2004: Brian Henry: Tranter’s Terminals, 1 of 2

  Brian Henry: ‘John Tranter’s New Form(alism): The Terminal’

‘Tranter’s terminals are unique because they combine the conservative, influence-embracing aspect of traditional forms with the innovative aims of new forms.’

Part One (Part Two is here)

Brian Henry is the author of several books of poetry and the editor of On James Tate (2004). A Fulbright Scholar in Australia from 1997 to 1998, he edited an Australian issue of Verse and was poetry editor of Meanjin that year. His criticism has appeared in numerous publications around the world, including the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review, The Yale Review, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salt, and Poetry Review. He conducted a 13-page conversation with John Tranter for The Argotist Online magazine in 2010, available on this site.

John Tranter is grateful for permission to reprint this article, which first appeared, minus the footnotes, in Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature 18(1), June 2004, pp 36–43.

The footnotes are here printed as endnotes. Links: in the list of endnotes, if you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa. Go on: try it, with the [1] just below.

This paper was also published in Melbourne Australia in 2008. [1].

  I. The Terminal: Its Predecessors and Position

Paragraph 1 follows:

Although all traditional poetic forms rely to some extent on the final words of each line  — most often for rhyme and/or repetition  — the sestina is the poetic form most often associated with end-words. With forms like the sonnet, pantoum, villanelle, and ghazal, the end-words themselves are less important than how they contribute to the form. A poet writing a traditional sonnet can choose any number of rhyming words to end the lines; the end-rhymes matter more to the form than the end-words do. A poet writing a villanelle or a pantoum must repeat entire lines, not just end-words, and the end-words contribute mainly to the structure and rhyme scheme of the villanelle or pantoum. A poet writing a ghazal must choose not only a word that will end every other couplet (the radif) but also words that rhyme (the qafia) to immediately precede the repeated word. Therefore, sonnets are associated with an array of rhyme schemes (and 14 lines), villanelles and pantoums are associated with repeated lines and specific stanzaic structures, and ghazals are associated with their end units (the qafia and radif) and the couplet. Because the vast majority of sestinas written in the past few decades have abandoned rhyme and iambic pentameter, a poet writing a sestina today does not need to consider rhyme schemes or metrics; and the form itself does not require internal rhymes or repeated lines. The end-words themselves  — and the order in which they appear  — matter the most.


With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created the terminal  — a new form similar to, but far more flexible than, the sestina in its emphasis on end-words. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length, and the number of terminals possible in the English language is limited only by the number of poems in the English language. The form has infinite potential. Unrestricted to 39 lines as in the sestina, [2] not limited to 14 or 19 rhyming lines as with the sonnet and the villanelle, not expected to repeat itself like the pantoum and the villanelle, and not tethered to any rhyme scheme or syllable count like the ballad, terza rima, heroic couplet, alexandrine, sapphics, or ottava rima, the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility. But because the existence of a terminal depends on a prior poem, it has the ultimate limit: the single poem. Thus, the terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise.


Because Tranter overwrites  — and in the process simultaneously effaces and preserves  — his source poem while retaining the anchoring points of the source poem, his terminals are both conservative and destructive. By using and acknowledging the original (he never tries to conceal his sources), Tranter performs an act of poetic conservation, calling contemporary readers’ attention to a poem he considers worth reading while also encouraging comparative readings. [3] But by replacing almost every word in the original  — with the exception of the last word of each line  — with his own, he destroys the original poem, jettisoning its meaning, diction, emotional effects, historical context, and atmosphere, even if he tries to pay homage to the original by following or updating it. [4] No poetic forms contain such potential, and because Tranter now has published ten terminals  — eight of them in his 2003 volume Studio Moon  — it has emerged as a viable form that deserves further examination.


