Poetry publishing in australia

Making BooksThe 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple on the list of a serious publishing house. With mergers and takeovers happening left and right in the commercial publishing sector, poetry for all its ‘cultural worth’ was told to pay its way in dollars or be gone. But with characteristically small print runs and booksellers hesitant to stock specialty books this was a big ask. By the decade’s end, Angus & Robertson, Heinemann, Penguin and Picador had abandoned poetry almost entirely, leaving a slew of canonical Australian poets – including Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray and many others – without a publisher.[1] Of course it was part of a larger trend: in 1999 Oxford University Press also terminated its poetry list and dropped expatriate-Australian poet Peter Porter, along with his British colleagues. For a brief moment, verse novels caused a flurry of excitement but this soon settled into fad. Dorothy Porter’s Monkey’s Mask (Hyland House, 1994) and Murray’s Fredy Neptune (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998) seemed hopeful crossovers into relatively larger fiction markets.[2] A few years later Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers, Book One (Penguin, 2001) won the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (as well as Book of the Year) and the Arts Queensland Judith Wright Calanthe Award, but this didn’t stop Penguin from pulping their unsold stock and declining publication of the completed second volume. During this time only the University of Queensland (UQP), as David McCooey points out, remained a significant publisher of poetry.[3]

Since its first poetry title in 1968, UQP has published at one stage or another just about all of Australia’s important contemporary poets, including David Malouf, John Tranter, Judith Beveridge and Anthony Lawrence. Its impressive backlist, relatively large infrastructure, and its access to national distribution meant that competition was tight for its annual two or three poetry titles (which was intermittently topped up with books, such as Sam Wagan Watson’s award-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers from the Black Australian Writing list, or Jennifer Strauss’s The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore 18871929 from the Academy Editions of Australian Literature and published by UQP in association with the Australian Academy of the Humanities). [4] In 2002, pre-figuring a review of operations, the Press decided to outsource its poetry editorship in order to trim overheads on poetry titles, which with few exceptions – Peter Skrzynecki’s wildly successful Immigrant Chronicle among them – required financial buoying from income-generating fiction titles. To the resounding relief of poets around the country, following a 2005 restructure the Press formally announced a renewed commitment to poetry and increased its list to five or six poetry titles per year. The new list included the annual Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for a manuscript from an emerging Queensland poet – which despite its regional catchment enjoyed national success with award-winning titles by Lidija Cvetkovic and Jaya Savige; a selected or collected volume of poems by a senior Australian poet; and The Best Australian Poetry series established in 2003.

As publishing opportunities for poets grew increasingly rare Five Islands Press (FIP), founded by Ron Pretty in 1987, increased in prominence. As part of its Mainstream Program, FIP published about ten poetry titles per year, while its annual New Poets Program published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets. From time to time, the series was criticised for being too large to maintain a consistently high quality, nevertheless it launched the careers of a number of 1990s poets who went on to enjoy critical success – Peter Minter and MTC Cronin among them – in much the same way as Martin Duwell’s Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. In 2002 FIP moved from the University of Wollongong to the University of Melbourne and was made integral to the newly established Poetry Australia Foundation.[5] In 2006, the Foundation scored a major coup when the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) promised an initial sum of $140,800 to assist in establishing the Australian Poetry Centre in East St Kilda. Shortly thereafter, however, FIP announced on its website that Ron Pretty would pass the leadership of the imprint to Kevin Brophy and others in mid 2007, and that FIP would not only reduce its annual titles but also cease the New Poets Series for the foreseeable future.

During this time there were also some newcomers. In 1999 John Kinsella, Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery formed a partnership to develop Salt Publishing. Salt, which then moved to the UK in 2002 and set up offices at Cambridge, put print-on-demand technology to good use to produce a significant list of attractive (if often difficult to find) books by Australian poets such as Pam Brown, Jill Jones, Kate Lilley, Peter Rose and many others. In the same year Ivor Indyk opened a new arm to his publishing house and began publishing poetry titles under the Giramondo book imprint, which got off to a fine start with prize-winning books by Emma Lew, Judith Beveridge and Jennifer Maiden. Other small but noteworthy presses include Brandl & Schlesinger and Black Pepper, as well as Vagabond, Picaro Press and PressPress which all specialise in chapbooks.[6] David Musgrave started Puncher & Wattmann in 2005 and Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006. Unfortunately there also were some departures from the ranks of independent publishing. Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press closed in 2002 after seventeen years of publishing some of Australia’s best poets; and Duffy & Snellgrove closed shop in 2004, leaving Murray once again without a publisher (fortunately Black Inc. was to inaugurate a poetry list with Murray’s Biplane Houses as its first title). Pandanus Books, based at the Australian National University, ended its poetry publishing days in 2006 with Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, an anthology comprising poems that offer perspectives on Asia by eighty-six Australian poets.

