The Argotist OnlineTM
John Tranter Interview
John Tranter Interview
John Tranter was born in Cooma, New South Wales, in 1943. He attended country schools, and took his BA in 1970. He has worked mainly in publishing, teaching and radio production, and has travelled widely. He has lived in London, Singapore, Brisbane, and San Francisco, and now lives in Sydney. He is married, with two adult children.
John Tranter has published a number of anthologies and more than twenty volumes of verse, including Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected (University of Queensland Press, Australia, and Salt Publishing, Cambridge UK, 2006), which won the Victorian state award for poetry in 2006, the New South Wales state award for poetry in 2007, the South Australian state award for poetry in 2008, and the 2008 South Australian Premier’s Prize for the best book overall (fiction, non-fiction, poetry and others for the years 2006 and 2007). His next book will be Starlight: 150 Poems (UQP, 2010).
He is the founding publisher of the free Internet literary magazine Jacket, founded in October 1997. The US Publishers’ Weekly called it “the first (and best) large-scale Internet poetry journal.” He is also the founder of Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library (APRIL), a team project to place poetry and background for over a thousand poets on the Internet.
has published five books of poetry: Astronaut (Arc/Carnegie Mellon), American Incident (Salt), Graft (Arc/New Issues), Quarantine (Ahsahta/Arc), and The Stripping Point (Counterpath). His limited edition book In the Unlikely Event of a Water appeared from Equipage in 2007. A new volume, Wings Without Birds, is forthcoming from Salt Publishing. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Australia in 1997-98, and he has co-edited Verse since 1995.
Your 2006 book Urban
Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected (Salt Publishing) is mainly
chronological, but begins with a newer poem (“After Hölderlin”) and ends
with an older poem (“The Popular Mysteries”). What was it about those poems
that compelled you to deviate from chronology in providing entry and exit points
for the book?
Entry and exit points
is right on. I hoped that those two poems would act as framing devices, and
provide a pathway into the poems, and an exit at the end. The opening poem,
“After Hölderlin”, is a version, or an updating, or a personal takeover,
more like it, of Hölderlin’s poem “When I was a Boy”. He talks about how
as a child “The breezes singing in the trees were my teachers, and I learned
to love among the flowers...” Very German, that: I can see him hiking around
the Black Forest in his lederhosen whacking at hollyhocks with a stick. And he
learned about society from the ancient gods. My gods were very different, and
mainly appeared in the pages of books (Biggles, Somerset Maugham) or on the
movie screen (Kim Novak, John Wayne), so my version of that scenario talks about
how I grew up, and what turned me into a story-teller or a poet. It seemed a
good introduction to a collection of my best poems over fifty years.
The last poem in that book
(“The Popular Mysteries”) also concluded my earlier Selected Poems
(1982), and I wanted to have that link from a quarter of a century ago. It talks
about poetry too, but in a dreamy way (“your complex dreaming / is a gift
factory”), and ends up with the narrator going to sleep, “thoroughly
happy”. It seemed a pleasant way to emphasise the continuity in my work, and
to end the book and send the reader back to the real world. Poetry and dreams
are intimately connected, in my view. They have the same kind of meaning.
Is the book’s title
a nod to, or send-up of, the critical commonplace that you are an “urbane”
poet—the urban to Les Murray’s rural?
Like most thinking
people, I stopped paying any serious attention to Les Murray decades ago. As
Gertrude Stein reminds us, village explainers are “excellent if you were a
village, but if you were not, not.”
No, the title was suggested by
my wife Lyn, and it seemed to suit the book, so I used it. I have always liked
the lurid plausibility of urban myths, and believed quite a few of them as a
young man before learning that the same dramatic stories appeared in many
societies, in slightly different guises. In my collection of four long narrative
poems The Floor of Heaven, the stories of people’s lives are tangled up with a number of urban myths which I had
believed to be real when I was young and living in the country.
