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  John Tranter Interview


John Tranter was born in Cooma, New South Wales, in 1943. He attended country schools, and took his BA in 1970. He has worked mainly in publishing, teaching and radio production, and has travelled widely. He has lived in London, Singapore, Brisbane, and San Francisco, and now lives in Sydney. He is married, with two adult children. 


Among his publications are: Parallax (1970), Red Movie and Other Poems (1973), The Alphabet Murders (1976), Crying in Early Infancy (1977), Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), Selected Poems (1983), Under Berlin (1988), The Floor of Heaven (1991), At The Florida (1993), Late Night Radio (1998), Urban Myths (2006), Poems: New and Selected (2010) and Starlight (2010).

He is the founding publisher of the Internet literary magazine Jacket, founded in October 1997. The US Publishers’ Weekly called it 'the first (and best) large-scale Internet poetry journal'. He is also the founder of Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library (APRIL), a team project to place poetry and background for over a thousand poets on the Internet.  



Brian Henry has published five books of poetry: Astronaut, American Incident, Graft, Quarantine, The Stripping Point, In the Unlikely Event of a Water and Wings Without Birds. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Australia in 1997-98, and he has co-edited Verse since 1995. 




BH: Your 2006 book Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected (Salt Publishing) is mainly chronological, but begins with a newer poem (“After Hölderlin”) and ends with an older poem (“The Popular Mysteries”). What was it about those poems that compelled you to deviate from chronology in providing entry and exit points for the book?


JT: Entry and exit points is right on. I hoped that those two poems would act as framing devices, and provide a pathway into the poems, and an exit at the end. The opening poem, “After Hölderlin”, is a version, or an updating, or a personal takeover, more like it, of Hölderlin’s poem “When I was a Boy”. He talks about how as a child “The breezes singing in the trees were my teachers, and I learned to love among the flowers...” Very German, that: I can see him hiking around the Black Forest in his lederhosen whacking at hollyhocks with a stick. And he learned about society from the ancient gods. My gods were very different, and mainly appeared in the pages of books (Biggles, Somerset Maugham) or on the movie screen (Kim Novak, John Wayne), so my version of that scenario talks about how I grew up, and what turned me into a story-teller or a poet. It seemed a good introduction to a collection of my best poems over fifty years.


The last poem in that book (“The Popular Mysteries”) also concluded my earlier Selected Poems (1982), and I wanted to have that link from a quarter of a century ago. It talks about poetry too, but in a dreamy way (“your complex dreaming / is a gift factory”), and ends up with the narrator going to sleep, “thoroughly happy”. It seemed a pleasant way to emphasise the continuity in my work, and to end the book and send the reader back to the real world. Poetry and dreams are intimately connected, in my view. They have the same kind of meaning.


BH: Is the book’s title a nod to, or send-up of, the critical commonplace that you are an “urbane” poet—the urban to Les Murray’s rural?


JT: Like most thinking people, I stopped paying any serious attention to Les Murray decades ago. As Gertrude Stein reminds us, village explainers are “excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”


No, the title was suggested by my wife Lyn, and it seemed to suit the book, so I used it. I have always liked the lurid plausibility of urban myths, and believed quite a few of them as a young man before learning that the same dramatic stories appeared in many societies, in slightly different guises. In my collection of four long narrative poems The Floor of Heaven, the stories of people’s lives  are tangled up with a number of urban myths which I had believed to be real when I was young and living in the country.


But these myths are also “urban”, of course, and mark out the distance we travel from the innocence of childhood to adulthood and disillusion. Urban myths don’t embody the ancient wisdom of the race; they are not folk tales or fairy stories or historical events or legends. They are contemporary and superficially realistic, and they invest the ordinary world with melodrama and high colour. Poetry, novels, television and movies do the same kind of thing. It seems to me that urban myths are invented mainly by adolescent boys, as a way of portraying and dealing with the bizarre world of freedom, choice and personal responsibility that looming manhood entails. They usually deal with punishment for a transgression, and often involve killing.


It is a “rural” or “pastoral” world that urban myths seem to provide the alternative to: childhood, a world of innocence that cannot be recovered, seen through a veil of nostalgia. You find traces of that in Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill’, or in those lovely rural dream-scenes by Rimbaud: “Memoire”, “Michele et Christine”, or “La Riviere de Cassis”. And in the work of those French poets who travelled so far from the tropical world of their separate childhoods in Montevideo, Uruguay, to cosmopolitan, industrial Paris: Lautréamont, Laforgue and Supervielle: “J’avais un cheval / Dans un champ de ciel / Et je m’enfoncais / Dans le jour ardent.” (“I had a horse in a field of sky and I plunged into the burning daylight.” – Supervielle, “Open Sky”.)


