Distant Voices D: Thesis, 4 of 6 : Dream-Work

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
[«»] Thesis, Part 4 of 6 : Exegesis 3 of 3: Dream-Work ← You are here.
[«»] Thesis, Part 5 of 6 : 8 Appendices
[«»] Thesis, Part 6 of 6 : Bibliography
[«»] Thesis, Readers’ Reports

  Distant Voices: Tranter’s 2009 DCA Thesis:
  Part 4 of 6: Dream-Work

We know that all literature is a form of disguise, a mask, a fable, a mystery: and behind the mask is the author.

 — Leon Edel

D R E A M — W O R K

The Quest

Introductory note:

This article, at around twenty pages long, was published in «Southerly» magazine, volume 69 number 3, 2009.

The Roman helmet and face-mask was discovered in Cumbria, UK, complete with face-mask. The helmets were worn for cavalry sports events, not for combat. The helmet may have had colorful streamers attached to it.
The Roman helmet and face-mask was discovered in Cumbria, UK, complete with face-mask. The helmets were worn for cavalry sports events, not for combat. The helmet may have had colorful streamers attached to it.


Paragraph 1 follows:

This thesis began with mention of a triad, the three important literary models in the development of Tranter’s writing: Arthur Rimbaud, the hoax poet ‘Ern Malley’, and the contemporary American poet John Ashbery.

The young John Ashbery.
The young John Ashbery.


The link between Rimbaud and Ashbery is obvious; Ashbery’s main influences are French, and he spent a decade in Paris, though Rimbaud hardly figures overtly in his work except perhaps as a precursor to Surrealism and some other twentieth-century French writing. The links between Ern Malley and Rimbaud, Ashbery, and Tranter are more subtle and perhaps more interesting.


When Ashbery was first a student at Harvard he discovered


a wonderful bookstore there where I could get modern poetry — which I’d never been able to lay my hands on very much until then — and they had the original edition of The Darkening Ecliptic [a collection of Ern Malley’s poetry] with the Sidney Nolan cover. I always had a taste for [a] sort of wild experimental poetry — of which there really wasn’t very much in English in America at the time — and this poet suited me very well. I agree whole-heartedly with Reed’s [Sir Herbert Reed’s] revised estimate of it. I just wish there were some more of his books around. (laughs) Mr Malley, that is.[See Note 1]


When Tranter suggested that, to make up this lack, perhaps Ashbery could write some sequels to the Malley oeuvre, Ashbery replied ‘I think perhaps I have. (laughter)’ He has taught Malley’s work (at Brooklyn College, New York) and has published two poems written in the voice of Ern Malley: ‘Potsdam’ and ‘Aenobarbus’. [See Note 2]


Tranter’s interest in Malley, which finds a particular focus in the ten ‘Malley Variations’, has been discussed earlier in these pages.

Author Rimbaud in 3-D.
Author Rimbaud in 3-D.


Rimbaud and Malley? Rimbaud, in his ‘Lettres du voyant’ mentioned earlier, outlined a method for achieving the kind of literary enlightenment he wished to pursue:


The poet makes himself a seer [voyant] by a long, prodigous, and rational disordering of all the senses.… He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die … other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed! (Rimbaud 11)


The process of manufacturing the Ern Malley poems — rapid collaborative writing, ransacking half a dozen disparate books for words and phrases, deliberate nonsense and clumsy rhymes, erasure of the individual ego, disguise and forgery — seems very like a rational disordering of the poetic imagination, or at least an acting exercise or free rehearsal for just such a method; minus the drugs, it should be added. In a sense, Malley can be thought of as one of the many ‘horrible workers’ who toiled in Rimbaud’s long shadow in the century since his death.


Tranter discovered Rimbaud and Malley at the start of his career. In their analysis of The Alphabet Murders (Tranter, 1976) Fagan and Minter find traces of a genealogy:


By passing as illegitimate within The Alphabet Murders — an experimental outsider in strategic thrall to anti-establishment rhetoric — John Tranter enacts a drama of family selection. He asserts a freedom to choose his poetic-cultural parentage, rejecting ‘‘some long and boring poem by Matthew Arnold” and instead laying desirous claim to the ‘absolute modernism” of a French-American queer male line of innovators: Arthur Rimbaud, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara. This adoptive evolution is emphasised in a larrikin rewrite of T. S. Eliot’s ubiquitous ‘Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ — ‘the smoke that “wipes its arse upon the window-panes”’. (Par 14) [Note 3]


Tranter studied Matthew Arnold’s long poem ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ as a schoolboy and has acknowledged its influence [Note 4], and has gently parodied Arnold and his use of Homeric similes in the poem ‘The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile’, which borrows a long and noble simile from ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, and updates it and sets it in the world of contemporary junkies and police. But Matthew Arnold, inspector of schools, was perhaps too much like Tranter’s own father, a school-teacher, to be suitable as a model for a rebellious youth.