But these myths are also
“urban”, of course, and mark out the distance we travel from the innocence
of childhood to adulthood and disillusion. Urban myths don’t embody the
ancient wisdom of the race; they are not folk tales or fairy stories or
historical events or legends. They are contemporary and superficially realistic,
and they invest the ordinary world with melodrama and high colour. Poetry,
novels, television and movies do the same kind of thing. It seems to me that
urban myths are invented mainly by adolescent boys, as a way of portraying and
dealing with the bizarre world of freedom, choice and personal responsibility
that looming manhood entails. They usually deal with punishment for a
transgression, and often involve killing.
It is a “rural” or
“pastoral” world that urban myths seem to provide the alternative to:
childhood, a world of innocence that cannot be recovered, seen through a veil of
nostalgia. You find traces of that in Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill’, or in
those lovely rural dream-scenes by Rimbaud: “Memoire”, “Michele et
Christine”, or “La Riviere de Cassis”. And in the work of those French
poets who travelled so far from the tropical world of their separate childhoods
in Montevideo, Uruguay, to cosmopolitan, industrial Paris: Lautréamont,
Laforgue and Supervielle: “J’avais un cheval / Dans un champ de ciel / Et je
m’enfoncais / Dans le jour ardent.” (“I had a horse in a field of sky and
I plunged into the burning daylight.” – Supervielle, “Open Sky”.)
Your poems often
reach out to a “you.” What attracts you to that mode of address?
That second person
address does seem to be something I do, or perhaps overdo.
Am I being clever, or just avoiding something? Over twenty years ago
Andrew Taylor (Australian poet and critic) puzzled about that. He was looking
particularly at my poem “Leavis at The London Hotel”: “... just who is
‘you’? Is it F. R. Leavis, addressed by the poem’s subject? Is it the
reader, similarly addressed? Is it the poem’s subject, being addressed by it/
him/ herself, the modern colloquial equivalent of ‘one’?… Does ‘you’
refer to a number of different addressees, each with his/ her separate needs? It
might, but the poem does not enable us to distinguish them from each other.”
And Marjorie Perloff quotes a 1973 interview with John Ashbery, who as usual was doing this pretty much before anybody else thought to do it. He explicates the tactic better than most. Let me find the quote... “The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like variables in an equation. ‘You’ can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I’m addressing, and so can ‘he’ and ‘she’ for that matter and ‘we’; sometimes one has to deduce from the rest of the sentence what is being meant and my point is also that it doesn’t really matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what’s the important thing at that particular moment rather than the particular person involved. I guess I don’t have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony in my poetry which I again feel is a means toward greater naturalism.” 1
I guess I’m interested in that
kind of polyphony, though I’m not so sure about the naturalism. A focus on the
first person – me, me – is something poets grow out of as they leave
adolescence. Though decades ago poets used to throw their own personal identity
around like a club: “I am a poet: I had this authentic experience: now I have
written an authentic poem about it: bow down before me!” Things have moved on
from that, I hope. The second person is more open; it invites other people into
the conversation; particularly the reader.
Novels used to employ that
second person address plainly – “Dear
Reader, I hardly knew in what manner to repel the gentleman’s importunate
advances...”. And then again, all theatre, from Shakespeare to the movies,
addresses “you”, the audience member. Don’t you think? In a movie, the
actors pretend to be speaking their lines to each other, but they know and the
director knows and the scriptwriter knows that all of those words are
specifically meant for “you” to overhear, as in Hamlet, or in The
Marriage of Figaro. In some television serials and film noir movies – Sunset
Boulevard, for example – the voice-over narration specifically addresses
the viewer, or (in radio) talks to the listener. Maybe that’s what Ashbery
means by “naturalism”, the naturalism of theatrical speech aimed at
“you” the consumer.
Talking of movies,
how would you describe your approach to narrative? Do you think films—or
cinema, the cinematic—have had a big influence on your poetry?
Oh yes, definitely.
