Distant Voices C: Thesis, 3 of 6 : Prior Projects

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
[«»] Thesis, Part 3 of 6 : Exegesis 2 of 3: Prior Projects ← You are here.
[«»] 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 3 of 6: Prior Projects

P R I O R   P R O J E C T S

Mainly, though not always, books of poetry.

Parallax, 1970
Red Movie, 1972
The Blast Area, 1974
The Alphabet Murders, 1976
Crying in Early Infancy: 100 sonnets, 1977
Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, 1979
Selected Poems, 1982
Gloria, 1986
Under Berlin, 1988
Mr Rubenking’s Breakdown
The Floor of Heaven, 1992
At The Florida, 1993
Double Six, 1995
Gasoline Kisses, 1997
Different Hands (fiction), 1998
Late Night Radio, 1998
Blackout, 2000
Ultra, 2001
Heart Print, 2001
The Floor of Heaven, 2000
Cartoon: Dan Dactyl and the Mad Jungle Doctor
Borrowed Voices, 2002
Studio Moon, 2003
Trio, 2003
Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected, 2006
Cartographical constraint: By Blue Ontario’s Shore
Editorial projects
The Matter of Motivation

  Exegesis, part 2: Prior projects

Paragraph 1 follows: 1:

This is a brief survey of John Tranter’s twenty-five books to date and the responses they elicited: twenty-one poetry books and four anthologies/ compilations totalling some two and a half thousand printed pages in all. It also takes in the editing of various magazines including Free Grass (five pages) and Jacket magazine (over seven thousand pages), his creation of a twelve-page cartoon adventure, and his more recent work exploring the Internet as a publishing medium. Apart from providing a historical outline, the focus of this survey is mainly on the strand in Tranter’s writing that explores masks, impersonation, appropriation and translation, which gradually becomes more salient and wide-ranging as his writing develops.

 Parallax, 1970


John Tranter wrote his first poems in 1960 at the suggestion of his history teacher, John Darcy, while a boarder at Hurlstone Agricultural High School, on the [South-western] outskirts of Sydney. A decade later Tranter had side-stepped his father’s plans to turn him into a farmer and abandoned his own ambitions to be an architect, a painter, a trumpet player or a filmmaker, and had focussed on the one thing he seemed to have a talent for: poetry.


He had written around three hundred poems and had published some seventy of them in various Australian journals when, in 1970, he assembled the typescript for his first book. He was twenty-six. The book, titled Parallax and other poems, was published by Grace Perry (b.1927) as the June 1970 issue of Poetry Australia magazine. [Though it is shown as the June 1968 issue on the title page.]


Reviews of the book were generally favourable, though Martin Haley in The Advocate (a Catholic magazine) in September 1970 complained that ‘He is experimental in the mode current at present in Australian verse — much influenced by contemporary American practice, post-Poundian. As with Pound ‘in extenso’, coherence is the difficulty. […] The general effect is quite baffling, and illustrates the weakness in abandoning for poetry the use of that discursive manner Professor Hope argues for and practises.’


Imitating his predecessors is the last thing Tranter was interested in. Haley may not have read Shklovsky, who quotes the French literary historian F. Brunetiere on literary movements that break away from the previous movement: ‘Finally, Romantics of our time [the late nineteenth century] want to create something different from the works of classical writers…’ Shklovsky adds, ‘There were also those who wanted ‘to create something quite similar’ to their predecessors. I know them very well, indeed! But it is precisely these who can be excluded from the history of literature and art.’ (51)


Rodney Hall (in The Australian, of which he was a notable poetry editor at that time) wrote, ‘John Tranter’s… are inward, self-regenerating poems — the best of which are exquisite… Mr Tranter controls his poems to such a fine degree… one is tempted to say his grasp of his theoretical position might well be too strong.’

 Red Movie, 1972


Red Movie was published by Angus and Robertson Publishers in 1972, while its author was working in Singapore for the Education Division of the same firm. Angus and Robertson’s poetry editor, Douglas Stewart, agreed that the firm should publish the book, saying to Tranter in 1973: ‘I didn’t really know what it was all about, but I could tell that you can write well.’


The poems in the first part of the book follow on from the more lyrical and dramatic poems in Parallax (1970), and show the strong influence of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, which Tranter had studied at the University of Sydney.


In 1974 Tranter compiled a one-hour selection from Frank O’Hara’s poems for ABC Radio National; the detailed reading of O’Hara’s 586-page Collected Poems which this task called for brought him his first proper appreciation of this subtle poet, whose cultural gestures and wit are sometimes difficult to decipher and whose apparent casualness Tranter had previously dismissed. It is worth noting that John Forbes, a friend of Tranter’s and trained in English and Fine Arts, had ‘got’ O’Hara immediately, whereas Tranter — trained in Shakespeare, Pope and the Romantics — much preferred the approachable lyricism and formal stylishness of John Ashbery’s early poetry through the 1960s and early 1970s. Forbes, with his quick mind and ample cultural cynicism, was always a few steps ahead of his Australian colleagues, and occasionally he made it clear that he found their dozy recalcitrance irritating.


The title poem ‘Red Movie’ is placed last in the collection, and appears to show a change of direction: it is eleven pages long, in five parts, and has a fractured and elliptical surface. Much of its imagery is derived from what seems an indiscriminate mélange of serious literature, the movies, and pop culture, though that is true of much of Tranter’s work. It is notable in showing a formal move away from sentiment and lyricism, though traces of them remain in the poem’s concerns with autobiography.

 The Blast Area, 1974


Martin Duwell, teaching in the English Department at the University of Queensland, established Makar Magazine and the Gargoyle Poets series of poetry pamphlets in the early 1970s. Tranter reviewed the first six of the Gargoyle Poets in New Poetry magazine volume 22 number 1, in 1974. His own small collection of poems, The Blast Area, became Gargoyle Poets number 12, a 36-page pamphlet. It was dedicated ‘with respect and affection to the memory of John Darcy’, the teacher who had set him on the path to poetry fourteen years before. John Darcy had been killed in a motor accident in 1961.


The loose group of eight poems that open the collection might seem reminiscent of the ‘portrait’ poems of Red Movie — ‘Mark’, a portrait of a young man damaged by methedrine (‘speed’) and paranoia, is an example — though the last four poems veer away from common sense into a surrealism that is more humorous than profound.


‘Poem ending with a line by Rimbaud’ hints at the idea of borrowings and masks: the poem is designed to end with a line by another poet, Rimbaud (though the main stylistic precursor would seem to be Auden), and a rhyme in English and French:


Wax the ski. Compress the snow.
She: Et mon bureau?


A central group of fifteen poems seem like snippets from a European movie about fast cars and beautiful people. The title of one of the poems and the theme of automotive danger point to the 1971 movie The Last Run, starring an avuncular but morose George C. Scott, a treacherous woman and a hot two-litre BMW sedan, and hints of world-weariness and existentialism. [17]


The final third of the book consists of ‘The Poem in Love’, a sequence of fifteen pseudo-sonnets: an octet and a sestet, but only fragmentary rhyme. An epigraph from Paul Ducasse sets the scene: ‘It’s possible that a poem in its own realm of being may take on a life of its own, and thus return by means of love some of the anguish and the suffering invested by the poet in its creation.’ It might seem that Paul Ducasse is a distant relative of Isidore Ducasse (1846–70), Uruguayan-born French writer, who used the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont; but alas, the stilted phrasing and the self-conscious aestheticism of this apt epigraph are deceptive; Monsieur Ducasse is a figment of John Tranter’s imagination. We shall return to this tendency to masks and fictionality later.


The poem does attempt to ‘take on a life of its own’, and speaks though the musing voice of the narrator in a jumble of styles and non-sequiturs, fragments of Bob Dylan (‘all smacked up on the highway / down by the river bridge’), Byron (‘The Poem / that now walks in beauty like the diesel tram’) and New York School flip wit (‘I drank a Pepsi like they do in N.Y. / and that fizzy noise was like how / you could hear the Sonnet feasting on itself.’)


New Zealand critic Andrew Johnson:


‘The Poem in Love’ is also important for the way in which Tranter’s ‘poetry about poetry’, his habitual public re-invention of his means of addressing us, becomes looser, lighter, more inclusive. ‘The Poem’, in this poem, might stand for the variety of strategies we employ to make sense of the world, and for the fleeting, unstable patterns we think we perceive in our experience. It’s as if having reached an extreme of cynicism about ‘meaning’, Tranter lets it in through the back door, and a new-found humour with it. (Landfall 50)


The book was slight both in physical form and literary effect. The combination of exuberance, cheeky wit and the loose sonnet form points forward to a later volume, Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets.

 The Alphabet Murders, 1976


In his 2003 interview with US writer Robert Hahn, Tranter explains how he came to write his next book. Hahn had said that it seemed to him that Tranter has consciously tried to avoid having a distinctive personal style. Tranter answered: ‘I’m aware of that, or at least of something like that. When I wrote The Alphabet Murders, in 1974, I’d been writing for fifteen years, or, say, learning to write. I went to Singapore to work for a couple of years, as an editor for a publishing house, and while I was there I tried to write some poetry but I found that it felt artificial and false. [….] When I wrote The Alphabet Murders, it was after a lot of bits I had written in an attempt to get away from my own voice altogether. And I think I’ve followed this pattern ever since. I write in bursts, for a month or so, and then leave it behind, and when I start again I’m aware of trying to find a new way to write, to escape my own rhetoric.’ As Doctor Johnson says, writing of Pope, ‘he that has once studiously formed a style rarely writes afterwards with complete ease,’ (Johnson Lives 253) and the film writer Jean-Claude Carrière writes, ‘In a screenplay, as elsewhere, you must be wary of technique, which can so quickly turn into mere fluency.’ (Carrière 158)


The Alphabet Murders ended up as a long argument with traditional poetry (including Modernism, now part of history) and a dismantling of its values; writers are traduced, parodied and dismissed, and poetry itself is seen as a voyage to nowhere (literally, zero). At the last moment a supernumerary stanza (A, the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet) allows the poem to return to its own departure point. As in many Tranter poems, the ending of The Alphabet Murders turns the reader back to the beginning, trapped inside the roundabout of art.


En route some masks are adopted and disfigured. The Australian poet R D FitzGerald had published an essay in Southerly magazine in 1973, arguing for a considered respect for tradition on the part of young poets. ‘(T)radition is not just an impulse out of the past;’ FitzGerald writes, ‘it is a progressive movement overtaking the present and helping carry it into the future.’ True enough, perhaps, but the young Tranter was having none of it. In section 20 (After R D FitzGerald) of ‘The Alphabet Murders’ Tranter transcribes a hundred or so words of this article, chopping it into free verse lines, then gradually stitches nonsense phrases into the fabric:


… the very incoherence and craziness of most
that you have to say are not restrictions,
but machinery capable of jacking up the present tense
and marching it along like a heavy sandwich
into the slobbering mouth of the future. (42–43)


In all, Tranter seems to trust that the range, vigour and stylishness of his attack on earlier forms of poetry will provide its own set of values to replace those which he has disparaged so energetically, though of course culture has a way of producing and then absorbing almost any critique.


