Distant Voices B: Thesis, 2 of 6 : About the Poems

You can download and read the PDF file for the entire Thesis here.
The file is here divided into six HTML pages, numbered 1 to 6, presented on this WordPress site as large and ‘responsive’ blog pages. I tried to make the Thesis into one large HTML page, but the uploading times were horrible, and the editing was problematical.

[Links: click on the bracketed guillemets below]
[«»] Thesis, Part 1 of 6 : Poems
[«»] Thesis, Part 2 of 6 : Exegesis 1 of 3: About the Poems ← You are here.
[«»] Thesis, Part 3 of 6 : Exegesis 2 of 3: Prior Projects
[«»] Thesis, Part 4 of 6 : Exegesis 3 of 3: Dream-Work
[«»] Thesis, Part 5 of 6 : 8 Appendices
[«»] Thesis, Part 6 of 6 : Bibliography
[«»] Thesis, Readers’ Reports

  Distant Voices: Tranter’s 2009 DCA Thesis: Part 2 of 6:


Endnote links: This file has explanatory endnotes. If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor appears; and vice versa.

Paragraph 1 follows:

As with some of John Tranter’s books of poetry, the volume of poems submitted as part of his DCA thesis is divided into three parts:

  Exegesis, Part 1: About the poems: ‘Vocoder’


Part 1: ‘Vocoder’ [Note 1]  is a group of four long poems that explore, each in a distinct and different way, the idea of displacing the authorial ego entirely with a kind of writing at one or two removes, through the process of translation, ventriloquy, mask or disguise. Each of these four poems has a fractured, oblique or obscure surface, and raises issues relating to the denying of the authorial ego, and the adoption of other roles.

  Exegesis, Part 2: ‘Speaking French: 101 poems’


Part 2: ‘Speaking French: 101 poems’ is available here: Distant Voices C: Thesis 3 of 5 : Exegesis 2/3. It presents another approach to authorial displacement. Each poem is a reworked machine ‘translation’ (set up to fail as a translation in each case) of some of Rimbaud’s prose-poems from the sequence he titled ‘Illuminations’, plus poems by Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Verlaine. This follows Tranter’s earlier experiments with the Brekdown computer program (mentioned below), which offer another set of procedures in the service of the same idea.

  Exegesis, Part 2: ‘At the Movies’


This file is available here: Distant Voices D: Thesis 4 of 5 : Exegesis 3/3. It This is a group of poems with less ambiguous intentions. Narrative, discursive and reflective, they engage with and speak directly about various movies and their cultural settings, mainly US movies from the period of film noir in the early 1940s into the 1960s.

So let us get started with the Exegesis part 2 of 6.

  Introductory Comments: a little history


Tranter has written many poems in each of these three modes before, and in a sense these new poems are corrections, reinterpretations, rewritings or in some cases more extreme versions of earlier practices.


Tranter had long practised taking over and altering other people’s poems. In fact at the very beginning of his career, in 1963 (when he was twenty) he wrote a poem that answered A D Hope’s poem ‘Australia’, using seven of Hope’s 28 rhymes, changing the rhyme scheme from abba to abab, borrowing and distorting many of Hope’s metaphors, and filling in the rest of the poem with his own dismissive words. Tranter argued with Hope’s poem perhaps because Hope was old and Tranter was young, or perhaps because Hope was a successful and well-known academic poet and Tranter was at that time unknown.


A D Hope’s poem ‘Australia’ and Tranter’s ‘Australia Revisited’ are provided as appendices to this thesis.


Another, later, intervention in another Australian poet’s work is ‘An Absolutely Extraordinary Recital’, a critical rewriting of Les Murray’s poem ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’. In Tranter’s hands, the topic of the Murray poem — a man publicly weeping without apparent reason — is translated into the topic of a man giving a public reading of Les Murray’s poetry. The similarity between communion in public religious worship and ‘communion’ in the public consumption of poetry is a strong subtext and prop to many of Murray’s poems, and is here dragged into the open, metaphorically speaking. The poem is previously unpublished, and is printed as an appendix to this thesis.


It is interesting to note that more than a decade before Les Murray published his poem, the Greek poet George Seferis published a poem titled ‘Narration’ with an oddly similar central event. This is discussed in a footnote to ‘An Absolutely Extraordinary Recital’.


Just as Murray’s early poem ‘Spring Hail’ can be read as a version of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ transported to the Colonies, and his ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ can be seen as a white appropriation of the spiritual universe portrayed in Ronald and Catherine Berndt’s translation of the Moon-Bone Song Cycle of the Wonguri-Mandjigai people, as many have noted, so the common theme explored in Murray’s ‘Rainbow’ poem and Seferis’ poem about a crying man can also be read as an endorsement of the concept that borrowing — whether conscious or less-than-conscious — is not solely the province of putative ‘post-postmodernists’.

  The Anaglyph


John Tranter and poet David Brooks introduced John Ashbery’s reading at the University of Sydney in September 1992. [ 2 ]  One of the poems Ashbery read was the double sestina from his book Flow Chart. In his preamble to the poem Ashbery revealed that his double sestina uses the end-words of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s double sestina ‘The Complaint of Lisa’ (1870). Sestinas are of course based on a string of repeated and rearranged end-words, not on rhyme or on any particular metrical shape. Extend the idea to other kinds of poems, borrowing the last word or two of each line, and you have the process or form that Tranter has called ‘terminals’.


He has written many poems in this mode, taking end-words from Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, Barbara Guest, John Keats, Frank O’Hara, Banjo Paterson and others. The US poet, editor and critic Brian Henry has studied and summarised this technique of Tranter’s in a paper published in Antipodes magazine in 2004; his paper is reprinted on the internet. [ 3 ] Henry mentions and quotes from the Ashbery sestina. He looks at ten of Tranter’s poems and discusses each different kind and example of borrowing in detail.


Brian Henry says, inter alia:


With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created a new form similar to the sestina but far more flexible in its emphasis on end-words: the terminal. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length, and the number of terminals possible in the English language is limited only by the number of poems in the English language. The form has infinite potential. Unrestricted to 39 lines as in the sestina, not limited to 14 or 19 rhyming lines as with the sonnet and the villanelle, not expected to repeat itself like the pantoum and the villanelle, and not tethered to any rhyme scheme or syllable count like the ballad, terza rima, heroic couplet, alexandrine, sapphics, or ottava rima, the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility. [….]


… the terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise. Because Tranter overwrites — and in the process simultaneously effaces and preserves — his source poem while retaining the anchoring points of the source poem, his terminals are both conservative and destructive. (Henry 32)


A year or two ago the magazine The Modern Review, based in Toronto, Canada, sent Tranter a request: ‘We are attempting to assemble a group of critically interested writers/ readers to respond to John Ashbery’s poem “Clepsydra’”, by means of a critical essay, poem, personal response, etc. The author is in complete control of response type, content, and length.’


Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’ is a complicated piece of writing. Its title seems to have little connection with the poem: a clepsydra [ 4 ] is a kind of water-driven clock (the name means ‘water-stealer’) used by the ancient Greeks. The poem is also long: 253 lines long, to be precise: nearly nine pages. It was first published in book form in the 1977 volume Rivers and Mountains.


Other critics have dealt with ‘Clepsydra’ by tracing various influences in it. Annette Gilson, for example, uncovers evidence of the influence of Emily Dickinson:


In one of her most frequently cited circumference poems, ‘The Poets light but Lamps—’ (Poems 883), Dickinson describes the influence that poets have on later readers as a kind of ‘vital Light’ that ensures that the poets’ ‘Circumference’ will be preserved. Both of Ashbery’s references to circumference reflect this Dickinsonian luminance, explicitly linking an image of light to a spatial circumference figure.(2) In this way ‘Clepsydra’ registers the dimension of Dickinsonian circumference that suggests that the ‘vital Light’ of a prior poet continues to exist, even after she is dead, by lighting the ‘Lamps’ of later poets. (Gilson 1998)


Tranter’s ‘response’ to the poem was quite different. With Mr Ashbery’s permission he set out to dismantle and rebuild it.


He took the last word of two of each line from ‘Clepsydra’, as with his earlier experiments with ‘terminals’, and also the first word or two from each line. Thus each line of Tranter’s reworked poem had its beginning and ending given to him; his task was to replace the meat in the sandwich, as it were.


So ‘The Anaglyph’ is a reinvented, perhaps flawed, or perhaps improved, version of that master poem, which is here reduced to the status of ancestor, model, maquette, or template.


