John Kinsella interviews John Tranter
JK: I’d like to start with postmodernism. Are you well versed in postmodernist theory?
JT: No, not really. I’ve read about it, but not thoroughly; some articles here and there, a book by Charles Jencks, an interesting paper by John Frow with the very clever title ‘What Was Postmodernism’? It seems to me that a theoretical understanding of postmodernism isn’t all that important for a writer, or for a creative artist of any kind. Of course it’s a good thing to be aware of the philosophical currents of the time, particularly when they deal with how art and theory are created and consumed, but it isn’t necessary for the art. I mean, it doesn’t help you make better art.
JK: I agree.
JT: Perhaps architects have to be more aware of it, because architecture is a fashion-driven trade, like interior decoratingcould we call architecture ‘exterior decorating’?and postmodernism is the current fashion. Well, that’s not really true; the geographer Jane M. Jacobs was talking to me recently in Melbourne about the new fashions in building design in Europe, the work of architects like James Stirling, who strongly denies he’s a postmodernist, and Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw, who appear to be driving away from postmodern trends towards something else. Their work sounds to me a little like a return to the Bauhaus; back to the future with machine modernism and functional design. But then, that would be a postmodern strategy too. Is postmodernism inescapable? It seems so.
JK: There’s a lot of talk about the borrowing and mixing of styles in postmodernist works. Pastiche, that sort of thing.
JT: Well, pastichethere’s montage, bricolagejust gluing things together. In a simple sense they are part of the arsenal of the modernist artist: eighty years ago artists were cutting bits of things out of newspapers and using bus tickets and pieces of plywood glued onto canvasI think that’s where we get the word ‘collage’, from the French word for ‘glue’.
You see it in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses too, where Joyce borrows formsthe stage play, the music hall, the romantic novelette. And in Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land, and in Pound’s Cantos. It’s a tactic of classical modernism.
JK: And postmodernismwhat are its tactics?
JT: Well, I think postmodernism perhaps makes up a way of viewing and talking about the production and reception of art, and the way art-making strategies developed over the last century, particularly since classical modernism lost steam around the time of the Second World War. I can’t see it relating much to a way of making art. Few of those who do make art or literature have much of an understanding of it, and they’re often hostile towards intellectual theory anyway. People who make things usually work with concrete nouns. People who talk about art usually work with abstract nouns, and there’s no way the two dialect groups can understand each other.
Let’s look at Pound, Eliot and Joycenow they may have known exactly what they were doing in, say 1922, the year in which both Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land were published; after all, they were presenting the signal works of the modernist project in literature to a bewildered audience. They knew what modernism felt like down in the engine-room: they were stoking the boilers.
But did they know where the ship was headed? I doubt they would have been able to understand the terms we use today to talk about modernism. I mean, in some ways Eliot’s great critical contribution to the twentieth century was his rehabilitation of John Donne and Virgil, for goodness’ sake! Could Picasso have seen Pollock on the horizon in 1922? Or Stravinsky, John Cage? No way. Those people were each more concerned with the making of individual works, and the politics of publishing in the magazines of the time, and how to respond to late Victorian and Edwardian art forms, and the need to get a job and pay the rent, and so on. And they didn’t know that they were creating the signal works of the modernist project in the way we understand that project now; Eliot was trying to get a poem published, Joyce was thinking about his next book, and a pair of boots he’d asked someone to send him from England.
JK: Is there a quality we can call ‘postmodern’?
JT: I suppose that ‘postmodernism’ might simply be the quality almost magical, almost invisiblethat tells the theorists among us that certain artworks or cultural constructionstelevision game shows, for exampleare responding to the postmodern condition of the world; or of the art world, or the world of intellectual discourse. I guess it’s an issue, just how ‘responsive’ a well-behaved art work should be to the condition of postmodernity; or how ‘willingly’ a good art work should present itself for scrutiny of this sort, which is often derived from a Marxist analysis of society and culture.
