2012 Auckland 3: mid-Thursday

“The Anaglyph” is collected in the book «Starlight: 150 Poems», published in 2010 by the University of Queensland Press. You can read the poem and its extensive notes in Jacket2 magazine, where associate editor Pam Brown kindly published it in 2011:

You can also read critic Martin Duwell’s review of «Starlight: 150 Poems» here, in which he claims that “There can be little doubt that “The Anaglyph” is the dominant poem of this collection and one of Tranter’s great achievements…”

Extensive notes to all the poems in «Starlight: 150 Poems» are available here: [»»] Notes

‘The Longest Poems in the World’, on the beach at Waiheke Island in Auckland Bay.
You can read detailed abstracts of all the papers delivered at this symposium

3. Mid Thursday

Some notes on the “Short Takes on Long Poems Symposium”, University of Auckland, 29-30 March 2012. Part 3: Mid Thursday.

Part Three: The Anaglyph

My long poem “The Anaglyph” initially resulted from a commission from a Toronto magazine [The Modern Review] to write an essay of any type on John Ashbery’s 1967 long poem “Clepsydra”. A clepsydra is a water-driven clock, invented in Ancient Greece. An anaglyph is a drawn or photographic image, usually printed in red and bluish-green ink, that, when viewed through spectacles containing one bluish-green lens and one red lens, presents a three-dimensional image; that is, an image

Rimbaud with 3D glasses, photo John Tranter

In response I took the first word or two and also the last word or two of each line from John Ashbery’s poem, and wrote material of my own to fill each line out. More about this technique, which I have labelled “terminals”, later.

The poem was extensively reworked and became part of my 2009 Doctor of Creative Arts thesis dissertation for the University of Wollongong, along with 112 other poems and a thirty-thousand-word exegesis. The awarding of the degree was highly commended by both markers.

Later most of these poems made up my 2010 book «Starlight: 150 poems». Most? I took out over a dozen short poems and some poems about movies, and added some different poems about movies, and another 56 poems which were written over a period of a month on a residency at the Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, in Italy; these poems were loose versions and rewritings of poems from Baudelaire’s «Les Fleurs du mal».

About those “terminals”. John Tranter and poet David Brooks introduced John Ashbery’s reading in the Woolley Building at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 16 September 1992.

Caption: Morning tea, photo by John Tranter

One of the poems Ashbery read was the double sestina from his book «Flow Chart». In his preamble to the poem Ashbery revealed — confessed — that his double sestina uses the end-words of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s double sestina “The Complaint of Lisa” (1870). Sestinas are of course based on a string of repeated and rearranged end-words, not on rhyme or on any particular metrical shape. Extend the idea to other kinds of poems, borrowing the last word or two of each line, and you have the process or form that I have called ‘terminals’.

I have written many poems in this mode, taking end-words from Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, Barbara Guest, John Keats, Frank O’Hara, Banjo Paterson and others. The US poet, editor and critic Brian Henry has studied and summarised this technique in a paper published in Antipodes magazine in 2004; his paper is reprinted at http://johntranter.com/reviewed/2004-henry-terminals.html

Caption: Andy Carruthers and Jessica Wilkinson, photo by John Tranter

Henry mentions and quotes from the Ashbery sestina. He looks at ten of Tranter’s poems and discusses each different kind and example of borrowing in detail. He says, inter alia:

With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created a new form similar to the sestina but far more flexible in its emphasis on end-words: the terminal. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length, and the number of terminals possible in the English language is limited only by the number of poems in the English language. The form has infinite potential. Unrestricted to 39 lines as in the sestina, not limited to 14 or 19 rhyming lines as with the sonnet and the villanelle, not expected to repeat itself like the pantoum and the villanelle, and not tethered to any rhyme scheme or syllable count like the ballad, terza rima, heroic couplet, alexandrine, sapphics, or ottava rima, the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility.

The terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise. Because Tranter overwrites — and in the process simultaneously effaces and preserves — his source poem while retaining the anchoring points of the source poem, his terminals are both conservative and destructive. (Henry 32)

Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’ is a complicated piece of writing. Its title seems to have little connection with the poem: a “clepsydra” is a kind of water-driven clock (the name means ‘water-stealer’) used by the ancient Greeks. The poem is also long: 253 lines long, to be precise: nearly nine pages. It was first published in book form in the 1977 volume Rivers and Mountains.

Caption: Morning tea, photo by John Tranter

So I took the last word of two of each line from ‘Clepsydra’, as with my earlier experiments with ‘terminals’, and also the first word or two from each line. Thus each line of my reworked poem had its beginning and ending given to me; my task was to replace the meat in the sandwich, as it were. So ‘The Anaglyph’ is a reinvented, perhaps flawed, or perhaps improved, version of that master poem, which is here reduced to the status of ancestor, model, maquette, or template.

‘The Anaglyph’ is partly about its own process — that is, the deconstructing and reconstructing of a poem. It is also about my relationship as a developing poet with John Ashbery and with Ashbery’s poetry.

The word ‘blazon’ gives us a clue to one of the poem’s effects (‘Deep within its complex innards a purple jewel / Exists as a blazon, rotating slowly…’).