Australian critic Martin Duwell has argued that Tranter’s generative forms  — which include, but are not limited to, the terminal  — are meant as stays against confusion: ‘it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a connection between this poetry’s obsession with its own processes of generation and its entropic setting.’ [5] This kind of statement is commonly made about contemporary poems in traditional form when the poet is not considered a traditionalist. In an attempt to reconcile postmodernism with poetic tradition, critics frequently view poets who engage with traditional forms  — especially poets otherwise considered innovative or experimental  — as responding to the chaos of twentieth-century life. Such thinking neglects to account for why traditionally minded poets  — i.e., those who detest, distrust, or ignore the technical advances of modernism and postmodernism  — write in form. It also contradicts the common critical view of postmodern prose writers who have exploded rather than refined the novel form, apparently for the same reason postmodern poets work with traditional forms: to establish bulwarks against chaos. This view is as limited and reductive as it is pervasive, and is seldom advanced by poets themselves. While Duwell perpetuates this kind of thinking, he can hardly be blamed for doing so, considering that this observation, which has become a critical truism, occurs in a brief book review  — not exactly the forum for an in-depth investigation of a postmodern poet’s use of traditional forms like the sestina. [6]


The American poet James Cummins offers a more satisfying explanation of postmodern formalism in his essay ‘Calliope Music: Notes on the Sestina,’ which confronts the uneasy situation of the sestina today. [7] Cummins, one of the most capable sestina writers in the United States  — his first book, The Whole Truth (1986), is a verse novel composed of 24 sestinas and was recently brought back into print by Carnegie Mellon University Press in its Classic Contemporaries series  — initially echoes Duwell but also ventures elsewhere: ‘Besides the desire for permanence  — which is itself, of course, another way of stating the fear of impermanence  — formalists want sport, play … an abstract field with clearly delineated rules, wherein the cleanly played game, the artifice, stands clear of the messiness of life, and comments on it.’ [8] Though he adds another consideration to the topic  — that of ‘play’  — Cummins, like Duwell and many others, feels obliged to reach beyond the challenges and pleasures of form to ‘the messiness of life,’ as if formal play required any outside justification to be worthwhile or meaningful. Many experimental poets, especially those associated with OULIPO and Language writing, have foregrounded process, or artifice, in their work, using chance operations, mathematical or scientific structures, or other non-traditional forms to frame their writing. Given their long-term commitments to these processes, these poets either are chronically unable to cope with the chaos of life or are deeply interested in the formal and generative qualities of the processes themselves.


Cummins also points out that ‘corollary to this is the idea of the received form, brought to perfection by masters of an earlier time  — Petrarch, Dante, Shakespeare  — against whom one can be measured, with whom one can take one’s place. One can master a form and … it can grant permanence.’ [9] But with nonce forms  — like Tranter’s terminal, or those used by Lyn Hejinian in My Life or Christian Bök in Eunoia, for example  — there are no masters against whom to measure oneself or stand beside. The creator of a new form, in effect, becomes the master against whom later poets will measure themselves, if the form lasts. Such poets do not seek to follow the paths of the ‘masters of an earlier time,’ but to establish another, parallel path of which they become the origin.


Cummins’s comment about masters resonates with Duwell’s admission that he used to interpret Tranter’s use of others’s poems as ‘competitive,’ stemming from ‘the common desire among poets to excel, to outdo all others,’ but he now wonders ‘whether it is not a response to the challenge to revivify the poems, to prevent them from becoming mere historical art-objects.’ [10] One has to wonder how using a poet’s end-words could be considered competitive, since the ‘common desire among poets to … outdo all others’ rarely entails revisiting the site of the original and walking a pre-determined path. Only one of the authors of Tranter’s sources is Australian  — the nineteenth-century balladeer Banjo Paterson, who is hardly competition for the urbane Tranter writing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If the terminal arose from competitiveness, Tranter would seek to ‘outdo’ elder figures like A.D. Hope, Judith Wright, and Gwen Harwood, or poets like John Forbes, Martin Johnston, Alan Wearne, Laurie Duggan, Ken Bolton, and Pam Brown, who share many of his aesthetic beliefs, or Les Murray, Robert Gray, Kevin Hart, Peter Porter, and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who do not. Although Tranter could be avoiding competition with fellow Australian poets, competing instead with the British and American poets who provide the sources for most of his terminals, his choices of poems do not support that line of reasoning. If he truly wanted to ‘outdo all others,’ he would not turn to the work of poets of the New York School or peripheral figures in Beat and Language writing, many of whom still write outside the mainstream and go unacknowledged by most poetry readers. To write American poetry off the map, Tranter would have to tackle poets like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell. Or if he wanted to compete with American poets of his own generation, poets like Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, and James Tate would be far likelier sources than those he has chosen.


