What’s wrong with research funding

Here’s an article from Arstechnica.com that talks about the nightmare of Science funding now in the USA. Just change the word ‘Science’ to the word ‘Humanities’ and you have the problem; the problem that’s turning humanities faculties today into sheltered workshops for dullards:

Like any researcher, [Tim] Berners-Lee had to find support to work on his idea. He wrote up a 14-page proposal and sent it to his boss at CERN, Mike Sendall, who famously scribbled the following on the front-page: ‘Vague, but exciting…’ We are all very lucky that Berners-Lee was in a time and place that gave the young engineer some latitude to pursue his vague but creative idea, one that would ultimately change the world. If Berners-Lee submitted that idea to government funding agencies for support, who knows where the Internet would be today?
‘There’s a current problem in biomedical research,’ says American biochemist Robert Lefkowitz, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. ‘The emphasis is on doing things which are not risky. To have a grant proposal funded, you have to propose something and then present what is called preliminary data, which is basically evidence that you’ve already done what you’re proposing to do. If there’s any risk involved, then your proposal won’t be funded.‘[…]
‘A truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers: if it is truly innovative, no peer has any clue about it; if peers already know about it, it is not innovative’ said John Ioannidis, head of the Stanford Prevention Research Centre in California. Ioannidis and others published a recent analysis called ‘Conform and be Funded’ where they show that safer, established ideas have a much better chance of being funded at the NIH than novel, creative ones. [Emphasis added.] [More here]

Nice police

computercopFor years, local law enforcement agencies around the country [the USA] have told parents that installing ComputerCOP software is the “first step” in protecting their children online. Police chiefs, sheriffs, and district attorneys have handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of the disc to families for free at schools, libraries, and community events, usually as a part of an “Internet Safety” outreach initiative. The packaging typically features a signed message warning of the “dark and dangerous off-ramps” of the Internet.
ComputerCOP is actually just spyware, generally bought in bulk from a New York company that appears to do nothing but market this software to local government agencies. The way ComputerCOP works is neither safe nor secure. It isn’t particularly effective either, except for generating positive PR for the law enforcement agencies distributing it. [The product has] a keystroke-capturing function, also called a ‘keylogger,’ that could place a family’s personal information at extreme risk by transmitting what a user types over the Internet to third-party servers without encryption. That means many versions of ComputerCOP leave children (and their parents, guests, friends, and anyone using the affected computer) exposed to the same predators, identity thieves, and bullies that police claim the software protects against. [More here]

The Kentucky Phone

Kentucky Chicken Phone

Some of the most unusual and amusing digital accessories in the world are coming from the Japanese arm of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast-food chain already unveiled a fried-chicken keyboard, computer mouse and USB drive as part of a Twitter promotion and giveaway. KFC Japan looked upon its mighty works and said, “Yes, this is good, but we can do better.” And then it introduced a fried-chicken iPhone case. I think the laughing Colonel is saying “Oh no, she’s actually using the Chicken Phone! This is too much! Talking on it! Wait until she starts trying to eat it!!”

[From: the Wonderful Amanda Kooser at http://www.cnet.com/news/so-kfc-japan-has-a-fried-chicken-iphone-case-too/]

Making Marmalade

seville-2Citrus fruit: front left, a Tahitian lime; front right, a Seville Orange; behind that a medium-sized grapefruit and a lemon. Emboldened by a successful sortie into Cumquat Marmalade making, my wife Lyn and I attempted a batch of Seville Orange Marmalade to Stephanie Alexander’s recipe. It worked beautifully, the pectin-heavy pith ensuring a rough, chunky jam of the type known as ‘Oxford Marmalade’, made in Oxford, England, by Frank Cooper, to his wife’s 1874 recipe. The marmalade was especially popular at Oxford University, hence the name. It was taken to Antarctica on Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.

In Arthur Ransome’s children’s book Missee Lee, Miss Lee, the leader of the Chinese pirates, had been educated at Cambridge University but learned to enjoy Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade.

As she says ‘We always eat Oxford marmalade at Cambridge. Better scholars, better professors at Cambridge but better marmalade at Oxford.’

seville-1-spoonIt’s made from Seville oranges, a large, tart fruit from Spain. Some people call them ‘bitter oranges’ or ‘sour oranges’.

