John Tranter: The Ant and the Grasshopper — a personal view.
A talk at the University of NSW, Sunday 14 August 1988
A Poem titled ‘Braille’
Paragraph 1 follows:
Introduction: I’m going to take advantage of a captive audience to read a poem to you. You know, it’s odd, the kind of things that end up in a poem. Mallarmé said that everything exists in order to end in a book; I think that’s a little presumptuous, to say the least. But this poem does have lots of bits and pieces of my life in it. I was asked to edit a book of my poems for the Royal Blind Society; they were translating it into braille, and the editing decisions you have to make for a braille reader are strange and peculiar. I had just bought an ice-block tray that made ice-blocks in a particular shape; an anthology I’d edited had just been set on a course, somewhere in Academia; I’d been thinking about post-Modern architecture and the fashion for those buildings that are all shiny — imagine a whole city full of them, each reflecting the other. Anyway, related to all that, a poem about one version of the academic experience. It’s called ‘Braille’. Reads poem:
complex and fascinating lies. As you
flip open the textbook a photograph
of someone oddly familiar
leaps off the page — yes, it’s you,
though disguised awkwardly, and the subject
of a damaging attack. Look, there –
the career you took so long to build lies
crushed and broken like a truck in a compactor:
now you’ll have to teach that too.
While your self-respect is convalescing
they keep you busy gluing up the cracks
in the one-way mirror with a two-part adhesive.
And outside, clearing the lawn of debris,
you can see yourself reflected in the silverfoil
that covers the glass walls of this asylum
and somehow paints it blue. Much later,
in the Bar, your drink dissolves its ice-block
shaped like Australia while a young student
stares hard at her gift, a mouth painting —
the ice-block disappears, and that’s how long she takes
to make a wish, crossing her fingers
and poking her tongue out, but it’s only art,
and the ‘Portrait of Teacher with a White Cane’
lies doggo. Galloping for the goal-posts
at the end of your mind
your need to kiss her collides head-on with your
image of yourself — you see sparks, then
everything’s just like it used to be, only
more so — deft as handwriting in italic.
Believing in it makes it real,
you tell her; and she does.
Back to prose.
A Modest Proposal
It’s occurred to me that any full analysis of the relation between creative writers and academics working in the field of literature should perhaps also consider the relation between, say, practising psychologists and academic research psychologists; I have in mind a psychologist I knew once whose job involved administering mental tests to measure the precise amount of brain damage suffered by young men who’d been involved in motor-cycle accidents and had the top of their heads taken off — some of these young men were old friends of his, from his own youth as a member of a motor-bike club. The work he did might be compared with, say, the work of someone developing an elegant new theory of the ego as a cultural construct.
As it happens, I owe my life to this man, Brian Hazel, who persuaded me to wear a crash helmet every time I got on a motor bike. The crash helmet I happened to be wearing, one night in 1971 — the night I decided to give up riding motor-bikes — now has a dent in the front you can poke your fist through.
Such a properly wide-ranging analysis of the relation between creative writers and academics working in the field of literature might also interest itself in the relation between the kind of practical scientific work done at the CSIRO — to do with the design of a more economical steel-plate rolling mill, let’s say — and the teaching of the history and philosophy of science at this university.
It might also look at the inter-relationship between the theory, development and application of new surgical procedures involving lasers, on the one hand, and the work of a busy practising surgeon on the other.
Such an analysis might also consider the fact that writers sell their product in a free-market capitalist economy, like, say, used-car salesmen, painters of modern art, or prostitutes; whereas academics are paid a regular yearly wage in a closed-shop professional contract economy, like doctors, accountants, or sewage engineers.
Such an analysis might note that most academic work is collective and conservative by its very nature — the discovery, collection, conservation, preservation, collation, comparison, study, judging, exegesis and teaching of works of literature has a lot in common with the work done in a medieval scriptorium, or, to wax poetic and mellifluous for a moment, in a bee-hive.
Whereas the work done by a creative writer (since the Renaissance, at least) is essentially individualistic, competitive, partial, and selfish.
But the kind of analysis I’m suggesting — thorough, balanced, and fair — is properly the task of an academic. I’m not an academic; I’m one of those selfish individuals; and what I want to talk about today is based on my own limited personal experience. I have some observations to offer, some whinges and — as Eliot said of his long poem ‘The Waste Land’ — some rhythmical grumblings, but no real theories, at least not of the type I’ve just been hinting at, and I certainly have no answers.