Tranter discovered Rimbaud a few years later, when he was seventeen, and devoured everything he could find by or about the poet. The model is here apt enough, and Tranter’s circumstances were very like Rimbaud’s in many ways: he grew up over a hundred miles from the nearest city, his parents owned a farm, he was bright at school, he went to the city at sixteen, he identified with the more bohemian beliefs of his generation, he felt a strong obligation to renovate the poetry he inherited, he wrote a very contemporary kind of poetry himself, and he travelled the world. To Tranter, Rimbaud must have seemed like a smart and scornful older brother, a rival perhaps, rather than like a parent.

John Tranter, circa 1969: a bad hair day.
John Tranter, circa 1969: a bad hair day.


But Rimbaud had been dead for over fifty years when Tranter was born. Ashbery was another matter, even though he too shared all the common characteristics listed above: the farm, the distant city, travel, and so on. One could read Rimbaud with some difficulty, ensconced as he is in a foreign language and in a foreign country and in a hard-to-imagine past: but one could write a letter to Ashbery, talk to him on the phone, or meet him for lunch. The friendship that has developed between the two poets over the last twenty years puts the problems of influence in a slightly different light.

Red Movie, 1972; cover image
Red Movie, 1972; cover image


Tranter had been reading Ashbery since the mid 1960s, that is, for most of his writing life. The traffic was not entirely one-way: Ashbery said he had been influenced to some extent by an early volume of Tranter’s (Red Movie) which he had read in 1973, [Note 5] though the sheer volume, power and variety of Ashbery’s cumulative work had a much stronger influence on Tranter.


It is clear that Ashbery (Ashbery the ‘brand’, or the ‘Transcendental Ashbery’, that is) is father figure to more than one generation of younger poets. In an introductory essay in 1994 on Ashbery’s career, Tranter pointed out that the older writer’s arrival in poetry’s hall of fame was connected with a generational transfer of power:


(T)he Tertiary or Transcendental Ashbery.… gradually solidified out of the mists of personal obscurity into a glittering nodule of recognition around 1970, helped by the publication of An Anthology of New York Poets. This collection, edited by the younger poets Ron Padgett and David Shapiro and published in June of that year, mounted his writing at the prow of the so-called ‘New York School’ and placed him as father-figure to a generation, along with Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and the recently-dead Frank O’Hara. (‘Three John Ashberys’)


The word ‘prow’ occurs only once in ‘The Anaglyph’, not a borrowed word from ‘Clepsydra’, at the start or finish of a line, but as part of Tranter’s own composition:


                                      …it was
Like standing on the prow of a moving ferry in the morning
With the spray bursting all around
And a feeling of nausea mixed with ecstasy washing over me.


Such are the contradictory physical manifestations of the anxiety of influence.


Harold Bloom sensibly points out that ‘Every poet is a being caught up in a dialectical relationship (transference, repetition, error, communication) with another poet or poets.’ (Bloom, 91). He further notes, with a nod to Freud, that ‘these revisionary ratios [the tactics of poets… that misinterpret or metamorphose precursors] have the same function in intra-poetic relations that defense mechanisms have in our psychic life.’ (Bloom, 88) Geoff Ward picks up this essential tactic of Bloom’s:


Most readers of Bloom have been impressed but unconvinced by the rhetorical subdivision of the anxiety of influence into clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis and apophrades. They tend to turn into each other. The force of his case lies in its application of Freudian psychodrama to the dynamics of poetic influence. (Ward 117)


Bloom’s main point, though, is clear:


What matters most (and it is the central point of this book) is that the anxiety of influence comes out of a complex act of strong misreading, a creative interpretation I call ‘poetic misprision.” […] The strong misreading comes first; there must be a profound act of reading that is a kind of falling in love with a literary work. That reading is likely to be idiosyncratic, and it is almost certain to be ambivalent, though the ambivalence may be veiled. (Bloom, xxiii)


But what to do with a strong influence, and how can it be safely absorbed?


