1991: John Tranter and Hermes, interview

John Tranter interviewed by Hermes magazine, 1991

  John Tranter in conversation with
    Stephen Craft and Helen Loughlin

for «Hermes» magazine, Sydney: The University of Sydney Union, 1991. This piece is about 20 printed pages long. Photographs added and some interpolations made in 2013 by John Tranter, other additions 2015.

Matthew Karpin, John Forbes, Helen Loughlin, correcting this interview at John and Lyn Tranter’s place at 74 Corunna Road Stanmore NSW, on 27 July 1991, photo by John Tranter, Olympus XA, Ilford XP1
Matthew Karpin, John Forbes, Helen Loughlin, correcting this interview at John and Lyn Tranter’s place at 74 Corunna Road Stanmore NSW, on 27 July 1991, photo by John Tranter, Olympus XA, Ilford XP1

Paragraph 1 follows:

Hermes: Perhaps one of your best-known pronouncements on poetry was in the introduction to your 1979 anthology The New Australian Poetry with its polemic on modernism. Since then you’ve remarked that perhaps you should have been talking about post­modernism rather than modernism…


John Tranter: I think I definitely should have been. Basically, that argument’s not needed any more, and in any case it wasn’t very useful in the first place because it’s not very accurate or helpful. When I wrote that — which is now almost fifteen years ago — there hadn’t been much useful exploration of modernism in Australia. There was a wave of writers in the 1940s who were quite interesting. Judith Wright, for example, had clearly been reading Auden and Dylan Thomas and Eliot, but it seemed to me looking at her work through the lens of hindsight, as it were, that it’s not really making strong use of the modernist experiments that had been developed in Europe ten or fifteen or thirty years before. I felt modernism never really quite got going in this country.


The critic Lawrence Norfolk says in a recent Times Literary Supplement piece that ‘modernism met its match in Australia’ and says it was ‘a succession of short-lived attempts, never quite a movement’. It was in the 1960s that Australian writers started assimilating the lessons of modernism, and I think in a sense for Australia that is what post­modernism is. It’s a period where we started to catch up with modernism, and what we did with that became post-modernist. So the modernism issue was a bit of a red herring.


What I was talking about really was a firm resistance on the part of Australian poets, generally up until the mid-60s, to the various experiments in verse that had been practised in Europe and America.


Hermes: Would you describe your own work as post­modernist?


John Tranter: Kate Lilley says in one of her papers that I call myself a modernist, but I’m really a post­modernist; and then perhaps behind that I think I’m perhaps neither and both at the same time! At one stage I was interested in the Indian categories of existence. In the West we either have existence or non-existence, but the Patanjali school of philosophy, as far as I can remember, developed a four-fold category that goes: existence, non-existence, both existence and non­existence, and neither existence nor non-existence. I think that’s a much more interesting way to look at things.

John Forbes, Sydney, 1990-07-20, photo by John Tranter
John Forbes, Sydney, 1990-07-20, photo by John Tranter


You see, as a poet I’m a slow learner, a slow developer, and that’s something people don’t always understand. You look at writers like Francis Webb, or Les Murray, or John Forbes — they seem to begin writing at the full stretch of their talent. I didn’t do that — it took me ten or fifteen years to work out how to write, or what to write, and while I was doing that: I kept changing direction. Just trying to write a prose poem one day, the next day a sonnet, the next day I’d try to write free verse of a particular type. And even going into the 70s I never knew what I was doing. Each new poem was an experiment to see what I could do. I was trying to learn as much as I could about writing poetry, and that meant exploring 19th century French writers, 20th century English and American writers, Tang dynasty Chinese writing, all sorts of things.


I hadn’t ever worked out a program that linked me to a particular school of writers. Had I grown up in New York I would have spent my time coping with what the New York School was doing. If I had grown up in France, I would have seen my work against a continuous background of French experiment and development. Being an Australian, I was interested in all of those foreign things, from day to day, a different one each day.

John Forbes laughing at something in the TLS — perhaps Lawrence Norfolk? — and Helen Loughlin correcting this interview at John and Lyn Tranter's place at 74 Corunna Road Stanmore NSW, on 27 July 1991, photo by John Tranter, Olympus XA, Ilford XP1
John Forbes laughing at something in the TLS — perhaps Lawrence Norfolk? — and Helen Loughlin correcting this interview at John and Lyn Tranter’s place at 74 Corunna Road Stanmore NSW, on 27 July 1991, photo by John Tranter, Olympus XA, Ilford XP1


Hermes: Were you influenced by any Australian poets in that first fifteen-year period, or were they mostly European or American influences?


John Tranter: I didn’t find much Australian poetry interesting, really, except for the work of some of my contemporaries. I think that’s part of being a provincial culture, that you always feel that things are more important somewhere else, and that obviously is the case. It’s true that American poetry from, say, 1940 to 1970, had a profound influence on Australian poetics. It’s also true that Australian poetry from the same period had no influence whatsoever on anything that anyone wrote in New York or San Francisco, or anywhere else in the world. So, no, I would say that I haven’t been influenced by any Australian poets — apart from Slessor. I should say that the two strongest local influences on an Australian poet in the 1960s would be Francis Webb and Kenneth Slessor. But they don’t really have that much to give you apart from learning a particular flavour, a particular way of handling imagery, say. Slessor I think was a poet of technique. He had a wonderful technique, but there are poets who do that sort of thing better elsewhere, and I’d rather go to them to learn it in some ways. However, Slessor has some special effects that are very good. ‘South Country’, I think, is a brilliant poem. That’s a poem of his that I would say I have been influenced by. [I later came to believe that Slessor and Dransfield have in common a focus on surface decorative effects rather than a commitment to exploring deep structure. JT, 2013.]


