Martin Duwell reviews John Tranter: Starlight: 150 Poems (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2010), 214pp. This piece first appeared on 1 March, 2011 on
“ There can be little doubt that “The Anaglyph” is the dominant poem of this collection and one of Tranter’s great achievements… ”
THIS IS A LARGE, four-part collection and its variousness or, at least, the various ways in which it explores its central themes, make this a good introduction to Tranter’s poetry for those readers yet to engage with it. The poems are generated in different ways but almost all are concerned with the status and dynamic of the poem itself. This issue of status is immediately separated from a kind of generally accepted notion of the poem as a stand-alone product, the response of a skilled worker with words to some sort of impetus, whether that be an event in the outside world or a nagging irritation in the unconscious. Tranter’s poetry has always resisted this model, sensing that there is always an element of the fake about this, not to mention a lot of worrying assumptions about the nature of the human self.
For decades Tranter has explored generative systems. These have included the computer programme BreakDown which, by analysis of the frequency of letter repetitions produces a passage of text which is entirely incomprehensible (truly “surrealist” in being determined but aleatory) but at the same time, definitely in the style of the original. We know from a passage given to Philip Mead and included in his excellent “How Poetry Became Posthuman” (it appears in both Mead’s Networked Language and The Salt Companion to John Tranter [link]) that a lot of “poetic” work needs to be done to make a poem or prose passage from such data and so there is no sense of a machine doing all the work. In fact the amount of labour looks daunting in comparison with the kind of work a conventional poet might have to do with images and phrases prompted by “an experience”, and Mead explores Tranter’s description of the process as a reverse of jazz-improvisation and his suggestive image of feeling like Dr McCoy in the Transporter room of the USS Enterprise when things have gone astray and the transmitted humans have become scrambled.
Another generative method (employed here in “Five Quartets”) involves “whiting out” words in an original to produce a text which contains only words from the original in the order in which they appear. Then there is the process of taking foreign language originals and passing them through a speech to text programme that produces only English and making a poem from the chaos that emerges. The “Speaking French” section of Starlight is built this way (using poems of Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud and Verlaine) and I might – in the interests of self-aggrandising scholarship – point out that something similar was done for Latin and Hebrew texts by Louis Zukofsky (though without the computer-assistance) and there is a very funny little book which processes Mother Goose Rhymes into French in a reverse procedure. And, finally, there is the wonderful opening poem, “The Anaglyph” [link], which built by retaining the first and last words of each line of Ashbery’s “Clepsydra” and building a poem by filling in the gaps – though a better description might be to say that it evacuates Ashbery’s poem in order to infill it with Tranter’s own material.
The obvious critical question which emerges here is: What generates this obsession with textual generation? Is the powerful drive to break down and reconstruct a response to imperatives in modern culture or does it have an individual, psychological component (assuming that that is not an out-of-date obfuscation)? A lot has to do, I think, with Tranter’s own engagement with the issues of influence and how this relates to the status of texts. Instead of poems as discrete (almost excreted) objects, we have instead a continuum of text production with individual authors reinhabiting and rewriting the work of the past. Robert Duncan had a similar view of creativity as a transformative continuum but in Tranter’s world there is a lot more pragmatism and avoidance of a kind of pan-creative mysticism. Sometimes all that is taken is a tone of voice or style (as in the case of the BreakDown generated texts) evacuated of meaningful content and asking to be informed by a new content which can be comically and satirically at odds with the tone and content of the original. Sometimes a syntactic structure is taken as well as a good deal of the “meaning” (as in the case of rewriting the poems of Les Fleurs du mal in the last section of Starlight), and, in the case of a poem like “The Anaglyph”, a formal requirement is made which is derived from the original poem but not in a way that that poem would conceive of “form”. But it shouldn’t be felt that this process is, in some way, an avoidance of poetic personality, a reducing of the poetic self to some mechanical producer of arbitrary texts. There is a lot of Tranter’s poetic personality at all levels of Starlight and, as we will see, versions of the poems of as “strong” (in the Bloomian sense) a poet as Baudelaire come out sounding perfectly consistent with the Tranter of Crying in Early Infancy and Dazed in the Ladies Lounge.