The Internet says that ‘A thousand or so years ago, traders brought Chinese bitter oranges to Iberia and the Mediterranean basin. By the 12th century, Spaniards in the area around Seville were actively cultivating tart oranges. For several centuries, these oranges were the only type of orange being grown in Europe. Sweeter oranges were developed long after this orange became established in Spain… [they] make the perfect base for marmalade.

Carol Twombly again!


Genius font designer Carol Twombly may have left Adobe a decade ago, but her fonts live on. This one, Lithos (used for the phrase “the landmark musical event”), graces a Lion King poster in downtown Sydney in 2014. Every Greek fish and chip shop uses it, all over the world, from Alaska to Zanzibar. It’s everywhere!

Baudelaire: Versions of Nine of his poems

Nine Baudelaire versions, from «Starlight: 150 Poems»

This page contains nine poems from my collection of poems «Starlight: 150 Poems», published in September 2010 by the University of Queensland Press. Extensive notes to all the poems in that book are available on my homepage: Notes
The nine poems consist of responses to poems by Baudelaire, responses written in Umbria in October 2009: each poem is followed by the poem by Baudelaire that (loosely) inspired it. This page is about nine printed pages long.

Elevation (after Baudelaire)

Above the factories, the steelyards, the golf links
laid out like a child’s game, above the plots
of the canals and the plans of swimming pools
you rise with the morning sun and the other
successful bankers in First Class, above
Bangkok or Dubai, en route to that
restaurant at L.A. International – the one with
lava lamps and sullen waitresses – The Encounter,
where Coke is dispensed through buzzing ray-gun tubes
and banquettes afford the time-rich visitor
views of the planes and runways – designed, you
tell your friends, by Paul Williams, African-American –
in your linen summer suit you move with ease
through the lobby of the Honolulu Hilton;
winter on the Unter den Linden sees you strolling,
in camel-hair overcoat, with cigar; like a
swimmer you plunge through a gallery opening,
parting the crowd who are only there to admire you,
your virile joy so perfect it is quite beyond
adequate expression, so you bottle it up inside you
to mature like a Château Margaux ’98 –
eighteen ninety-eight, that is – to be decanted
in your suite overlooking Sydney Harbour –
the Opera House lit up, a call-girl dozing
under the covers – the bliss of those celestial regions,
high above a fluttering exchange rate, beyond the lame
investment paradigms of lesser mortals, that
beach in the sky, above the jet stream, above
the Aurora Borealis and its fake curtains of light –
the bliss whose fizz ascends like a skylark’s aria
high above the mud and filth of the Bourse.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list


Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées,

Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indicible et mâle volupté.

Envole-toi bien loin de ces miasmes morbides;
Va te purifier dans l’air supérieur,
Et bois, comme une pure et divine liqueur,
Le feu clair qui remplit les espaces limpides.

Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureuse
S’élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins;

Celui dont les pensers, comme des alouettes,
Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor,
— Qui plane sur la vie, et comprend sans effort
Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes!

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Venus (after Baudelaire)

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.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

La Muse vénale

Ô muse de mon coeur, amante des palais,
Auras-tu, quand Janvier lâchera ses Borées,
Durant les noirs ennuis des neigeuses soirées,
Un tison pour chauffer tes deux pieds violets?

Ranimeras-tu donc tes épaules marbrées
Aux nocturnes rayons qui percent les volets?
Sentant ta bourse à sec autant que ton palais
Récolteras-tu l’or des voûtes azurées?

II te faut, pour gagner ton pain de chaque soir,
Comme un enfant de choeur, jouer de l’encensoir,
Chanter des Te Deum auxquels tu ne crois guère,

Ou, saltimbanque à jeun, étaler tes appas
Et ton rire trempé de pleurs qu’on ne voit pas,
Pour faire épanouir la rate du vulgaire.

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

The Sick Muse (after Baudelaire)

What’s up, pussy-cat, got your period?
You’ve been staring at the screen for so long
that a hundred crime shows revolve and repeat,
mutating and blabbering at the back of your brain.
Have the girls who lurk around the perfume counters
of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s like painted remoras
concocted for you the Essence of Nightmare,
and plunged you into a spa bath of Oblivion?
I prefer you tanned and sweating from a bike ride,
turning over in your mind a few of Wittgenstein’s
more luminous aphorisms, while rehearsing
the gentle undulations of the exchange rate
to the tune of that enduring song, the hypnotic hymn
to the great Mammon, God of the Golden Dollar.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

La Muse malade

Ma pauvre muse, hélas! qu’as-tu donc ce matin?
Tes yeux creux sont peuplés de visions nocturnes,
Et je vois tour à tour réfléchis sur ton teint
La folie et l’horreur, froides et taciturnes.