BH: Your poems often reach out to a “you.” What attracts you to that mode of address?


JT: That second person address does seem to be something I do, or perhaps overdo.  Am I being clever, or just avoiding something? Over twenty years ago Andrew Taylor (Australian poet and critic) puzzled about that. He was looking particularly at my poem “Leavis at The London Hotel”: “... just who is ‘you’? Is it F. R. Leavis, addressed by the poem’s subject? Is it the reader, similarly addressed? Is it the poem’s subject, being addressed by it/ him/ herself, the modern colloquial equivalent of ‘one’?… Does ‘you’ refer to a number of different addressees, each with his/ her separate needs? It might, but the poem does not enable us to distinguish them from each other.”


And Marjorie Perloff quotes a 1973 interview with John Ashbery, who as usual was doing this pretty much before anybody else thought to do it. He explicates the tactic better than most. Let me find the quote... “The personal pronouns in my work very often seem to be like variables in an equation. ‘You’ can be myself or it can be another person, someone whom I’m addressing, and so can ‘he’ and ‘she’ for that matter and ‘we’; sometimes one has to deduce from the rest of the sentence what is being meant and my point is also that it doesn’t really matter very much, that we are somehow all aspects of a consciousness giving rise to the poem and the fact of addressing someone, myself or someone else, is what’s the important thing at that particular moment rather than the particular person involved. I guess I don’t have a very strong sense of my own identity and I find it very easy to move from one person in the sense of a pronoun to another and this again helps to produce a kind of polyphony in my poetry which I again feel is a means toward greater naturalism.” 1


I guess I’m interested in that kind of polyphony, though I’m not so sure about the naturalism. A focus on the first person – me, me – is something poets grow out of as they leave adolescence. Though decades ago poets used to throw their own personal identity around like a club: “I am a poet: I had this authentic experience: now I have written an authentic poem about it: bow down before me!” Things have moved on from that, I hope. The second person is more open; it invites other people into the conversation; particularly the reader.


Novels used to employ that second person address plainly –  “Dear Reader, I hardly knew in what manner to repel the gentleman’s importunate advances...”. And then again, all theatre, from Shakespeare to the movies, addresses “you”, the audience member. Don’t you think? In a movie, the actors pretend to be speaking their lines to each other, but they know and the director knows and the scriptwriter knows that all of those words are specifically meant for “you” to overhear, as in Hamlet, or in The Marriage of Figaro. In some television serials and film noir movies – Sunset Boulevard, for example – the voice-over narration specifically addresses the viewer, or (in radio) talks to the listener. Maybe that’s what Ashbery means by “naturalism”, the naturalism of theatrical speech aimed at “you” the consumer.


BH: Talking of movies, how would you describe your approach to narrative? Do you think films—or cinema, the cinematic—have had a big influence on your poetry?


JT: Oh yes, definitely. Poems are what I do instead of making movies, which I’d rather do. And for a living I have produced or commissioned dozens – uh, no, hundreds – of radio plays and features – they’re cheaper to make than movies, and as they say, the pictures are better. Luckily I stumbled into the trade as a young man, when large audiences used to listen to radio plays and radio features.


I love that cooperative creativity, that buzz when you get a team of talented people working together to invent a magical world and the strange events that go on it it: scriptwriter, director, actors, sound effects, sound engineers... just ask a group of people to help tell a story and you’d be amazed at the talent that emerges. I find it deeply satisfying, more so than sitting alone in a room typing all day. I’d hate to be just a poet: horrible fate.


The whole of my book The Floor of Heaven is really a movie, or a sequence of movies, inspired initally by Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). That’s a strange film: in it the main story keeps being derailed by characters who feel an urge to tell about a dream they’ve had: dreams, poems... Buñuel pointed to the identity between dreams and movies. He said (in 1953) “Film seems to be an involuntary imitation of dream … the nightly incursion into the unconscious begins on the screen and deep inside man.” 2


There are other influences behind those narrative poems, of course: most film noir, a short story by Christina Stead (“George”), the idea of the aria in opera, tragedies I had heard about, people I had known in my misspent youth, lots of things.