Poems are what I do instead of making movies, which I’d rather do. And for a
living I have produced or commissioned dozens – uh, no, hundreds – of radio
plays and features – they’re cheaper to make than movies, and as they say,
the pictures are better. Luckily I stumbled into the trade as a young man, when
large audiences used to listen to radio plays and radio features.
I love that cooperative
creativity, that buzz when you get a team of talented people working together to
invent a magical world and the strange events that go on it it: scriptwriter,
director, actors, sound effects, sound engineers... just ask a group of people
to help tell a story and you’d be amazed at the talent that emerges. I find it
deeply satisfying, more so than sitting alone in a room typing all day. I’d
hate to be just a poet: horrible fate.
The whole of my book The Floor of Heaven is really a movie, or a sequence of movies, inspired initally by Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). That’s a strange film: in it the main story keeps being derailed by characters who feel an urge to tell about a dream they’ve had: dreams, poems... Buñuel pointed to the identity between dreams and movies. He said (in 1953) “Film seems to be an involuntary imitation of dream … the nightly incursion into the unconscious begins on the screen and deep inside man.” 2
There are other influences
behind those narrative poems, of course: most film noir, a short story by
Christina Stead (“George”), the idea of the aria in opera, tragedies I had
heard about, people I had known in my misspent youth, lots of things.
What are the origins
of your 1976 book-poem “The Alphabet Murders”?
That marked a break
in the kind of poetry I was writing. And in my attitude to poetry. I began
writing poetry in 1960. Eleven years later I had written over 300 mainly
undistinguished poems and had published my first book and had completed most of
a second. I had lived overseas, I had travelled from London to Sydney mostly
overland, with some danger and difficulty, and I had married. I had obtained a
degree majoring in English Literature and Psychology.
But I dropped out of university
in 1971 to take up a position in Singapore as a publisher’s editor. There I
stopped writing, and started reading: novels by Graham Greene and Eric Ambler
and John Le Carre. I had grown sick of poetry.
Over the years I had tried
several differents way of writing poetry, and I had queried the various purposes
poetry might have. I had reached the stage where I could turn out a reasonable
poem in an effective tone of voice using a collection of workable rhetorical
strategies. But I couldn’t see the point. Maybe the relative isolation of
Singapore had something to do with it: there was no one to talk to about poetry.
In any case I felt that poetry was affected, artificial and vain, and I stopped
reading or writing it.
When I came back to Sydney in
late 1972 I reconnected with the poetry world there, and through 1973 and 1974
began reviewing and writing poetry again. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I
wrote a long review of Robert Adamson’s Swamp Riddles in 1973,
surveying his career up to that point.
And in 1974 I compiled a
one-hour radio anthology of Frank O’Hara’s best poems for the Australian
Broadcasting Commission, as it was known then. That involved reading every poem
in his 586-page Collected Poems. I had been slow to appreciate O’Hara,
despite my friend John Forbes’s enthusiasm for his work – John was always
quicker and smarter than I was – but now I could see more clearly the
strengths of O’Hara’s writing, and how pretentious Robert Lowell’s poetry
– for example – seemed by comparison.
A telling moment of conflict
occurs at the reading at Wagner College on Staten Island in February 1962. Frank
O’Hara introduced his untitled poem beginning “Lana Turner has collapsed!”
by explaining to the audience that he had mainly written the poem on the Staten
Island ferry (in a snowstorm) on his way to the reading (“... I was trotting
along and suddenly / it started raining and snowing… ”). Robert Lowell also
read, and – clearly irritated – introduced his reading by apologizing for
not having written his poem on the spot too. Lowell – all his life the career
poet – frowned on the glare of the mundane world through the sunglasses of
“literature”; O’Hara took it as it was, as his subject matter.
