Urban Myths: 210 Poems by John Tranter
(Salt Publishing, 2006)
[First presented as an Introduction to ‘Urban Myths’ on the occasion of its launch at Gleebooks Bookshop, Glebe, Sydney, Australia, May 2006]
The first poem that I read by John Tranter was in Poetry Magazine in 1969. It was one of those inchoate but incredibly ambitious poems, you know aspiring towards epic, typical of a young man just beginning to publish. The gawky title "A Voyager Returns/Psychomimetic Paraboloid' was 'of its times' (and the poem has now shuffled off to posterity to yellow or mould in some cupboard in a garage). Poetry Magazine was published by a small institution called 'The Poetry Society of Australia'. It was a traditionally-styled society -- it had a President, a Vice President and various office bearers. Roland Robinson, Robert Adamson, Robert Gray, and Carl Harrison Ford too, were all presidents and for a brief time John was a Poetry Society 'councillor'. The whole concept seemed very official, very male and very square to me then. I was about to undergo total immersion in Sydney counter culture -- a group house, a terrace house, in Surry Hills, UBU scratch films in the living room, an underground offset printing press in the front room , pink inc., gay rights in Balmain, happenings, hippies, yippies and hashish. What fun.
Extract from ‘A Voyager Returns/Psychomimetic Paraboloid’
“…Nympharum Membra Disjecta…”
Ezra Pound: “April”
the harbour, through the gestures
of sail and motor, water, the shifts of light
through the artful dumb mechanics of the wind
was trying the sparkling edge of sand was
trying in brittle semaphore to say
we are the final harbour filled with light
listen, sweet brother, he
said, it’s been a long and bloody journey
how could I wound you with the days
the nights the long the endless
avenues, the sandblown Russian highway
Today all of that (i.e. counter cultural life) can sound like an Urban Myth -- legendary but did it happen? In a parallel world in the same city, at the same time, John was finishing his arts degree at university. Then, in 1971, he got a job in Singapore where he and his wife Lyn lived until '73. Just after that he got one of the first Literature Board grants in 1974 and the following year, '75, they moved up to Brisbane where he worked for ABC radio and they got busy raising a couple of kids.
So, I didn't actually encounter John in person until around 1977 when he'd returned to live in Sydney. I remember first seeing him at one of those Glebe poets' parties in Toxteth Road. He seemed quiet -- hanging around in the crowded, smoke-filled living room in his mayonnaise-yellow skivvy. We didn't actually talk. I probably thought he was aloof and perhaps he thought I was -- or maybe he was bored or possibly very cool or on something. Everyone else was on something.
Anyway that's just to say that we've both, each in our own way, been around the Sydney poetry traps for a fair while. And remembering the '70s affords the realisation that these days everything we do as poets seems counter-cultural because the 'culture' is filled with so much expensive mediocrity and lifestyle spin that there's not much space left for poetry.
However, as this big collection demonstrates -- poetry as an art form is thriving in spite of commercial and lowest-common-denominator adversities.
John Tranter has been an active and influential figure in Australian poetry for approaching-forty years now. It's impossible to be an Australian poet and not know about John Tranter. He has anthologised Australian poets in several key collections including The New Australian Poetry in 1979 in which he used the term 'Generation of 68' to describe the fresh direction some poets had taken in a deliberate turning away from high British tradition (and he's had to live with his use of that fateful phrase for a l..o..n..g time now). He co-edited, with Philip Mead, The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry which collected a broad range of 'modern' poetry beginning with Kenneth Slessor, and included hoax poems from the 1940s by Ern Malley, an urban myth in his own right. The anthology covered up until 1993. John also published, via his early 80s imprint Transit New Poetry, the first books of well-known poets Gig Ryan and Susan Hampton, and books by Alan Jefferies and the late great John Forbes. For a time in the late 80s John was poetry editor for the Bulletin magazine. In 1993 he edited a collection of the poetry and prose of his friend Martin Johnston -- another poet who died too soon. During his time at the ABC John invited innumerable poets to appear on radio broadcasts. In 1996 he started the international internet magazine Jacket which is flourishing -- getting better every day in every way. Currently John is also working on an ambitious project begun last year called the Australian Literature Resources Index -- a freely accessible index of Australian poetry that is set to become definitive. He's also doing his PhD.
So he has been a very busy poet and as well as all of that, he has written many books. The one we're celebrating tonight is his 21st collection -- Urban Myths.
What is an 'urban myth'?