As might be expected during these lean years, poetry anthologies increased in importance. In 1998, Thomas Shapcott edited his sixth poetry anthology, The Moment Made Marvellous, which was made up of poems by 70 UQP poets. Paperbark Press’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets anthology, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter, came out in 2000 with a selection of poems by poets who first came to prominence in the 1990s. A year later Five Islands Press also came out with a ‘new poets’ anthology: New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry edited by John Leonard. 2003 saw an embarrassment of poetry anthologies with UQP releasing the inaugural issue of its Best Australian Poetry series in September and Black Inc. releasing its inaugural Best Australian Poems a month later. Despite their similarity of titles, the anthologies came with different briefs. UQP’s anthology changes its guest editor annually, selects exactly forty poems that have been previously published in print journals and includes biographical information and author notes, whereas the Black Inc. anthology changes editors arbitrarily, includes more poems and poems from a variety of sources but does not include information about its contributors. Both publishers have reported healthy (by poetry standards) sales.

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Many would expect that poetry book numbers would decline during this period of contraction and indeed they did. In the years between 1993 and 1999, over 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year; by 2006 this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles. Although comparable to figures from the 1970s – the decade lauded by many for fashioning a resurgence of poetry – a thirty-five per cent increase in the Australian population during the same interval summons sobriety. What’s more, the total number of poetry books published during this period makes the sector appear healthier than it might in fact be, in large part due to FIP’s New Poets Series which offered abundant publishing opportunities for emerging poets while the situation at large for developing and established poets remained impoverished. It is also important to note that the majority of poetry books are presently being published by small presses (including self-publishers) that often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

Despite continued problems associated with distribution, marketing and sales, many poets and critics have observed that interest in poetry, oddly enough, is booming.[7] Poetry festivals have sprung up around the country – there’s even a National Poetry Week – poetry readings are held in cafés, pubs and libraries, and poetry ezines, blogs and discussion boards are burgeoning on the Internet. Writers’ centres and university creative writing programs around the country have been quick to respond to the increased demand for poetry  workshops and classes. Poetry’s increased profile in high school curricula, particularly in New South Wales, has led not only to new generations of young readers interested in reading and writing poetry, but also to soaring sales for the poets lucky enough to be set on the compulsory reading lists. Poets in this enviable position – including Peter Skrzynecki, Bruce Dawe and John Tranter – can often compete on sales figures with fiction authors.[8] As an overall trend, poetry’s rising popularity is perhaps more noticeable in the US where a Billy Collins title can approach a print run of 100 000 copies; nevertheless poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Les Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries.[9] Whereas a typical US poetry title (Billy Collins aside) runs to about 1 500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number. While these are only break-even figures – a ‘slim volume’ of poems costs about $5 000–7 000 in editorial, design and production costs – it is interesting to speculate as to what the figures might look like if Australian poetry titles were afforded the same publishing and marketing opportunities that other genres often enjoy. The extraordinary renewal of interest in Auden, for instance, after his poem appeared on screen in Four Weddings and a Funeral would seem to indicate that advertising works, even for poetry. But film options aside, the Australian market remains wide open to publishers who seek to make the most of the current poetry revival.

In the meantime, there are a number of things publishers can do raise the profile of their poetry titles. In addition to keeping a tight list of well-known and respected names that help carry titles by new poets, publishers can also avail themselves of state and federal publishing subsidies. While funding varies from state to state, the Literature Board of the Australia Council offers assistance to publishers with subsidies to support up to four poetry titles (including selected and collected editions) a year. The subsidy on offer for poetry is set at about half the rate for prose titles due to the assumption that it is less expensive to produce a book of poems than a book of prose (perhaps it is but it remains difficult to prove as poetry publishers have long survived by cutting corners). While the subsidy is helpful to poetry presses, it offers little incentive for publishers of mixed genres to put forth poetry titles over prose. Further complicating matters is the proviso that the titles must have a minimum print run and prove national distribution in order to qualify for funding – requirements that with the growth of print-on-demand technology have become increasingly difficult for small poetry publishers to fulfill as well as for the Board to monitor. Even so, the Council’s logo on the imprint pages of almost every Australian poetry title one encounters would seem to indicate that the initiative is keeping a good number of independent poetry publishers in business.

