John Tranter (and many others)
University of Auckland Symposium
March 2012, part one of three
Short Takes on Long Poems
University of Auckland Symposium:
“Short Takes on Long Poems”, 28-30 March, 2012
You can read detailed abstracts of all the papers delivered at this symposium here: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/short-takes/symposium.asp
Part One: Lots of Short, Fast Poems
I left Sydney at dawn on Wednesday 28 March 2012 headed for New Zealand on an Emirates A380 Airbus, a massive double-decker plane that drives like an aircraft carrier full of warm mud.
Arrived in Auckland and booked in at the «Quadrant Hotel». The name is bound to remind Australian writers of Quadrant magazine, founded by poet James McAuley in 1956 as a bulwark against the menace of International Communism, and funded for many years by the CIA. Alas, it is named for the street it is on.
That evening I donned my disguise as an executive of the Hartford Fire and General Insurance Company, to wit, a fine wool summer-weight suit, and a subdued tartan tie; the tartan in honour of my mother’s Scottish-New-Zealand forebears — my mother had been born in Invercargill, a place in southern New Zealand satisfyingly colder than the Shetland Islands, to the freezing North of Upper Scotland and owned by Denmark for half a millennium, whence her maternal ancestry — The Shetlands, that is, not Denmark.
Whenever I travel to New Zealand (this was my third visit) I am reminded of a piece of graffiti I saw in Sydney more than twenty years ago. Some disappointed soul had written in large painted letters on a brick wall the legend “Australia Sucks”. Fair comment, I thought. A few weeks later I noticed that someone had added to the sign, in different coloured paint: “New Zealand, nil”. Wystan Curnow suggested that the line should have read “New Zealand, Ten”, which I quite agree with.
Then again, perhaps you should have been there; that is, to hear the New Zealand pronunciation of “sucks” (hint: to an Australian, it sounds like the numeral that comes after “five”.)
I took part in the ten-person poetry reading at Auckland’s Old Government House, a sedate and spacious venue in a park across the road from the hotel, in the University grounds. The readers were Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pam Brown, Dinah Hawken, David Howard, Jill Jones, Cilia McQueen, Jack Ross, Susan Schultz, Hazel Smith, Robert Sullivan and John Tranter.
The MC was the capable and enthusiastic Michele Leggott. Her amiable Golden Retriever guide dog Olive seemed unimpressed by the vigorous verse, smiled from time to time, and dozed peacefully. Each reader had five minutes to impress, flatter, startle or otherwise enliven the audience. I read three poems, starting with a sonnet I had written on the plane to the symposium, flying over the Tasman Sea that separates the two countries, titled…
A, green, the tint of absinthe dripping through
a wad of lawn clippings – E,
chartreuse, colour that only monks can see –
I, cloudy violet with sparkling points of blue
or paler, the fresh paint sheen of a car –
when new, easy to buy – old, hard to sell.
O, orange, the sound of a tolling bell
travelling over town and factory, very far –
U, under clear water, underwear –
your flight spoiled by lots of crying babies
though all of Europe is reflected in your eyes.
You think you hear, as you brush your hair,
the howling of a kennel full of hounds with rabies.
A rainbow as you land; then a career surprise.
Then I read “After Hölderlin”, a poem loosely based on the German Romantic poet Friederich Hölderlin’s 1799 poem “When I was a Boy”:
When I was a young man, a drink
often rescued me from the factory floor
or the office routine. I dreamed
in the mottled shade in many a beer garden
among a kindness of bees and breezes,
my lunch hour lengthening.
As the flowers plucked and set in the little bottle
on the table still seem to hanker for the sun,
nodding in the slightest draft, so I
longed for a library loose with rare volumes
or a movie theatre’s satisfying gloom
where a little moon followed the usherette
up and down the blue carpeted stairs.
You characters caught up in your emotions
on the screen, how I wish you could know
how much I loved you; how I longed
to comfort the distraught heroine
or share a beer with the lonely hero.
I knew your anxieties, trapped
in a story that wouldn’t let you live;
I felt for you when you were thrown from the car
again and again; when the pilot
thought he was lost and alone,
I was speaking the language of the stars
above his tiny plane,
murmuring in the sleepy garden, growing up
among the complicated stories.
These dreams were my teachers
and I learned the language of love
among the light and shadow
in the arms of the gods.
Then I read a poem (an Onegin sonnet) that employed a rhyme for “winkle-pickers” that I had been looking to use for two decades. For those not knowledgeable in the field of domesticated grasses, “couch” is pronounced “cooch”, and, like fescue, is a widely used grass suitable for lawns:
Punish me with jugs of honey
Tie me down with bramble twine,
Stuff my mouth with wads of money –
Please be mine.