And of course poetry is difficult to analyse as a ‘commodity’; it functions outside the relations of capital in many important ways, unlike say architecture, which is linked to capital by an intravenous line with a pump at the other end. So a Marxist analysis can’t say much that’s useful about how poetry workshow it has always functioned since the bronze age. Some of my long narrative poems function like short stories, and that form, the ‘tale’ has had that same kind of function for ten thousand years or so. I see some of my short lyric poemsin terms of their functionas being very like some of the epigrams of the Greek poet Callimachus, who lived over two thousand years ago. My ‘role’ as a poet, editor and anthologist is very like his in Alexandria in 250 B.C. I’m not sure how contemporary theory would deal with that. It doesn’t seem to deal well with ‘role’ in that sense.
I think that most artists or writers or architects tend to just go ahead and do their work for complicated reasons, responding to new materials and techniques, and to changing trends and fashions, in ways that are partly conscious, and partly unconscious. After the fact theorists arrive and write their theory, always a few steps behind. But isn’t that the way it should be?
JK: Would you accept that you’ve written some of the more important postmodernist texts/poems in the last few years? Especially in Under Berlin and material published in journals since then?
JT: Picasso is supposed to have said that one should not be one’s own connoisseur. It’s not for me to talk about the importance of my work; that’s up to other people. I guess though that my writing seems to have been responding to the postmodern condition, for what that’s worth. That’s what some critics say; Kate Lilley, for example.
JK: But I gather it wasn’t conceived as being postmodernist when you were writing it?
When I started writing, postmodernism had hardly been invented. Lee Cataldi, back in 1964, said I should read Ferdinand de Saussure, the linguist whose lectures in the early years of the century more or less started the fashion for structuralism among French academics, but I found it too dry and technical, and as far as linguistics went I was more interested in Benjamin Lee Whorf and Sapir, who were on my course at Sydney University. In my own writingin the reading I did to discover how to writeI was interested in European modernism, which believe it or not felt like a daring new thing in Australia then, and in various other new types of poetry. I look back at some of the things I’ve written, and a lot of them seem to have some of the characteristics that theorists would call postmodern. Not because of the theory, but because of the way my work seems to have developed in response to different things: other books, movies, popular songs, ancient Greek verse, a conversation I had with a fellow-poet August Kleinzahler from Hackensack, New Jersey.
I would also say, as a minor point, that postmodern writing appeared here in the late sixties and through the seventies as a result of our trying to come to terms with some of the strategies of late classical modernism. In other words by the time modernism arrived here to any real effect, it had transmuted into postmodernism.
JK: I dislike the expression post-postmodernism in this context, but don’t you think in the recent long narrative poem ‘Stella’ you’re setting up a straightforward construct in terms of dialogue and you’re stretching it, making it taut? Is the term relevant here?
JT: I rather like the expression, myself. Yes, I suppose that project could be seen as post-postmodernist, but I didn’t set out to do that. I just do what I do, and when I turn around and look at it afterwards, that seems to be a category that might fit.
JK: Despite the language of ‘Stella’ being generally removed from everyday life, it still operates on a very humane and familiar level.
JT: Well, I feel the language is reasonably naturalistic, though perhaps a little feverish. And because it constructs ‘believable characters’, then I guess it is operating on a level where you can talk about humane values and so forth. Actually those narrative poemsthere are four more of themowe their style more to Christina Stead’s short stories than to anything else, particularly her use of monologue as a narrating device. I was very impressed by her novella ‘Girl From the Beach’ when I read an extract from it in the Paris Review. She was interested as much in people as in literature. More so, I think.
JK: Can you be humane and post-postmodernist?
JT: That seems a worthwhile challenge. I think it’s always true that writers need to do work that’s interesting in itself as craft and art, in terms of where the art has developed to, as well as having something of human worth to give people. You should be able to do both; why settle for less? You only have one chance at it. It’s not compulsory, but I think the best artworks give you both a really fresh handling of materials, the techniques and themes of the contemporary world, and at the same time they give you a little morea glimpse of human fate and destiny that the reader can project back into the work. We each have to die, and that’s important; and no amount of theory will mediate that.
JK: How do you feel about the notion that your work is going to be interpreted in a theoretical context, as opposed to the lyrical mode, in which most Australian poets have been examined?