Le succube verdâtre et le rose lutin
T’ont-ils versé la peur et l’amour de leurs urnes?
Le cauchemar, d’un poing despotique et mutin
T’a-t-il noyée au fond d’un fabuleux Minturnes?

Je voudrais qu’exhalant l’odeur de la santé
Ton sein de pensers forts fût toujours fréquenté,
Et que ton sang chrétien coulât à flots rythmiques,

Comme les sons nombreux des syllabes antiques,
Où règnent tour à tour le père des chansons,
Phoebus, et le grand Pan, le seigneur des moissons.

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Albatross (after Baudelaire)

Sometimes, to amuse themselves, the authorities
bring to heel corporate high-flyers – those
clever executives, men of many devices,
who play exuberantly with Other People’s Money
and heap themselves with salaries no one could
ever spend in a lifetime of profligacy –
and arraign them in the dock.
Accused of nothing more than clever cheating –
wouldn’t we all, given half a chance? –
these kings of the sky falter and mumble.
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.
Their mantra – ‘nice guys finish last’ – which means
‘I’m an arsehole, and I always win’ –
shrinks to ‘I’m afraid I can’t recall’ –
gourmets who could count off every vintage
from the north slope of an obscure vineyard
in the south of France now struggle to recall
a deal involving several billion dollars.
That shark of the market, how daft he seems now,
how frail and elderly, among the silks
who nag and worry at his list of crimes. The poet
resembles this prince of the open skies: When
forced to get a job and earn his keep
the poet’s dreams, entangled with his giant ego,
turn him into a blundering buffoon.

First published in Australian Literary Review, 2010
and in Humanities Australia Number 1 2010 pp.54-55.

[»»] Back to the contents list


Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

The Mask (after Baudelaire)

An Allegorical Articulated Statue
in the Style of the Postmodern
Get this: a giant toy escaped from Disneyland
to scamper clumsily and chortle in the fields of fashion,
guzzling bubbly, snorting coke, a perfect marriage
of gracefulness and mendacity. This thing –
female, perhaps, but not quite woman, slender
to an almost skeletal degree – you were invented
to cast your magic over a bank lobby, and
to charm those few and precious leisure hours
of a currency trader en route to somewhere else.
And get that smile: jerky, perhaps – but
who’s perfect? – simulating the moment where
self-conceit becomes self-awareness through
the magic of computerisation, and displays its euphoria;
that sly, tardive grin, designed to be mocking,
attempting to appear languorous, the rubber lips
stretching and then swelling like a muffin:
that cute face, half doll, half prostitute,
framed in a veil of artificial human hair,
whose every feature speaks of the lab
that cobbled it together, saying ‘Manga
made me, and the pleasures of children
ensure my financial viability!’ Knockout!
To that assemblage of flexible joints and solenoids,
how the latex surface treatment adds
the final touch! But look at that thing at the top –
let’s call it a head – it doesn’t seem quite right,
and that slight cognitive dissonance is a turn-off.
Of course it’s a mask, mobile, nearly human,
the lips smiling, then, with a faint grinding noise,
imitating a dainty scowl and opening wide
then closing like a goldfish – but inside the head,
through those eyes, those pupils like pulsing
lakes of laser light, something’s going on
that seems the binary opposite of the emotions
presented by the superficial structural effects.
Poor half-creature! your sincere fakery
is constantly monitored and adjusted cybernetically,
to what avail? Your apparent wish to live is only
a calculated gesture; but where wishes come from –
the fear of death, the love of life, the urge to mate –
lies beyond the boundary of the simulacrum and the real.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

Le Masque

Statue allégorique dans le goût de la Renaissance
À Ernest Christophe, statuaire.

Contemplons ce trésor de grâces florentines;
Dans l’ondulation de ce corps musculeux
L’Elégance et la Force abondent, soeurs divines.
Cette femme, morceau vraiment miraculeux,
Divinement robuste, adorablement mince,
Est faite pour trôner sur des lits somptueux
Et charmer les loisirs d’un pontife ou d’un prince.

