Nancy huston scoops a bad sex award

I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth: “He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”. But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered. At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

31299_3I admit it: I was wrong. I was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason would win the 2012 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards for his ikebana-cum-gymnastic efforts in his debut novel Rare Earth:

“He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down”.

But he didn’t. Not only are my credentials as a literary critic now in contention, but my confidence in calling bad sex when I see it has been shattered.

At a ceremony held at the stately Naval & Military Club in London (better and in this case aptly known as The In & Out club) Samantha Bond of Downton Abbey fame presented Britain’s least-coveted prize to Canadian author Nancy Huston for her 14th novel, Infrared, about a woman who snaps (as in photographs) her lovers while making love.

The judges were impressed by Huston’s alliterative descriptions of the human body, such as ‘flesh, that archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements’ or ‘my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water’ or this passage which reminds readers (or not) that the brain is the largest sex organ:

When our bodies unite for the third time we leave all theatres behind. What happens then has as little to do with the libertinage prized by the French (oh the blasphemers, the precious precocious ejaculators, the nasty naughty boys, the cruel fouteurs and fouetteurs) as with the healthy, egalitarian intercourse championed by Americans (who hand out bachelors degrees in G-points, masters in masturbation and Ph.Ds in endorphines).

The undaunted might like to read a more graphic excerpt at the Guardian. Huston, who now lives in Paris, did not cross the channel to collect her award, but she did send a brief acceptance speech:

I hope this prize will incite thousands of British women to take close-up photos of their lovers’ bodies in all states of array and disarray.

The plural possessive apostrophe, I’m told, is not an error.

Huston – whose accolades include France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, and a shortlisting for the 2010 Orange Prize – is only the third woman to win the Bad Sex prize since its inception in 1993.

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My money’s on Paul Mason for Bad Sex Award

Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals. “Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”

tumblr_lqpkxxZNUL1ql3umeo1_1280Poets and writers get twice the sex of regular mortals, according to a study led by Dr David Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asked 425 men and women about their sexual partners, including one-night stands, and found the average number of partners for professional artists and poets to be between four and 10 compared with just three for non-creative professionals.

“Creative people are often considered to be attractive and get lots of attention as a result”, Dr Nettle said. “They tend to be charismatic and produce art and poetry that grabs people’s interests.”

It could also be that very creative types lead a Bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities, often purely for experience’s sake, than the average person would. Moreover, it’s common to find that this sexual behaviour is tolerated in creative people. Partners, even long-term ones, are less likely to expect loyalty and fidelity from them.

Maybe so, but as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award – Britain’s most dreaded literary prize – has underscored since its inception twenty years ago: quantity can be a poor substitute for quality. The literati may well be getting more sex than the rest of the population, but if the hairy, wubbering, nosh-inspired sex of contemporary novels is anything to go by we should all settle down with accountants.

Literary Review journal, which hosts the Bad Sex Awards, claims that “the purpose of the prize is to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.

The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature: “In a year in which the country’s obsession with mummy porn, red rooms of pain and Christian Grey has reached fever pitch,” the judges reassure, “Literary Review is proud to continue its gentle chastisement of the worst excesses of the literary novel”.

In other words, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was deemed not eligible, nor in any need of further attention.

past glories

Last year Australia saw a favourite son, Christos Tsiolkas, slapped with a Bad Sex shortlisting for his bloodthirsty passages in Dead Europe, of which these sentences, paeans to the abject, are emblematic:

It’s okay, I whispered … I was immersed in the slush of her moist meat … Her body stiffened but I forced her legs apart and pushed my face into her groin. The smell was overpowering. It was as if her cunt was a cellar filled with a heady store of wines and spirits, all emitting wafts of gaseous bouquets that recalled all the possible eruptions of the body. She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.

Contentiously to some, Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe lost to the novel Ed King, a retelling of Oedipal Rex, by David Guterson of Snow-Falling-on-Cedars fame. The narrator promises the reader big things:

Okay. Now we approach the part of the story a reader couldn’t be blamed for having skipped forward to – “flipped forward to” if he or she has a hard copy, but otherwise “scrolled to” or “used the ‘find’ feature” to locate the part where a mother has sex with her son. Who could blame you for being interested in this potential hot part, and at the same time, for shuddering at the prospect of it?

but won the 2011 Bad Sex Award for awkward jobs like this:

He was waiting for a display of need. So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her “front parlor” and “back door” (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood), she got him on the node between neighbouring needs (both of which had been explored by johns who almost never tarried). She gave him this particular sign, this clear permission, and he began a careful prodding of her perineum, which was as good a starting place as any for Diane, because it instigated those processes of memory her sexuality required. It triggered memories with the uncanny force of déjà vu, and what she thought of, as Ed slaved away, was a boy from her village who had fingered her adroitly in a greenhouse thick with green tomatoes.