Clearly, as Duwell later realized, something else compels Tranter to write over other poets’s poems. His more recent hypothesis  — ‘to revivify the poems, to prevent them from becoming mere historical art-objects’  — seems closer to Tranter’s intentions, but also seems inadequate because of the sources of Tranter’s terminals. Of the nine sources he uses for his terminals, only four  — John Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy,’ Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man From Snowy River,’ Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach,’ and W.H. Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’  — could be considered ‘mere historical art-objects.’ O’Hara’s poetry will never need revivifying; and because relatively few people have read them and because they are recent, the poems by Kathleen Fraser, Diane di Prima, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler do not require such rescuing.


Though Duwell’s consideration of Tranter’s generative forms is most welcome in a critical climate that does its best to ignore the formal and material qualities of poetry, I would argue that Tranter created the terminal not to mimic or hold off chaos, compete with other poets, or rejuvenate dying poems, but to present himself with new challenges in style and conception while interacting with other poems and, thus, their authors. Poets who work in traditional forms  — particularly poets, like John Ashbery and Paul Muldoon, who reinvigorate or reinvent traditional forms instead of plodding through them  — often see the restraints of form as liberating or catalytic. For such poets, the pre-established strictures of the form  — such as the number of lines, rhyme scheme, end-words, or metrical pattern  — paradoxically assist, rather than hinder, poetic creation. Muldoon and Ashbery seem apt points of reference for Tranter’s terminals because both poets are prolific and innovative in their approaches to form, which would seem to contradict the cliché that form stifles creativity.


The sonnet is Muldoon’s traditional vehicle of choice, but few of his sonnets are immediately recognizable as such. [11] Their line lengths vary significantly, and the rhymes are often so far apart or so faint that they serve more of a structural role than an oral/aural one. Perhaps as a result of his extended residence in the United States, Muldoon’s poems have recently begun to gravitate from the sonnet to other forms: the sestina (‘Cauliflowers’ in Madoc [1990], ‘Green Gown’ in The Annals of Chile [1994], ‘Wire’ in Hay [1998], and ‘The Misfits’ and ‘The Turn’ in Moy Sand and Gravel [2002]), terza rima (‘Cows’ in The Annals of Chile, ‘Blissom’ in Hay, and ‘Unapproved Road’ in Moy Sand and Gravel), the rhyming pantoum (‘A Journey to Cracow’ in Hay), the ghazal (‘The Little Black Book’ in Hay), and the extended villanelle (‘Milkweed and Monarch’ in The Annals of Chile and ‘Longbones’ in Hay). And there are numerous poems in rhyming couplets and quatrains in those books. Still, Muldoon’s persistence in traditional forms  — especially the sonnet  — over 35 years of writing seems to signal an indelible desire to participate in a tradition  — specifically, a lineage of poets working in forms, from Keats to W.B. Yeats to Frost to Seamus Heaney, all of whom have done some of their best work in the sonnet form.


Although Ashbery’s poetry has less formal intensity than Muldoon’s does, he has a similarly adventuresome attitude toward traditional forms. [12] The relatively disciplined formal poems in his first book, Some Trees (1956)  — ‘Pantoum,’ ‘Canzone,’ some sonnets, and the sestinas ‘Poem,’ ‘A Pastoral,’ and ‘The Painter’  — were followed by the more innovative sestinas ‘Faust’ in The Tennis-Court Oath (1962) and ‘Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape’ in The Double Dream of Spring (1970). This experimentation with the sestina culminated in the double sestina in Flow Chart (1991). [13] More recently, Ashbery has written pantoums (‘Hotel Lautréamont’ and ‘Seasonal’ in Hotel Lautréamont [1992]), a cento (‘The Dong With the Luminous Nose’ in Wakefulness [1998]), and a near-villanelle (‘Real Time’ in Chinese Whispers [2002]). Despite these occasional forays into various forms, the sestina is the form he has returned to most frequently over the past five decades.


