Dransfield: Poetry Explosion, 1971

The Poetry Explosion
Virginia Osborne introduces six talented young Sydney poets
Vogue Australia, April 1971

EXCITEMENT AND EXPLOSION are two words that aptly describe what’s happening with poetry all over the world today. Young poets are multiplying in huge numbers, bursting into print, reading their work to enthusiastic listeners, being loved and finding — for the first time in decades — a public genuinely eager to read and hear more poetry, and vitally aware of the rejuvenation of this age-old form of communication. America and Europe have been onto the poetry kick since the early 1960s. Australia — being, let’s face it, the back end of the cultural pantomime horse — is only now beginning to catch up. But even so, the hind legs are jigging and skittering in a most noticeable way, and forcing the pace of the staid and arthritic front legs before them. To switch metaphors, the mainstream of Australian poetry has broken its banks, and the resultant flooding has produced depths which must dramatically alter and widen its entire course.


Come on, let tell of it in here, under the yellow
canopy of our sheets dear — How did the yacht appear
in the early morning: did it sink fast, or was it a slow

death? I was out fishing on the reef, when rockets
tore into the sea; orange smoke arose — great wisps of it
tangled along the lines of dawn. Just as my line

went tight, those long smoke-fingers, thin as pike
flexed round my neck & choked me. A tattered spinnaker
trained a flame across the still sky.

      «Canticles on the Skin» (Illumination Press)

Robert Adamson, an Editor of «New Poetry Magazine» and twenty-six years old, is one of the many important examples of this flooding. Slight, shy and intense, poetry for him is almost a religion. He devours poems. It’s of vital importance to him to be abreast of poets all over the world. Nobody can reach the ultimate truth, he feels, and over and above the arc of every poem is another which must be reached and surpassed again. In ancient times, poets (druids, oracles) were virtually semi-gods. Their words were inspiration and an answer to their people. Adamson would like to see this happening again. In a world run riot with technology, a poet, more than anyone else, can perhaps distil truths and bring them within the comprehension of more ordinary minds. His first book, «Canticles on The Skin», received enthusiastic and excited reviews from everyone who has bothered to keep up with poetry today. One section, “The Imitator”, concerns his life in gaol and now he’s a little sad he included this. People paid it too much attention, pulled it too far out of context because it dealt with an experience not many have been through. He considers the poem would have been equally valid had he been writing similarly on himself as a grower of potatoes. It should have been as important and no more so than that. He wants his next book to be published in England. And he could well succeed in this — which is indicative of how far the young Australian poets are progressing from the trad. gum-tree sweeping-plain dinki-di image. Dylan, The Beatles and Leonard Cohen have undeniably been an added force in the spreading cult of poetry. Their songs and words reach a gigantic public, and have stretched minds previously limited by June/ moon/ goon type lyrics.

John E.Tranter, a poet with a luxuriant, slightly drooping moustache, is convinced of their importance but prefers to go to their sources rather than their songs for his own inspiration. Aged twenty-seven, married for three years and studying English at Sydney University, he is probably the most published and technically certain of the five poets I talked to. (Earlier he studied Architecture for a year, then decided to do English at night and work at odd jobs during the day. He has just bought himself a sports car and is working to pay it off.) Technique was of paramount importance to him at first; now he finds it’s there without conscious thought. Poems and ideas stir in his head for a few months, are then quickly written down. If he can’t perfect them easily, he throws them away. “Eliot is the sort of influence one needs quickly to outgrow.” French and American writers — Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lowell and Ashbury [sic] — are some of his favourites. Movies he loves. Old films on television. «Parallax» was his first published book — coming out as an issue of «Poetry Australia». Enthusiastically received, his second book — to be called either “The Raft” or “Red Movie” — will be published later this year. Last year John edited an issue on young poets for «Poetry Australia» and hopes to do the same thing again in a few months. [This fell through. — J.T., 2000] He thinks of verse as an entity rather than solitary experience, hopes that the next issue he edits will help to direct the trend of poetry of the next ten years.


He advances through the nave of spring
asking what shell, and what
fall of colour breaks the light.
Even the rain of leaves is comprehended
being a bringing-together.
And he shall bring together, catching
in the slow descending drama of an arch
the blow of thunder and the dream of light.

And he shall grow older, asking what
colour of money and how to find
what to find, and what colour.

      «Parallax» (South Head Press)

Marihuana and hard drugs have also given freedom to poetry forms previously stultified by time. A free-wheeling, whirling dimension has come into play which, when successful, opens vast areas and subtleties with tremendous ease. Some of the young poets write consistently on drugs and often achieve immense power. Others merely dribble into banality and truisms. The life Michael Dransfield leads is very close to the poetry he writes. Twenty-two now, he’s been writing since he was fourteen. He went to two universities and dropped out of both, became a taxation assessor for fifteen months (perhaps the most surprising fact about him), then dropped out of that too. Working for a hundred dollars a week, he decided, invariably means ninety-nine will be spent, and the ratio would be the same if the amount was doubled. So now he lives an entirely immediate existence. He works for an hour a day in the shop opposite his loft-house and the money he makes is sufficient for everything he needs. With his friend Hilary, he has started to grow vegetables in their tiny garden and two blue gums and a passion-fruit vine. He has also found the bartering system a good one. He gives the local shop, say, a 20-lb. pumpkin, and they give him other food in return. Who needs more? He is against life in the city —


you eat ships
you taste wrong
you isolate and desolate
you are not home to man;
yours is the
subtlest beauty.

