2010: The Salt Companion

The Salt Companion to John Tranter ‘This volume of essays covers all periods of the published output of John Tranter, whose standing as one of the most important figures in modern Australian poetry is now assured.’
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Rod Mengham, Sydney, July 2000. Photo John Tranter.
Rod Mengham, Sydney, July 2000. Photo John Tranter.

Rod Mengham is Reader in Modern English Literature at the University of Cambridge, where he is also Curator of Works of Art at Jesus College. He has written books on Henry Green, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and on language and cultural history; he has also edited books on violence and the artistic imagination, and on modernist and contemporary fiction. He is the editor of the Equipage series of poetry pamphlets and co-editor and co-translator of the anthology of contemporary Polish poetry, Altered State (Arc, 2003). (See Jacket 29.) His own poems have been published in Unsung: New and Selected Poems (Salt, 2001) and with photographs by Marc Atkins in Parleys and Skirmishes (Ars Cameralis, 2007).

  Excerpt: Preface

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This volume of essays covers all periods of the published output of John Tranter, whose standing as one of the most important figures in modern Australian poetry is now assured. Tranter is widely regarded by critics as the most important member of the so-called ‘generation of ’68’, whose chief impact on Australian literature was in terms of its insistence on the centrality of an international, metropolitan culture whose most appropriate models were to be found in American and, to a lesser extent, French writing. Peter Porter was to distinguish the subsequent trends that developed in Australian poetry in terms of ‘Athenian’ and ‘Boeotian’ values, with John Tranter epitomizing the first category, and Les Murray the second. This in some ways misleading opposition indicates the extent to which cultural commentators have been prepared to accord a pivotal role to Tranter’s work; its significance has certainly been registered time and again by both supporters and detractors. Tranter’s unignorability has been compounded in the last three decades by his activities as anthologist, particularly with The New Australian Poetry, and The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (with Philip Mead). During the 1990s, he founded the Internet poetry magazine Jacket, undoubtedly the leader in its field. Tranter’s work is now published to acclaim in the USA and the UK, as well as in Australia, and yet there is little extended criticism available in book form, and this is the first volume devoted exclusively to his poetry.

  The Essays


Salt Companion cover, small image
Salt Companion cover, small image

The essays published here focus on key works in Tranter’s career to date, emphasising the importance of his work as editor as well as poet, both in an Australian and in an international context. They include close readings of poems that illustrate the formal range of his work, assess the reception of his books in the context of his perceived role as symbolic representative of an urban, cosmopolitan, tradition in Australian culture, and provide fresh interpretations of his relationships with English, French and American literature.

  Stephen Burt


Stephen Burt’s consideration of Tranter’s use of ‘tonal dissonance’ throughout his career observes that the language of the poems is closer to the patterns of informal speech than to music, and that the kind of speech involved seems to derive from ‘fractured, indistinct or multiple speakers’. One of Tranter’s key techniques is to obscure the distinction between the poet’s own language and that of others, in a way that may appear casual or effortless but which is in fact highly calculated. At the centre of the Tranterian agenda is an obsession with citation, with the assembling of poems out of segmented quotations and clichés. As a result, the poetry seems always to be presenting itself as belated and unoriginal, wholly dependent on earlier language-use and on pre-existing poetic genres. Burt argues that Tranter’s own voice comes into being precisely through this imitation of the speech of others.

  Simon Perril


Simon Perril’s essay presents an argument that illustrates the political scope of the kinds of language-use documented by Burt. He proposes that Tranter is unusual, perhaps even heretical, among poets of the generation of ’68 in the way he turns from the visionary neo-Romanticism associated with poets such as Robert Adamson, in order to emphasise the civic value of communication with others. At the same time, his awareness of postmodern social formations is evident in his scepticism over the viability of forms of communication taken for granted in poetry before postmodernism. Perril links Tranter’s attitudes to those of science fiction novelists, and especially to those of J. G. Ballard, noting that both writers are fascinated with the suburbs as a place where normative civic structures are absent. [See this 1970 review — J.T.] This is the science fiction of inner as opposed to outer space, where the suburban psyche cannot be granted the potential for authenticity, for individual self-realisation, precisely because of the extent to which it has been colonised by manufactured desires and engineered substitutes for instinct.

