Three John Ashberys

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

This is a basic introduction to some themes in John Ashbery’s poetry. I came across Ashbery’s writing in the 1960s. Here I reflect on the schizophrenia of fame. This piece was written ages ago, and now forms part of an Ashbery feature in Jacket 2, January 1998, alongside articles and two interviews and poems and so forth.
It’s free: take a look.

THERE ARE THREE John Ashberys. The first is the boy who grew into the man who became a scholar and artificer of words. I call him the Primary or Mundane Ashbery. After a youth spent on a fruit farm in upstate New York he attended college and then Harvard University. He gradually turned into another person, a poet; the poet who wrote all those poems, plugging on year after year, one sheet of paper after another rolling through the Royal, until some sixteen of his works stand there on the shelf to entrance and puzzle us.

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Cathedrals

Peter-Ackroyd-by-Eamonn-McCabe
Peter Ackroyd, photo by Eamonn McCabe

Buñuel often said that films should be like cathedrals. The authors’ names should be removed from the credits, leaving just a few anonymous reels, pure, free of any trace of their creator. Then we would watch them the way we enter a cathedral, not knowing the names of those who built it, or even the master builder.

(Jean-Claude Carrière. «The Secret Language of Film». Trans. Jeremy Leggatt. London: Faber and Faber, 1995. Page 176)

He (Peter Ackroyd) went on to say that, to him, writing was a craft, like that of a medieval stonemason, ‘whose personal signature is not required on the wall of the cathedral’.

(Andrew Anthony, «The Guardian», The Observer, Sunday 4 September 2005)

In the late 1970s in my Introduction to «The New Australian Poetry» I quoted Ackroyd, in his earlier incarnation as a literary critic:

… Peter Ackroyd has argued that the beginnings of modernism can be seen in England in the late seventeenth century, when a new language, stripped of Renaissance conceits and opacity, was focused through the lens of Reason to transparently reveal a world of simple, plain and continuous relationships. “Language is only the instrument of science,” wrote Johnson in the preface to the «English Dictionary», in 1773, “and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.” Ackroyd calls this the “classical” phase of modernism, and claims that the dramatic proclamation of the modern in Europe in the late nineteenth century was a transformation, or revolution, of a larger shift in thought that had been developing for two hundred years. See Peter Ackroyd, «Notes for a New Culture» [London: Vision Press, 1976].

Junkies in da House: Look out!

Vicki Viidakas, 1977
Photo from «New Poetry» magazine, 1977

A friend who had decided to take lots of drugs came for dinner one evening, a quarter of a century ago. She brought her current boyfriend. He had a ferrety manner, and reminded me of a weasel, for some reason, like the weasels and stoats in «The Wind in the Willows». At some point in the evening he went to the bathroom, upstairs. Soon after, they left. “Why leave so soon?” we asked, but they were gone.

Some days afterwards my wife Lyn noticed that her mother’s wedding ring was missing from our bedroom upstairs. It was just a wedding ring, like many others, but it was irreplaceable. The mother she loved had died of cancer the year before. Did the weasel take it? It was far too late to do anything about it by then, so we let it drop. Continue reading “Junkies in da House: Look out!”

“Whatever, bro’.”

Aptenodytes saccharini
Aptenodytes saccharini

We took our grandson to see «Happy Feet 2» today. As with any cartoon movie made for 3D it hurled the viewer into mile-deep abysses, gaping gulfs and dizzying dioramas, following animals that swooped and plunged through the sky at terrifying speed for tens of thousands of feet, hallucinatory and fearsome feats designed to make your stomach come out your nose.

The movies began titillating the audience just like that more than a century ago, with the first silent movie proper, «The Great Train Robbery», produced by Thomas Edison in 1903:

To the audience’s fear and then delight, there was a scene in which the leader of the outlaws looks directly at the audience and fires his pistol at them. (This scene appeared either at the beginning or at the end of the film, a decision left up to the operator.) [– From: 1903 – The First Silent Movie: «The Great Train Robbery», by Jennifer Rosenberg, at the About.com Guide at http://history1900s.about.com/od/1900s/qt/trainrobbery.htm]

Continue reading ““Whatever, bro’.””

Poetry, Prizes and Proust

Proust
Proust

Last month it was announced that the Australian Prime Minister’s Prizes for literature have been broadened to include a prize for poetry and a prize for Australian history.

Strangely, all the judges for fiction and poetry are from Melbourne or have a history of working and studying in Melbourne. They certainly know how to organise things in Melbourne!