‘The Anaglyph’ is partly about its own process — that is, the deconstructing and reconstructing of a poem. It is also about Tranter’s relationship as a developing poet with John Ashbery and with Ashbery’s poetry.


The word ‘blazon’ gives us a clue to one of the poem’s effects (‘Deep within its complex innards a purple jewel / Exists as a blazon, rotating slowly…’ lines 236–7). In the essay on John Ashbery in his remarkable study of forty-one US poets, Alone With America, Richard Howard points out that Ashbery often buries a small ‘blazon’ in his poems, and quotes André Gide:


I like discovering in a work of art… transposed to the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work… Thus in certain paintings… a tiny dark convex mirror reflects the interior of the room where the scene painted occurs… the comparison with that method in heraldry which consists of putting a second blazon in the centre of the first, en abyme.’ (pp.19–20)


That is, inside the poem is a reduced diagram of the poem itself, ‘a tiny mirror for the plot, or maybe narrative’, as Tranter writes, referring to just this device, in his poem ‘The Alphabet Murders’, written over thirty years ago. The buried presence of Ashbery’s poem — that is, the line-beginnings and line-endings from it — haunts ‘The Anaglyph’ as a kind of fragmented and half-buried blazon.


The title of the poem itself, ‘The Anaglyph’, is embodied in some of the poem’s ‘business’, for example in the line ‘their left and right perceptual fields, red and green’ (84). This hints at the anaglyph’s dependence on binocular vision. An anaglyph is an image usually drawn or printed in red and bluish-green ink that, when viewed through spectacles containing one bluish-green lens and one red lens, presents a three-dimensional image. As such, an anaglyph is a binary image consisting of two superimposed and differently-coloured views of the same scene, each perceived from a slightly different viewpoint.


‘The Anaglyph’ is similar to Ashbery’s original poem ‘Clepsydra’, having the same number of lines and the same line beginnings and line endings, yet it has been written by a different author at a different time in a different society, coloured differently and seen from a slightly different point of view, and one which has one more layer of knowledge than the original. When Ashbery began work on ‘Clepsydra’ in the 1960s, nothing like it had existed before. When ‘The Anaglyph’ was begun, its progenitor had been modifying the ideal order of the literary landscape, to use Eliot’s phrase, for three decades. [ 5 ] ‘The Anaglyph’ depends on the earlier poem, and perceives the world partly through and from that poem’s viewpoint.


On the first page Ashbery’s poem is displaced, codified and rationalised. The title of Ashbery’s poem, ‘Clepsydra’, refers to an ancient Greek water-clock, which appears disguised twice in ‘The Anaglyph’:


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. (17-19)


Later in the poem, ‘that tiny hydraulic clock’ (234).


The mention of Proust’s great novel (‘The way / Things fade away, les temps perdu seems to be the point / Of this rodomontade’ 157–9) reminds us that the scents and flavours of his remembered life soaked into Proust’s writing. Over many years these changed from private, evanescent memories into private handwriting fixed on paper, then to corrected proofs, the text of which was reified into public print, and eventually entirely replaced Proust’s own actual life, as this poem seeks to replace its progenitor.


Favourite themes of Ashbery’s are also glancingly referred to: old schoolteachers, for example (‘the old school-teacher’s chief act of belief’ 39) and his use of ornate words harvested from the dictionary: ‘Those crowded riverine cities’ (63) reminds us of Ashbery’s title ‘Those Lacustrine Cities’ — that is, cities built beside or on a lake. The phrase ‘ashes and diamonds and nourishing food’ (77) obliquely refers to the title of the 1958 Polish movie Ashes and Diamonds directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Ashbery had the nickname ‘Ashes’ bestowed on him in that decade by his poet friends Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. In the movie, a poem by the nineteenth-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid is quoted:


So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph. [ 6


Ashbery himself, as the maimed father-figure, makes a brief appearance to protest what has happened to his poem: ‘From Rochester he came hence, / A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth’ (135–6). Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York State, in 1927.


Speaking of father-figures, the distancing yet ligaturing effect ‘The Anaglyph’ seeks to enact between Tranter the translator and Ashbery the originator is addressed by Lacan:


Rather, the subject would now find himself alienated in a symbolic system which he shares with others. That system structures the human unconscious, and communication with the other can now be enacted through the shifting positions of signifiers in a system of symbolic exchange. The self is still an appropriated self, but what is appropriated is language as the other, and not an ideal but alienated image of an individual self. (In the resolution of the Oedipus complex, this would involve moving from a specular rivalry with the father, in which the child seeks to take the father’s place, to an assumption of the function of the father and, most fundamentally, of the symbolic father who, as Law, is that which makes possible all symbolic operations.) (Bersani, summarising Lacan, 115–16)


One final function of the poetic father is to license the son to take his place. It is worth noting that Tranter has stated that he asked Ashbery’s permission before embarking on this disfigurative exercise:


After wrestling with [‘Clepsydra’] for a while, I felt that it needed demolishing and rebuilding, and — with Mr Ashbery’s permission — that is what I did. (Feints 29)


Perhaps to empower Ashbery as the lawgiver, other elder poets are downgraded. The most common thematic reference in ‘The Anaglyph’ is a series of references to bear hunting, the first of which is ‘a hunter in the dim mirror killing a bear’ (33). Poet Galway Kinnell was born in the same year as John Ashbery, and also lives in New York City. Daniel Schenker says


In one of his [Kinnell’s] best known poems, “The Bear,” an Eskimo hunter stalks a polar bear who eventually succumbs to the sharpened bone coiled in the hunter’s bait. When the hunter comes upon the bear’s carcass he eats voraciously of the animal’s flesh as we would expect. But instead of then abandoning the carcass or considering its other uses, the hunter climbs into the body and life and death of the bear. The object of the hunt thus becomes not the mere domination of the bear by the hunter, but an effort to acquire an understanding of what it’s like to be something other than oneself. As if to validate his attempt to identify with the other, the hunter is granted a vision of spring at the end of the poem as geese come trailing up the flyway and a mother bear tends to a litter of new-born cubs.


Kinnell’s poem contains an explicit comparison between bear-killing and poem-making, where his Eskimo hunter ponders thus: ‘…the rest of my days I spend / wandering: wondering / what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavour of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?’ A hard question to answer, for an aboriginal American, from inside the corpse of a dead bear.


This seems light-years away from Ashbery’s modus operandi, and in ‘The Anaglyph’ the business with the dead bear is perhaps a ‘feint’, an example of what poetry is not, except in a willed personal myth drenched in contemporary bourgeois American nostalgie de la tundra.


In ‘The Anaglyph’ there are eight further references to Mr Kinnell’s ill-fated bear: ‘inhabiting a reputation’ (51), ‘the story of an Eskimo inside an eviscerated bear like this?’ (72), ‘the fact that he “inhabited” the smelly bear-skin…’ (73), ‘clambering inside an animal’ (78), ‘that animal’s demise’ (105), ‘taxidermy at midnight’ (106), ‘a polar bear falling over, and the hunter’ (156), and a final dismissive if syntactically ambiguous aperçu: ‘He read poems about killing large animals to keep awake / On the tepid waters of café society.’ (210–11)


Other images deal with Ashbery’s poetry as an influence and refer more sensibly to the process of rewriting as redesign or rebuilding: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment.’ (43–44) ‘returning to my sources, raking through my prototypes’ (48), and ‘blueprint is found and seems just right’ (49).


Not that ‘The Anaglyph’ is loaded with a freight of too-serious literary endeavour: that would betray Ashbery as much as Tranter, and of course seriousness in itself has no literary value, nor has its cousin, sincerity. As Harold Bloom reminds us, Oscar Wilde remarked that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” [ 7 ]  There are lighter moments, and many of them.


For example: ‘the fireworks, they / Ended with a fizzing Roman candle sound that frightened the guest who was / Intended to rescue Gertie McDowell from that dirty old man.’ (100–102) In 1918 the US Postal Authorities burned copies of the Little Review carrying the instalment of James Joyce’s Ulysses in which young Gertie McDowell exposes her drawers to the gaze of masturbating Leopold Bloom in the dusk while roman candles fizz and explode in the sky. Joyce’s passage parodies the style of women’s magazine stories of the time:


And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it
was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft! (Joyce 477)


Exclaiming over roman candles must be a universal phenomenon. Jack Kerouac, in On The Road, published in 1957, and seemingly unaware of Ulysses, writes:


The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”.’ (Kerouac 8)


Other lighter references:


Photo of Ashbery’s apartment block in New York City
Photo of Ashbery’s apartment block in New York City

lines 23–25: the sky over Twenty-second Street, but / The sky leans nonchalantly against the coop — I mean “co-op” — about / As graceful as a cowboy leaning on a chicken co-op — I mean “coop”] John Ashbery’s apartment is in a building that bears a large sign advertising “COOPS”, or co-operatively-owned apartments. The vertical alignment of the word ‘coops’ does not allow for hyphens. See the note to ‘Ninth Avenue’ below. (Photo: John Ashbery’s apartment building. Photo by John Tranter.)