  Peter Robinson


In Peter Robinson’s essay, the relationship between self-expression and dependence on the language of others – between tradition and the individual talent – is figured as a complex and paradoxical basis for poetic composition. The speaker in Tranter’s poems does not grapple with tradition in the state of anxiety prescribed by Harold Bloom as the inescapable condition of those who attempt to re-write the defining issues of past literature, but with a smoothness that is at once mystifying, destructive and disarming. Tranter’s cunningly managed ambivalence towards tradition is brought into focus through a comparison with the more starkly evident ‘love–hate relationship’ with the poetic ancestors in the writing practice of Veronica Forrest-Thomson. As Robinson puts it, Tranter’s originality emerges in the characteristic ‘fluid eloquence’ that he substitutes for the more ‘jagged-edged assemblage’ of a writer like Forrest-Thomson.

  Michael Brennan


Michael Brennan concentrates on perhaps the most significant predecessor that Tranter acknowledges as an influence on his poetic thinking, Arthur Rimbaud. Brennan explores the ways in which both Rimbaud’s and Tranter’s conceptions of the function of poetic language not only offer critiques of the Romantic conceit of the poet as visionary, but also incorporate an interrogation of the ironies and inherent faults of language’s manufacture of meaning and representation of experience. Rimbaud’s ultimate abandonment of poetry shadows the trajectory revealed in Tranter’s changing modes of poetic operation, from the initial pseudo-visionary vivisection of ‘Red Movie’, to the abandonment of Symbolist poetics in The Alphabet Murders , and the radical discontent of ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’. (You can read this essay in Jacket magazine 27, April 2005, http://jacketmagazine.com/27/bren-jt-ar.html).

  Kate Fagan and Peter Minter


Kate Fagan and Peter Minter have produced a collaborative essay that weaves together reflections on the tropes of exile and colonisation, on the fascination and fraudulence of poetic rhetoric, and on the mythologised figure of the self-consciously virtuosic male experimental poet. They detect a complex ambivalence towards avant-garde practice as project of innovation haunted by previous example, a paradoxical routine of ironised repeats. In a brilliant close reading of Tranter’s methods of ‘cross-colonisation’, they track the various ingestions and expulsions of different poetic traditions and forms, identifying within the organisation of The Alphabet Murders an historically specific Australian poetic: not yet finished with its colonialist past and both mesmerised and repelled by its role within an Americanised, neo-colonialist future. (You can read this essay in Jacket magazine 27, April 2005, http://jacketmagazine.com/27/faga-mint.html).

  Rod Mengham


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

Rod Mengham regards Tranter’s ‘Ode to Col Joye’ as a defining instance of this Janus-faced poetic. It celebrates back-handedly the achievements of a culture depicted as competitive arena, of a canon of writers whose interrelationships take the form of regional and personal rivalry. The poem is itself in competition with the Odes of Frank O’Hara which make similar claims for the historical significance of New York’s poetic and artistic turf wars; both poets can be seen as part of a New World rivalry with and emulation of an Old World tradition of canon-forming victory celebrations inaugurated by the Odes of the Boeotian poet Pindar, official recorder and in a sense arbiter of Greek city-state rivalries. Tranter’s Ode is at once defiant of and dependent on this cultural legacy, forced to arbitration despite itself, attempting but failing to defuse the historical tensions involved, speaking directly to a crux of Australian poetic identity.

  Kate Lilley


Kate Lilley shows how much of Tranter’s work fits into the dramatic monologue tradition, especially in its dialectical alternation between revealing and withholding elaborately framed images of women. Tranter’s riskiest and most compelling exercise of skill and authority involves the impersonation of female subjectivity, incurring both discomfort over the issues of spokesmanship and exhilaration over its empathic commitment to imagining historically unfinished, marginalised and transgressive kinds of female subjectivity. She uncovers the subtlety with which Tranter’s references and allusions to The Merchant of Venice in his book The Floor of Heaven underwrite his surrender of authorial control to the rhetoric of female personae, subsuming homosocial masculinity in homosexual femininity.

