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

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

(Part One is here)


                Taking a turn

at twilight around the shore of the lake

she watched the sky darken, and turning to

a sound on the surface of the water

she noticed the image of the moon tossed

on the ripples, backward and forward,

seeming to be made up of flake on flake

of phosphorescent light. There, the

poem — its back browned,

its belly silver, tossed and shied in

to shore and — there — it was caught.[24]


Tranter’s achievement here is less the poem itself, which presents a romanticized view of the poet as Poet, than what he has done with his source poem. The ultimate effect seems one of regression, as Guest’s ambivalent lyric becomes more pure, or idealized, with Tranter. Although less than a decade separates the two poems,[25] the poetics of the earlier poem seems more unconventional than that of the terminal based on it.


Tranter’s more radical rewritings occur mainly with older poems. Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ provides not one but two terminals — ‘Grover Leach’ and ‘See Rover Reach.’ Arnold’s poem begins with a description of a seacoast and what it invokes for the poet:


The sea is calm to-night.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; — on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.


This sonnet-length first stanza introduces a scene that appears only in the distance in Tranter’s ‘Grover Leach.’ By diminishing the setting — and thus the grandeur — of the original and by transforming Arnold’s meditation into a scene of courtship at the State Fair, ‘Grover Leach’ begins like a parody of the Arnold poem:


It’s Saturday, meet me tonight,

Grover said to a young lady at the State Fair —

meet me under the electric light

that burns in the sky over the hot dog stand

under the Ferris Wheel by the edge of the bay.

Let the farm slumber in the night-air,

let the corn nod under the spray

as the waves beat against the land.

Meet me where the mob’s roar

drowns our laughter, and our mad fling

will magnetically excite each strand

of feeling in the crowd, and the Wheel will begin

to spin and spark like a dynamo, and bring

the wonderful twentieth century rolling in! [26]


Tranter transplants the setting of the poem from the coast of England to the farmlands of Anywhere. Grover’s falling in love compels him to neglect his farm, embrace ‘the mob’s roar,’ and, with the help of the Ferris Wheel, welcome ‘the wonderful twentieth century’ and, thus, modernity. The tone of Tranter’s poem, until this point, seems lighter than Arnold’s, which uses the sound of waves on rocks as the accompaniment to ‘the eternal note of sadness’ and the sea’s ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.’


But ‘Grover Leach’ shifts dramatically in part two, connecting the speaker’s memory of the ocean bringing ‘to the bay an ancient tidal flow’ to Grover’s suicide by drowning:


For Grover, life on the farm had grown drear

and he learned to despise the modern world.

His wife left him, though his heart was true,

the farm failed, and that’s why, it seems

old Grover waded in, and drowned his dreams. [27]


How different this trajectory is from Arnold’s. Where ‘Dover Beach’ begins with ‘the eternal note of sadness’ and ‘the turbid ebb and flow / of human misery’ and (almost) ends with the admonition ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!,’ ‘Grover Leach’ begins in courtship and ends with divorce, economic ruin, and suicide. Even Arnold’s reason for his admonition — ‘for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night’ — seems less grim, because it is less particular, than the fate to which Tranter consigns Grover. Grover’s death, though solitary and self-inflicted, alludes to the night battle at Epipolae — when the Athenian army attacked itself as well as its enemy because no one could see — to which the last two lines of ‘Dover Beach’ refer. And the foreboding Dover Beach resembles the farm after Grover’s death:


And so the farm sleeps, waiting for a new

owner, and Rover waits too in that yellow light

that seems to paint the wet sand with pain

so it resembles a watery plain

where screaming seabirds dash their reflected flight

over the glitter of the State Fair, Saturday night. [28]


Although both poems offer little consolation, Tranter’s ‘Grover Leach’ offers none. This rewrite of Arnold’s poem might begin in parody, but it ends in stark confirmation of the negative catalogue that Arnold attaches to the world: Grover’s world has ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.’


Other terminals work with newer texts as their sources and forego revision and parody as they seek to use the terminal form to establish connections to the authors of the original poems. Divided into three separate poems — ‘Que Viva Mexico!,’ ‘Gallop Along! or Hurry Back,’ and ‘The Inca Mystery’ — Frank O’Hara’s ‘3 Poems About Kenneth Koch’ pays light-hearted tribute to his friend. In Tranter’s version, the titles for individual poems have been dropped and numbers are used instead to distinguish the three poems from each other; and the individual poems are not the same length as O’Hara’s. The first O’Hara poem, ‘Que Viva Mexico!,’ reads:


May I tell you how much I love your poems?