In a sense he was furthering Baudelaire’s project. Michael Jennings mentions Walter Benjamin’s appreciation of Baudelaire: “For Benjamin, the greatness of Baudelaire consists… in his absolute susceptibility to the worst excrescences of modern life: Baudelaire was in possession not of genius, but of an extraordinarily ‘sensitive disposition’ that enabled him to perceive, through a painful empathy, the character of an age.” 3
So with Adamson and O’Hara I
had two important contemporary poets and their careers in mind at that time:
sobering, and challenging, too.
Lyn and I had also had a child
in Singapore, and that tends to steer you away from too great a focus on
I obtained my first Literature
Board grant in 1973, for the 1974 calendar year, and my main project was a
series of longish poems that turned into “The Alphabet Murders”. A great
deal of the dislike I had felt for poetry (and the world of poetry) found its
way into these poems. They’re indiscriminately argumentative and angry. I
suspect I was chastising poetry for having failed me. (Hubris? Moi?) I set the
poem up as a workshop where I hoped to dismantle “poetry” and find out what
was left of value once the bullshit had been torn out and thrown away. What was
left, of course, was just that poem. For what it’s worth.
Nearly thirty years later I
realised that every eleven or so years I suffered a period of disinterest and
dislike for poetry, as I had in 1971. I mentioned this to a psychiatrist, saying
that I failed to understand it, as there was no natural or social force that
went through an eleven-year cycle. “Oh, yes there is,” he said.
Yes. I’m still
thinking about that one.
The opening line of
“The Alphabet Murders”—“After all we have left behind”—offers a
sense of intimacy, a shared world with shared experiences. Were you intending to
speak to and from a collective, or was it more personal, more specific than
I think I was talking
about leaving behind the history or the tradition of literature in English:
Shakespeare, the Romantics, the early Modernists. And Callimachus, and Sappho,
and so on. Just as we have left World War One and World War Two behind, so we
have left “literature” behind. But of course we haven’t left the modern
world behind. It follows us like a dog that never ages, becoming more modern
stanza ends “So I write to you ‘from a distant country’”,
a quote from Henri Michaux, whose distant country – a dreamy, mournful
place – features eucalyptus trees. I think I had in mind that this “distant
country” might have an alternative future, as in a science fiction story,
where a wonderful kind of poetry lived, full of passion and energy, and perhaps
we could cross over to that universe if we wished hard enough.
Also near the
beginning of “The Alphabet Murders,” you seem to offer an aesthetic
statement, something of an ars poetica, but one subject to slippage, when you
write, “this complex of thought begins / a new movement into musical form,
much as / logic turns into mathematics and automatics / turn into moonlit
driveways.” Is there an instinct to turn away from wisdom per se, or at least
to deflate it a little when it appears?
That’s a complicated one.
When I studied Philosophy at university I was dismayed to find that there were
no lectures on Buddhism or J.W. Dunne (An Experiment with Time) or
Bergson, but instead complex syllogisms and truth tables that looked like
mathematical theorems. Yet of course mathematics can be beautiful. And the
automatics (automatic gearshift automobiles)
through the pun on “turn into” call up Ginsberg’s best poem, his
imaginary conversation with Whitman, “A Supermarket in California” :
“...Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles
in driveways, home to our silent cottage?” I think I was trying to give the
poem a bravura opening, demonstrating that anything was possible, any
contradiction, any simile, any future, as long as writers and critics were
prepared to leave behind everything that was worn out and predictable. Of course
that’s a rephrasing of the ancient struggle between the young and the old.
I’m not sure that I was aware of that at the time: I was thirty years old.
(Thirty years young.)
One of my favorite
things about Kenneth Koch’s poetry is its peculiar didacticism—a kind of
faux-didacticism—which also appears in other poets (Ashbery, James Tate, and
John Forbes, among others). Your own poems offer numerous instances of
information or advice, much of it mock-serious. In “The Alphabet Murders”
alone, we have “Fate is a variety of religious experience which is / always
asking its own questions,” “Justice is a kind of rhyme,” “Love is the
most awkward game to play,” “Love is like a dose of vitamins,” “Love is
like an angler, or his goals, / obsessively preoccupied with problems of the
tide,” “Karl Marx is a comic novelist, almost,” etc.