Kick me with your winklepickers,
Gag me with your crumpled knickers,
Make me lick your brutal shoe:
Love me do.
Garnish me with couch and fescue,
Dress me in an acid dressing,
Telegram your roughest blessing,
Be my howling search and rescue –
When I’m lost and all alone,
Take me home.
The audience seemed to like it.
Later a sortie into downtown Auckland led by Selina Tusitala Marsh and a dozen poets and critics from all over the Pacific, and a dinner at a Chinese Cantonese restaurant with Lazy Susans at the tables [See Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazy_Susan], something I haven’t seen since I lived in Singapore in 1971. A cheerful and lively evening, then to bed for an early night and lots of jet lag.
Part Two: Thursday morning
Thursday 29 March: 9.15 am Welcome. Venue: Federation of University Women Suite, Old Government House
9.30-10.30 am session 1. wider deeper further. Chair: Helen Sword.
Jacob Edmond. Long, Wide, Deep, Heavy.
This presentation took the form of a visual and digital display or graphing of measurements and calibrations of long poems. Jacob measured and compared poems according to various dimensions including area, weight, file size, and hours, minutes and seconds of recording.
Pam Brown. Duckwalking but no guitar
Logged right in to a long poem called “Duckwalking a Perimeter”, the penultimate section of Kevin Davies’ «The Golden Age of Paraphernalia», my attention is riveted to fragments. Does it make sense? Does it “catch the interrogative”? “The Golden Age of Paraphernalia” was published by Edge Books in 2007.
Pam Brown is a Sydney-based poet, currently an associate editor of «Jacket2». Her recent books include «True Thoughts» (Salt, 2008), «Authentic Local» (SOI3 Modern Poets, 2010) and her blog is «the deletions»
Ya-Wen Ho. | is spliced with |
… a kind of word association performance recitation, interrupted by one moment of forgetting the text, and by the fact that any word association performance must compete against the landmark example of the genre, the unforgettable performance by John Cleese on the Monty Python album “Matching Tie and Handkerchief” (“Tonight’s the night I shall be talking about of flu the subject of word association football. This is a technique out a living much used in the practice makes perfect of psychoanalysister and brother and one that has occupied piper the majority rule of my attention squad by the right number one two three four the last five years to the memory. It is quite remarkable baker charlie… ” and so on.)
See YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwdYCX60GRk
In the context of the symposium, Ya-Wen Ho’s piece was more “poetic” and held far more contextual value for the appreciative audience; the Cleese performance is of course meant to be very funny, and little more.
10.30 am Morning tea
11.00-12.00 am session 2. landing the alien craft. Chair: John Newton.
Philip Mead. The poetics of reterritorialisation: John Kinsella’s West Australian Commedia.
“In his 400-page «Divine Comedy: journeys through a regional geography» (2008) John Kinsella takes Dante’s cosmographic epic and lands it, like a space ship, on five acres of family land on the outskirts of York, a wheatbelt town in Western Australia. How do readers (contactees) respond to this strange craft from another time and hemisphere? It seems to be made out of elements we recognise, but according to what kind of alien technologies? How do we decipher the rows of strange symbols all over it?” Philip Mead is inaugural Chair of Australian Literature at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Recent books and projects include «Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry» (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010), and «Teaching Australian Literature:» from classroom conversations to national imaginings (with Brenton Doecke and Larissa McLean Davies). Philip is currently working on an Introduction to the Literature of Tasmania.
John Tranter. The Anaglyph.
Here we go: from my loose notes: Poetry began with the long poem: the Mahabarata, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and in Europe, Homer: the “Iliad” and “Odyssey”. These forms depended on memorisation and recitation (writing was not invented until about 600 B.C.) and campfire culture; with no movies, an epic will have to do to pass the long winter nights.
A factoid I remember from forty years ago says that the two cultures with the highest consumption of poetry per capita are Iceland and Macedonia. Well, they are/ were both sheep herder cultures, with long cold winters and no television. Of course you make up poems.
Alexandria and the Epyllion: Around 280 B.C. writing had been invented, and a great research institute was developed in Alexandria. Academic and scholar Apollonius wrote what he called a long poem, «The Argonautica»; in fact an Epyllion or short epic. Wikipedia says “The Argonautica differs in some respects from traditional or Homeric Greek epic, though Apollonius certainly used Homer as a model. The «Argonautica» is shorter than Homer’s epics, with four books totaling less than 6000 lines, while the «Iliad» runs to more than 16,000.” It was also written down instead of memorised. Most modern long poems are Epyllia.