The younger Australian poet-critics Kate Fagan and Peter Minter have written a thorough and stylish analysis of The Alphabet Murders[18]. It locates the strategies behind the writing in their cultural and chronological milieu, and presents dozens of useful insights:


If we seek to uncover the scene of dismemberment, resolution and self-constitution, The Alphabet Murders marks the spot. (Par 3)


Tranter’s knowing, experimental and satiric fantasia sets up two sufficiency conditions: repudiation and futility. (Par 10)


One of Tranter’s lasting contributions to Australian poetry has been his interrogation of the Romantic subject. His work consistently tries to decode the problem of ‘ego.’ (Par 17)


Returning to the impossible romance of a whodunit scenario usefully underscores the spectre of Tranter as Poet Select, who is possibly suffering the anxieties of influence, in a Bloomian sense — or at least a little sociability panic.… But once the opening carnage has been shot from various angles, and tropes of narrative departure done to death, we gradually realise that the poet is still in the building. (Par 18)


Tranter’s blazon is a clever disappearing act. It is a blazon about blazon, an emblematic description of a descriptive emblem. In this sense it perfectly mirrors The Alphabet Murders’ narrative logic: a mise en abyme or play-within-play structure that multiply defers arrival, symbolised in the poem’s return to the letter A.… The Alphabet Murders is a modernist long poem by one reading, a postmodernist anti-epic by others. (Par 20)


Returning to the letter A at the alphabet’s material finale, Tranter takes one small step into prose, and so makes an absolute pact with teleology. Section 27 thus signals The Alphabet Murders’ most radical scene of departure. Tranter finally kills off the romantic subject by reviving writing: ‘After all, we had left poetry behind before this trip had even begun, and all the while we have been bereft of its silly promises of beauty…’ (Par 25)


One of the many themes of ‘The Alphabet Murders’ is the possibility of a communal art, one prior to the Romantic focus on the individual. Tranter’s reading of Mallory’s Le Mort D’Arthur (and books about Mallory’s life) provides a model and fragments of quotation:


… this is architecture, friend, and masterful;
we gape to find the cathedral of words so large
that everyone can find in it the works of his favourite
period, and yet you can always strip that work
of ill-framed accretions and their polyphonic noise
without pulling the whole thing down. Is it plausible
that ‘strength’ lies in age and British feats of arms?
Are these bits the ‘real’ cathedral? They might have been,
the whole might have been designed by one man and
finished in the one compelling style, but
‘The whole has rather grown than been made.’ (UM 45)


Surprisingly, Luis Buñuel provides a useful comment:


Buñuel often said that films should be like cathedrals. The authors’ names should be removed from the credits, leaving just a few anonymous reels, pure, free of any trace of their creator. Then we would watch them the way we enter a cathedral, not knowing the names of those who built it, or even the master builder. (Carrière 176)


The arguments rehearsed by ‘The Alphabet Murders’ owe a lot to Eliot. As a young poet, Tranter had been influenced by T S Eliot’s poetry: by the Modernist function the verse enacted as much as the actual words and rhythms of the early poems, which we now understand to be shaped as much by Pound as by Eliot. But Eliot spent as much time looking backward as forward; his writings on Dryden, Donne and Dante as well as a dozen minor writers gave his voice a distinct authority when he looked at the relation of a poet to his tradition:


… what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. 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. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. (Eliot, Tradition, 47–48)


And Todorov agrees:


Just as the meaning of a part of the work is not exhausted in itself, but is revealed in its relations with the other parts, a work in its entirety can never be read in a satisfactory and enlightening fashion if we do not put it in relation with other works, previous and contemporary. (Todorov 244)


A slightly different view is given by Shklovsky:


…when I speak of a literary tradition, I do not have in mind a literal borrowing by one writer from another. I conceive of it as a common fund of literary norms from which each writer draws and on which he is dependent. If I were to use the analogy of an inventor and his tradition, I would say that such a literary tradition consists of the sum total of the technical possibilities of his age. (Shklovsky 64)


Eliot, of course, was the most classical of Modernists, in both senses of ‘classical’: he was central to the way Modernism was translated from French Symbolist models into English poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century. And he was a Modernist in a thorough-going way in his construction of a nightmare urban modern landscape, in his intense and abrupt use of collage, pastiche and jarring juxtaposition, in his insistence on the contemporary everyday world as valid subject matter, and in the way he and his friends positioned poetry at the front of the barricades of the avant-garde. All these Modernist traits are to be found in ‘The Alphabet Murders’, which in some ways is a direct descendant of ‘The Waste Land’. But Kate Lilley alerts us to the other side of the coin:


As a double agent, working for both the modernists and the postmodernists, whichever way he turns in this city of forked roads and forked tongues (‘For history is a kind of city’, AM, p.8), the poet is embroiled in heresy and conspiracy, accused of back-sliding or bad faith. Tranter teaches us to recognise the freight of history as it is reconfigured in the present; the always laughable and always touching resurgence of the rhetoric of modernity, its inherent contingency. In ‘The Alphabet Murders’ he reminds us that ‘what we have left behind… / itself must generate enough good luck for the whole voyage’. [ … ] It is the seam between modernism and postmodernism which Tranter’s poetry excavates, writing the present as the past’s future and the future’s past, measuring the gap between epochs and styles and models, holding up for inspection a word like ‘poplin’, offering the poem as a ‘nostalgia machine’ which comments on its own technology, shows its own working. (Lilley, ‘Tranter’s Plots’)

 Crying in Early Infancy: 100 sonnets, 1977


Why one hundred sonnets? When Tranter went to Brisbane to work as a radio producer for the ABC in 1975 he got to know Martin Duwell, who had published The Blast Area in 1974, and who now wished to publish another of Tranter’s books. Tranter had fifty or so short poems he’d been working on. He realised they were about the size of sonnets, and with his background in the printing industry he knew that the ideal page-count for small books of poems was 64 pages all up (four sixteen-page folded signatures), which would accommodate fifty pages of poetry plus fronts and backs. Two sonnets just fit on a page, so he proposed a book of one hundred sonnets, and finished the typescript over the next year. This could be seen as an example of a technological constraint helping to determine one aspect of the outer form of a literary work. (It is not an accident that the sonnet-like poems in this thesis total one hundred and one.)


Further technical constraints are explored. ‘Sonnet 50 (from a BBC synopsis)’ is in fact derived from a BBC synopsis. As Play Reader at the ABC Radio Drama and Features Department in 1974, one of Tranter’s duties was to pore over the catalog of radio play synopses provided by the BBC’s Transcriptions service, to which the ABC had for many years subscribed. Any of these plays could be ordered from the BBC and broadcast by the ABC free of further charges. The severely condensed narratives appealed to Tranter, and they needed little rewriting to transform them into verse:


John is handling a tidy affair
with Louise, wife of his friend Robert.
John tries to persuade her to leave
Robert, and to burst with him in some foreign
country. She meets John secretly…
… but is Marjorie really dead? If so, who
really killed — set in London — killed her?


These are reminiscent of a poem by John Ashbery, ‘… by an Earthquake’ though Tranter could not have read the poem at the time, as it hadn’t yet been written. Here is an excerpt:


Ambrosius, suffering misfortune, seeks happiness in the companionship of Joe, and in playing golf.
Arthur, in a city street, has a glimpse of Cathy, a strange woman who has caused him to become involved in a puzzling mystery.
Cathy, walking in the street, sees Arthur… (Can You Hear, Bird, 20)


Perhaps as a counter to ‘Poem ending with a line by Rimbaud’ (in The Blast Area, 1974), we find ‘Sonnet 14 (beginning with a line by David Malouf)’ which begins ‘Was that garlic, or old age?’


Five of the sonnets use the constraints of rhyme (for example, number 53: drive / glass / pass / alive / drink / gramophone / alone / mink // gift / attack / cry / rift / back / die). Others are numbers 44, 47, 63 and 92.


The loose sonnet form and the humorous and sometimes cynical attitudes expressed in the poems seem an expression of emotional release after the dark humour and erratic angst of The Alphabet Murders. Some critics disapproved of the carefree — some would (and did) say careless — attitudes to poetry, focussing particularly on the deliberate use of mistypings. One morning in Brisbane Tranter’s wife Lyn was baking bread; ‘yeast rises in the breathless air’ becomes ‘Yeats rises in the breathless air,’ and ‘it was greasy all over like a window’, became through a slip of the fingers ‘it was greasy all over like a widow’. This last error was retained on the urging of John Forbes, and Roman Jakobson (Jakobson, Selected III, 741) agrees with him:


Is it then possible to limit the range of poetic devices? Not in the least; the history of arts attests to their constant mutability. Nor does the intent of a device burden art with any strictures. We have only to recall how often the dadaists and surrealists let happenstance write their poetry. We have only to realise what pleasure the great Russian poet Xlebnikov derived from typographical errors; the typographical error, he once said, is often a first-rate artist.


The reviewer Cary Catalano wrote ‘…the influences he is now working under are clearly corrupting and destructive ones. His technique is sloppy and inexact, and he rarely has anything arresting to say. As Troilus puts it, ‘words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart’.’

 Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, 1979


The matter of Rimbaud, a crucial literary influence, had been essayed by Tranter in the long poem ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ in New Poetry in 1974. The version published in Dazed in the Ladies Lounge five years later (ten pages long, in fifteen parts) is reworked and more controlled, and re-titled ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’. The influence of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies is again evident. Reviewing Tranter’s 1982 Selected Poems, and focussing on the poems in Crying in Early Infancy, John Forbes asks:[19]


But how do you write, knowing that the poem can never escape from Literature and, at the same time, not wanting merely to demonstrate the obvious? The long poems ‘The Alphabet Murders’ and ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ both strike me as circling around this problem. In them Tranter is like the coyote chasing the roadrunner, using a great deal of energy and cunning, but never catching him…. the interrogation of History and Culture that fails to hold one’s interest in ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’…


The need to escape from Literature can be seen as a strategy in the same arena as the need to escape from one’s habitual mode of rhetoric. Within the practice of literature, it is a problem with no achievable solution. David Carter pointed to the self-destructive behaviour of this poem:


‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ might be seen, in this light, as a review or retrospective, though it is also the (re)discovery of a problematic which refuses to go away (an introductory note says that the poem was begun in the early seventies and finished nearly a decade later). This bleak if jokey poem cuts away relentlessly at its own foundations, its own progenitors, consigning itself to ‘unforgiving darkness’. It interrogates the Magian Heresy but at one further remove, finding the very symbolist paradox, and not merely its paradoxical goal, to be a seductive fraud (and yet still unavoidable, irresistible, as poetry keeps discovering itself). (Carter 121)


Carter’s use of the phrase ‘the Magian Heresy’ is a nice point: it is the title of an article by James McAuley — one half of the 1943 hoax poet ‘Ern Malley’ — in Quadrant magazine in 1957. In it McAuley attempts to turn back the tide of the postmodern by insisting on a return to the literary values of ancient Rome, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where the presumptions of a disobedient mankind will be ‘corrected’ by a severe dressing-down from the gods:


After modernity, what? One cannot escape the impression that poetic modernity, whose inmost impulse was the Magian Heresy, has come to an end. It does not seem possible to go further along this road when the futility of the enterprise has been so patently demonstrated. [ … ] The beginning of recovery is to recognise that the magian ambition did not in fact bring poetry into a vaster domain but into a smaller and darker one. It is by lowering the transcendental pretensions of poetry that, strangely enough, its true greatness opens once more before us: we come out of the romantic-modernist labyrinth into the broad and high world of Virgil and Chaucer and Dante and Shakespeare, where the true proportions of things are recognised, and the presumption of man is corrected by the measures of the gods. (McAuley 1957 70–71)


This cramped and punitive view of the varied energies of Romantic and Modernist poetry is dismaying to read. It was published a year after John Ashbery’s Some Trees appeared in the United States. Twenty-three years later, McAuley’s mood had grown even darker:


Yet it is an easy prophecy that our conservatism will not much longer prevent the emergence of black poetry[20], with its verbal violence, its formlessness, its antinomian and analogical frenzy, its pretence that all that is needed, to attain the realm of freedom and love ‘out there’, is to violate all decencies and tear down all conventions, and its secret winking inner light of wicked knowledge that ‘out there’ is neither freedom nor love but only one shelf of the vast hell of the egotists — the Poets’ Shelf, no doubt, though there may be room for some critics as well. (McAuley 1970 62)


Carter’s use of the phrase ‘the Magian Heresy’ also recalls Rimbaud’s construction of the poet’s role, as well as Mallarmé: ‘The whole of my admiration goes to the Great Mage, inconsolable and obstinate seeker after a mystery which he does not know exists and which he will pursue, for ever on that account, with the affliction of his lucid despair, for it would have been the truth…’ Tranter printed this endorsement by Mallarmé of a permanently obscure mystery as one of the two epigraphs to ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ in Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. (Dazed 7)


At the same time, Tranter’s poem attempts to relocate Rimbaud, often seen as a Decadent or Symbolist poet (perhaps because his first notable English sponsor was Arthur Symons[21]) in the realm of the proto-Modern.