But Ashbery has written far more free verse than Muldoon has, and the sonnet represents a much smaller part of his oeuvre than it does for Muldoon. Thus, in this context, Ashbery’s poems that use traditional forms are more extra-ordinary than Muldoon’s. Given his reputation as an innovator, we would expect Ashbery’s formal verse to experiment with, disrupt, or even defy the forms at hand. His double sestina in Flow Chart  — one of the few in the language  — uses the end-words of another double sestina, that of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s ‘The Complaint of Lisa’ (1870). Since Swinburne’s poem rhymes ‘breath’ with ‘death,’ ‘bed’ with ‘dead,’ and ‘thee’ with ‘me,’ it presents formidable challenges to an American poet writing in the last decade of the twentieth century. Rhyming and repeating ‘breath’ and ‘death’ seven times in one poem would be a challenge to any poet, which is perhaps in part why Ashbery pursued it. Despite the rhymes and the restrictions of the form, Ashbery avoids stilted diction by varying line lengths and using a colloquial style. And by placing the double sestina toward, but not at, the end of a 216-page-long poem, he downplays its significance in relation to the rest of his work. Ashbery’s double sestina also serves as a prototype for Tranter’s terminals, taking as it does the end-words from a previously published poem. Where Ashbery’s terminal is also, and most obviously, an embellished traditional poetic form, the forms of Tranter’s terminals range from the Keatsian ode to ballad quatrains to the irregularly rhyming, sonnet-oriented ‘Dover Beach’ to free verse, naturally because the sources of the poems also vary in their forms.

  II. Tranter’s Terminals

Tranter’s Terminal    —   Source Poem


‘Grover Leach’

        — Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’

‘See Rover Reach’

        — Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’

‘In Praise of Sandstone’

        — W.H. Auden, ‘In Praise of Limestone’

‘Paid Meridian’

        — Diane di Prima, ‘On Sitting Down to Write,

       I Decide Instead to Go to Fred Herko’s Concert’


        — Kathleen Fraser, ‘Re: searches [fragments,

       after Anakreon, for Emily Dickinson]’

‘The Twilight Guest’

        — Barbara Guest, ‘Twilight Polka Dots’

‘Thanks, Joe’

        — John Keats, ‘Ode on Melancholy’

‘Three Poems About Kenneth Koch’

        — Frank O’Hara, ‘3 Poems About Kenneth Koch’


        — A.B. Paterson, ‘The Man From Snowy River’

‘Elegy, after James Schuyler’ [now (2008) titled ‘Radium’]

        — James Schuyler, ‘Buried at Springs’


Rather than attempt to hide their sources, Tranter’s terminals frequently acknowledge them in their titles, which anagrammatize the poet’s name (‘Paid Meridian,’ ‘Thanks, Joe’), pun on or edit the original poem’s name (‘Grover Leach,’ ‘See Rover Reach,’ ‘The Twilight Guest,’ ‘Snowy,’ ‘In Praise of Sandstone’), or otherwise refer to the original poem (‘Three Poems About Kenneth Koch,’ ‘Elegy, after James Schuyler’). The sources of his terminals are canonical poems by canonical poets  — John Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy,’ Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach,’ Banjo Paterson’s ballad ‘The Man From Snowy River,’ W.H. Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’  — or poems by first- and second-generation New York School, Beat, or Language poets  — Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Kathleen Fraser, Diane di Prima. With the classic poems, Tranter updates, deflates, or transplants [14] the ideas and ideals of the originals; with the more recent poems, Tranter’s choices of poets point to his own aesthetic affinities and can be seen as attempts to build connections between him and poets he admires through their poems. [15] In both cases, Tranter uses the original poems as sites of engagement.


One of Tranter’s more memorable terminals, ‘Thanks, Joe,’ takes Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy’ as its source. Divided into three numbered parts, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ uses the same stanzaic structure and rhyme scheme as ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ and ‘Ode on Indolence.’ Each ten-line stanza combines the rhyming quatrain of the Shakespearean sonnet  — ABAB  — with the final sestet of the Petrarchan sonnet  — CDECDE  — to create a hybrid form. But as Keats’s sonnets frequently veer from their models, the third section of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ deviates from this template, with the final sestet rhyming CDEDCE instead of CDECDE. This change also occurs in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ which begins by deviating from the expected rhyme scheme  — CDEDCE and CDECED  — in its first two sections and in its final section (CDEDCE), and in ‘Ode on Indolence,’ which changes the rhyme scheme to CDEDCE in the third section and to CDECED in the sixth and final section of the poem. (‘Ode to a Nightingale’ alone remains consistent to the form.) Such formal lapses should be attributed not to a lack of rigor but to a desire to employ variation within fixed forms. Although he worked mainly in traditional forms  — especially the rhyming couplet and the sonnet  — Keats rejuvenated those forms through technical variations, enjambing his rhyming couplets and thus rejecting the rigidity of the heroic couplet of Alexander Pope and other neo-classicists and altering the rhyme schemes of his sonnets to deviate from his Shakespearean, Spenserian, and Petrarchan models. [16]


