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John Tranter: Reviewed

John Forbes reviews Selected Poems, 1982, by John Tranter

John Forbes reviews John Tranter, Selected Poems, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982. This piece was first published in Meanjin magazine number 2, 1983. It is 1,738 words or about six printed pages long.

Cover of Selected Poems

“ Tranter is like the coyote chasing the roadrunner, using a great deal of energy and cunning, but never catching him. ”

The poems in John Tranter’s Selected Poems belie the relaxation the swimming pool on the cover suggests. They are nearly all serious and ambitious works, serious, that is, about poetry rather than the poet’s opinions or true-life adventures. How do you go about taking poetry seriously? By writing it well and well-made poems are worthwhile in themselves. But what if you want a poem that is more than a cultural icon, however deft? Or as Tranter puts it in [the poem] ‘Red Movie’ —

an experiment which succeeds, he said,
wiping the breath from his face
which had started to congeal
is no longer an experiment, but has become
a demonstration of the obvious

Tranter’s early poems are in some respects a demonstration of the obvious in that they are very competent. They use a conventional, symbolist approach to imagery with great success. My favourites are ‘Waiting for Myself to Appear’ and ‘How They Shot the Saviour of the Republic’:

They locked him in a trunk and fed him
chemicals, he grew awkwardly
learning pain, and how to clutch
and prod clumsy features into grimaces
resembling ‘green’ or ‘mercy’. How he escaped
they never knew, he crawled
miles under the bed of the Atlantic
feeding on mud, and dreaming
happy endings. The dawn found him
arising to radiant Brazil. Who knows,
they gave him the greeting he deserved.

But Tranter’s poetry develops. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Tranter did not use his fluency to become either a personal or geographic myth-maker. The content of his early poems is a displacement into expressionism (crisis, angst, alienation in fast cars) of a dissatisfaction with poetic technique. In ‘Red Movie’ there is still the Romantic theme of the poet being forced to new ways of writing by extremes of experience:

choose the song most suited
to your movements, to your fatal
and impossible beauty
summer’s tattered flag your winding sheet
fate’s tackle and gear
drops you by the neck

With its disconnected passages and use of images for their own sake, rather than impressionistic effect, ‘Red Movie’ points away from the ailing poetry of a subject set against a cultural background:

                  ...the big dude
breaks down: sack of slack meat on the flash divan
broke up and cried like a baby.

— an image that suggests at least the title of Crying in Early Infancy. The most important of Tranter’s early poems is ‘Poem Ending with a Line from Rimbaud’ which recognises the futility of the literary end-game with its naive belief that experience can renew the poem and free it from a culture the poet despises:

He: It is easier to like the soldier
when he laughs and shoots a foaming dog
rather than a man, or child, and easier then
to hold the hand grenade. No plane comes
down faster when the jets are shot
than the law of gravity allows. Let the radar
plot, let the men drink poisoned lemonade.
It is better to allow the tide
to bring the fish in as they will,
or in that shoal as that shoal moves
like a flock of leaves across the hill,
across the traffic and the school of windscreens
damp with love. Leave the office,
leash the dog that nibbles at his bone,
bring all your country longings to an end.
Prepare your face to be an imprint of the scene —
the clock, the limping man, the cash machine.
Wax the ski. Compress the snow.
She: Et mon bureau?

Recalling the face which must not congeal lest it reflects only a demonstration of the obvious, the first part of this dialogue urges an openness to experience and a readiness to move with it — ‘Wax the ski. Compress the snow.’ But the one line at the end of the poem undermines this expressionist myth. The Muse asks, in a language only study lets us understand, ‘And my role?’ This makes the point — emphasised by the ambiguity of ‘bureau’, meaning both ‘role’ [that is, office work] and, literally, ‘writing desk’ — that no simple rejection of literary culture can create literature anew, or free the subject of the poem from its own status as myth. The destruction of this myth is the main concern of Tranter’s poetry and one that distinguishes it from much recent Australian poetry. Most poets either accept without question the cultural presuppositions that allow a coherent subject in the poem, or else rhetorically adopt personal or social myths that create a space for the subject. Either way the poetry produced makes no formal demands on the reader — it works like Rococo art, manipulating, often to pleasing effect, a given set of stylistic referents. While avoiding simplicity and rhetoric, Tranter’s imagery and concerns remain social and not private, and the tension between this and his attempts to demolish the type of subject which such a public approach normally employs, gives his poems an edge of social comment. (Poems of direct social comment usually fail, or succeed for other reasons, because, language being neither transparent nor sub-structural, they are a function of what they attempt to criticise.)