I’ll quickly pass over Virgil’s «Aeneid»and the Anglo-Saxon Skald epics, and indeed Malory’s magnificient «Le Morte D’Arthur», because they don’t support my shaky thesis.
Here are some Romantic long poems: Shelley: “Prometheus Unbound”; Wordsworth: philosophy with a human face: “Recluse” (Including the “Prelude” (1850), and “The Excursion”) Byron, “Don Juan” (see Kenneth Koch, if you have time, I don’t), and my favourite, Matthew Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum” which I studied at school when I was thirteen: somehow Arnold contrived the ending in the form of a Cinemascope long rising crane shot. Who needs the movies? All these Epyllia are driven by narrative, but then, just as they were being born, the novel and the movies and then television took over and performed the narrative function they depended on, much more satisfactorily.
And in the fragmented aftermath of the French Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic Revolution, which were in fact all aspects of the upheaval of the modern, European society fragmented in all directions.
By the Twentieth Century, with Eliot’s «The Waste Land» and Pound’s «Cantos», we have longish poems that avoid narrative, which the popular novel did much better, and dealt only in fragments: indeed their subject is cultural fracture in every area of life.
Zipping on past Zukofsky’s “A”, avoiding narrative, or Kenneth Koch’s “Ko, or A Season on Earth”, and “The Duplications”, which revel in mad narrative; Frank O’Hara’s non-narrative “Seventh Avenue”, Ashbery’s discursive essay “Clepsydra”, and his even more discursive “Three Poems” — no narrative anywhere in there, so move along.
Let’s detour around Australia’s ballads and explorer poems, which are nearly all narrative: Banjo Paterson: “The Man from Snowy River”, “Clancy of the Overflow”, Kenneth Slessor’s “Five Visions of Captain Cook”, James McAuley’s “Captain Quiros”, Webb’s 1961 “Eyre All Alone”, Webb’s “Leichhardt in Theatre”, Douglas Stewart radio verse drama “The Fire on the Snow” (from Answers.com: “A verse drama by Douglas Stewart, was written in 1939, and published in part in the «Bulletin» on 13 December 1939. Produced as a radio play by the ABC, 6 June 1941, it was published with «The Golden Lover» in 1944. The play traces Captain Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition from 4 January 1912, when Scott and his four companions, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans, set out on the final dash to the South Pole, to the last entry in Scott’s diary on 29 March 1912. As the tragedy unfolds, the omniscient announcer traces the historic journey, whose glory the participants themselves are fated never to know. «The Fire on the Snow» is remarkable for its radio drama technique and for its skilful verse variations, which range from the colloquialism of the blindly struggling mortals to the solemn tones of the announcer reporting the progress of their fate.”). There’s also C.J.Dennis mock-heroic long poem “The Sentimental Bloke”, with its sly digs at «Romeo and Juliet». These poems don’t survive because (a) they go out of fashion, (b) they’re too long, and (c) you can’t anthologise them.
My Generation in Sydney 1965-1975: Apart from Michael Dransfield who like the grasshopper in the fable only ever seemed to live for the moment and write brief lyrics, many male poets attempted long poems: Martin Johnston “The Blood Aquarium”, Robert Adamson “The Rumour”, Alan Wearne’s verse novel “Out Here”, John Scott’s lyric sequence “A”, John Tranter “Red Movie” (1972, fragments), then “The Floor of Heaven” (1986-92, film noir melodrama narratives), then “The Anaglyph” (2006, lit crit with a human face). I could read «The Anaglyph» but it would take 48 minutes, as it did when I read it at a conference in Melbourne in 2008. Instead I’ll talk about it briefly.
“The Anaglyph” is collected in the book «Starlight: 150 Poems», published in 2010 by the University of Queensland Press. You can read the poem and its extensive notes in Jacket2 magazine, where associate editor Pam Brown kindly published it in 2011:
You can also read critic Martin Duwell’s review of «Starlight: 150 Poems» here, in which he claims that “There can be little doubt that “The Anaglyph” is the dominant poem of this collection and one of Tranter’s great achievements…”
Extensive notes to all the poems in «Starlight: 150 Poems» are available on this site: [»»] Notes
Part Three: The Anaglyph
My long poem “The Anaglyph” initially resulted from a commission from a Toronto magazine to write an essay of any type on John Ashbery’s 1967 long poem “Clepsydra”. A clepsydra is a water-driven clock, invented in Ancient Greece. An anaglyph is a drawn or photographic image, usually printed in red and bluish-green ink, that, when viewed through spectacles containing one bluish-green lens and one red lens, presents a three-dimensional image;
In response I took the first word or two and also the last word or two of each line from John Ashbery’s poem, and wrote material of my own to fill each line out. More about this technique, which I have labelled “terminals”, later.