JT: Well, on the one hand I can’t do anything about that, so what I feel about it doesn’t matter. It will happen anyway, and that’s fine. On the other hand, I think that what I write will test the critic as much as the other way around. So I find that interesting too. And as for lyricism, while I’m emotionally drawn to it, there’s so much opportunity for fakery and bullshit in that mode, that it’s a good thing to see it tested by theory.
With some poets like Yeats, say, there is an over-riding concern with the notion of vision. You on the other hand seem more concerned with the possibilities of language as a thing in itself.
In my early work I was very interested in the idea of vision. My first book was called Parallax, a word that relates to camera viewfinders and binocular vision. And I’ve always been interested in the way language itself constructs vision, the way a person perceives and constructs important patterns in reality. Gestalt theory still has important things to say. Language is obviously the most important factor in a piece of writing, and I’ve been interested in it from a linguistic point of view, and from a philosophical point of view, and peripherally from an anthropological point of view. I’ve studied psychology, philosophy, mathematics and English at university. I’m naturally interested in language; it’s what poems are made out of.
JT: I failed General Pure Mathematics One, I might add here.
JK: Helpfully so, I dare say.
JT: Well, it was coming to terms with the square root of minus one that was too much for me. I was good at Maths, but only up to a certain level. I understood and was fascinated by the Golden Mean, that Greek proportion you find in the Parthenon and in the spiral of the nautilus shell and climbing bean plants, but that was in Architecture One, which I dropped out of. I also failed First Year English the first time around, so take heart, girls and boys.
JK: How do you view Les Murray’s work in terms of language usage?
JT: I think most readers would agree that Les Murray tends to take the solidity and reality and denotative abilities of language for granted, as a tool he can use. Then there’s another decorative and riddling way he uses words, rather like Craig Raine’s Martianism, where you get things displaced into metaphors and made strange the poem ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’ would be an example, or ‘Shower’, or ‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’and you have to guess what it is he’s describing; rather like the mystery sound effect in old radio shows. It’s an example of what Viktor Shklovsky called ‘ostranenie’, a process of deliberate ‘enstrangement’. It’s also like ‘kenning’, an ancient Scandinavian poetic device, and quite attractive in small doses.
I’m perhaps more interested in dismantling the tools and looking at them, and then using them in different ways; also in trying to struggle free of ‘literature’ and its embedded values. Colloquial speech can be helpful there. I think Les tends to invest in the general belief that if you say a particular thing memorably enough, invoking ‘literature’ to authenticate the poet’s ‘voice’ and vice versa, then the words take on a magical weight, a gravity, that guarantees the broadly moral values underneath the statement. I tend to think with Saussure that words are a little more fragmented and arbitrary than that.
But then Les and I are more alike than different: we’re both contemporary Australian poets, from coastal country farms, who both attended Sydney University during the sixties, and I suppose the differences are more psychological than literary.
JK: Do you think the poem can exist as an object in itself?
JT: Yes, of course it does. Look at children who repeat nursery rhymes. They have no idea what the meaning of ‘Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall” isI think it was originally an English political satirebut they know it sounds good. It’s a delight for them. We should keep in mind, I think, that the aim of poetry is delight.
On the other hand, a poem only has meaning because of the history of the language it’s written or spoken in, and the broad culture and the literary traditions of the society it operates in; so on a level of linguistic function, all its meaning is conditional and relative, and changes over time, and with different readers.
JK: Have you read Perec’s novel Life, A User’s Manual?
JT: I don’t know the book at all well, but I know some of it, and I know the ABC Radio National program based on it which is very well made.
JK: No influence on your work?
JT: No, none. You have to be a real obsessive to write like that.
JK: A few years ago I heard a programme on Helicon on the poet Harry Hooton. What did you have to do with that?
JT: That was produced by Amanda Stewart with Sasha Soldatow. I commissioned it when I was in charge of Helicon, the weekly arts program on ABC Radio National. I was there in 1987 and 1988.
JK: How do you feel about Harry Hooton as a poet and individual?
JT: I feel sad that Harry Hooton wasn’t as good a poet as he hoped he would be. I admire his spirit and his stand. I just wish he’d been a better writer. His ideas were interesting like many of the ideas of the Sydney Push, the intellectual mob he hung around with. In their time in Australia, in the nineteen-forties and fifties, his theories were startling. I don’t think there was anyone quite like him. But I think he lacked either the gift to write well enough, or the willingness to train himself to do it.