‘Ode on Melancholy’ is dominated by the proper nouns Lethe, Proserpine, [17] and Psyche and by the personified Beauty, Joy, Pleasure, Poison, and Melancholy. The poem begins with a negative injunction that establishes a series of negative commands:


No, no, go not to Lethe, [18] neither twist

   Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead be kiss’d

   By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

   Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

      Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries


‘Ode on Melancholy’ delivers nine negatives in its first eight lines, establishing an atmosphere of non-permission. The act for which the poem does not offer permission  — succumbing to melancholy  — takes its most extreme form in suicide (signaled by the poisons wolfbane and nightshade). The poem exhorts its reader not to seek forgetfulness (via Lethe, the river of forgetfulness) or to indulge sorrow or morbidity, ‘for shade to shade will come too drowsily, / And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.’ Instead, Keats urges the reader to ‘glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt-sand wave, / Or on the wealth of globed peonies’  — in other words, on beauty (or Beauty). This advice about what to do ‘when the melancholy fit shall fall’ indicates that Keats considers melancholy a potentially aesthetic experience. And to ensure that it is an aesthetic experience, beauty must be admitted into it; pleasure and pain must coexist.


Though connected to the Romantic exaltation of suffering as a source of poetic power, this view stems in part from Keats’s chronic fear of inaction and the melancholy that often arises from stasis. In an 1817 letter to his publishers Taylor and Hessey, he describes his current mental state: ‘lowness of Spirits  — anxiety to go on without the Power to do so.’ [19] And in an 1818 letter to his brothers George and Tom, he writes, ‘I cannot bear to be uninterested or unemployed, I, who for so long a time, have been addicted to passiveness.’ [20] In his poem ‘To My Brother George,’ he admits to a melancholic nature that the ebullience of his verse usually disguises: ‘Full many a dreary hour have I past, / My brain bewilder’d, and my mind o’ercast / With heaviness.’ But as ‘Ode on Melancholy’ makes clear, Keats believes it is crucial to learn from ‘the wakeful anguish of the soul’ in order to produce poetry, for only the poet sees Melancholy in ‘her sovran shrine,’ and the figure of the poet  — ‘him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine’  — possesses the soul that will ‘taste the sadness of her might, / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.’ The poem manifests an awareness that ‘Beauty must die,’ ‘Joy[‘s] hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu,’ and ‘aching Pleasure [is] / Turning to Poison’ ‘in the very temple of delight.’ Keats’s belief in the bond between truth and beauty makes room for the awareness that suffering is an integral part of reality and cannot be ignored or transcended through art.


Tranter’s terminal based on ‘Ode on Melancholy,’ ‘Thanks, Joe’ presents as extreme a twist on Keats’s poem as one could expect. In ‘Thanks, Joe,’ melancholy emerges as an alcoholic’s despair over sleeping with a transvestite, who represents (false) beauty in the poem. Because he retains Keats’s end-words, Tranter maintains the rhyme scheme of ‘Ode on Melancholy,’ but he drops the numbers for the three sections and changes the stanza lengths to ten, nine, and eleven lines, respectively. The elevated diction of Keats’s poem has degenerated here to the contemporary colloquial; thus, ‘rosary of yew-berries’ becomes ‘at Wagga picking ’ ‘let her rave’ becomes ‘she’d been on some rave,’ and ‘among her cloudy trophies hung’ becomes ‘Damn, she was well hung.’ Tranter’s poem seems intent on amplifying Keats’s belief, expressed in a letter to his publisher John Taylor on 27 February, 1818, that ‘Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity  — it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.’ [21] Tranter’s ‘Thanks, Joe’ certainly surprises through excess, but one would be hard-pressed to refer to that excess as ‘fine’; and though the poem is presented as a memory  — a ‘Remembrance’  — via a dramatic monologue, the setting and subject of the poem militate against viewing the poem as ‘highest thoughts’ put into words.