It's a sensational but apocryphal story that through repetition in varying versions acquires the status of folklore. Urban myths reconstruct as the story unfolds. They usually, in the case of writing, contain the kinds of information that trick you into believing that the writer is a real person and that they know what they're talking about. If investigated you’ll inevitably find out that they either don't exist or they exist but never wrote the story.
I'm not sure why John has called this collection Urban Myths -- but I can speculate that he's signaling to his readers not to conflate him too closely with his poems and not to take the poems literally. He's letting us off the hook. As he traverses thirty six years of cleverly concocted experiments, we don't have to believe it. John Tranter is like a poetry scientist in his laboratory, peering through the microscope at the strange words grr=owing mysteriously in the Petri dishes -- into culture. And in everyday life, he also happens to love actual gadgets. He is interested in the technical -- how things work -- cameras, minidisc player/recorders, usb drives, pepper grinders, holograms, the angles of Furi knife blades, astrolabes -- you name it. He also loves typography and can tell you the story of the invention of many typefaces from memory.
This is background to the work in this compendium where John displays a panoptic proportion of formal skills with relish and the poetry becomes another technology. You’ll find a panoply of form; elegies, odes, haibuns, sestinas, sonnets, pantoums, acrostics and, even, in the case of 'Girl in Water', a poem about the movie Vertigo -- a double acrostic.
Style is also important to John, as to every poet, but here it's not mere sophistication.
‘Girl in Water’
Waiting to meet a pretty girl — any pretty girl —
hot summer day in 1958, beach crowd, emotional algebra,
also list and remember: makeup, perfume, lipstick, talc,
telephone passion — no, a soda fountain, a pizza.
Do they dream of mystery and adventure, women?
or do girls want to drown in literature? No, stupid. I
bet she’d like a fragrant pizza topped with mozzarella,
or is that just me? A movie: Item: Kim Novak. A drive-in —
yes, more subtle and powerful appetites litter the sand.
So become that detective, wounded, pitiful; so
learn to love and learn to fail in love, in the back row at the Bijou,
in parked cars, or snug among sandhills… your spyglass a nib,
keyhole secrets memorised and filed away, until
eternity comes calling at the foot of a staircase.
After that ending, another climb, another cliff
beyond which something awful awaits: love
or falling in love or into love or falling into death, a
uniform and dizzying and swift descent
that leaves you breathless, leaves you
very unsteady like a cork in the water,
effervescent and febrile and emotionally labile,
ready for almost anything.
That conscious pilot spoke: scripsi quod scripsi:
I have written what? I have written for
girl in water ‘girl in water’, girl
or woman in waves of water. I,
keen to find behind mirrors, wavering echoes, burn
in plots and complex narratives to draw
many clues out, threads of meaning. A
new insight into the convoluted plot
of good and evil I can look for, where good men whine,
villains struggle to prevail and bluster
against ordinary background noise and hubbub:
kaleidoscopes of criminality and subtle fiscal judo
scam and prosper, and some ordinary guy
will win and lose everything. I
owe more than money. The key will turn:
nervous ex-detectives afraid of causing harm
drop into floods of anxiety, plunge into semi-
enervating doubt; whirlpools of suspicion, and later
refuse help from well-meaning friends or
from glum old girl-friends, dawdling, doodling, who
understand too well their weaknesses, their
lack of manly self-respect, who know how hypnotic
those doubled mysteries within a mystery are. You reach
into a maelstrom of neurosis. Beyond bodily desire,
these complex chess-like fantasies are the true romantic
scenes in your life: the most ludic acrostic paradises: click!
[Vertigo, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, with Kim Novak and James Stewart.]
The range here, whilst being identifiably Tranteresque is very, very broad. There are uncollected poems and new poems as well. He has many influences and among them are the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was a kind of proto-modernist and actually, as you know, quit writing poetry at a very young age. He was an early influence on John. Others include the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who is deft at bringing politics into poetry, and the North American, John Ashbery who, like John Tranter, is very fond of language play and masquerade -- however I'd say, to be utterly reductive, that John Tranter's writing is more accessible than Ashbery's.
These poems are loaded with imagery, often startling, often sensationally strange as if from dreams and they are often darkly comical. There is an exegetic quality to this work -- he explains what’s going on as at first he registers, and then brings into perception whatever it is, often a human quirk of behaviour, probably some foible. John often writes conceptually, in themes or series, so you get sequences or batches of poems. Poems on film, say, or famous figures at significant local venues -- Sartre at Surfers’ Paradise, Leavis at the London Hotel, Foucault at the Forest Lodge Hotel from Dazed in the Ladies Lounge or in At the Florida an entire suite of haibun and so on. (A haibun is twenty lines of blank verse for the first stanza and a short stanza of prose below it). Poetry on one level can seem incoherent but I'm certain tonight's gathering of poetry lovers doesn't have a problem with incoherence -- you know how a good dose of wild language play liberates the imagination. As a kind of anchor as you read you'll find a note on the foot of each page that tells you in which book you are and in what year.