I should start by saying that I’ve always felt that the kind of person who’s keen in kindergarten, who perseveres through primary, succeeds in secondary school, triumphs in tertiary education, and goes directly on to become a tenured teacher at tertiary level — is a different kind of person to me. I’ve never worked at the same job longer than two-and-a-half years running. So my view is partial.
Though not hostile; quite the opposite. Scholars, teachers and academics are vitally important (it seems to me, as a poet). They had an honoured role as far back as Alexandria in 250 B.C. — that lot is historically famous for their poetry as well as for their scholarship. And they’re vitally important to us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as Reagan’s and Thatcher’s new dark ages descend on the world of learning and literature. (And that brave world — the new century — is less than thirteen years away, as it happens.)
So, I’m a poet, not an academic; I’ve been a poet since I wrote my first poem in my last year at high school, in 1960, slightly less than thirty years ago.
My Training as a Poet
In our English classes at the agricultural high school I attended, we farmers’ sons — more familiar with milking machines than metaphors — we sunburnt lads had to recite aloud, in unison, poems by Tennyson — one was ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, I think — and John Masefield, who was the British Poet Laureate in 1930; and a few lyric poems. But in the last year of high school one of the teachers — my history teacher, as it happened — gave me some modern books to read.
The first step for any writer is the step from the noun ‘literature’ to the verb — or the gerund — ‘writing’. It was some poems by D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas [or was it an anthology of Chinese Poetry?] and Gerard Manly Hopkins that made me think that I could do that sort of thing if I gave it a try. So I began as most poets do, imitating other writers. The first poem I wrote under the sway of that lackadaisical but inspired teaching was printed in the annual high school magazine, and won a five-pound first prize. Five quid wasn’t far off the weekly wage in those days. The poem had only taken me a couple of afternoons to write. My eyes glittered. I had discovered Greed.
In the Leaving Certificate that year I failed Agriculture — my father and his father before him were farmers (my father had also been a teacher), and agriculture was the school’s only raison d’être — and I got honours in English. The NSW Education Department was trying to tell me something.
So I spent the next ten years — the decade of the sixties, exactly — trying to train myself as a poet, the way you might try to train yourself as a pianist. To my country way of looking at things, that meant hard work; and there was no university or creative writing course to teach it to me.
It meant learning the basics of versification, learning how to handle rhyme, metrics, assonance, alliteration; simile, metaphor, decorum, imitating other writers, parodying other poets, trying to get some sense of how English-language poetry had developed (and I was surprised to discover that the French had an important part to play in that); it also meant coming to terms with the new developments in America and Europe.
I also began reading the poets, novelists and essayists who were digging the channels that contemporary thought flowed through, in the late fifties and early sixties — I read Patrick White, Steinbeck and Henry Miller, the Beats, especially Kerouac; Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the existentialists, especially Camus, Genet and Sartre, poets such as Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Rilke, and Pound, and philosophers and thinkers like Einstein, Arthur Koestler, D.T.Suzuki, Alan Watts, Hermann Hesse and others.
Excerpt for White, there’s not an English or an Australian writer among them, you’ll notice. No Pakistanis, South Africans, Jamaicans or New Zealanders, either, for that matter. The only English ex-colony that seemed to have anything important to say to me was the United States of America.
What About the Academy?
That was my curriculum; what about the academy? I knew that university English departments weren’t there to teach anyone to write poetry. They were there to civilise you, and to give you a meal ticket — a kind of intellectual finishing school, was how most people of my age looked at them.
Most of the paying jobs that I might have wanted demanded a degree, preferably in Arts. I was knocked back from one job because I didn’t have that piece of paper.
I remember the morning in the late sixties when I finally got sick of scrubbing staircases at the ABC; when people my own age, and no more gifted or intelligent than I was, were stepping around me and climbing up those freshly-washed stairs to fame, power, and lots of money. I went back to school, determined to be a good boy.
So a few years later, at the end of that decade, in 1970, I took a BA degree majoring in English and Psychology at Sydney University. My English marks in particular were quite good, and you’d think I’d be happy to go on with the honours year I started in 1971. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. A publisher offered me a job in Singapore and I leapt at it. Why?