JK: You were quite sympathetic though, during the Helicon programme.
JT: Well, I felt it was important that what he did be remembered, and I thought it made good radio. Radio is a wonderful medium for remembrancethat direct speech is a potent effect. So for lots of reasons I wanted it to happen.
JK: Do you think of him more of a “performance poet” than as a poet for the page?
JT: Well, I don’t know; I never heard him perform live. He spoke and read his poems on tape, towards the end, when he knew he was dying of cancer. He had a pleasant voice, and read rather well. I think a little bit of his work goes a long way, though. Perhaps there wasn’t enough variety of attack in the way he phrased things; perhaps the iconoclasm that was his trademark simply prevented him from responding positively to the work of enough other poets. With Hooton you sometimes get the feeling that he was so obsessed with his own ideas that he didn’t read enough poetry by other people.
JK: I asked earlier about Parallax and the poems you left out of that, and why you left them out, when you came to your Selected Poems. How do you see them now?
JT: Well, most of them weren’t much good, really, because I was still learning how to write. And this is the thing that people sometimes don’t understand about writers; they learn, they change, they grow and eventually get better. When I was developing, I was trying to turn myself into an interesting poet, and it took a long time. I started writing in 1960 when I was seventeen, in my last year at high school, and I wrote more or less continuously from then on. During the first five years I was writing, I didn’t really know what the world of writing was all about. I had hundreds of books yet to read. I tried to read them all, and understand as much as I could about how poetry developed and how it got to where it is now. And I was busy discovering John Ashbery on one hand and Hans Magnus Enzensberger on the other ... and I often thought that if I’ve just discovered, say, Enzensberger, then there must be hundreds of others just as amazing as he is, that I’d never heard of ...
So, for the first five or so years I felt very ignorant, which I was, and I read and wrote as much as I could, trying out different voices and different styles. Most of that work is no good because it was apprentice work. During the next five years I formed a vague idea of where I thought my poetry might usefully go, and I tried to let my work grow in that direction. Some of the things I wrote then I think are moderately interesting, but looking back twenty years later, I can see so many faults in them I’m embarrassed. Really.
JK: Okay. When you made your selection for the Selected Poems how did you come to decide which poems were better or more relevant than others? Was it purely in terms of the poetry you were writing at the time you made the selection, or was it in an overall retrospective context?
JT: It was both. By the time I was doing that book I’d come to a strange stage in my writing. I was getting close to turning forty, I was very influenced by the poems of Constantine Cavafy, and in the last ten or fifteen pages you find poems like ‘At The Criterion’, which is a sad poem much influenced by Cavafy. And so I had that kind of poetry in my mind, a very humanist, elegiac, smoothly rhetorical style of writing. I’ve gone away from it since then, but it was a phase I had to go through for some reason.
JK: Cavafy could remove himself from the immediacy of his own life through his use of myth and history. Do you think you’ve done this in an intellectual way, through language?
JT: Perhaps I have. Cavafy had to withdraw a little from his material for all sorts of reasons at the time, in the early decades of this century, in Alexandria in Egypt. He was often unable to be frank about what he was discussingmale homosexuality, both love and lustbut also I think there was a natural reticence that heightened the intensity of the experiences underneath or behind the poem, and that’s what I liked. I’m a naturally shy person; I can relate to that, that kind of double effect where you say: ‘I’m not really deeply affected by these things’, and yet the way you say that implies that you really are. You get a stronger response from the reader.
JK: How close is your poetry to your life?
JT: Uhfairly close, but it depends on the poem.
Whereas a poet like Robert Adamson is totally and utterly involved in the evolution of his poetry and the evolution of his life. They are synonymous.
That’s what he says; you can take that or leave it. Have you met Robert Adamson? He’s a very complex man. And much under-rated as a Poet. I’d say his life and his poetry are separate things; but I could be wrong.