Just to put some context around the relation of politicians to poets, allow me to drag out an old poem – well, more an epigram than a poem, a single quatrain with a half-rhyme:

Nineteen twenty-two was a wonderful year –
«The Waste Land», «Ulysses», Pound floruit.
But who was the British Prime Minister?
And who was the Poet Laureate?

Continue reading “Poetry, Prizes and Proust”

Cassoulet for Dinner

Lyn Tranter, Carcassonne, 1967
Lyn, 1967

For dinner a few weeks ago Lyn cooked a modified (less filling) version of cassoulet, a stew of sausages, pork, duck, and haricot beans. The dish comes from the South-west of France, they say, especially from Carcassonne, Toulouse or Castelnaudary (the soi-disant ‘Capital of Cassoulet’).

It takes most of the day to cook. Like ‘casserole’ (a related word) or ‘tagine’, the word describes both the pot and the meal that cooks in it.
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When was Garamond invented?

Adobe Garamond Premier Pro italic ampersand
Adobe Garamond Premier Pro italic ampersand

A friend asked me the other day when Garamond was invented, and I really didn’t know what to say. Garamond is a popular and widely used typeface, or font.

When I bought my first laser printer nearly twenty years ago, it came bundled with a version of Garamond (a kind of technological “gift-with-purchase”): Agfa Garamond, which came in four German-named varieties: Garamond Antiqua, Kursiv, Halbfett and Kursive Halbfett (standard roman, italic, bold and bold italic). It’s a clean and very usable interpretation of the font, though it is a little plain and stiff for my liking. But it’s not really Garamond.
Continue reading “When was Garamond invented?”

Jacket 20: special Cambridge UK issue

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Cambridge, 1972, copyright © Jonathan Culler 1972, 2012
Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Cambridge, 1972, copyright © Jonathan Culler 1972, 2012

For six months in late 2000 and early 2001 I worked at Cambridge University UK as a visiting scholar. I had a wonderful and productive time. As a thank-you gesture I compiled a special issue of «Jacket» magazine, number 20, December 2002, entirely devoted to things from Cambridge, some of them decades old. You can see it here: http://jacketmagazine.com/20/index.shtml

It contains a plethora of glittering literature, new and old, and is well worth a look:

Feature: Veronica Forrest-Thomson, 1947–1975

The Aspidistra Cult: Articles and Reviews

Hugh Sykes Davies — “a lioness in the sidecar”, including “George Watson — ‘Remembering Prufrock’ — Hugh Sykes Davies 1909–1984”

Five poets and an essay from link «Quid» magazine, Cambridge (Editor: Keston Sutherland)

Tom Clark: Letters home from Cambridge (1963–65)

Feature: Parataxis magazine (Cambridge, UK) Editors: Drew Milne & Simon Jarvis

Parataxis magazine feature: Contemporary Chinese poetry

Feature: «Perfect Bound» magazine, 1976 to 1979: over 20 pages of writing

Poems from / Bob Cobbing and Robert Sheppard: ‘Blatent blather/virulent whoops’ / Robert Hampson: ‘the beacon’, ‘no signal detected’, and ‘eroded marks’ / Lawrence Joseph, ‘Stop Me If I’ve Told You’ / David Kennedy, ‘Minster’, or ‘Liber Lathomorum’ / John Kinsella: Four (Cambridge) poems / Tony Lopez, ‘About Cambridge’ / David Marriott, ‘De L’autocritique’ / Drew Milne, from ‘Ill at these numbers’ / Peter Robinson, ‘Pressure Cooker Noise’ and ‘Living in the Workroom’

Choke and Throttle

John Tranter with his father, c.1947
John Tranter with his father, c.1947

I can understand why the word “choke” is used for a car’s choke: it chokes off the air flow, making the air-fuel mixture richer (less air, therefore more fuel) which is needed when the engine is cold. Well, it’s not needed these days, but every vehicle had a choke (and a crank-handle) when I was a kid, back in the Middle Ages.

But why is a tractor’s throttle called a “throttle”? It does the opposite of throttle; instead of throttling back the flow of the air-fuel mixture to the engine, it is used to increase it.

Beats me.

Linotype: The Movie

Linotype machine
Linotype machine

Linotype: The Film is a feature-length documentary about the Linotype type casting machine. Called the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ by Thomas Edison, it revolutionized printing and society. The film tells the surprisingly emotional story of the people connected to the Linotype and how it changed the world.