But just as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was judged the Booker of Bookers in 1993, Rowan Somerville’s second novel, The Shape of Her, wins (in my opinion) the BSA of BSAs. He could have won for this lurid but deadly sentence alone: “like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her”. But the judges were also impressed by his field notes – as typified by pubic hair “like desert vegetation following an underground stream” – and highlighted a passage that should caution writers against employing a sniffing possum as vehicle in a breast metaphor, especially if one intends to sup on it:

He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her.

In 2010 Somerville had the good humour and courage to man up to accept the honour in person: “There is nothing more English than bad sex”, he said, “so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you”.

shortlist juicy bits

The Yips by Nicola Barker

She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard.

The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge

In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter’, he commanded. “Lay it on with all your might”.

Infrared by Nancy Huston

This is when I take my picture, from deep inside the loving. The Canon is part of my body. I myself am the ultrasensitive film – capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.

Noughties by Ben Masters

We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history.

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

Down, down, on to the eschatological bed. Pages chafed me; my blood wept onto them. My cheek nestled against the scratch of paper. My cock was barely a ghost, but I did not suffer panic.

The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine

And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.

my hot pick

Rare Earth by Paul Mason

He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum but missing, his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down. ‘The cartel, sells, to the global market’, he panted. ‘The price is inflated because production has been capped!’ She began to pant in unison with him… ‘Cartel evades export controls. Market capitalisation of western miners stays low. Massive, one-way, bet’… He switched to some ancient steppe language as he ejaculated, blubbering and incoherent. Chun-li faked an orgasm, keeping her mind focused on an eighth-century lyric of sadness.

The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London next month.

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Another Man Booker for Hilary Mantel

While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize. Shortly after 6 a.m. Australian time Sir Peter Stothard – Chair of the judging committee and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – raised his glass (as we lifted our coffee mugs) to toast the winner of the 44th Man Booker prize: Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies. Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer.

While the guests at the 2012 Man Booker Prize award ceremony dinner in London tucked-in to roasted leg of lamb, potato mille feuille, confit turnip and jugs of Madeira jus, I and book bloggers around the world sat with our blurry eyes glued to the @ManBookerPrize Twitter feed to be among the first to know this year’s winner of the world’s most anticipated literary prize.

Shortly after 6 a.m. Australian time Sir Peter Stothard – Chair of the judging committee and editor of the Times Literary Supplement – raised his glass (as we lifted our coffee mugs) to toast the winner of the 44th Man Booker prize: Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies.

Sir Peter said that the judges had made their final decision on Tuesday after a lengthy and forensic examination. The winning book is ‘a very remarkable piece of English prose’, he said, ‘that transcends the work already written by a great English prose writer’.

Mantel has recast the most essential period of our modern English history. We have the greatest modern English prose writer reviving possibly one of the best known pieces of English history.

Bring Up the Bodies is the second instalment in Mantel’s historical trilogy, following Wolf Hall, which itself won a Booker in 2009.

‘Nobody, including me’, Mantel said, ‘expects a writer to do it twice. But it would not be human to not want to win’.

Mantel’s triumph makes her only the third person in history to win a double Booker and catapults her into the literary empyrean – along with Australian author Peter Carey, who lives in New York, and South African Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee, who lives in Australia.

But in the end Mantel’s win came down to firsts: she became the first British author to win the Booker twice; the first author to win Bookers for back-to-back books; the first author to win for a sequel; and the first woman author in history to win two Man Booker prizes.

Mantel told reporters that Bring Up the Bodies was ‘a more fully achieved book than Wolf Hall. Formally, it probably has the edge.’

At her win three years ago Mantel, 60, said she would be spending the £50,000 ($AU 78,000) prize money on ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’. Today she joked it would be spent on rehab. After a brief reappraisal she added: ‘my pension, probably’.

Mantel now faces the daunting task of completely the filnal instalment in the trilogy, to be called The Mirror and the Light, which will continue Cromwell’s story until his execution in 1540.

According to How to win the Booker prize, Will Self was best placed – statistically speaking – to take home this year’s prize for the bravura achievement of Umbrella. But luckily for him, Self didn’t really want to win.

‘Personally’, he said in the Huffington Post, ‘it means very little to me’ because, he admits, ‘I am a miserable person. And I can’t suspend disbelief in social constructs of any kind, as you might be able to tell from my fiction’.

