John Tranter: China

  John Tranter


  the influence of Eastern poetry
  on my own writing


A talk on the influence of Chinese poetry on my own writing. This piece was first delivered at the invitation of Professor Anthony Uhlmann at the third annual Chinese Australia Literary Forum at Western Sydney University’s Parramatta Campus, in the renovated Female Orphan School building, the foundation stone of which was laid by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1813. I thank the organisers for the opportunity to present the piece. The talks for the forum were held on Saturday 29 August 2015. As a matter of courtesy, the piece was first offered to the Sydney Review of Books, editor Catriona Menzies-Pike, who was unable to make use of it.

  My First Books of Poetry


The first books of poetry I read were a collection of poems by D.H. Lawrence, a collection of poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins, and an anthology of Chinese poetry. They were given to me by a wise history teacher, John Darcy, in my last year of high school, when I was seventeen.


I still think the anthology of Chinese poetry must have been the Penguin anthology Introduced by Professor Davis, of Sydney University, but the date on the copyright page — 1962 — tells me that this book cannot be the one lent to me in 1960. It hardly existed then.


And I was so enamoured of the cleverness of G.M. Hopkins that I later copied this out in the back flyleaf of my copy of the Chinese anthology: ‘The quality of a gentleman is so very fine a thing that it seems to me one should not be at all hasty in concluding that one possesses it.’ — G.M. Hopkins, from a letter to Robert Bridges, a poet with strong Christian convictions who was made poet laureate in 1913, in 1883.

Photo of Robert Bridges courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Robert Bridges courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


But whatever the origin of this collection of Chinese poetry, it had in common with the D.H. Lawrence and the Gerard Manly Hopkins collections of poems one thing: all the poems were in free verse, and none of them rhymed.


As a young writer I wrestled with rhyme and iambic pentameter… after all, Shakespeare had used them, so they must be useful — but I was never comfortable with them. Most of the poetry I was reading — translations of nineteenth and twentieth century French and German poets, and modern poetry from the USA and Britain — did not use rhyme at all. In fact most twentieth-century poetry was unrhymed. This threw the weight of purpose onto the words being used: precisely what you said, and not how you happened to say it. I thought this was a good thing, as it validated what I wanted to do anyway. Rhyme and rhythm were old-fashioned, I thought.


I still do, though I have come to believe in my old age that old-fashioned things can be very good things, and I have been writing lots of rhymed sonnets recently, for example. My last book, written in my seventies, has dozens of them. My literary hero Arthur Rimbaud — 1854 to 1891 — may well have written in free verse and in prose poetry towards the end of his writing life, but as a teenager he wrote hundreds of rhyming poems, and was a noted Latin scholar at his school.


The point has to be faced that — as well as the triumph of free verse in English-language poetry through the twentieth century — poetry in English translation has always been largely unrhymed. In fact the imposition of rhyme onto an English translation is often wrong, as well as a waste of time. The original could not have rhymed quite like that, unless it had been in English; which it could not have been. There are translations of Rimbaud from French into rhymed English, and I think they are an awful mistake, however strong the rhymes in French. Shakespeare rhymes ‘moi’ and ‘boy’ somewhere, but a modern translator just can’t do that any more. There is no rhyme for ‘moi’ [‘mwah’] in modern English, and that’s that.

  Freedom from Rhyme


I seem to have written some twenty-four books of poetry, most of it free of what the great English poet Milton called ‘barbarous ornament’, that is, free of rhyme.


Yet most of the Romantic poets, revolutionary experimentalists all of them, used rhyme most of the time. They invented ‘organic form’, after all — or their chief spokesman Coleridge did, and ‘organic form’ allowed a tree to grow into whatever shape its genes had in mind, and did away with emphatic rhyme. Pope may have rhymed his couplets like marching soldiers in uniform, or — more to the point — like identical rows of poplar trees alongside a driveway, each tree rhyming with its twin. The great revolution of Romantic poetry was to do away with the need for those mirrored rhymes: ‘man, plan; shoot, fruit; explore, soar; flies, rise,’ to quote some rhymes from Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’.


Davis’s anthology — translated by the Americans Robert Kotewall and Norman L. Smith — features — alongside Professor Davis’s thirty-page Introduction — only 74 pages of Chinese poetry, including four short poems from Li Po (also called Li Bai) and three short poems by his friend and fellow-poet Tu Fu (Du Fu).