BH: What are the origins of your 1976 book-poem “The Alphabet Murders”?


JT: That marked a break in the kind of poetry I was writing. And in my attitude to poetry. I began writing poetry in 1960. Eleven years later I had written over 300 mainly undistinguished poems and had published my first book and had completed most of a second. I had lived overseas, I had travelled from London to Sydney mostly overland, with some danger and difficulty, and I had married. I had obtained a degree majoring in English Literature and Psychology.


But I dropped out of university in 1971 to take up a position in Singapore as a publisher’s editor. There I stopped writing, and started reading: novels by Graham Greene and Eric Ambler and John Le Carre. I had grown sick of poetry.


Over the years I had tried several differents way of writing poetry, and I had queried the various purposes poetry might have. I had reached the stage where I could turn out a reasonable poem in an effective tone of voice using a collection of workable rhetorical strategies. But I couldn’t see the point. Maybe the relative isolation of Singapore had something to do with it: there was no one to talk to about poetry. In any case I felt that poetry was affected, artificial and vain, and I stopped reading or writing it.


When I came back to Sydney in late 1972 I reconnected with the poetry world there, and through 1973 and 1974 began reviewing and writing poetry again. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that I wrote a long review of Robert Adamson’s Swamp Riddles in 1973, surveying his career up to that point.


And in 1974 I compiled a one-hour radio anthology of Frank O’Hara’s best poems for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, as it was known then. That involved reading every poem in his 586-page Collected Poems. I had been slow to appreciate O’Hara, despite my friend John Forbes’s enthusiasm for his work – John was always quicker and smarter than I was – but now I could see more clearly the strengths of O’Hara’s writing, and how pretentious Robert Lowell’s poetry – for example – seemed by comparison. 


A telling moment of conflict occurs at the reading at Wagner College on Staten Island in February 1962. Frank O’Hara introduced his untitled poem beginning “Lana Turner has collapsed!” by explaining to the audience that he had mainly written the poem on the Staten Island ferry (in a snowstorm) on his way to the reading (“... I was trotting along and suddenly / it started raining and snowing… ”). Robert Lowell also read, and – clearly irritated – introduced his reading by apologizing for not having written his poem on the spot too. Lowell – all his life the career poet – frowned on the glare of the mundane world through the sunglasses of “literature”; O’Hara took it as it was, as his subject matter.


In a sense he was furthering Baudelaire’s project. Michael Jennings mentions Walter Benjamin’s appreciation of Baudelaire: “For Benjamin, the greatness of Baudelaire consists… in his absolute susceptibility to the worst excrescences of modern life: Baudelaire was in possession not of genius, but of an extraordinarily ‘sensitive disposition’ that enabled him to per­ceive, through a painful empathy, the character of an age.” 3


So with Adamson and O’Hara I had two important contemporary poets and their careers in mind at that time: sobering, and challenging, too.


Lyn and I had also had a child in Singapore, and that tends to steer you away from too great a focus on literary quibbles.


I obtained my first Literature Board grant in 1973, for the 1974 calendar year, and my main project was a series of longish poems that turned into “The Alphabet Murders”. A great deal of the dislike I had felt for poetry (and the world of poetry) found its way into these poems. They’re indiscriminately argumentative and angry. I suspect I was chastising poetry for having failed me. (Hubris? Moi?) I set the poem up as a workshop where I hoped to dismantle “poetry” and find out what was left of value once the bullshit had been torn out and thrown away. What was left, of course, was just that poem. For what it’s worth.


Nearly thirty years later I realised that every eleven or so years I suffered a period of disinterest and dislike for poetry, as I had in 1971. I mentioned this to a psychiatrist, saying that I failed to understand it, as there was no natural or social force that went through an eleven-year cycle. “Oh, yes there is,” he said. “Sunspots.”


BH: Sunspots?


JT: Yes. I’m still thinking about that one.


BH: The opening line of “The Alphabet Murders”—“After all we have left behind”—offers a sense of intimacy, a shared world with shared experiences. Were you intending to speak to and from a collective, or was it more personal, more specific than that?


JT: I think I was talking about leaving behind the history or the tradition of literature in English: Shakespeare, the Romantics, the early Modernists. And Callimachus, and Sappho, and so on. Just as we have left World War One and World War Two behind, so we have left “literature” behind. But of course we haven’t left the modern world behind. It follows us like a dog that never ages, becoming more modern every day.