91: The assurance Baron Corvo had an excess of, a crowing assurance] The eccentric writer Frederick Rolfe (1860–1913) adopted the pseudonym ‘Baron Corvo’ (along with several others). The Corvidae are a family of birds including crows, ravens and jays; corvine: crow-like.


114: presented in a Potemkin-Village spirit ] Potemkin-Village, a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition. 1935–40; after Prince Potëmkin. “Catherine’s [the Great’s] tour of the south in 1787 was a triumph for Potëmkin, for he disguised all the weak points of his administration — hence the apocryphal tale of his erecting artificial villages to be seen by the empress in passing.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe edition 2004 CD ROM).


115: a vast electrical disturbance] The phrase comes from an early line of John Ashbery’s: ‘My child, I love any vast electrical disturbance.’ (Some Trees, Corinth 20) ] and is used again in ‘Electrical Disturbance: A dramatic interlude’.
131: coffee and a Strega] Strega (Italian: witch) is a liqueur. In Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘The Day Lady Died’:


It is 12:20 in New York a Friday [….]
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue…


131: Il Miglior Fabbro] Not in fact a New York café, bar or restaurant, though perhaps it should be. This phrase was T S Eliot’s dedication of The Waste Land to Pound: ‘the better maker’ or ‘the finer craftsman’, which is what Dante calls Arnaut Danièl, an Occitan troubadour of the twelfth century and the inventor of the difficult sestina poem form, a favourite of Ashbery’s.


143: the pearl-handled revolver] A radio play device: a common name for any clumsy explanatory dialogue. In an archetypal radio play, to identify the villain to the radio audience, who are ‘blind’, and where the type of gun the villain is holding is vital in identifying the real murderer, typical dialogue ran thus: “Carruthers, you swine, put down that pearl-handled revolver!”]


151: Not likely to allow me to escape the whirligig of voracious time.] Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, (act five, scene one):


Clown: … And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.


186: a canal reflecting its own anagram] Psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan developed a theory of the ‘mirror stage’ of ego development. Reflections and mirrors are of course symbolic of the central process this poem enacts. Canal is an anagram of Lacan, whose name appears in another mirror later in the thesis.


197: a step or two away from them] Frank O’Hara again. His 1956 poem “A Step Away From Them’ contains the lines:


It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-coloured
cabs. [….] First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them? [….]
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.


200: Leading to a rowboat mounted in a park] From John Forbes, ‘Monkey’s Pride’:


I’ll be employed on a rowing boat
mounted in a park,
the one the avenues lead to
because society has elected me / to decorate
its falling apart with a useless panache […]


208: Infant mortality was declining as aspirin consumption increased.] Though the two trends are not directly related, each is a product of scientific advances occurring over the same period:


In 1897, scientists at the drug and dye firm Bayer began investigating acetylsalicylic acid as a less-irritating replacement for standard common salicylate medicines. By 1899, Bayer had dubbed this drug ‘Aspirin’ and was selling it around the world. Aspirin’s popularity grew over the first half of the twentieth century, spurred by its effectiveness in the wake of Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and aspirin’s profitability led to fierce competition and the proliferation of aspirin brands and products. (Wikipedia)


Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a precipitous decline in infant mortality was observed in the United States. Economic growth, improved nutrition, new sanitary measures, and advances in knowledge about infant care all contributed to this decline in infant mortality. (Lee, Kwang-Sun. ‘Infant Mortality Decline in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: the role of market milk.’ Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 50, Number 4, Autumn 2007, pp.585–602)


229: Ninth Avenue] John Ashbery’s New York apartment abuts Ninth Avenue. See the note to ‘Twenty-second Street’, above.


232: to turn your back on Europe] As a young man, John Ashbery lived in Europe for a decade from 1955 to 1965 — indeed, one of his poems is titled ‘Europe’, though it is mainly about the eponymous Paris metro stop and its neighbourhood — then returned to live in the United States. ‘Clepsydra’ was ‘one of the last poems Ashbery wrote while he was in France. The poem was composed in the Spring of 1965…’ (Shoptaw 83). The unusual number of French phrases and names in ‘The Anaglyph’ also suggest this French connection: Salon des Refusés, Buffon, Paris, eau-de-cologne, la vie littéraire, longeurs, Mallarmé’s abyss, Valéry, appliqué aperçus, puissant, les temps perdu, simple entendre.


251: Your well wrought urn] Ashbery’s oeuvre; the reference is to both the noted critical study of poems by Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, and Eliot, The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks, and to John Keats’ poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, which ends: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.’

  Desmond’s Coupé


This poem is a mainly homophonic translation (or mistranslation) of Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1897 poem ‘Un coup de dés…’ [ 8 ] Tranter provided a note to the poem in a 2006 issue of Rhizome magazine (12–13):


A homophonic translation is of course not a translation at all: you simply try to find English words that sound like the poem spoken in the original language, in this case French. So in my travesty, Mallarmé’s phrase “sous une inclinaison plane désespérément” becomes “Susan’s inclination was plainly desperate,” and so forth. Naturally this is fun, and sometimes funny, which is a bonus.


Yet as a poet you want to write a good poem, not merely nonsense. And you want to create something that does glance off or comment on the various meanings of the original. So I have taken liberties, and sometimes translated a French phrase into its genuine English equivalent; and I’ve sometimes added or subtracted words or phrases.


Mallarmé is often taken very seriously, as indeed he seemed to take himself, and I hope my disrespectful pie in the face of his epoch-making poem restores some human balance to his relationship with his disciples and literary descendants.


And of course dealing with the work of an important poet like Mallarmé takes us into the realm of the ‘anxiety of influence’, as Harold Bloom labelled it: the need to learn from past masters without being overwhelmed by their mastery, and the need for any artist to clear the undergrowth of history to make room for her or his own new work. That uneasy mixture of respect and aggression colours my poem.


The idea of homophonic mistranslation is not new; Louis Zukofsky and his wife Celia used the technique in their versions of the Roman poet Catullus (1969), and more than half a century ago Frank O’Hara wrote ‘Aus Einem April’ (1954), the first line of which is a deliberate mistranslation of the first line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘Aus Einem April’ (‘From an April’) (Rilke 10). David Lehman (in Jacket 4) points out that O’Hara’s poem begins with the line ‘We dust the walls’; and Rilke’s poem begins ‘Wieder duftet der Wald,’ (‘Again the forest is fragrant’). The rest of the O’Hara’s poem, though, abandons close homophony and plays more loosely with the original. Rilke’s poem begins:


Wieder duftet der Wald.
Es heben die schwebenden Lerchen
mit sich den Himmel empor, der unseren Schultern schwer war; …


O’Hara’s poem (186) opens like so:


We dust the walls
And of course we are weeping larks
falling all over the heavens with our shoulders clasped …


Gérard Genette (Palimpsests, 1997) points out that


the classic example of this genre is Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames, by Louis d’Antin van Rooten [first published in London in 1967], who presents as a volume of hermetic French poems (with English glosses on the obscurities) a series of French transphonations of nursery rhymes (‘Mother Goose Rhymes’):


Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! Degrés te fallent


thus transposes, as you have probably guessed already, to


Humpty Dumpty
Sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty
Had a great fall.


Alison Rieke notes a link from Humpty Dumpty to Louis Zukofsky:


Zukofsky also glances at the word play of another Louis, Luis d’Antin Van Rooten, whose edition of Mother Goose transliterated into French resembles Zukofsky’s handling of foreign languages. Zukofsky made the connection between Swift and Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames by reading a review of Van Rooten’s book in which the reviewer compares the technique of the joking French transliteration of Mother Goose to Swift’s play with the sounds of Latin. … The pertinent quotation from Swift appears in the review, which Zukofsky clipped and saved and which is now preserved at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre with his composition notes for ‘A’-22 and ‘A’-23.