Nevertheless, the boon to sales for a Man Booker winner is considerable. According to the BBC since 1996 every winning book has grossed more than $AU 1.5 million. Yan Martel’s Life of Pi, which won in 2002 and has since been made into a film directed by Ang Lee, made just under $AU 10 million. Last year’s winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, has sold more than 300,000 print editions in the UK alone.

According to the latest figures, Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies has sold more than a hundred-thousand copies, which is more than the other 11 Man Booker longlisted novels combined.

The 44th Man Booker shortlist comprised six authors: here are the other five:

Tan Twan EngThe Garden of Evening Mists
Deborah LevySwimming Home
Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
Will Self, Umbrella
Jeet ThayilNarcopolis

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Breasts: florence williams’ unnatural history

Review of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about. Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.

RV-AG805_BREAST_G_20120511012940Cultural histories of body parts are all the rage. Fashions, beliefs and fetishes have been catalogued on everything from hair to navels, thumbs to toes, and all the fun bits between. Histories of the genitals – a small industry in themselves – tend to have the most tittering titles: no prize for guessing what A Mind of Its Own, Read My Lips or The Rear View are about.

Breasts, in art as in life, are also a popular object of meditation. But cultural histories of the human mammary gland – sketches of saints and a long march through the annals of European art – are rarely as titillating as readers might wish.

And herein lies Florence Williams’ point of departure in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. Williams leaves St Agatha’s breasts to wobble on a platter in the Louvre and turns to science to ask the ontological question of our age: Why is there something rather than nothing?

More specifically – and converse to the cry of tweenie angst – why are there breasts rather than no breasts? Or why was Jayne Mansfield (“a 41-inch bust and a lot of perseverance will get you more than a cup of coffee – a lot more”) Jayne Mansfield?

Given that female humans are the only mammals to sport year-round breasts, regardless of reproductive status, it is a curious question. In the early 14th century, a surgeon to the king of France proposed, among other quaintnesses, that breasts existed to warm and strengthen the stomach. In 1840, a more forbidding physician speculated that fatty breasts “enable women of the lower class to bear the very severe blows which they often receive in their drunken pugilistic contests”.

In delivering a more sensible answer, Williams, an American journalist and writer, has a prominent anthropologist to slay: cue Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.

The human shift to bipedalism had many advantages – it freed the hands, for one – but the loss of male “hindsight” that came from face-to-face sex was not, apparently, chief among them. The reason women have breasts, Morris informs us, is because our cave-dwelling forefathers preferred the fronts of our cave-dwelling foremothers to mimic their backs: “The protuberant, hemispherical breasts of the female,” Morris deadpans, “must surely be copies of the fleshy buttocks, and the sharply defined red lips around the mouth must be copies of the red labia.”

(From which we may deduce that lips on men, if they be red, must surely be a most serious case of false advertising.)

The peculiar idea that men bred breasts in women out of a desire for front-buttocks went uncontested until, mercifully, someone cried bollocks. Breasts, Welsh writer Elaine Morgan argued in The Descent of Woman (1972), do owe something of their existence to bipedalism, but not for the reasons Morris supposes. The pendulous shape of the breast and its marvellous manoeuvrability – in humans the nipple is not anchored tightly to the ribs as it is in monkeys – allows a baby to feed while held in the crook of its upright mother’s arm.

If men are turned on by the resulting contours (and it must be acknowledged that across cultures not all are) it is not as architects of the breast but as beneficiaries of the infant’s – as Darwin put it – “struggle for existence”.

But Morgan’s argument, however sensible, has not dampened female efforts to exploit male infatuation with mammary glands. In the past century, women have lined up to inflate their breasts with everything from glass balls to ivory, paraffin wax to wood chips, peanut oil to honey, and goat’s milk to ox cartilage.

In 1962 the first silicone implant surgery took place in Texas, but less well-heeled women settled for silicone injections. In 1964 a topless go-go dancer had 44 such injections and made her fortune as “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco”. Tom Wolfe immortalised her anatomy in The Pump House Gang (1968):

Carol Doda’s breasts are two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture – viscera spigot – great blown-up aureate morning-glories.

It’s hard to imagine, but these days there are more worrying things going into breasts than implants, and this is where Williams’ fascinating book turns deadly serious.

Breasts, it turns out, are not only receptacles for fantasy but also mirrors of our industrial lives, as Williams learned when she sent her breast milk to Germany for chemical testing. Her levels of flame-retardants came back 10 to 100 times higher than for European women, and she tested positive for perchlorate – a jet-fuel ingredient – and pesticides. These chemicals, deriving from household items – sofas, toys, electronics, play a dicey game with female and male estrogen levels. Against this backdrop, the human breast is un-gendered – a breast is a breast is a breast – and men are advised to ignore the lure of female breasts and pay attention to their own.