Hermes: Your work has been marked by a lot of changes of direction, and movements in new directions, but most of those changes seem to have been stylistic. I’m going to throw a quote at you from the introduction to your anthology [The New Australian Poetry, 1979] where you said: ‘In all these poems words — the fragments of language the poet places in the special framework of a poem — have a reality more solid and intense than the world of objects and sense perception’ Do you still hold to that?


John Tranter: Well, I didn’t ever believe that as an article of faith. I think that quote really refers to a discussion of a few particular poems’ effects at a particular moment. I think in ‘The Front Window’, for example, Rae Desmond Jones was demonstrating that as a potential way of writing a poem. Now that isn’t true of every writer every time they write a poem. All of these views about writing are provisional to a poet, because when you’re writing a poem all you’re interested in is getting it to work well. You’re not interested in being a good postmodernist, or behaving well in terms of a theory that you’ve read in a book somewhere. But I would say yes, during that period of my life, during the 1970s and 80s, I was interested in that way of viewing poetry.

John Forbes, Helen Loughlin, Lyn Tranter, correcting this interview at John and Lyn Tranter's place at 74 Corunna Road Stanmore NSW, on 27 July 1991, photo by John Tranter, Olympus XA, Ilford XP1
John Forbes, Helen Loughlin, Lyn Tranter, correcting this interview at John and Lyn Tranter’s place at 74 Corunna Road Stanmore NSW, on 27 July 1991, photo by John Tranter, Olympus XA, Ilford XP1


It seemed to me an antidote to what was obviously a fallacy, and you can find it exemplified at its most grotesque in a review of the anthology The New Australian Poetry in the December 1979 issue of 24 Hours, the ABC’s FM radio guide, by Peter Kocan. He talks about a ‘general retreat from sanity in the West’ and the end of civilisation and humane values as we know them. [This from a man who thirteen years earlier had shot Labor politician Arthur Caldwell in the face with a rifle. Then a 19-year-old factory hand, he said he wanted to be remembered by history for killing somebody important. He chose his target ‘because I don’t like his politics’. — J.T. 2013] Then he says ‘When, say, Ted Hughes writes of a hawk, we experience not the poem but the hawk’. Now that’s not true, you can’t actually experience the hawk — you imagine you can experience the hawk, because the words have stirred you into the delusion that you can. But nobody actually bleeds onto the page while they read a poem about a hawk by Ted Hughes. That’s a fallacy, and it’s one that a lot of writers in Australia from the 1930s onwards held to as an article of faith. For them it made poetry special and important, it could give you a real thrill that prose as such couldn’t.

British Poet Peter Reading
British Poet Peter Reading


[I was pleased to come across this story by Anthony Thwaite in an obituary notice for the late British poet Peter Reading (pronounced ‘redding’, 1946–2011) in «The Independent», Thursday 22 December 2011: ‘From an early stage he was an acute nature observer, in particular of birds. But the whole ‘English’ thing of pastoralism, or worse, anthropomorphism, provoked Reading to furious contempt. On one occasion, at a symposium at the King’s Lynn Poetry Festival on ‘least favourite poems’, his ploy was to draw proceedings to a close with a manic rendition of Ted Hughes’ [poem] ‘Hawk Roosting’  — ‘my manners are tearing off heads’ — and a final shout of ‘ANTHROPOMORPHISM’!’ — JT, 2013]


My insistence on focusing on the actual words, not some mystical emotion, was a way of trying to push things back into the middle. It seemed to me that most anthologists and editors and poets had mindlessly agreed that that the ‘humanist’ approach to poetry was the right one, and poetry authenticated our deepest urges, blah, blah. This was a sort of quasi-Leavisite position that I felt was fallacious. So, just to clear the air a bit, I was interested in theories about language.


I did linguistics for a year or two at Sydney University. I was interested in all kinds of things and fitted them together into a sort of theory in my head by 1969 or so, that language and human relationships and cultural perceptions all formed a kind of very complicated field in which there was no absolute value. There were, however, a whole lot of inter-relating proportional values, and it was ridiculous to talk about the ‘real’ or the ‘authentic’ or the ‘genuine’ because anyone who used those words was merely trying to push a particular view of culture forward through that argument.


Hermes: When you were doing linguistics did you study Saussure?


John Tranter: No, I was encouraged to read Saussure in 1964 by Lee Cataldi [then Lee Sonnino], but I remember I glanced at it and found it very technical and dry. I was more interested in Benjamin Lee Whorf, for example, and Sapir. I never very much liked the French or the European approaches to linguistics, except perhaps for the Russians. It seemed to me that people like Whorf, where you had a kind of partly anthropological field-related view of linguistics, were more interesting than an attempt to use a metaphor about linguistics and apply it to a whole culture. A lot of postmodern theoretical thinking seems based on that view.

