In his latest collection of essays, Milan Kundera describes the savage portraiture of Francis Bacon as interrogations into the limits of the self. ‘Up to what degree of distortion’, Kundera asks, ‘does an individual still remain himself?’ Or more crucially: ‘where is the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?’ These are fascinating, if troubling, questions. And in the world of poetry, this distorted borderland is Tranter territory.
The personas in John Tranter’s poems, his own included, may not be as hellish as Bacon’s. In fact they’re often comical and sometimes rather stylish. But his project is the same: ‘the self’, the poems corroborate, is a whole lot more contingent than we would like to believe. When Tranter uses an ‘I’ in his poems it is merely a pronoun of convenience, a basket-case housing an individual’s constituents: a jumble of thought, borrowed behaviours, second-hand experience, and ripped-off speech.
Yeats once wrote that the poet is ‘never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’. But for Tranter, near a century later, the poet has become precisely that: a bundle of accident. The poet may be an ‘idea’, but it is an incomplete one. And incoherent at that.
Unlike Yeats, Tranter doesn’t dream that the poet hosts any rarified communion with truth. He is not exactly enamoured with his chosen profession, as his poem ‘Rotten Luck’, selected by Amy Gerstler for The Best American Poetry 2010, attests. It opens:
To put up with a career as pointless as this,
it takes the courage of a gambler.
Okay, someone has to do it, but
like they say: vita brevis, ars longa.
‘They’ being Hippocrates. But the thought of life’s brevity transports Tranter’s speaker to a bramble-covered gravesite on a lonely hill in the bush. Is it it the speaker’s or someone else’s? What’s it matter: ‘Mix more drinks’, the gambler says, ‘and mix them stronger’.
The texture of a Tranter poem is fabricated through the clash of seemingly disparate vocabularies: technical language abuts tête-à-tête, doctrine against dirt, Latin fights baby talk. The frisson is in the friction. Tranter, though no intellectual slouch, delights in watching the theoretical crumble when he king hits it with the colloquial. He’s also a notorious imitator of other people’s speech: inanities and interjections, snatches of narrative, expletives, and overheard confessions are frequently built into his poems. (Perhaps a hangover from his brief foray into architecture at university, Tranter often employs verbs from the building trade to talk about poetry: a poem is not composed but ‘jerry-built’, it has ‘scaffolding’, and rather than analysing a poem’s structure he ‘reverse engineers’ it.)
But it’s not just poems that are constructed from words. We — outside the poem — might be also. Tranter’s poems make the case that not only our speech but our inner lives may be a collection of quotations. Once aware of it, it’s hard to return to the world of innocence, where our thoughts are our own. We are condemned to a state of deja pense — the sense that our words and thoughts are not our own, don’t quite fit us, or belong to someone else. We are as original, Tranter’s poems insist, as a blade of grass on a suburban lawn.
In this view our truest portrait would not be a photograph in fine focus but something more like a double exposure. Which might account, at least in part, for Tranter’s abiding interest in facsimiles, doppelgängers, and other reproductions. An early sonnet, ‘Your Lucky Double’, imagines another version of us out there somewhere. You may be down on your luck, the poem concedes, but ‘how lucky you are how lucky’ to have a double: ‘it is more than you deserve’. Similarly, the poem ‘Fever’ opens with a bifurcation of the second-person pronoun: ‘Yes, you care if you’re happy, don’t you? / You and your friend, your dear ‘self’. The poem ends with a hat-tipping to phoniness:
this ‘you’ you manufacture at night
just for me on the videophone, it’s a dream.
You will wake up feverish. It’s ‘love’.
On first reading, the doubled-you is easy to parse, but start asking questions and you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of doubt.
So who reads Tranter? It’s difficult to say, though he admits to writing for people like himself, if he can find them. People interested in poetry but also novels, block-busters, movies and soaps. They live in an urban landscape. The setting, he says, is a room with ‘a television in the corner, magazines on the kitchen table, a movie playing at the local cinema, cool jazz on the radio’. If you’re looking for a poet to tell you beautiful lies — that you are whole, complete, a beautiful soul — then you’d best stop reading now and pick up the latest Rumi translation. Tranter just won’t deliver. But if you can dance to the idea that all this — language, love, life — is a game, then Tranter will dazzle you, amuse, and if you’re lucky he’ll do your head in.