— Aussi, vois ce souris fin et voluptueux
Où la Fatuité promène son extase;
Ce long regard sournois, langoureux et moqueur;
Ce visage mignard, tout encadré de gaze,
Dont chaque trait nous dit avec un air vainqueur:
«La Volupté m’appelle et l’Amour me couronne!»
À cet être doué de tant de majesté
Vois quel charme excitant la gentillesse donne!
Approchons, et tournons autour de sa beauté.

Ô blasphème de l’art! ô surprise fatale!
La femme au corps divin, promettant le bonheur,
Par le haut se termine en monstre bicéphale!

— Mais non! ce n’est qu’un masque, un décor suborneur,
Ce visage éclairé d’une exquise grimace,
Et, regarde, voici, crispée atrocement,
La véritable tête, et la sincère face
Renversée à l’abri de la face qui ment
Pauvre grande beauté! le magnifique fleuve
De tes pleurs aboutit dans mon coeur soucieux
Ton mensonge m’enivre, et mon âme s’abreuve
Aux flots que la Douleur fait jaillir de tes yeux!

— Mais pourquoi pleure-t-elle? Elle, beauté parfaite,
Qui mettrait à ses pieds le genre humain vaincu,
Quel mal mystérieux ronge son flanc d’athlète?

— Elle pleure insensé, parce qu’elle a vécu!
Et parce qu’elle vit! Mais ce qu’elle déplore
Surtout, ce qui la fait frémir jusqu’aux genoux,
C’est que demain, hélas! il faudra vivre encore!
Demain, après-demain et toujours! — comme nous!

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Hair (after Baudelaire)

Your hair, alternately spiky and flowing,
black and gold, with a lazy perfume,
you fill the hazy sky tonight with memories
of broken sleep and drifting hopes.
I run my fingers through it.
Some fill their ears with cool jazz;
I tousle your hair and dream: the drinks
and drugs of the sixties, London, brash
Singapore, the girly men of Bugis Street,
they live out their ghostly afterlife.
I’ll go back there where shopping was a thrill,
where taxi-drivers and food-stall cooks
are driven crazy by the tourist dollar:
your perfumed hair holds a magic world
of jet engines and the scent of aviation fuel,
a shopping centre chill with air conditioning,
echoing with bouncy music, where the stores
are full of the latest electronic gadgets,
imitation Rolex watches for half price
and suits made up to fit in half an hour.
I’ve been working too hard lately,
and I need a break: I’ll nuzzle your neck
and run my fingers through your hair,
and find myself taken away to the tropics
where a siesta is a well-earned reward
and no one gets up before midday.
The shops open then, but the bar
never closes, and from that peaceful twilight
you can hear waves lapping on the harbour-front
and the cries of hawkers on the street.
The scent of coconut oil and vanilla
mingles with exhaust fumes and those
clove-flavoured Indonesian cigarettes –
long ago, when we used to smoke and drink
and watch the dawn flood the tropic sky.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

La Chevelure

Ô toison, moutonnant jusque sur l’encolure!
Ô boucles! Ô parfum chargé de nonchaloir!
Extase! Pour peupler ce soir l’alcôve obscure
Des souvenirs dormant dans cette chevelure,
Je la veux agiter dans l’air comme un mouchoir!

La langoureuse Asie et la brûlante Afrique,
Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque défunt,
Vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique!
Comme d’autres esprits voguent sur la musique,
Le mien, ô mon amour! nage sur ton parfum.

J’irai là-bas où l’arbre et l’homme, pleins de sève,
Se pâment longuement sous l’ardeur des climats;
Fortes tresses, soyez la houle qui m’enlève!
Tu contiens, mer d’ébène, un éblouissant rêve
De voiles, de rameurs, de flammes et de mâts:

Un port retentissant où mon âme peut boire
À grands flots le parfum, le son et la couleur
Où les vaisseaux, glissant dans l’or et dans la moire
Ouvrent leurs vastes bras pour embrasser la gloire
D’un ciel pur où frémit l’éternelle chaleur.

Je plongerai ma tête amoureuse d’ivresse
Dans ce noir océan où l’autre est enfermé;
Et mon esprit subtil que le roulis caresse
Saura vous retrouver, ô féconde paresse,
Infinis bercements du loisir embaumé!

Cheveux bleus, pavillon de ténèbres tendues
Vous me rendez l’azur du ciel immense et rond;
Sur les bords duvetés de vos mèches tordues
Je m’enivre ardemment des senteurs confondues
De l’huile de coco, du musc et du goudron.

