Gig Ryan reviews Starlight, by John Tranter, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2010), $24.95 pb, 228pp, 9780702238451, and The Salt Companion to John Tranter, edited by Rod Mengham (Salt UK, 2010), $34.95 pb, 268pp, 9781876857769. This piece was first published, in a slightly different form, in Australian Book Review, October 2010.
“ As with all great poets, the energy of Tranter’s work is born from this conflict of destruction and creation… ”
John Tranter has published over twenty books since 1970 including long dramatic monologues, a type of verse novel (The Floor of Heaven, 1992), prose poems, and traditional verse forms. Now Starlight continues his ‘evisceration’, as he calls it, of other poets.
His first book Parallax (1970) signalled an important theme in his work: parallax is “the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions” (OED), and Tranter’s use of multiple voices competing for attention, overlapping and arguing, has often been his version of representation where nothing remains fixed.
The multi-voiced poems illustrate that all affectations and effects are also what makes us human, just as all poetry is partly an accumulation of past poems. Multiple voices distracting, interrupting, guiding the poem so as to annihilate any lyrical or godly single stance, has been one of Tranter’s driving intentions. The Ern Malley poems also act as touchstone, as proof that good poems can be made from borrowings of varied sources. Notably he included all the Ern Malley poems in The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (edited by Philip Mead and John Tranter, 1991). He intends to show that crowds of voices, often melodramatic as in The Floor of Heaven are more exactly representative, composed of all the poet’s knowledge of culture, entertainment, experience.
Interestingly, Stephen Burt’s essay in The Salt Companion to John Tranter elaborates that an aggressive rebellion followed by an almost jaunty resignation is a recurring attitude in some more recent poems, even as the formal structures often imposed in the past decade have become more unusual. Starlight, however, is readily enjoyable, mainly composed of poems that reimagine those of Baudelaire, Eliot and Ashbery. Some poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal are often drastically updated yet retain the originals’ tone.
Nature is a city in which giant trees
speak in whispers; commuters pass there
through forests of advertisements…
and other ads are corrupt, cloying, brassy,
their vacuous tunes echo in the mind forever,
like whisky with ginger and chloral hydrate, ads
that sing the ecstasy of an ample disposable income.
Tranter consciously and systematically pilfers the poems of others to reinvigorate his own work. His earliest books grappled with Rimbaud and Eliot, lacing and addressing Rimbaud’s lines and biography through the poems, so his development into more methodical borrowings and re-hashings – via computer programmes in the case of Different Hands (1998) most obviously, but also in Blackout (2000) and Borrowed Voices (2002) – is a logical development. All poetry then is also ‘exercise’, an attempt to keep one’s hand in.
Since the 1970s Tranter’s work has been characterised by restless formal experiment, sometimes in traditional forms, sometimes with Oulipian or other drivers. But Tranter was also one of the earliest of innovative poets to feel the attractions of computer-assisted experiments.
Philip Mead, The Salt Companion to John Tranter
Some readers have felt alienated by Tranter’s use of external constraints on his poems, most well-known of which are his ‘terminals’ which take the end words of a poem and rewrite from there, yet these constraints are no different in purpose than the constraints of traditional forms, or than restrictions the Oulipo writers imposed on their works. The first poem in Starlight ‘The Anaglyph’ began as Tranter’s comment on John Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’ –
The reply wakens easily, darting from
Untruth to willed moment, scarcely called into being
Before it swells, the way a waterfall
Drums at different levels. Each moment
Of utterance is the true one; likewise none are true,
– ‘Clepsydra’, John Ashbery
The tale of my attempt to farm stubborn soil leaked from
Untruth to legend, my unlikely phase of boy-scout honesty being
Before I came to the big city. Here behind the tiny horological waterfall
Drums amplify the fun, but only at nightfall, then just for a moment
Of horrible error as I clutch the wrong person’s hand. That was true,
– ‘The Anaglyph’
Like the constraints of formal verse that compel the poet into activity, here he takes one or two words from the beginning and end of each Ashbery line and rewrites between them. So the poem is also intended as comment on, and homage to, Ashbery’s modus operandi as well as an alternative or parallel reading.
The trajectory of many poems in Tranter’s oeuvre is always partly the wrestle with previous poetry so his work is a heightened interiority yet it also sputters hilariously with every aspect of life, with shifty characters, gleaming cars, ludicrous imagery and baying pretensions.
The young man appeared at breakfast, and said
he wanted to be a romantic poet, nothing more.
Success at that is little more than dust.
Curator of his own emotions, embalming
his memories while they were still readable,
scribbling, typing, buying and selling real estate.