The Linotype (pronounced “line-o-type”) completely transformed the communication of information similarly to how the internet is now changing communication again. Although these machines were revolutionary, technology began to supersede the Linotype and they were scrapped and melted-down by the thousands. Today, very few machines are still in existence. Continue reading “Linotype: The Movie”

John Forbes in the gents’ toilet at the John Curtin Hotel

John Forbes with newspaper and toy howitzer, May 1984, photo by John Tranter
The Pen or the Sword? John Forbes with newspaper and toy howitzer, May 1984, Annandale NSW, photo by John Tranter

I had a great time in July 2011 at the Poetry and the Contemporary conference held at the Victorian Trades Hall in Carlton, Melbourne, Australia. Deakin University in Melbourne was the sponsor, and a large crowd of young people attended, many of them both poets and academic scholars. There were many papers on dozens of topics including J.H. Prynne, Sapphic Mythologies, Troubador poetry, and the poetry of the late John Forbes, who seemed very present.

He described himself as flipping through Adorno as one flips through a copy of a movie-star gossip magazine: that cynical yet funny blend of trash and treasure seemed to fit well with the youthful energy filling the crumbling old Trades Hall, a mouldering Victorian-era monument built when trade unions mattered.

Continue reading “John Forbes in the gents’ toilet at the John Curtin Hotel”

Do you own the letters people send you?

ASA Australian Author December 2011
ASA Australian Author December 2011

The Australian writer Caroline Baum is usually well worth reading for her insights. She is widely read, hard working and resourceful. However, in what I feel sure is a momentary stumble, she appears to give some unfortunate advice in the pages of the «Australian Author», December 2011. The monthly magazine is the official organ of the Australian Society of Authors and is sent out to members.

Planning to sell to a public library the correspondence she has gathered from writers, she offers this advice:

It is worth remembering here that once you receive a letter, no matter in what form, you own it in every sense, including copyright.*

Readers, please be warned: in fact the opposite is the case.

According to the Australian Copyright Act 1968 as amended, the person who writes a letter always owns copyright in the contents of the letter. Receiving a letter gives the recipient ownership of the material object, the paper and ink and envelope and the cancelled stamp, but not the copyright in the written words. Continue reading “Do you own the letters people send you?”

The Mystery of the Typewritten Letter

Two Typewriter Faces
Top: «Leatherjacket» magazine # 2, June 1973; note the top left of the “p” and the “l”, and the top right of the “r”. The letters are less worn than in the image below, six years later. Below «Surfers Paradise» magazine # 2 (Steve McGarrett issue), 1979.

I began writing poetry with a pen, of course, but quickly moved to typewriters when I could. I used an electric Smith-Corona portable typewriter for many years. In the early 1990s, when I had been using a desktop computer for nearly a decade, but before the days of light and affordable portable computers, I took the Smith-Corona with me on a short visit to Melbourne and used it for a few weeks, but found the experience very frustrating. Every page was littered with mistakes that seemed to take ages to rectify, and I had aching shoulders from pounding the keys. The machine has been sleeping at the bottom of a wardrobe for a decade now. Here are two photos of two different magazine pages from the 1970s, printed from Gestetner rotary silk-screen stencils struck on the machine.

Then, in January 2012, I received a typed letter from somewhere in the USA. Typed? In capital letters? But typewriters are extinct, aren’t they?

Well, no. They still carry on a kind of ghostly after-life, but only in a few odd and shadowy corporate niches. So where did this letter come from? Continue reading “The Mystery of the Typewritten Letter”

Vale Eve Arnold

Eve Arnold, London, 1998, photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos
Eve Arnold, London, 1998. Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Photographer Eve Arnold died recently, at 99. From the obituary article in the «Los Angeles Times»:

“Eve Arnold, one of the first woman photojournalists to join the prestigious Magnum Photography Agency in the 1950s and traveled the world for her work but was best known for her candid shots of Hollywood celebrities, died in January 2012. She was 99 years old… Starting in 1951, when career women were a rarity, Arnold navigated distant countries and cultures, photographing horse trainers in Mongolia, factory workers in China and harem women in Dubai. Her photo essays appeared in feature news magazines and in the many books she compiled.” (From: http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-eve-arnold-20120106,0,7118173.story?page=1)

In late October 1996 I attended a party at the London home of the Lebanese novelist Hanan el-Shaykh, and met Eve Arnold. She was then in her mid-eighties, with beautiful manners, a lovely light American accent, and dressed in the most elegant dove-grey suit I have ever seen, rather like the one she is shown wearing in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s portrait a year or two later. Continue reading “Vale Eve Arnold”