That stanza ends “So I write to you ‘from a distant country’”,  a quote from Henri Michaux, whose distant country – a dreamy, mournful place – features eucalyptus trees. I think I had in mind that this “distant country” might have an alternative future, as in a science fiction story, where a wonderful kind of poetry lived, full of passion and energy, and perhaps we could cross over to that universe if we wished hard enough.


BH: Also near the beginning of “The Alphabet Murders,” you seem to offer an aesthetic statement, something of an ars poetica, but one subject to slippage, when you write, “this complex of thought begins / a new movement into musical form, much as / logic turns into mathematics and automatics / turn into moonlit driveways.” Is there an instinct to turn away from wisdom per se, or at least to deflate it a little when it appears?


JT: That’s a complicated one. When I studied Philosophy at university I was dismayed to find that there were no lectures on Buddhism or J.W. Dunne (An Experiment with Time) or Bergson, but instead complex syllogisms and truth tables that looked like mathematical theorems. Yet of course mathematics can be beautiful. And the automatics (automatic gearshift automobiles)  through the pun on “turn into” call up Ginsberg’s best poem, his imaginary conversation with Whitman, “A Supermarket in California” : “...Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?” I think I was trying to give the poem a bravura opening, demonstrating that anything was possible, any contradiction, any simile, any future, as long as writers and critics were prepared to leave behind everything that was worn out and predictable. Of course that’s a rephrasing of the ancient struggle between the young and the old. I’m not sure that I was aware of that at the time: I was thirty years old. (Thirty years young.)


BH: One of my favorite things about Kenneth Koch’s poetry is its peculiar didacticism—a kind of faux-didacticism—which also appears in other poets (Ashbery, James Tate, and John Forbes, among others). Your own poems offer numerous instances of information or advice, much of it mock-serious. In “The Alphabet Murders” alone, we have “Fate is a variety of religious experience which is / always asking its own questions,” “Justice is a kind of rhyme,” “Love is the most awkward game to play,” “Love is like a dose of vitamins,” “Love is like an angler, or his goals, / obsessively preoccupied with problems of the tide,” “Karl Marx is a comic novelist, almost,” etc.


JT: I was intrigued by the idea that you could invent something in a poem, then follow the logic of that invention to see where it led. Matthew Arnold does this with his heroic similes (in “Sohrab and Rustum”, at least) which I have parodied elsewhere, and once you accept that a poem can create its own world, then in that world, anything can happen. I used to read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, and into my thirties. I used to love reading J.G. Ballard, for example; he can invent entire worlds on the flimsiest premise and make them lyrically real (The Drowned World, 1962, The Crystal World, 1966). And of course movies are like that: hire a set and a camera, and you can invent a universe, as we know from Ed Wood’s bizarre life. I was intrigued by the idea that you could invent something in a poem, then follow the logic of that invention to see where it led. Matthew Arnold does this with his heroic similes (in “Sohrab and Rustum”, at least) which I have parodied elsewhere, and once you accept that a poem can create its own world, then in that world, anything can happen. I used to read a lot of science fiction as a teenager, and into my thirties. I used to love reading J.G. Ballard, for example; he can invent entire worlds on the flimsiest premise and make them lyrically real (The Drowned World, 1962, The Crystal World, 1966). And of course movies are like that: hire a set and a camera, and you can invent a universe, as we know from Ed Wood’s bizarre life. 4


BH: A lot of your poems focus on human weakness and failure, but there’s a passage in “The Alphabet Murders” that I think elevates, or at least dignifies, those foibles through song in a way that’s both old-fashioned (in its seeming earnestness and soul-searching) and fresh:


How are we locked into the forme that is

history in the making? At night, when

the mothy lamp flickers and shadows crawl

across the lawn, we dream of a perfect history

and pray that our children will be included

in the small reward that trickles out of action.

Is it too late to stare at ourselves cruelly as we must

if we really want that freedom, or are the little fears

that grow out of human contact and avoidance

and the knowledge of all those terrible old stories

too much even for the willing soul? How do our

acts and gestures, falling through the years,

shore up the silly things we do, the way we

argue and cause pain and hurt our friends with lies,

and make us grand? Grander than we deserve, we think,

and then sob and break down and no guiding hand …

[ellipses in the original]


And this section is immediately followed by a kind of pastiche, a skewering of confessionalism—that wielding of the “I” that you mentioned earlier.