This article was originally published under the title ‘The mammaries linger on’ in The Weekend Australian (4-5 Aug 2012): 19.

The blood became sick: luke davies’ interferon psalms

Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies

In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

AVT_Luke-Davies_4298In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

From the Front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.

Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.

The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction – “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” – has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.

Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body – and mind – to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain.

If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines.

The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end – “A warning sign of any sort? God no” – leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:

                                        … I’d picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the open door.
I’d crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That’s just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets of realisation
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter. Shock waves
Past their use-by date. The utter exhaustion
Of trying to maintain one’s dignity amid one’s pain.

There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams – “those private myths of plaintive distress” – yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him.

It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic.

Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:

Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.

With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:

The world received us into its citizenship. I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We wept. The buildings all fell down. And even my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning for water, as usual.

Parched. The desert parched. The parched lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded syrup on the mind.

I imagined lying between her legs.

Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had always been like that.

Her fine, hard, bared crotch.

Plus, on your death bed you would not remember any particular tax return over another.

Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.

In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.

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Study finds fiction ‘makes things happen’

auden“Poetry makes nothing happen”. It’s the most often quoted line of W.H. Auden’s famous elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” – it could even be the most quoted line of his career. People draw on it when they want to denigrate poetry: if one of last century’s great poets thinks poetry is more impotent than important, why should they have to read it?

But these readers tend to forget (or choose to ignore) what comes next: poetry survives, Auden asserts, “in the valley of its making”. It is “a way of happening”, he continues, “a mouth”. Auden was a realist and knew that poetry couldn’t stop the approaching machinery of war – the elegy was written in 1939 – nonetheless he upholds the human need to commune with other humans.

But might literature – novels, plays and, yes, even poetry – be more than a mouthpiece?

Literary aficionados and librarians have long argued the edifying effects of the literary arts, but until now they have been noticeably short on evidence. A recent study at Ohio State University, however, has confirmed that literature does in fact “make things happen”.

In the right situations, the researchers found, reading fiction can lead to measurable changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers. In jargon that Auden no doubt would have choked on, the researchers coined the term “experience-taking” to describe the phenomenon in which readers feel a character’s emotions, thoughts and beliefs as their own.

“Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behaviour and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways,” said Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

In one experiment, 70 heterosexual male college students read a story about a day in the life of another student. There were three versions: in one the protagonist was revealed to be gay early in the narrative; in another the protagonist was identified as gay late in the narrative; and in a third the protagonist was identified as heterosexual.

Results showed that students who read the narrative in which the protagonist was identified as gay late in the story reported higher levels of experience-taking than those who read the narrative in which the protagonist’s homosexuality was announced early.

“If participants knew early on that the character was not like them – that he was gay – that prevented them from really experience-taking,” Libby said. “But if they learned late about the character’s homosexuality, they were just as likely to lose themselves in the character as were the people who read about a heterosexual student.”

Perhaps more importantly, the version of the story participants read affected how they thought about gays: those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favourable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative.

Significantly, those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

Similar results were found when white students read about a black student who was identified as black early or late in the narrative.

Experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, where people try to empathise with another person’s experience – but without losing sight of their own identity. “Experience-taking is much more immersive”, Libby explains, “you’ve replaced yourself with the other”.

Interestingly, experience-taking only occurs when people are able to “forget” themselves – their self-concept and self-identity – while reading. In a fascinating experiment researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle that contained a mirror.

When people do undergo experience-taking, however, it can affect their behaviour for days afterwards.

In an experiment which took place several days before the last US presidential election, 82 undergraduates (who were registered and eligible to vote) read one of four versions of a short story about a student who overcomes a series of obstacles (car problems, rain, long lines) on Election Day before arriving at the booth to cast a vote.

After reading the story, the participants completed a questionnaire that measured their level of experience-taking. The results showed that participants who read a first-person narrative about a student at their own university had the highest level of experience-taking. And a full 65 percent of these participants later reported they voted on Election Day. In comparison, only 29 percent of the participants voted if they read the first-person narrative about a student from a different university.

But what are the practical applications of this research?

While the findings would seem to validate the librarian’s clarion call to get reading – for our higher good – other implications are not so heartening.

Might the findings, for example, be used to justify whitewashing, a disturbing practice in which publishers put white models on the covers of books featuring non-white protagonists?