Tranter’s essay on on the three John Ashberys [Note 6] is one creative way of redirecting the energies so encountered; of deflecting the ju-ju, or externalising and reifying the anxiety, as it were. Bloom talks of various defences and corrective measures:


Poetic Influence […] always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence […] is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist. (Bloom, 30)

I think Mr Ashbery is at the door, sir.
I think Mr Ashbery is at the door, sir.


Tranter is primarily a poet, though any response to Ashbery’s writing has to be an act of criticism. An opportunity to combine both roles came his way. The magazine The Modern Review, based in Toronto, Canada, sent Tranter a request: ‘We are attempting to assemble a group of critically interested writers/ readers to respond to John Ashbery’s poem “Clepsydra”, by means of a critical essay, poem, personal response, etc. The author is in complete control of response type, content, and length.’


Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’ is a complicated piece of writing. Its title seems to have little connection with the poem: a clepsydra [Note 7] is a kind of water-driven clock (the name means ‘water-stealer’) used by the ancient Greeks. The poem is also long: 253 lines long, to be precise: nearly nine pages. It was first published in book form in the 1977 volume Rivers and Mountains.


Other critics have dealt with ‘Clepsydra’ by tracing various influences in it — Annette Gilson, for example, uncovers evidence of the influence of Emily Dickinson. But Tranter had determined to formulate a critical response to Ashbery’s poem in the form of another poem. He had the example before him of Ken Bolton’s 1996 critical article in the form of free verse on contemporary Australian poetry, for example:

Ken Bolton, Adelaide, March 2013. Photo copyright (c) John Tranter, 2013.
Ken Bolton, Adelaide, March 2013. Photo copyright (c) John Tranter, 2013.

I feel I should say something totalizing about

though one can’t of course (step out of it /
look down from above.)

But Theory is obviously the context
in which this occurs. ‘I am no theorist”

is true, & yet I’m unwilling to acknowledge
an ascendancy of theory over what I do (Bolton, 130)


From the early 1970s Harold Bloom has engaged positively with Ashbery’s poetry. Geoff Ward says that the claims Bloom has made for the poetry of John Ashbery over the years have been massive,

Prof Geoffrey Ward of Homerton College, Cambridge, UK.
Prof Geoffrey Ward of Homerton College, Cambridge, UK.


…and form an argument, partly on his behalf, against the whole notion of a New York school of poets. […] Bloom has had to deafen and blind himself to Ashbery’s wit, and to his significant debts to Auden and to Surrealism, in order to make the poet fit the particular laurels and toga that the critic has in mind, and which were designed only for tragic statuary. (Ward 4)


Bloom has this to say about the criticism of poetry:


All criticisms that call themselves primary vacillate between tautology — in which the poem is and means itself — and reduction — in which the poem means something that is not itself a poem. Antithetical criticism must begin by denying both tautology and reduction, a denial best delivered by the assertion that the meaning of a poem can only be a poem, but another poem — a poem not itself. (Bloom 70)


So perhaps the meaning of ‘Clepsydra’ is ‘The Anaglyph.’ Or is it the other way around? Ward warns us of the dangers of conflating two very different kinds of writing (and therefore thinking):


Of course, although poetry and theory may never actually touch, intercourse between them is constantly pictured in books of criticism. Poem and prose are thrust into an embrace which it is a distinguishing mark of recent criticism to have begun to acknowledge as its own creation. The relationships between poet and critic, text and text, have therefore been likened to the ambiguous clinging of parasite and host. […] But no matter how complex or shifting these relationships, poetic and critical language remain as different in kind as ivy and bark. The one may cling to the other for dear life, but the distinction between poetic and critical language is far from ‘delusive’. (Ward 69)


Todorov addresses this question more thoroughly, framing it as a philosophical dilemma:

Todorov, Strasbourg, 2011
Todorov, Strasbourg, 2011


How to read? In attempting to answer this question, we have been led to characterize several types of critical discourse — projection, commentary, poetics, reading. Different as they are among themselves, these discourses also share one feature: they are all heterogeneous to literary discourse itself. What is the cost of this choice to read one language through another, one symbolic system by the intermediary of another? Freud has remarked that the dream cannot say “no”; might not literature, in its turn, have certain elements which ordinary language cannot say?

No doubt there is an untheorizable element in literature, as Michel Deguy calls it, if theory presupposes scientific language. One function of literature is the subversion of this very language; hence it is extremely rash to claim we can read it exhaustively with the help of that very language it calls into question. To do so is equivalent to postulating the failure of literature. At the same time, this dilemma is much too inclusive for us to be able to escape it: confronted with a poem, we can only resign ourselves to the impoverishment caused by a different language, or else (a factitious solution) write another poem. Factitious because this second text will be a new work which still awaits its reading: an entire autonomy deprives criticism of its raison d’etre, just as a submission to ordinary language affects it with a certain sterility. There remains, of course, a third solution which is silence: we cannot speak of that.

