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[»»] John Tranter and Jason Steger discuss: Starlight: 150 Poems (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2010), 214pp. This piece first appeared in The Age on 27 August 2011, page 29. Jason Steger is the Literary Editor of The Age.
Poetry has been with us, like prostitution, since the beginning of time,
and it has never been a very good choice of career. ”
Starlight: 150 Poems (UQP, September 2010) wins the 2011 Age Poetry Book of the Year: from the judges’ comments:
AFTER a career of more than 40 years, John Tranter has become that paradoxical thing: the postmodern master. Ghosting others’ poems, using “proceduralist” approaches to composition and revising and mistranslating “classic” works (such as Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal), Tranter produces something entirely original and — most importantly — superbly entertaining. The inventiveness of Starlight seems unending, offering us a countless array of brilliant images and atmospheres, hilarious ideas and compelling melanges of styles and registers. Starlight could well be Tranter’s masterpiece.”
— David McCooey, The Saturday Age. Saturday 06 August 2011.
ONE of John Tranter’s first poems was an angry one. It was an argument written [in 1963] in response to [a poem] by A. D. Hope called ‘Australia’, in which the then-venerable Hope got stuck into the country and its spot at the end of the world: “She is the last of lands, the emptiest/ A woman beyond her change of life, a breast/ Still tender but within the womb is dry.”
“For some reason,” Tranter recalls, “I decided to answer his poem. I kept most of his end words and the rhyme and the structure of the poem and rewrote it from a critical viewpoint. I don’t know why I was angry with him. I think he was famous and successful and I was a very young, starving poet.”
That poem was written in 1963 and Tranter has been doing much the same ever since. But not so angrily. “I’ve been taking other artworks and demolishing them and rebuilding them and commenting on them and using bits of them to critique them.”
It’s an approach that is to the fore in his most recent collection, Starlight: 150 Poems, which on Thursday won the Age Poetry Book of the Year award. It is a book of “mistranslations”, reworkings and great wit.
Starlight opens with ‘The Anaglyph’, a radical reworking of ‘Clepsydra’ by American poet John Ashbery, to whom the book is dedicated. “I had the idea to rewrite the poem as though I had written it myself, but I wanted to keep Ashbery in it, so I took the first and last word of each line and kept that from his poem.”
He concedes that he didn’t fully understand the Ashbery work all that well. Indeed, when he talks about the meaning of poetry he likens it to the meaning of a dream. “You have some dream, as I did the other night, and you wake up thinking, ‘That’s so important’ but the dream is so obscure that you have no idea what it means.”
Tranter also writes a lot about films — there is a series of eight poems in Starlight, called ‘At the Movies’, in which he responds to things as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the TV detective series Columbo.
When he talks about meaning in his poetry, he cites one of his cinematic heroes, Luis Buñuel, on the experience of seeing a film. “He said in 1953 the moment in a movie theatre when the lights go down and you start to live the life of a movie you’re watching is almost the same as when you go to sleep and it goes dark and you start to dream, and the meaning of a film is like the meaning of a dream. I thought that was exactly what I was going to say about poetry; the meanings are very similar.”
While Tranter acknowledges the three poetic influences on his work — Ashbery, the hoax modernist work produced in the name of Ern Malley, and French poet Arthur Rimbaud — in Starlight he notes that he is trying to “displace the authorial ego”.
Buñuel, whom he cites again, said the ideal film would be one that had no names in it and you wouldn’t know who directed or wrote it. “In the same way,” Tranter says, “mediaeval cathedrals give you this intense emotional experience yet you have no idea who designed them or built them. Films and poems could be like that, too, in a way.”
He reckons part of this attitude comes from growing up as a poet in a period when “it was very much about ‘the me’ in poetry and you could tell a good poem from a bad poem because the me was very much more sensitive and thoughtful in a good poem”.
What he does place great store by is the technical side of poetry. It’s what for him makes it so different from prose, not the emotional content. He has always been interested in many different kinds of verse in the same way as a composer or musician plays a lot to learn how music is put together.
“I’ve always found the technical aspect enjoyable to experiment with and I think I’m fairly good at it – because I’m not good at much else.”
Tranter published his first collection, Parallax, in 1970; he doesn’t think the place of the poet in Australia has changed much since then. “Poetry has been with us, like prostitution, since the beginning of time, and it has never been a very good choice of career.”
Fortunately, he never published his response to the Hope poem. He met the great man years later and grew to be quite fond of him. He and his wife, literary agent Lyn Tranter (their daughter is novelist Kirsten Tranter), went to dinner at his home. “He was very charming and we had a lovely time.”
Starlight: 150 Poems is published by the University of Queensland Press.
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