A much large anthology of Chinese poetry, published in Mentor paperback at around the same time, is The White Pony – an Anthology of Chinese Poetry, edited by Robert Payne with the assistance of dozens of Chinese-speaking translators. It is over 300 pages long, and contains the work of around forty-eight poets plus fourteen songs from the old dynasties. It is a rich hoard of old poems, and includes of Li Bai fourteen pages, and of Tu Fu seventeen pages. What more could one ask?

  Here’s a poem of my own: (circa 2000)
Notes from the Late Tang.

for J.H. Prynne

On the mountain of (heaped snow, boiled rice)
I met Tu Fu wearing a straw hat against the midday sun
distant bridge, restless parting, rain (in, on) the woods
[line missing]

willows among white clouds (shirt, chemise, ghost)
(to take the long view) parting
away moving, mobile telephone handset
[Bob: perhaps that’s ‘grief at parting’]

my humble (borrowed, not inherited)
cottage (pig-sty) perspective
there is a misty view (of, from?) bridge
the storm took three layers of thatch, so

rain through the roof, porcine lucubrations
(something?) pig oil study
[Bob: ‘pig oil’ can’t be right]
burning the midnight oil in my study

phantom liberty, ghost freedom view
great ancient poet wrote for radio
(would have written) had he known
(subjunctive) radio receiver, milkmaid attitude

silkscreen pastoral, pants metaphor
looking back, sorrow (shopping) lady
parting (hair) long voyage
light and green woods, little pig woman

[Bob: I think that’s ‘young swineherd girl’]
she questions (annoys) the lonely traveller
unfortunate view (of, from)
pig liquid telephone handset

  And an early poem of mine:
  from ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ (1979)

Reading books expands the cranial capacity
and with that extra brain you can talk
to the dead, and sometimes in another language
that takes years to decipher, for example
The old poets are drifting
back into the mist: Li Po drowned, Tu Fu
grey and dazed in the bamboo thicket –
they used to hold hands, share a blanket
in the winter, and get drunk together.
That was the T’ang Gang, in the old days,
if you survived the purges you were okay,
but you needed nerves of steel and a healthy
appetite; then battle, famine and ruin…
in the eighth moon of Autumn a storm
tore three layers of thatch from Tu Fu’s hovel –
‘After the disasters of war,’ he said,
‘I have had little sleep or rest,’
and the rain pouring through the roof.
‘Now I dream of an immense mansion,’ he tells me,
‘thousands of rooms, where all the cold creatures
can take shelter, their faces alight…’ You
should have had such pity on the future,
or were you dreaming of the future, of the
creatures huddling under the river bank,
the rain curtain smoking low on the water?
[Rimbaud] are a parable for what has gone wrong…

  And from later in the same poem:
From part 12

                      …I’d like to talk about
that ghost waiting in the garden
in the rain. A dozen critics are thrusting
different tickets at him, the young President
of the Media Poetry Action Group is asking
the ghost to come to the party, a ruck of editors
need his endorsement, and will forge it
if he declines. And the rain dissolves
the group photo of the Chinese Poetry Team —
Li Po back left, the one with the Rolex —
into a grey sludge; the ghost
scribbles a quick autograph, and fades away.

  Lin Yutang


I was greatly taken by the writing of Lin Yutang when I was young. Perhaps one needed to be young, and unused to strong political ideas, to appreciate Lin Yutang. His main book is The Art of Living (English Works of Lin Yutang) (Moon Stone) (Chinese Edition) (Chinese) Paperback – January 3, 2010.

Photo of Lin Yutang, copyright, photographer unknown.
Photo of Lin Yutang, copyright, photographer unknown.


[From Wikipedia: Lin Yutang, Wade-Giles romanization Lin Yü-t’ang, original name Lin Hele (born October 10, 1895, Longxi, Fujian province, China — died March 26, 1976, Hong Kong), prolific writer of a wide variety of works in Chinese and English; in the 1930s he founded several Chinese magazines specializing in social satire and Western-style journalism.]


In the mid-1950s, Lin Yutang served briefly and unhappily as president (or chancellor) of the Nanyang University which was newly created in Singapore specifically for Chinese studies as parallel to the English-oriented University of Singapore. He did not, however, choose to continue in that role when the faculty resisted his plans for structural reform and Nanyang (the name means ‘South Seas’) University became a focus of the struggle for control of Singapore between the Communist-directed left and the liberal, social democratic right, or so the successful People’s Action Party headed for many decades by British-trained lawyer Lee Kuan Yew said. Lin Yutang felt he was too old for the conflict.