For me it depends on the poem. Occasionally I write drafts of poems that are just word games and that turn out to have some interesting lines in them. I develop them a bit more, and if I like them I publish them. With other poems I write, I find I’m writing about experiences like the ones I’ve had in my own life that are very important to me. And so, some of my poems are deeply personal; while others are quite impersonal. It just depends on the individual poem. I write so many different kinds of poems. It must drive the critics crazy.
I’ve been very influenced by T.S.Eliot’s theoretical writings as well as his verse. He talked about the removal of the personality from the poem. Frank O’Hara talked about the same thing. And they’re both right. O’Hara’s poetry is very personal, and it has a very lovely touchlike the touch of a good pianist because it is apparently impersonal, and he manages to do that trick of having his cake and eating it too. I did a radio anthology of his poetry for the ABC in 1974. He’s an important writer.
JK: I’d like to focus on poetry by Australian women poets. Let’s look at J.S. Harry. How do you think she fits into the Australian verse scene at the moment?
JT: Well, I’m not sure she does, particularly. I think she fits somewhere alongside the Australian context; I’m not sure where. Her work doesn’t seem to have strong links with mainstream writing in Australia. But I like her work and I tend to like it more, the more she goes on. She doesn’t write a lot, and I think perhaps she could have written more. But then again, maybe she has written a lot more and only published the ones she liked. I don’t know. Her work is sometimes complicated to read because it seems rather elliptical on the page. You’re not sure what the gaps mean.
JK: I find the gaps interesting.
JT: Yes, the gaps do add interest to her work. It’s what she decides to imply, what she leaves out.
JK: The beauty of music for me is the silence between the notes ...
JT: Perhaps because you can’t be sure what the next note will be, and when you get it you think: ‘that’s interesting’.
JK: Who do you think the other major women poets are? What do you feel about the ‘development’ in women’s verse in the last twenty or so years, and within the context of the ‘Generation of ’68’?
JT: I think perhaps a woman would be best able to do that, but for what it’s worth I’ll talk about it. To start with, there are heaps of good women poets, and you can find most of them in the Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, not to mention the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, where a third of the contributors are women. A decade ago my wife Lyn and I published with our own hands and with a very helpful printing subsidy from the Literature Board, Gig Ryan’s first book, and Susan Hampton’s first book. I still like their work; it’s vigorous and it’s varied, and it’s going on developing.
Among the other women poets whose work I really enjoy are Judith Wright, Dorothy Hewett, Antigone Kefala, Jennifer Rankin, Lee Cataldi, Joanne Burns, Vicki Viidikas, Pamela Brown, Anna Couani, Jennifer Maiden, Ania Walwicz, Dorothy Porter, Judith Beveridge, Kate Lilley ... it’s a long list, really, and there are many others I could mention.
As to why there were fewer women poets than men poets among the people whose work developed strongly in the so-called ‘Generation of ’68’, it’s hard to say. Those things happened nearly a quarter of a century ago, now. I’m no sociologist, but I have a half-serious theory that the heavy social, cultural and educational pressures through the first half of the century, and especially in the 1950s, produced a generation of young Australian women who saw their role in life as domestic, co-operative, non-competitive, and supportive of men. Australian boys on the other hand were taught to be competitive, individualistic loners, able to forge ahead and put up with years of struggle and obscurity, working on projects which others thought peculiar but which they obstinately gave value to; people like Lawrence Hargrave and Kingsford Smith. We put them on the twenty-dollar note. Think of the early explorers who were held up as models in Australian schools: Matthew Flinders, Burke and Wills, Leichhardt; and the movie heroes: Chips Rafferty, John Wayne, Crocodile Dundee. Competitive individualism and stubbornness are the opposite of the qualities people imagine poets are born withsensitivity and empathy, you know, that blend of Keats and Bambi. But perhaps they’re the very qualities you need to survive and endure over time in Australia, slogging away at the unrewarded profession of poetry for long enough to get good at it. Perhaps most young women had too much sense to be poets; only a tiny proportion of any generation of writers is going to succeed, and lack of success in that field left a lot of young men miserable, unemployable, and generally strung-out. As I say, this proposition’s not entirely serious, but I think it does have some point.