Longtemps! toujours! ma main dans ta crinière lourde
Sèmera le rubis, la perle et le saphir,
Afin qu’à mon désir tu ne sois jamais sourde!
N’es-tu pas l’oasis où je rêve, et la gourde
Où je hume à longs traits le vin du souvenir?

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Hymn to Beauty (after Baudelaire)

Did you step off the plane from L.A., or rise from the pit,
gorgeous? You look around, surprised to be alive,
kissing some, and pissing on the less fortunate.
You’re like kif: some love it, some freak out.
Your bloodshot eyes glitter and shine: sunrise
and sunset; your perfume suffocates, your kisses
are their own poisonous aphrodisiac, paralysing
weight-lifters and giving old men erections.
Do you come from a fashion parade, or the sewer?
Journalists follow you around, noting
the dreams and the nightmares you scatter
about you, all party time and no responsibility.
You clamber over a heap of bodies you laugh at:
‘What’s up, sweetie? Nod off again?’ Your necklace
of skulls spells out horror, and murder
takes you for a spin on the dance floor.
The dazzled window-dresser is drawn to you,
and makeup artists, perfumiers, young men
fond of old screen idols, kissing themselves
in the lipstick-smeared mirror of their desire.
Whether you’re an angel or a slut, who cares,
or what sour chemicals infect your blood,
as long as your eager fingers in my pants
promise to arouse me to a novel bliss,
a cocaine country where the skies ripple
and flicker with enticing mirages, where
beautiful illusions fill the afternoons
with the promise of eternal happiness.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

Hymne à la Beauté

Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l’abîme,
O Beauté? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l’on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Tu contiens dans ton oeil le couchant et l’aurore;
Tu répands des parfums comme un soir orageux;
Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore
Qui font le héros lâche et l’enfant courageux.

Sors-tu du gouffre noir ou descends-tu des astres?
Le Destin charmé suit tes jupons comme un chien;
Tu sèmes au hasard la joie et les désastres,
Et tu gouvernes tout et ne réponds de rien.

Tu marches sur des morts, Beauté, dont tu te moques;
De tes bijoux l’Horreur n’est pas le moins charmant,
Et le Meurtre, parmi tes plus chères breloques,
Sur ton ventre orgueilleux danse amoureusement.

L’éphémère ébloui vole vers toi, chandelle,
Crépite, flambe et dit: Bénissons ce flambeau!
L’amoureux pantelant incliné sur sa belle
A l’air d’un moribond caressant son tombeau.

Que tu viennes du ciel ou de l’enfer, qu’importe,
Ô Beauté! monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu!
Si ton oeil, ton souris, ton pied, m’ouvrent la porte
D’un Infini que j’aime et n’ai jamais connu?

De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène,
Qu’importe, si tu rends, — fée aux yeux de velours,
Rythme, parfum, lueur, ô mon unique reine! —
L’univers moins hideux et les instants moins lourds?

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Paradise (after Baudelaire)

Have pity on me, slumped on the floor
of the gambling palace, the carpet soaked.
Nothing much to see here except
Koreans and Chinese throwing money away.
All night long, bullshit blaring from the screens.
As many prawns as you can eat, for ten bucks:
I should have known better. A fluoro tube
flickers in the Men’s – I hope this is the Men’s.
It’s horrible, the way the lights are always on,
like a police beating without the beating,
and the addicts with their ugly dreams,
crawling home at dawn, broke, ashamed,
falling into bed while the wife screams at them,
their only win: sleep, a kind of paradise.

First published in Southerly magazine, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

De profundis clamavi

J’implore ta pitié, Toi, l’unique que j’aime,
Du fond du gouffre obscur où mon coeur est tombé.
C’est un univers morne à l’horizon plombé,
Où nagent dans la nuit l’horreur et le blasphème;

Un soleil sans chaleur plane au-dessus six mois,
Et les six autres mois la nuit couvre la terre;
C’est un pays plus nu que la terre polaire
— Ni bêtes, ni ruisseaux, ni verdure, ni bois!

Or il n’est pas d’horreur au monde qui surpasse
La froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace
Et cette immense nuit semblable au vieux Chaos;

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l’écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Country Music (after Baudelaire)

Country music transports me like a sports car to my

favourite barroom.