‘When I was seventeen’, John Tranter confesses, ‘I fell in love with a sodomite’. He is talking about one of France’s greatest poets, but he tarries on his countenance before getting to the poems: ‘His eyes were a dazzling blue and he had the face of an angel His hands were large and awkward: a peasant’s hands’. He’s right, of course, Rimbaud really was a pretty boy. His was a face for T-shirts and coffee cups.
Tranter was born in Cooma, New South Wales in 1943, but worse than too far away it was too late: ‘by the time I came under the spell of [Rimbaud’s] beautiful lies, his body — minus the amputated right leg — had been rotting in a lead-lined coffin in the damp earth of northern France for seventy years’. But Tranter remembers thinking at seventeen — and still agrees in middle age — that Rimaud was ‘one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen’.
Rimbaud believed the role of the poet was visionary: poets could see things ordinary mortals were blind to. His celebrated Lettre du voyant expounds his revolutionary theories about poetry and life: ‘The Poet makes himself a voyant by a long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses. All the forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences’.
When Tranter first read Rimbaud, this kind of talk appealed to him. He grew out of it, but back then he was ‘living in a country town and wanted to go to the city, take drugs and have a lot of fun, write some wonderful poetry’. The pair had a lot in common. But whereas the young Rimbaud hit the streets of Paris and embarked on a brief but violent affair with a famous poet (if the married Verlaine was looking for rough trade he certainly found it in Rimbaud) before chucking it all in for gun-running in Abyssinia, Tranter set up in Sydney, married, and built a career as one of Australia’s leading poets.
Tranter admits he fell in love with a ghost, and he’s been trying to shake him off ever since. Unsuccessfully. Rimbaud’s fingerprints can be dusted on Tranter’s early poems. His words frequent Tranter’s poems as epigraphs and citations. He even stars in a couple of Tranter’s eponymous poems: ‘Arthur! We needed you in 68!’, the speaker cries in ‘Rimbaud and the Modern Heresy’. Rimbaud’s famous dictum, ‘one must be absolutely modern’, remains Tranter’s guiding aesthetic – even if it was first said more than a century ago.
Rimbaud did his best work before the age of twenty, then ‘he gave in to a mixture of rage and pig-headed pride’ — Tranter’s characterisation — ‘and threw his marvellous talent onto a bonfire, along with his manuscripts’. His silence seems to have affected Tranter the most. One might speculate briefly on what treasures Rimbaud might have gifted had he lived and written longer. But the vigour of his work grew out of his occupation as an enfant terrible. Grown men can’t write like that. They must find something else to say, die, or stop writing. What is Tranter at 68 to do?
Starlight: 150 Poems is Tranter’s 22nd book of poems in his 40-year career. It was released in late 2010 alongside The Salt Companion to John Tranter (intelligently edited by Rod Mengham), a landmark collection of incisive essays by a range of international critics investigating Tranter’s major themes and periods — this review grazes on a few — up to his most recent book of poems. It’s important reading for anyone serious about Australian poetry.
What distinguishes Starlight from his other collections is that just about every poem can be traced to another time and poet: John Ashberry, TS Eliot, Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud (of course), Stéphen Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. This is not to say they are translations: they’re not. Variously, according to the author, they are ‘mistranslations’, ‘radical revisions’ and ‘multilingual dealings’. There’s also a section of ‘adaptations’ in which Baudelaire’s poems are migrated from their native nineteenth-century Paris to contemporary Sydney.