So Tranter’s engagement with past masters and influences – especially Rimbaud and Ashbery – has a personal and psychological dimension that is an important part of his output, though to say that merely skates over an immensely complex issue. It is no accident that two of Tranter’s most important early poems: “The Alphabet Murders” and “Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy” are, respectively, an attempt to ask what a contemporary poem might look like once the various rhetorics and dishonesties and stripped away, and a kind of biography of the great precursor of the modern whose injunction “One must be absolutely modern” is a cornerstone of Tranter’s poetic development. (It might also be more than a coincidence that each of these poems was entirely rewritten.) The engagement with Rimbaud is a personal one.
At the same time, it is hard not to feel that the sense of being in some way a construction, a momentary consolidation of genetic and cultural factors (with some very permeable boundaries), is, in Tranter’s case, not a result of absorbing what psychoanalytical theorists in foreign capitals argued last century, but is rather a deeply personal experience. It can lead to a sense of unreality and dissociation. These are states that Tranter writes about brilliantly (“The Moment of Waking” appears as the first poem proper of both his Selected Poems) and they can also be states that the poetry induces in the reader – there is an especially mesmeric quality, for example, to the eighty pages of sonnets in the “Speaking French” section of Starlight. A crucial early Tranter poem is significantly titled “Waiting For Myself to Appear” (as with the other two poems I spoke of, this was rewritten) and Tranter’s sensitivity to the culture of the nineteen-fifties, especially its imported American films, surely derives from the fact that adolescent selves are even more obviously unstable, temporary constructions than adult ones. A great poem from the 1988 volume, Under Berlin, “Those Gods Made Permanent”, is an extended meditation on the movies and the actors – escaping time through the messy chemistry of developing film – who have become not so much models as possible personality-configurations for the people watching. The poem as a whole rather recalls “Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy”, at least in tone, and it concludes with the same kind of powerful look towards a bleak future:
punish those of us who survive them
is one way to look at it, and if the sight
of a torn movie poster flapping in the wind
upsets you, so it should, the slope is
downhill now and the strange valley ahead
is brimming with darkness, where your father’s ghost
waits to welcome you into the company of shadows.
(It is hard not to be interested here in the final reference to the father. It looks at first reading like a reference to Hamlet, but Tranter’s parents figure, if not largely, then at least regularly in his poetry and especially in interviews he has given. They represent, perhaps, the tenuous genetic component of the self, while the poetic mentors represent the poetic dimension.) Similar material to that found in “Those Gods Made Permanent” appears in “After Hoelderlin” a version of “Da ich ein Knabe war” / “When I was a boy”) which is used as the prefatory poem to Tranter’s second Selected Poems, Urban Myths, though the poem is less dark since it inherits the tone of the original:
You characters caught up in your emotions
on the screen, how I wish you could know
how much I loved you; how I longed
to comfort the distraught heroine
or share a beer with the lonely hero.
I knew your anxieties, trapped
in a story that wouldn’t let you live;
[....] These dreams were my teachers
and I learned the language of love
among the light and shadow
in the arms of the gods.