To find the answer to that one, we have to back-track to 1962, when I first began Arts at Sydney University (after struggling with Architecture in 1961).
In many ways 1962 was a disaster; my father died in August of that year, and I found it hard to study for the end-of-year exams. But I managed to pass two out of my four subjects — Psychology I and Philosophy I. I failed General Pure Mathematics — something I now regard as mathematically inevitable — and I failed my other first-year subject, one that most of my friends took as a ‘soft option’ and passed easily. It was English I.
Now why did I fail English I?
Well, for a start, I hadn’t read any of the set novels. The set novels included Moll Flanders, Joseph Andrews, Emma, Bleak House, Return of the Native, Heart of Darkness, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Can you guess what they have in common? The authors are mostly men, and they are all dead; they’d been dead for an average of about a hundred years.
I was simply too busy reading authors who were alive, or whose work was exciting and had important things to say to me in the closing years of the twentieth century.
I suppose the people who set up that first year course had some kind of educational theory to justify what they were doing. Not that any one of them had ever been trained to teach. People who wanted a paying job teaching children, had to pass exams to prove they knew how to do their job, just like a dentist or a garage mechanic. But people who were let loose to teach adolescents somehow dispensed with that training and those vital skills.
So if they had a theory it must have gone something like this — ‘To begin to study the novel, young people must study the beginning of the development of the novel.’ Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone in authority to start with contemporary writing, which is what young people are naturally interested in.
I was devouring Patrick White in 1962, but no one asked me to write a paper on him. He wasn’t dead.
Now I’ve never met an intelligent teenager with a natural interest in the eighteenth century; I’ve never met one who wasn’t interested in the latest contemporary writing.
Well, things had become slightly less ridiculous by the late sixties, when I returned to the grindstone. Due mainly to the efforts of Jim Tulip and Don Anderson among others, contemporary American writing was being offered at Sydney University, and very well taught. So why was I so happy to leave mid-way through fourth year, in 1971?
Why Did I Abandon my English Honours year?
The work-load was one reason — each week we had to study (and understand!) the most important work of one poet, one dramatist, one critic, AND one novelist. It sounds grotesque, and it was.
The bureaucratic-mindedness of the department was another cause for despair. I was interested in T.S.Eliot in 1971, and for my Fourth year thesis I wanted to study Eliot’s reasons for choosing the minor French poet Laforgue as a model, when there were much more interesting poets — Mallarmé and Rimbaud, for example — to choose from. The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics says ‘The dominant mood Laforgue expresses is one of emotional starvation and emotional inhibition.’ I was intrigued, and I proposed the topic — Eliot’s interest in Laforgue.
‘Laforgue?’ said the department. ‘Laforgue? Isn’t he French? No, no, we can’t have that. You’d need to speak to the French Department about that sort of thing. They do the French people. We only do English writers here. No, you can’t do Eliot and Laforgue. Sorry.’
The English Department’s hostility to the idea of reading anything foreign was the debris of a political argument about Leavisism, I was told later. I didn’t know that at the time, and now I do know it, I hardly care; but it was one of the many things that made me want to get out, once I’d got my bit of paper.
It interests me now to think that the reasons for these frustrating and deadening decisions were not the result of some thin-lipped, bloodless devotion to academic form or academic standards. No, they were the result of misplaced passions. Bureaucratic passions, common-room political passions, yes; but passions all the same. What was lacking was a responsible concern for the needs of the students.
I was told that one Professor at this university defended the examination system current here in the sixties by saying ‘Of course it’s cruel and rotten; but I had to do it; so should you.’
As the sixties developed — and I think a great change occurred around the middle of that decade — both academics and writers changed. And I think it was a two-way process.
But it was the writers who did most of the work. Where was the innovative scholarship to equal the innovative prose-writing of Frank Moorhouse, say; or the innovative journalism and cultural anarchism of Wendy Bacon in the pages of Tharunka (at this university), or the new poetry of Robert Adamson or John Forbes?
In Paris, in Germany, in the United States, young academics were engaging in a radical political restructuring and democratisation of their workplace. Students, philosophers and writers worked alongside them. Not much of that sort of thing happened here.
