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John Tranter: Reviewed

Martin Duwell reviews Selected Poems, 1982 by John Tranter

The Australian Weekend Magazine 11-12 September 1982
This piece is 972 words or about three printed pages long.

“ It’s a magnificent poem, deadly serious and uproariously funny at the same time, full of submerged quotations and parody. ”


John Tranter’s Selected Poems should do much to ensure a properly wide audience for one of Australia’s few unquestionably major poets.

Cover of Selected Poems


      As a prefatory note points out, Tranter’s six individual volumes published during the seventies are not easy to obtain. They are either out of print or are the productions of small publishers with limited powers of distribution. The Selected Poems compensates for this by being a very full selection although the fact that four-fifths of Tranter’s first book Parallax and 30 of the 100 sonnets of Crying in Early Infancy have been discarded means that those two books are still valuable acquisitions for serious readers of poetry in this country.
     At the heart of this book are three extraordinary attempts at the long poem, each of them a major landmark. The earliest, ‘Red Movie’, is a sophisticated summation of the dominant kind of poem in Tranter’s early work, the portrait in which the subject is someone burnt-out by ‘the glare of life.’ These characters form a caste, inhabiting an urban landscape full of elegant menace.
     Its more memorable members include the non-commercial traveller, the protagonist of’ The Road Back, ‘He lights up the kitchen in a vain attempt to reconnect.’ ‘Just passing through’; the girl Peta, the drunken poet Cronstadt and many others. One of the finest is the subject of Tranter’s version of the obligatory portrait of a lady, (‘Sketch for a Portrait of a Young Woman’)

Her desires cluster in a gathering of symptoms
like a new disease. She wears a certain colour
for complex reasons to do with the weather,
a feeling in the market, a tendency to anger
in the group she knows.

Put together, these poems make up an anatomy of anomie. ‘Red Movie’ is an attempt to give greater depth to the picture but its tactic is not to examine any one life at greater length. There is after all, despite Conversations and Waiting for ‘Myself to Appear’, a point at which you can’t usefully probe behind phrases like ‘the glare of life’ and ‘the shrill traffic of the ordinary.’ Instead it attempts, as its epigraph suggests, to fix a group of fragmentary portraits on a sort of grid which will bring into focus aspects of behaviour.This description makes it sound complex, and it is a complex poem, but it is immediately powerful and has lost none of its impact in the 10 years since its initial publication.       The next long poem, ‘The Alphabet Murders’, represents a change of direction. Its subject is poetry and it seems to be an attempt to investigate the nature of poetry after all the accretions of accepted method (called at one point, ‘riddles, packaging’) have been stripped away. The overall scheme of the poem is a journey which, like all good journeys, hopefully arrives at the point of departure, knowing it for the first time. It’s a magnificent poem, deadly serious and uproariously funny at the same time, full of submerged quotations and parody.
     It begins as a sensible and slightly solemn meditation, but as it progresses it becomes more distorted, more open to expressing a ferocious loathing that is kept tightly under control in the earlier poetry, and more open to suggested and rejected conclusions. ‘Poem 20’ for example is an outrageous distortion of some prose pontification of R.D.Fitzgerald, and ‘poem 23’, before embarking on what looks suspiciously like a parody of A.D. Hope’s ‘Death of a Bird’, investigates the metaphor whereby poetry is seen as a grand map of the heart: ‘The land is cruel / with existentialists, though lyric poets/ wander through like crippled birds.’
     The third long poem ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ is an exorcism of the ghost of Tranter’s major poetic mentor. It is a debate centred around the paradox that to obey Rimbaud’s dictum that ‘one must be absolutely modern’ a poet must reject Rimbaud himself, rather than build:

                        ...a theory on the ashes,
lacking native resolution, and now a paste of
bullshit obscures the surface of the legend
that cast out flattery and took rhetoric
and wrung its neck. To follow you we must
desert...

This is a severe critique of sympathetic contemporaries. Tranter has also always dealt harshly with exponents of what he considers to be a blandly bucolic tradition in Australian poetry. The harshness is justified in the sense that it is an expression of a rigor which he has always applied to his own work — a denial of the proposition that severity to others and indulgence to oneself are two sides of the same vice.
     ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ has been extensively revised since its appearance in 1974 in New Poetry magazine. It occurs to me that a study of Tranter’s techniques of revision would go a long way toward helping one come to grips with the poetry through a brief notice like this is hardly the appropriate arena. Revision is certainly not a matter of a little judicious trimming here, and a tidying-up of phrase there. It seems nearer to demolition and reconstruction resulting in what is often an almost unrecognisable poem. This suggests at the least a phenomenal fertility of inspiration coupled with a rock-solid technique.
     The revised ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ is also, I think, a rather more overtly, personal work in that the personal term of the mentor-disciple equation is less cryptic. This suggests perhaps that Tranter’s poetry in the future might move towards something slightly more open. Perhaps it’s significant that the photograph on the cover of the Selected Poems is an altogether more angst-ridden one than the opaque photographs on Parallax and Crying in Early Infancy.

Photo of John Tranter from Parallax Photo of John Tranter from Crying in Early Infancy Photo of John Tranter from Selected Poems


Three degrees of angst:
photographs of John Tranter, left to right, from the book covers of
Parallax (1970), Crying in Early Infancy (1977) and Selected Poems (1982).
Photographs (left to right) copyright © Leon Saunders 1970, © Martin Duwell 1977, © John Tranter 1997. You can see other photos of John Tranter on this site, here:../photos-html.html

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