Van Rooten’s sly poems are meant to be comic; Zukofsky perhaps less so. In Tranter’s hands, Mallarmé’s poem is considerably less solemn than in the original. Three examples:


Mallarmé: Un coup de dés / jamais / quand bien même lancé dans des circonstances éternelles / du fond d’un naufrage

Weinfield translation: [ 9 ] A throw of the dice / will never / even when launched in eternal circumstances / from the depths of a shipwreck

Tranter: Desmond’s coupé is full of jam. He’s in a quandary: / a bean lance, or a dance of circumstances. / He’s eternally fond of his own naivety. (1–3)


From the shipwreck which Mallarmé paints in misty though intensely spiritual terms to Desmond’s naivety is certainly a step or two down the ladder of seriousness, though the sense of quandary is of course central to Mallarmé’s poem.


Mallarmé: celui / son ombre puérile / caressée et polie et rendue et lavée

Weinfield: this one / his peurile shade / caressed and polished and rendered and washed

Tranter: say, Louie, your son is some puerile hombre, / caressing a policeman and renting out a lavatory (58–59)


Mallarmé wrote that ‘everything exists in order to end in a book,’ [10] though it is doubtful that he had policemen and lavatories in mind.


Mallarmé: prince amer de l’écueil / s’en coiffe comme de l’héroïque / irrésistible mais contenu / par sa petite raison virile / en foudre

Weinfield: bitter prince of the reef / wears it as an heroic headdress / irresistible but contained / by his small virile reason / in a lightning flash

Tranter: the American prince who loves the cool, / he gives a little heroic cough. / Irresistible maize container! / Par for the course, but a pretty feeble reason to be acting virile / and like a foodie (91–95)


Here the ‘prince amer’ becomes an American prince, whose ‘heroic headdress’ is downgraded to ‘a little heroic cough’.


Perhaps the most salient difference between Mallarmé’s poem and Tranter’s version of it is that in Mallarmé there is a consistency of tone and vocabulary throughout (as there is in Eliot’s Four Quartets, below). The variation of theme and topic occur within an overall economy of literary decorum.


In Tranter the opposite is the case; though there are some tenuous links to the master poem, the employment of homophonic ‘translation’ causes the vocabulary and topic to vary erratically, leaping from seriousness to crude slang in a single phrase: ‘heroic’ to ‘cough’, for example. The only literary decorum is a total lack of decorum, relentlessly imposed.

  Five Quartets


Four Quartets,a group of four related poems by T S Eliot, was published in book form in 1942. [11] Their titles are Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding. Apparently Eliot considered Four Quartets to be his masterpiece. Valerie Eliot notes that in January 1922 Eliot ‘returned to London, after spending a few days in Paris, where he submitted the manuscript of The Waste Land to Pound’s maieutic skill.’ (Facsimile Introduction xxii) Ezra Pound had admired the poem, but edited the manuscript ruthlessly. At one point T S Eliot had meant to title the first part of the poem ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’, a thought that didn’t survive into the printed version. (Facsimile 4) Where Eliot had written on page 3 of the typescript, ‘And perhaps a weekend at the Metropole’, Pound scrawled in the margin ‘dam per’apsez’ (31), and where Eliot had written on page 4 ‘Perhaps his inclinations touch the stage’, Pound had admonished him thus: ‘Perhaps be damned’. (45) But alas, Pound was not in England in the 1930s to rescue ‘Four Quartets’.


Tranter evidently had the feeling that Four Quartets — at nearly a thousand lines — was overgrown and repetitive, and he set about fixing those deficiencies by pruning the poem severely. His version — titled ‘Five Quartets’ — is Eliot’s poem with most of the words removed, and runs to a more economical 75 lines. Its restructuring and distortion of the original text is extreme; here is what Viktor Shklovsky has to say (12) about such procedures:


In our phonetic and lexical investigations into poetic speech, involving both the arrangement of words and the semantic structures based on them, we discover everywhere the very hallmark of the artistic: that is, an artefact that has been intentionally removed from the domain of automatised perception. It is “artificially” created by an artist in such a way that the perceiver, pausing in his reading, dwells on the text. This is when the literary work attains its greatest and most long-lasting impact…. because of this, the object is brought into view.


Later Shklovsky defines poetry as ‘the language of impeded, distorted speech. Poetic speech is structured speech.’ (13) What has occurred to the rather conventional language of Eliot’s poem is that its easy rhetorical flow and conventional sequence of insights and images have been truncated and chopped into fragments, and those fragments disconnected from their usual linking words and phrases. The ‘automatised perception’ that allows the eye to glide over the lines without being forced to notice each word has been disrupted. Here is a passage from Four Quartets:


This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

Time and the bell have buried the day,
the black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling? Chill
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing


This becomes:


Abstention from its metalled bell
carries the cling wing.


Rather than guess the intentions of climbing plants and trees, the reader is here forced to invent the mise en scene and syntactical connections that are needed for this to make ‘sense’. The act of reading — that is, making sense of a string of alphabetical marks — is so complex, rapid and automatic that these guesses at meaning have already taken place before we are consciously aware that they are needed. As attention is paid to the words, a series of conscious reinterpretations and adjustments are called for as predictable sequences of words fail to materialise. This kind of de-natured writing activates an extra layer of awareness in the reading mind and enlarges and refreshes the range of possible responses to a text.

  Electrical Disturbance


The next piece, a group or sequence of poems titled ‘Electrical Disturbance: A dramatic interlude’ is laid out like a script for a radio play or feature for two voices, a form Tranter was familiar with. [12] This text is based on parts of a radio program in which John Ashbery read some of his poems and spoke with John Tranter. The program was produced by Tranter and broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘Radio Helicon’ program in 1988. Nearly two decades later, an audio recording of the radio program was audited and translated by a computer’s speech-to-text function (as best it could, given that it had been trained to recognise an Australian, not an American, accent) and extensively rewritten by John Tranter in 2005 and 2006. The speaking parts ‘A’ and ‘B’ do not have a one-to-one connection with the original vocal texts; the speech divisions occur more or less at random.


As noted earlier, the title comes from an early line of Ashbery’s: ‘My child, I love any vast electrical disturbance.’ (Some Trees, Corinth 20) The original radio program was powered by electricity; Tranter’s version of it is itself a vast disturbance to the original. [13] Shklovsky makes a point about the need to disturb the conventional:


In order to transform an object into a fact of art, it is necessary first to withdraw it from the domain of life. To do this, we must first and foremost “shake up the object,” as Ivan the Terrible sorted out his henchmen. We must extricate a thing from the cluster of associations in which it is bound. It is necessary to turn over the object as one would turn a log over the fire. (61)


In the 1988 recording, John Ashbery begins by reading his poem ‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’ (Selected 283):


This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot be.


Tranter’s transformation of these lines:


Outsourcing ruins the parties concerned with language.
They are employing level parking. You are one
who pretended to go at it this year.
You listen to other opponents, said the committee,
it wants to be yours and cannot be on the supporting level — (2–6)


Like a radio play script, the piece begins with a cast list for two voices: ‘A: a literary scholar; B: a company director taking on the guise of a naïve young man.’ Both personas could be made to fit Tranter, perhaps; this thesis would argue for his status as a literary scholar, and the half-title page of his collection Urban Myths states that ‘He… now lives in Sydney, where he is a company director.’ (UM i) Perhaps the guise of a ‘naïve young man’ was invented to allow his character to draw out the older, wiser Ashbery.


The use of two voices provides an arena for conflict and dramatic tension. For the first half of the poem, the voices seem to address the air, or perhaps the reader, conveying the computer-mangled monologues into the public space of the printed page, just as the original radio program consisted of some static poetry reading by John Ashbery, designed to be overheard by the radio audience. But the program also contained a question-and-answer interview between Tranter and Ashbery, and by line 96 the poem begins to move in this direction too.


B: He is one of the U.N. and NATO people. Right?
A: I don’t have any idea.
B: Okay. Would you like to meet some new friends?
A: Well, no.(96–99)


As well as disagreement, there is misunderstanding:


B: What about those so-called ‘French Fires’?
A: After the old days of riots, all of the fires were over.
B: Not Fires, Fries. And who — where — (106–198)


We cannot be sure who misheard or misread ‘fries’ as ‘fires’, as the original draft provided by the computer’s ‘translation’ was extensively rewritten by John Tranter. The characters ‘A’ and ‘B’ are a construct, for one thing. Perhaps the computer mistranscribed the word; perhaps Tranter added it as an apparent mistranscription. The innocent reader cannot be sure of anything, in fact: the whole of the text of this piece may well have been a complete erasure, rewrite and obliteration of the original draft, or perhaps a partial rewrite. Does this matter? The connections between the original radio program and the poem as we have it in this thesis are strained, but also in a sense meaningless. One cannot explain the other. Occasionally, though, the focus becomes intelligibly self-aware:


A: (looking around): Why am I here?
B: You are available, you are the only person
along the lines of the overview of the animal,
and more powerful than ever… (124–127)


This is possibly a (slightly distorted) description of the power-relations between the ABC interviewer and the famous poet interviewee, though we should remember that the ‘… speaking parts “A” and “B” do not have a one-to-one connection with the original vocal texts…’

  Speaking French


Following the ‘Vocoder’ group comes a group of one hundred and one poems loosely derived from the work of four French poets of the nineteenth century: some of Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’, and poems by Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Verlaine. I shall focus on the Rimbaud poems here. Most of what is said about them can be applied to the other three: the technical procedure was the same.