A brief detour: In a 1986 paper Andrew Taylor surveys a number of Tranter’s poems, focussing on ‘Leavis at The London’ (Dazed 39) in some pardonable puzzlement:


The question that immediately poses itself is just who is ‘you’? Is it F.R. Leavis, addressed by the poem’s subject? Is it the reader, similarly addressed? Is it the poem’s subject, being addressed by it/ him/ herself, the modern colloquial equivalent of ‘one’?… Does ‘you’ refer to a number of different addressees, each with his/ her separate needs? It might, but the poem does not enable us to distinguish them from each other. If the addressee is indeterminate at least this far into the poem can we determine just who is doing the addressing? (Taylor 1986)


The second person pronoun has always been an ambiguous and adaptable weapon in the Tranter armory, as it has for many other poets. Marjorie Perloff quotes a 1973 interview with John Ashbery, who explicates the tactic better than most:


The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like variables in an equation. ‘You’ can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I’m addressing, and so can ‘he’ and ‘she’ for that matter and ‘we’; sometimes one has to deduce from the rest of the sentence what is being meant and my point is also that it doesn’t really matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what’s the important thing at that particular moment rather than the particular person involved. I guess I don’t have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony in my poetry which I again feel is a means toward greater naturalism. (Perloff Indeterminacy 63)[22]


But Taylor seems to express a frustration at the absence of a single, locatable and unified voice at the heart of the poem. It is only when he comes to ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ that he looks past that problem and proposes that ‘role’, or a multiplicity of roles, not ‘voice’ or ‘subject’, is the source of the writing’s energy. He notes the curious instability and invisibility of the subject, amid a flux of roles, in this poem:


It is one of Tranter’s more pressing poems, acting out a radical assessment of its own possibilities. The sequence starts and ends with what seems a firmly locateable subject: ‘Sitting by the river under damp trees /I listen to the wind in the leaves / whispering hatred and loneliness …’ and ‘Learning, where the deeply human / is the object of a fierce knowledge, / can reach an imitation of the style of love, / but in that future under whose arrogant / banner we have laboured for our own rewards / we shall both be gone into that / unforgiving darkness.’


Such a subject constitutes or situates itself as the romantic rebel; but like the historical Rimbaud, and like the poem itself, it refuses to stay fixed. The result is a poem which seems both deeply concentrated and remarkably elusive, the subject again revealing itself as that which has no visible nature of its own with which to authorise such roles as that of Romantic rebel. These roles come to it from outside, from culture or from history, and are not an expression of the subject but an impression on it. The subject itself appears only, as I said before, in a style of remaining invisible within their multitudinous flux. (Taylor 1986)


This shift of attention from the search for an authentic voice to an analysis of a flux of roles seems to clear a path to a more interesting and useful way of reading Tranter’s work.


Yet when it came time to assemble Urban Myths, his 2006 ‘New and Selected Poems’, Tranter chose to pass over ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’, now more than a quarter of a century into the past. Perhaps it was time to move out from the territory of the Modern and leave it behind for a more complicated set of concerns that drew their energy from the post-postmodern. Perhaps the dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) ‘interrogation of History and Culture’ that had failed to hold John Forbes’s interest had now lost its grip on its author’s attention. And perhaps this poem, that had seemed the cornerstone of Dazed, now seemed backward-looking and mired in an early stage of its author’s literary development. As Tranter has said in an interview in 1980:


He [Rimbaud] did say ‘one must be absolutely modern’, which in today’s terms means that one must not be very interested in Rimbaud, I suppose. He, in his own work, didn’t look back to any other poet that was alive a hundred years [before], he was only interested in the future. There’s a line in my poem that says ‘to follow you we must desert’ — it’s a contradiction, but if one believes in what Rimbaud was doing, one must abandon Rimbaud the way he abandoned all the writers around him at the time.


Another contradiction that is interesting there, too — if you believe in what Rimbaud did, you have to agree with the fact that at the end of his writing career, which only lasted five years, he abandoned and repudiated all that he had ever done. (Interview with Mr Jan Garrett, 1980)


There is also a group of twenty-two poems in loose blank verse in a thirty-line form that neatly fills a printed page (another technological constraint?) and that crops up later in Tranter’s oeuvre, to be named the ‘trenter’ (see Appendix 5). On the topic of constraint, Jakobson and Baudelaire have useful things to say:


[O]ne cannot but agree with Baudelaire’s indignant question in his letter of Feb. 18, 1860 to the critic Armand Fraisse:


Who is then the imbecile who deals so frivolously with the Sonnet and who does not see its Pythagorean beauty? It is by virtue of the constraining form that the idea springs forth more intensely. There is the beauty of a well-worked metal or mineral. Have you noticed that a fragment of the sky perceived through an air-hole gives a more profound idea of infinity than a wide panorama seen from a mountain top?


According to Baudelaire’s notes, what the sonnet needs is a design, and it is the construction, the network, that proves to be the primary guarantee of the mysterious life predestined to a work of the mind.
(Jakobson 781)


Perhaps the most successful of these thirty-line poems are the five poems that deal with the idea of noted European intellectuals in various Australian low-culture settings: ‘Leavis at The London (Hotel)’ (mentioned above), ‘Sartre at Surfers Paradise’, ‘Foucault at (The) Forest Lodge (Hotel)’, ‘Roland Barthes at the Poets’ Ball’, and ‘Enzensberger at ‘Exiles’ (Bookshop)’. Like the other poems in this group, the poem about ‘Foucault’, rather than being soaked in a common kind of intellectual respect, is derisory and full of contemporary phantasmagoria, as though the cheap and noisy Sydney/ Hollywood setting had drowned out the high tone of the imported European theory:


                                            Our guide
to the good life is a drunken junkie, half
girl, half executioner, breathing gas, who
fucks like a disco wizard and exemplifies
sheer speed as a final virtue, eating out
with a rush: that’s how tonight develops
into a drug catalogue blazing in the
waiting room where I get a crush on
Suzanne Pleshette and in that flash
rise like a broken bottle into the light. (Dazed 41)


Rimbaud’s hallucinatory urban scenes could be seen as an influence here, though perhaps the exemplary bourgeois, Baudelaire, is the more apposite model, seen through Walter Benjamin’s spectacles, as reported by Michael Jennings:


This notion of a shock-driven poetic capability was a significant departure from the understanding of artistic creation prevalent in Benjamin’s day and in fact still powerfully present today. The poet is, on this view, not a genius who ‘rises above’ his age and distils its essence for posterity. For Benjamin, the greatness of Baudelaire consists instead in his absolute susceptibility to the worst excrescences of modern life: Baudelaire was in possession not of genius, but of an extraordinarily ‘sensitive disposition’ that enabled him to perceive, through a painful empathy, the character of an age. And for Benjamin, the ‘character of the age’ consisted in its thoroughgoing commodification. Baudelaire was not simply aware of the processes of commodification from which the phantasmagoria constructs itself; he in fact embodied those processes in an emphatic manner. When he takes his work to market, the poet surrenders himself as a commodity to ‘the intoxification of the commodity immersed in a surging stream of customers.’ The poet’s role as producer and purveyor of commodities opens him to a special ‘empathy with inorganic things.’ And this, in turn, ‘was one of his sources of inspiration.’ Baudelaire’s poetry is thus riven by its images of a history that is nothing less than a ‘permanent catastrophe.’ This is the sense in which Baudelaire was the ‘secret agent’ of the destruction of his own class. (Jennings 15)


Last is the five-page poem ‘Ode to Col Joye’. Rod Mengham has discussed this poem in a paper ‘John Tranter and the Real Boeotia’[23
. Mengham mentions that ‘The immediate occasion of its composition was a commission from John Forbes for a piece for his magazine Surfers Paradise…. The poem… appeared in the March 1979 issue.’ He also points out that the poem is in one sense a paean to Sydney, though ‘Rather than portray Sydney as an international centre, as Australia’s point of leverage on foreign culture… Tranter ambiguates his register of foreign influences, and neglects the urban environment almost entirely in favour of a domestic setting; this is an indoor poem, written at the kitchen table. Sydney is equated with homeliness, with the opposite of everything that is self-aggrandising.’


Unusually for Tranter, the line-lengths and line indentations are erratic and reminiscent of the discursive free verse of John Forbes’ friend Ken Bolton, a fictionalised view of whom appears in the poem: ‘from his sternly-thinking head issues a balloon / with the words / it’s a / John Tranter day…’ Various literary possibilities are presented and dismissed, and the poem ends with a reference to the minor 1950s Australian rock’n’roll group Col Joye and the Joye Boys, who had performed at the picture theatre in Moruya, Tranter’s home town, when he was fourteen: ‘it’s a day for writing something ‘fresh’ / for Surfers Paradise / and that makes it a Col Joye day; that, / and the bright air / glistening with poetry and the desire to please.’ The title is a pun on Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy (‘Ode an die Freude’, 1785), set to music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony.

 Selected Poems, 1982


The book sums up the best work of a career at mid-point. But a ‘selected poems’ is of course a selection; that is, many more things are left out than are included. The forty-seven poems of Parallax (1970), a 64-page summing up of Tranter’s first decade as a writer, are here, a dozen years later, reduced to seven pages containing only eight poems, and those poems are brief, elliptical and slightly abstract. The intense emotional expressiveness, the theatrical gloom and the sentimentality of the younger writer have been air-brushed out of the picture. But Jakobson’s wise words should be kept in mind:


Do not believe the poet who, in the name of truth, the real world, or anything else, renounces his past in poetry or art. Tolstoj tried in great exasperation to repudiate his works, but instead of ceasing to be a poet, he forged the way to new unhackneyed forms of literature. As has rightly been noted: when an actor tears off his mask, makeup is sure to be forthcoming.

(Jakobson 742)


Six years later Tranter wrote that ‘I’m a slow learner, and part of my development as a writer was learning — gradually, almost poem by poem — to blend the cocktail of poetry using less and less of the syrup of lyricism.’ (‘Four diversions’ 588–92)


Alas, lyric sentimentality leaks into the last ten (otherwise uncollected) poems of this collection. In ‘Meteorology’ and ‘The Letter’, nostalgia and regret for lost love strive for literary status, borrowing the tone of voice of Constantine Cavafy, though the savage irony of ‘Speakeasy’, ‘The Poet at Dural’ and ‘Reversal Process’ attempt to balance the boat. Is cynicism the other side of the coin of sentimentality?


The book failed to win any of the literary prizes of the period.

 Gloria, 1986


Tranter turned forty in 1983. He had been a poet for more than half his life. When his Selected Poems failed to achieve the notice Tranter felt it deserved, he turned away from poetry for a time. In 2006 he talked to journalist Rosemary Neill about this period:


I was out of work, I was drinking too much, I was on the dole, very depressed. I’d lost a job because I was on a grant for a year. I had a Selected Poems come out in ’83 [in fact 1982] and it didn’t win any prizes and no one took any notice of it. It was like closing a door on a whole writing career. I didn’t think I’d write much any more. (Neill par 7)


Tranter obtained therapy and medication for his depression, which eventually began to abate. Late in 1983 he found some editorial work, and in 1984 he was offered a one-year Literature Board grant. His wife sold her typesetting business, and he and his family left for a month in the US. Tranter went on to Germany and Italy. He was abroad for three months altogether. By late 1986 he had made a further three overseas trips, and had begun work on a prose project. In a 1994 interview with Barbara Williams, Tranter related how he came to write Gloria.


I think I was trying to write a novel, as I do every five years or so. I had been inspired by a short story called George by the Australian writer Christina Stead, published in the Paris Review in 1967 (Issue number 40). Her story is really a monologue, and it has a breathtaking headlong rush that drags you through this character’s life and a love affair that went wrong. I wanted to get that obsessive effect of a monologue that buttonholes you and won’t let you go — one reviewer quite rightly likened The Floor of Heaven to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner — and I began the piece that turned out to be Gloria in prose. Eventually I realised it wasn’t going to go the length of a novel, so it became a short story. That kind of thing happens more times than I care to mention. Then it wasn’t working as a story, so I thought ‘Why shouldn’t poetry get the same kicks as prose?’ and I turned it into verse, with much difficulty. Then I turned it back into prose, with even more difficulty. That didn’t work. After about two and a half years it had turned back into verse again — a kind of loose blank verse — and that’s the way it stayed. (Williams 224)


Writing of the later, expanded version of ‘Gloria’ that was published in Southerly in 1991 and in The Floor of Heaven in 1992, critic Kate Lilley writes:


‘Gloria’ … offers the most recursive framing of the relations between writing and speaking, voice and narration, psychic process and textual order. It is framed as an account by an anonymous member of a small therapeutic group of a meeting under the authority of the ‘troop leader’, Dr Masterson, over a picnic lunch. … [the story] begins with a literalized gesture of textual transmission: ‘Gloria handed the doctor a bundle of notes’ (3). Masterson responds: ‘‘Yesss, this is interesting, Gloria,/ but it looks complicated, full of bother./ Tell me, what does it represent? Hmmm?’‘ (3). The narrator intercedes to tell us, ‘It represented horror, but we didn’t/ know that then’. (Lilley 2000 par 21)


[T]he story she tells, in the first person, is that of her younger sister, Karen, as told to her twin, Marjorie. Karen, in turn, is telling the story of her ex-lover, Blake, now incarcerated and ‘hearing voices’. This extraordinarily elaborate framing might seem to defeat any further complication, but leads to another equally recursive story of Blake’s textual fetish. As the essential prelude to sex with Karen, Blake must read aloud a certain story of adultery, blindness and conspiracy to murder. When Karen refuses the roles assigned to her in this fantasy, Blake is prompted to tell the ‘true’ story of blinding and lobotomising his father, for which he has devised his own punishment. He must read the same page of the same story aloud to his father, over and over, forgotten even as it is heard. When his father dies, Karen unwittingly becomes the father’s surrogate, and the occasion of its conversion from compulsion to fetish. At the end of this story of compulsive rereading, and of ‘Gloria’, the narrative in which it is embedded like a key, Gloria is back where she began, preparing to read her manuscript aloud: ‘Let’s start at the beginning, then, shall we/ where I have this extraordinary dream.’ (Lilley 2000 par 23)

 Under Berlin, 1988


Tranter’s next book opens with a group of thirty-three poems on generally domestic subjects, written in a relaxed tone of voice, and showing little of the cynicism Tranter had been criticised for in the past, and indeed little of the restless experimentalism of form and approach that was to mark some of his later work.