      «streets of the long voyage» (Univ. of Qld. Press)

— pollution, too many people crammed in a terrifyingly small area — so he and Hilary are off to an island on the Hawkesbury soon. Bob Adamson lived there once, in a shack which has been empty for years. They are going to move in for a while, raise chooks [chickens] and a garden, and nail a sign on the house reading THE INSPECTOR OF TIDES — the title of Michael’s next book, to be published in two volumes later this year. He has also bought an island in Moreton Bay in Queensland, where he and Hilary will live in the winter and plant avocadoes which they can later sell. He has been given a beautiful old printing press, and they want to bring books out under the imprint of Mangrove Press. «Streets of The Long Voyage», Michael’s first book, no longer appeals to him. He’s writing differently now. He thinks a poet has a responsibility to his time and should speak out about the things that are wrong about it — not continually, but as he feels compelled. Another book, «Drug Poems», is also in process of being published. Incredibly prolific, Michael Dransfield says his poems just happen in his head and he writes them down. Hilary is generally the taster and tester of their appeal.


Spinoza scratched a core of light
assimilating all perceived
and thrust its splinters in his eyes
dust where existence interleaved

the trees that filtered down the square
could only spike the circle’s rim
with arclit equidistant points
parameters of seraphim

Spinoza cycles upside-down
around his attic torture track
scrawling moustaches on God’s face
extinguishing the zodiac

and pedals madly till the wheel
must grope for spinning’s last extreme
and floats out past the asteroids
nobody’s halo no-one’s dream

      «Shadowmass» (Arts Society Publications)

Martin Johnston is twenty-three, a son of the late Charmian Clift and George Johnston. Of all the young Sydney poets, he has probably led the most peripatetic existence. He left Australia when he was three and spent his childhood in England until he was six, then on a Greek island until the age of seventeen. It was not until beginning High School that he had to start learning things in English (to his considerable horror). He dropped out of English III Honours twice at Sydney University but remains closely involved with the life there. The house where he lives with various other students is near the University and rarely empty. A cat and her two kittens scramble about — one or all of them leaving their seals of approval on Bertrand Russell, the Bible and any other books they can conveniently reach and/ or straddle.

Terry Larsen (another occupant of the house and an as-yet-unpublished poet) will be mainly responsible for bringing out Martin’s first book. The two were given a grant by a University Committee to publish a series of poetry books, and at least three should be in print by the end of first term this year. Martin’s should be out by April and his long poem, “The Blood Aquarium”, is being published in «New Poetry Magazine» at much the same time. Most of his poems are long at the moment, most of his poetry concerned with itself. His second book, a series of translations of poems for Greek Island Press will also be published some time this year. [Actually a series of translations from the modern Greek, for the Sydney publisher Island Press.] South American authors — Borges in particular — influence him most at present. He’s already making a considerable name for himself as a book reviewer. (Since reviewing — excellently — Kevin Mackey’s «The Cure», he says the papers to have promoted him chief drug-book reviewer.) He worked as a journalist for a few years, when perhaps his greatest feat was to ghost Midge Farrelly’s surfing column without ever having set foot on a board.


Tar flowers is what grows best in Newtown
Tar flowers
In concrete gardens
Where we draw our best pictures
With bits of tile that fell
Off Mrs. O’Leary’s toilet roof
And we even draw real grass
To walk on
And lie in … up to your ears
But ladies wash the gardens away in the morning
So we have to grow them again … tonite.

      «Tar Flowers» (Arts Society Publications)

Peter Skrzynecki is perhaps closest to the mainstream of Australian poetry in his work. Now twenty-five, he came to Australia when he was four, and the poetry he writes is primarily concerned with the land and landscapes around which he has spent several years of his life as a teacher. An only child, music — particularly the drums — was his first love. Painting and sculpting were his next enthusiasms and it was not until he started teaching that he decided to concentrate on poetry. He loves teaching, especially young children before they’ve lost their spontaneity and unselfconsciousness. At one tiny town in northern New South Wales he had only twelve pupils, who must have thought school the best thing ever to happen to them. He taught them entirely in his own way, and poetry came into almost every lesson. They wrote it and loved it and two of them had work published later in a South Australian magazine. Teaching in Sydney now, he hasn’t so much freedom and can only hold poetry classes once every five weeks, to his regret. Religion is important to him. Not in an avid way, but having been brought up a Roman Catholic, he later found it necessary to question much of the church’s beliefs and took some years to put them in the right perspective for himself. This is typical of his approach to life — he has a very gentle quality and considers everything deeply. He is getting married soon — to another teacher. They want to live in a country town where he can teach and go on writing poetry. He might write a novel one day too — but then again — like most of these young poets — he could find that he will say what he has to say better through the medium of poetry.


One call, pause and echo;
Two calls, echo and silence:
Notes from an unseen bird seep
Through hills of wattle and gum:
Tangled walls of brown and green
Where cicadas scale to die.
Dome, cracked and pierced,
Reflects the transparent heat.
One call, pause and echo,
The song is then complete.
In the silence after echo
Three notes ascend and meet.

      «There, Behind the Lids» (Lyre Bird Writers)

The photographs of Virginia Osborne and Martin Johnston are taken from the «Sydney Morning Herald» of 4 December 1970. The «Vogue Australia» article was not illustrated. JT