JT: Well, I always feel ambivalent about earnestness. Perhaps because Ernest is my middle name. There I go, deflating earnestness again. That anxiety about appearing too full of deep feelings, I think it might have something to do with my growing up in an Australian country town. Australians have a laconic sense of humour. So in my writing, I often feel divided between a need to speak about deeply meaningful things, and a fear of looking like a manipulative phoney with his heart on his sleeve. Sentimentality and cynicism are the two sides of that coin. It’s always spinning in the air in front of me.


As Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” That’s not quite true, like most of Wilde’s aphorisms. And of course not all genuine feeling produces bad poetry, but it often does. Some of the most horrible frauds write poetry that is dripping with sincerity. In my own writing I have found that a strong emotional feeling produces poetry that needs to be kept in a drawer for several months, when the feeling has evaporated and a cooler critical intelligence can be employed to repair the poem’s worst stylistic excesses.


But I try to leave room for sincerity. There’s nothing wrong with sincerity, as long as you’re not too earnest about it.


BH: “The Alphabet Murders” is a sectional abecedarian—26 sections going “A” to “Z,” with a 27th section, the only prose poem in the sequence, starting with “A” again. You’ve written a lot of other poems in generative forms: the terminal, the haibun, the collage pantoum… 


JT: I have been doing that kind of thing since I was twenty, when I wrote a parody of Australian poet A.D. Hope’s poem “Australia”, using seven of Hope’s 28 rhymes, changing the rhyme scheme from abba to abab, and borrowing and distorting many of Hope’s metaphors. I derived the idea for terminals, where I borrow the end-words of a poem by another writer, from John Ashbery, who nearly twenty years ago – when he gave a reading in Sydney –  admitted that he had borrowed the end words of Swinburne’s double sestina “The Complaint of Lisa” for a double sestina of his own (in his book Flow Chart).


You can find an excellent and thorough article by Brian Henry about my use of forms like these on my website. This piece first appeared, minus the footnotes, in Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature, 18(1), June 2004, pp 36–43.


And, like a recidivist shoplifter, I’m still at it. I recently completed a fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, where I took fifty-six poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1861 edition) and updated and entirely rewrote them. They form part of my new book Starlight: 150 Poems, due to be published later this year (2010).


BH: Do you have any qualms about appropriating another writer’s work?


JT: Well, it looks like stealing, but artistic procedures like these have a long and honorable history. Musicians have been doing it for centuries. There’s Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, and of course there are Bach Variations by Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt and others, and Benjamin Britten’s 1937 “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge”, for string orchestra, and hundreds more. You see it even more with painters. Here’s a good example: the New York painter Larry Rivers, who was a jazz musician and friend of (and portraitist of) the poet Frank O’Hara. He painted a version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (a famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, 1851) in 1953.


In poetry there’s Kenneth Koch’s hilarious "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" (1962), and John Ashbery’s strange “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox”, and others.


BH: Why do  you feel this kind of appropriation is so widespread? And what do you get out of it?


JT: For one thing, it’s a way to learn more about your craft. For example, how did Shakespeare manage the new sonnet form from Italy? And why are his attempts to do them in English so stiff? Why does Baudelaire go on and on about graveyards? And an example from music: if you’re a cellist, Bach’s cello suites are a wonderful way to find out what the instrument can do at its most elemental. So reworking a prior artwork by another artist is a kind of learning exercise, both technical and artistic.


And there’s a threefold payoff for an artist with this kind of work. First, you have a challenge, and challenges always get the adrenaline going. If you’re going to rewrite Baudelaire, it had better be good! So your pulse rate is up to begin with.


Then you have instant inspiration: the original work brings a whole collection of interesting things with it: the artist’s life, his or her struggles, achievements, the narratives and themes that interested the artist, and so on. That whole world is there, in the background, waiting to be used, borrowed, criticised, parodied, whatever.


Then there’s the generational conflict and the completion of a lineage. When Francis Bacon paints his “Homage to Van Gogh” or reworks Velázquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, when Picasso recreates Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” in 58 cubist variations in 1957, or paints “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, after Manet” in 1961, the audience has more than a painting to consider: they have a whole history lesson, an artistic argument and an Oedipal struggle as well. 


BH: You’ve mentioned Ashbery and O’Hara. Do you have an interest in the New York School in general? How has American poetry affected your own work at various points of your writing life?


