that the final poem is a good deal more than a mechanically generated text. The opening ‘lines’ of the speech-to-text version of Rimbaud’s ‘Ville’ is pretty chaotic:
History museum in one form of Clinton’s victory onto natal wrote Coumardin are two key to call for new and exciting you don’t end it among the exterior them a song of CB incurred on the counter the EC foreign a senior year.
And so on. You might get away with this at the farther reaches of hard-nosed surreal practice, but the final Tranter text is a pretty good poem, working away mysteriously, but in a recognisably Tranterish way, at economics, history, Europe, high culture, art and life:
The kids should visit a history museum
in their senior year, to understand disgrace as
one form of Clinton’s victory. On the other hand
the European Community foreign debt gives
everybody bad dreams. So we do need to solve
the problem of students reading difficult things
that will lead them astray: why did Rimbaud
turn from socialism to capitalism? As if it
matters. We’d be delighted to have his uniform.
The name from the dish multiplies twenty black men.
We want to see all the modern art stuff, too.
Thank you. Press the button marked ‘monument’
and see what happens: a recorded voice says
‘I have wasted my life’, and we pay to listen.
In other words, in later Tranter the essence of creation moves from the ‘spontaneous’ utterance of the first draft (perhaps requiring a little touching up) to engagement with a foreign voice, and to the production of a poem from that engagement.
One of the major turning points in Tranter’s oeuvre is a series of ‘reverse haibun’, twenty-line poems followed by a brief passage of prose. These formed a section of At The Florida, I have yet to meet anyone who warms to them. At the time they looked like an experiment, interesting because a great writer’s experiments are always interesting, but essentially a dead end. As texts, they simply weren’t engaging enough, and I half suspected that they might be dropped from a selected poems. But there are twelve of them here, staring grimly at the reader. Tranter’s note on his website gives some sense of their importance to him and contains important obiter dicta:
I have allowed the prose, with its more meandering agenda and its looser rhythms, to take over and unravel the poem as it concludes … I was looking for a new form, trying to wade out of the tar-pit of habit, at the same time as I was looking for a way of avoiding the patterns of meaning that the forms of verse themselves impose on a piece of writing … I find it’s the first draft that locks me into a direction and a form of rhetoric. The subsequent drafts can only struggle to unshackle themselves.
After describing how he generated first drafts by using a thesaurus to transform an existing scrap of text, he lists the virtues, for him, of this method: for example, ‘I would never have written it; it is free of my usual tics and responses’.
Here, for a moment, we return to the values of an earlier Tranter, the author of the now thirty-year-old The Alphabet Murders, what matters is an attack on the rhetorics that determine what we can say. And the relationship between this and the obsession with how texts can set out and be guided on their way to making a complete poem may be the core of Tranter’s poetry: to smash and rebuild. One of the sonnets of Crying in Early Infancy speaks of ‘the glue that used to hold everything together’. Saying goodbye to this glue is an act simultaneously destructive and creative.
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