Ferdinand de Saussure, photo by Jullien
Ferdinand de Saussure, photo by Jullien


It’s not true that the way we dress or eat or go to the movies is a language. It’s not. Language consists of words and a coat is not a word. There is a word ‘coat’ that refers to the object occasionally, but a shop full of clothes is not like an anthology of poems, for example. That’s an interesting idea, but to build a theory on a metaphor as thin as that appears to me very silly.


But you see, here I get back to the position of being a poet. You take what you need from what you read. You don’t think ‘Gee, I need to get a good degree in linguistics before I can say this.’ You read a few books and the ideas you get out of them you put together in your head — a kind of bricolage, I suppose — to form an idea about what you’re doing. But it always has to be your own theory because, in the end, you’re the one who has to do the writing.


Hermes: When Under Berlin [1988] was reviewed some of the poems were represented as being a move towards something a little less obscure, less fragmented and more domestic in content. Do you think there’s some truth in that?


John Tranter: I think that’s quite a reasonable way of talking about some of the poems. I could see that they were easier to read than some of the other poems in the book, and perhaps more welcoming and domestic and easily understandable, so I put them at the front. That way, the average reader browsing through the book in the bookstore might think ‘Oh this is nice, I’ll buy that’, and go home with the book. And wind up wading into a bowl of molasses; it gets stickier and stickier the deeper you get.


Hermes: Even the apparently accessible poems were never that accessible, were they?


John Tranter: No, I suppose they’re not that easy. I think poetry should always be a bit difficult, that’s part of the fun. It’s like doing crossword puzzles, if they’re too easy there’s no point in doing them.


Hermes: So what about your use of endnotes in Under Berlin? Are they there to make it more understandable?

Under Berlin, cover
Under Berlin, cover


John Tranter: Yes, that’s mainly why they were there. I enjoy notes, and at least one reviewer has said that the notes are as much fun to read as the poems, which I would hope is the case. Now how did I start doing that? I had a writer-in-residency at ANU and they had a good library at the Humanities Research Centre there. I started reading Callimachus and the Greek epigram writers, and those Loeb editions have a lot of notes, and they were interesting to read. When you get a five-line poem with a page of notes it’s quite interesting. So I thought that notes could be fun.


Hermes: It’s not that usual in a contemporary poet. I first saw it in Martin Johnston’s book The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap.


John Tranter: Yes, I was to blame for the notes in that too, in fact… But it’s understandable with Johnston because he’s so referential, particularly in his use of Greek mythologies and words… That’s what I said to him. In fact I did an interview with him in 1980 that appeared in Makar magazine and I talked about notes there. He didn’t want to put notes in. He said the poem should be its own thing and he compared it to the Phaistos disk in the poem ‘To the Innate Island’. The Phaistos disk ends up as an important image, and no-one knows what it means, but it’s very beautiful.


I was firmly of the opinion that that poem would give a lot more to the reader if there were notes to explain what particular Greek words meant, or what particular place names represented, and I talked Martin into doing the notes for that book. [I had intended to publish the book, but lacked funds, and ended up passing the typescript on to Hale and Iremonger, with Martin’s agreement.]


And I guess that was at the back of my mind when I was thinking about my own book. And once I had accepted the fact that I should insert a note about say, the Alexandrian poet and librarian Callimachus, I then thought there were quite a lot of other things that it would be helpful for the reader to know about. But where do you stop?

Roseanne Bonney and Martin Johnston in 1982. Photo John Tranter.
Roseanne Bonney and Martin Johnston in 1982. Photo John Tranter.


One or two of the notes are just for fun. For example, the one about the Greek epigram titled ‘What the Cyclops Said’ is entirely manufactured. I constructed a poem based on a short poem by Callimachus [about the cyclops Polyphemus], but it’s reverse-engineered to include the ancient Greek epithet petrelaiosmos, ‘petrol-scented’, as in ‘petrol-scented dawn’ — which in fact Martin Johnston was kind enough to make up in Greek for me. I ascribed the discovery of the poem on a papyrus fragment, and its translation into English, to the mythical Dutch scholar Winckelschnippe. It was a lot of fun. It was a nicely Alexandrian thing to do.


Hermes: Do you write with a particular audience in mind?


John Tranter: No, there’s no point, because you only get the audience you get, in the end. The responsibility to write the best poem you can is the most important thing, and you just do that — and then if you can find an audience for it, that’s great; if you can’t, too bad.


But it is true that the audience for my work has changed over the years — I think I said in an interview many years ago that I hardly had any audience at all — ‘seven loyal fans’, I think I said. Now Under Berlin has gone into a third printing of 1000 each, so obviously there are over 2000 loyal fans out there. But then again, that’s not much of a reflection of my ‘real’ readership, because the book’s been set on the HSC [the New South Wales Higher School Certificate examination mainly for school leavers at about age 17 or 18] this year and that’s accounted for at least half those sales. That really distorts things because you get very good sales when your book’s on the HSC school list, but most of them are to people who don’t want to have to read it anyway. I really would rather that the book hadn’t been put on the HSC, but there was nothing I could do about it… for two reasons: I don’t think that kids should be forced to read my poems in school, because I would rather they discovered them when they left school or read them on the weekend or something — I really would like my poetry to be that kind of poetry; and I don’t think anyone of the age of 18 is really capable of fully responding to or even fully understanding all the things that are going on in my poems or writing an answer in an exam about them. They weren’t written in order to be used as examination material.


