John Tranter, who died last Friday at the age of 79, was perhaps more than any Australian poet of the 20th century guided by a relentless desire to experiment. His earliest admiration was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and he soon discovered John Ashbery, who eventually became his main influence.
Tranter was dissatisfied with the Australian poetry scene he encountered in the mid-1960s. He rejected what he saw as a political and aesthetic conservatism, rooted in an Anglo-Irish tradition and with little sympathy for the French innovators of the 19th century or more recent developments in the United States.
The Fake Poet Ern Malley was the only Australian influence Tranter attributed.
The poems in Tranter’s first collection Parallax (1970) were short and often hesitant in their disjunctions. His experiments continued in Red Movie and Other Poems (1972), The Blast Area (1974), and The Alphabet Murders (1976).
These early collections show Tranter discarding conventional subject matter and a steady speaking voice for a purer realm of textual play:
when earth’s new alphabet soup
is hoisted into a flag, the inevitable wind appears
with his own “sister of breath”.
thoughts of silver depress it more
: such a light
open a passage.
In these poems, disjunctions are amplified and shifts in pronouns intensified, while metaphors are inflected and disturbed. Tranter returns to the subjects of movies, drugs, fast cars and guns, but the nouns are used more for their structure and the atmosphere they create than for what they mean.
The work baffled those readers and critics attuned to more conventional models. Some argued that the poems lacked emotional depth. But many reviewers, including Martin Johnston, recognized something vital and new.
Concurrently with these collections, Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets (1977) was written. The sonnet form provided a greater sense of coherence, as it brought to the fore the humor and an urbanity that had sometimes been muted in Tranter’s earlier work.
Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Tranter was quickly accepted. Two of his early books were published by Angus & Robertson, a mainstream publisher who played a validating role in Australia, similar to Faber & Faber in the UK. This venerable publisher produced his Selected Poems (1982), before the poet turned 40.
Tranter’s most celebrated work is Under Berlin (1988), which was released almost ten years after his previous single. Many of these poems display a consistent tone and steady voice. There are observable themes that likely contributed to the critical acclaim. The book was awarded both the Kenneth Slessor Prize and the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry.
The poems show that Tranter has absorbed and refined Ashbery’s influence in the relaxed and confident tone of their lines. Their subjects are diverse. Rural settings that draw on Tranter’s rural upbringing sit alongside urban and domestic poems.
Backyard revolves around the Australian institution of the barbecue, subtly subverting the mythologizing of those Australian poets who would elevate the event to the status of a sacrament. The subject of North Light is the suburban man in a moment of contemplation. Debbie and Co., which begins – “The wreck of the municipal swimming pool / With Greek children screaming in Italian” – is a snapshot of disgruntled twenty-somethings hanging out at the local swimming pool.
Glow-boys examines the lives of workers who clean up nuclear waste. The poem is laced with the anguish of its time and ends with an image of the progeny of the workers: “asleep, restlessly dreaming”.
Some of the poems in At the Florida (1992) continue in this perfected style, but Tranter’s desire for formal experimentation remained. The book ends with a sequence of haibun: 20 lines of poetry, followed by a stanza ending and a prose paragraph. Some signal a return to disjunction and difficulty. The collection was accompanied by a verse novel, The Floor of Heaven (1992), written in rough iambic pentameter.
Before the late 20th century, Tranter experimented with AI and generative technologies. Different Hands (1998) is presented as seven ‘computer-generated collaborations’, based on pieces by different writers ‘shaken, stirred and transformed by the poet’.
For example, Neuromancing Miss Stein combines and reconfigures text samples from Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. The results are interesting, but disappointing in light of the strong work that precedes and follows.
Tranter’s last two major publications, Starlight: 150 Poems (2010) and Heart Starter (2015), show a late-career poet drawing on the resources of language and technology, restlessly grappling with any established style.
These poems show Tranter experimenting with text-to-speech software and returning to the sonnet form. Also prominent among his late work is the “terminal”, a form Tranter may have invented, in which the poet borrows the ending words of an earlier poem to write an entirely new text.
Of these is the most memorable The anaglypha long discursive poem of cumulative force, using the opening and closing words of every line of John Ashbery’s Clepsydra.
Read more: Minimalist poet Antigone Kefala wins the Patrick White Award for her contribution to Australian literature
Tranter’s influence can be seen in the work of later Australian poets, but his role as an editor, anthologist and publisher from the early 1970s well into the 21st century had a more direct effect on Australian poetry.
In the 1970s he was involved in a number of small magazines, including the only issue of Free Grass, which he wrote in one afternoon under a series of aliases.
His magazine, Transit, was as short-lived as the title suggests, but he resurrected the name for his publishing company, which produced a number of books by the likes of John Forbes, Gig Ryan, Susan Hampton, and Martin Johnston.
For better or worse, the term ‘Generation of ’68’ was defined by the publication of Tranter’s anthology The New Australian Poetry (1979). The book has undoubtedly helped the careers of some poets, but it has received harsh criticism. The selection favored writers from Sydney and Melbourne and included only two women among 24 contributors. Many of the names commonly associated with the group are missing. Ken Bolton and Pam Brown, in particular, are confusing omissions.
The Generation of ’68 label, which still exists today, has revolutionary connotations and is reminiscent of the student riots in Paris. But it also had the effect of freezing the movement at a certain moment. The ‘new’ was already in the distant past at the time of the publication of the anthology.
Tranter took the opportunity to correct many of these errors while co-editor with Philip Mead Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991), which placed Ern Malley at the center of the Australian canon and reproduced Malley’s body of work as originally published by Max Harris.
The anthology highlighted the achievements of many of Tranter’s closest allies, but its representation of women was broader than any Australian anthology to date. It was also generous to poets with whom Tranter was at odds, such as James McAuley and Les Murray.
Tranter worked as a broadcaster for the ABC on several arts programs and co-founded Books and Writing with Jane Garrett. He worked with Martin Johnston at SBS – and after his friend’s death – compiled Johnston’s Selected Poems and Prose (1993).
Unsurprisingly, Tranter was at the forefront of the digital revolution. He was the founder of the now defunct Australian Poetry Librarywho gave international audiences access to thousands of Australian poems, and co-founded the Journal of Poetics Research.
In 1997 he founded Jacket. This international online magazine, which still runs as Coat 2, is now located at the University of Pennsylvania. It remains a leading magazine for contemporary experimental poetry.
Energy and ingenuity remained the hallmarks of Tranter’s life and work to the end.