The poem was extensively reworked and became part of my 2009 Doctor of Creative Arts thesis dissertation for the University of Wollongong, along with 112 other poems and a thirty-thousand-word exegesis. The awarding of the degree was highly commended by both markers.
Later most of these poems made up my 2010 book «Starlight: 150 poems». Most? I took out over a dozen short poems and some poems about movies, and added some different poems about movies, and another 56 poems which were written over a period of a month on a residency at the Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, in Italy; these poems were loose versions and rewritings of poems from Baudelaire’s «Les Fleurs du mal».
About those “terminals”. John Tranter and poet David Brooks introduced John Ashbery’s reading in the Woolley Building at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 16 September 1992.
One of the poems Ashbery read was the double sestina from his book «Flow Chart». In his preamble to the poem Ashbery revealed — confessed — that his double sestina uses the end-words of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s double sestina “The Complaint of Lisa” (1870). Sestinas are of course based on a string of repeated and rearranged end-words, not on rhyme or on any particular metrical shape. Extend the idea to other kinds of poems, borrowing the last word or two of each line, and you have the process or form that I have called ‘terminals’.
I have written many poems in this mode, taking end-words from Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, Barbara Guest, John Keats, Frank O’Hara, Banjo Paterson and others. The US poet, editor and critic Brian Henry has studied and summarised this technique in a paper published in Antipodes magazine in 2004; his paper is reprinted at http://johntranter.com/reviewed/2004-henry-terminals.html
Henry mentions and quotes from the Ashbery sestina. He looks at ten of Tranter’s poems and discusses each different kind and example of borrowing in detail. He says, inter alia:
With the sestina as a model, John Tranter has created a new form similar to the sestina but far more flexible in its emphasis on end-words: the terminal. Taking only the line endings from previously published poems, the terminal can be any length, and the number of terminals possible in the English language is limited only by the number of poems in the English language. The form has infinite potential. Unrestricted to 39 lines as in the sestina, not limited to 14 or 19 rhyming lines as with the sonnet and the villanelle, not expected to repeat itself like the pantoum and the villanelle, and not tethered to any rhyme scheme or syllable count like the ballad, terza rima, heroic couplet, alexandrine, sapphics, or ottava rima, the terminal as a poetic form is vastly open to possibility.
… the terminal raises various issues about poetic form, conservation, usurpation, influence, and composition that no other form can raise. Because Tranter overwrites — and in the process simultaneously effaces and preserves — his source poem while retaining the anchoring points of the source poem, his terminals are both conservative and destructive. (Henry 32)
Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’ is a complicated piece of writing. Its title seems to have little connection with the poem: a “clepsydra” is a kind of water-driven clock (the name means ‘water-stealer’) used by the ancient Greeks. The poem is also long: 253 lines long, to be precise: nearly nine pages. It was first published in book form in the 1977 volume Rivers and Mountains.
So I took the last word of two of each line from ‘Clepsydra’, as with my earlier experiments with ‘terminals’, and also the first word or two from each line. Thus each line of my reworked poem had its beginning and ending given to me; my task was to replace the meat in the sandwich, as it were. So ‘The Anaglyph’ is a reinvented, perhaps flawed, or perhaps improved, version of that master poem, which is here reduced to the status of ancestor, model, maquette, or template.
‘ The Anaglyph’ is partly about its own process — that is, the deconstructing and reconstructing of a poem. It is also about my relationship as a developing poet with John Ashbery and with Ashbery’s poetry.
The word ‘blazon’ gives us a clue to one of the poem’s effects (‘Deep within its complex innards a purple jewel / Exists as a blazon, rotating slowly…’).
In the essay on John Ashbery in his remarkable study of forty-one US poets, «Alone With America», Richard Howard points out that Ashbery often buries a small ‘blazon’ in his poems, and quotes André Gide: ‘I like discovering in a work of art… transposed to the scale of the characters, the very subject of that work… Thus in certain paintings… a tiny dark convex mirror reflects the interior of the room where the scene painted occurs… the comparison with that method in heraldry which consists of putting a second blazon in the centre of the first, en abyme.’ (pp.19–20) That is, inside the poem is a reduced diagram of the poem itself, ‘a tiny mirror for the plot, or maybe narrative’, as I write, referring to just this device, in my poem ‘The Alphabet Murders’, written over thirty years ago. The buried presence of Ashbery’s poem — that is, the line-beginnings and line-endings from it — haunts ‘The Anaglyph’ as a kind of fragmented and half-buried blazon.