The process of constructing these poems was loosely similar to the method used with ‘Electrical Disturbance’, but with an important difference. Here, the original poems by the four authors were read into the microphone by John Tranter, in French. The speech-recognition program had not been designed to handle French; that is, its dictionary consisted of only English words. Nonetheless it made valiant attempts to ‘make sense’, in English text, of the Australian-accented French it was given. And indeed some of the lines that resulted are quite reasonable: who could argue with the statement ‘No one wants an incontinent hostage’? As with all of Tranter’s experiments, the product of the machine was treated as raw material, as rough drafts for more finished works, and considerable rewriting was done.


A further restraint was imposed late in the rewriting process, one which relates these poems to the concerns of ‘The Anaglyph’ and ‘Electrical Disturbance’. Each of the 101 poems contains one or more lines or phrases from poems by John Ashbery.

  Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’


Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’ are a group of 47 prose-poems which — unlike the work of the other three French poets — were not published during their author’s lifetime.


Apart from Ashbery, Rimbaud is the other major influence on Tranter’s poetry, an influence which began a few years earlier than Ashbery’s, in Tranter’s adolescence. As Fagan and Minter put it:


By 1968 Tranter was navigating a chiasmic cultural parallax, attracted to both American metropoetic and post-Romantic French Symbolism. This contest defines the direction of his first three books — the final ‘crisis’ of which is played out in The Alphabet Murders. Tranter’s solution to history was an inverted, Orientalising dialectic, and its synthesis was in the seminal figure of Arthur Rimbaud. (Par 13)


‘Odi et Amo’, Tranter’s review of Charles Nicholl’s Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, begins with the mock-lascivious statement: “When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a sodomite.” Tranter’s teenage crush endured and matured into a complex relationship… Tranter has represented Rimbaud as ‘an intoxicating role model for a rebellious teenager… poetry was the essence of his life… [he was] intellectually brilliant… [and wrote] the most dazzling and gifted poetry of his period, perhaps of his century… [his poems] combine revolutionary modernist methods… with an intense lyricism.’ (Tranter, ‘Word for Word’) He also describes his pin-up vagabond as ‘one of the most dazzling poets of all time… [with] a very moving lyrical urge underneath all he wrote… a Lucifer figure in many ways, and we always admire the bad boys more than the goody two-shoes… I’ve never really moved on from Rimbaud.’ (Tranter, Cortland Review) This collocation of precocious poetic essence, stupefying lyricism and seditious brilliance sets up Rimbaud as the Romantic-Modern poet par excellence.… ‘Rimbaud’ becomes Tranter’s glamorous meta-brand, a sublimate junction between erotic hyper-essentialism and high modernist investments in proto-romantic self-constitution. (Par 15)


Tranter has addressed Rimbaud before; three decades ago, early in the 1970s, he wrote ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’, [14] which was rewritten for its appearance as ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ five years later in the collection Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), and the topic crops up again and again through Tranter’s oeuvre. As I mention later in this paper, these early poems attempt to relocate Rimbaud firmly in the proto-Modern, and not all critics were persuaded that the attempt had been successful. [15] Todorov points to some of the dangers in this approach:


To “discover” an author of the past, to translate his theories into a contemporary vocabulary, to relate them to current ideas, the endeavour is both seductive and unattractive — by its very facility. Such an activity provides a faithful, though caricatural, image of all interpretation and of all reading. Unless we let the author’s sentences speak for themselves (but in what language?), we merely tend to relate them to ourselves, by contrast or likeness. If I feel the need to introduce such texts, it is doubtless because I want to make their author into one of my own predecessors. (Todorov 190–191)
Rimbaud’s sentences have already spoken for themselves, long ago. One problem of writing about another writer is to avoid standing in front of him as you write, thus blocking the reader’s view. Tranter’s Rimbaud is of course nothing like Rimbaud, but rather like Tranter, as he would like to be seen. How to get rid of that curtain of authorial rhetoric? Tranter has quoted a saying: ‘Take rhetoric and wring its neck,’ attributing it to Rimbaud, which seems suitable, but Fagan and Minter point out that


Tranter is actually mistaken here, as the Rimbaud quote appears not in ‘The Alphabet Murders’ but in Section 12 of his later poem ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’: ‘now a paste of / bullshit obscures the surface of the legend / that cast out flattery and took rhetoric / and wrung its neck.’ See John Tranter, ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ from Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), republished in John Tranter, Trio (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2003), p.109. (Footnote 10)


In fact the phrase is probably from Verlaine; or so Arthur Symons, who knew Verlaine, [16] writes:


Coming into a literature in which poetry is generally taken to be but another name for rhetoric, he [Spanish poet Ramon de Campoamor] followed, long before Verlaine, Verlaine’s advice to ‘take rhetoric and wring its neck.’ (Cities, 82)

Later the US poet Conrad Aiken used the phrase in a poem, where Verlaine utters it over a game of chess:


Verlaine puts down his pawn upon a leaf
And closes his long eyes, which are dishonest,
And says ‘Rimbaud, there is one thing to do:
We must take rhetoric, and wring its neck!…’
Rimbaud considers gravely, moves his Queen;
And then removes himself to Timbuctoo… (Aiken 141–42)


Three decades after ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’, Tranter retrieves the French poet from the realm of the proto-Modern where he had previously attempted to locate him, and retranslates more than thirty of his poems using the machinery of the twenty-first century, the electric blender of postmodern disassembly and reconstruction, converting his words into a shape Rimbaud would never have recognised. As Todorov advises, he lets ‘the author’s sentences speak for themselves (but in what language?)’


To turn to the Rimbaud poems, here’s an example of the distance between one of Rimbaud’s prose poems in French and Oliver Bernard’s translation of it into English, and its incarnation as part of Tranter’s oeuvre. First, the Rimbaud (Rimbaud 274):

  Arthur Rimbaud: Métropolitain


Du détroit d’Indigo aux mers d’Ossian, sur le sable rose et orange qu’a lavé le ciel vineux, viennent de monter et de se croiser des boulevards de cristal habités incontinent par de jeunes familles pauvres qui s’alimentent chez les fruitiers. Rien de riche. — La ville.

Du désert de bitume fuient droit, en déroute avec les nappes de brumes échelonnées en bandes affreuses au ciel qui se recourbe, se recule et descend formé de la plus sinistre fumée noire que puisse faire l’Océan en deuil, les casques, les roues, les barques, les croupes. — La bataille!

Lève la tête: ce pont de bois, arqué; ces derniers potagers; ces masques enluminés sous la lanterne fouettée par la nuit froide; l’ombre niaise à la robe bruyante, au bas de la rivière; ces crânes lumineux dans les plants de pois, — et les autres fantasmagories. — La campagne.

Ces routes bordées de grilles et de murs, contenant à peine leurs bosquets, et les atroces fleurs qu’on appellerait coeurs et soeurs, damas damnant de langueur, — possession de féeriques aristocraties ultra-rhénanes, Japonaises, Guaranies, propres encore à recevoir la musique des anciens — et il y a des auberges qui, pour toujours, n’ouvrent déjà plus; — il y a des princesses, et si tu n’es pas trop accablé, l’étude des astres. — Le ciel.

Le matin où, avec Elle, vous vous débattîtes parmi ces éclats de neige, ces lèvres vertes, ces glaces, ces drapeaux noirs et ces rayons bleus, et ces parfums pourpres du soleil des pôles. — Ta force.

  Metropolitan (trans. Bernard)


From the indigo strait to the seas of Ossian, on the pink and orange sand which the vinous sky has washed, crystal boulevards have just risen and crossed, at once occupied by young poor families who get their food at the greengrocers’ shops. Nothing rich — The city!