The first poem, ‘Backyard’, a thoughtful and slightly sad look at the rituals of the Australian family (including a brown dog), has become one of the most frequently anthologised of his poems. Christopher Pollnitz wrote in a review of the book that


[f]or all the literary sophistication that underpins its limpid surface, there seems no avoidance of an authorising subject in ‘Backyard’. How to write and read poetry may still be a theme, but in the new quiet voice of these poems the falsifying of signification is addressed as theme rather than embedded and enacted in the difficulties of the signifying medium. The tone remains cool in all these poems of the quiet voice. There is no colloquial collaring of a reader, and no Romantic self-exhibitionism either. There is, however, the simple or subtle emotional kernel that goes with a unified speaking voice.’ (Pollnitz, Scripsi)


These are followed by twenty-eight poems in a sequence titled ‘Sex Chemistry’: fractured logic and fragments of sexual and other adventures make these poems seem like snippets from movies that lack a coherent narrative. One, a dialogue about a failed relationship (‘The Subtitles’) was later made into a radio feature for two voices, one male and one female, and translated into French for a Radio France-Culture radio production.[24]


Three poems about movies point to Tranter’s interest in that art form. ‘High School Confidential’ and ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ deal with American movies made in 1956, and the longer ‘Those Gods made Permanent’ mainly discusses Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963) and Fritz Lang’s 1922 classic Doktor Mabuse the Gambler, a five-hour silent film which Tranter had seen at the University of Sydney in the early 1960s. Tranter returns to these concerns in this thesis.


‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ calls to mind the fantastic romantic roles that monsters projected from the Id can play in our art and poetry. The 1956 movie Forbidden Planet bodies forth one of these monsters; but there are others, European rather than American:


As a child, living in the country, I saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In it I discovered my first city, and for a long time I believed that every city on earth resembled the one in the movie — full of muscular men walking with bowed heads. I also wondered whether certain flesh-and-blood women didn’t conceal metallic women whose secret would be revealed only by death at the stake.
We may well spend the greater part of our life looking for the cinema monsters of our childhood. Our first monsters: unforgettable, like first loves and first thrills. (Carrière 211)


Four slight but subtle epigrams wind up the collection, one rhymed: the last and the shortest poem in the book, it receives the longest endnote, and proposes a cultural likeness between Sydney and another busy polyglot city-port on the fringe of empire, ancient Alexandria. We shall return to Alexandria in a later volume, Borrowed Voices.

 Mr Rubenking’s Breakdown


Next, in yet another effort to ‘take rhetoric and wring its neck’, Tranter turned to the computerised deconstruction of text. In 1991 he published an article and two poems in Meanjin magazine (number 4, 1991) that outlined a method of utilising the text-analysis and reconstruction computer program Brekdown to manufacture poems. Over the next few years he used the program to write seven experimental prose pieces, published in 1998 as the collection Different Hands. In the 1991 article, though, he presented two poems as the revised output of the machine, the poem ‘What Mortal End’ by poet ‘Tom Haltwarden’, and ‘Her Shy Banjo’ by poet ‘Joy H. Breshan’.


‘What Mortal End’ is the reworked draft output of Brekdown’s reconstruction of some poetry by Matthew Arnold. Both the poem title and the name ‘ Tom Haltwarden’ are anagrams of ‘ Matthew Arnold’.


‘Her Shy Banjo’ is the reworked draft output of Brekdown’s reconstruction of some poetry by John Ashbery. Both the poem title and the name ‘Joy H. Breshan’ are anagrams of ‘ John Ashbery’.


Discussing the later work Different Hands and the Brekdown computer program that made them possible, Philip Mead points to the contradictory nature of the experiment, where Tranter had to struggle to make some useful sense out of the incomprehensible draft material provided by Brekdown. ‘As an author, Tranter has to de-jazz the overly jazzed-up draft material. Like a kind of creative computer virus, Brekdown deconstructs and reconstitutes digital information, that the anti-viral e-poet then retrieves.’ (Mead 367) He entertains a further thought:


As a counter to these habits of reading and traditional media of production, we might imagine the Different Hands poems being performed by a computer-animated ‘prosthetic head’, to use the title of a recent installation by the Australian artist Stelarc, or even being spoken through an electrolarynx. (Networked Language 371)


And in a footnote to this text:


Tranter has already experimented with computer-simulated voice performances of poems, using the program ‘Willow-Talk’, which provides a number of pre-styled synthetic voices that ‘vocalise’ phonemes which the program recognises (and sometimes mis-recognises) from typed text.


See http://www.jacketmagazine.com/04/rubenking.html; this site reproduces the ‘Mr Rubenking’s ‘Breakdown’’ article from Meanjin and includes audio links for synthetic vocalisation of the two accompanying poems. (526)


It should be noted that the ‘synthetic vocalisation of the two accompanying poems’ is actually more complicated than that. For this piece, Tranter wrote a short radio play (less than five minutes long) for three voices, set in a recording studio, and processed it through the ‘Willow-Talk’ text-to-speech computer program.


Two synthetic voices, one male (‘Paul’) and the other female (‘Joy’), play the part of two actors who have arrived at the recording studio to perform the poem ‘Her Shy Banjo’ by poet ‘Joy H. Breshan’ (who is one of the readers).


The other synthetic voice is that of the recording engineer, ‘Bob’. In the popular music field, recording engineers are traditionally called ‘Bob’ to avoid confusion, whatever their real name, as musicians move from studio to studio; though this one’s ‘real name’, we learn, is Robert Bobchuck.


Paul and Joy chat about the script, which they don’t like very much. Joy seems unsettled by the poem she is about to read, which is odd, since she claims authorship of it.


‘What the hell is this — is this supposed to be poetry?’ she asks.
‘Modern poetry,’ Paul replies. ‘Oh well, it’s a living.’
They inform us that they are in fact ‘several robots’. ‘We all think we’re John Ashbery,’ admits Joy, ‘and we enjoy writing poems. Here is one of my poems now.’
They read out ‘Her Shy Banjo’ (alternating their voices), and when the recording is done, comment on how confusing the whole experience has been.
‘What was that about?’ Joy asks.
‘Who knows, Joy,’ Paul replies. ‘You wrote it.’
‘I wrote it?’
‘Maybe Mr Ashbery wrote it,’ Paul suggests, forgetting for a moment that he thinks he is Mr Ashbery.
Bob reads the end credits, and a brisk musical sting closes the play.


No doubt Tranter’s many years working as a radio drama producer for the Australian Broadcasting Commission lie somewhere in the background of this jeu d’esprit.


It is also worth noting that this is the technical reverse of the procedure used years later in the ‘Rereading Rimbaud’ poems in this thesis, where a speech-to-text computer program builds typed poems from audited speech. In the radio play of the Joy Breshan recording session, the opposite occurs: typed text is the raw material, and is given form and substance in the speech provided by the computer, together with the vocal timbres and speech oddities of three distinct yet fake ‘personalities’.

 The Floor of Heaven, 1992


As though temporarily satisfied with his grasp of form where the lyric and the discursive poem are concerned — he was now approaching fifty — and perhaps needing a break from working with computers and robots with personality problems, Tranter turned aside in this next book to explore narrative again at some length.


The Floor of Heaven consists of four loosely inter-linked short stories, or epyllia [25], in a loose blank verse that varies between four and six feet per line. The first is ‘Gloria’, published as a booklet in 1986, and discussed above. The version of this poem in The Floor of Heaven is expanded, as Tranter explains in 1994:


So ‘Gloria’ was published in the Age Monthly Review, a very good magazine that is now defunct, at about eleven typed pages in length. Then one day I woke up — I must have had this understanding in my sleep; perhaps I was in one of Buñuel’s dreams! — and realised that Gloria has a sister, and her boy friend had a brother, and a whole new layer of the story came to be written, which made it about twice as long. (Williams 225)


The form for these four tales is monologue driven and entirely narrative: what lyrical insights emerge do so from the mouths of the characters. In much of the book the story takes the form of a tale within a tale, where a narrator enacts the role of a character in the tale he or she is telling. In an interview with Barbara Williams in 1995 Tranter said


I… wanted to play with the idea Jean-Claude Carrière used in his script [co-written with Buñuel] for the 1972 Luis Buñuel film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where a character tells the story of a dream he’s had, and the plot follows him into that dream; in which a character tells the story of a dream he’s had, and the plot submerges and takes us with it into that dream; and in fact as a viewer you never quite get out of that labyrinth, which is great fun if you can handle it. (Williams, 224–25)


As Buñuel said in 1953, twenty years before he made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie:


Film is a magnificent and dangerous weapon if it is wielded by’ a free mind. It is the finest instrument we know for expressing the world of dreams, of feeling, of instinct. The mechanism that creates cinematographic images is, by its very function, the form of human expression most closely resembling the work of the mind during sleep. Film seems to be an involuntary imitation of dream … the darkness that gradually invades the auditorium is the equivalent of closing our eyes. It is the moment when the nightly incursion into the unconscious begins on the screen and deep inside man. (Carrière 91)


The meaning of a dream is often intense, but usually obscure as well, though dream events are sometimes valuable expressions and re-enactments of actual experiences. The characters in The Floor of Heaven are searching for the meaning of their lives, and of course become proxies for the reader’s various selves.


Some readers, though, saw the dreams as more like nightmares. Two reviewers were unhappy with this book. Cath Kenneally found the multi-layered stories garish and slick and the tone manipulative, and ended feeling cheated:


…studiously plebeian names, ordinary people, players in ordinary yet mythically-resonant dramas. The stories reading almost too easily — the themes writ large and crude — tales of ordinary madness, told with ordinary sensationalism and insensitivity and blindness to the Big Picture, garish and even nightmarish tales running with a chillingly smooth flow. It’s an experiment in pulp; yellow-press poems. [ … ] What you’re left with is the shock-value from the content of the stories, such as remains, and an impression of layer upon layer of pastiche, and of Tranter’s smooth-tongued fluency, which never misses a beat. But it’s a ‘Real Life’ or ‘Hard Copy’ smoothness, which is meant to trip you up; to inveigle you into the same facile responses those false-documentary exposé programmes invite. I felt I’d been taken for a ride, maybe taken for a sucker. (Kenneally 1992)


Alison Croggon objected to what she saw as the way the language of poetry had been dragged down to the level of cheap popular entertainment, and the stylistic ‘trashiness’ that inevitably resulted in a certain ‘crudity of feeling’. This kind of response, vaguely Leavisite in its leanings, is unexpected in Australia in 1992. Tranter had ‘abandon[ed] poetic speech almost completely’, she said. She provides a definition of this missing Philosophers’ Stone: ‘Poetic speech is animated language that disrupts habitual and controlling modes of perception and expression; essential to its impetus is a radical act of will in the face of meaninglessness.’ This last formulation seems borrowed from 1940s French Existentialist philosophy as it had developed from Kierkegaard’s reflections on the foundation of morality. In a book of essays published just one year before The Floor of Heaven, C. Stephen Evans quotes Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which discusses Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and (in Stephens’ recounting) states that


The Enlightenment project of giving a rational justification to ethics had failed and Kierkegaard had clearly seen the failure as irremediable … The solution he devised was to abandon the whole notion of a rational justification for morality and substitute for reason a radical act of will as the foundation of morality. (Stephens 73) (My italics)


The book this comes from is Writing the Politics of Difference, in which, its publisher says,


… the authors first focus on the diversity of traditions in continental philosophy in connection with the texts of Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and De Beauvoir. … Issues surrounding the role of philosophical systems, language, ethical choice, relations with others, the gendered body, socialisation, and the status of philosophy today constitute the fabric of this book.[26]


As indeed they do in The Floor of Heaven. In a popularised form, the Existentialist’s emphasis on radical acts of will is found in some of the fiction in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, even to the point of being parodied in 1971 in Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man[27]. This world-view is specifically (though superficially) singled out for criticism by one of the characters in ‘Stella’, one of the poems in The Floor of Heaven: ‘Oh, the Forties [ … ] Spivs in flying jackets, dud penicillin / at ten quid a dose, black-market nylons — / a phoney culture, rotten right through, / that laid the ground for beatniks and drugs — / jazz, dark glasses, French philosophy’.