Hermes: Each of your collections seems to have marked a change in the stylistic development of your work, and this seems to be the case in the two poems that you submitted to Hermes [Magazine, at the University of Sydney, for which this interview was being conducted], a verse stanza followed by a prose stanza. Do you work with a particular style in mind and with the aim of putting a collection together based around a style?


John Tranter: No, it’s not actually that I’m working within the bounds of a particular style, more that I’m trying to escape from a style. I’m trying to leave a style behind me, I think, rather than trying to find one ahead of me. If you look at the really interesting writers, they’ve always been the ones who’ve tried to do completely new things. It’s not always the case; there are writers who have been very conventional in their own age, who have also been very good — Pope, say — but the ones who interest me have tended to be the ones who break with the forms of their own period and make something completely new. There’s a certain risk in that, and it tends to draw in material that’s interesting and full of energy.

Image of Book Cover: The Floor of Heaven
Image of Book Cover: The Floor of Heaven


Also in my own work, once I get a style going I tend to feel after a while that it’s become rather rigid and that I have to try and break through it. Just to stop repeating myself actually, because that gets very boring. You’ve only got one lifetime and you really want to get as much done as you can. I haven’t written a novel yet — well, I have, actually, but it was no good. There are lots of things that I would like to do that I haven’t yet done. I don’t try to write a lot of poems to fit a book; well, I did that once, I suppose, with the 100 sonnets. But I don’t think anything else has been written to form a book so much. I just write and when I’ve got enough material I bring a book out and I keep writing and bring out another book.


With the narratives I’m writing now it’s different. Because there’s so much material there, it would obviously be good to have them in one book by themselves. [This book became «The Floor of Heaven».]


Hermes: In ‘Mahogany’ and ‘Bells Under Water’ there seems to be a return to a more obscure and layered work. What direction do you see your work heading in?


John Tranter: Three directions actually, and they’re all quite different. There are the long narrative poems, like short stories, halfway between blank verse and free verse. Then there are these ‘haibun’ things — I started doing them a year or two ago: short poems which have a 20-line free-verse poem, then a stanza space, and then a prose paragraph, usually fairly short. Then I’m also doing a group of about two-to-three-page free-verse poems that are fairly discursive, have a reasonably coherent syntactical structure but a kind of loose ideational flow to them.


Hermes: You’re also working on a Martin Johnston book?

Image of Book Cover: Martin Johnston Selected Poems and Prose
Image of Book Cover: Martin Johnston Selected Poems and Prose


John Tranter: Yes, I’m compiling a book of Martin’s writing — it will be a Selected Poems in effect, of about 100 pages of his best poems. As well as that, there will be another 200 pages of his translations of Greek poems, book reviews, interviews he’s done with people, reviews that have been done on his books, essays he’s written about Greek folk songs and a Greek primitive painter, an essay that he wrote on John Berryman and so on. [This became Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose — poetry, translated poetry, folk song, reviews, essays, interviews; St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1993. 290 + xxvi pp., 30 photographs, paperback. ISBN 0703335315]


To get back to the short poems… these things we’re looking at now are called ‘haibun’. I came across it in a book of John Ashbery’s, actually, A Wave, which has quite a few haibun in it. He was working with a Japanese translator of haiku and came across a form that was developed in Japan about 100 or 200 years ago called the haibun. In traditional Japanese practice that’s a prose poem about two-thirds of a page long followed by a haiku. I turned that upside down. Also the haiku-ending, the way John Ashbery writes it, consists of one unpunctuated line of prose. Sometimes it just follows the tone of the poem, sometimes it acts like the sestet of the sonnet, and goes back over and argues with and ties up the poem.


The thing that’s interesting about them from a compositional point of view is that a lot of them come out of experiments with a computer (but you can just as well use cards, or pieces of paper). Then I make that incoherent mess, as it were, into a poem; part of the exercise is to attain a kind of meaning by using materials that have had their meaning disrupted completely. So it’s to drag a group of words from one state into another state without altering them too much that I find interesting and exhausting. Of course, I add things to make it work better and I play around. If you end up writing conventional free verse like Robert Gray all the time and you want to change, that’s one way you can force yourself to change.


Hermes: It’s interesting, this use of poetry and prose together — quite a different use of prose to your previous work; in ‘The Subtitles’, for instance, in Under Berlin. Why the change from one to the other?


John Tranter: Perhaps to get a variety of colour in a poem. When you see that a thing is prose you have an expectation about the rhythm of the words you’re hearing in your head if you read it; you read it as if it were a long flow. However, if you’re reading a bit of verse on the page, you read it line by line, and you read the line breaks as being an important part of the meaning of the poem. So in the haibun poems I wanted to have those things balancing one another page after page. It also has an effect perhaps rather like the end of a sonnet — you know you are being turned around by the writer, and made to walk in a different direction. Also I hadn’t seen it done before, and in that sense it was an experiment. But of course I did a lot of them that were no good and I threw them out.