Under a ceiling of fog, thick with circling planes, I

rev up the motor,

wheels squealing at the turns, my mouth panting

like an old hound-dog’s,

I roar along the expressway and through suburbs

noisy with shopping.

Wheeling through my brain are all the accidents

that could happen, but don’t, thanks to my

debonair driving:

through the city I go and into the dark country, where –

distant, scattered – the occasional farmer sleeps, chilled,

wrapped in his mortgage.

First published in The Age, Melbourne, 2010

[»»] Back to the contents list

La Musique

La musique souvent me prend comme une mer!
Vers ma pâle étoile,
Sous un plafond de brume ou dans un vaste éther,
Je mets à la voile;

La poitrine en avant et les poumons gonflés
Comme de la toile
J’escalade le dos des flots amoncelés
Que la nuit me voile;

Je sens vibrer en moi toutes les passions
D’un vaisseau qui souffre;
Le bon vent, la tempête et ses convulsions
Sur l’immense gouffre
Me bercent. D’autres fois, calme plat, grand miroir
De mon désespoir!

— Charles Baudelaire

[»»] Back to the contents list

Three John Ashberys

Three John Ashberys

John Tranter came across John Ashbery’s writing in the 1960s. Here he reflects on the schizophrenia of fame. This is a basic introduction to some themes in John Ashbery’s poetry. It is 2,500 words or about 8 printed pages long. It was first published as «Ashbery’s Heights», in The Independent (Sydney), March 1994, page 78. Now published in my Journal.


John Ashbery, New York City, 1985, photo John Tranter

“Wallace Stevens said that a poem should resist the intelligence ‘almost successfully’. With the Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath, the intelligence doesn’t have a chance.”

THERE ARE THREE John Ashberys. The first is the boy who grew into the man who became a scholar and artificer of words. I call him the Primary or Mundane Ashbery. After a youth spent on a fruit farm in upstate New York he attended college and then Harvard University. He gradually turned into another person, a poet; the poet who wrote all those poems, plugging on year after year, one sheet of paper after another rolling through the Royal, until some sixteen of his works stand there on the shelf to entrance and puzzle us.


John Ashbery’s study, April 1985, photo by John Tranter

So the poet is not that boy, but another person. What did Rimbaud say? “I” is another. And this Secondary Ashbery, as I shall call him, is not so much a person as a gifted creature, the enchanted one who spins the golden threads that the reviewers and critics are obliged to untangle and weave into their own explanation of its pattern. He is never met with in his tower, never seen, never spoken to. Friends have only caught a glimpse of this elusive creature, who even as they enter his study is invisibly, swiftly and silently replaced by a simulacrum. For when Mr Ashbery is meeting, seeing others and being seen by them, listening and speaking, eating and drinking and sharing a joke, he is not that poetry writing person, but once again the man who used to be the boy who grew up on a remote farm, the Primary or Mundane Ashbery.

This mundane manifestation is currently a tall, wide-shouldered man nearing seventy with a slight limp and a courteous, diffident and kindly manner that conceals — almost successfully — a brilliant mind and a wit that revels in gossip as much as in learning. The Mundane Ashbery has a love of old poetry in English and modern prose in French, and of modern art, ballet and music. He has spent his adult life in Paris and New York City. When he reads from his books, in that vague and charming drawl that asks you not to take this stuff too seriously, he looks at certain moments as the Secondary Ashbery might look, hesitant under the reading lamp, searching for the right word.


John Ashbery, Sydney, 1992. Photograph copyright © John Tranter, 1992, 2010

Then there is the Tertiary or Transcendental Ashbery. That’s the Ashbery people refer to when they say ‘Have you read the latest Ashbery?’ or ‘What do you think of Ashbery? Better than Wallace Stevens, huh?’ The Transcendental Ashbery is usually presented as just the surname, a complex image at one remove from the human: it has little to do with either of the other Ashberys, and leads a largely independent life.

It gradually solidified out of the mists of personal obscurity into a glittering nodule of recognition around 1970, helped by the publication of An Anthology of New York Poets. This collection, edited by the younger poets Ron Padgett and David Shapiro and published in June of that year, mounted his writing at the prow of the so-called ‘New York School’ and placed him as father-figure to a generation, along with Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and the recently-dead Frank O’Hara.