Since the metaphor of the itinerary is particularly current in any description of reading, let us say that one of the possible paths leads us beyond the text; another leaves us on this side of it (the third solution consists in not setting out). To bring the two paths as close to each other as possible: does this not already hold out the hope that they will someday converge? (Todorov 244–46)


In overlaying ‘Clepsydra’ with its corrupt twin ‘The Anaglyph’, Tranter seeks to effect just such a convergence.



There are a number of other triads that it might be useful to consider in relation to Tranter’s oeuvre. First, Freud, whose work Tranter had studied in his three-year Psychology major for his 1971 Arts degree. Freud had initially posited that the structure of the mind was binary: there was the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. The binary structure is useful: child-adult, sleep-waking, man-woman, light-dark. But a tripartite structure is more useful. Ancient Greek drama only developed tragedy proper when a third actor was introduced:


As of old tragedy formerly the chorus by itself performed the whole drama, and later Thespis invented a single actor to give the chorus a rest and Aeschylus a second and Sophocles a third, thereby completing tragedy… (Diogenes Laertius III. 56)

Sigmund Freud, c.1880s
Sigmund Freud, c.1880s


Freud’s 1921 volume Group Psychology presented the beginnings of a systematic study of the ego, and in 1923 he published The Ego and the Id, a ‘largely revised account of the structure and functioning of the mind with the division into an id, an ego and a super-ego.’ (Strachey 29). Freud was sixty-seven years old: past the age at which most men retire.


Freud developed another triad: he links desire with wishes and dreams. A dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish. (Wollheim 66). We have already seen how Tranter links the three creative productions of poem, dream and film in terms of an overlapping area of function, strategy and meaning.


A third triad: a creative artist can also be seen as a tripartite structure. First, as a person, a human being growing from child to adult; second as a creative artist, identified as a creator of art, music or literature; and third as the work itself, a more or less reified version of the material work produced by the writer, a kind of brand name: for example, Shakespeare, Picasso, Hitchcock, Yves St Laurent, Beethoven.


In 1994 Tranter wrote an introductory piece on the work and career of John Ashbery, based on this three-part view. The first of the hypothesised three John Ashberys is the ‘Primary or Mundane Ashbery’:


…the boy who grew into the man who became a scholar and artificer of words. After a youth spent on a fruit farm in upstate New York he attended college and then Harvard University. He gradually turned into the poet who wrote all those poems, plugging on year after year, one sheet of paper after another rolling through the Remington, until some sixteen of his works stand there on the shelf to entrance and puzzle us.

When this man is writing poems he is no longer just a man. This ‘Secondary Ashbery’, as I shall call him, is the gifted angel and the golden goose who produces and spins the threads that the reviewers and critics are obliged to untangle and weave into their own explanation of its pattern. He is never met with, never seen, never spoken to. Friends have only caught a glimpse of this elusive creature, who even as they enter his study is invisibly, swiftly and silently replaced by a simulacrum. For when Mr Ashbery is meeting, seeing others and being seen by them, listening and speaking, eating and drinking and sharing a joke, he is not that poetry writing person, that literature machine, but once again the man who used to be the boy who grew up on a remote farm, the Primary or Mundane Ashbery. When he reads from his books, in that vague and charming drawl that asks you not to take this stuff too seriously, he looks at certain moments as the Secondary Ashbery might look, hesitant under the reading lamp, searching for the right word.

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


In the context of this thesis, we could posit a different triad again, beginning with the Primary Tranter: the author of twenty books of poems and dozens of other projects prior to 2005, all of which belong to the past of this thesis (and indeed to literary history) and hang behind it like a stage backdrop.

John Tranter busy signing books. Photo by Trish Davies, 2015.
John Tranter busy signing books. Photo by Trish Davies, 2015.


Then there is the Secondary Tranter: the older poet who, from early 2005 to late 2008, wrote the poems that make up the creative component of this thesis, much of which forms a running commentary on, as well as a further development of that forty-year tract of literary history, bringing its themes and arguments from the past into the present continuous time of this discourse.


Then we have the Tertiary Tranter, or ‘Third Man’: the critic casting his net over that field of action labelled by the gerund ‘writing’ and chloroforming it into the still and silent noun ‘literature’, which forms this exegesis of both those earlier writers’ work.