From the desert of bitumen flee in headlong flight under sheets of fog spread out in frightful layers in the sky which curves back, recedes, and descends, formed of the most sinister black smoke that the Ocean in mourning can produce, helmets, wheels, ships, cruppers — The battle! Raise your head: that arched wooden bridge; the last kitchen gardens of Samaria; those masks lit by the lantern whipped by the cold night; the silly undine with the noisy dress, at the bottom of the river; luminous skulls among the pea seedlings — and the other phantasmagoria — the country.

Roads bordered by railings and walls, hardly containing their spinneys, and the frightful flowers you would call souls and sisters. Damask damning with tedium — the property of fairy-tale nobilities from beyond the Rhine, Japanese, Guarani, still fit to receive the music of the ancients — and there are inns which are never open any more — there are princesses, and, if you are not too overwhelmed, the study of the stars — the sky.

The morning when, with Her, you wrestled among the gleams of snow, the green lips, the ice, the black flags and the blue beams of light, and the purple odours of the Polar sun — your strength. (Ibid. 274–75)



Two guys from Detroit pored over the suicide letter
as its auction price rose through the $8.00 range.
A male choir that this year sang in Vietnam
is now a medical team on a training course.
No one wants an incontinent hostage.
Femina’s call for us all to share the pretty things
fell on deaf ears; so much for the taste of justice.
They can’t be bought. An investigation will not
reveal me as a donor or a smaller companion.
The promise of learning is a delusion. That’s what
befalls most of us plagiarists: our suckers
reject the disillusion that comes with the ugly truth.
One guy says the economy is in fact the city of events,
the other says ‘no one is a real actor in the film.’


The phrase from Ashbery’s poetry is ‘The promise of learning is a delusion.’


It’s clear that there is little point attempting to trace the links or connections between the ‘original’ and the final draft; to call them tenuous would be to understate the matter. The ‘content’ of the original has been completely dissolved in the acid bath of ‘translation’; form is in charge of the meaning here. Shklovsky reminds us that ‘form creates for itself its own content.’ (24)


This distance between original and ‘translation’ is great enough to accommodate a complete transformation of one poem into a different literary object altogether, according to chance, incompletely effective computer transcription algorithms and personal poetic idiosyncrasy. On the other side of that gap lies freedom of an extreme kind.

  JE est un autre: an aside


As Rimbaud wrote, JE est un autre, and this concept is worth looking at in detail.


Rimbaud wrote two letters in May 1871, one on 13 May to GeorgesIzambard, and a similar though longer letter two days later to Paul Demeny (Rimbaud 5). They are generally known as the ‘Lettres du voyant’. In each letter he sets out his theory of the poet as a person transformed into a visionary seer, embodied in the phrase ‘I is another [JE est un autre]’. In both cases the letters of the first person pronoun are capitalised, and the sentence reads ‘I is another’, not ‘I am another’; that is, the first person, the speaking voice, the authorial ‘I’ of the poem has become some other person or thing: not Rimbaud the person, but Rimbaud as a poet, has been transformed.


Other significant phrases from Rimbaud’s two letters are ‘…I have discovered I am a poet. It is not my fault at all,’ ‘So much the worse for the wood if it find itself a violin…’, and ‘If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its own fault.’


The transformation is from sleep to action, from inarticulate raw material (brass, wood) to finely-worked musical instruments, from dumb matter to music. In Rimbaud’s own case it is the change from youth to adulthood (for all that he was sixteen at the time), from blindness to vision, from unconscious inaction to articulate life, and from innocence to experience.


The Rimbaud scholar Enid Starkie links this claim of radical transformation to the alchemical study which Rimbaud had undertaken. ‘In occult theory,’ she writes,


primordial thinking is an autonomous activity whose object the thinker is. The outworn conception of the personal writer producing his own work is totally false. The writer is merely the vehicle for the voice of the Eternal, he himself is of no account for he is merely the unconscious expression of someone speaking through him.


Further, she quotes Rimbaud from the ‘Lettres du voyant’:

‘It is wrong to say Je pense [I think], one should say on me pense [I am thought],”’ and goes on to explain that ‘The poet cannot know why it is precisely he who has been chosen; he has had no say in the matter and it has occurred without his volition.’ (Starkie 122)


But recourse to alchemical theory is not the only way of interpreting Rimbaud’s self-alienation here. Rimbaud translator Oliver Bernard notes certain obstacles in Enid Starkie’s path to understanding which she herself may not have been aware of:


Despite certain amiable eccentricities, I recognised Enid Starkie when we met in Soho in 1962 or 1963 as a genuine representative of the academic establishment. This did not prevent me from liking and admiring her, nor lessen the pleasure I felt at her telling me that what I had done annoyed [her] much less than most Rimbaud translations. But her position in life, if I may put it like that, cannot have helped her much in empathising with a rebellious and revolutionary sixteen-year-old runaway, younger and more disturbing than any of Starkie’s Oxford students, and possessed of what Edgell Rickword calls ‘a natural genius for the language of abuse’. This is why I now think that Starkie placed such great emphasis on Rimbaud’s esoteric knowledge about alchemy — because she found it a more congenial line of enquiry than the politics of the Empire, the Commune and the Third Republic, and particularly Rimbaud’s involvement with the Commune and with communards. I don’t doubt that she would have written excellently on the subject of the fading beauties of Parnassian verse which the sixteen-year-old Rimbaud so cruelly mocked in 1871; but then she would have written a different book altogether. Her Arthur Rimbaud remains the standard conventional biography. (Rimbaud xxx-xxxi)


Of course Rimbaud’s left-wing views along with his homosexuality and his faith in poetry were to undergo total conversion. He would adopt a dogged bourgeois individualism and devote the rest of his life to accumulating capital as he matured from the wicked schoolboy into an angry, lonely, wandering adult, the restless nineteenth-century character the French call a fugueur. But that was after his childhood and his poetry had both ended, and after Paris and everything in it had been left far behind.


As a side-note to this aside, Rimbaud travelled on foot obsessively. He made several journeys between Charleville and Paris this way, a journey of nearly two weeks; later he walked though Germany, walked over the Alps (twice) to Italy, and travelled to Scandinavia, Java, Cyprus and finally North Africa, where he journeyed frequently between Arabia and areas in North Africa as a trader, on horseback but often on foot. The illness that killed him, cancer of the knee, would seem to have been partly caused by the relentless punishment he dealt out to his legs and feet.


The book Mad Travellers by Ian Hacking studies the phenomenon of the fugueur. From a review in US Publishers Weekly:


In a series of four essays originally delivered as the 1997 Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, Hacking closely analyses the history of the dissociative fugue, a malady that enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1890s, particularly in France. Its symptom was compulsive bouts of walking in a state of complete forgetfulness of one’s identity.


More significant, from another review of the book:


I was left with the impression that French surveillance, mixed with frequent desertion from its conscript army, went a long way to explaining the Fugue phenomenon. (Edgar 600–601)


Rimbaud and Verlaine were under frequent surveillance by police spies in France and in England because of their connections to the communards. And Rimbaud deserted from the Dutch Army in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and fled back to Europe. But I digress.


Leo Bersani provides a summary of a Lacanian approach that is equally useful in relation to Rimbaud’s claim that ‘I is another’: ‘… the appropriated self is an ideal self: the infant (and later the adult, to the extent that his relations are lived in the Imaginary order) sees in the other a total form, a full or completed being, which he possesses by identifying with it.’


A fuller quotation brings out the link with developmental psychology and the ‘mirror stage’:


In Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, our relation to the world is marked by the Imaginary when it is characterized by an effort to master the world through a process of narcissistic identification with it. The source of the Imaginary order (and of all later identificatory relations) is the ‘mirror stage’ of infancy. According to Lacan, this stage occurs between the ages of six months and eighteen months; the infant, still physically helpless, anticipates his own future physical coordination and unity by an identification with the image of the other as a total form. This is equivalent to saying that the child’s self is at first constituted as another; the human self is originally an alienated self. The principal effect of the mirror stage on intersubjectivity can be found in relations of aggressive tension in which the self exists only as another and the other is seen as an alter ego. For example, in erotic relationships dominated by the Imaginary, each lover will attempt to capture his own image in the other… The other is seen as withholding the self, and so the knowledge one has of him through one’s efforts to appropriate oneself in him is a paranoid knowledge. Indeed, for Lacan the alienating nature of self-identification makes the perception of the self in the other a paranoid perception from the very beginning. At the same time, the appropriated self is an ideal self: the infant (and later the adult, to the extent that his relations are lived in the Imaginary order) sees in the other a total form, a full or completed being, which he possesses by identifying with it. … the superego… is not so much a fantasy-identification with a parental figure as it is an alienating distancing of the self from itself. (Bersani 112–16)


In Tranter’s destructive mistranslations of ‘Rereading Rimbaud’, through a collaboration between Tranter and a machine that could not have been imagined in Rimbaud’s lifetime, Rimbaud’s voice is finally freed from any trace of itself, and becomes completely ‘other’.