Croggon found the writing in The Floor of Heaven dull, trashy, bathetic, sentimental, crude, dated, obscure, nostalgic, dead, clichéd, aphasic and defeatist, in that order:


The Floor of Heaven is very dull reading and gets duller as the trash novel impetus of the narrative wears away, that is, once you know the plot. [ … ] Tranter’s dullness presents a fundamental challenge, since he has decided in his writing that poetry, in what is described in the book’s blurb as the ‘post-modern condition’, is no longer possible. [ … ] It has, however, certain drawbacks: one being its subversion by its own dullness, the other a tendency to bathos. [ … ] It is a sentimentality which has always lurked beneath the surface of Tranter’s work, a crudity of feeling that gives many of his early poems the glazed, dated air of 70s airport lounges. As he moved from obscure experimentalism to a clearer mode of speaking the sentiment became more obvious — for instance, in the pervasive nostalgia infecting Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. [ … ] The deadness of The Floor of Heaven is its acceptance of the dominant modes of discourse. [ … ] The Floor of Heaven’s prosodised clichés and inanimate cultural artefacts create no dissonance in our cultural perceptions. They are, rather, the aphasic expressions of a writing which has retreated from the carnage of the self to the safest refuge. It is a literature of defeat. (Croggon, 1992)


On the other hand, Philip Mead reads the shift from lyric gesture to narrative structure in a complex and positive way, as a strategic move away from the egotism of the lyric voice (which is perhaps the voice that gives us ‘poetic speech’):


‘Narrative’ poetry then is a shift away from the essentialism of the modernist lyric; ‘postmodernist poetry’ returns to narrative of a less exalted, less egocentric kind, a narrative which is hospitable to the loose, the contingent, the unformed and the incomplete in language and experience. As mentioned, there is an important sense of the category ‘nation’ here — there is a history of the 1960s and 1970s being written in Tranter’s poetry — but it is inseparable from the conventions of poetic language. Because of its debt to understandings of the unconscious (psychoanalysis) it is completely untranslatable into official history, which has no theory of the repressed, the hidden, the misprised. In this sense of poetry and nation, Tranter’s analysand is Australian culture of the post-war period. (Mead, Space 200)


Christopher Pollnitz, too, reacted creatively to the complexity of the narrative:


A dazzling succession of reverse and inverse images, Gloria’s monologue testifies less to a debilitating trauma than to her ferocious narrative energy. This is poetry not of the doppel- but of the multiple-gänger. Gloria scatters alter egos like a spy plane dropping metal foil to fox enemy radar. In Tranter’s ‘thick inlaid’ narratives, even his similes seem alternative careers that the desperately fertile narrators have invented as nests for their nascent egos. (Pollnitz, 1992)


Others found the catalog of calamities wearing towards the end:


The… characters who slip in and out of these tales and the cycle of violence all mark out a vision of our world which, despite its weirdness, convinces. Only in the final tale does Tranter’s control waver. There the series of extraordinary calamities the characters must endure brought to mind Lady Bracknell’s strictures about dead parents. (Riemer 1992)[28]


John Ashbery, who launched the book at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 1992, called it ‘a rattling good read,’ as good a description as any.

 At The Florida, 1993


Again, this book is divided into three sections. A group of sixteen poems — what we might as well call ‘conventional’ poems — welcomes the idle reader, though the focus on form is unusual in contemporary poetry. ‘Storm Over Sydney’ is an obvious homage to Kenneth Slessor’s ‘William Street’. Though the inter-linked rhymes and half-rhymes are unobtrusive, it is a rhymed ‘trenter’, as the note at the back of the book explains[29]. Another poem, ‘Journey’, features a dream journey through a clutter of symbols into a dark forest in the mode of 1930s Auden, though as a note tells us it is written in the rhyme scheme of ‘Towards the Land of the Composer’, an early poem by Francis Webb. Tranter is nodding in the direction of his father-figures again.


The group includes ‘Ariadne on Lesbos’ (an unlikely title) in twenty-two metrically-correct unrhymed sapphic stanzas, another rare form in Australian verse.


The second section of eight poems recalls the fragmented mode of ‘Red Movie’ from twenty-one years before, though the mix of narrative and discursive fragments is blended more smoothly; the general effect is like that of John Ashbery in a reminiscent mood.


The last third of the book is different again; it is made up of thirty ‘reverse haibun’, a form consisting of twenty lines of free verse followed by a short prose paragraph, each poem fitting neatly onto a single page.[30]

 Double Six, 1995


Something entirely different again; in fact, a publication perhaps unique in Australian poetry: a short suite of photographs and prose poems by the same person. ‘Double Six’ is a sequence of six photographs by John Tranter and six accompanying prose poems by John Tranter. The photos are of Australian poet Gig Elizabeth Ryan, poet Bruce Beaver, artist Julie Brown-Rrap, poet John A. Scott, artist Paula Dawson, and poet Susan Hampton. The piece was published in Republica magazine Issue 2, and recently on Tranter’s internet site. It is prefaced by a quote from Proust, who was as obsessed with photographs as he was with train travel and the telephone, though he puts his thoughts into the mouth of his saturnine character Baron Charlus:


He told us how a house that had belonged to his family, in which Marie Antoinette had slept, with a park laid out by Lenôtre, was now in the hands of the Israels, the wealthy financiers, who had bought it. … ‘I keep a photograph of the house, when it was still unspoiled, just as I keep one of the Princess before her large eyes had learned to gaze on anyone but my cousin. A photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shews us things that no longer exist.’ (Proust 86–87).


The same is true of poems, of course: all poems are essentially elegiac, as their occasion, topic or subject matter begins to grow old and die as soon as the poem is made. Two years later Tranter quoted this aperçu of Proust’s in a review of Photocopies, a book of essays by John Berger, in which he wrote:


Why did Berger call these brief meditations ‘photocopies’, when another writer might have called them ‘photographs’, or ‘snapshots’? For two reasons, I guess.


You photograph some person or some moment that you ‘own’, and the snapshot is a personal memento of that moment […]


You photocopy something to keep an image of it, not because you own it, but because you don’t own it — a poem from a volume you’ve borrowed from the library, a recipe in a friend’s magazine, or a document from a file someone has left in your In-tray.


Berger has thought deeply about these things. I was impressed by his analysis of photography in the book About Looking, published in 1980. ‘The camera relieves us of the burden of memory,’ he wrote. ‘It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.’


In an essay published twelve years later he shifts his position: ‘All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget,’ he recants. ‘In this — as in other ways — they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers.’ (in The Australian, 4 January 1997)

 Gasoline Kisses, 1997


Basically a British pamphlet publication of the thirty haibun in the previous book, with slight revisions, and two added. Some of the reverse haibun in this booklet and in At The Florida began as first drafts derived from processing another poem through a thesaurus, with various nouns being replaced by near-synonyms. In ‘The Duck Abandons Hollywood’, for example, the basic structure of the poem is modelled on Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ (hence ‘Daffy Duck’, who is portrayed but not named in the poem), with most of Wordsworth’s imagery replaced by synonyms. Wordsworth’s ‘A poet could not but be gay’ becomes ‘a troubadour could not but be / bisexual’. As the purposes and arguments of the original poems remain concealed behind this technical screen or palimpsest, as it were, the overall meanings of these counterfeit versions must remain obscure.

 Different Hands (Fiction), 1998


Like The Floor of Heaven, this small book is something completely different again. For a start it’s prose, not verse; and not prose poetry, though it is not straight narrative fiction either. Averaging nine pages each, these seven dense texts are both narrative and discursive, and seem to be short stories with a self-reflective overlay, and with many strange and brief incursions of extraneous matter. In ‘Neuromancing Miss Stein’, the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein undergoes an outlandish cybernetic transformation. In ‘The Howling Twins’, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg takes the Bobbsey twins on a drug-soaked trip across America. In ‘Carousel’, Henry Miller confronts the enigmatic Master of Go in the mountains of Japan, then visits the brothels of Paris. In ‘Magic Women’, Louisa Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ endure spiritual temptation and hallucinations under the tutelage of a disgruntled sorcerer in the Mexican desert. In other stories, Biggles clashes with what may be his alter ego Radclyffe Hall, the notorious author of the sentimental lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, and E M Forster’s well-bred British characters wrestle with Sydney’s flamboyant and cynical real estate market. And finally the fastidious French writer Paul Valéry seeks advice from a Canadian backwoods farmer and a handyman who builds outdoor lavatories. All these characters and their cultural baggage are in a sense literary, but the social range from Biggles to Valéry, or from Ginsberg to the Bobbsey Twins, is seldom essayed in a single book.


The contrasting narratives that struggle for control in each story are derived in each case from two previous texts, which have been processed in a computer through the text-analysis engine Brekdown (based on the earlier Unix program Travesty)[31] and later blended. The resultant blends have then been extensively revised. The technical procedures are too complex to go into here; a five-page essay by the author outlines some of the mechanisms involved. (Tranter, Meanjin 1991)


Philip Mead’s Networked Language has a chapter devoted to these texts, with a particular focus on the technological setting and the dialectics of the creative act. As he says:


Works like Different Hands provide a space of poesis, now poes1s, for experimenting with the genetic make-up of language. By attempting to distance language from its original ‘human’ embodiments, via the assistance of the computer and computer programs, Tranter is tinkering with the central genetic material of symbolic humanity, the DNA code of language, and e-pastiching poetic clones from existing texts with every appearance of poems. As Katherine Parrish observes, rightly I think, ‘those’ — she deliberately avoids the words ‘authors’ or ‘writers’ — ‘who use automatic text generative techniques in their work do so for conflicting ends […] aleatory techniques in literary production are no guarantor nor liberator of conscious control of the writing process.’ This explains, perhaps, some of Tranter’s own understandable anxieties about the process, allegorised as we have seen in the contradictory framing of Different Hands, anxieties no doubt overridden by the dangerous pleasures of experimentation, and the seductive attractions of freedom-effects. Both of which the reader values. The digital-replicant-depthless-e-pastiche-computationally-generated poetry of Different Hands exists as an affront to any serious literary work. Its postmodernism, in Jameson’s specific sense, subsists in its extended degradation of the modernist texts it takes as its arbitrary origin. It has been simulated, not by any ‘human’ construction of meaning, but, significantly, by the dumbly digital combinatorics of letter-frequency analysis and a vibrant post human improvisation. This is what happens to poetry when analogue aesthetics break down. You get poetry as special effects. That these poems should have any appearance of poetic humanness is a travesty. The wonder is that the original fragments of text should have held within them these potentialities, worlds that Tranter is able to release in the seven stories of Different Hands. (Mead 393)


Tranter has spoken of ‘trying to find a new way to write, to escape my own rhetoric.’ (Tranter Hahn 2003) The method he has chosen for this work is extreme, and involves a kind of double ventriloquy, as though speaking through two different masks at once. The artefacts thus constructed apparently have nothing to do with the author’s own creative urges, and seem to escape the perils of authorial ego-identification by plunging into Literature — if we can call this Literature — and leaving the writer behind.


Would John Forbes have approved? We’ll never know: John Forbes — a long-time friend of John Tranter — suffered a heart attack and died suddenly at his home in Melbourne on 23 January 1998, some months before this book appeared. He was forty-seven.

 Late Night Radio, 1998


This book is a selection of Tranter’s best work at that point, compiled for an audience in Britain, where his work was generally unavailable. It contains poems mainly from Under Berlin and Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. It was well received and well reviewed in the UK.

 Blackout, 2000


With Blackout, we are off the beaten track of poetry and exploring new directions once again, this time without the aid of text-analysis machinery. At the impressionable age of thirteen Tranter had enjoyed viewing Forbidden Planet, a 1956 science-fiction movie loosely based on Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest with a Freudian perspective added, and had sometimes expressed a desire to ‘do something’ with Shakespeare’s play. (Forbidden Planet itself is the subject of a poem in the ‘At the Movies’ section of this thesis, ‘Caliban’.) As a note at the back of the 24-page chapbook says, ‘Blackout consists of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a chapter from Tom Wolfe’s [essay] ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’, and the article ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’ [an essay] by Joan Didion, with most of the words removed, and the remaining words and phrases interleaved, though in the same order as they appear in the original texts.’


