John Tranter reviews Michael Dransfield, 1987

edited by Rodney Hall, University of Queensland Press, pb, $14:95. This review was first published in the Weekend Australian 21–22 November 1987. It is 800 words or about two printed pages long. At the end of this piece, I offer some 2013 second thoughts.

‘Whatever his faults, Michael Dransfield did write some wonderful lyric poems; his abundant talent and his generosity of spirit shine through them.’


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Michael Dransfield died in 1973, at the age of 24. He had lived hard and fast, and he died young.


      In this Collected Poems Rodney Hall has produced a useful book — it gathers in the one volume a generous selection of the many poems Michael left.


      Too generous, some might say. Like many poets of his generation, he seldom revised, and much of his output was tenuous, to put it politely.


      Most of his writing revolves around two romantic fantasies. One was ‘Courland Penders’, which he invented as an ancestral homestead (he actually grew up in the suburbs of Sydney.) He posed himself among its fake Pre-Raphaelite scenery as an ailing heir, the last member of a noble family, inscribing poems with a crystal quill as the candles guttered and cobwebs gathered around him.


      This fondness for dressing-up was common in the pop culture of the late 60s; the Beatles and the Rolling Stones grew their hair long, wore velvet and drank from silver goblets at that time.


      His other fantasy world was built on drugs. Some of his friends believe he exaggerated his drug-taking; it seems to me that his early ‘drug poems’ are often based on an almost journalistic misunderstanding of the difference between a poem written through drugs and a poem written about drugs.


      At the same time, he didn’t seem to want to examine his romanticism too closely, in case he found it was phoney. And of course it is — romanticism was selected, rewarded and mediated by bourgeois art-consumers as an aesthetic counterbalance to the industrial revolution that gave them their money and their power. There’s nothing ‘romantic’ about that.


      In 1970 Tom Shapcott published his opinion that Michael was ‘terrifyingly close to genius’. Michael’s peeved and cynical friends immediately labelled him ‘the near-miss’. It was clear that he had talent; but how close was he to ‘genius’?


      The late 60s was a time of upheaval, and the new work of the younger writers was often hard for older people to come to terms with. Michael’s easy popularity with older poets — Shapcott, Hall, David Campbell and Geoffrey Dutton, among others — does need some explanation. Auden’s cutting line ‘the poetry he invented was easy to understand’ is not inappropriate here. In a way, Michael satisfied a need for rebelliousness without frightening anybody too badly.


      And though the subject-matter of much of Michael’s writing was ‘counter-cultural’, the forms he worked with were not new or revolutionary; he used the loose free verse he found lying to hand around him, and did nothing radical with it.


      His poems were mostly written quickly, revised little, and short — they average less than a page long. And they are all ‘easy to understand.’ This points to a peculiar laziness of spirit in a poet supposedly so adventurous, when his friends were busy demolishing and rebuilding their poetic technique in quite drastic ways. Robert Adamson’s ‘The Rumour’ and Martin Johnston’s ‘The Blood Aquarium’ — both huge, heavily worked and difficult poems — were never matched in scope or technical daring by Dransfield; as far as I know he avoided the structural problems of the long poem.


      And his inability to answer the quick intelligence of Ashbery or O’Hara convincingly, as two small poems in this book demonstrate, is also instructive.


      Every poet comes to the unhappy realisation that — as Auden noted — poetry makes nothing happen. Michael’s reaction seems to have been a kind of wilful petulance. Every cloud had to have a leaden lining, and the world was meant to be a cruel place for poets. ‘Bitterness becomes a habit’, as he said in one poem. (It’s a sad irony that he died just as the first Literature Board grants were being planned.)


      Michael’s hymns to Bohemia often strike me as posed and silly. But in his last year his drug-damaged and incoherent life-style caused his health to collapse; the poems written during this time have a limping and tragic urgency about them.


      Whatever his faults, Michael Dransfield did write some wonderful lyric poems; his abundant talent and his generosity of spirit shine through them. In some important ways, that’s more valuable to his readers than a sophisticated technique.


      This generally excellent book has some faults of its own. It lacks a proper bibliography — though the details are mentioned in passing — and it lacks a chronological outline of the important events, influences and places in Michael’s tangled life.


      More importantly, it doesn’t date the poems. Michael obsessively did. At times he even noted the time of starting and finishing work on his manuscripts, like a public servant filling in a time-sheet. That he had to omit these dates in the books published while he was alive is irrelevant. The information is needed now for a full understanding of many of the poems, especially those apparently written in his last years.


Some second thoughts, circa 2013: I mentioned in this review that ‘Robert Adamson’s ‘The Rumour’ and Martin Johnston’s ‘The Blood Aquarium’ — both huge, heavily worked and difficult poems — were never matched in scope or technical daring by Dransfield.’ That’s an understatement: there were many other attempts at grand statements and large projects in those early days: my own ‘Red Movie’, John A. Scott’s lyric sequence ‘A’, Alan Wearne’s ‘Out Here’, and others.


      Dransfield liked to finish a poem in half an hour, and it seems to me his best energies were devoted to surface detail, like the beautifully bejewelled poetry of Kenneth Slessor, with whom he has a lot in common. Not for him the months-long drudgery and painstaking architectural construction and reconstruction of the large poetic project. I remember his calling to see me and some other poets at 50 Church Street Balmain in the late 1960s, proud of the thickness of the green springback binder full of recent poems (typed up on foolscap paper, as I recall) with the start and finish times inserted at the foot of each poem.


      He called to see me and Lyn in Neutral Bay in 1973. His last days were sad to see. Injured in a motor-bike crash, paranoid, exhausted by drugs and the effort to give up drugs, he cut a miserable figure.


      And as the years went by I came to feel that there were other themes behind his depression.


      On the one hand, what next? What kind of poetry would he be writing in twenty years’ time? More of the same light lyrics that were all he had really managed to write, up to now? Had he been wasting his time? Was it too late to catch up, to undergo the immense task of reading and study that Rimbaud had talked about? He had wagered on drugs to give him insights, but he had a fair idea by now, after months of illness and hospitalisation, that those insights were not worth much.


      And then there was the matter of sexual maturity. Even for a young man he was jejune and impressionable, it seemed to me, and he had been very enthralled by his new friends: older and more famous men who had property (property was one of his obsessions), families and reputations as poets. It seems — though he didn’t mention such things to me — that he imagined himself into the role of a kind of brilliant young Rimbaud to these older writers’ seedy but successful Verlaine.


      As the decades passed, I came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that he had indulged one or more of these older men in sexual play. Indeed in ‘Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal’ he writes ‘i love all poets; there is / no private self; as, if he needs me, / i go to him. the habit / forms, that we lie together / each time. When he touches me, it is true, a small / space turned in my belly…’ Michael well may have been a sexual manipulator, though I doubt it. But what would I know? To me all of this is deeply sad.