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John Tranter: Reviewed

Gary Catalano reviews Crying in Early Infancy by John Tranter

Gary Catalano reviews John Tranter, Crying in Early Infancy: One Hundred Sonnets, Makar Press, 1977
This piece was first published in Contempa magazine Series 2, number 6. It is 1,684 words or about five printed pages long.

“ …the diction is often tired and forced, the sonnet form is used in a monotonous and inflexible way, the tone is consistently one of lurid overstatement, and there is a complete absence of any genuine drama. ”


One of the things which frequently impairs the works of many artists is their imperfect understanding of the general aesthetic issues involved in, and by, their art. All of us probably know of at least one non-representational painter who insists that his hitherto-unseen marks are, in fact signs of some kind — just as we could name numerous artists and writers who appear to believe that the excellence of a work of art depends on the extent to which it departs significantly from accepted tradition. Despite the fact that these two views have had many impressive adherents, both are clearly fallacious.

Cover of Crying in Early Infancy

     John Tranter seems to me the victim of a peculiarly modern fallacy, though I’m not too sure just how we should identify it. For the sake of expediency, I’ll call it the avant-garde fallacy, for it draws much of its justification from the alleged incoherence or senselessness of the world. I would like to make my objections clear from the start and thus agree that such a belief about the world may, in fact, be plausible; it becomes a fallacy, however, when an artist assumes it is his task not so much to express as to prove this incoherence through the structure of a work of art. For when an artist does this, what he has really done is commit himself to a form of naturalism. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that many supposedly experimental works of art, whether visual or literary, are in fact examples of naturalism in disguise (‘Happenings’ are a conspicuous case); yet few people are willing to admit that such works are also tiresomely conventional in their inspiration. John Tranter is widely thought of as an experimental and determinedly modern poet, yet his most recent volume, Crying in Early Infancy, shows all the signs of a naturalistic art at its most degraded: the diction is often tired and forced, the sonnet form is used in a monotonous and inflexible way, the tone is consistently one of lurid overstatement, and there is a complete absence of any genuine drama. Melodrama, sure, buckets of it — but no drama! Above all, Tranter’s degraded naturalism shows up in the thinness and flimsiness of his presented world, bereft as it is of any felt sense of life.
     Perhaps the first thing that Tranter’s poetry tells you is that its author is an intellectual. This is indicated not only by the author’s enviable range of reference (the founders of non-Euclidean geometry put in an appearance in the second sonnet, though why I don’t know) but also by the relentlessly abstract quality of much of his diction. There are words and words galore, yet few of them seem to carry what, ideally, is their full impact. I may as well take my examples from the first poem in the book. It goes like this:

Now the party is over the beach dissolves
in a morbid and equivocal Brazilian atmosphere
I have especially constructed in the hope
that the book will write itself, but Bill screams
at my efforts. Write another party, he flashes . . .
total aviator glasses automatic magazine!
Once I put down an astronaut he moves downrange.
Once I loaded the magazine, I ran out of paper.

Once I was happy, at the middle of the party.
The tidal wave hangs about behind the harbour wall.
It has travelled a long way from Okinawa.
Guns thump beyond the jungle’s periphery
in a rigmarole of purpose. There is no
weather where the beach repeats itself.