Instead, the poem’s style aligns it more with the ‘first thought best thought’ model of poetic composition, as the first seven lines demonstrate:


Thanks, Joe, I’ll have a martini with a twist.

I can drink spirits, but I can’t take wine.

I lost my taste for it, the first time I was kissed.

I met this woman, down from Proserpine,

she’d been out at Wagga picking boysenberries,

came up to Sydney, wanted to be

a model. She liked sherry. She had this owl…


The speaker’s self-pity has produced self-absorption, evident by the use of ‘I’ six times in the first four lines of the poem, until he introduces the woman, at which point he shifts to ‘she’ and then, after observing that ‘Life’s full of mysteries,’ to ‘we.’ The speaker’s statement about life’s mysteries comically recalls Keats’s notion of negative capability, which is made possible ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’
[22] Of course, Tranter’s speaker cannot live with doubt, as the poem reveals:  


We drank  — what a night. I woke drowsily

the next day, and looked at her naked body. My soul

shrivelled, my blood froze, I thought I’d fall

flat on my face, it was like a cloud

had hidden the sun. What she’d told me, that was

bullshit. She was a bloke! The sheet was a shroud,

the bed a grave for my self-respect.


The absurd epiphany  — the woman is a ‘bloke’  — is couched in terms that recall, but parody, Keats’s own: the ‘soul’ has ‘shrivelled,’ ‘a cloud’ (of melancholy) was blocking the sun, the bed sheets became ‘a shroud’ and ‘the bed a grave’ for his ‘self-respect.’ More striking than the knowledge that the woman ‘down from Proserpine’ is really a man is the speaker’s hyperbolic reaction to this discovery. Later in the poem, he claims, ‘I wanted to die. / I remembered her filthy kisses, her lying lips.’ By reacting so negatively and with such vitriol, he foregoes any opportunity to become a sympathetic figure. The frame of the poem  — the man is speaking to a bartender about the experience  — sets the events of the poem in the past, and the speaker’s continued absorption with the experience  — he cannot drink wine because of it, and he feels compelled to relate the story, unsolicited  — demonstrate that he has not recovered from it. What could be a humorous or self-deprecating anecdote becomes a disturbing one despite the speaker’s witty flourish at the end of the poem:


Do you know the Latin tongue?

They have a motto: ‘Love’s like a river  — clear

one day, dirty the next.’ You know, I might

have another. Damn, she was well hung.


The speaker’s inability to forget or rise above this melancholy dramatizes two lines from another of Keats’s poems, Endymion: ‘Pleasure is oft a visitant; but pain / Clings cruelly to us.’


The conventions of the Romantic lyric also establish an occasion for an illuminating contrast between Barbara Guest’s ‘Twilight Polka Dots’ (1989) and Tranter’s ‘The Twilight Guest.’ Both poems share a setting  — a lake  — but that setting has dramatically different roles in the poems. The lake in Guest’s poem features more prominently  — as ‘a conscious body’  — than the human couple in the poem  — ‘two / figures who in the fixity of their shared glance were / admired by the lake.’ ‘Wishing to set a tone of solitude edged with poetry,’ the lake despises the fish that swim in it because they interfere with what it considers its ‘duty’: to ‘provide a scenic atmospboysenberries, / of content, a solicitude for the brooding emotions.’ Thus, the lake ‘dwelt on boning and deboning’; it has murderous intent  — consciousness but no agency. The two people  — ostensibly lovers  — choose the lake as the setting for their romantic evening because it ‘offered a picture appealing both to young and / mature romance.’ [23] In ‘The Twilight Guest,’ the lake recedes into the background and serves merely as setting. Only one person  — a poet  — is present in the poem; Guest’s lake has been replaced by Tranter’s poet as the poetic consciousness of the poem.