It’s as if a great pipeline had been illicitly tapped

along which all personal characteristics

are making a hasty departure. Tuba? gin?

‘qu’importe où?’ O Kenneth Koch! [29]


Tranter’s first poem, designated only by a ‘1,’ is more than twice as long as O’Hara’s:


He never writes poems about writing poems,

this dog-eared wunderkind who’s tapped

the unconscious of the race. His main characteristics:

in the fall he develops a fatal liking for stiff gin

martinis. He’s not a disguised Mayor Ed Koch —

the hair’s different — and don’t let anybody tell you

he is. He kisses wives under the mistletoe,

given half a chance, and he’s a sink of indiscretion,

so look out, gossip-wise. A knot of contradictions, he is

a simpering tough guy, and a brutal sook — mercy me,

here he comes! Violently athirst! [30]


Although Tranter has kept O’Hara’s end-words, his approach in the poem differs markedly from O’Hara’s. He has kept the subject indicated by the poem’s title — Kenneth Koch — but that subject has changed significantly in Tranter’s poem. The Koch in O’Hara’s ‘3 Poems’ is a close friend, and O’Hara addresses him directly, in the second person, in the poem; the Koch in Tranter’s ‘Three Poems’ is an invention[31] and is appropriately referred to in the third person. For O’Hara, Koch is the addressee and the subject of the poem; for Tranter, Koch is the subject. This shift in focus and the change to the original poem’s structure allow Tranter to rewrite O’Hara’s ‘3 Poems About Kenneth Koch’ without pretending to the knowledge of Koch that O’Hara possessed. His handling of the terminal conveys respect both for the original poem (even as he rewrites it) and for Koch (even as he intentionally miswrites him). At the same time, Tranter enters this community, however vicariously, making clear his admiration for both poets.


In the second part of the second poem in ‘3 Poems About Kenneth Koch,’ O’Hara offers lavish praise: ‘Under the careful care of our admiration his greatness / appears like the French for ‘gratuitous act’ and we’re proud / of our Hermes, the fastest literary figure of his time.’[32] The overlapping lines in Tranter’s terminal, however, continue the anti-portraiture of the first poem: ‘He thinks constantly on the greatness / of Edna St. Vincent Millay. He’s quietly proud / of his conversational Greek, and one time / he gobbled a whole bag of bagels in Dinky’s Delicatessen.’[33] In the third poem of each poet, both O’Hara and Tranter consider the whereabouts of Koch, who is apparently in Mexico. Missing his friend, O’Hara tells Koch to ‘hurry,’ and when the telephone rings at the end of the poem, he answers, ‘Hello. Kenneth?,’ insinuating that Koch has made contact with him.[34] Tranter begins by ‘pondering the Orientations of Kenneth’ then claims that he ‘leaves for Mexico, and once there, decides to vanish — / a pop, a flash, and a small, perfectly-formed miasma / has entirely replaced him.’[35] The rest of the poem describes the aftermath of his supposed disappearance, and, unlike O’Hara, Tranter ends not with the hope of contact, but with ‘the loss of the illuminations of Kenneth.’[36] For Tranter, the loss is less a personal loss than a literary loss, as the poem demonstrates that his relationship to Koch is primarily literary, not personal; and while he can adopt O’Hara’s end-words for his ‘Three Poems About Kenneth Koch,’ he cannot attain — for reasons of geography and time — the same kind of relationship that O’Hara had with Koch. Thus, Tranter’s gesture toward community must remain a literary gesture.[37]


As ‘Three Poems About Kenneth Koch’ shows, Tranter’s terminals can allude closely — in details and/or conception — to their sources yet deviate from them at crucial points. ‘Paid Meridian’ both follows and departs from its source, Diane di Prima’s ‘On Sitting Down to Write, I Decide Instead to Go to Fred Herko’s Concert.’ (The poem’s title is an anagram of di Prima’s name.) Di Prima’s poem relies on fragmentation, quick shifts, and occasional rhyme for its rhythmic effects, which range from purposely clumsy doggerel (‘the long cry of goose / or some such bird / I never heard / your orange tie / a sock in the eye’)[38] to the colloquial (‘smelly movies & crabs I’ll never get’) to the high lyrical (‘O the dark caves of obligations,’ ‘O all that wind’), which is then undercut by the self-conscious statements ‘(alack)’ and ‘Even Lord & Taylor don’t quite keep it out.’[39] These effects contribute to the overall sense of movement in the poem, which never settles into anything but the constancy of motion. This constant movement, of course, is suggested in the title: as she sits down (to write), she gets up (to go).


