Peter Pierce reviews John Tranter: «Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected» (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006), 322pp, $26.95. This piece first appeared in The Age, July 15, 2006.
“Looking beyond the controversy, the formidable John Tranter is impressive.”
SET ASIDE FOR A MOMENT what you think you know about John Tranter, especially his often controversial interventions into the criticism, publishing and anthologising of Australian poetry. What of the poet, now presented to us in a “new and selected” (and ample and reasonably priced) volume from the University of Queensland Press?
The volume contains 210 poems that range from Parallax (1970) to the present, across a dashing range of forms – haiku and leisurely verse narratives, works that modulate from poetry to prose, poems that are guardedly autobiographical and others that overtly imitate and vary the verse of many writers whom he admires, and has attentively absorbed.
The table of contents reminds us at once of Tranter’s wit.
Only Les Murray is his equal in the confection of titles for books and poems. There is Crying in Early Infancy (1977), Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), which contains such gems of imagined incongruity as ‘Sartre at Surfers Paradise’ and ‘Leavis at the London Hotel’ (‘Your many enemies/ gather like a gerontology convention’).
Tranter’s learning is considerable, and lightly worn. He is also one of the wariest of poets (‘How much have I suppressed?’). While inveigling us into many intriguing circumstances, he still seems emotionally reticent. The mental states that engage him are distraction, self-obsession and that gentle combination of the two – reverie.
Thus he chooses to open Urban Myths with a poem from Borrowed Voices (2002), After Hölderlin: ‘I dreamed/ in the mottled shade in many a beer garden/ among a kindness of bees and breezes.’
In one of the poems from The Alphabet Murders (1976), this one (‘after R D FitzGerald’), Tranter – whose work is imbued by that of the legions who have gone before him – redefines tradition.
It is, he writes, ‘not just an impulse/ out of the past; it is a progressive movement/ overtaking the present and helping carry it/ into the future’. This sounds as dry and decided as a pronouncement by T.S. Eliot, but Tranter buoyantly moves on: ‘poetry itself/ always sorts out the poets it requires/ and gives the best of them their orders.’
‘Ode to Col Joye’, one of his funniest poems, shows Tranter fondly sorting out and ranging around contemporary poets of his own acquaintance as he thinks about ‘the exact shape of your headache/ and the taste of the first disprin of the day’.
He is often playfully aware of what the brain can get up to, given its condition as ‘this frail/ figment fond of light shocks’. His own intelligence has led Tranter determinedly on for nearly two decades, pursuing forms in which his questioning can be shaped, or reinventing those forms.
‘Breathless’ is an accomplished story in verse, in which an apparently desultory meal in sybaritic Sydney leads to revelations. Some are probably bogus. All may be in search of sympathy. One chills: ‘The air was so clear, and it was so/ lonely there, like the floor of heaven’.
In Urban Myths, the riches and surprises encompass the haunting nostalgia and loneliness of ‘Opus Dei’ and also works committed to testing what verse experiment can do. This may be with stanza forms, as in ‘Ariadne on Lesbos’, or in shifts from poetry to prose, as in one sequence from At the Florida (1993).
The collection Different Hands (1998), also sampled here, Tranter classified as fiction. One of its sprightliest pieces, ‘Neuromancing Miss Stein’, is a subtle portrait of young Hemingway and others in Paris in the 1920s.
Writers can be negative influences as well as beneficent ones. In ‘On the Road’, Tranter reflects on the lesson to be learnt from the fabled American author who wrote the book of that name: ‘I moved out of bohemia, Kerouac went mad there... then he died at his mother’s.’
Beware, therefore, ‘Catholic childhoods, bad drink, Oedipus’. There are glimpses of Tranter’s childhood and of his father in particular in two poems from Ultra (2001), ‘South Farm’ and ‘Under the Trees’. The latter concludes with the quarrelling of two magpies who appear to be advising that ‘today is all that exists, and be grateful for it’.
Tranter has produced a body of work remarkable for its intellectual vitality, formal versatility, and powers of renewal over a long and formidable career.
Peter Pierce is professor of Australian literature at James Cook University.
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