The most significant shift between Guest’s poem and Tranter’s, however, is the reduction in the number of figures in the poems, from the lake, couple, and fish in ‘Twilight Polka Dots’ to a single individual in ‘The Twilight Guest.’ The ‘theatre’ and ‘evening performance’ of Guest’s poem yield Tranter’s solitary poet in a Romantic quest for a poem in her lakeside cottage. Tranter transforms the fish of ‘Twilight Polka Dots’ into the activity of fishing  — not literally, but figuratively; the poet in ‘The Twilight Guest’ fishes for poems at her cottage, using emotions as bait. So when a poem is finally caught, it is caught because ‘the image of the moon’ is reflected on the lake. Tranter presents the scene convincingly, even as he employs common tropes in the process:

Now go to Part the Second… [Believe it or not, I received this message while trying to typeset this page: Request Entity Too Large / The requested resource / /wp-admin/post.php / does not allow request data with GET requests, or the amount of data provided in the request exceeds the capacity limit. / Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.] So Please Go to: this page at http://johntranter.net/interviewed/more-from-henry/

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  Notes for Part One:

Endnote links: If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa. You may need to scroll up a little each time.


[1] Monash University is grateful for permission to reprint this article in a brochure handed out at the ‘Poetry and the Trace’ conference, sponsored by Monash University, held at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne Australia, 13 to 16 July 2008.

[2] Or 65 lines like the canzone, the more restrictive cousin of the sestina. The canzone is also far less common than the sestina.

[3] Indeed, the terminal invites comparative readings more than any other poetic form does. While Tranter’s terminals are notable as individual, distinct poems, their reliance on and use of other poems creates a new potential for reading. Although one could read a terminal without knowing or reading the original poem, knowing the original allows a reader to see another — in fact, a central — dimension of the terminal: what it is built (and builds) on. That the terminal can respond to, contradict, imitate, parody, or do its best to ignore the source poem is another indication of its flexibility as a form.

[4] While this aspect of the form might seem to support the view of language as infinitely unstable — each word replaceable by another word — and undermine the notion of singularity as it pertains to the Poem, Tranter’s retention of the end-words for his terminals indicates an essential aspect of the original that is ineradicable, no matter how far his uses of the end-words stray from the original. The terminal could be viewed as a palimpsest that covers most but, importantly, not all of the original.

[5] Martin Duwell, review of Studio Moon, Australian Book Review, November 2003, pp. 54 — 55.

[6] And few critics would even notice, much less address, Tranter’s use of generative forms.

[7] Cummins defends the sestina against detractors who link the form’s popularity to the ease with which beginning poets can write (fake) sestinas by foregoing metrical regularity to focus on their end-words. The primary challenge of the sestina is keeping repetition from becoming merely repetitive, or redundant.

[8] James Cummins, ‘Calliope Music: Notes on the Sestina,’ (www.maryadams.net/classpages/309_609/poetry_downloads/sestina_essay.pdf), 2.

[9] Cummins, 4.

[10] Duwell, 55.

[11] Although only one poem (‘Kate Whiskey’) in Muldoon’s first book, New Weather (1973), is a sonnet, eleven of the 34 poems in his second book, Mules (1977), are sonnets. ‘Kate Whiskey’ is one of Muldoon’s more conventional sonnets, but sonnets in Mules often embrace hybridity (as the book’s title would indicate) by recombining Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet genes. Among subsequent books, Why Brownlee Left (1980) continues this emphasis on the sonnet, with nine of the book’s 28 poems being sonnets. The Prince of the Quotidian (1994) is essentially a sonnet sequence composed as a journal of a month. And Muldoon’s verse plays, such as Six Honest Serving Men (1995), revolve around the sonnet.

[12] Ashbery and Muldoon also share a propensity to end their books with long poems. This tendency is especially pronounced in Muldoon. At four pages, the last poem in New Weather, ‘The Year of the Sloes, for Ishi,’ is technically not a ‘long poem’; but it is the longest poem in the book. Similarly, the seven-part sonnet sequence ‘Armageddon, Armageddon’ in Mules is the longest, and last, poem in that volume. With the 300-line ‘Immram’ at the end of Why Brownlee Left, Muldoon starts to move into genuine long poem territory, and he has maintained the practice of ending each of his books with a long poem: the 49 linked sonnets of ‘The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants’ at the end of Quoof (1983), ‘7, Middagh Street’ at the end of Meeting the British (1987), the 233-part title poem of Madoc, ‘Yarrow’ at the end of The Annals of Chile, the 30-part sonnet sequence ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’ at the end of Hay, and ‘At the Sign of the Black Horse, September 1999’ at the end of Moy Sand and Gravel. Among Ashbery’s books, Rivers and Mountains (1967) ends with ‘The Skaters,’ The Double Dream of Spring (1970) ends with ‘Fragment,’ Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) ends with the title poem, Houseboat Days (1977) ends with ‘Fantasia on ‘The Nut-Brown Maid,’’ A Wave (1984) ends with the title poem, and And the Stars Were Shining (1994) ends with the title poem — all long poems.