JT: I was intrigued by the idea that you could invent something in a poem, then follow the logic of that invention to see where it led. Matthew Arnold does this with his heroic similes (in “Sohrab and Rustum”, at least) which I have parodied elsewhere, and once you accept that a poem can create its own world, then in that world, anything can happen. I used to read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, and into my thirties. I used to love reading J.G. Ballard, for example; he can invent entire worlds on the flimsiest premise and make them lyrically real (The Drowned World, 1962, The Crystal World, 1966). And of course movies are like that: hire a set and a camera, and you can invent a universe, as we know from Ed Wood’s bizarre life. I was intrigued by the idea that you could invent something in a poem, then follow the logic of that invention to see where it led. Matthew Arnold does this with his heroic similes (in “Sohrab and Rustum”, at least) which I have parodied elsewhere, and once you accept that a poem can create its own world, then in that world, anything can happen. I used to read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, and into my thirties. I used to love reading J.G. Ballard, for example; he can invent entire worlds on the flimsiest premise and make them lyrically real (The Drowned World, 1962, The Crystal World, 1966). And of course movies are like that: hire a set and a camera, and you can invent a universe, as we know from Ed Wood’s bizarre life. 4
A lot of your poems
focus on human weakness and failure, but there’s a passage in “The Alphabet
Murders” that I think elevates, or at least dignifies, those foibles through
song in a way that’s both old-fashioned (in its seeming earnestness and
soul-searching) and fresh:
How are we locked into the forme
history in the making? At night,
the mothy lamp flickers and
across the lawn, we dream of a
and pray that our children will
in the small reward that
trickles out of action.
Is it too late to stare at
ourselves cruelly as we must
if we really want that freedom,
or are the little fears
that grow out of human contact
and the knowledge of all those
terrible old stories
too much even for the willing
soul? How do our
acts and gestures, falling
through the years,
shore up the silly things we do,
the way we
argue and cause pain and hurt
our friends with lies,
and make us grand? Grander than
we deserve, we think,
and then sob and break down and
no guiding hand …
[ellipses in the original]
And this section is immediately
followed by a kind of pastiche, a skewering of confessionalism—that wielding
of the “I” that you mentioned earlier.
Well, I always feel ambivalent about earnestness. Perhaps because Ernest is my
middle name. There I go, deflating earnestness again. That anxiety about
appearing too full of deep feelings, I think it might have something to do with
my growing up in an Australian country town. Australians have a laconic sense of
humour. So in my writing, I often feel divided between a need to speak about
deeply meaningful things, and a fear of looking like a manipulative phoney with
his heart on his sleeve. Sentimentality and cynicism are the two sides of that
coin. It’s always spinning in the air in front of me.
As Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry
springs from genuine feeling.” That’s not quite true, like most of Wilde’s
aphorisms. And of course not all genuine feeling produces bad poetry, but it
often does. Some of the most horrible frauds write poetry that is dripping with
sincerity. In my own writing I have found that a strong emotional feeling
produces poetry that needs to be kept in a drawer for several months, when the
feeling has evaporated and a cooler critical intelligence can be employed to
repair the poem’s worst stylistic excesses.
try to leave room for sincerity. There’s nothing wrong with sincerity, as long
as you’re not too earnest about it.
Murders” is a sectional abecedarian—26 sections going “A” to “Z,”
with a 27th section, the only prose poem in the sequence, starting with “A”
again. You’ve written a lot of other poems in generative forms: the terminal,
the haibun, the collage pantoum…
I have been doing that kind
of thing since I was twenty, when I wrote a parody of Australian poet A.D.