  Ann Vickery


While many of the essays in this volume are responses to the experience of listening to Tranter’s voice, or voices, Ann Vickery focusses rather on the construction of the poet’s cultural role. She uses the critical theories of Pierre Bourdieu in her analysis of the relationship between contemporary Australian literature and the structure of social relations within which it is produced and received. Vickery traces the process by which Tranter negotiates authority within the poetic field. Through increasingly ambitious editorial projects, culminating in the online magazine Jacket, Tranter has maintained and enlarged the scope of the process of reciprocal recognition that characterised both the poetic and the critical discourses of the generation of ’68. By focussing on the judgment of peers rather than on institutional structures, Tranter’s work has achieved the ‘distinction’ that its avant-garde origins might have denied it. It serves as an epitome of the complex strategies that have determined the shape of both the production and reception of Australian poetry today.

  Brian Henry


Brian Henry’s discussion provides a comprehensive retrospect of the way in which the Tranterian oeuvre has positioned itself in literary history through its use of the end-words of other poems. In a meticulous examination of the sources of all Tranter’s ‘terminals’, Henry proposes that the ambiguous negotiation of indebtedness and manipulation is a burden that Tranter imposes on himself in order to extend and enrich the formal capacity of his art. In his deformations of both little-known and well-known poems, Tranter engages with the historically different horizons of expectation that govern the writing and re-writing of texts, with a playfulness that is virtuosic but also mindful of its interpretive responsibilities. See more of Brian Henry on Tranter’s Journal, on this site, here: http://johntranter.net/?page_id=8560 and here: http://johntranter.net/?page_id=8605

  Philip Mead


Although the essays in this volume are not ordered according to strict chronological priorities, they do reflect the development of Tranter’s thinking about poetry and its contexts, and in Philip Mead’s contribution there is even an element of projection into the future. Mead tackles the unprecedented impact of technological innovation on the conditions of reading and writing contemporary poetry, considering ways in which software programmes and Internet conventions introduce new forms of perception, new modes of aesthetic consumption, and require new structures of feeling. He offers readings of Tranter’s Different Hands (1998) and Blackout (2000), in connection with IT developments of analogue, digital and mixed-signal data conversion. In many ways the logical extension of Tranter’s habitual mixing of voices, registers, forms and genres, these ground-breaking works present the most fascinating challenge to our conventional methods of reception, with their collision between computer-generated textual effects and the pursuit of aesthetic form.

  With John Kinsella


In the last two sections of this book, John Tranter can be heard speaking for himself, in animated debate with John Kinsella, working through the nature of his relationship to urban and rural cultures, and to national and international forms of imagining poetry and identity.

  Prose meditations


And finally, in a pair of prose meditations on the formal and biographical constraints on his practice as a poet, which in their dexterity and shrewdness match our sense of the conceptual agility of his verse, but which in their disarming candour also provide a moving counterpoint to it.

 — Rod Mengham

Cover of Salt Book
Cover of Salt Book

Elizabeth (left, with Hasselblad camera) and Mary Gilliam, Stanmore, 1989
Elizabeth (left, with Hasselblad camera) and Mary Gilliam, Stanmore, 1989
Book cover photo, above and right, by Elizabeth Gillam (see small color photo): John Tranter with his basenji dog “Biscuit”, Stanmore, Sydney, late 1989. Basenjis are African barkless dogs, though they are known to yodel and howl when they think they are alone. Owning a basenji is not like having a canine companion; it’s more like having an antelope as an occasional acquaintance. The Pygmies of Africa used basenjis to hunt small game, and often carried them on their shoulders, which the dogs seemed to like. Look up basenji on Google and in Wikipedia.

BIC Basic: EAN13: 9781876857769 ISBN: 9781876857769 : Author: Rod Mengham: Title: The Salt Companion to John Tranter : Series: Salt Companions to Poetry: Product class: BC: Language: eng : Audience: General/trade: BIC subject category: CSBH: Publisher: Salt Publishing : Fulbourn CAMBRIDGE UK: Pub date: 15-Feb-10: Extent: 268pp: Height: 228 mm: Width: 152 mm: Thickness: 15 mm: Weight: 402 gms: Supplier: Gardners Books: Supplier: Ingram Book Group: Availability: NP: Price: GBP 14.99: Price: USD 21.95: Rights: World. This book is now out of print.