Hermes: The verse part has a very strong momentum, and in some ways is very close to the prose.


John Tranter: One of the things I got from the Ashbery examples is that the last line, because it is unpunctuated, seems to run off the edge of the page, which is a nice effect. In a sense a lot of the poems I write have a very firm closure at the end of the poem that ties it all together. But with these poems I wanted the ending to bleed off the edge of the page so there wasn’t actually a stop to the poem; or if there was, you believe it wasn’t relating back to the first half of the poem. It’s a sort of watercolour effect, rather than oils.


Hermes: That’s certainly what’s happening in ‘Bells Under Water’. The narrator seems to slide away.


John Tranter: I feel there’s a touch of Slessor behind that poem, by the way, partly because of its period and partly because of the water. It’s not about him or his poetry, but that’s an echo in the background perhaps. Their other interest is the great variety of lexical richness in the poems; there are a lot of words I don’t think of using normally, and that comes partly from the dismantling and re­building of the poems by the computer.


I think anyone has a vocabulary in their head that they tend to use a lot. What this particular technique gives you to start with is a pool of words you would never think of using in the poem. Now William Burroughs was doing this long before the computer, just using cut-ups and bits from magazines and so forth, and it was this kind of effect that I was beginning to use with these poems. I don’t always do them this way, by the way.


Hermes: How do you generate the words?


John Tranter: It’s very complicated, but there are various ways of doing it. You get a bit of text and you cut that in half, vertically, and then you cut that in half, and then you play about; and then there are programs that give you a thesaurus. In Wordstar [an early word-processing program], for example, you can light on a particular word and press a key for a list of words you would never think of using, and then do that for a whole poem. A poem that you could never have written yourself before! One of the haibun — ‘The duck abandons Hollywood’ — actually started out as Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, would you believe. Wordsworth’s line ‘a poet could not but be gay’ came out as ‘a troubadour could not but be/ bisexual’ which says something about how times have changed, if nothing else. In a sense you get a deformed parody of the original, and then you can do other things to that too, you can re-process that again. It depends how random you want it to be. I found one word I never imagined existed before. It was a thesaurus choice of words for ‘smart-alec’ and it came up with ‘wisenheimer’… it was an American thesaurus!

US mathematician Claude Shannon, father of Information Theory
US mathematician Claude Shannon, father of Information Theory


There’s actually a much more sophisticated program I’m playing around with, called ‘Brekdown’ [the name is a version of the word ‘breakdown’] [in the old days of DOS and Wordstar, filenames had to be eight characters (or less) followed by a dot, followed by a three-character suffix] by Neil Rubenking [a San Francisco computer programmer]. But that is an immensely complex program. It takes an example of text and constructs a frequency analysis table of how likely it is that a particular letter will appear after another letter [or group of alphabetical characters]. Then it randomly reconstructs a new text on that basis. You wouldn’t think that would give you anything legible, but in fact it does. It produces whole pages which are very persuasive and absolutely meaningless, with the actual flavour of the original. You can reconstruct the tone of voice of the writer by simply calculating the frequency of the number of times, for example, the letter ‘b’ appears after the letter ‘a’. You don’t need a computer to do that. The first person to do that was a mathematician, Claude Shannon, in 1948. He used a pencil and paper but it took him a week to write up half a page. I think I use these ploys as a means of escaping from a particular style rather than going towards one.


Hermes: You’ve said that you began as a writer by writing prose; you said earlier today that you had written a novel. Did you still write prose while your poetics were developing?


John Tranter: When I was young I wrote a few short stories that were very maudlin and not very good… I have written critical articles, and every now and then I try to write a novel or short story. I generally get about ten or fifteen pages of it done and abandon it. I’ve done that about every five years of my writing life. I get to a point where it’s harder and harder to go on, and I throw it away. Why I do that I don’t know. It’s partly a matter of attention-span, too. I can work for a particular length of time on a particular work and after that I get exasperated and don’t go back to it. The narrative poems partly came out of an attempt to write a novel.


Hermes: What was the novel?

Singapore, Orchard Road at dusk, Photo John Tranter 2012
Singapore, Orchard Road at dusk, Photo John Tranter 2012


John Tranter: It was a complete novel of about an average length, very influenced by Graham Greene and John Le Carre. I was just interested to learn how to do that… The first writing I ever got enthralled with — apart from [the narrative poem] ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ by Matthew Arnold when I was about 12 or 13 — was when I read all the short stories of [W. Somerset] Maugham, at the same age. I’ve always been interested in learning to write that kind of prose.


Hermes: You had a stage when you stopped writing poetry entirely.


John Tranter: For about a year in 1971–72, when I went to Singapore. That’s when I first tried to write a novel. I found I was unable to read poetry, it seemed affected and overwritten and ridiculous and I stopped reading it and writing it and instead I wrote a novel. Partly because I was reading a lot of books of that sort. I read [Graham] Greene’s The Quiet American, a bit of Le Carre… in fact I met a doctor in Singapore — a Doctor Wilson — who knew Le Carre, and whose father had known Maugham as well.


Hermes: You’ve previously remarked that you tend to read a lot more prose than poetry. Is that still the case? Does it have a greater influence on your writing than poetry?