The title of the poem itself, ‘The Anaglyph’, is embodied in some of the poem’s ‘business’, for example in the line ‘their left and right perceptual fields, red and green’ (84). This hints at the anaglyph’s dependence on binocular vision.
Lisa Samuels takes notes: of which she says: “I don’t keep a blog… but if I did I would write an entry titled, perhaps, Writing as Listening, which is something like what I do with that computer time I take at such symposia events. I have a more productive experience in my mental landscape when I can write while listening to talks. It’s a kinetic channel, in part.” Photo by John Tranter.
So ‘The Anaglyph’ is similar to Ashbery’s original poem ‘Clepsydra’, having the same number of lines and the same line beginnings and line endings, yet it has been written by a different author at a different time in a different society, coloured differently and seen from a slightly different point of view, and one which has one more layer of knowledge than the original. When Ashbery began work on ‘Clepsydra’ in the 1960s, nothing like it had existed before. When ‘The Anaglyph’ was begun, its progenitor had been modifying the ideal order of the literary landscape, to use Eliot’s phrase, for three decades.
Favourite themes of Ashbery’s are also glancingly referred to: old schoolteachers, for example (‘the old school-teacher’s chief act of belief’ 39) and his use of ornate words harvested from the dictionary: ‘Those crowded riverine cities’ (63) reminds us of Ashbery’s title ‘Those Lacustrine Cities’ — that is, cities built beside or on a lake.
Ashbery himself, as the maimed father-figure, makes a brief appearance to protest what has happened to his poem: ‘From Rochester he came hence, / A writ of Cease and Desist clenched in his teeth’ (135–6). Ashbery was born in Rochester, New York State, in 1927.
Perhaps to empower Ashbery as the lawgiver, other elder poets are downgraded. The most common thematic reference in ‘The Anaglyph’ is a series of references to bear hunting, the first of which is ‘a hunter in the dim mirror killing a bear’ (33). Poet Galway Kinnell was born in the same year as John Ashbery, and also lives in New York City. Daniel Schenker says
Kinnell’s poem contains an explicit comparison between bear-killing and poem-making, where his Eskimo hunter ponders thus: ‘the rest of my days I spend / wandering: wondering / what, anyway, / was that sticky infusion, that rank flavour of blood, that poetry, by which I lived?’ A hard question to answer, for an aboriginal American, from inside the corpse of a dead bear.
This seems light-years away from Ashbery’s modus operandi, and in ‘The Anaglyph’ the business with the dead bear is perhaps a ‘feint’, an example of what poetry is not, except in a willed personal myth drenched in contemporary bourgeois American nostalgie de la tundra.
In ‘The Anaglyph’ there are eight further references to Mr Kinnell’s ill-fated bear: ‘inhabiting a reputation’ (51), ‘the story of an Eskimo inside an eviscerated bear like this?’ (72), ‘the fact that he “inhabited” the smelly bear-skin…’ (73), ‘clambering inside an animal’ (78), ‘that animal’s demise’ (105), ‘taxidermy at midnight’ (106), ‘a polar bear falling over, and the hunter’ (156), and a final dismissive if syntactically ambiguous aperçu: ‘He read poems about killing large animals to keep awake / On the tepid waters of café society.’ (210–11)
Enough bears. Other images deal with Ashbery’s poetry as an influence and refer more sensibly to the process of rewriting as redesign or rebuilding: ‘this project, I admit that / It is like gutting then refurbishing a friend’s apartment.’ (43–44) ‘returning to my sources, raking through my prototypes’ (48), and ‘blueprint is found and seems just right’ (49).
And a couple of minor points: “a canal reflecting its own anagram”. Psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan developed a theory of the ‘mirror stage’ of ego development. Reflections and mirrors are of course symbolic of the central process this poem enacts. Canal is an anagram of Lacan, whose name appears in another mirror later in my DCA thesis.
Also “Your well wrought urn”. Ashbery’s oeuvre; the reference is to both the noted critical study of poems by Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, and Eliot, The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks, and to John Keats’ poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, which ends: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.’
(Part Two and Part Three of this article are available on this site.)