But how do you write, knowing that the poem can never escape from Literature and, at the same time, not wanting merely to demonstrate the obvious? The long poems ‘The Alphabet Murders’ and ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ both strike me as circling around this problem. In them Tranter is like the coyote chasing the roadrunner, using a great deal of energy and cunning, but never catching him. And while the roadrunner can paint a tunnel on a cliff face and disappear into it, the pursuing coyote just smacks up against the painted stone, despite all the assistance he’s got from ACME Products (Historico-Cultural Divison). In these poems, as in ‘The Poem in Love’ sequence, the subject discusses its demise without really achieving it:

                  ...And where is that poem

we loved so heedlessly and hoped for so much from?
(Doesn’t that whip your tragic sentiment to foam?)
I drank a Pepsi like they do in N.Y.
and that fizzy noise was like how
you could hear the Sonnet feasting on itself.
Goodbye hopeless poems! Kiss me! Kiss me! Goodbye!

In Crying In Early Infancy (100 Sonnets) Tranter comes close to abandoning subject for total surface effect. He does this by undermining the subject while the sonnet form works as a grid, or rack, on which this occurs. He does not give up his favourite images; here there are the technical vocabularies, motor cars, ‘girls’, drugs, anguish, weaponry and foreign places familiar from his earlier poems. But now the symbolic value they had is constantly subverted. Also, the interrogation of History and Culture that fails to hold one’s interest in ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ here produces empty, embellished frenzies that answer their own questions and self-destruct. One I like a lot is ‘Sonnet 89’, partly because of the contrast that can be made between the manic dissolution of the subject in this poem, and the subject as commentator on the site of the authentic in Les Murray’s ‘Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’. Both are set against a background of ‘Sydney’:

I’d like to throw an epileptic fit
at the Sydney Opera House and call it Rodent.
That’s what separates me from the herd.
The hand forgives the cutting edge
for what the hand guides it to do.
The knife has no pleasure in it.
I’m eating my way through my life —
they said it couldn’t be done

but here I am in the Palace of Gastronomes
crazy about the flavour!
Moonlight along the blade of a kitchen knife
belongs to the ritzy forties, it’s nostalgic
like playing the comb and one hundred dollar bill
and calling it the blues.

The subject in these poems is not abolished but retained in a constant state of disintegration. Tranter’s subject exposes its underpinnings of self-assertion and relentless consumption. In contrast to the nostalgia of a static social or cultural image, the speed that keeps the poem moving is the speed of capital which allows all choices to be indulged. It is not that such nostalgia is wrong, but it’s merely a choice, provided by affluence and dependent on it. Tranter illustrates that any such space made available for the subject is just a commodity, hence the ambition of these poems to be as disillusioned about themselves as possible. A poetry whose internal logic attempts to keep pace with the economy in which it’s written is perhaps still dependent on myth — the myth that, under capitalism, all things solid do melt into the air — but it’s more persuasive than myths of individual sensibility or religious transcendence. For instance, ‘Sonnet 19’:

The elements of form go like this —
You bang your head with a brick. Simple?
I am thinking of buying a new Volvo today,
my reasons aren’t very clear to me,
and clarity is essential to the form of the essence
where the essence has been transmuted from Katmandu
sealed up in the baggage hold
of a book of Gnostic meditations

locked in the trunk of the Volvo
which will not be bought by me
after all, summer is moving in
and Hyacinth has gone off to find a job
i.e. a job like a truckie or a pill
the truckie eats with obvious relish.

But where the poems slow down, definite images in a cultural landscape are allowed to form; the poems become a commentary on the process of dissolution and the subject remains, a sardonic but recognisable ‘tone of voice’. This happens in some of Tranter’s later poems — the brilliant details pile up but the work is not as ambitious, except in ‘Apolitical Poem’, ‘Radio Traffic 1’ and ‘Leavis at the London’. The directly comic poems, ‘Moonshine’ and ‘Ode to Col Joye’ are very funny, especially the latter, combining as it does good humoured criticism of that mirage-like entity, ‘The Sydney School’, with the only reply worth making — besides a swift kick — to the sour polemicists who invented it. But cultural irony is not as interesting as Tranter’s main achievement — those poems that draw their energy from a resistance to the inevitability of culture and its decelerations into meaning. Exit the poem, pursued by the Froth Machine.

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