The idea is not as original as it might appear. In the early 1970s, the US poet Ted Berrigan composed a novel titled Clear the Range by using ‘White-Out’ typewriter correction fluid to cover most of the words of an old novel, the remaining words of which made up the story. Tranter’s title is a homage to that work, which — as it happens — he has not read, though he published excerpts from it in Jacket magazine at http://jacketmagazine.com/16/ah-ber1.html.

color :


Blackout was published as a pamphlet by Vagabond Press in Sydney and by Barque Press in Cambridge, UK.

 Ultra, 2001


A fresh form, again: twenty-four of the twenty-five poems in this book are made up of ten five-line stanzas of loose blank verse, fitting neatly onto a two-page spread of facing pages. One suspects that the initial poem, ‘Lavender Ink’, a one-page minor paean to the hedonistic delights of Sydney and ancient Alexandria (again), was included to push the next poem onto an even-numbered page, thus ensuring a two-page facing spread for all subsequent poems.


The poems often seem to be spoken in a kind of loose dramatic monologue, sometimes angry, sometimes confused, though there is little point in analysing the various voices for a clue to the speaker’s identity. Carefully building a speaking character in the mode of Browning or Robert Lowell, say, is not on the poet’s agenda. Critic Andrew Riemer wrote


I cannot pretend to a clear understanding of what — if anything — is supposed to be going on here. But that seems beside the point. Tranter has conjured with great verve a babel of voices — plangent, angry, sentimental, melancholy, at times despairing — which carry the reader into vivid evocations of a feverish kind of urban life, despite the poems’ hermetically sealed refusal to yield conventional sense. (Riemer 2002)


Though the individual poems in the collection found favour (and magazine publication) with editors in San Francisco, Paris, Honolulu, Exeter, Cambridge UK, Northumberland, Michigan, Melbourne, Sydney and Denmark, the collection as a whole didn’t achieve much of a response in Australia, and has since sunk into obscurity.

 Heart Print, 2001


Heart Print was the first of a trio of paperback collections printed as print-on-demand books by Salt Publishing, in Cambridge UK. (The others were Studio Moon and Trio, which followed two years later). Like the earlier Late Night Radio, Heart Print is a selection of some of Tranter’s poems which were not available to an audience in Britain. This time the source collections are Ultra, the much earlier The Alphabet Murders (1976) and the sonnet collection Crying in Early Infancy (1977), with the addition of a single (more recent) long poem, ‘The Beach’, a seven-page poem mainly about Sydney’s Bondi Beach in discursive prose paragraphs, that looks rather like a rambling prose poem, but which is in fact a superhypermetrical sestina.[32]


‘The Beach’ is hypermetrical because all the lines of the six-line sestina stanza are longer than usual. Though there is no formal metrical limit on the length of the sestina line, an iambic pentameter is traditionally used in English. It is super-hypermetrical because the lines in ‘The Beach’ are much, much longer than usual. The tone is casual and easy to read, and cynical and sentimental by turns, as Tranter reminisces about his childhood and writes about surf life-savers, Japanese tourists, how to make a proper Martini, the fun he has had in Sydney, and the friends he has lost to death.

 The Floor of Heaven, 2000


This is a British reprint of the 1992 Australian edition: see above.

 Cartoon: Dan Dactyl and the Mad Jungle Doctor


In 2001 and 2002 Tranter published a piece of writing unlike anything he had done before: a twelve-page cartoon (of 95 panels) titled ‘Dan Dactyl and the Mad Jungle Doctor’, featuring the adventures of Dan Dactyl — a beefy young American with poetic inclinations — and his friends as they search the South American jungles for a drug that ‘turns drivel into beautiful poetry’ (Southerly 26). Here is a sample from the cartoon:

Still from Dan Dactyl cartoon: “I sweat my ass off…”


Set in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s and in the town of Porte Gumbeau in an unnamed South American country and in the nearby jungle, the search is quickly derailed when an erratic character (Doctor Verlaine, poet and biochemist) enters the equation. The dialogue veers between tough-guy camaraderie, pensive comparisons between chess and literary criticism, and fragments of poetry and theory from T S Eliot, Arthur Rimbaud and others.

Another panel from the Dan Dactyl cartoon, page one. The gang sets off for South America.


Dan Dactyl, image
Dan Dactyl, image


Though the tough-guy cartoon odyssey is unique in Tranter’s oeuvre, the technical mode of construction bears strong thematic similarities to the use of ‘terminals’, treated at length by Brian Henry. In a note appended to the internet version of the cartoon, Tranter explains the genesis and modus operandi:


In late 2000 I began experimenting with cartoon narratives. My drawing skills are primitive, so I searched for raw material which I could adapt. I settled on a one-volume compilation of daily comic strips (1 June 1945 to 16 May 1946) featuring ‘Johnny Hazard’, written and illustrated by Frank Robbins. The volume is 60 pages long; the material I purloined came to 12 pages. I threw away the original story with its dialogue (a tangled Second World War tale of fighting the Japanese and later the Vichy French in the tropics) and constructed my own story with new dialogue. I also chose the panels I needed from different places in the original volume, and altered all of the drawings with an image-editing program. The result has nothing in it of the original save the brilliant chiaroscuro ink drawings of the artist, Frank Robbins, and a handful of the characters — their appearance, but not their names, identities, relationships or dialogue, all of which I reinvented. (At: http://johntranter.net/2012/01/28/dan-dactyl/)


Referring to ‘The Anaglyph’, Tranter says (earlier in this text) that each line of his reworked poem ‘had its beginning and ending given to him; his task was to replace the meat in the sandwich, as it were…’ More or less the same is true of ‘Dan Dactyl’: the milieu, the period (more or less), the appearance, dress and manner of the characters, even the weather, are all given, or rather forced on the new art-work.


These constraints are in fact links back to the world of the original, the two-dimensional black-and-white 1940s fantasy world of masculine adventure, and form the pipeline through which those macho, kitsch, nostalgia and gauche joie de vivre effects return and emerge into the present to criticise and reinvigorate the very different world of modern literature.

 Borrowed Voices, 2002


The Italians have a saying: ‘Traduttore traditore’… a translator is a traitor. An extreme form of translation argues, disagrees with and betrays the values embodied in the original poem.


While Tranter was Visiting Scholar at Jesus College in Cambridge UK in 2000 and 2001 he embarked on a series of versions of other poets’ works; some were answers to issues raised by other poets, such as his response to the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson, noted below. Some were deliberate mistranslations.


In detail: ‘After Hölderlin’ is a version of Hölderlin’s ‘When I Was a Boy’ (Tranter UM 1); ‘After Laforgue’ (UM 211) was suggested by Laforgue’s ‘Solo de lune’, and other poems; ‘Brussels’ (UM 212) is a version of Rimbaud’s ‘Brussels’. ‘Address to the Reader’ (UM 213) is a response to Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s poem ‘Address to the Reader, from Pevensey Sluice’. ‘After Rilke’ (UM 214) is a version of the first Duino Elegy. ‘Invitation to America’ (UM 217) is a version of Baudelaire’s ‘Invitation to the Voyage’, transposed to California. ‘On La Cienega’ (UM 218) is a version of Schiller’s ‘A Maiden from Afar’. ‘Festival’ (UM 219) is a version of Max Jacob’s ‘Festival’. ‘Night’(UM 221) is a version of Vicente Huidobro’s ‘Night’. ‘Harry’s Bar’ (UM 222) is a version of Callimachus, Epigram 44. ‘What the Cyclops Said’ (UM 223) is a version of Callimachus, Epigram 47. ‘Where the Boys Are’ (UM 223) is a version of Callimachus, Epigram 42. ‘Notes from the Late Tang’ (UM 224) begins with two lines from Li Po (Li Bai) and incorporates fragments from Tu Fu, Robert Creeley and a lecture by J R Prynne.


Once again, Tranter seems to have been attempting to avoid the trap of his own earlier rhetorical stances by borrowing and commenting on the lineaments of other poets’ work. The poems were published as a booklet titled Borrowed Voices by John Lucas’s Shoestring Press in Nottingham, and the publication was well received.

 Studio Moon, 2003


Like Heart Print, this is a Salt Publishing book and a compilation of previously-collected poems unavailable to a British audience, from Under Berlin, At The Florida and Borrowed Voices, with some new poems, including a version of Schiller’s ‘A Maiden from Afar’, which here is set in a hamburger joint in Los Angeles, and borrowings from Matthew Arnold and Barbara Guest, an ode, a three-page poem in sapphic stanzas, a computer-based pastiche, two deeply-felt elegies, two sestinas, four haibun, eight pantoums, and dozens of others.


Two themes are clear in this list: a restless technical interest in the forms available to poetry, and a need to borrow, interpret and by implication criticise the work of other, older writers.


An example is the pantoum ‘Rimbaud in Sydney’, which is made up of a mixture of phrases taken from the writings of Arthur Rimbaud, and other phrases taken from an article in the Sydney Sun-Herald, Sunday 25 October 1992. Here are the first two stanzas:


Romanticism has never been properly judged —
it is as simple as a phrase of music.
We grappled and triumphed over the subway map.
What the fuck is going on around here?
It is as simple as a phrase of music,
when you are seventeen. You aren’t really serious:
What the fuck is going on around here?
I’m a fiery passionate woman — I’m not a raving loony.


Again, the work of a noted poet (and a powerful influence on Tranter’s work) is mixed in with the gritty noises of the modern street.

 Trio, 2003


Trio is the third of the trio of paperback collections printed as print-on-demand books by Salt Publishing, in Cambridge UK. It is another galvanisation of dead matter, but in this case three early volumes entire: Red Movie (1972), Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets (1977) and Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), all of which were out of print, and again published here for a UK audience.

 Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected, 2006


Tranter’s first Selected Poems was published in 1982, when he had been writing poetry for twenty-three years. In 1984, a year after Tranter turned forty, David Carter reviewed the volume in Scripsi:


Publishing a Selected Poems might be a bit like turning forty. Suddenly, it seems, there’s a past which is yours and yet no longer yours, which is public and yet as intimate and strange as memory or dream. Like these other texts, perhaps, the poems are to be reclaimed, are acknowledged, edited, re-ordered, and then relinquished once more. (Carter 117)


Twenty-three years later he prepared Urban Myths, his second selection of those poems he wished to see in print.


Unlike his ill-starred first Selected, Urban Myths (uniquely) won three state prizes (New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia) and was generally well reviewed. It contains some of the poems in this thesis: eighteen of the ‘Rereading Rimbaud’ poems and five poems from ‘At the Movies’. As well as masses of early poems, it contains other new poems: nine short, fairly conventional poems written in Britain in 2000–2001, and a group of ten poems titled ‘The Malley Variations’ (UM 276–292). Though recent, these rehearsals of the voice of Ern Malley are an extension of a long-standing interest in the literary strategies of the hoax, and bear examination.


‘Ern Malley’ is of course the hoax poet concocted in 1943 by two conservative young Australian poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley.[33] Tranter was born the year Malley died; a case of what James Joyce called ‘metempsychosis’, or the transmigration of souls, perhaps.[34]
Many poets of Tranter’s generation looked to Ern Malley as a patron saint of experimental verse, as it were, and found his works more interesting than the serious poetry produced by the hoaxers.[35] When he was twenty-five Tranter wrote a ‘reply’ to the Malley poems, ‘On Reading an Electrical Meter at the House of the Rising Son’. (Transit No 1, 22, ‘Yoo Hoo’ 268) This piece, published pseudonymously in the annus mirabilis 1968, argues with Malley’s ‘Petit Testament’, copying the first line exactly, parodying the first quatrain rhyme for rhyme and almost word for word, then branching off into a loose criticism of Australian literary life in the forties.


A common interpretation of the Malley affair is that a combination of collaborative authorship and disguise can free unconscious forces, and the resulting play and free association result in energetic writing. The adoption of a pseudonym and other borrowings can also be seen as a means of avoiding or resisting self-analysis. The desire to create and publish literature can be seen as a canalisation of some other more primitive force or desire, and seems to seek to protect itself from exposure and criticism by disguise, resistance, avoidance, and sublimation, in the same way that the wishes and desires that give rise to dreams do.


Another way of looking at the dissolution of McAuley’s and Stewart’s personalities into the acid bath of Ern Malley’s persona is through the concept of ‘sub-personalities’. Cassandra Atherton brings a consideration of sub-personalities to her study of Australian poet Gwen Harwood’s various masks:


John Rowan, psychotherapist and fellow of the British Psychological Society [….] defines the self-pluralistic development of sub-personalities as ‘a semi-permanent and semi-autonomous region of the personality capable of acting as a person’.[36] In his later essay ‘The Normal Development of Sub-personalities’ he underlines that the development of sub-selves ‘seem[s] to be universal and … are quite normal’.[37] There does not seem to be any limit to sub-personalities: people develop as many as they require. (pp 134–135)


‘Acting as a person’ was just what ‘Ern Malley’ strove so hard to do: he came provided with a complete life story, including a girl-friend, a bereaved sister, and a final tragic illness.


