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«John Tranter: Feints, Apparitions and Mode of Locomotion page 1 John Tranter Feints, Apparitions and Mode of Locomotion: The Influence of Anxiety in ...»

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John Tranter: Feints, Apparitions and Mode of Locomotion page 1

John Tranter

Feints, Apparitions and Mode of Locomotion:

The Influence of Anxiety in the Poetry of John Tranter.

A paper prepared for the “Poetry and the Trace” conference under the auspices of

Monash University held at the State Library of Victoria, 13 to 16 July, 2008.


The topic of my talk today is a particular thread that runs through the

poetry of John Tranter. Why choose this author? Well, I happen to know the work fairly well. Also, I have spent the last year or two working on a doctoral thesis for the University of Wollongong which — in a happy coincidence — looks at the traces of other writers’ work as they emerge, fractured and distorted, in John Tranter’s more experimental poetry. Two works that bracket this paper are T.S. Eliot’s influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (first published in 1919), and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, 1997.

For decades now John Tranter has been stealing other people’s poems and doing things to them: translating them, mistranslating them, rewriting them, poking them with a stick, traducing them, eviscerating them, pissing on them, and then publishing them and calling them his own. It’s about time people knew what he has been up to while our backs were turned. This paper spills the beans, stirs in some chilli powder, heats them up and presents them for your enjoyment.

Feints, Apparitions and Mode of Locomotion: The Influence of Anxiety in the Poetry of John Tranter John Tranter: Feints, Apparitions and Mode of Locomotion page 2 Most of the poems discussed are available in Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected, (UQP, 2006) by John Tranter. The rest are provided in this paper, and also in a PDF version available on my homepage, via http://johntranter.com/00/trace-link.shtml A bad start, 1963: Stealing A.D. Hope’s rhymes When I was twenty I wrote a poem that answered A.D. Hope’s poem Australia, using some of Hope’s 28 rhymes, changing the rhyme scheme from abba to abab, using and abusing many of Hope’s metaphors, and filling in the rest of the poem with my own dismissive and contemptuous words. I disagreed angrily with Hope’s poem, perhaps because he was old and I was young, perhaps because he was a successful academic and I was, at that time, a failed one, but I can’t remember now exactly what I was exercised about.

My poem has some of the iconoclastic flavour of the times, a good example of which is Allen Ginsberg's notorious 1959 jibe (Ginsberg 414–18 ) at academic poets:

A word on Academies; poetry has been attacked by an ignorant & frightened bunch of bores who don’t understand how it’s made, & the trouble with these creeps is they wouldn’t know Poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight.

I wasn’t as firm as Mr Ginsberg — no references to anal rape in my poem, thank you — but I could have been kinder to Alec Hope, a poet born, as I had been, in the Southern Highlands town of Cooma. Decades later, in his old age, a courteous Alec Hope kindly cooked a lovely

–  –  –

dinner for my wife and me — avocado vinaigrette, roast chicken, dessert — and we shared a bottle of whisky.

Here's A.D. Hope's poem.

Australia A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey In the field uniform of modern wars, Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest, A woman beyond her change of life, a breast Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:

The emotions and superstitions of younger lands, Her rivers of water drown among inland sands, The river of her immense stupidity Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.

In them at last the ultimate men arrive Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’, A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores, Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state Where second-hand Europeans pullulate Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

–  –  –

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes Which is called civilization over there.

And here is my rather confused rejoinder:1

–  –  –

A nation of poets, sick green and academic black, Concerned only with inter-faculty wars, Darkens her Sphinx-like hills, which oft a hack Contrives to use in worn-out metaphors.

–  –  –

With top-forty songs and second-hand Pseudo-Gothic buildings, and the coy cupidity Of amateur poets burbling of sunburnt sand, The swamps of her immense stupidity The poem, written circa 1963, is previously unpublished.


–  –  –

And her universities, like steaming sores, Where ageing poetasters tread the boards, Where a second-hand professor bores His audience, which dutifully applauds.

–  –  –

No learned doubt, your fixed preoccupation With the Great Australian Cliché, with the Capes And Deserts of the New Vogue affectation Of cultured and reactionary apes.

Replacing the metaphor: ‘An Absolutely Extraordinary Recital’ Les Murray’s poem ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ has two secrets.

First, it is not really about a man crying in Martin Place. Second, it is not quite as original as it looks. To take the first point first, this is what the poem is really about.2 The poem is previously unpublished.


–  –  –

John Tranter An Absolutely Extraordinary Recital The word goes round Repins, the murmur goes round Lorenzinis, at Tattersals, men look up from their sheet of numbers, the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands

and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:

There’s a fellow reciting Les Murray’s poems in Martin Plaza. They can’t stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets

which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:

There’s a fellow reciting Les Murray’s poems down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches simply recites, and does not cover it, reads aloud not like a child, not like the wind, like a man and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even rhyme very emphatically — yet the dignity of his reading holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him in the midday light, in his pentagram of poetry, and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to stop him reciting stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds longing for the effects of Les Murray’s poetry as children for a rainbow.

–  –  –

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo of force stood around him. There is no such thing.

Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood, the toughest reserve, the slickest intellectual amongst us trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected positive judgements. Some in the concourse scream who thought themselves satisfied with Mark O’Connor.