The first poem in Starlight is a particularly dense and demanding poem, ‘The Anaglyph’, which effectively disembowels every line in Ashbery’s 1967 poem ‘Clepsydra’. Tranter retains the first and last few words of Ashbery’s lines and inserts his own middles. So whereas ‘Clepsydra’ opens (opaquely, it must be said):
Hasn’t the sky? Returned from moving the other
Authority recently dropped, wrested as much of
That severe sunshine as you need now on the way
You go. The reason why it happened only since
You woke up is letting the steam disappear …
‘The Anaglyph’ is book-ended by Ashbery’s words but Tranter steers them in entirely different directions to skewer fashionistas and arty pretenders:
Hasn’t the charisma leaked away from the café crowd, and that other
Authority, the Salon des Refusés ? I have forgotten much of
That old sack of enthusiasms and snake-oil recipes, the way
You have forgotten your own childhood, since
You woke up just in time to watch the adults disappear …
If it’s a tribute, it’s a brutal one. Later in the poem the speaker comments on its own processes: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting and refurbishing a friend’s apartment’.
‘The Anaglyph’ reveals more of Tranter than we’ve seen for a long time. ‘I adjust the mask’, the speaker says, that ‘fits more loosely every decade’. It appears to be an epistle to Ashbery — at least the ‘you’ appears to be anchored in the biographical data of Ashbery’s life — combing through his relationship with the older poet’s poetics and signing off with an invitation: ‘Just now somebody / Is phoning to arrange for drinks – will you join me? – later this evening.’
‘The Anaglyph’ opens up further when seen through the metaphor implied by its title. An anaglyph is a picture made up of a red and a blue identical images that are superimposed but slightly offset so that the picture becomes stereoscopic when viewed through 3D glasses. The obvious interpretation here is that the two superimposed images are, metaphorically speaking, Ashbery and Tranter’s respective poems. The stereo effect kicks in if the reader is able to ‘hear’ the older poem in the new one, thereby granting the illusion of depth through time. But shifting perspective yet again, ‘The Anaglyph’s is both an homage and an assassination. Tranter’s placement of Ashbery’s ‘well-wrought urn in the centre of the square’ — in a poem preoccupied with the passing of time — conjures deathly connotations. In one view the speaker licks the jowls of the older poet; in another his teeth are at Ashbery’s throat.
At times the poem suffers from noun-heavy plodding — ‘The map / Of the literary world is a pantomime, and its longueurs have become / Prolongations of our prevarications on bad weather days’ — but Tranter’s brilliant comedy cancels out his own occasional longueurs. The speaker describes himself as ‘a spiritual hunchback, drooling and gaping at the stars’ and captures the spirit of our age in a throw away line: ‘Emptiness will do fine. Just pop it in a doggy bag, thanks’.
Paradoxically the poems cordoned off in ‘Speaking French’ sound very American. But that’s not the weirdest thing about this assembly of homophonic mishearings. In English when words in a poem or song are misheard in a way that gives them a new meaning, they are known as ‘mondegreens’. Hearing, for example, the opening phrase to the American Pledge of Allegiance as ‘I pledge a lesion to the flag’; or its closing as ‘liver tea and just this for all’. The Japanese call it soramimi (‘sky ear’: the sky tells me words the person hasn’t said) and it typically involves interpreting lyrics in one language as similar-sounding lyrics in another language. The French in Paul McCartney’s song ‘Michelle’ is particularly susceptible: ‘Miss Shell, marble, Sunday monkey won’t play piano song, play piano song’.
Not surprisingly, many poets have been drawn to the derangement that comes when sense is detached from sound. Perhaps the most famous homophonic translations are Zukofsky’s 1969 translations of Catullus in which he attempted to replicate in English the sounds rather than the meanings of the original Latin. Tranter has been wading in homophonic territory for years, but Starlight documents his most extensive — and successful — exploration to date. Never afraid to reveal his processes as a poet, Tranter offers an online peek behind the scenes into the making of ‘Hôtel de Ville’.