John Tranter: I guess so. I don’t read that much any more. I’m too busy. I wish I had more time. I don’t go to the movies or watch TV or read as much as I would like to. The older I get the more I work. I often work — writing and reading and editing — until 11 pm. And I’m always doing other things.


I just completed The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (scheduled to come out in December[1991]) with Phillip Mead. That’s 400 pages, and there was an immense amount of reading involved with that. Then there’s the Martin Johnston book. Also working on my own writing. I’m going to the States next year so I had to write lots of letters there to see if various places would like me to do a reading. And I did an article for Voices magazine, mainly while I was in America, about 5000 words on two different poetry centres in Washington and San Francisco. So I’m always doing that sort of thing, compiling radio programs, and so on.


Hermes: So your routine’s changed. You remarked in one interview that you used to work, say, six months of the year and earn enough money to take six months off and write.


John Tranter: It’s still the same, except it’s in much larger grabs of time. The last job I had was running Radio Helicon — now it’s just called Helicon — for the ABC, and I did that full-time for two years [1987 and 1988]. [Helicon was a weekly two-hour arts program on national radio, now, alas, deleted forever.  — J.T., 2015.] That was very demanding work. Since then I’ve been on a grant for a half-year, then I’ve lived on savings for half a year, and I’ve been on a grant for a year and a half after that. An Australian Artist’s Creative Fellowship. That’s $50,000 a year for three years. It’s colloquially referred to as a ‘Keating Fellowship’. It was Paul Keating’s idea to start them off in the first place, and it was a very good idea too. He’s much more interested in culture than people think.


Hermes: You’ve often listed a number of influences, including contemporary American poets… who do you feel to be your current influences?


John Tranter: I don’t think there are any at the moment. In a sense I feel as if I’ve worked my way out from underneath a lot of influences like that and I’m in the open air at the moment, which makes it difficult. I mean, what do I do next? Bob Adamson said in an interview he did with me in Makar magazine [available at http://johntranter.com/interviewer/adamson1978.shtml] that, up until the book Where I Come From, he’d never written a book without the work of another writer open on the desk beside the typewriter. You could see that, through his first three or four books. It’s very clear that this is a ‘Robert Bly poem’, for example, this is a ‘Richard Wilbur poem’, this is a ‘John Ashbery poem’. And I think a lot of writers actually do that; perhaps not so clearly as Bob in those early books. But then you get to a point where you feel that you’ve gone through all the writers who are worth reading and there aren’t any left.


Hermes: You remarked that there are no good English poets after Auden with the exception of a few like Larkin, Roy Fisher and Jeremy Prynne.


John Tranter: That’s a very cruel and unfair thing to say and I would never say it in the company of an English person. What I really mean by that is that I don’t find English poetry very interesting at the moment except for those few names that I do find very interesting. Whereas just about any good poet in America seems interesting to me. Why that is, I don’t know. I guess the Americans have always had a much richer vocabulary, and a richer cultural vocabulary, to draw on. You think of an English seaside town on a winter afternoon. You’re not going to get much there to write exciting poetry about. But you think of California or New York or Chicago — there are millions of stories in there. So I guess the Americans have the edge.


I think it’s unfortunate for the English that the Americans use English as a national language, because they’ve done it so much better. There is energy in England — it’s unfair to say that there isn’t, really — but it hasn’t seemed to have found its form in poetry. Film, maybe, or theatre. I read Peter Porter with a great deal of liking; I think he’s a terrific poet, and he’s really an English poet, I think, in a sense. Well, he’s an Australian poet in a different sense, too. Jeremy Prynne’s book The Oval Window was really wonderful, and Roy Fisher’s work is fresh and exciting.


Hermes: What about American poets writing at the moment — who do you like?

John Ashbery, John Tranter, New York City, 1997.
John Ashbery, John Tranter, New York City, 1997.


John Tranter: Well, it’s like Australia, I can’t really see any pattern there. If I looked at America in 1965, I could name, you know, a dozen names that I think are wonderful. Perhaps we’re too close to the present now to see what’s happening. But the writers who seem to be liked or seen as important in America are Amy Clampitt, Robert Hass, for example, and Robert Pinsky. I feel their work is deeply and interestingly conventional. I still think Ashbery’s interesting, but personally I prefer his first book to his others. I think Frank O’Hara’s still very important, even though he died in 1966.


Hermes: Are there any young Australian poets whose work you like?


John Tranter: There are lots of writers whose work I like but I can’t think of anyone in particular that I’d like to mention, because the ones I might leave out would be pissed off. There are just a lot of interesting things happening. I can’t feel that there’s a movement, though, or group of writers. Perhaps there’s just a lot of individual writers, each doing their own thing. I’ve developed a half-serious theory that goes like this: there is a wave of new writing in Australian poetry every 24 years — 1896, 1920, 1944, 1968 — and it’s not due to come around until about the middle of next year, in May, 1992. [Currently it is due to happen again in the middle of next year, this time in 2016. — J.T., 2015]


Hermes: What direction do you see Australian poetry taking?


John Tranter: I’ve no idea. Often you find in many art movements that any new movement is partly concerned with demolishing the establishment.


Hermes: So perhaps they’ll be demolishing the generation of ’68?