This unintended segue suggests that I should begin my look at Starlight with the short third section, “At the Movies”, the only section that might be called “occasional” in that the poems spring from an authorial mind’s engagement with cultural objects. Tranter’s fascination with film, as I have said, goes back a long way. “Red Movie”, the sequence from his second book, might be a starting point although its interests seem methodological – it is about “field composition” and the refusal to treat characters as self-contained consistent elements. Under Berlin is probably a better place to begin because we meet there not only poems like “Those Gods Made Permanent” which are general in their approach, but poems like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “High School Confidential” which are engagements with film as a cultural product, focussed on individual films. The first of these is a brilliant poem which sees the “host” film as an expression of the fears of its culture (“that creature, / rising like a new disease from the gene pool, / why should we pity him? Deracinated, / maybe, but what a guy!”) and simultaneously as an interlocking set of generic conventions that make its narrative path predictable:
You pity the girl in the bathing suit –
she may be a palaeontologist, but
sure as eggs she’s going to get
a terrible fright. And the ethnics,
they have to die on our journey
towards the knowledge that shimmers behind
the South American façade...
Starlight includes poems based on well-known films like Vertigo and Forbidden Planet as well as on more obscure works and also a television series, Columbo. The title of “Caliban” is an acknowledgement that Forbidden Planet is a transposition of much of Shakespeare’s play to the science fiction realm of Altair 4. Tranter’s response to the film is, interestingly, congruent with its location in the culture that made it. The id of the scientist, powered by the machines of the planet’s extinct inhabitants, takes the form of the gigantic invisible monster that destroyed the initial expedition and threatens to destroy the current one, sent as a rescue mission. If The Creature from the Black Lagoon is most easily read as an expression of American fears of miscegenation, then Forbidden Planet embodies fears of the destructiveness of the unconscious mind in post-Freudian America, interestingly crossed with fears about out-of-control technological developments (such as the H-Bomb). I think, in passing, that this is quite unlike the “take” that most contemporary Australians would have on Forbidden Planet. We would be much more likely to see it (as we do The Tempest) as lending to post-colonial allegories whereby the obliterated inhabitants threaten the colonisers by infiltrating their consciousnesses. Again, as with earlier “movie” poems, this poem has multiple perspectives. The film is a metonymic expression of its culture both in its settings and themes. But the poem also wants to position itself outside the film in the shooting, (“What do they talk about in the studio canteen / between takes”) in its technology (the spaceship is steered “through a field of sound effects”) and in its genre (“Why is he there? / To romance the Professor’s nubile daughter whose / air of innocence hangs around her like a perfume”.
The Columbo poem is also about frames within frames and different viewpoints (it may be worth reminding readers that Tranter’s first book was called Parallax, which is in essence no more than a double perspective). It is also a sonnet structured so that the “turn” after the eighth line is exactly at the point of the change of perspective whereby the focus on the scruffy detective’s interrogation, which takes place on a movie back lot, widens to take in other “characters”:
and we notice, a hundred yards away, between
two hangar-like studio buildings, an actor
in a Roman Centurion costume, smoking
and talking to a friend, and beside him
a kangaroo on a lead looking around
then tentatively sniffing the ground.
This is really one of those Chinese box structures that fascinate Tranter. The kangaroo exists inside a film about filmmaking (and crime). Film “contains” reality and, since it exists in the real world as an experience, is also contained by reality.
Probably the most complex of these poems is “Boy in Mirror”, about Hitchcock’s Vertigo – its companion piece, “Girl in Water”, can be found in the “At the Movies” section of Urban Myths. It includes an opening section on adolescent responses to the film and is built out of a free flowing commentary on the film which stresses its complex motifs and openness to an allegorising approach. The poem gives a generic-narrative interpretation of Vertigo which, like North by Northwest, contains, the poem says, a woman imprisoned by a monster who must be killed so that the princess can be rescued.
Cherchez la femme , then the action
moves to a strangely threatening rural arena
far from the city: dangerous heights and fatal falls:
the (blonde) is unfaithful to the hero, maybe because
she has been captured and possessed by another monster
and soon the hero is a cuckolder and the woman adulterous
and thus fallen, or falling, or dead and gone…
We also get a lot of impressively detailed critical reading, especially involving connections with Proust that perhaps derive from the original novel on which Vertigo is based. These may be well-known in the land of film-criticism but they are new to me. The perspectives in this poem are not only the different ways of reading the narrative itself (ie with a progressively wider lens producing an archetypal reading) and the increasingly fine observation of detail, but they also bring in the adolescent boy’s response to the eroticised body of Kim Novak and his identification with the wounded policeman.