The original poem, ‘Ville’, is Rimbaud’s most damning indictment on society’s degeneration during the industrial age. The setting is thought to be London where he lived with Verlaine on three occasions during the early 1870s. But it doesn’t so much matter where the poem’s set, it’s as much about the idea of a city — ‘citiness’ — as it is about a particular one. The speaker is in his cottage, which is ‘his country, his whole heart’, looking out a window at ‘apparitions roaming through the thick and endless coal-smoke’. One wouldn’t expect a Frenchman’s view of London to be flattering and it’s not: ‘the metropolis’, he opines, ‘is believed to be modern because every known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exteriors of the houses as well as in the layout of the city. Here you cannot point out the trace of a single monument to the past’. True enough: London does have fewer monuments than Paris, but he’s just getting started. Here ‘millions of people who have no need to know each other’ live identical lives flattened out so that their lives pass quickly without struggle. Everything is like this, the speaker decides, ‘death without tears’, ‘desperate love’, and ‘pretty crime whimpering in the mud of the street’.
Ouch. But here’s what Tranter does to it. First he dictates it in French into Microsoft Word’s speech-to-text program. The only problem is that the software is monolingual and recognises only English. Ergo the computer is thoroughly confused. ‘The initial results’, Tranter says in an explanatory note on his website, bear only ‘a very oblique relation to the original texts’. In other words, what comes out is rubbish: ‘Press the monument assumes to see all the modern so we do we do need to solve the spicy on sun is in the longer junkie known to be some’ (to offer a fragment at random).
Tranter and his software has turned Rimbaud’s poem into a junkyard. Its meaning is thoroughly disassembled. And yet there’s something alluring in the derangement. Something perhaps to salvage. So Tranter rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on the ‘raw data’, reworking it, he says, ‘extensively’. Along the way he rigs it into a sonnet. And at some point he throws in a line from a John Ashbery poem. Why? He doesn’t say. Perhaps to amuse himself. Perhaps for the thrill of making it fit. Or maybe, like a bay leaf, a mild bitterness serves to enhance the surrounding flavours. By the time Tranter’s finished with it, Rimbaud’s poem has been relocated, via the title, to the continent. ‘Hôtel de Ville’ references, perhaps, the famous Parisian town hall or maybe the one in Brussels where Verlaine was briefly interred after shooting Rimbaud in the wrist.
With exact words phrases from the computer-generated text in bold, synonyms in italics, and Ashbery’s words underlined, here’s Tranter’s poem in full:
The kids should visit a history museum
in their senior year, to understand disgrace as
one form of Clinton’s victory. On the other hand
the European Community foreign debt gives
everybody bad dreams. So we do need to solve
the problem of students reading difficult things
that will lead them astray: why did Rimbaud
turn from socialism to capitalism? As if
it matters. He is his own consolation prize.
We’d be delighted to have his uniform.
We want tosee all the modern art stuff, too.
Thank you. Press the button marked ‘monument’
and see what happens: a recorded voice says
‘I have wasted my life’, and we pay to listen.
There’s a lot to like in Tranter’s sonnet-mondegreen. The shadow of the global financial crisis — Tranter keeping up-to-date — hangs over the poem. The surprise of ‘Clinton’s victory’ and serendipity of ‘we’d be delighted to have his uniform’. And line nine, always the heart of a sonnet, achieves cut through: ‘it matters. [Rimbaud] is his own consolation prize’.
Tranter has written 83 such mondegreens. It’s tempting to think of each one as a mini exorcism, but Tranter emerges from the pages of Starlight looking less the victim of a haunting than a stalker on a homicidal rage. Rimbaud (along with his comrades Verlaine, Mallarmé and Baudelaire) has been misconstrued, dismembered, put through a sieve, and re-appendaged according to Tranter’s tastes and idiosyncrasies. The poets have been distorted — to return to Kundera’s line of questioning regarding Bacon’s portraits — to the point of being barely recognisable as themselves. But Tranter always incorporates at least one or two signature fragments to ensure the crime doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s tempting to think that with this tour de force Tranter might finally have thrown Rimbaud from his back. But then again all horror stories these days — to draw on another Tranter genre — must end with a sequel.
Bronwyn Lea’s review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter and The Salt Companion to John Tranter edited by Rod Mengham was first published under the title ‘Masked Marauder’ in Australian Literary Review (March 2011): 18–19.