John Tranter: Yes, you would expect that to be the case. But the thing about the generation of ’68 is that the only thing that they all agreed on was the need to demolish authoritarian ideals about art. It’s a little hard to rebel against that, isn’t it?


Hermes: So you don’t think you’ve become part of the establishment?


John Tranter: Oh I have, yes. But that part of the establishment that says let’s pull down the establishment! No, I’ve never said let’s pull down the establishment — I’ve always said that the establishment should make room for new work, and enjoy it, and encourage it.


There are very complicated reasons why, about 1967 or 1968, a whole lot of new things started happening. They were to do with birth patterns, and educational patterns, and shifts in culture, and Vietnam, and rock and roll. It all has to happen at the right time. The same happened in 1944 in Australia, I think, where in that one year you had the first books by half-a-dozen terrific poets. That actually partly had to do with the war, with a turmoil in Australian culture in the late 30s. We were getting new ideas from Europe and America, films were getting really interesting in the late 30s and early 40s, sound recording in film came in 1932, and in the late 30s there were lots of interesting things happening in popular music.

Vivian Smith, 2013, photo John Tranter
Vivian Smith, 2013, photo John Tranter


Hermes: If you see yourself as part of the literary establishment now, how do you see people like Vivian Smith and Les Murray, and all those who dominate the scene?


John Tranter: I think they do for a while — how much longer I don’t know. Vivian seems to have pulled back — he’s no longer a reader for Angus and Robertson, he’s no longer the literary editor for Quadrant magazine; Les Murray resigned this year [1991] as poetry reader for Angus and Robertson, although he’s still poetry editor of Quadrant magazine. [And still is, decades later, in 2015.] There’s obviously a shift going on. Dame Leonie Kramer’s no longer Professor of Australian Literature, she’s now Chancellor of the University of Sydney. With Vivian Smith it’s an individual thing, why he pulled out of those positions I’ve no idea. It’s probably something he’s going through in his own head. Leonie just had to retire, so she retired. Les, I suspect, got annoyed at the way Angus and Robertson kept wanting to publish work that he didn’t very much like, and he just withdrew. If you’re a reader and you want to advise the firm to do things and they clearly don’t like doing them, eventually you’re going to want to move along.


Hermes: Vivian Smith’s section in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, edited by Kramer, didn’t include you or Forbes or many others of the generation of ’68. There was a fleeting mention of Dransfield and Adamson, and Smith hinted that there was something interesting going on in the late 60s and early 70s, but he didn’t explain.


John Tranter: Let me choose my words carefully here. I was surprised to find Jamie Grant’s name in that book as a poet worth talking about, and I was surprised to find that my own name was not in that book anywhere. I would have thought for a book claiming to be authoritative, that responsible scholarship would have tried at least to reflect the general attitudes in the world of Australian writing over the previous fifteen years or so. I’m surprised that that didn’t seem to be the case with that book. I think it’s generally accepted now that it has failed in the market­ place — it received a number of strong negative reviews. What all of that means in the end I don’t know, but I didn’t find the book very interesting, and apparently very few other people did either.


Hermes: Do you think your anthology will be an answer to it in a sense?

Image of Book Cover: The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, 1991
Image of Book Cover: The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, 1991


John Tranter: Well it may be, but only by accident. The Penguin anthology is simply meant to present a view of some of the most interesting Australian poetry that is part of the modern movement beginning with Kenneth Slessor. When it appears I hope that’s what it will do. Of course books have to take their place alongside other books, so I guess there will be a bit of movement around about the place, one book will move a bit to the left, one will move a bit to the right, and the Penguin will klunk into place on the shelf. Whether or not it will answer anything I don’t know. I hope it will be the first really useful non-polemical anthology of modern Australian poetry. [The book became the standard text in its field for nearly two decades. It was discontinued in 2012. JT, 2013]


I think it’s a very interesting book because the material in it is very lively. There’s so much good poetry there, but also it’s the first anthology to feature all the work of Ern Malley, for example. It will be interesting to see how that’s received.


Hermes: Do you go through many drafts to write a poem?


John Tranter: Yeah. I’ll often go through ten or fifteen drafts of a poem. I mean, really — I never get it right first time around. But that’s because you don’t know what the poem’s doing when you start — at least I don’t. Very rarely. Maybe with a narrative I might have some idea, but even then you find yourself dragged off in lots of different directions. You have to get a first draft just to get a feel of what the poem’s doing. Then you look at that and think, ‘I see, that’s what it’s doing’, and then rewrite it.


I remember I was trying to write a poem about ten years ago and it sort of looked all right, but it wasn’t right, and I had to keep going back over it to try to get it to work. It was about 30 or 40 lines long and it just wouldn’t work properly. I worked on it for a week or two, a half-day here and a half-day there, and then one day I looked at it and realised there were actually two poems in there, one trying to go one way, and the other trying to go in other. So I broke it in half and I had two poems, and I knew what I was doing at that point.


Hermes: Previously you said that the best advice you could give to a young poet would be to work hard to try to master the art before they move on to find their own voice.


John Tranter: Yes. Well, you can do all those things at the same time, too. I think everyone starts out thinking that verse is interesting and fairly easy to do; the more you learn about it and the more you do it, the more you find it involving, but you also find that it’s actually much more difficult to do well. It’s often very difficult with poets to get them to go over their work and change it, particularly poets who aren’t very professional or good at what they’re doing. It’s a bit depressing in a workshop to find someone who’s brought in a poem and they present it to you, and you look at it, and you say yes, but the third-last line’s not working very well, and they won’t change it because it’s their poem.