This Transcendental Ashbery underwent various adaptive changes as it bumped into different consumer resistances and approvals, and mutated into the ‘New, Readable Ashbery’ during the northern fall of 1975, when the book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won the Big Three Prizes available to American poets: The Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award.

There’s something holographic about the Transcendental Ashbery. It seems to float about two or three inches above the page of the magazine you’re reading in the café, pulsing and phasing in and out of focus under the neon. It occupies the same cognitive space as the brand name of the mineral water you’re drinking, and that fact gives us a clue to its nature: it is a collective cultural representation like ‘Apple Pie’, ‘Tide’ or ‘Postmodernism’.

Just as the material form of the actual Tide washing powder has changed its physical substance as well as its packaging over the decades, shedding the too-abrasive qualities of ‘bleach’ and ‘power to clean’ and taking on the more nurturing qualities of ‘enzymes’ and ‘bio-degradability’ while still washing our clothes and retaining its ‘identity’, so ‘Ashbery’, or ‘J.A.’ as it is sometimes known, has metamorphosed in diverse ways. In the late fifties it transmuted from a gentle, gawky kid producing sweet-natured and slightly wacky lyrics into a fierce and frowning European intellectual, a monster who would tear the heart from a living poem and stuff verbal garbage in its place. Further revisions have occurred, each modulating the aura of the Transcendental Ashbery: ‘Delphic Darling of Yale’, ‘Mellow Old Guy’, and so forth.

Of course there’s a space between the Primary and the Secondary Ashbery, and as usual he’s the best person to talk about it, which he does in the poem ‘A Sedentary Existence’:

      Sometimes you overhear them discussing it:
      the truth — that thing I thought I was telling.

      What could it have been that I said?
      To be more or less like other men or women

               … — it’s
      like writing a book that is both beautiful and disgusting.

      Because we can’t do it now. Yet this space
      between me and what I had to say
      is inspiring.

Of course it’s inspiring, or he wouldn’t be there.

The Secondary Ashbery has always been teased by the idea of what he might look like in a poem. Here he is reflecting on a portrait of himself in the mirror of his poem ‘The Art of Speeding’: ‘I’m the cap and bells that don’t belong. / A free-lance artist. The last and first of the romantics.’

The Last of the Romantics? Maybe so.

Why ‘J.A.’? Let me divagate. Put a seventeenth-century English poem into a blender with a 1930s American snapshot and you’ve got the early 1950s Ashbery poem ‘Portrait of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers’, a neat piece of modern ekphrasis. The rhetorical device of ekphrasis is as old as Homer, and involves the verbal description, usually in a poem, of a piece of visual art, usually a painting or sculpture.

In his 1950s piece of ekphrasis, the Secondary Ashbery describes how the image of the young Mundane Ashbery appears to him in the family snap: ‘Yet I cannot escape the picture / Of my small self in that bank of flowers: / My head among the blazing phlox / Seemed a pale and gigantic fungus.’ Now get this straight: we’re looking over his shoulder with him, at him as a boy looking at the camera, that is, looking back at himself (and us, and us!) in the future reading these lines.

This Ashbery piece is named after a lovely poem by the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), a picture of a friend’s child titled ‘Portrait of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers’. Metaphysical is a label that would perhaps fit the brooding aspirations of the young Primary or Mundane Ashbery, confronting, from Deerfield Academy and later from Harvard and Columbia universities in the aftermath of World War Two, the terrors and delights of the Twentieth Century. The initials ‘J.A.’ are stamped in gold leaf on the front cover of the hardback version of his book Hotel Lautréamont, as though to reinforce the connection with the earlier poem.

The label ‘metaphysical’ also fits one of the qualities of his body of writing, that is, the Transcendental Ashbery. Where ‘meaning’ can be teased out of the weave, or rather the felt, of those casual masterpieces of his, it often revolves in brilliantly ironic and paradoxical ways around the themes of sex, love, loss, death, individual identity and the weather. The metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century was about the eschatological implications of just such passions, inscribed against a background of civil strife in a rapidly modernising world.

Well, what is the Transcendental Ashbery about? Let me count the ways: it is about weather, particularly involving trees, leaves and flocks of birds. It is about shadowy fall evenings in a deserted schoolyard, the teacher alone in the empty classroom and the ghostly image of a lost or dead boy fading around a corner in the distance. It is lacustrine, a Latinate word Ashbery plucked from the dictionary for the title of his poem ‘Those Lacustrine Cities’: about lakes, and pools, and rivers, and shores, and the waves of the ocean. It is about art, pots of paint, canvasses, theatre sets, late night parties, a half-forgotten scent, scenes from a ballet, performances of impossible music and sleigh rides over the tundra. It is about farms like the ones around where he grew up near the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York: cold, dark and silent in the long northern winter, with brooding weather and flocks of migrating birds to match.