Only the smallest children and such as look out of Paradise come near him and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit — and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand and shake as she receives the gift of Les’s verse;

as many as follow her also receive it and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance, but the man performing Les Murray’s poetry, like the earth, requires nothing, the man who recites ignores us, and cries out of his writhen face and ordinary body not words, but verse; not messages, but poetry hard as the earth, sheer, voluminous as the sea — and when he stops, he simply walks between us mopping his face with the dignity of one man who has read aloud Les Murray’s wonderful poetry,

–  –  –

Evading autograph hounds, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

‘An Absolutely Extraordinary Recital’ is of course an interpretation of ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, a poem by Les Murray (Murray 28), the ostensible subject of which — a man who weeps without apparent reason, causing onlookers to wonder why — is unique in Australian poetry. It is not unique in modern poetry, however. More than a decade before Les Murray published this poem, the Greek poet George Seferis (Giorgos Seferiadis) published a poem titled ‘Narration’ with an oddly similar unusual central event. Here is his poem.

–  –  –

instrument of a boundless pain that’s finally lost all significance.

Some have heard him speak to himself as he passed by about mirrors broken years ago about broken forms in the mirrors that no one can ever put together again.

Others have heard him talk about sleep images of horror on the threshold of sleep faces unbearable in their tenderness.

We’ve grown used to him; he’s presentable and quiet only that he walks along weeping continually like willows on a riverbank you see from the train as you wake uncomfortably some clouded dawn.

We’ve grown used to him; like everything else you’re used to he doesn’t stand for anything and I talk to you about him because I can’t find anything that you’re not used to;

I pay my respects.

–  –  –

Unlike the Seferis poem3, Les Murray’s poem about a weeping man presents an optimistic quasi-religious epiphany, and is couched in quasi-religious language. It appeared in his volume The Weatherboard Cathedral in 1969. When it was reprinted in Alexander Craig’s 1970 anthology (craig 206-7) it had the words ‘Penarth, 1967’ appended, which implies that the poem was written in Wales during a trip to Europe that Les Murray made in 1967. While in Britain he may have seen the newly-released 1967 American edition of Seferis’s Collected Poems 1924–1955. The details, the verbal texture and the conclusion of Seferis’s poem ‘Narration’ are all quite unlike those of Les Murray’s poem, though the unusual central drama is interestingly similar.4 Translation: Staking a claim: Callimachus and others Robert Frost said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. On the other hand, a good translation can sometimes improve the original.

Accidental harmonies and assonances and flashes of fortuitous alliteration often appear in the different language of the translated The theme that lies behind the Seferis poem may derive from the wars and occupations 3 that have disfigured Europe, or the destruction of the city of Smyrna in 1922, or perhaps from the inevitability of loss and illness and death, and from the further fact that complaining about those such things becomes tedious to those who have perhaps endured enough, and don’t want to know about another’s suffering. In his novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky has his protagonist Raskolnikov complain that ‘Man can get used to anything — the beast!’ At the end of Seferis’s poem the narrator, speaking perhaps to the reader of the poem, employs a similar concept: ‘I talk to you about him because I can’t find anything that you’re not used to.’ There is a pervasive and very European disillusionment behind the poem.

I have Edmund Keeley to thank for bringing the Seferis poem, and this similarity, to my 4 attention.

–  –  –

version. Whatever kind of work gets produced, a translation always involves modification and appropriation.

In 2000 and 2001, I lived in England for six months, in Jesus College, Cambridge, as a visiting scholar. While I was there I wrote a dozen poems which were loose translations — mistranslations, really — of poems by other writers. Basically I took the gist of a poem — by Callimachus, say, a writer who lived in ancient Alexandria more than two thousand years ago — and placed the events in a contemporary setting. I also touched up the background and improved the interior decoration. Here's an epigram by Callimachus (Callimachus 166–7), translated by A.W. Mair from the Greek, for the 1921 Loeb edition

where it is numbered 44:

The stranger had a wound and we knew it not. How painful a sigh — marked you? — he heaved, when he drank his third cup, and the roses, shedding their petals, fell from his garlands all upon the ground. He is badly burnt, by the gods, my guess is not amiss — a thief myself, I know the tracks of a thief.

In my clumsy hands the work is three times as long, and titled ‘Harry’s Bar’, which you will find on page 222 of Urban Myths, along with nine other mistranslations.

Translation as Treason: ‘After Rilke’ The Italians have a saying: “Traduttore traditore”… a translator is a traitor. An extreme form of translation argues, disagrees with and betrays the values embodied in the original poem.

–  –  –

I've occasionally suspected that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was a bullshit artist, so when I turned my attention to his Duino Elegies it was not out of kindness. The critic Marjorie Perloff, in an article in Jacket magazine (number 14) on the difficulties of translation, notes

the opening of his First Duino Elegy, to wit:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen?

This line has been translated into English literally dozens of times, she

writes, but, as William Gass points out in his recent Reading Rilke:

Reflections on the Problems of Translation, (Gass 57-58) none of the

translations seem satisfactory. Here are a few examples:

J. B. Leishman (1930) — Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?

A. J. Poulin (1977) — And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders?

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