There is yet another more theoretical triad to be considered. Kate Lilley has suggested that Tranter is ‘a double agent, working for both the modernists and the postmodernists’. (Lilley, ‘Tranter’s Plots’) But there is one more dimension to add to this analysis.


It is no accident that Tranter is attracted to the work of Alfred Hitchcock; he too occupies a liminal position in the Venn diagram where three fields of theory overlap:


If there is an author whose name epitomizes this interpretive pleasure of ‘estranging’ the most banal content, it is Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock … is a ‘postmodern’ phenomenon par excellence… Yet is Hitchcock, for all that, a ‘postmodernist’ avant la lettre? How should one locate him with reference to the triad realism-modernism-postmodernism elaborated by Fredric Jameson with a special view to the history of cinema, where ‘realism’ stands for the classic Hollywood — that is, the narrative code established in the 1930s and 1940s, ‘modernism’ for the great auteurs of the 1950s and 1960s, and ‘postmodernism’ for the mess we are in today — that is, for the obsession with the traumatic Thing which reduces every narrative grid to a particular failed attempt to ‘gentrify’ the Thing?

Zizek! The movie, 2005.
Zizek! The movie, 2005.

For a dialectical approach, Hitchcock is of special interest precisely in so far as he dwells on the borders of this classificatory triad — any attempt at classification brings us sooner or later to a paradoxical result according to which Hitchcock is in a way all three of them at the same time: ‘realist’ (from the old Leftist critics and historians in whose eyes his name epitomizes the Hollywood ideological narrative closure, up to Raymond Bellour, for whom his films vary the Oedipal trajectory and are as such ‘both an eccentric and exemplary version’ of the classic Hollywood narrative), ‘modernist’ (i.e. a forerunner and at the same time one in the line of the great auteurs who, at the margins of Hollywood or outside it, subverted its narrative codes — Welles, Renoir, Bergman …), ‘postmodernist’ (if for no other reason, then for the above-mentioned transference his films set in motion among the interpreters). (Žižek 2–3)



The word ‘dream’ occurs frequently in Tranter’s poetry, sometimes specifically identified with poetics. ‘[T]his book’s a catalogue of dreams,’ he writes in one poem, continuing with an origami metaphor: ‘‘Waking up” is just like / going to sleep in reverse, / if you need a simile / dreams are similes of life / whose dreams are double images / reflecting everything’ (Crying, 17).


Addressing the four narrative poems that make up The Floor of Heaven, Philip Mead suggests a cinematic, feminist and psychoanalytic reading:


One of the equations at work in these poems is the tripartite analogy between dreams, life-stories and film. They are life-stories that sound like dreams that have the narrative style and structure of films. That is why I am suggesting here a frame of reading that is cinematic, feminist and psychoanalytic:

‘In psychoanalysis, a patient comes to the analyst with a story to tell. But the story is incoherent, full of gaps, chronological reversals, mistaken causal relations. It is untherapeutic because it doesn’t explain. It does not put the driving force of unconscious desire into useful relation with the patient’s life narrative. Together, analyst and analysand [or writer and reader] must attempt to construct the better story, one that will account not only for the recollected “facts”, but also for the thrust of unconscious desire that speaks through recollection and repetition. Analyst works with analysand towards the making of a narrative whose syntax and rhetoric are more plausible and convincing, more adequate to represent the weight of the past on the present and the present’s capacity to reorder the past, than the ragged discourse originally presented in the analytic session.’ [Note 8] (Mead, Space, 213-14)


Freud reminds us that ‘Every dream has at least one point at which it is unfathomable; a central point, as it were, connecting it with the unknown.’ (Interpretation, 24) And despite the fact that most dreams are highly visual, we find that ‘…one scarcely finds a dream without a double meaning or a play upon words.’ (Interpretation, 268). Language is the lock, and play is the key, for dreams, films and poems.

Sigmund Freud, photo by Max Halberstadt for Life magazine, 1921
Sigmund Freud, photo by Max Halberstadt for Life magazine, 1921


As with any dream, an explicator may be needed. As in psychoanalysis, so in literary criticism. An outsider can often see the meaning of a dream more clearly than the dreamer can, because no resistance is involved. An apple for teacher, it is said: a patient will sometimes provide a dream that seems to have been put together to satisfy the symbolic structure of the analytic session and that will please the psychoanalyst: so the poet (the Secondary Tranter, here) may provide a poem (‘The Anaglyph’ is perhaps an example) to satisfy the reader, in this case the Tertiary Tranter or Third Man.