[13] Here are the first two stanzas:

We’re interested in the language, that you call breath,

if breath is what we are to become, and we think it is, the southpaw said.

Throwing her a bone sometimes, sometimes expressing, sometimes expressing something like mild concern, the way

has been so hollowed out by travelers it has become cavernous. It leads to death.

We know that, yet for a limited time only we wish to pluck the sunflower,

transport it from where it stood, proud, erect, under a bungalow-blue sky, grasping at the sun,

and bring it inside, as all others sick into the common mold. The day

had begun inauspiciously, yet improved as it went along, until at bed-

time it was seen that we had prospered, I and thee.

Our early frustrated attempts at communicating were in any event long since dead.

Yet I had prayed for some civility from the air before setting out, as indeed my ancestors had done

and it hadn’t hurt them any. And I purposely refrained from consulting me,

the culte du moi being a dead thing, a shambles. That’s what led to me.

Early in the morning, rushing to see what has changed during the night, one stops to catch one’s breath.

The older the presence, we now see, the more it has turned into thee

with a candle at thy side. Were I to proceed as my ancestors had done

we all might be looking around now for a place to escape from death,

for he has grown older and wiser. But if it please God to let me live until my name-day

I shall place bangles at the forehead of her who becomes my poetry, showing her

teeth as she smiles, like sun-stabs through raindrops. Drawing with a finger in my bed,

she explains how it was all necessary, how it was good I didn’t break down on my way

to the showers, and afterwards when many were dead

who were thought to be living, the sun

came out for just a little while, and patted the sunflower

 — John Ashbery, Flow Chart
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 186 — 187.

[14] ‘In Praise of Sandstone,’ which Tranter calls an ode, transplants Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’ from Italy, where ‘this land is not the sweet home that it looks,’ to Sydney. ‘Think how stone has defined this region,’ Tranter writes, leaving ‘the present for a while [to] dig down / through the past, to more brutal times’ — i.e., Australia’s convict history and the destruction of aboriginal culture (Studio Moon, 73). Like Auden, Tranter juxtaposes geological and human history, with human avarice marking progress: ‘citizens are caught / in the processes, fed, recycled, until they resemble / their own parents tangled in the fight for food and water / and a protected place in the sun’ (75). And like Auden, Tranter recognizes the infinitesimal span of human life — especially when compared to the age of the land — and the invisible yet enormous presence of the dead.

[15] The geographic — and, in the case of O’Hara, chronological — distances involved here make Tranter’s gestures toward poetic community seem more urgent — because they are less likely to succeed — than they would if he were living and writing in the United States.

[16] Keats wrote 66 sonnets, more than two-thirds of them Petrarchan. ‘On the Sonnet,’ written toward the end of his life, deviates from all traditional sonnet forms. Keats invents his own rhyme scheme for the poem, masterfully wedding style and content since the poem is an attempt to find ‘sandals more interwoven and complete / To fit the naked foot of Poesy.’

[17] Also known as Persephone, reluctant queen of the underworld.

[18] This phrase speaks to the first quatrain of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.’

[19] The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), I.146.

[20] Ibid., 214.

[21] Ibid., 238. Keats’s quote also conjures the impossibility of ‘Singularity’ in language, an impossibility that Tranter’s terminals — by depending upon other poems for their existence and by demonstrating the vulnerability of those poems to revision, even by another poet — seems to illuminate, however inadvertently.

[22] Ibid., 193.

[23] Paul Hoover, ed. Postmodern American Poetry (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 67—68.

Notes continue at the foot of Part Two, here.