Hope’s poem “Australia”, using seven of Hope’s 28 rhymes, changing the
rhyme scheme from abba to abab, and borrowing and distorting many
of Hope’s metaphors. I derived the idea for terminals, where I borrow the
end-words of a poem by another writer, from John Ashbery, who nearly twenty
years ago – when he gave a reading in Sydney –
admitted that he had borrowed the end words of Swinburne’s double
sestina “The Complaint of Lisa” for a double sestina of his own (in his book
You can find an excellent and thorough
article by Brian Henry about my use of forms like these on my website.
This piece first appeared, minus the footnotes, in Antipodes: A North
American Journal of Australian Literature, 18(1), June 2004, pp 36–43.
like a recidivist shoplifter, I’m still at it. I recently completed a
fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, where I took fifty-six poems from
Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1861 edition) and updated and entirely
rewrote them. They form part of my new book Starlight: 150 Poems, due to
be published later this year (2010).
Do you have any qualms about
appropriating another writer’s work?
Well, it looks like
stealing, but artistic procedures like these have a long and honorable history.
Musicians have been doing it for centuries. There’s Bach’s “Goldberg
Variations”, and of course there are Bach Variations by Johannes Brahms, Franz
Liszt and others, and Benjamin Britten’s 1937 “Variations on a Theme of
Frank Bridge”, for string orchestra, and hundreds more. You see it even more
with painters. Here’s a good example: the New York painter Larry Rivers, who
was a jazz musician and friend of (and portraitist of) the poet Frank O’Hara.
He painted a version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (a famous
painting by Emanuel Leutze, 1851) in 1953.
poetry there’s Kenneth Koch’s hilarious "Variations
on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" (1962), and John
Ashbery’s strange “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler
Wilcox”, and others.
Why do you feel this kind of
appropriation is so widespread? And what do you get out of it?
For one thing, it’s a way to learn more about your craft. For example, how did
Shakespeare manage the new sonnet form from Italy? And why are his attempts to
do them in English so stiff? Why does Baudelaire go on and on about graveyards?
And an example from music: if you’re a cellist, Bach’s cello suites are a
wonderful way to find out what the instrument can do at its most elemental. So
reworking a prior artwork by another artist is a kind of learning exercise, both
technical and artistic.
there’s a threefold payoff for an artist with this kind of work. First, you
have a challenge, and challenges always get the adrenaline going. If you’re
going to rewrite Baudelaire, it had better be good! So your pulse rate is up to
Then you have instant inspiration: the
original work brings a whole collection of interesting things with it: the
artist’s life, his or her struggles, achievements, the narratives and themes
that interested the artist, and so on. That whole world is there, in the
background, waiting to be used, borrowed, criticised, parodied, whatever.
Then there’s the generational
conflict and the completion of a lineage. When Francis Bacon paints his
“Homage to Van Gogh” or reworks Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent
X”, when Picasso recreates Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” in 58 cubist
variations in 1957, or paints “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, after Manet” in
1961, the audience has more than a painting to consider: they have a whole
history lesson, an artistic argument and an Oedipal struggle as well.
You’ve mentioned Ashbery
and O’Hara. Do you have an interest in the New York School in general? How has
American poetry affected your own work at various points of your writing life?
I’ve always been
interested in American culture. And British culture. They were the two great
‘foreign’ influences on me as a child, through books and movies. The first
movie I remember seeing as a child was British (Scott of the Antarctic,
1948), and the second was American (National Velvet, 1944.) I was born in
the middle of the worst war the world has ever seen, and Britain and the US were
the allies that fought that war alongside Australian troops (including three of
my uncles, two of whom died of war wounds). And US and British movies were
staples each week at the local cinema. So though those two cultures were
thousands of miles away, they were familiar. Well, both familiar and culturally
exotic at the same time. In both those foreign cultures, it snowed at Christmas
time, while in Australia we had heatwaves and bushfires. And what was a pizza,
and how did you pronounce the word? At sixteen
I had never seen one, and only dimly knew what they were like.