– ‘At Sans Souci’
One section in Starlight views and crazily summarises some famous but mostly B-Grade films, humourously listing their cliched signification, ‘the passers-by look suspicious and distracted / so it must be Paris, or a version of it’. Tranter’s work is often feverishly paced, announcing his intent to remake poetry, while at the same time scathingly critical of the self-conscious artist – ‘Real artists are beyond / common middle-class morality. They say.’ (‘Deep Sky’), ‘Ministering / To stunted talents is my fate; each day I tread that lonesome / trail alone / And return at nightfall bereft and grinding my teeth at / What they dish out: similes as appliqué aperçus. They / Might as well hand in embroidery.’ (‘The Anaglyph’)
Another note from critics, and of Tranter’s own commentaries on his work, is his early fascination with Eliot’s idea of extinguishment of personality – to which one should say ‘as if!’: all of Tranter’s work, no matter how removed by method, is imbued with a personality we know from his poems, flaying romanticism and contemporary society and able to make any situation absurdist.
The Salt Companion to John Tranter is a long-overdue volume with ten illuminating essays on Tranter’s oeuvre from British, American and Australian academics and poets, as well as an interview with, and some prose poems by, the poet. Simon Perril draws parallels with J. G. Ballard and his understanding of experience as being stylised into spectacle by the media. He shows how Tranter’s work speaks from its era, particularly in Red Movie (1972):
In the light of the decline in sixties optimism, and the very real expansion of the military industrial complex, the rhetoric of a poetical militancy for him becomes a hollow posture.The avant-garde poet’s conviction that their work will initiate a change in the social order is given the self-delusive qualities of the… individual trying to escape what Ballard describes as ‘our time-dominated continuum’.
Perril’s essay, as does Michael Brennan’s, teases out Tranter’s obsession with Rimbaud’s long silence after poetry. Kate Fagan and Peter Minter wittily dissect The Alphabet Murders (1976), explaining how Tranter moves on from his poetic dilemma:
Having murdered gushy ‘personality’ and its dazzling, crap-shooting alphabets… Tranter’s poetry goes on to project an infinite circulation of melancholic, fin-de-millenarian écriture. Perhaps Tranter still writes home to the loss of his beloved Rimbaud.
Kate Lilley’s sympathetic examination of The Floor of Heaven encourages a rereading of that book, as she elucidates his use of feminised voices revealing far more than the stereotyped melodrama it might superficially seem. Ann Vickery approaches the work and life through some theories of Pierre Bourdieu, that see Tranter’s editorships, particularly of the huge online Jacket, as sharp career moves, rather than simple generosity or enthusiasm, and her essay cleverly unfolds the making of (masculine) reputation. Quotations from Tranter on his own work confirm, or inspire, the accuracy of these essays – ‘(The Alphabet Murders) ended up as an argument with myself… and the entire tradition of literature… an attempt to demolish what I thought was bullshit and rebuild out of the wreckage what could be a possible contemporary poetry’.
Brian Henry’s discussion of the innovative terminals picks out the new as invariably indebted to the past:
Tranter’s gesture towards community must remain a literary gesture… By simultaneously acknowledging and effacing the sources of his terminals, Tranter simultaneously acknowledges and effaces his own role in writing them… Tranter’s terminals are unique because they combine the conservative, influence-embracing aspect of traditional forms with the innovative aims of new forms… They depend on the existence of other poems…
Although all poetry can be read as commentary on, and interpretation of, other poets, Tranter does this overtly, as in his ‘The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile’ (Under Berlin, 1993), that imagines Matthew Arnold – deplored in other poems – or ‘Grover Leach’ and ‘See Rover Reach’ (based on Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, Studio Moon, 2003) or ‘Five Quartets’ (‘This version is Eliot’s poem with most of the words removed, and runs to a more economical seventy-five lines’, ‘Afterword and Acknowledgments’). His explanations are often bravely simplistic, amusingly so sometimes, but often explanation is unedifying or obvious, just as poets’ intentions seem irrelevant because so homogenous. His richly colourful style and a tone that throttles sentimentality are constant.
As with all great poets, the energy of Tranter’s work is born from this conflict of destruction and creation, enunciated clearly in ‘The Poem in Love’ (The Blast Area, 1974) – ‘The Poem is nowhere to be seen, so piss off. Later / in the bar full of maniacs, you will be given a prize.’
Tranter’s protean output over forty years is exceptional, and The Salt Companion to John Tranter is packed with intelligent essays, making this book a necessity for anyone seeking a better understanding of contemporary poetry and of Tranter in particular. Read the poems first: ‘It is because the greatness of art is like a snobbish relative / That we shall never agree on a strategy, and / Entertainment washes over us, leaving us ethically / incomplete.’ (‘The Anaglyph’).
E N D The Internet address of this page is http://johntranter.com/reviewed/starlight-ryan.shtml