Hermes: You’ve talked a lot about trying things and, if they don’t work, just casting them aside.


John Tranter: You can spend a whole morning on a poem and if it fails to work you throw it away. It’s better to do that than preserve it or try to print it, if it’s not working. You don’t know that at the time, though, I’ve found. I’ve often written poems that are dreadful but I thought at the time, ‘Oh, this is wonderful, what a great poem’. So it’s very good advice to leave it for a few weeks before you mail it out to a magazine, because you’re sure to discover a week or two later that you’ve repeated a word three times in the first stanza and it looks stupid. You really have to get some distance from it.


Hermes: How do you think people would go about mastering the whole art ? Would it be by practising traditional forms?


John Tranter: That’s what you have to do. Well, that’s how you learn the piano, isn’t it? You do your scales. That’s how you learn to fly a plane, that’s how you learn to play football or make a frock. You work at it day after day until you can do it well. There’s no point pretending to be a writer if you can’t write well, and poetry’s particularly difficult. As a young writer I was always very impatient with tradition and the history of the art, but poetry gets to where it is today because it’s been through all those particular developments. It’s also good to read a book like The Chequer’d Shade, by John Press, which is about obscurity in verse. He looks at the history of poetry in English and talks about how each innovative writer — like Wordsworth, or Shakespeare even, in his time, and Browning, and TS Eliot, and Yeats — were accused of being obscure when their first works came out. It’s very interesting to see the remarks he’s dug up — reviewers just unable to understand Wordsworth’s first books because they’re so incomprehensibly experimental and modern. It’s good to realise that Wordsworth was a young man when he wrote his early work (of course!) and he was an experimentalist. We look at him now and he looks like a grey old dodderer, but in fact his best work was written by a very young man. It’s also very useful to see how English poetry shifted, say, from Pope to Wordsworth [and Coleridge]. That, I think, was the most important revolution in English language poetry, full stop. From rhymed, ordered, controlling verse, to a verse that allowed the material to fill its own form as it grew and developed — I think that’s the most important shift in English language poetry ever.


Hermes: You don’t favour rhymed verse very much, do you?


John Tranter: No, for two reasons. The first because ifs usually rather obtrusive. I find rhyme rather childish, it’s like bib and bub. Rhyme’s all right for nursery rhymes, I think, because children want that game effect. Adults, I think, don’t need that effect; Milton called it a barbarous ornament.


The second reason is that it makes you use words that aren’t quite the words you want to use. You might be wanting to use the word ‘silt’, for example, silty water, but because you’ve got the word ‘blood’ in the line ahead you’re going to have to use the word ‘mud’. Now mud isn’t silt, mud and silt are slightly different things, but because you have blood you have to have mud and that’s the end of it. You end up writing lines of verse that aren’t exactly what you would have written had you been free of the curse of rhyme.


Mind you, I’ve used rhyme and it can be very effective. But I think it’s effective where there’s a certain delicacy of taste that you have to apply; you have to get the rhymes far enough apart by using half-rhymes; and also by separating the rhymes by a line or two or three. If you pull the rhyme apart enough so that it’s almost unnoticeable, then that can work as well. It has to be just noticeable enough while at the same time just vague enough, that you’re not stopped by it. I prefer alliteration and assonance to straight rhyme.


Hermes: A not entirely serious question. In a previous interview you said that since you agreed with the Zen way of looking at things, you were faced with a choice of either moving beyond apparent oppositions and contradictions in the world, which would mean that you could no longer write, or continuing to write. So you chose the Zen solution of remaining in the world for the time with the possible solution of moving into solitude later. Does this mean you’re going to stop writing and retire to meditate?


John Tranter: (Laughter… ) Perhaps in the next life, I think. I have a friend who is more advanced on that track than I am and he says that my theory’s just all bullshit. It’s just discrimination to say that belongs here and this belongs there, and all that kind of thinking is quite wrong. I’m sure he’s correct. So I have a qualified view of things now that I didn’t have when I first said that.


It’s very difficult to talk about … there’s an old Chinese saying: ‘those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know’. It’s very hard to talk about a philosophy that says that language is a dualist trap and if you use it you’re already behind the eight-ball. According to the traditional Indian view of life you should do this at one stage of your life, do something else at another stage, and there’s a stage you get to prepare yourself to die where you’re supposed to wander off into the forest and meditate and so on… but I don’t think that’s quite appropriate for the society that we live in in Australia today.


Hermes: So you think serenity and writing might be compatible, as it were?


John Tranter: Well, theoretically, yes, but I can’t see my life going in that direction at the moment. Also I don’t know that you should write forever. You can find yourself too old to write well, perhaps, although Yeats wrote very well when he was old. I think I’m stuck, actually. I’m a poet and I might as well keep on doing it. Martin Johnston, when I was talking to him in the last interview before he died, quoted the nursery rhyme that goes: ‘he’s a poet and doesn’t know it, put him in a boat and make him row it’. I guess I’m still rowing my little boat and will keep doing so while I can.