When I became aware of
poetry in my late teens I looked outside Australia for exotic material, and
eventually the New York school attracted my attention, along with German, French
and British poets and all the other US American ‘schools’ in the 1960 Don
Allen anthology, and the other conservative American poets who weren’t in that
Of course Ashbery and
O’Hara are very different from each other. Poets generally like other poets’
work not just because it is good, but for what you can get out of it. Ashbery
presents a lyrical and highly literary take on English poetry from the
renaissance through the Romantics to the Victorians, and on surrealism and
French poetry generally. Perhaps that satisfies the ‘British’ and side of my
O’Hara on the other hand
shows what effective use you can make of everyday personal experiences, of the
demotic, the gossipy and the evanescent. The work is just as lyrical and deep,
in the end, but it arrives there fresh from the noise and bustle of lunch-time
New York. Ashbery arrives there through the fog, bemused on the packet boat from
Calais, a volume of Raymond Roussel in his pocket.
And the younger generations of both British and American
poets are different again, as well
as being very numerous. Working on Jacket magazine has allowed me to
follow lots of interesting younger poets as they have developed over the last
In your view, how
has Australian poetry changed since you started editing Jacket in 1997?
Do you see a change in your own work since then? I’m curious about the effect
of the Internet on poets, in terms of making hard-to-find work more readily
available. When I was in college and graduate school in 1990-1997, I had a
really hard time finding Australian poetry. There was Les Murray (FSG’s token
Australian), and Peter Porter and Chris Wallace-Crabbe at OUP. I knew of other
Australian poets through Verse, but I couldn’t get their books because
of distribution. So I went to Australia. Now, of course, it’s not hard at all,
thanks to online magazines and presses like Salt, which publish a lot of
Australian poets and distribute their books around the world. Has this had any
effect on Australian poetry as a whole?
Oh, yes, it has.
The reach of the Internet is extraordinary, and it’s especially valuable for
writing. It makes it easy and economical to keep up with what is happening in
the rest of the world, and to some extent to take part in that cultural mixing.
It’s something I had hoped to see from a very young age. As a poet starting
out I was very conscious of how far away from the rest of the world Australia
was. There’s a catchphrase for it: the tyranny of distance, which derives from
the title of a book of history by Geoffrey Blainey: The Tyranny of Distance:
How Distance Shaped Australia's History. In blunter terms, Australia seemed
very provincial, in a distant orbit around London and New York. Poets like Peter
Porter and artists like Sidney Nolan had to travel to London to make it, in the
1950s. I travelled to London and returned overland through Asia in the 1960s.
It was difficult to know
what fresh and experimental work was being done in the rest of the world after
World War Two, because the press and the other news media in Australia were run
by conventional people, as were the universities, though no one looked there for
literary news. Our novelist Patrick White said in the 1950s that “whatever
cultural roost there is in this country is ruled over by schoolteachers and
journalists.” My father was a schoolteacher, and a much-loved one; my brother was a journalist. There’s
nothing wrong with those occupations; it’s just that people who work at them
should not be placed on pedestals as cultural arbiters.
The three Australian poets you mentioned are in their
seventies or eighties. I guess it takes that long to be noticed in London. But
none of them, as far as I know, has much of a presence on the internet. And
that’s where most people look for poetry, nowadays. That has to have an effect
on the kind of poetry we write in Australia. Perhaps it’s more internationally
homogenous as a result, and less like a particular local cheese prized for its
flavour by seven people. Perhaps it’s fresher and more complex, with more
things to say to a wider range of readers. I don’t know.
copyright © John Tranter & Brian Henry
1 Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy:
Cage. New Jersey: Princeton Press, 1981. Page 63.
2 Carrière, Jean-Claude. The Secret Language of Film.
Trans. Jeremy Leggatt. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
3 Jennings, Michael W. (Introduction to) Walter Benjamin, The
Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge,
Massachussetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2006.
4 See Rudolph Grey’s biography Nightmare of Ecstasy:
The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992)