  The Quest


Tranter’s first published poem was a lyrical description of a country landscape [Note 9]. Though his early models had been loose free verse [Note 10], this poem featured Tranter’s trademark alliteration, assonance and trochaic meter: ‘The far-off silent mountains are / dusted blue with distance… ”


By the time a decade had passed, Tranter had lived overseas and had traveled widely through Europe and across southern Asia, and in his first book (Parallax, 1970) several landscapes — now urban and international — alternate with character studies or portraits, and with more self-referential and experimental work. This pattern of thematic alternation and gradually increasing experiment is followed through his first ten books, up to and including At The Florida (1993).

John Tranter and Lyn Grady, Delhi, 1967, photo John Tranter
John Tranter and Lyn Grady, Delhi, 1967, photo John Tranter


After that, the more conventional poems give way to a range of very disparate experimental works: long narrative poems with a melodramatic tone, experimental prose pieces, computer-generated experiments, variations on other writers’ poems and environments, including other writers’ poems with most of the words removed, poems with various constraints, and parodies and cartoons.


Some poets, and Robert Gray is an apt Australian example, settle on a topic, style and tone of voice early in their career and see no reason to strive after change or experiment. Tranter is not one of these, and his career seems to embody Charles Olson’s dictum ‘What does not change is the will to change.’ [Note 11]


There are complex shifts in Tranter’s first thirty years of writing, but the basic tendency involves a turning towards and then away from the lyric mode. The early writing in Parallax sought a poetic form for a quasi-religious role, aiming for a lyrical insight or a personal epiphany of some kind. The landscape was interrogated as a meaningful counterpart or projection of the soul’s desires, with echoes of Platonic philosophy and Zen Buddhism.

Herat, Afghanistan, 1967, photo John Tranter
Herat, Afghanistan, 1967, photo John Tranter


But the landscape, however widely sought and however persistently queried, failed to say much. The poem ‘Kabul’ is an example of a fragment of insight brought back from foreign travel: [Note 12] ‘From the broken, moving window / you see them alone in the desert afternoon / mad and burnt in a chorus of camels / walking somewhere invisible… // They dream their legacy of light / whatever the season.’ The Afghan tribesmen he focusses on here — the year was 1967 — were more likely to have something military in mind than any ‘legacy of light’.


However ‘poetic’ the imagery in his first poem, Tranter had grown up on a farm, where landscape was something you either made a living out of, if you could, or ignored. In 2005 he outlined his later (that is, more mature) objections to the use of landscape as an obliging provider of poetic insights:


The idea that a landscape has any poetic significance seems bizarre to me. I remember quite distinctly — one day in the early 1980s — hearing the British art critic Peter Fuller, on the radio, saying ‘of course, some landscapes are more meaningful than others’, and I laughed so hard I hurt a muscle in my jaw. Of course when you think about a landscape with any degree of nostalgia, it seems to glow with meaning, but usually that’s just your own nostalgia being reflected back at you. [Note 13]


As the sixties cross-faded into the seventies, Romanticism was in the air. We have seen how Tranter queried and tested Rimbaud’s place in myth and history in ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ published in New Poetry in 1974. A later issue of that magazine (v 24 n 3, 1976) claimed on its front cover that ‘Romance Is Taking Over”, yet when Tranter came to review (New Poetry’s editor) Robert Adamson’s 1977 book Cross the Border for Meanjin in 1978, he attacked Adamson’s insistence on romantic myth, calling the middle section of the book ‘a catalogue of pretensions’ and attacking the final section, the ‘Grail Poems’, as ‘titillating decoration’. Rather than seat Adamson among the great Romantics such as Shelley and Keats, Tranter compared his art in this sequence to the ‘Pre-Raphaelite painting it so much resembles.’ [Note 14] To Tranter, Romanticism offered more of a pose than a role.

The Floor of Heaven, cover
The Floor of Heaven, cover


The four long narrative poems in The Floor of Heaven (1992) can be seen as romantic tales — they involve quest elements involving arduous travel, doomed passion and struggle with powerful opponents — though the brushwork is more Expressionist than Pre-Raphaelite, and the odd blend of crude realism (milieu, décor, dialogue) clashes with the urge to melodrama (plot, character) to push the work more in the direction of film noir. There are lyric moments, but they are not voiced by the writer, rather by the characters, who themselves are hardly poets. The book found an audience, but Tranter turned away from the genre and never used it again.

Different Hands, cover
Different Hands, cover


He now developed a different kind of story-telling utilising the computer-assisted deconstruction and reconstruction of texts, both poetry and prose. A key part of the process was the extreme constriction of the constraints imposed by the method. A small book of seven tales (Different Hands, 1998) was produced, then Tranter put the technique aside.