I lived and worked in Singapore in 1971 and 1972, and Nanyang University was a real presence even then, though its emphasis on Mandarin instruction meant that it seemed removed from my own concerns as Senior Education Editor for the (then) important Australian publishing firm of Angus and Robertson, all of whose books were published in English. [It had for a century featured the largest list of published poets in Australia, in the belief that popular books (and it published lots of those) would support poetry publishing, which always lost money. The firm no longer exists; it was put to sleep under Rupert Murdoch’s reign. — J.T., 2015.]

  Mournful Poetry and its Causes


A persuasive theory equates the English-language poets of the Elizabethan age (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Campion, and others) with the Chinese-language poets of the T’ang (or Tang) dynasty (618 to 907) which is often considered to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Bai (or Li Po), and later poets like Su Shih, have in common with the Elizabethan poets and with many modern American poets that they were highly-educated and at the same time virtually unemployable. The emphasis on academic qualifications and the impossibility of attaining proper employment haunt these three eras: the Elizabethan Age, the Tang Period, and the modern American age.This means that many scholars from those three periods are highly trained in the various branches of rhetoric, yet afflicted with a world-view that is highly complex, negative, and painfully aware of the likelihood of unemployment.

Note: Humour break follows:


So what’s the chance that this mournful, complex poetry will take over the world? Very slim, as it happens. Just as widespread academic unemployment intersects with the expectations of the highly-trained elite, Apple and the iPhone come to rescue us.Yes, the median age of Americans (and Australians too) is now in the thirties: most Americans are between thirty and forty years of age. This is exactly the ‘demographic’ with enough disposable income and enough technical savvy and competitive greed to adopt the iPhone keenly, and therefore to avoid the hours of angst-ridden aimlessness that would otherwise give rise to mournful poetry.


Instead, these young people — the bulk of our populations — play with their iPhones: Star Wars II, Tetris, Angry Birds, or whatever the current trend is. A recent New Yorker magazine cartoon has a trendy young female talking on the telephone: ‘A bunch of friends are coming over to stare at their phones.’

New Yorker Cartoon by Peter Mueller.
New Yorker Cartoon by Peter Mueller.


So there is a worry bruited about that mindless iPhone use replaces boredom, and thus restless poetic thought, but young people don’t worry about that. It’s only the diminishing clan of older persons who worry about things like that, and they will soon be dead. But perhaps this view is unduly cynical — that is, too Australian.

End of Humour Break.

  Reed College, Chinese Poetry and Calligraphy


Reed College in Portland, Oregon, gave modern America (and thus the modern Western world) two important things: eastern poetry and a belief in the importance of elegant calligraphy. To my mind, the Chinese people have long believed that a significant poet will display a grasp of elegant calligraphy; this is part of what being a creative artist means. [Most of this sections draws on material from the book The Eternal Letter edited by Paul Shaw (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2015.)]


The US American poets Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder — later credited with introducing Japanese and Chinese philosophies into American poetry — both studied at Reed College, in the 1950s.

Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welsh. Photo courtesy Shambala Times at
Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welsh. Photo courtesy Shambhala Times at


The US Poetry Foundation says ‘After his discharge [from military service] in 1946, Whalen returned to Portland and enrolled at Reed College under the G.I. Bill. There he worked at his studies and his creative writing at a near-frenzied pace, determined to become an accomplished writer. He received encouragement from his instructors and from William Carlos Williams, who visited Reed in 1950. ‘Perhaps more important to Whalen’s development was his budding friendship with Lew Welch and Gary Snyder. Whalen met Welch and Snyder in the late 1940s and moved into a rooming house with them in 1950… the young writers ‘shared their works, encouraged one another, and established a bohemian style of their own in the subculture of the Reed literati.’

Poet Lew Welch, 1926-1971. Photo courtesy of American Poems; photographer unknown.
Poet Lew Welch, 1926-1971. Photo courtesy of American Poems; photographer unknown.

On May 23, 1971, Welch walked out of poet Gary Snyder’s house in the mountains of California, leaving behind a suicide note. He had carried a stainless steel heavy-frame Smith & Wesson .22 caliber revolver. His body was never found. [Wikipedia]


As the 1950s unfolded, the critic adds, Whalen, Snyder, and Welch ‘brought a compelling style of writing to the California ferment — a style clearly marked by subtle intelligence, compassion for nature (doubtless borne into them by the beauty of the Oregon mountains and wilderness), and a keenly felt spiritual reality which Snyder and Whalen both interpreted religiously in later years.’

Gary Snyder in 2007.
Gary Snyder in 2007.