Starlight’s fourth section is a series of responses, or rewritings, of poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Like those of the second section, these poems are marked by energy and a clear pleasure, both for writer and reader, in the way syntax and energy interact in an imposed form. Baudelaire’s metier is to live within the sordidnesses and aspirations of his age rather than claim to stand outside it. In these transformations the seedy world of mid-century France becomes the modern world of crooked entrepreneurs, addicts and prostitutes. The first poem is an example of the section’s title “Contre-Baudelaire” because the original is clearly addressed to the poet’s muse and when it speaks of her having to prostitute herself, Baudelaire is speaking of himself. In the Tranter we get one of those portraits of women which can be found in his early poetry and the title is changed to “Venus” – one of the points the poem perhaps wants to make is that Muses cannot exist in a world of contemporary poetics (a similar idea lies behind Adamson’s Theatre which responds to Bonnefoy’s interest in the nature of a modern muse):
Gothic girl, nightclubber, speed queen,
when the icy north wind rakes the streets
and you stumble home to your claustrophobic room
and find the heating cut off, what will you do?
A shot of something will warm your guts for a while,
then the bottle’s empty, and the alien at the store
won’t give you credit any more. Rummage in your bag:
garbage, more garbage, and an empty syringe.
You might get work in soft-core porn, perhaps;
or a job in a fly-by-night shoe shop, or a temp position
typing up bullshit for a junior sales executive,
or maybe you could try a standup comic routine,
learning to handle the hecklers and get a laugh
exposing your miserable life for a share of the take.
Other poems use transformations which update Baudelaire in a more co-operative way but some work by using bathos. The “divine brothers” of “Le Flambeau Vivant” who guide the poet’s steps along the pathway of beauty become the actors of “Screen Angels”:
I see them in the air, creatures of the screen,
born of stories concocted for money to feed
the crowd with a perfectly average IQ…
though, given poems like “Those Gods Made Permanent”, this might not be quite such a harsh take on popular culture as it seems.
The use of bathos works most interestingly in the little poem, “Rotten Luck”:
To put up with a career as pointless as this,
it takes the courage of a gambler.
Okay, someone has to do it, but like they say:
vita brevis, ars longa. The grave
I look for is covered with brambles,
on a lonely hill in the bush. Jazz began
by livening up a funeral march. So
mix more drinks and make them stronger.
More than one winning lottery ticket lies
forgotten in a drawer. Dentists ply
their skilled and painful trade, ignored.
Many an opium poppy flaunts its
spangled petals in a silent jungle glade,
far from addicts, that babbling horde.
This is not only a better, tighter, and more intense poem than Baudelaire’s “Le Guignon”, it makes a point of transforming its original humorously. The Baudelaire goes (according to the translation of William Aggeler):
To lift a weight so heavy,
Would take your courage, Sisyphus!
Although one’s heart is in the work,
Art is long and Time is short.
Far from famous sepulchres
Toward a lonely cemetery
my heart, like muffled drums,
Goes beating funeral marches.
Many a jewel lies buried
In darkness and oblivion,
Far, far away from picks and drills;
Many a flower regretfully
Exhales perfume soft as secrets
In a profound solitude.
The process of dragging the poem downwards here, from its lofty and slightly clichéd perch, seems to liven it up considerably. The way in which a jewel lying buried away from picks and drills metamorphoses into a lottery ticket and a reference to dentists is interesting because not only is the result good but it becomes even better when origin of the transformation is looked at.