In 2009 Australian author Justine Larbalestier was appalled to find her American publisher, Bloomsbury, had changed the cover model on her novel Liar from black to white in an effort to sell more books. Larbalestier was successful in her campaign to have her publisher to redo the cover, arguing that the perception that covers featuring non-white models do not sell is merely self-fulfilling prophecy. But what if a deeper psychology is at play?

And who is to say that a reader’s experience-taking of less virtuous characters is not an argument for censorship? Might the psychopathy of Patrick Bateman be contagious after all, as censors insist?

Recently fierce arguments have erupted in Germany over whether Hitler’s Mein Kampf has the power to make things happen. Some might argue that the diatribe is more fiction than fact, but this side of history, at least, it is hard to imagine anyone losing themselves in the character of Hitler.

Perhaps to be safe, though, it should be stipulated that the book only be read in cubicles containing a long mirror.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Poetry takes down Günter Grass

Günter Grass

The world of political poetry has suffered some significant losses in recent months. Václav Havel, a poet long before he was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, died in late December 2011.

Although many of Havel’s poems were whimsical “concrete” poems, a good number were pointedly critical of Czechoslovakian society and politics of the time. These works, along with his other dissident activities, landed him in jail from 1979 until 1984.

February this year saw the death of the Polish poet and Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, whose poems chronicled Polish history from WWII, through Stalinism and beyond. “My poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life,” Szymborska once remarked, “but, of course, life crosses politics.”

Feminists – and certain political regimes – have long believed that the personal can be very political indeed. It’s a message reiterated by Adrienne Rich, one of America’s most influential contemporary poets, whose poetry books have sold close to a million copies.

As a woman and a lesbian of Jewish descent, Rich was concerned with the politics of identity long before the idea became de rigueur. Poetry is a map, she declares in her poem, “Dreamwood”: not a revolution, “but a way of knowing / why it must come”. Rich’s death on 27 March dispatched a wave of mourning around the world.

The marriage between poetry and politics has a long history. Archilochus wrote some of the earliest political poetry, and Horace’s tribute to Augustus’s principate in the Roman Odes is among the greatest political poetry ever written.

While much of the earliest political poetry was written in tribute to leaders, much of contemporary political poetry is written in protest.

Robert Hass, American poet laureate (1995-97), elucidates the contemporary view: “I think the job of poetry, its political job, is to refresh the idea of justice, which is going dead in us all the time.”

Nevertheless, political poetry can be difficult for the critic to esteem. Harold Bloom held it to the highest measure in his attack on The Best American Poetry 1996 anthology, edited by Adrienne Rich, calling it “a stuffed owl of bad verse”. He was unable, he claimed, to find in it more than an authentic poem or two.

“It is of a badness not to be believed, because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet. Sincerity, as the divine Oscar Wilde assured us, is not nearly enough to generate a poem.”

Yet sincerity is precisely the stuff of which Günter Grass’ incendiary poem, “What Must Be Said”, is made. The poem’s argument is two-fold. First, Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a threat to the Iranian people and “endangers an already fragile world peace”;

Second it argues why for a long time he has felt unable to voice his fears owing to a greater fear of being punished for the sins of his German forefathers:
But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Despite his declared attachment to Israel, Grass was right to worry. The poem caused a tremendous ruckus when it appeared on 4 April in several European newspapers.

It demonstrated decisively that poetry can “make things happen” after all, on 8 April Israel declared Grass a persona non grata and denied him future entry into the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the poem’s allegation that Israel poses a greater threat to world security than Iran – “a regime which denies the Holocaust and calls for Israel’s destruction” – is a “shameful moral equivalence”.

Grass was quick to apologise for the wording in his poem: instead of saying Israel, he should have said “the Netanyahu government”.

Despite the brouhaha the poem has incited, most critics agree it isn’t particularly good. Heather Horn, who translated it from German, chided its “needlessly Teutonic constructions” and “winding and parenthetical tone”.

Someone once said publishing a poem is like throwing a feather off a cliff and waiting for the thud. In Grass’ case the feather turned out to be an elephant and he was standing under it.

The absurdity of fuss generated by an average-at-best poem would be amusing, were it not for the toll it appears to have taken on Grass’s health.

On Monday this week – two weeks after the poem’s publication – Grass was admitted with suspected heart problems to a hospital in Hamburg. “There’s no danger to his life,” his doctor said in a written statement, assuring the world that the 84 year-old poet would return home by “the end of the week at the latest.”

In some societies – past and, sadly, some present – poets pay with their lives for the gall of social critique.