  At the Movies


This third and final section of the poems prepared for this thesis presents twenty or so pages of poems about different movies, usually in a readable, discursive and sometimes critical voice.


Reviewers have commented that in Tranter’s very visual oeuvre, mention of movies is frequent, and the techniques of contemporary film (sudden scene changes using jump-cut, cross-fade, dissolve, and so on) are often borrowed as literary form. Barry Hill, reviewing Ultra in The Australian, writes:


They are highly visual, cinematic poems that Tranter directs like Polanski. They can make us feel like we are in a film; then, just at the right time, we are back on the street, where the poet stands with his merciless phrase-book… Brilliant. (2001)

Kate Lilley reviews The Floor of Heaven:


Read through multiple levels of reported speech and frame narration, the narratives themselves are richly reminiscent, loaded with novelistic and cinematic reference. The book as a whole can be construed as a serious pastiche, and a reading of the classic narratives and scenarios of melodrama and film noir, orchestrated around the oxymoronic trope of fated accident. (2000, 106–14)


Robert Potts reviewed Late Night Radio:


In his descriptions preceding this (of plots and images from famous films, on the experience of watching the movies, on the nature of escapism and realism, on the way in which the flux of cinema — the rapid cuts and disjunctions — mirrors a modernist mediation of an incorrigibly various worlds), and in other poems, Tranter has offered just such a disorientation, raising exactly those questions of a reader’s ‘investment’ and ‘reward’, and, I think, asking a necessary question as to whether such a balance-sheet approach to art and reception is valid. (1999)


Philip Mead looks more deeply into the cinematism underlying much of Tranter’s writing, focussing on The Floor of Heaven:


Probably the single most important marker of cinematism in John Tranter’s The Floor of Heaven is the style and tone of the narrators and the fact that they sound like voice-overs to the narratives they frame and enact. I think it’s useful here to read the narratives of The Floor of Heaven in a revision of the terms Ann Kaplan identifies as the five key features of film noir: ‘1) the investigative structure of the narrative; 2) plot devices such as voice-over or flashback, or frequently both; 3) proliferation of points of view; 4) frequent unstable characterisation of the heroine; 5) an “expressionist” visual style and emphasis on sexuality in the photographing of women.’ In film noir thrillers or mysteries there is usually ‘a male hero in search of the truth about an event that either has already happened or is about to come to completion.’ (Mead, Space 206)


The poem’s title [‘Breathless’] is an unmistakable allusion to film, to Godard and Truffaut’s A Bout de Souffle (1959) and Martin Erlichman’s 1983 Hollywood remake, Breathless. What is in play here is the idea of homage. The French Breathless is a knowing homage to Hollywood noir thrillers and gangster movies. The mise en abyme of Tranter’s title is its insertion of itself into a trans-cultural exchange of filmic homage, knowing allusions and remakes. (Mead, Space 212)


Tranter has written poems specifically about movies in the past; indeed, his second book is titled Red Movie. Perhaps his most strenuous attempt at an analysis of movie culture is ‘Those Gods Made Permanent’ (first collected in Under Berlin, pp.51–56, from which poem the phrase ‘under Berlin’ is taken), a six-page poem which draws on Joseph Losey’s The Servant and Fritz Lang’s Doktor Mabuse the Gambler and to a lesser extent various other movies, and asks the kind of questions Robert Potts refers to above. Andrew Taylor cites some lines from this poem as examples of ‘narrative waywardness’ common in Tranter’s work:


‘… we find the plot folding up like a robot / and stumbling off in the wrong direction / too abruptly for us to get our bearings. / […] What we asked for led to nothing, what we didn’t want to see / was made plain.’ (Under Berlin 53). Just such a narrative waywardness, it should be clear, is the hallmark of many of Tranter’s poems. They are in no small measure similar to the cinema. They are often highly visual, cut rapidly from scene to scene or image to image, and are often filled with fragments of what could be dialogue. (Taylor 1991)


Tranter’s poems ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and ‘High School Confidential’ bear the titles of specific movies (both made in 1956 by the same director, as it happens). And on a different theme, Tranter has said of his poems:


I suppose that poetry writing is what I do instead of film-making, which is what I would do if I had the money and skill. (Tranter, Hahn 2003)


The ‘movie’ poems in this thesis hark back to those earlier concerns, take account of a more disparate range of movies, and interrogate them more thoroughly and with a more theoretically-informed perspective. ‘Girl in Water’, for example, not only mentions Lacan (albeit in a telestich acrostic) but positions some of Hitchcock’s artefacts from the film Vertigo inside a poem that acts as a Lacanian machine.


It’s worth mentioning that a poem that addresses a movie is free to say what it likes, but only within the context of addressing that particular movie and its world. In terms of subject matter, the focus of a poem can be seen as that part of human society which is “cropped” to fit within the frame of the poem’s cultural viewfinder. Thus the particular focus of each of Tranter’s movie poems (rather than any formal aspect of the verse) acts as a constraining device. The procedure acts like the device of writing within the constraints of a ‘genre’ or a ‘form’: a stage play is essentially different to a radio play which is itself essentially different to a documentary movie, for example.


Tranter has often made a point about poetry: that the meaning of a poem is not a ‘meaning’ that can be decoded using ontological semantics; it is more like the complex and obscure personal significance of a dream. The film director Luis Buñuel has said that ‘Film… is the finest instrument we know for expressing the world of dreams, of feeling, of instinct.’ (Carrière 91) This point is treated at greater length in the discussion of Tranter’s book The Floor of Heaven, below. The triad of poem, dream and film overlap like a Venn diagram across a central common area of meaning. The problems of reception of those three art forms refer to the linking of various kinds of meaning with the larger problems of human life and interaction against a social background.


Because these poems generally work in the ‘discursive manner Professor Hope argues for and practises’, to quote an early critic (Haley 1970), they provide their own critical arguments, more or less, as they proceed, so the following notes will deal mainly with points the poems neglect to bring up.


‘Caliban’ is based on Forbidden Planet, 1956. In the film, a rocket ship arrives at the planet Altair 4 to uncover what happened to the Bellerophon Expedition, sent out some twenty years earlier. They contact a survivor, Doctor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who explains that some unknown force wiped out nearly everyone in his party. Only he, his wife (who later died of natural causes), and his infant daughter (now a beautiful young woman) survived. Morbius explains: ‘In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty, noble race of beings who called themselves the Krell… this all-but-divine race disappeared in a single night, and nothing was preserved above ground.’ We find out eventually that Morbius’s unconscious mind, fuelled by the gigantic underground energy generators built by the Krell, has destroyed the Bellerephon’s crew and is trying to destroy the recent visitors as well: its incarnation, a powerful invisible monster, roams the planet by night. At the climax Morbius realises what he has done: ‘My evil self is at the door, and I have no power to stop it.’ The theme and setting of the movie is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the dramatic moves are built on a loosely Freudian understanding of human nature, echoing the interest in psychoanalysis in the US in the decade of the 1950s.


‘Dark Passage’ is based on Delmer Daves’s 1947 movie Dark Passage. Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) has been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and sent to San Quentin prison for life. He escapes. A stranger named Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) helps him evade the police and hides Vincent in her stylish apartment. Vincent realises he is too recognisable, and a friendly cab-driver takes him to a plastic surgeon. In a technique reminiscent of another 1947 movie, the much less interesting Lady in the Lake, the first half of this movie is shot from the hero’s point of view; we first see his face after the surgery, when the bandages come off, which is also when he sees his new face for the first time, in a mirror. The mirror is the hinge point between his two identities, the old (never seen) and the new, hero of this new story, just as a mirror shows a translation of the real world and the real self. The film Dark Passage was based on the novel The Dark Road by David Goodis, and the narrative is marred by implausible coincidences.


In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) mild-mannered Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is mistaken for a government agent by a gang of spies led by the urbane James Mason. Thornhill becomes entangled in a series of dangerous adventures and is pursued across the United States by both the spies and the government, while becoming further entangled in the arms of a beautiful blonde (played by Eva Marie Saint) whose loyalties are ambiguous. Highlights are a crop-dusting plane that hunts down and tries to kill Thornhill in a mid-west cornfield, and the final chase across the gigantic faces carved into Mount Rushmore.