Reed College was also a place where calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds was influential. The official Reed College site says ‘Reed hired Reynolds as an instructor to teach English and creative writing. Mary Barnard (’32, the poet) was one student who fought with Reynolds as her adviser, completed a creative thesis of exquisite poetry, and became a lifelong friend of his. In 1950 and 1951, three students were all greatly affected by him, his beliefs, and his calligraphy… [Snyder, Whalen and Welch]. As a teacher, Reynolds was a mentor who could energize and inspire and revolutionize a person’s thinking… (In Australian poet Laurie [Laurence] Duggan’s Journal, he mentions that in 1979 he received a handwritten letter from Philip Whalen: ‘1979-Apr-22: Checked my postbox & found an aerogram from Philip Whalen, written at the Tassajara mountain center… the letter was a lovely polite & considerate writing [in his amazing Reed College calligraphy] which made me feel like I’d taken 300mgs of pure LSD…)


The sensibility and sensitivity about letter forms demonstrated by both Reynolds and Palladino have morphed out into the world, for instance in typeface design by Sumner Stone 1967 at Adobe, Chuck Bigelow 1967 and Kris Holmes 1972, and Paul Shaw 76; in the computer language interface initiated by Steve Jobs and Adobe; in graphic design by Michael McPherson 68, Elizabeth Anderson MAT 72, and Lee Littlewood 68; in the art of Margot Thompson 70, Anita Bigelow 67, Bob Ross 61, and Diana Stetson 79; and in the teaching and practice of calligraphy by Clyde Van Cleeve 55, Dorothy Dehn 61, Marilyn Holsinger MAT 65, Georgianna Greenwood 60, and Steven Herold 63. It is no wonder that Reed College and its calligraphy heritage will remain the focus of much interest in the world of letter forms.’

Philip Whalen practising calligraphy. Photographer unknown.
Philip Whalen practising calligraphy. Photographer unknown.


Here’s how Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, remembers Reed: ‘Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san[s] serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.


‘None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.’


That sounds like a poet speaking, to me. Of course it ignores the massive contribution to computer typesetting by Emeritus Professor Donald Knuth, who Developed TeX for Unix systems, and which the Adobe InDesign program acknowledges.


Tim Appelo writes: ‘I know where Steve Jobs’ inspiration came from, because I walked into the same place three months after he’d left in 1974: the calligraphy building at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. “My first impression was that all the other students really liked him,” says Jobs’ first calligraphy professor (and mine), Robert Palladino. “That surprised me, because there were all these geniuses floating around, and Steve was a dropout. But they detected greatness even then.’


Reed College again: ‘Edward M. Catich was a leading authority on the Roman Imperial letter form, as found on the Trajan Column in Rome. The Trajan Inscription has been generally regarded by paleographers, calligraphers, and others interested in the letter arts as the finest example of Roman monumental lapidary inscription, and is accepted as the basic model of the Roman alphabet… Catich is familiar to the Portland calligraphy community because of his relationship with Reed professor Lloyd J. Reynolds. At Reynolds’ invitation, Catich produced two lapidary inscriptions that are now part of the permanent collection of the Portland Art Museum, as well as several carved inscriptions on the Reed College campus, including the lintel of Eliot Hall. Catich also trained Reynolds’ successor at Reed, calligraphy instructor Robert J. Palladino.’

  The Laconic Mode


Humour — or humor, as most North Americans spell it — is an important part of Australian speech-exchanges and also of Australian poetry. Irony is special part of humour, and irony is a vital aspect of Australian poetry. Here’s part of my review (published first in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1998) of Damaged Glamour, the posthumous book of poems by one of Australia’s very best modern poets, the late John Forbes, 1950 to 1998:


Simple-minded poets and earnest readers always want poems to be about matters of the ‘heart’. Okay, Forbes wrote about the ‘heart’. Like this, from the poem ‘Troubador’:


where the heart burns
like an old tyre
filling the air
with flecks of carbon
& a terrible stink…


He wrote about politics too. His ‘Ode to Karl Marx’ begins with a nod to Miss Havisham from the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations


Old father of the horrible bride whose
wedding cake has finally collapsed…

Tiepolo - The Banquet of Cleopatra (detail) - Google Art Project.jpg (copyright
Tiepolo – The Banquet of Cleopatra – (detail) Google Art Project.jpg (copyright


Years of training in art theory lie behind poems such as ‘On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra’ (the painting is helpfully reproduced on the cover) which opens:


Any frayed waiting room copy of Who
could catch this scene: flash Euro-
trash surveys a sulky round faced
überBabe who’s got the lot…


And he wrote dozens of love poems, almost all of them ornately oblique. One in an earlier book goes into lengthy technical detail about the sounds of the various armaments audible in a television news report of the bombing of Baghdad. A love poem in this book, though — a kind of ‘still life with girl and heroin’ — comes close to the simple sentimentality he had previously abjured.