In the case of “Albatross” the transformation is extreme. The original poem begins with a description of the way in which sailors, to amuse themselves, capture albatrosses so that they can laugh at the way in which these lords of the air struggle clumsily to walk on a ship’s deck. The final quatrain allegorises this out to be a symbol of the poet who, when exiled on earth, finds his giant wings prevent him from walking. In Tranter’s poem, the bird is transformed into a corporate high-flyer and the sailors into regulatory authorities who “sometimes, to amuse themselves... arraign them in the dock”. And the clumsiness of the albatross is dwelt on at some length so that, in the dock:
That brain like a steel trap that could easily recall
a shift in their investments of half a point
months ago, among a welter of obscure trades,
now struggles to remember who said what
about some crucial deal a week ago.
Perhaps the most interesting case of this “transformation by expansion” is in “Pride” based on “Chatiment de l’Orgueil”. The original describes the fall of an academic theologian who, Lucifer-like, becomes so proud of his knowledge that he attributes the success of the church to it and says, “Jesus, little Jesus! I raised you very high! / But had I wished to attack you through the defect / In your armour, your shame would equal your glory”. In the Tranter the age of high theology is “the Age of Plastic” and the academician a “Californian Marxist Theoretician / flushed with a tenure-track appointment”. What is of interest is that Tranter spells out what he considers the failing of the Theory-age to be – something not required by the original which is far more gestural:
he woke from a bad dream choked with simulacra
and cried out: “Theory! I nurtured and raised you!
But had I wished to trip you up through
the defect of your initial faulty premise –
cultural formations are “like languages”, they
have a “grammar” – why not “like roles”, they
interact with other “roles” constituting
a “narrative” of social interaction? – why not
“like a circuit”, interacting choices which
summed in Boolean groups constitute
a variable and cybernetic current of meaning? -
faulty, plausible simile – from which everything else
extends like a cantilevered road to nowhere –
your sudden fall from fashion and power
would far surpass the velocity of your takeoff,
and you would plunge to earth, a moral lapse,
a fashion blunder, a shameful memory, a fad!”
This seems to me a viable critique of the modern anthropological assumption that cultures can be read like languages, an assumption that alarms linguists and seems to have no “epistemic warrant”. It doesn’t, though, mark Tranter out as “anti-theorist” since the language assumption is the grafting of one section of the humanities (linguistics/grammar) onto another (anthropology) and Tranter’s suggested “why nots” finish up in the world of “high-tech”.
There can be little doubt that “The Anaglyph” is the dominant poem of this collection and one of Tranter’s great achievements. Structurally, as I have said, it inhabits Ashbery’s “Clepsydra” by retaining the opening and closing words of each line. It is probably (I’m a critic not a poet) a more difficult procedure than this simple description makes it sound – “serpentine” and “congruent” appear as consecutive line endings, for example. More importantly, it began (as Tranter describes in his notes on the poem on his website) as a response to a request to write something about Ashbery’s poem. Since criticism, even at its most basic level of offering a reading, places the writer outside the poem being discussed, one can understand Tranter’s solution of writing a counterpart poem which will explore (among other things) his own relationship with Ashbery not by standing outside and speaking about one of the poems but by inhabiting it. It’s hard to write about the poems of friends. Seen from this perspective the formal structure seems very significant and spins out a set of metaphors in the reader’s mind: it could be likened to making a building inside the facade of an older one; it could be like putting your father’s suit on and walking to and fro before a mirror. The poem itself speaks of it as “like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment” and one of the recurring references in the poem is to Kinnell’s “The Bear” in which a hunter kills, eviscerates and then enters the skin of a wild bear. True, these bear references also relate to the idea of inhabiting an image of oneself once one has achieved a “reputation”:
That we are afraid of it – inhabiting a reputation, the whole thing
About establishing who you genuinely were – are – I’ll admit. There
You hope your opus will be taken for legerdemain, but your effort sinks
Deeper into the mulch of history, while I adjust the mask that
Just fits more loosely every decade…
Ashbery himself appears at various places (at the conclusion he is invited to join in at drinks in the evening) perhaps most significantly in the passage that begins:
Then the shreds
Of another adventure assemble: a tour of the old college premises
Undertaken to the tune of the jig “From Rochester he came hence,
A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth”. Here, see this,
Like a pistol on a silver platter, it’s all yours
And it was mine once…
But it is also a poem about Tranter’s own poetic development and his thoughts, as a long-time practitioner, on the whole business of literature: in this sense it is perhaps closer to “The Alphabet Murders”.