Alfred Hitchcock often listed Shadow of a Doubt (1943) as his favourite among the 53 films he directed in his 50-year career. In the film, Uncle Charley (Joseph Cotton) comes to visit his sister’s family in the archetypical American small town of Santa Rosa, California. Uncle Charley is especially drawn to his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), who is named after him and who idolises him. The plot turns sinister as a pair of detectives show up tailing Uncle Charley, whom they suspect of being the ‘Merry Widow Murderer’. Charlie, in her late teens, is faced with a terrible disillusionment and the threat of murder. The movie is full of pairs of objects, duplicate characters and mirrored themes, and reflections, repetitions and opposites.


‘Black and White’ is loosely based on the 1957 US movie The Three Faces of Eve, about a young woman with multiple personality disorder. The script by Hervey M. Cleckley is based on a book by Corbett Thigpen which is based on a doctor’s notes (Thigpen’s?) about an actual case, though the facts have been distorted to fit the story, according to the book I’m Eve, by the real person who is the subject of the film, Chris Costner Sizemore (co-written with Elen Sain Pitillo).


‘Boy in Mirror’ and ‘Girl in Water’ are two different takes on the 1958 Hitchcock colour movie Vertigo, starring Kim Novak and James Stewart, which itself consists of two different but entangled stories that seem to repeat or reflect one another. Scottie (James Stewart) is a San Francisco detective who retires after a traumatic experience with heights that has caused him to suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights). His college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) persuades him to follow Elster’s suicidal wife, Madeline (Kim Novak). Gavin says that his wife is possessed by the spirit of his wife’s great grandmother. Scottie is taken by her beauty, and tails her around San Francisco. The two fall in love. But when — because of his fear of heights — Scottie is unable to save Madeline from killing herself (or so he believes) he has a nervous breakdown. After he recovers he comes across a woman named Judy (Kim Novak), who (naturally!) bears a strong resemblance to Madeline. Obsessed by his love and loss, he begs Judy to change her looks and clothes to look like Madeline. He then discovers that Judy (from Kansas) in fact acted the part of Madeline as part of a plot by Gavin Elstir to kill his real wife. Judy accidentally falls to her death. Scottie is left alone again. The similarity of a mirror image to a portrait painting plays a vital role in the film, and betrays Judy’s secret double life; indeed the plot of the film is doubled.


The poem ‘Boy in Mirror’ notes a frail linguistic link between Hitchcock and Proust. The villain in Vertigo is called by the very unusual name Elster (German for magpie, a creature that collects beautiful things, though associated with death and bad luck); the French author of the novel the script is based on (Pierre Boileau, whose book is D’entre les morts, 1954) can hardly have done this by accident: Proust’s great post-impressionist artist character in A la recherche du temps perdu is called Elstir, and is troubled by thoughts of his future death.


Alert readers of the other Vertigo poem, ‘Girl in Water’, will note that the words made up by the first letter of each line of the poem (an acrostic) spell out a message, as does (separately) the last letter of each line (technically, a telestich). The initial acrostic grew out of a conversation with Douglas Messerli about Hitchcock’s movies; Messerli said in an interview with Charles Bernstein: ‘Why, when I was 12 years old did I so thoroughly enjoy Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, and yet at 13, hate North by Northwest — a movie I now love?’ (Messerli 2004) To Tranter it seemed obvious why a 12-year-old boy would surrender to the charms of Ms Novak in Vertigo, thus the acrostic; though as it happened his analysis was inaccurate in Douglas Messerli’s case.


The telestich (the last letter of each line) reflects a Lacanian reading of the mirrors and portraits in the movie, and how they reflect the boy-girl relationship. Of course how each audience member perceives patterns of meaning in the action of the film constructs a further mirror relationship; movies are built to reflect and to satisfy the fears, desires and dreams of the paying audience, feelings which are projected onto the characters and adventures on the screen. The acrostic reads: What do boys like about Vertigo? Kim Novak’s wonderful tits. And the telestich reads: Lacanian double feature: girl in water, boy in mirror, check!


In a way, this poem is a technical echo of ‘The Anaglyph’, in which the first and last few words of each line of the poem are taken from John Ashbery’s poem ‘Clepsydra’. In ‘Girl in Water’ the first and last letter of each line have been derived from two prior sentences; the poem’s lines are forced to conform to that sequence of letters, just as the lines of ‘The Anaglyph’ are forced into the procrustean cast of the prior Ashbery poem.


‘Paris Blues’ offers an acerbic running commentary on the film Paris Blues, black and white, 1961, starring Paul Newman as Ram Bowen (‘Ram Bowen’ is a clumsy Hollywood feint at the name of the poet Rimbaud) and Sidney Poitier as Eddie Cook, with Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward as tourist Lillian Corning and Diahann Carroll as her friend Connie Lampson. Louis Armstrong’s ample ambassadorial grin has a small part. Set in Paris, the film attempts to link Paul Newman’s exploration of jazz and late nights with Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry and bohemian lifestyle, with ludicrous results.


‘second fiddle / to a trombone…’] Aficionados of trombone-fronted jazz bands will no doubt call to mind Wilbur de Paris (1900–1973), Kai Winding (1922–1983), J J Johnson (1924–2001), Tricky Sam Nanton (1904–1946), Jiggs Whigham (born, like the author of this poem, in 1943), Miff Mole (1898–1961), Bob Brookmeyer (b.1929), and at least a dozen others.


[01] vo·cod·er, n. an electronic device that synthesises speech. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Electronic Dictionary.

[02]  The reading was held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday 16 September 1992 in Room N395, Woolley Building , University of Sydney.

[03]  At http://johntranter.com/reviewed/2004-henry-terminals.html

[04]  Clepsydra: an ancient device for measuring time by the regulated flow of water or mercury through a small aperture. [1640–50; from L from Gk klepsýdra, equiv. to kleps- (klep-, s. of kléptein to steal, conceal + -s- formative in derivation) + hydra, deriv. of hýdr water] Random House Unabridged Electronic Dictionary.

[05] ‘The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.’ (Eliot, Tradition, 47–48)

[06]  Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashes_and_Diamonds_(film)

[07]  Oscar Wilde: Gilbert, in The Critic as Artist, pt. 2, published in Intentions (1891). Though Bloom, too lazy or too confident to check his sources, expresses the concept as ‘Oscar Wilde sublimely remarked that “all bad poetry is sincere”.’ (Bloom, xix)

[08]  The Australian poet Christopher Brennan wrote a parody of Mallarmé’s poem a few weeks after ‘Un coup de dés…’ was published in the May 1897 issue of the Paris journal Cosmopolis. Brennan’s poem was titled ‘Musicopoematographoscope’, and it was published as a book by Hale and Iremonger in 1981. Tranter reviewed that book in the Sydney Morning Herald of 9 January 1982. Another Australian poet called Christopher, Chris Edwards, has published his own homophonic version of ‘Un coup de dés…’. His poem is prior to Tranter’s, and he encouraged Tranter to finish his poem as a kind of friendly rival to his own. His book A Fluke, a mistranslation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés…’ with parallel French text, was first published in 2005 in a handsome edition by Monogene. ‘A Fluke’ also appears in Jacket magazine number 29. Mallarmé’s poem can be found at http://www.mallarme.net/Coup_de_dés

[09]  Mallarmé, Stéphane. Collected Poems. Translated and with a commentary by Henry Weinfield. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[10]  Mallarmé, Stéphane. ‘tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.’ Le livre, instrument spirituel. (378)

[11]  The four poems had been published individually from 1935 to 1942.

[12]  In the 1970s Tranter produced (that is, edited and directed) some forty radio plays and features for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now, 2008, ‘Corporation’) as well as writing some original plays; in the 1980s he acted as executive producer of the national arts program Radio Helicon for two years, commissioning, supervising or producing over one hundred two-hour arts-related radio programs.

[13]  When Ashbery came on-line to begin the original recording of this reading-interview in 1988, he noted that he had travelled through a violent electrical storm to get to the New York ABC studios. From the Sydney end of the line, Tranter remarked that he must have enjoyed the experience, as in Some Trees, the first book he had written, the first poem contained the line ‘I love any vast electrical disturbance.’

[14]  Published in New Poetry vol.21 no.5–6, 1974 (pp.34–39)

[15]  ‘…the interrogation of History and Culture that fails to hold one’s interest in “Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy”…’ (John Forbes, Meanjin, 249–53)

[16]  ‘He [Verlaine] was fêted in London, Oxford, and Manchester by young sympathisers, among them the critic Arthur Symons, who arranged a lecture tour in England in November 1893.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe Edition 2004 CD-ROM)