Talking about imaginative language play leads me to The Alphabet Murders, from 1976, the title taken from a movie of an Agatha Christie novel. It's a set of, obviously, 26 poems that begin with the letters of the alphabet and then last, a 27th prose poem, returning to the letter 'A'. It's a wild trip through a personal theory of poetics where ‘lyric poets/wander through like crippled birds’. It's witty, and it's disturbing -- it's exhausting.
It's a kind of investigative trip through the past and future of poetry. He desires a resolution of modernism or even hopes to abandon poetry itself and make some other leap.
There are some good essays on The Alphabet Murders -- one by Kate Lilley but especially one by Kate Fagan and Peter Minter examining the poem's frequent muddy, scatalogical imagery, that you can find in Jacket issue 27. After reading the paroxysms of The Alphabet Murders you wonder how John got the mental energy or could have been so resolute as to ever write another poem . But thirty years later there are many more and mostly as intense, as this collection shows.
Extract from ‘The Alphabet Murders’
Before this complex thought begins attacking
what we have left behind — riddles, packaging —
itself must generate enough good luck for the whole voyage.
After trunks full of shit flung overboard
and the page aflame with noise and verb geometry
I’m ready and lunch jumps into sight and we are off
like a rocket, zooming through the lecture hall where
history becomes a kind of thick paralysis and breaks
down into spasms and morality and all we can remember
through the foggy explosion is how we thrilled
and brought back memories of Captain Marvel
wriggling on a pin....
John Tranter is also the poet of a kind of Australian suburban anxiety -- in The Floor of Heaven and Studio Moon especially. Desperation and the darker side of disappointment, i.e. melancholy, in some poems and a kind of ordinary or domestic ennui in others temper any excess of imaginative revelation. And from Under Berlin there's a mid-life poem with this opening stanza -- 'Although art is, in the end, anonymous,/turning into history once it's left the body,/surely some gadget in the poet's head/forces us to suffer/ as we stumble through the psychology of it:/the accent betraying a class conflict/seen upside-down through a prism,the bad luck/to be born in a lucky country'. These are part of John's exegetic pursuit of the humane, and the often comical fallibility of our feelings glimpsed beyond the feats of a twentieth-century fin-de-millennium stream-of-consciousness.
The poem in this book from The Floor of Heaven is a long poem of narrative melodrama, spoken monologues (mostly from some feisty, but not infallible, women) are over the top -- kind of spoofy and very entertaining -- in an unravelling kind of way. Is this the beginning of post-post-modernism ? I'm not sure. It's something I think best left to the scholars.
There are numerous interests in these poems but two that seem prominent are film and drinks. John likes the vividness of film, especially British film noir, Alfred Hitchcock, (I mentioned the Vertigo poem earlier) -- and the way film can leap from location to location, expression to shadow to something else just as unpredictably as lines in a poem can. There's a group of new poems called At the Movies.
There are many alcoholic drinks in these poems from the opening lines of the book, a poem about poetry -- the art of love, that is an emulation of the early 19th century German Lyric poet Friedrich Holderlin, setting the reader up nicely, it begins 'When I was a young man, a drink/often rescued me from the factory floor/or the office routine'. Quite understandable too.
More poems with drinks or the after effects, hungover and drinking crème de menthe in Trastevere, or campy cocktail-party wit reminiscent of 1960s New York School poetry -- that droll urbane sagacity. And, interestingly, for a poet who can deal with excess John abhors gush.
And then there's the computer. John is a skilled computer-user and he made an improvisational collection called Different Hands by using a program called 'brekdown' to generate prose pieces that John says 'started out strange and worked their way back to meaning'. More from the poetry laboratory but this time like an OULIPOian automaton e.g .'Neuromancing Miss Stein' combines texts from Gertrude Stein's 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas' with William Gibson's 'Neuromancer'. And 'The Howling Twins' blends Ginsberg's 'Howl' and 'The Bobbsey Twins on a Bicycle Trip'. Did someone say 'semantic flux' ?
Extract from ‘The Howling Twins’
The twins Marilyn and Stanley and their friend Charlie Rugg had stopped at the top of the hill, propped against their red bikes. They’d come rocking along to the farm at Rockaway Junction to see if they could find their pet cat named Snowball. Snowball had been rescued from Uncle Daniel’s farm a dozen times, but no permanent good had ever come of it. They’d looked and looked, to no avail.