JT: I’ve always been interested in American culture. And British culture. They were the two great ‘foreign’ influences on me as a child, through books and movies. The first movie I remember seeing as a child was British (Scott of the Antarctic, 1948), and the second was American (National Velvet, 1944.) I was born in the middle of the worst war the world has ever seen, and Britain and the US were the allies that fought that war alongside Australian troops (including three of my uncles, two of whom died of war wounds). And US and British movies were staples each week at the local cinema. So though those two cultures were thousands of miles away, they were familiar. Well, both familiar and culturally exotic at the same time. In both those foreign cultures, it snowed at Christmas time, while in Australia we had heatwaves and bushfires. And what was a pizza, and how did you pronounce the word? At  sixteen I had never seen one, and only dimly knew what they were like.


When I became aware of poetry in my late teens I looked outside Australia for exotic material, and eventually the New York school attracted my attention, along with German, French and British poets and all the other US American ‘schools’ in the 1960 Don Allen anthology, and the other conservative American poets who weren’t in that collection, too.


Of course Ashbery and O’Hara are very different from each other. Poets generally like other poets’ work not just because it is good, but for what you can get out of it. Ashbery presents a lyrical and highly literary take on English poetry from the renaissance through the Romantics to the Victorians, and on surrealism and French poetry generally. Perhaps that satisfies the ‘British’ and side of my interests.


O’Hara on the other hand shows what effective use you can make of everyday personal experiences, of the demotic, the gossipy and the evanescent. The work is just as lyrical and deep, in the end, but it arrives there fresh from the noise and bustle of lunch-time New York. Ashbery arrives there through the fog, bemused on the packet boat from Calais, a volume of Raymond Roussel in his pocket.


And the younger generations of both British and American poets  are different again, as well as being very numerous. Working on Jacket magazine has allowed me to follow lots of interesting younger poets as they have developed over the last dozen years.


BH: In your view, how has Australian poetry changed since you started editing Jacket in 1997? Do you see a change in your own work since then? I’m curious about the effect of the Internet on poets, in terms of making hard-to-find work more readily available. When I was in college and graduate school in 1990-1997, I had a really hard time finding Australian poetry. There was Les Murray (FSG’s token Australian), and Peter Porter and Chris Wallace-Crabbe at OUP. I knew of other Australian poets through Verse, but I couldn’t get their books because of distribution. So I went to Australia. Now, of course, it’s not hard at all, thanks to online magazines and presses like Salt, which publish a lot of Australian poets and distribute their books around the world. Has this had any effect on Australian poetry as a whole?


JT: Oh, yes, it has. The reach of the Internet is extraordinary, and it’s especially valuable for writing. It makes it easy and economical to keep up with what is happening in the rest of the world, and to some extent to take part in that cultural mixing. It’s something I had hoped to see from a very young age. As a poet starting out I was very conscious of how far away from the rest of the world Australia was. There’s a catchphrase for it: the tyranny of distance, which derives from the title of a book of history by Geoffrey Blainey: The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History. In blunter terms, Australia seemed very provincial, in a distant orbit around London and New York. Poets like Peter Porter and artists like Sidney Nolan had to travel to London to make it, in the 1950s. I travelled to London and returned overland through Asia in the 1960s.


It was difficult to know what fresh and experimental work was being done in the rest of the world after World War Two, because the press and the other news media in Australia were run by conventional people, as were the universities, though no one looked there for literary news. Our novelist Patrick White said in the 1950s that “whatever cultural roost there is in this country is ruled over by schoolteachers and journalists.” My father was a schoolteacher, and a  much-loved one; my brother was a journalist. There’s nothing wrong with those occupations; it’s just that people who work at them should not be placed on pedestals as cultural arbiters.


The three Australian poets you mentioned are in their seventies or eighties. I guess it takes that long to be noticed in London. But none of them, as far as I know, has much of a presence on the internet. And that’s where most people look for poetry, nowadays. That has to have an effect on the kind of poetry we write in Australia. Perhaps it’s more internationally homogenous as a result, and less like a particular local cheese prized for its flavour by seven people. Perhaps it’s fresher and more complex, with more things to say to a wider range of readers. I don’t know.   



copyright © John Tranter & Brian Henry


Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. New Jersey: Princeton Press, 1981. Page 63.

2  Carrière, Jean-Claude. The Secret Language of Film. Trans. Jeremy Leggatt. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

3  Jennings, Michael W. (Introduction to) Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge, Massachussetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

4  See Rudolph Grey’s biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992)