Putting politics aside, let’s hope Günter Grass’s price will not be so costly.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Mateship with birds: you have to push in

Review of Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland. Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love.

066558-carrie-tiffanyEveryman’s Rules for Scientific Living was always going to be a tough book to follow. Carry Tiffany’s début novel, published by Picador in 2005, was shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Orange Prize. It also won the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2005 and the Dobbie Literary Award in 2007. Everyman’s Rules tells the story of a sewing instructor and a soil scientist who meet aboard the ‘Better Farming Train’ as it passes through the Victorian countryside, and who settle in the impoverished Mallee farmland.

Similarly, Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, opens in Cohuna, a small town in northern Victoria, in 1953. Harry is a middle-aged dairy farmer, divorced and looking for love. He has his eye on Betty Reynolds, the unmarried mother of Michael and Little Hazel, who rents a small house next door. Betty is forty-five; for eight years Harry has watched her body age: ‘When she turns to speak to him he notices her softening jaw and her mouth – the lipstick on her front teeth.’ The air around them is thick with reticence. If there is sexual tension between them, it is buried deep. There doesn’t seem to be much need for talk, the narrator observes, but sometimes they talk about bunions.

Given its title – borrowed from A.H. Chisholm’s 1922 book of bird notes – a reader could be forgiven for thinking Tiffany’s novel is about ornithology. To a small degree it is. Harry observes a family of kookaburras that roost on his farm, and records his notes in poetry. Harry’s first poem, ‘Observations of a Kookaburra Family at Cohuna’, is written for Betty’s fourteen-year-old son, Michael. It begins:

The day starts in their throats.
Dad first, then Mum,
Tiny and Club-Toe.
The form of them in the red gum
by the dairy.
As regular as clockwork
they make their request for air.

Clichés aside (‘regular as clockwork’), at times the poems deliver a pleasing turn of phrase. Harry doesn’t pretend to be a poet, so there is not much use in applying a critical eye to his work. But given that his six poems span almost forty pages (approximately twenty per cent of the novel), Tiffany might have been wiser to submit Harry’s ramblings to a severe pruning. By any standard, the poems are too long, reliant on generalities, and painfully repetitive. How many times, for instance, can a reader encounter the likes of this without being tempted to skip ahead: ‘They come at dusk, / one by one. / Mum, Dad, / Club-Toe / and Bub.’

But poetry is not all that Harry is inspired to write. One day, after a morning spent artificially inseminating heifers, Harry stumbles upon Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which – along with the courtship rituals of spiders – presents a series of case studies detailing the sexual histories of ordinary men and women.

In the evenings, armed with a cup of Milo, a sharpened pencil, and several sheets of Basildon Bond, Harry sits down to write his own intimate disclosures. He begins with his earliest memories of sexual arousal at age four or five, moves through various teen gratifications, and concludes with the pleasures and problems of his former conjugal bed. Harry addresses his letters to Michael in an effort to save the boy from the sexual ignorance Harry himself had experienced.

But Harry is not content to restrict his tutelage to theory. In one of the most bizarre scenes in the novel – and it must be said, there are many – Harry takes Michael behind the dairy to where the phalaris grass has gone to seed. Michael looks on as Harry clips the seed heads and prunes the clump. Harry clears his throat:

Strong and wiry, Michael, the female pubic bush. Coarse. Nothing like the soft hair of the head. I’ve always thought of it more as fur than hair. Similar colouring can be expected. Dark hair, dark bush; mousy hair, mousy bush and so on, and it’ll all go to grey in the end with senile decay. Not that you have to worry about that for a while, eh?

Harry takes Michael’s hand and places it on top of the phalaris. ‘Don’t be tempted to stay on the surface,’ he instructs, ‘you have to push in.’ Still holding Michael’s hand, Harry concludes: ‘The pubic bush. A bloody miracle. And it has no sense of gravity. Despite being stuck halfway up in the air most of the time, from what I can see it doesn’t droop.’

It is not clear what Michael – or the reader for that matter – is to make of these ‘lessons’, but needless to say when Betty learns of the sexual tutelage Harry has given her son, she is not happy. Worryingly, the novel’s easy resolution invites the reader to disregard Harry’s actions rather than see them as, at minimum, outrageously misguided and – it must be said – a little icky.

Conceivably an exploration of 1950s sexuality might have made a fascinating study, but ultimately Tiffany’s new novel offers little insight into the most fundamental of human desires. Her characters, uniformly doleful, remain opaque throughout, and the narrative fails to achieve lift off. Perhaps Tiffany would have done better to cast her material as a short story and save her second novel for one more fitting of the talent promised by her impressive first.