In Blackout (2000) the constraint consisted of using only words from three prior texts, and in the word-order of the original texts, though interleaved. Again, the technique — having been exercised and exemplified — was not used again.


Ultra (2001) saw a return to a freer form of writing. The narrative drive and rapid character construction of The Floor of Heaven is visible from time to time, and so too is a cavalier attitude to decorum and tone, perhaps derived from the more experimental work of the previous decade. Proust is mentioned in one of the poems, and if one could imagine À la recherche du temps perdu torn to shreds and boiled down to a couple of pages of free verse, a kind of Proustian ambition on a small scale — a drift towards social commentary, and character seen as the plaything of fate — is visible here and there. There are portraits in Ultra, but they are are fragmented and multi-dimensional; the tendency to attempt well-formed subjects has been abandoned. The trajectory from Parallax (1970) to Ultra (2001) is beginning to look like that from Degas to the late Picasso.


A six-month stay in Cambridge England resulted in the publication of Borrowed Voices in Nottingham in 2002. The dozen poems are free translations, mistranslations, versions of or answers to various poems by other writers. They are precursors to the poems in the first half of this thesis, though the methodology is looser and more conventional, and provides space for commentary, critique and parody.


At a further remove from conventional verse is ‘The Malley Variations’, a group of poems based loosely on the work of hoax poet Ern Malley (2005). Here the lyric urges of a dozen prior texts are mutilated by computer analysis and reconstruction, blended with the fake lyric voice of the hoax poet, then rewritten and tidied up for public consumption.

John Forbes with newspaper and toy howitzer, May 1984, photo by John Tranter
John Forbes with newspaper and toy howitzer, May 1984, photo by John Tranter


The role of the poet in society has grown ever more difficult to define and justify. The Romantics strove to find a role for poetry that might ameliorate, distract from or make up for the social depredations of the Industrial Revolution and perhaps place Nature on the throne left vacant by religion. In the two centuries since, the role of public conscience and public entertainer has been comprehensively taken over by the novel, cinema and finally television and video. John Ashbery has denied one function for poetry: ‘There is the view that poetry should improve your life. I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army.’ [Note 15] John Forbes could say with some bitter justification that ‘society has elected me / to decorate / its falling apart with a useless panache’.


So just what is Tranter aiming at with this roundabout journey towards then away from the lyric, a path that eventually turns towards a series of experimental texts that are abandoned as soon as built? Perhaps the poems themselves are enough, and hardly want explicating: ‘a poem should not mean, but be’, as Archibald MacLeish wrote in ‘Ars Poetica’, 1926. But Tranter’s poems are full of references to the world they live in, and gain a large part of their energy from the linkages they forge between poetry, narrative, literature, movies and life itself: if anything, they mean too much.

The Figure in the Carpet, cover
The Figure in the Carpet, cover


In his well-known story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ (1896), Henry James tells how a young critic seeks to unravel the secret theme or key that the famous author Hugh Vereker says lies at the centre of everything he has written. It’s visible, Vereker says, but hard to discern, like a subtle pattern woven into a carpet. Alas, after many plot twists and turns, no secret is found. Todorov comes to an enlightened conclusion about this quest:


If Henry James’s secret, the figure in the carpet of his work, the string which unites the pearls of the separate tales, is precisely the existence of a secret, how does it come about that we can now name the secret, render absence present? Am I not thereby betraying the fundamental Jamesian precept which consists in this affirmation of absence, this impossibility of designating truth by its name? But criticism too (including mine) has always obeyed the same law: it is the search for truth, not its revelation, a treasure hunt rather than the treasure itself, for the treasure can only be absent. Once this ‘reading of James’ is over, we must then begin reading James, set out upon a quest for the meaning of his oeuvre, though we know that this meaning is nothing other than the quest itself. (177)

  Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (2nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bolton, Ken. ‘Untimely Meditations (Excerpts)’, in The Space of Poetry, Lyn McCredden and Stephanie Trigg, eds. (Melbourne University Literary and Cultural Studies vol 3). Parkville Victoria: Department of English, 1996.

Diogenes Laertius. In http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110Tech/Theater.html

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. A A Brill. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997.