I can, detachedly, understand every word that the poet has used here, yet in the context of the poem few of them carry anything like their nominal significance. It may seem painfully simple-minded of me, yet how are we to understand an atmosphere that is both ‘morbid’ and ‘equivocal’? Taken individually, both words are not unusual or particularly imaginative ways of describing an atmosphere: are we meant to believe that John Tranter is ‘experimental’ because he uses two cliches where one would suffice? An atmosphere is a vague enough thing for a poet to write about; why did this poet refer to it in such a way that its inherent vagueness is increased? The fact that the poem’s object is a continually shifting one (dissolving beach, odd atmosphere, a conversation, intimations of a war, then the beach again) is no argument against its manifest lack of precision or clarity.
     Look at the last word in that first line and ponder it more closely: ‘dissolves’. One thing you can say about Tranter’s intended technique is that his line breaks (‘dissolves’ is not a strict example of enjambment) often seem boldly appropriate, yet if you ask yourself what particular sense of the word is here being called on I think you’d pass a different judgement on his achieved technique. Simple dissolution? There is nothing in the first sonnet to suggest otherwise, yet familiarity with the motifs of the collection indicate that the dissolve referred to is a more specific one — a cinematic dissolve, in fact. When you see this, you cannot help but read the subsequent line of the poem in a totally different way: where the voice tended to rush through the line, as if to give effect to the ostensible meaning of the verb, it now holds and savours those two adjectives (‘morbid’, ‘equivocal’) and enforces a pause after both of them. It is a slow dissolve the voice now enacts. Surely there is something wrong with Tranter’s dramatic resources if we have to read 100 sonnets in order to discover just how we should read the first one in the series. Or is this an indication of his alleged profundity?
     One thing our revised reading of the second line achieves is to give a semblance of gravid concreteness to the words of the poem, yet it only remains a semblance. I think this lack not only of any sharp situation behind the poem but also of any firm and convincing texture, explains a few more peculiarities of Tranter’s diction, especially that need on the poet’s part for that blatant — that crude — positioning of ‘scream’ at the end of line 4, and the sheer triteness of much of the rest. A tidal wave hangs, guns thump and so on. They are still there after you blink in disbelief.
     The question I would like answered is why does John Tranter use words this unthinkingly? I’m sure that the confusionist fallacy (there, we’ve named it!) he appears to subscribe to is partly an answer, but in that case our diagnosis should, perhaps, be qualified: it is not the incoherence of things that we find here expressed or proven, it is the dejection of living, John Tranter-style. That is about the only thing these poems convince you of.
     In preparation for the writing of this review, one of the exercises I undertook was to list the occurrence of certain words and areas of reference. My initial reading of the book had indicated that a number of concerns kept surfacing throughout the sonnets: guns, war and the movies were obvious examples, as was art. In making the lists, I vaguely hoped that they would provide me with some clue as to the mechanics of Tranter’s imagination.
     If that hope was a vain one (war is grotesque and stupid, and art, at best, another form of suffering), the exercise did at least throw into high relief the largely undeveloped poignancy of some of Tranter’s more momentary themes. Here and there one heard a distinct lament for an un-experienced (rather than lost) innocence (see Sonnet 14); in one place, we had a surprisingly wise observation on the consequences of our evasion of pain (see Sonnet 8); and there were occasional ruminations on the poet’s inability to arrest the flow of time, and thereby learn all there is to know about a situation or an experience. And tying all these momentary, scattered themes together was an irritation with the power of fashion, especially the ‘loud-mouth’ fashions of our era.
     If they had been more constructively handled, the series as a whole may have amplified and made more clear what, I suspect, was the poet’s primary purpose — and that is his need to excuse himself for his own past stupidities. A loudmouth’s penance, so to speak. The hard, contemptuous tone we hear throughout the sonnets seems largely directed against himself:

                            ...We love and burn
just for a year or so, then take those photos
and lose a precious ability and a sweetheart
and nothing seems the same, ever again.
This dogging loss chews at my heels and soon
years later, we are less than what we knew.      (Sonnet 40)

And, more pertinently still, these lines from Sonnet 44:

Something new has moved uncomfortably close,
something not previously seen:
a talent for aiming the poisoned dart,
for detecting the touch of the unclean,
for discovering that, in the pure of heart,
there is something unforgivably obscene.

Those six lines are perhaps the finest and certainly the most poignant of the 1400 in Crying in Early Infancy, and the fact that you can hear the cadences of the great dead in them is no argument against their excellence. In his earlier, late-Sixties work, Tranter was almost alone amongst young Australian poets in his declared debt to the work of Eliot; I think he should turn again to that source of influence and salvage what he can from his present ruin. For the influences he is now working under are clearly corrupting and destructive ones. His technique is sloppy and inexact, and he rarely has anything arresting to say. As Troilus puts it, ‘words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart’.

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