In this richness of both natural and cultural material, his writing is a continuation of the long project initiated by the Romantics — a dialogue that notices the flow of natural and social energies and weaves them together into a series of insights, compacting metaphysics and literature into a critical mass that gives out a glow of meaning. It’s the Coleridge of the letters and the notebooks who comes to mind, the talkative theorist who invented the great brand-name of Romanticism, Organic Form.

In Ashbery there is also a willingness to incorporate humour into the text of his meanings, and an agility that is an openness to chance fluctuations of the world’s attention, but more than that too. Nature in flux keeps breaking in, and he reminds us that that’s important.

But, being a modern poet, his work is also about its own machinery. He’ll drag an ancient and ornate form like the pantoum or the villanelle down from the attic, dust it off, kick over the motor and take it for a run through the streets. He’ll come across Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ written some three centuries ago, and in response write a poem called ‘A Mourning Forbidding Valediction’ whose main purpose, I suspect, was to give him the opportunity to rhyme ‘cardigan’ with ‘ptarmigan’.

He can invent conjunctions no one else would have imagined. Take the phrase ‘I can hear the toad crooning’. Such an image, once contemplated, bedevils the memory. It might well have come from the imaginary book he mentioned in the poem I quoted earlier, the book that is ‘both beautiful and disgusting’.

He does worse things. Take, for example, if you will, the poem ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’. The quaint title came from a print he’d seen in a gallery storeroom one day. Though a vegetable takes a leading role in the poem, it’s not a rutabaga (a swede, or Swedish turnip) but a spinach. The poem’s a sestina, an obstinate form in which the end-words of each of the six lines in the first stanza are repeated as end-words of the other five six-line stanzas, and are also embedded in the final three-line stanza. The mediaeval troubadours invented and then exercised the sestina almost to death, and most poets since have had a crack at it.

But having chosen vegetables as a theme, who would go so far as to use the word ‘spinach’ as an end-word, repeated six times? It’s one of the many unrhymable words in English, but is that reason enough? And what are Popeye and Olive Oyl doing in there? It’s the spinach again, isn’t it? And who would end a sestina: ‘Popeye chuckled and scratched / His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.’?

Why, one of those John Ashberys, that’s who.

Most writers never manage the Escape Velocity to tear free of the gravitational pull of their audience, let alone of their cultural setting. Coleridge said of Wordsworth that an innovative poet should be twelve years ahead of his time. As we know, Wordsworth got stuck in the tar-pit of his self regard, and his audience caught up with him soon enough.



Stephen Spender, John Ashbery, W.H. Auden at Poetry International London, 1972. This was the period during which John Ashbery adopted what he later dubbed his “Mexican Bandit Look”. Auden had written the Introduction to Ashbery’s 1956 Yale Younger Poets book Some Trees. In the original uncropped photo, an ambitious Joseph Brodsky is muscling in from the right.

Ashbery is different. His first book (Some Trees, 1956) was lyrical, brilliant, but quirky, and in the era of Eisenhower and the Cold War it didn’t find many readers, selling less than its edition of 800 copies in eight years. He lived and worked in France from 1955 to 1965 and went on writing, imagining that no one would ever want to publish or read his work, beyond a small circle of friends. The poems he wrote in Europe in the late 1950s were mostly incomprehensible collages. More by chance than design they did find a publisher, and became his second book, The Tennis Court Oath, a work that puzzled many readers and infuriated most critics. Wallace Stevens said that a poem should resist the intelligence ‘almost successfully’. With the Ashbery of The Tennis Court Oath, the intelligence doesn’t have a chance.

Having discovered freedom almost accidentally, the Secondary Ashbery went on writing in relative obscurity, doing just what he felt was right. It took almost twenty years from his first book before the booster rocket of Yale criticism ignited and propelled him into his present position drifting in Earth orbit, lit from below by the glow of fame. One thinks of Laika the Russian space dog, peering wistfully down on the inhabitants of Earth as the planet revolves slowly beneath.

There he goes, blinking into the west…