Lilley, Kate. ‘Tranter’s Plots’. In Australian Literary Studies, volume 14 number 1, May 1989, pp. 41–50.Available at http://johntranter.com/reviewed/general-lilley.shtml

Mead, Philip. ‘Ut cinema poesis: Cinematism and John Tranter’s The Floor of Heaven’, in The Space of Poetry, Lyn McCredden and Stephanie Trigg, eds. (Melbourne University Literary and Cultural Studies vol 3). Parkville Victoria: Department of English, 1996.

Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems. Translated and with an Introduction and Additional Notes by Oliver Bernard. First published 1962, reprinted with Additional Notes and minor revisions 1997. London: Penguin Books, revised edition, 1997.

Strachey, James. ‘Sigmund Freud: His Life and Ideas’. In Freud, Sigmund. Volume 9: Case Histories II (The Pelican Freud Library) Harmondsworth UK: Penguin Books, 1979.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Tranter, John. ‘Three John Ashberys’ The Independent, March 1994. (Australia) Available on this site at http://johntranter.net/us-poets/three-john-ashberys-2/

———. ‘The Anaglyph’. The Modern Review. Richmond Hill: The Modern Review, Summer 2007 (June 2007). Volume II Issue 4. pp. 120–28.

———. (Interview) In conversation with Ted Slade, May 1998. Available at http://johntranter.com/interviewed/slade-iv.shtml

———. (Interview) In conversation with John Kinsella, 2005. Unpublished.

Geoff Ward. Statutes of liberty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. 29 September 2008. http://openlibrary.org/b/OL1732400M.

Wollheim, Richard. Freud (2nd edition). London: Fontana Press (HarperCollins), 1991.

Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Introduction’, in Žižek, Slavoj, ed. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London: Verso, 1992.


[1]   John Ashbery, 1988 interview with John Tranter.

[2]   In Jacket magazine number 17.

[3]   At http://jacketmagazine.com/27/faga-mint.html

[4]   A teacher called Brian Stibbard taught me (and my class of thirty country town boys and girls) Matthew Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, a long heroic narrative poem first published in 1853, at school when I was thirteen or fourteen. It’s taken me years to realise how important the poem was to me. It’s the story of a Persian warrior who has a son, but is not aware that the son survived childbirth. In late life, at the head of his army, he faces a young challenger and slays him in single combat, only to discover just as the young man dies that it is his own son he has killed. The narrative is tragic, the tone noble yet doubting and self-aware, and the ending is almost pure Cinemascope. He invented the long rising crane shot before they’d invented the movies!’ John Tranter. (Interview, excerpt.) In conversation with Lance Phillips, internet, October 2004.

[5]   John Ashbery in conversation with the present author, New York City, circa 2000.

[6]   ‘Three John Ashberys’ The Independent, March 1994. (Australia) Available on this site at http://johntranter.net/us-poets/three-john-ashberys-2/

Clepsydra, from http://edu.ajlc.waterloo.on.ca/node/58
Clepsydra, from http://edu.ajlc.waterloo.on.ca/node/58

[7]   Clepsydra: an ancient device for measuring time by the regulated flow of water or mercury through a small aperture. [1640–50; from L from Gk klepsydra, equiv. to kleps- (klep-, s. of kleptein to steal, conceal + -s- formative in derivation) + hydra, deriv. of hydr water] Random House Unabridged Electronic Dictionary. Wikipedia adds: ‘While never reaching a level of accuracy comparable to today’s standards of timekeeping, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by more accurate pendulum clocks in 17th-century Europe.’

[8]   The quote about psychoanalytic narrative is from Peter Brooks, ‘The Proffered Word,’ Times Literary Supplement 4623 (November 8, 1991): 11.

[9]   Tranter, ‘Morning Impression’, 1960.

[10]   In… my last year at high school [a] teacher [John Darcy] … gave me various books, including… some poetry books: Chinese poetry [The Penguin paperback selection edited by Professor Davis — at least I thought so for many years. Alas, the book was only published in 1962. — JT, 2015], of which I liked Li Po (Li Bai) and Tu Fu especially; Gerard Manly Hopkins, DH Lawrence. They were clever choices on his part: they look easy, none of them rhymed, and they’re full of gorgeous images and lovely verbal music. (Slade interview, 1998)

[11]   Charles Olson (1910-1970), U.S. poet. ‘The Kingfishers’ (l. 1) New Oxford Book of American Verse. Richard Ellmann, ed. Oxford University Press: 1976.

[12]   Parallax, 1970, p 18.

[13]   Tranter, interview with John Kinsella, 2005.

[14]   Tranter, Meanjin magazine, 1978.

[15]   International Herald Tribune (Paris, October 2, 1989). At: http://www.poemhunter.com/john-ashbery/quotations/page-25/