‘Well, I guess Snowball has given us the cold shoulder again,’ Marilyn said. ‘She hid in her own kitty heaven, a heaven in the underbrush. She would have heard a dog barking, should a dog have barked. Hey, don’t you two want me to pick some apples while I’m here? I’m hungry. Maybe she’ll turn up, while we’re waiting. Maybe somebody has already found the little tyke.’
‘Sure, and maybe a bunch of guys grabbed the critter, and took her as sacrifice to their dreadful god Moloch,’ Charlie replied scornfully, ‘guys who had seen Snowball but who said nothing, nothing at all!’ He burst into tears. Marilyn comforted the poor fellow, who was now dreaming of the breasts of the boys, sobbing after they had been crushed by the stone god.
In the quiet country morning there were sounds of many animals. Stanley’s acute hearing trapped the other sounds, and sorted out their pet’s bickering meow. ‘Cats hear more than we know. I hear one meowing now, up in the branches.’
‘Uh-uh. I don’t see a cat rescued from the branches,’ Marilyn said. ‘Not by us, at any rate.’
It was fun at Uncle Daniel’s farm, but that was a vacation, not employment, which is each day suffering money burning in wastebaskets. The one symbolic escape is amnesia, and the only escapees are those who watch from the place of forgetfulness.
Marilyn listened to the spiritual sounds on the old metaphysical telephone. Lots of static. Then Death spoke, and said he was coming to get the boys. What was their crime? It was looking upon Death himself. How to escape him? Look upon Life.
‘To look upon Life,’ Marilyn said, ‘we could visit dives in the city and from the anonymous dark watch the incomprehensible jazz criminals perform with their flow of semen, or so Charlie once proposed. If I felt like it I could accuse Charlie of something awful, something to do with his body.’
‘Marilyn, I’m sure you would accuse the stoops off a building if you could,’ snapped Charlie, who had overheard. ‘I don’t give a damn if you worry about my body. I don’t know what to do next with this body, which is more than I can say for you. I’ve been places, remember.’
Marilyn remembered Charlie had gone to find out what was happening on the West Coast, and Stanley had claimed to be the True Consciousness and said he didn’t need to go there to find out. But he did go, and he found there the three old shrews: the stunned governments of capital, insulin and electricity.
Stanley, who wept for the boys the starry-spangled shocks of harlequin speech had led astray, Stanley, climbing the stairways of sin in empty lots, Stanley who jumped into the void of insulin, Stanley who lounged hungry and speechless and said ‘Kiss the ass of war, the monster whose fingers inscribe the terror.’ Stanley, who is still cursing at the harpies of the poem of life, burning a light in his naked room as a shrine. Stanley thought of Cocks and their monstrous Bombs. In the evening sky, the two twins were visions.
In his dream Stanley finds Snowball and flings the last radio of hypnotism into the East River.
Perhaps my favourite poem here is The Beach -- well it's actually a poetic prose piece set in Sydney in summer. The poet takes a philosophical bus ride from the inner west to the eastern suburbs beaches -- Tamarama and Bondi, remembering and noting all manner of things along the way. He visits a Darlinghurst bar where a minor tiff with a topless cocktail waitress over the ingredients of a martini is followed immediately by one of those brief but chilling reminders of mortality. But all's well as, in the end, it's Sydney, it's summer, it's balmy and everyone's off to the beach.
The notes for these 210 poems can be found on the internet -- they're illustrated -- there's a great photo of Col Joye and the Joy Boys for instance. As John is an extensive indexer and a stickler for detail they're worth reading as a piece in themselves. The notes are over 50 A4 printed pages long.
Urban Myths is a tour de force collection.
I could go on.
You should read it.
And look out for what John once said about 'postmodernity' -- "I'm not sure that it's in the work of art -- hovering behind it, perhaps, or glowing like an electrical spark in the air, jumping the gap between the work of art and the consumer."
I think no one can better represent their poems than the poet so… John Tranter 'This Is Your Life' or is it a Fantasy? Over to you.
Pam Brown has published many books including Text thing (Little Esther Books, 2002) and Dear Deliria (Salt Publishing, 2003) which was awarded the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2004. In September 2007, Tinfish Press published farout-library-software, a collection of collaborative poems written with the Seattle-based Egyptian poet Maged Zaher. Her next collection of poems, True thoughts, is forthcoming in 2008. Pam Brown is the associate editor of Jacket magazine and a contributing editor for Fulcrum and How2. She keeps a blog -- http://thedeletions.blogspot.com