Many publishers like to see that individual poems have been published in literary journals prior to appearing in book format. This serves not only as a means of developing a readership for a poet’s work, but it also verifies that the poems have been vetted by independent editors. As a general observation, however, Australian presses have not insisted upon this practice with the same rigor as have their overseas counterparts, who frequently require that all (or nearly all) poems from a collection have first appeared in journals. It might well be in the interest of all to step up this practice. The so-called ‘big-eight’ of Australian literary journals – those that receive regular funding from the Literature Board – continue to publish a smattering of poetry and (usually bundled) reviews of poetry titles: Southerly, Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant, Island, Westerly, Hecate and Heat. Other journals of note include Westerly, Going Down Swinging, Tirra Lirra and Famous Reporter. Blast Magazine, Space: New Writing, Griffith Review and Wet Ink all began in the early part of the new century, while Salt-lick: New Writing disappeared soon after launching and Imago closed shop in 2001. Another birth worth noting was Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, in 2003. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals offer a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. John Tranter’s Jacket, launched in 1997, was one of the earliest and has become the most eminent, bringing into conversation poets and critics from around the world. At reportedly over half-a-million hits since its inception, it is difficult to imagine a poetry journal in print format attracting a comparable amount of traffic. A short list of online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Stylus Poetry Journal, Divan, Retort, hutt and foame:e. There are also a number of online poetry resources, including the Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library project which presents poems and biographical information for Australian poets. In coming years the project plans to employ Digital Object Identifier (DOI) technology to allow poets the possibility of charging a reading fee to access copyrighted material. Eventually, the project will publish print-on-demand poetry books, particularly for titles that have gone out of print.[10]

These days a growing number of poets are not only using online technology to distribute and promote their work, they are also exploring digital media as an central part of the poetic experience. A small number of publications – including Les Murray’s Collected Poems (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002) and literary journals Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and others – have experimented with audio CD attachments to books. Discarding the book entirely, the CD ROM journal papertiger: new world poetry published annually by Paul Hardacre, Brett Dionysius and Marissa Newell is one of Australia’s chief forums for digital poems. Not only does it publish poems that employ conventional textual layouts, it also incorporates to great effect audio, flash and video poems. Especially popular with younger audiences, the trend is likely to continue to develop new territories that reach new audiences. But it is not by any means unidirectional: the Newcastle Poetry Prize issued its 2003 anthology on CD ROM but reverted to print the following year; and papertiger media expanded its operations in 2006 to add print to its CD ROM and Internet formats, suggesting that the poetry book, while somewhat harder to find, has not entirely disappeared from fashion.

Notes


[1] See Pam Brown, ‘Nobody Wants Our Poems…’. The Sydney Morning Herald 26 February 2000 Spectrum: 10.

[2] See Christopher Pollnitz’s ‘Australian Verse Novels’, Heat 7 NS, 2004: 229-52.

[3] David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22.

[4] The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore: Volume 2 edited by Jennifer Strauss is scheduled for release by UQP in July 2007.

[5] PAF also publishes the annual PAF Poetry Catalogue. The 2006 issue lists the 94 poetry titles by 20 Australian presses.

[6] Regional publishers of poetry include Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Western Australia; Spinifex Press in Victoria; Interactive Press in Queensland; Walleah Press in Tasmania; Ginninderra’s Indigo imprint in Canberra. Little Esther Books: Feral, Boffin + Distingué in South Australia focuses on avant garde poetry.

[7] See David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22-36.

[8] Sales figures for poetry books are notoriously difficult to verfiy. BookTrack keeps a record of sales but as most bookshops do not stock poetry books (most poetry books are sold at poetry readings and festivals and through online outlets) the figures are effectively meaningless. The 2001 AC Nielsen National Survey of Reading, Buying and Borrowing Books for Pleasure avoids poetry altogether.

[9] See Les Murray’s ‘On Being Subject Matter’ in A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Potts Point: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1997 (30-44).

[10] A similar project, Classic Australian Works (another CAL initiative), already provides print-on-demand re-releases of classic Australian books, with Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets as its first poetry title. For a detailed discussion of poetry and POD technology, see David Prater’s ‘Poetry Publishing Today’ in New Markets for Printed Books: Emerging Markets for Books, from Creator to Consumer. Ed. Bill Cope and Dean Mason. Altona, Vic: Common Ground Publishing, 2002.

This chapter was first published as ‘Poetry Publishing’ in Making Books: Studies in Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP, 2007: 247–54.

It was the focus of Rosemary Neill’s ‘Pulping Our Poetry’. The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

Will the real john tranter please stand up?

Review of Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter; and The Salt Companion to John Tranter

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.

John Tranter (credit Anders Hallengren)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:

You know,
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 victoryOn 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.

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