This article was originally published under the title ‘Dubious Lessons’ in Australian Book Review 338 (Feb 2012): 27.

Love against max hardcore

Review of Love: A History by Simon May; and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines.

Madame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”. Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

staelMadame de Staël, famously exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her menacing wit, put her finger on the difference between male and female passion: “The desire of the man is for the woman”, she says, “but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man”.

Two-hundred years later, nowhere is de Staël’s remark better illustrated, and enacted in greater numbers, than in Internet pornography which seems to specialize, as far as I can see, in choreographing illimitable contortions of heterosexual sex, all the while managing an adroit distance from every female erogenous zone known and unknown to man. But more on porn shortly.

In the meantime, Simon May in his monograph Love: A History argues that desire is really only one of many expressions of love, all of which share the same basic structure: a yearning for what he calls “ontological rootedness”. Love, he says daring a definition, “is the rapture we feel for people and things that inspire in us the hope of an indestructible grounding for our life”. We will love only those people or things or ideas, he says, that can deepen the sensation of our being through the promise of a permanent “home” in the world.

May’s History tells the story of how love has been interpreted over the centuries in the particular collection of cultures we call “Western”. He traces our modern conception of love to the marriage of ideas between Hebrew scripture and Greek philosophy: Plato argued the idea of love as the path to wholeness, while Christianity asserted love as the path to the divine.

Since then love has undergone several seismic transformations. Having discovered an unprecedented power to love and achieve friendship with God, humans soon found themselves worthy of the sort of love formerly reserved for God. As the role of religion declined over the centuries, men and women came to expect their secular love to take over where God’s love left off. In their folly – indeed their hubris, says May – humans now believe that true love is unconditional, eternal, and selfless. In this sense, May’s history of love is a cautionary tale. Love has become overloaded, he argues, and our relationships are lumbering under these dangerous illusions.

May proffers his final conjecture with a trembling hand: even the idea that we love our children unconditionally is delusive. His reasoning is light on evidence – though perhaps a list of the derelictions of paternal duties on the parts of a good many of the philosophers whose works May discusses – yes, they’re all men – might have made his point more fully. Rousseau, to name but one, personally abandoned every one of his five children to a French foundling hospital because, he explained, they interfered with his work.

“It’s always nice to know”, Neal Pollack once sallied, “that no matter how badly you’ve screwed up your love life, someone else has done far, far worse”. Indeed the biographies of these philosophers of love corroborate that a lover of wisdom and a wise lover are two different people. All May’s philosophers, as far as I’m aware, failed at love themselves. And most had no time for women: Aristotle thought they were “monstrosities” of nature and little more than tamed animals. “Women are meretricious schemers who lay snares”, Lucretius wrote. And in Schopenhauer’s masterpiece of misogyny, On Women, he opined: “The most eminent heads of the entire [female] sex have proved incapable of a single truly great, genuine and original achievement in art, or indeed of creating anything at all of lasting value”.

To redress the lack of a single female voice in May’s history of love, I raise the specter of Andrea Dworkin: “Romantic love, in pornography as in life, is the mythic celebration of female negation. The proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover.” Love may be universal but its burdens, if we are to take her point, are not equally distributed.

Dworkin also serves as a transition to Gail Dine’s new book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Dines, a professor of sociology at Wheelock College, has been agitating against porn for twenty years but Pornland makes explicit that her current beef is with “gonzo porn”. The word gonzo is said to be Irish-American slang for the last man standing in a drinking contest. But Hunter S. Thompson brought it to prominence in the 1970s when he used it to describe the manic and gritty style of journalism he pioneered, inserting himself into the story with, he said, “total commitment, total concentration and a mad sort of panache”.

In the 1990s gonzo was applied to an emerging style of “reality porn” that not only acknowledged the presence of the camera in a scene but its operator was often made an active participant in the sex. Gonzo porn dispensed with the corny narratives of bygone porn and headed straight to the orifice action – preferably but not exclusively anal – which it cynically exalts in extreme close-ups and endless montages.

Over time, gonzo porn has come to connote extreme content in porn rather than camera technique. Dines offers a pithy definition: “gonzo porn is hard-core, body-punishing sex in which women are demeaned and debased”.

This new style of porn was the subject of the 2001 documentary, Hardcore, that follows a 25-year-old, British single-mother, “Felicity”, to Los Angeles (porn capital of the world) where she wants to make it as a porn actress. First up her agent takes her to visit Max Hardcore who specializes in getting actresses to dress up as little girls and allow him to spit and urinate in their mouths, choke and gag them with his penis or fist, and insert gynecological instruments into their rectums in order to enlarge them to the utmost degree. “We have a saying around here”, he tells Felicity as he anally rapes her, “we’re not happy until you’re not happy”.