John Forbes, Newtown, Sydney, c. 1978, unknown photographer.
John Forbes, Newtown, Sydney, c. 1978, unknown photographer.


For all their intellectual dexterity, his poems are easy to read, and Forbes was almost self-consciously Australian. There are a handful of poems in this book that pin down our larrikin style with grace and accuracy. Forbes grew up on the fringe of the military — his father was a civilian meteorologist attached to the Air Force — and his poem about the Anzac Day march (the last poem in the book) compares various military cultures, from the English to the Germans, from the French to the Scots. All this is just a leadup to his final point:


But The March is
proof we got at least one thing right, informal
straggling and more cheerful than not, it’s
like a huge works or 8-Hour-Day picnic—
if we still had works, or unions, that is.


[A ‘works’ is a ‘steelworks’ for example, a huge factory complex. The 8-hour-day picnic celebrated the granting of an 8-hour working day in response to Australian building workers’ union demands in 1856; 1879 the government of the Australian state of Victoria declared it a public holiday.]


He was sardonically aware of the contradictions of a society that occasionally gave modest handouts to poets (he had enjoyed a small number of Literature Board grants) and lavishly rewarded greedy Australian entrepreneurs like Christopher Skase and Alan Bond for their cunning. The sneering references to rich yuppies that pepper his writings, though, seem to me to be tinted with envy.


In Australia, success can cost you your friends. Forbes turned his back on it, and wrapped penury around him like a patched overcoat. In ‘Lessons for Young Poets’ he says


it’s important to be major
but not to be
too cute about it — I mean
it’s the empty future
you want to impress,
not just the people
who’ll always be richer
& less talented than you.


This is the Laconic Mode, a way of talking that is peculiarly Australian, and grows from a dry refusal to acknowledge either the hurt of failure or the glow of success. Except for his art — and there’s no doubt it will impress the empty future — Forbes was more acquainted with failure than success, and the sting of various defeats (menial jobs, unrequited love, friendship gone sour) was not assuaged by the knowledge that he was mostly to blame.


But even that bitter pill can be turned into piquant verse, if you’re clever enough, as he was. Another stanza from his ‘Lessons for Young Poets’ —


continually disappoint
the expectations of others,
this way you will come to hate yourself
& they will be charmed by your distress


In the poem ‘Anti-Romantic’ he concludes that self-conscious bitterness is the best response to a consideration of ‘poetry driven by love or breath’. Art or life both require this, he tells us, but in case you are inclined to be too cute about this hard-earned insight, there’s a final admonition — an ethical scruple that surely bears the imprint of his Catholic schooling:


but your attitude like
inspiration disappears,

leaves you ugly & stranded,
the moment you admire it.


To break away from this review (of the poetry collection Damaged Glamour) for a moment, I feel Forbes’s most important statement about the role of the poet, always an important concern of his, is in the poem ‘Monkey’s Pride’ (named after a racehorse he once bet to win a race), in which he writes about his role as a poet:


I’ll be employed on a rowing boat
mounted in a park, the one the avenues
lead to because society has elected me /
to decorate its falling apart with a
useless panache


So the role of the poet is seen, self-laceratingly, as ‘useless’.



And why should I force Li Po (or Li Bai) to share the limelight with my poetic hero Arthur Rimbaud?


The picture we in the west have of Li Bai is that of cheerful mastery through excess: he wrote millions of poems, threw most of them away, drank lots of alcohol and drowned on a drunken swim, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in the water. So legend has it.


Australians like poets who drink too much. As John Forbes writes in a poem about the artistic masterpieces of Europe:


I know how I enjoyed myself: though
knocked out by what convinced me
‘Great Art’ without inverted commas is
(but not because of this) I hung around
with other Australians & hit the piss.
— (From: ‘Europe: a Guide’)


In other words, he drank, and became drunk.


One clue to the presence of the worship of the Larrikin Spirit in the Australian character is historical: Australians have long believed they have two kinds of ancestors: the lower-class, rebellious, often left-wing agitators and thieves who were brought to the original colony in chains, and their correct, middle-class, corrupt British gaolers. So Australians see themselves as a mixture of both strains: rebels against authority, and followers of authority. It’s a potent mixture, especially when you stir in poetry and corruption.

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