In the essay on John Ashbery in his remarkable study of forty-one US poets, «Alone With America», Richard Howard points out that Ashbery often buries a small ‘blazon’ in his poems, and quotes André Gide: ‘I like discovering in a work of art… transposed to the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work… Thus in certain paintings… a tiny dark convex mirror reflects the interior of the room where the scene painted occurs… the comparison with that method in heraldry which consists of putting a second blazon in the centre of the first, en abyme.’ (pp.19–20) That is, inside the poem is a reduced diagram of the poem itself, ‘a tiny mirror for the plot, or maybe narrative’, as I write, referring to just this device, in my poem ‘The Alphabet Murders’, written over thirty years ago. The buried presence of Ashbery’s poem — that is, the line-beginnings and line-endings from it — haunts ‘The Anaglyph’ as a kind of fragmented and half-buried blazon.

The title of the poem itself, ‘The Anaglyph’, is embodied in some of the poem’s ‘business’, for example in the line ‘their left and right perceptual fields, red and green’ (84). This hints at the anaglyph’s dependence on binocular vision.

Caption: Lisa Samuels takes notes: of which she says: “I don’t keep a blog… but if I did I would write an entry titled, perhaps, Writing as Listening, which is something like what I do with that computer time I take at such symposia events. I have a more productive experience in my mental landscape when I can write while listening to talks. It’s a kinetic channel, in part.” Photo by John Tranter.

So ‘The Anaglyph’ is similar to Ashbery’s original poem ‘Clepsydra’, having the same number of lines and the same line beginnings and line endings, yet it has been written by a different author at a different time in a different society, coloured differently and seen from a slightly different point of view, and one which has one more layer of knowledge than the original. When Ashbery began work on ‘Clepsydra’ in the 1960s, nothing like it had existed before. When ‘The Anaglyph’ was begun, its progenitor had been modifying the ideal order of the literary landscape, to use Eliot’s phrase, for three decades.

Favourite themes of Ashbery’s are also glancingly referred to: old schoolteachers, for example (‘the old school-teacher’s chief act of belief’ 39) and his use of ornate words harvested from the dictionary: ‘Those crowded riverine cities’ (63) reminds us of Ashbery’s title ‘Those Lacustrine Cities’ — that is, cities built beside or on a lake.

Ashbery himself, as the maimed father-figure, makes a brief appearance to protest what has happened to his poem: ‘From Rochester he came hence, / A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth’ (135–6). Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York State, in 1927.

Perhaps to empower Ashbery as the lawgiver, other elder poets are downgraded. The most common thematic reference in ‘The Anaglyph’ is a series of references to bear hunting, the first of which is ‘a hunter in the dim mirror killing a bear’ (33). Poet Galway Kinnell was born in the same year as John Ashbery, and also lives in New York City. Daniel Schenker says

In one of his [Kinnell’s] best known poems, “The Bear”, an Eskimo hunter stalks a polar bear who eventually succumbs to the sharpened bone coiled in the hunter’s bait. When the hunter comes upon the bear’s carcass he eats voraciously of the animal’s flesh as we would expect. But instead of then abandoning the carcass or considering its other uses, the hunter climbs into the body and life and death of the bear. The object of the hunt thus becomes not the mere domination of the bear by the hunter, but an effort to acquire an understanding of what it’s like to be something other than oneself. As if to validate his attempt to identify with the other, the hunter is granted a vision of spring at the end of the poem as geese come trailing up the flyway and a mother bear tends to a litter of new-born cubs.

Kinnell’s poem contains an explicit comparison between bear-killing and poem-making, where his Eskimo hunter ponders thus: ‘the rest of my days I spend / wandering: wondering / what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavour of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?’ A hard question to answer, for an aboriginal American, from inside the corpse of a dead bear.

This seems light-years away from Ashbery’s modus operandi, and in ‘The Anaglyph’ the business with the dead bear is perhaps a ‘feint’, an example of what poetry is not, except in a willed personal myth drenched in contemporary bourgeois American nostalgie de la tundra.

Morning tea, photo by John Tranter

In ‘The Anaglyph’ there are eight further references to Mr Kinnell’s ill-fated bear: ‘inhabiting a reputation’ (51), ‘the story of an Eskimo inside an eviscerated bear like this?’ (72), ‘the fact that he “inhabited” the smelly bear-skin…’ (73), ‘clambering inside an animal’ (78), ‘that animal’s demise’ (105), ‘taxidermy at midnight’ (106), ‘a polar bear falling over, and the hunter’ (156), and a final dismissive if syntactically ambiguous aperu: ‘He read poems about killing large animals to keep awake / On the tepid waters of café society.’ (210–11)

Enough bears. Other images deal with Ashbery’s poetry as an influence and refer more sensibly to the process of rewriting as redesign or rebuilding: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment.’ (43–44) ‘returning to my sources, raking through my prototypes’ (48), and ‘blueprint is found and seems just right’ (49).

And a couple of minor points: “a canal reflecting its own anagram”. Psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan developed a theory of the ‘mirror stage’ of ego development. Reflections and mirrors are of course symbolic of the central process this poem enacts. Canal is an anagram of Lacan, whose name appears in another mirror later in my DCA thesis.

Also “Your well wrought urn”. Ashbery’s oeuvre; the reference is to both the noted critical study of poems by Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, and Eliot, The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks, and to John Keats’ poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, which ends: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.’