Roger Caldwell reviews John Tranter: «Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected» (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2006), 322pp. This piece first appeared in PN Review 175, Volume 33 Number 5, May – June 2007.
“More surprisingly, right through this work, from early to late, the influence of Auden is apparent.”
Three books reviewed:
C.K. WILLIAMS, Collected Poems (Bloodaxe) ￡20
FREDERICK SEIDEL, Selected Poems (Faber and Faber) ￡14.99
JOHN TRANTER, Urban Myths: 210 Poems (Salt) ￡19.99
Reviewed by ROGER CALDWELL
Of this trio of veteran poets – Williams and Seidel are now both seventy and Tranter is in his sixties – it is Williams who emerges as the most traditional, returning us to a first-person voice we can more or less trust and an unambiguous narrative line. To a large extent is seems that for him modernism, not to say postmodernism, has never existed. [....]
John Tranter would no doubt be better known outside Australia but for the existence of Les Murray, in many ways his polar opposite. Whilst Murray’s world is predominantly rural, traditional, and religious in orientation, Tranter is urban and urbane, left-wing in his politics, sophisticated and sceptical. He is a canny operator, embracing modernism, and postmodernism, but somehow coming adroitly through to the other side, as if somehow there were a reality to be found there after all: if he is a postmodernist he is one unwilling to give up on meaning or truth. There are moments when he is referentially opaque in the manner of Ashbery, and others where one is reminded of the crabbed hermeticism of J.H. Prynne (along with the latter’s attention to economics: there is here talk of seasonal interest rate fluctuations and flexible borrowing rates). More surprisingly, right through this work, from early to late, the influence of Auden is apparent. We hear that dry didactic voice in a sequence such as ‘The Alphabet Murders’:
Sure, we can abandon sense
and sensibility, and all the disinterred Romantics
like a wicked boy punching in a stained glass knight.
Similarly, we are told in ‘Rimbaud in Sydney’ that ‘Romanticism has never been properly judged’.
This is very much writing that is self-aware: there are a good many poems about writing poems, and a good deal of self-referentiality – if this is rarely tiresome it is because of Tranter’s mental adroitness and originality. True, the official line he tends to give us is anti-literary: ‘No more literature. The dream is done’. This is a post-literature in which ‘We become tired in the exhausted / air of our comparisons’. In fact Tranter is rather fond of comparisons, the more unlikely the better. In one piece ‘morning hunches like a gathering of men / in damp over-coats, waiting for something to happen’. In another we are told: ‘She panted in the staff room / Like a fly trapped in a Contents Page’. Elsewhere he is clearly sceptical about the claims of post-modernist theorising, with its ‘bluff /and counter-bluff’ and ‘now the tease, now the feint’, and complains:
Now they’re all fondling the culture tokens,
now this discourse bundle is a rapture cult
Not, of course, that he is averse to a little ludic teasing himself, as in ‘Ode to Col Joye’:
It’s a day for writing
a self-referential line like this
and getting it done in time for coffee
and a Chesterfield cigarette
and watching the smoke-ring blur
in front of the window
like a circular argument
about Mannerist art.
This self-awareness is also an awareness of the literary tradition, and there is a good deal of casual parody, a mangling of familiar texts as in: ‘a troubadour could not but be / bisexual’. A famous opening line of Spender’s suffers multiple transformations such as ‘I think continually of those who blundered badly’ or ‘I think occasionally of those who were truly great’ or ‘He thinks constantly on the greatness / of Edna St Vincent Millay’. Mention of ‘our fairy decorator’ refers us – perhaps rather too knowingly – to Lowell. Everywhere, sometimes at the most unexpected moments, we find the classics peeping through, a little mangled or distorted and very much in fragments. The musical equivalent to this is the polystylism of a composer such as Schnittke.
For all these literary highjinks Tranter offers us a world that is hardly exotic, with its vodka slingshots, jukeboxes, Turbo Porsches and Acid Radicals: this is a ‘parade sauvage’ where ‘on the skyline you can see Rupert Murdoch / Crawling over Fleet Street’. Where Seidel’s habitats tend to be rather exclusive ones – Claridge’s, the Ritz, Harvard, Oxford, film-shoots, fashion shows, and Senate Select Committees – Tranter is happy to hang out in a bar or a restaurant, or simply to sit on the beach. Several of the poems lovingly evoke the city of Sydney. In ‘Lavender Ink’ (another self-referential poem) he envisages a future reader
a thousand years from now, and not
getting it quite right: missing the
delicate hangover, the distant murmur
of the city, the scent of this ink
drying on the page.
It seems that Tranter can write straightforwardly enough when he wants to and – as in this poem – to marvellous effect. Certainly his range is impressive. He offers us such mordant aperçus as ‘you will live / forever, says the manikin in the sketch, / but none of your wishes will ever come true’, yet there is also a joy and playfulness in his work that is to be relished: life may be complicated but pleasure can be simple – ‘it’s a summer’s day in Sydney, and everyone’s going to the beach’. His canvas is a crowded one; though he is aware of the selectivity of art and how in life there are always ‘more characters than you can poke a stick at’, yet in his own oblique way he captures quite as much of experience as Williams, certainly more than Seidel, and deserves to be much better known outside Australia. Doubtless this generous selection of his work in Urban Myths will serve that purpose.
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