Felicity laughs but later flees the set in tears after a brutal off-camera session in which Max nearly suffocates her in a bout of oral sex. Nevertheless she soldiers on in her mission – I confess sometimes the behaviour of women confounds me – and takes part in a film directed by another gonzo impresario who boasts his movies “make Belsen look like a picnic”.

Gonzo porn is not vile because Dines says it is. It’s vile because Max Hardcore says it is. That’s how he – and his fans – like it. “By the time I’m done with them”, he says of his actresses, “they’re dead inside”. Depravity is Max Hardcore’s guiding aesthetic, or at least it would be were he not currently in jail on pseudo-child-porn (PCP) charges.

Given the clarity with which Dines maps gonzo territory in Pornland, you might be forgiven for thinking feminists would be among her most ardent supporters. But you’d be wrong. Dines conducts feminist ire like water conducts electricity.

I suspect (indeed hope) Dines’s feminist detractors are not acquainted with the gonzo genre. I suspect they’re fans of female-friendly “boutique” porn (to borrow the euphemism for worthy but unbankable literature) directed by female auteurs who are in no danger of drawing attention to themselves by making Forbes’s Richest People list. I suspect they find their porn-of-choice by googling “erotica for women” or “artful nude photography” and other such feeble yielders. Because feminists defending gonzo porn is like Occupational Health and Safety giving Jackass the thumbs up, or the Heart Foundation putting its tick on a bucket of lard.

On a talk show that aired on the ABC last month, an Australian–based ethicist (whom I’ll leave unnamed due mostly to my embarrassment on her behalf) challenged Dines’s attack on gonzo porn by unveiling a truism that most people don’t buy porn these days: “They’re watching things that other people produce and some of it is really quite sweet and quite hilarious. You know, I’ve seen stuff where, you know, there is like a little nightie hanging on the back of a door. It’s quite sweet”.

Was the Valley-Girl cum ethicist trying to outdo Dines with anti-porn imagery? Or did she accidently click on an outtake from Little Whore House on the Prairie?

But gonzo porn, so the apologist argument goes, is fringe. Max Hardcore, Ben Dover (don’t think about it), Seymour Butts and countless other sadistic clowns are extreme in anybody’s reckoning. But the file-sharing porn site Redtube.com isn’t fringe. In fact in 2009 it was ranked in the top 100 websites world-wide.

At the time of writing, the Redtube homepage is streaming, beneath thumbnails of predominantly anal sex videos, images of a man shoving a woman’s head into a toilet with one hand while giving the camera a thumbs up with the other; a prepubescent-looking girl in a headband sitting on a bed and holding a stuffed monkey to her flat and naked chest (I don’t dare click on it for fear of Task Force Argos banging on my door); and the double-anal penetration of a young woman whose contorted face is pinned to the floor by her penetrator’s foot.

Perhaps gonzo is more mainstream than anybody would care to think. Despite apologist claims otherwise, large sections of the porn industry now make no pretence of representing “healthy sexuality” and other such clichés: there’s simply no money in it. The degradation of women is its stock in trade. Porn star Nina Hartley – who in 2010 quipped, “I work with women who are younger than my breast implants” – admits: “You’re seeing more of these videos of women getting dragged on their faces and spat on, and having their heads dunked in the toilet”.

In How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale – which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2004 (if you need extra incentive to read it, each chapter is headed with a line from a Shakespearean sonnet) –porn-star extraordinaire Jenna Jameson explains: “Most girls get their first experience in gonzo films – in which they’re taken to a crappy studio apartment in Mission Hills [LA] and penetrated in every hole possible by some abusive asshole who thinks her name is Bitch”. If the girls are doing gonzo for the money, Jameson predicts their disappointment: “she’ll work for two weeks until she’s only getting paid seven hundred dollars a scene and then, finally, no one wants to use her anymore. So she’ll agree to do double penetration or drink the sperm of twelve guys just to stay working”.

“Say what you want about love but don’t say a word against porn”, a friend warned when I told her the books I was reviewing for ALR, “or you’ll be brandished a wowser”.

But there are worse things than that, I decided as I disconnected the Internet, hung my nightie on the back of the door, and exiled myself to bed, alone, perchance to dream of a good ontological root.

Bronwyn Lea’s review of Love: A History by Simon May and Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality by Gail Dines. First published under the title ‘Love Against Max Hardcore’ in Australian Literary Review (July 2011): 19.

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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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