One technique that can be found in some of Tranter’s “rewritings” is the one of seizing on a basic metaphor of the original poem and extending that metaphor by treating it more casually and sometimes comically that the original poem: you can see this in the images of poem-production and of the ship sailing into the dark which Tranter takes over from Peter Porter in his rewriting of Porter’s “On This Day I Complete My Fortieth Year”. “Clepsydra” uses images of space, sky and flowing water – the “torrent” of verbal facility. It has been read, not entirely convincingly, as a poem about the phenomenon of influence and there is no doubt that this is the major theme of “The Anaglyph”. You do get some sense of the complexities of relationships between poets. Influence is an anxiety but not for simply Bloomian / Freudian reasons. How does one poet engage with an admired and world-famous mentor avoiding the insulting process of carping about minor details so as to carve out a space in which to operate. Tranter is to be admired for not adopting any of these and related tactics. Ashbery appears all through Starlight and one of the functions of “The Anaglyph” is to prevent this seeming in any way clannish or, even worse, a diminishing of Tranter’s own considerable status. I think it succeeds brilliantly and part of the reason for this is how much “The Anaglyph” is a Tranter poem, replacing the trademark Ashbery mixture of a strong sense of logical connection that fails all the time to be graspable, with sharp-edged images and an intense language bordering on “verbal intemperance”.
There are no comparable complexities of relationship between Tranter and Eliot and the notes to Starlight contain the acid comment that Eliot’s “Four Quartets” “at nearly a thousand lines, seemed to me to be far too long”. “Five Quartets” by “whiting out” words is, at one level, a contraction of its original (the kind of thing that is popular in literary papers where a whole lengthy novel are reduced to a few lines of bathetic précis) and it also a distortion of the meaning of the original since what results is (though it can be said to be “in” the poem) like nothing that Eliot might ever have said or wanted to say:
Words move the Chinese violin, while
words between the foliage
waste a factory, or a by-pass.
There is a time for the wind to break
and to shake the field-mouse with a silent motto.
You lean against a van
and the deep village, the sultry dahlias,
wait for an early pipe.
The result is more complex, though, than the procedure seems – an experience I seem to have had all through Starlight. As with the BreakDown poems, there is a touch or parody here in that some of Eliot’s mixture of oracular utterance and dry pontifical tone survives.
Tranter is a great poet and like all such poets his work is marked by a continuous pressure to develop and experiment, to explore to the last detail all possibilities. It is good to see that, after a very slow start, there is now a solid groundswell (if swells can be solid) of critical mass accumulating about his work: The Salt Companion to John Tranter is a good beginning. But all great poets pose distinctive problems for their critics (a displacement perhaps of the problem that writing about Ashbery and Rimbaud causes Tranter). One can imagine that Tranter will attract critics for what seem to me to be the wrong reasons. For example he provides new texts for fine tuning a writer’s endlessly evolving idea of the exact nature of post-modernism. He also provides new material for a discussion of the interpenetration of digital technologies and literature, as he does for those whose interest is primarily in Culture writ large rather than poetry. Tranter is a poet not a project and he would not be the great poet he is if he did not outrun the usually doughy batch of critical and cultural interests that makes him attractive to many readers and writers. You worry that in the future there is going to be a lot of bad criticism. In his website notes he quotes Wilde’s very accurate statement that “All bad poetry stems from genuine feeling” and one is tempted to add that all bad criticism derives from intellectually respectable motives.
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