Atherton quotes Harwood on the disjunction between the character constructed inside the poem and the poet writing the poem:


‘I am horrified at the tendency of people to identify the I with the author … I keep saying that the I of the poems is not the I making jams jellies pickles and chutneys’[38] and ‘The I that writes down the things on the page is certainly not the one who sits talking about writing and the things on the page’.[39]


The two Malley hoaxers would have been equally horrified to be identified as the authors, but only while the hoax was still a secret. Once the cat was out of the bag, they were prompt to claim authorship, as a pulpit from which to preach against their hapless victims. And Harwood’s remark that ‘The I that writes down the things on the page is certainly not the one who sits talking about writing and the things on the page’ is an understatement in their case; the tragic Ern Malley was definitely not either of the triumphant hoaxers, though they were the ‘onlie begetter of these sonnets’, and they went on talking ‘about writing and the things on the page’ as long as there were reporters to write down what they said, though now without the masks. The sub-personality they created was denied any life or authenticity of its own, once it had done its powerful and destructive work. The energies it had released were cast out like devils, and never reappeared.


There is a piquant addendum to Atherton’s story. She quotes Gwen Harwood, ian interview with John Beston[40], saying that ‘One doesn’t ever like to hurt the living. I do agree with Jim McAuley that it is better that the finest masterpiece should remain unwritten if it causes human pain.’ (Atherton 137)


Apparently the Malley poems were not serious work, in McAuley’s view. Masterpieces were powerful creatures and had to be restrained lest they cause pain, but satire was not art, and as long as it was righteous could cause whatever harm was needed in a good cause.


In its use of masks, disguise and borrowed lines from other poets, the construction of Ern Malley has much in common with Tranter’s various strategies involving borrowings and mistranslations. It is interesting in this context because it borrows, quotes, parodies and uses literary models such as Shakespeare, because it fakes and thus annuls its motivations, and because it avoids the pitfalls of Romantic personal expressionism on the part of McAuley and Stewart while flaunting an exaggerated version of it in the arms-length persona of Malley. In a sense the project takes the literary talents of its two real authors, adds an intention to humiliate and a collaborative exuberance to energise them, and allows absolute license of vocabulary, theme and topic.


As a method of avoiding the anxieties attendant on the exposure of one’s literary talent it is hard to fault. If the Malley poems are judged to be brilliant, the real authors can claim the credit. If the poems are judged to be drivel, they can claim the credit for that too: it takes a very talented poet to fool an editor with drivel, though there is a contradiction involved in that argument. The Malley hoax is analysed perceptively by Philip Mead in his book Networking Language (87–105), where he points out that


The double bind for McAuley and Stewart was that, as hoaxers, they were in danger of appearing as impostors, while Ern Malley appeared coherently ‘genuine’ and believably authentic from the moment of his creation, if only fictively so. (105)


Mead also makes another point about the Malley affair: the distinctly Australian character of the project.


… Malley can be read as an extension of the ‘dispersed’ Shakespeare of contemporary scholarship and criticism, the name we currently give to a loose collectivity of linguistically uneven, authorially disunified, collaboratively produced, often plagiarised and always reconstructed textuality. … This is the sense in which Ern Malley is a national poet, or, even, Australia’s Shakespeare. (185)


Tranter called the ten poems of ‘The Malley Variations’ votive verses, and claimed that they were written in or through the ‘voice’ of Ern Malley, speaking in turn through the voices of other writers. The computer program ‘Brekdown’ was brought into the equation to distance or alienate the initial draft text, a strategy that foreshadows the general approach to the poetry produced for this thesis, though computer translation rather than letter-group analysis has been used for the thesis poems.


Brekdown created the first rough drafts for ‘The Malley Variations’, analysing and recording the linguistic characteristics of the Ern Malley oeuvre as well as those of particular texts from nine other writers, then blended the Malley data with each of the nine chosen literary partners in turn, scrambling, blending and producing ten drafts, each of which spoke with a double voice.


The ‘Ern Malley’ material is course itself the false ventriloquy of two other poets, McAuley and Stewart, and these new texts are thus a triple ventriloquy: McAuley and Stewart speaking through Ern Malley, speaking through one of nine other writers, speaking through John Tranter. The texts and their ‘collaborating’ authors are:


— ‘Benzedrine’, a blend of Ern Malley and Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’.

— ‘An American in Paris’, Ern Malley and Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer.

— ‘The Master of the Black Stones’, Ern Malley and Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go.

— ‘Flying High’, Ern Malley and Captain W.E. Johns, Biggles Defies the Swastika.

— ‘Pussy Willow’, Ern Malley and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.

— ‘Transatlantic’, Ern Malley and Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

— ‘Year Dot’, Ern Malley and real estate advertisements for properties offered for sale in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, June and July 1994.

— ‘The Urn of Loneliness’, Ern Malley and Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness.

— ‘Smaller Women’, Ern Malley and Louisa May Alcott, Little Women.

— ‘Under Tuscan Skies’, Ern Malley and Edward Morgan Forster, Room With a View.

At the close of ‘Year Dot’ Ern Malley’s ghost makes a plaintive farewell appearance among the thickets of real estate jargon:


Now, a plausible future: in a
family home with ample furniture
I shall live as an imprisoned ghost.
Slow riot, enough sleep. Fate in my left
pocket, purple sky above: the rear lane
access allows my adieu. Adieu!


The thoroughness and vigour with which McAuley and Stewart went about constructing their experimental modernist poems gives pause for thought: what if they had published them as John Tranter has published his ‘Malley Variations’, as serious experimental writing, fully labelled, acknowledged and supported by their real authors? The enthusiasm that first greeted the appearance of the oeuvre in the pages of Angry Penguins magazine would seem to promise the pair of unpublished young writers a fame like Dylan Thomas’s.

 Cartographical constraint: By Blue Ontario’s Shore


Tranter has always been interested in maps. As a child he used to wander for miles through the rough and unpopulated Australian bush around his farmstead home, using an Army Ordnance Survey contour map to guarantee his safe return (see Appendix 7). His long poem ‘The False Atlas’ was translated into German by Hans Magnus Enzensberger mainly because he too liked the peculiar two-dimensional world of maps. In 2004 Tranter wrote a cartographically-constrained poem (a new literary device?) titled (after Whitman) ‘By Blue Ontario’s Shore’ which he dedicated to John Ashbery, mainly because the area where John Ashbery had spent his youth, the farming country around the town of Sodus beside Lake Ontario in upstate New York, provided the dozen or so town-names that litter the poem. The linking of Ashbery and Whitman is geographically fortuitous. The poem is printed here as Appendix 8.

 Editorial projects


By 2005 Tranter had published one and a half thousand printed pages of poetry and experimental prose. He had been employed in many other paying jobs over the years, from mail boy to typesetter to printer to working in a coffee bar at night to driving an art gallery owner’s Bentley by day, but apart from occasional teaching, most of his professional training had been as an editor — with the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a play reader and radio drama producer at various times, as an education book editor for Angus and Robertson 1971–73, and as an editor of distance learning materials with TAFE in 1983. On many occasions he focussed this set of editorial skills on the field of contemporary poetry, and ended up producing several issues of divers poetry magazines and, in four very different books, over a thousand pages of poetry by other hands.


In 1976 Martin Duwell asked Tranter to compile an anthology of contemporary poetry to be published by Makar Press, the kind of forward-looking poetry by younger writers that had been featured in Makar’s series of ‘Gargoyle Poets’ pamphlets and in Makar magazine (both edited by Martin Duwell) through the early 1970s. Tranter agreed, and the 330-page book was published in 1979. It featured the work of twenty-four poets, and a long and argumentative Introduction by Tranter which was as much resented by the poets included as by those left out. Martin Harrison:


For John Tranter’s intentions are quite clear, and should be clearly stated. By selecting the work of some of his generation’s poets, he has attempted to begin establishing an Australian version of modernism. I suppose one could say that, historically, The New Australian Poetry is an attempt to reverse the barbarous work of Stewart and McAuley in the late 40s — though they as mere writers may, to be fair, have been the least responsible for the intellectual strait-jacketing which followed the [Second World] war in most Western countries. Tranter has, in other words, produced a book which questions polemically a certain kind of imperviousness in Australian poetry to innovation overseas and which quarrels deeply with the increasingly out-dated British academic and poetic tradition invoked in defence of that insularity.… What’s more, it’s even a retrospective anthology in which most of the poems come from the early 70s, for Tranter himself (and I agree with him) sees this period of overhauling ‘that began around 1968… [as] now drawing to a close.’ (Harrison 1980)


Not all critics were so understanding. In a review of The New Australian Poetry, poet Peter Kocan says the book is a symptom of a ‘general retreat from sanity in the West’. Then he says ‘When, say, Ted Hughes writes of a hawk, we experience not the poem but the hawk’. (Kocan 76)


In 1988 the ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, previously the Australian Broadcasting Commission) and The Australian Bicentennial Authority offered a number of poetry prizes, for short, mid-length and long poems. Tranter was asked to be one of a group of judges for the mid-length poems. When the judging was over he suggested to ABC Enterprises (who published ABC Books) that they publish a print collection of the best poems. They agreed. Tranter read through some six thousand poems by people from all walks of life. The resulting collection, The Tin Wash Dish: Poems from Today’s Australians, is a very eclectic anthology: from poems by skilled professionals with international reputations like Les Murray, Gig Ryan and John Forbes, to people in country towns who had never had a poem published before, from the sophisticated to the naïve, from the cynical to the sincerely heartfelt.


In the late 1980s Tranter approached Susan Ryan, then head of Penguin Australia, with the suggestion that Penguin publish a list of small poetry volumes. Ryan demurred — the list would lose money, and would soon be closed down — and proposed a poetry anthology instead as a starting point for such a list: a book which stood a chance of breaking even. Tranter asked Philip Mead to co-edit, and a few years later The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry appeared: 474 pages long, with the work of eighty-six poets from Kenneth Slessor to John Kinsella. After the initial and immediate success of this volume (it had sold some fourteen thousand copies by 2006), Penguin did issue a list of poetry paperbacks under the editorship of Judith Rodriguez which lasted some years.


Tranter had known the poet and novelist Martin Johnston (b.1947) since they met at the University of Sydney in the late 1960s. They often talked, drank and shared meals together, they read and enjoyed each other’s work, and they wrote a sequence of (unpublished) collaborative poems. Martin Johnston died in 1990; in 1993 the University of Queensland Press published Tranter’s 290-page edition of his friend’s work: poems, reviews, translations, interviews, and photographs. An account of how that came about is given in Tranter’s Introduction to that book (xiiv–xvvi).


Tranter assisted in the editing of many small magazines, and published over forty book reviews, mostly during the 1970s when the issues revolving around the new poetry were being debated. But perhaps his more significant literary endeavours (apart from his own poetry and his four print anthologies) were the hoax magazine Free Grass (1968), the ‘Preface to the Seventies’ issue of Poetry Australia (1970), the four poetry volumes published by Transit New Poetry (1980–83), Jacket magazine (begun in 1997) and the APRIL Internet project (started in 2004).


Free Grass splashed into the pond of little underground magazines in Australia in 1968. Like most of of its brethren — The Great Auk, Ourglass, Mok, Cross-currents, Transit and Free Poetry — it was roneod (that is, mimeographed, or printed on a Gestetner brand rotary silk-screen duplicator, developed in the 1890s). The editorial standards were loose, and there was a strong counter-cultural flavour to the thing. It was greeted enthusiastically, but when the magazine’s readers tried to contact the editor, they discovered that no editor’s name was given, and there was no postal address. The truth leaked out: one morning in late 1968 John Tranter had composed the whole of the nineteen poems of Free Grass on five foolscap pages in nine different personae ranging from ‘an ex-professor of English Lit. from the UK’ to an ‘ex-intimate of Bob Dylan’ to a young and naïve female art student. He typed it directly onto mimeograph stencils, interspersing his spontaneous lyric effusions with nonsense sentences and fragments from a list of cryptic crossword clues in the daily paper. He ran it off the next day, and mailed out the copies.


Was this hoax meant to wreck the underground poetry scene of the time, as the Ern Malley hoax had ridiculed and damaged the experimental poetry of the mid–1940s? Tranter claimed that the magazine was meant as a gentle parody of the underground magazines of the day, and in the more flexible and tolerant Australian society of the late 1960s, it had no apparent effect.