Tranter’s ‘Paid Meridian,’ however, dwells. Although the poem contains movement, the movement is limited to the physical, when the narrator leaves his apartment for a party and later returns to his apartment. In ‘Paid Meridian,’ someone named Joan telephones the narrator, who had just started to work on a drawing. Suddenly the narrator is at a party at Joan’s apartment, then on a bus on his way home because ‘parties make me anxious.’[40] Conceived as a dramatic monologue, ‘Paid Meridian’ remains in a single mode — the colloquial.[41] Whereas the voice in di Prima’s poem jumps, Tranter’s stays consistent. The result is that ‘Paid Meridian’ seems more distant than ‘On Sitting Down to Write’; the dramatic monologue has removed the author from the poem and is presented as a clearly literary work with a literary tradition. Di Prima’s poem is all di Prima even as it refuses to identify with any single poetic mode. At the end of her poem, di Prima affirms her presence: ‘I came here / after all.’[42] But in ‘Paid Meridian,’ Tranter further effaces his (and his narrator’s) presence: ‘there’s nobody here, / really, nobody at all.’[43]


By simultaneously acknowledging and effacing the sources of his terminals, Tranter simultaneously acknowledges and effaces his own role in writing them. Although all forms, whether traditional or invented, raise issues of conservation and innovation, originality and influence, Tranter’s terminals are unique because they combine the conservative, influence-embracing aspect of traditional forms with the innovative aims of new forms. They depend on the existence of other poems even as they replace almost all the words of those poems. The terminal is further enriched by the opportunities it provides for responding to others’s poetry, whether through parody, homage, or revision. Although it is too soon to know if the terminal will become an influential form, Tranter has laid a robust foundation for other poets seeking the challenges and pleasures of form, the pull of tradition and the openness of experimentation.

  Notes to Part Two:

[24] Tranter, 63—64.

[25] Tranter wrote ‘The Twilight Guest’ in the mid-1990s. The poem was first published in 1996, in Verse magazine.

[26] John Tranter, Studio Moon (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2003), 24.

[27] Ibid., 24—25.

[28] Ibid., 25.

[29] The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), 151.

[30] Tranter, 86.

[31] In his note for the poem, Tranter writes, ‘Only a lunatic would take any particular statement in the poem to be necessarily true’ (114).

[32] O’Hara, 152.

[33] Tranter, 86.

[34] O’Hara, 152.

[35] Tranter, 87.

[36] Ibid.

[37] A more oblique triangulation appears in Tranter’s ‘Elegy, after James Schuyler’ (originally published as ‘Respirating Buds,’ which is an anagram of its source, Schuyler’s ‘Buried at Springs’). Although indirect, Schuyler’s poem mentions O’Hara (‘it’s eleven years since / Frank sat at this desk and / saw and heard it all’) and mourns the passing of time without him (‘even the boulder quite / literally is not the same’). Tranter’s elegy mentions neither O’Hara nor Schuyler, but could refer to them through certain details—‘a beach house,’ ‘a diary,’ ‘a talent,’ ‘the snapshot’—that seem like potential clues and make the question ‘How much have I suppressed?’ an invitation to sleuthing. In both elegies, the poems exude feelings of loss without resorting to sentimentality.

[38] Though, given di Prima’s association with the Beat poets, perhaps the effect is intended to be more performative than comic.

[39] Hoover, 273—274.

[40] Tranter, 65.

[41] Di Prima’s jarring rhymes have been softened by Tranter through longer lines and homonyms (e.g., ‘Thai’ for ‘tie’), resulting in a more ‘natural’ diction.

[42] Hoover, 274.

[43] Tranter, 66.