The philosopher George Santayana said that those who fail to profit from the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. (Correctly: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’) So we need to be reminded, in case we forget, that no poet in Australia in the late fifties and early sixties could get a poem published in any magazine, if the editor thought that it might in any way give offence to the average person; and there was no outlet of any kind for experimental verse. There were no little magazines. One distinguished poet (Tom Shapcott) admitted to me that he wrote literally dozens of poems during the fifties that he knew could never be published anywhere, because of censorship problems. He said that as a result, he felt his growth as a poet had been held in check for ten years during a vital stage of his development.
The English Departments controlled some of the outlets for writers. Magazines, university presses, editorial advice, advice to the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Should they take any of the blame for those conditions? I really don’t know. You’d need a historian to answer that; an academic historian.
Well, things have changed. Society is more open to new ideas. And the academy has become more properly responsive to the needs of the people it was set up to serve. There’s even talk of a ‘Creative Writing’ course on various campuses, as we’ve heard mention at this conference — something unthinkable in the sixties.
That has its own dangers, of course — an endless stream of competent writing choking the in-trays of the magazines, the publishing houses, and the Literary Arts Board. [And, over a quarter of a century later, it has happened just as I and many others predicted. — J.T., 2015.] And I’d much rather read a clumsy, adventurous, failure of a poem, than a poem whose only virtue was competence.
Traditionally we’ve kept the role of the creative writer and the scholar more or less separate. Until say fifty years ago, no poets or novelists ever imagined that their work would be studied academically in their own lifetime. Now of course some writers write their books, design and structure the courses that feature the books they’ve written, and then teach them.
And academic conferences are held, to which creative writers are — very courteously — invited.
I think I’ll finish with another poem. It’s called ‘Voodoo.’ And I sometimes think I can hear, somewhere in the shadows behind this poem, the ghostly voice of Doctor Leavis. It’s from my new book, Under Berlin, by the way. I think there are some copies at the front desk. (Waves book.)
Perhaps I should explain the opening image — it rushes up at the listener rather fast. It describes one of those toy dogs you see sometimes in the back window of a car, with a nodding head, and eyes that light up. ‘Voodoo’.
Another poem, titled ‘Voodoo’.
ever-receding throne, under a rainy
canopy of trees and scraps of cloud
that topple back, shrink and disappear,
embalmed behind his rear window in a nest of
crushed velvet plush, the flash wog’s nodding dog
blinks out his witless approval to the vehicles
that shadow him forever.
His twin the dipping bird sips and sips,
tilts back, cools off, dries out,
dries out utterly, totters weakly
on the lip of philosophy
then dips again.
These two critics teach us how to live,
rehearsing the gap between the no-no
and the drink-again. Their motto? Every day
I will get better at embroidering the lingo
of the tongue-tied doctors of letters; every night,
in the lack of light, I will get better
and better at the negative virtues, telling
girls to piss off, who needs them, swimming off the edge of the rock
ledge into the plunging broth of deeper waters,
soaring up to the stratosphere, bothering the angels
and yarning with God. My left hand does it,
my right hand tells me that it’s right.
In the pre-dawn rack and bash of winter peak hour
traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge you notice them
hefted up over the city like ju-ju dolls
in the trance of a terrible gift. You note
the man with gauntlets and the goggled girl
on motor-bikes, the nurses’ giggles
in the fogged-up Mini Moke, an ambulance weaving
and howling in the rear-view mirror, the tablets
rattling in the Emergency Bucket, the icy rain
furious and seething on the road, and Noddy
and his loopy brother brooding on it all
for our sake, so that we can see it whole.
Firm but friendly questioning after my talk was delivered allowed me the chance to add or modify some points. Among them:
I did come to enjoy dead writers such as Conrad, Joyce and Dickens.
My attitudes to authority at university were partly the product of the anxieties natural to a country boy faced with a what I perceived as a demanding, punitive, sophisticated urban clerical bureaucracy. My own attitude to my school-teacher father — a kind but demanding man — inevitably coloured my feelings about my teachers.
The theories related to structuralism and deconstruction — seen as threatening by many academics — were greeted with interest by some writers. They have the advantage of dealing with the sort of technical and theoretical questions that writers are naturally interested in, and — unlike the theories of Matthew Arnold or F.R.Leavis, for example — they avoid the imposition of moral or ethical imperatives. (One lecturer at Sydney University lectured us at length on his belief that it was wicked to enjoy James Joyce’s heartless wordplay, for example.) There is also a danger here, of course; because many of these theories avoid the moral and the political altogether, they are just as useful to the political right as to anyone else.