Why so many personae, and so many different ‘experimental’ styles? Was this a collection of incompetent verses supposedly written by weak-minded hippies and poetasters, or perhaps an escape from the severe demands of ‘Literature’, a playful set of exercises that explored a range of different voices?


Tranter had published a number of poems in Grace Perry’s Poetry Australia magazine during the late 1960s, as had many of his friends. In 1969 he talked Grace Perry into devoting a special issue of her magazine to the work of new or younger poets, with Tranter as the editor. He commissioned work from dozens of poets, and articles from Rodney Hall and Thomas Shapcott, the editors of an earlier poetry anthology New Impulses in Australian Poetry. ‘My one regret,’ wrote Tranter later, ‘was rejecting some poems by a young poet which Bruce Beaver had sent on to me. Years later, I realised they were by John Forbes.’ (Tranter, Preface, SETIS) The collection was published in February 1970 as the ‘Preface to the Seventies’ issue of the magazine.


Tranter also had input into another issue of Poetry Australia. Nearly forty years ago, just before he left Australia to work in South-east Asia as a publisher’s editor, he commissioned an article on computers and poetry from the University of Sydney linguistics lecturer Alex Jones which appeared in the April 1971 issue of Poetry Australia, edited by Grace Perry.


The Travesty computer program mentioned earlier did not exist when Alex Jones researched his piece, and he could not have forseen the elegant method it provides for avoiding the need for dictionary lists and grammatical rules. But he does outline something of the method Tranter has used with Travesty’s successor, the Brekdown program, and some of the theory that might lie behind the reception of such ‘writing’:


A poem or any other piece of language always looks outside itself, and I have suggested that if randomly assembled it will only be acceptable to the extent that the random assemblage allows us to impose a meaning on it. (61–62)


Tranter and his wife Lyn, who at that time worked in a type design and print bureau called Rat Graffix, published four books of poetry in the early 1980s: first books by Susan Hampton and Gig Ryan, and books by John Forbes and Alan Jefferies.


In 1997 Tranter was researching various email programs on the Internet for the literary agency he and his wife owned when he noticed the HTML code that underlay the web pages he was browsing: it was almost identical to the Compugraphic typesetting codes he had learned twenty years before at his wife’s typesetting business. He had trained variously as an editor, a typesetter, a printer, a print designer and a photographer, and had studied art in 1961 under Lloyd Rees [and Roland Wakelin]. With his newfound ability as a HTML coder he realised he happened to have all the skills needed to compile, edit, design and publish a literary magazine on the Internet, which he proceeded to do, calling the magazine Jacket for no particular reason other than that it was easy to spell, easy to pronounce, easy to grasp and contained the unusual letter ‘K’, like the word ‘Kodak’.


By late 2006 the magazine’s homepage had received over half a million visits. Most of its readers as well as most of its contributors are from North America or Britain. In the Guardian in 2002 Peter Forbes wrote ‘The prince of online poetry magazines is Jacket, run from Australia by the poet John Tranter. It has never been a print journal. The design is beautiful, the contents awesomely voluminous, the slant international modernist and experimental.’ (Peter Forbes 2002.)


When The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry was published it was 474 pages long, and included eighty-six poets. Penguin’s brief to the editors was to produce a book around 300 pages long, but they graciously accommodated the fifty per cent extra material that landed on their desk. There was no room, though, for author notes, which would have added around thirty more pages to the book; or, more likely, thirty pages of poetry would have to be cut to accommodate the notes.


By late 2004, Tranter had built a research Internet site for his own early work, and a site featuring the collected works of three earlier Australian poets, both hosted on the University of Sydney Library’s SETIS site.[41]  His experience with these projects and with Jacket magazine led him to think of the Internet as the ideal repository for those missing Penguin author notes, and in 2004 he began to build a site to host them. Before long he had hundreds of pages of material on some seventy poets, and he realised that he had bitten off more than he could chew.


In 2005 he approached the University of Sydney’s English Department, who (with the University of Sydney Library) agreed to partner an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant application with the Copyright Agency Limited as a ‘Linkage’ partner. In mid 2006 the ARC awarded a grant of over half a million dollars over three to four years to fund further development of the project, with Professor Elizabeth Webby as the Chief Investigating Officer, a staff of one full-time and some part-time researchers as well as two or three staff from CAL and two or three staff from the University of Sydney Library, a PhD student researcher, and John Tranter as a part-time advisor, and an overall budget costed at one and a half million dollars. The prototype site has been named Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library (APRIL) and was relocated to the University of Sydney Internet server as <april.edu.au> in 2008 [a URL soon changed by the site designers to the more useful http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au]

 The Matter of Motivation


Tranter has now gathered, edited and published more work by other writers than all his own extensive output added together: over a thousand pages of Australian material, and over seven thousand pages of mainly British and American poetry, prose, reviews and interviews in Jacket magazine. Why?


There are certainly rewards: a few royalties, a more salient reputation, lots of new friends, and the pleasure of a job well done; but these are hardly enough to justify a lifetime’s effort on behalf of others.


There are clues, perhaps, in his relationship to his father, who had been a dedicated and much-appreciated primary-school teacher in a country town for many years, and in later life part-owned a company that managed three dairy farms and a soft-drink factory.


When Tranter was nineteen his father died, disappointed in his son’s failure to follow in his footsteps as a farmer. Perhaps Tranter is still trying to make up for inflicting that disappointment; or perhaps the father’s concern for helping others to learn and grow has found a faint reflection in his son’s career.


[17] The Last Run: starring George C. Scott, Tony Musante, and two of George C. Scott’s wives: Trish VanDevere, and Colleen Dewhurst. Directed by Richard Fleischer, John Huston. 1971.

[18] At http://jacketmagazine.com/27/faga-mint.html and in Rod Mengham’s collection of essays due for publication in the UK in 2009.

[19] John Forbes, Meanjin, 249-53.

[20] From the context it should be clear that neither African-American nor Australian aboriginal writing is the target here: poetry from the dark side of the human soul is what is meant.

[21] In his monograph The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) which was an expansion of his pioneering essay ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ (Harper’s, November 1893). The Encyclopaedia Britannica says: ‘Symons’ poetry is mainly fin de siècle (i.e., disillusioned) in feeling. Silhouettes (1892) and London Nights (1895) contain admirable impressionist lyrics, and at his best he is sensitive to the complex moods of urban life.’

[22] Janet Bloom and Robert Losada, ‘Craft Interview with John Ashbery,’ New York Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1972), 224-225.

[23] Delivered at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature annual conference in Hobart, Tasmania, in 2001.

[24] Alain Trutat, the head of programs at Radio France-Culture, had bought the French rights for the radio feature The Subtitles, and Étienne Vallès produced a French version of the piece. On 9 and 10 February 1993 portions of the Australian and the French versions of The Subtitles were played to the audience on the second evening of a two-day conference on radio production titled ‘Nuits australiennes’ or ‘Ways of Hearing Australia’ in Paris. Tranter was present. Alain Trutat discussed what he’d liked in the piece when he first heard it, and Étienne Vallès talked about how he came to develop his extremely sensitive production, which happens to run for almost twice the length of the Australian version. When asked by the author if he had added anything to the piece to make it so much longer than the English-language original, he replied ‘No… I just made the pauses… a little bit longer.’

[25] ‘Epyllion (plural: epyllia) — a brief narrative poem in dactylic hexameter of ancient Greece, usually dealing with mythological and romantic themes. It is characterised by lively description, scholarly allusion, and an elevated tone similar to the elegy. Such poems were especially popular during the Greek Alexandrian period (c. 4th-3rd century BC), as seen in the works of Callimachus and Theocritus.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The four books of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (third century B.C.) total less than six thousand lines. The four books of Tranter’s The Floor of Heaven total less than four thousand lines.

[26] At http://www.sunypress.edu/details.asp?id=52145

[27] The Dice Man is a semi-comedic novel published in 1971 by George Cockcroft under the pen name Luke Rhinehart. In it a psychiatrist (named Luke Rhinehart) begins making life decisions based on the casting of dice. The book features sex, drugs and various kind of illegal behaviour, and was taken seriously by many readers. It was 1971, after all. The book was banned in some countries.

[28] ‘Jack: I have lost both my parents’. Lady Bracknell: ‘To lose one parent, Mister Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, First Act.

[29] The ‘trenter’ is a thirty-line form, with overlapping rhymes. See Appendix 5.

[30] The haibun is a form developed in seventeenth-century Japan, consisting of prose and verse mixed; traditionally a short prose passage is followed by a haiku. With the ‘reverse haibun’ Tranter inverted and re-engineered the form for his own purposes.

[31] Brekdown was inspired by the Travesty program [discussed] in the November 1984 issue of byte magazi — ne, by Kenner and O’Rourke (computer scientist Joseph O’Rourke’s colleague was Hugh Kenner, professor of English at Georgia State University, and noted literary critic). They in turn quote an article in the Scientific American of November 1983 by Brian P. Hayes, which described an elegant method of avoiding large and unwieldy n-dimensional arrays. They also refer to the work of [American Mathematical genius] Claude Shannon, who in 1948 — working with a pencil instead of a computer — developed a simple but tedious method of calculating letter-group frequency arrays, using the text itself as a frequency table. (Tranter, ‘Mr Rubenking’s Breakdown’.)

[32] The sestina is a form invented by the Troubadours, and consists of a six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy, originally without rhyme, in which each stanza repeats the end words of the lines of the first stanza, but in different order, the envoy using the six words again, three in the middle of the lines and three at the end. The repeated end-words in Tranter’s gargantuan sestina make up a telling litany of his obsessions: air, drink, fun, death, beach, Sydney. All that’s missing is poetry, and that’s what we’re reading.

[33] Seventeen experimental poems [more or less] in the manner of Dylan Thomas and Henry Treece were sent to Max Harris, the 22-year-old editor of Angry Penguins magazine, who published them all in a special issue in 1944, hailing the recently-dead young poet’s genius. Public exposure of the hoax embarrassed Harris, who was further humiliated when the police in his home town of Adelaide prosecuted him for publishing Malley’s ‘obscene’ verses. He was found guilty and fined. (You can read the entire 70-page transcript of that trial on the Australian poetry site: http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au, and Philip Mead’s Networked Language has a chapter on the hoax and trial.)

[34] As Maria Tymoczko points out in The Irish Ulysses: ‘Metempsychosis, the word that reverberates through Ulysses like the thunderclap in Finnegans Wake, refers not only to the rebirth of Ulysses, Penelope, and Telemachus but also to the rebirth of Ireland’s avatars from The Book of Invasions: in Ulysses the types of Hebraic Milesian, Greek Tuatha De, and Spanish female reappear in contemporary Dublin. The motif of metempsychosis permits Joyce’s characters to represent simultaneously characters from the Odyssey, The Book of Invasions, Hamlet, and the other mythic schemes that Joyce has used partially or wholly in Ulysses; Bloom is at once Ulysses, Milesian, the Wandering Jew, and Hamlet’s father. In the repertory of mythic elements that Joyce uses in Ulysses, metempsychosis is in fact the mainspring; it co-ordinates and drives all the mythic systems of the book.’ (Tymoczko 44).

[35] Generations of literary readers have agreed: Ern Malley’s oeuvre has been widely discussed and has remained in print in several different editions in the six decades since his death, and a stage play, a movie, a sequence of paintings (by Gary Shead) and dozens of homage poems have been created based on the drama of the hoax. The poems of Stewart and McAuley are hard to find, mostly out of print, and are now neglected by the young.

[36] John Rowan, Sub-personalities: the People Inside Us, Routledge, London and New York, 1990, p 8.

[37] John Rowan and Mick Cooper (eds), The Plural Self: Multiplicity in Everyday Life, Sage, London, 1999, p 11.

[38] Stephen Edgar, ‘An Interview with Gwen Harwood’, Island, vol 25, no 6, 1986, p 75.

[39] Jenny Digby, ‘The Evanescent Things: Interview with Gwen Harwood’, A Woman’s Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets, University of Queensland Press, Saint Lucia, 1996, p 51.

[40] John Beston, ‘An Interview with Gwen Harwood’, Quadrant, vol 19, no 7, 1975, pp 84-88.

[41] Over 200 pages of material relating to Tranter’s early writing is hosted at http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/tranter/index.html. You can read complete books by Christopher Brennan (Poems 1913), Lesbia Harford (Poems), and Kenneth Slessor (Selected Poetry 1975), grouped with an introduction by John Tranter at http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozpoets/index.html.