Of course the women’s movement through the seventies and eighties gave support and direction to a lot of women poets, and you can see the results in the writing; some good, some not, like most writing in any age, but by comparison stronger, more individualistic and better-developed than before. Though we must remember history; in Australia women have always been successful in the field of fiction, in short-story writing and novel writing, and they’ve done well at that for over a hundred years. Something like seventy-five per cent of Penguin’s top thirty best-selling Australian fiction titles are written by women, and good on them.
JK: I see this interview as an active thing. A piece of collage. Let’s develop another thread and swing back to Hans Magnus Enzensberger. You mentioned him earlier as an influence. Has his long poem ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’ influenced your work?
JT: No, but his earlier work did. His Penguin ‘Modern European Poets’ volume came out in 1968, and greatly impressed me, particularly ‘to all telephone subscribers’ and ‘foam’; but I mention that elsewhere in this magazine, where I talk about some fugitive poems. So I would say Enzensberger’s early work impressed me greatly, and that’s going back 23 years or so now.
JK: He’s been accused of being a social realist, at least in the earlier work, which I think by his own definition he was.
JT: Well, he went through a number of stages and the earlier work is so early that you have to be an archaeologist to find it. The work I like is the poetry he was doing between 1955 and 1965, which is coincidentally the period that I like in the work of both Ashbery and O’Hara. I didn’t read ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’ until maybe ten or twelve years ago, and it had no influence on me, although it was a poem I like and admire. Enzensberger was a radio features producer, as I was for some years, and you can see that poem as a piece of radio, really. And I admire it in particular because he did the English version himself. His English is remarkable, and he’s a very acute and subtle social critic. His essays are in some ways even more remarkable than his poetry.
JK: Another tangent. Do you have any admiration for the compression of image? How do you respond to the idea of ‘deep imagism’, the sort of thing you see for example in the work of the American poets Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell?
JT: There used to be an advertisement on Australian television in the 1960s for an AWA brand of television set, and at some point in this ad a very deep male voice echoed ‘Deep image, image, image, image, image’. Whenever I think of Galway Kinnell’s audience I think of constructions that are strangely fraudulent. Not that he is, or that his poetry is: I’m talking about the collective representations created in the space between author and reader by the cultural desires of the consumers. It seems that a lot of middle-class middle-aged Americans have a belief that if a poem appears to come from an intense and profoundly stirring experience, like fighting to the death with a grizzly bear, then it’s a deeply meaningful poem, which will recreate in themselves a corresponding, deeply meaningful emotional state. They read National Geographic magazine for a similar reason: to embark on a kind of anthropological tourism. But perhaps I’m letting my natural Australian cynicism corrupt my responses. I like Galway’s poetry. He has a great verbal talent, but his work sometimes seems to be acting out a role that fulfils a set of audience expectations that I find somewhat confining.
JK: Any comments about the current directions in the work of John Forbes?
JT: I think Forbes has always gone in the one direction; I can’t see many divergences, though there is variation, and I can see detours here and there. The poem called ‘Drugs’ is really delightful, as is another long short-lined poem called ‘Europe, A Guide’. ‘Monkey’s Pride’ stands out as being slightly different from his other work too, though in a way it’s the apotheosis of his whole project. In his earlier work, particularly as it appeared in New Poetry magazine in the 1970s, there’s a lot of unassimilated surrealismthat’s what I think it is, though I’m sure John would disagreethat bounces around in the poems. As he’s got more skilled at handling things, that’s more tightly under control, so that the imagery, while it’s still bizarre, is there working to get the poem across to you all the time.
JK: Do you see a strong link between your work, the work of John Forbes, and that of John A. Scott?
JT: I think Scott’s work is often like mine in some of its moods perhaps, but our techniques are quite different. And ultimately, I think our view of what writing is, is quite different too. Scott is an elegist more than anything else; well, I suppose I am too. Then, when you come to think of it, John Forbes is also, especially in The Stunned Mullet, his 1988 volume.
JK: Yes, I agree.
JT: The poems are bright and dazzling, but in the end rather sad. They talk about loss unattainable paradises, hangovers, unattainable women. And Scott writes about that too though differently of course. Forbes writes from a close understanding of a particular North American demotic-intellectual context, and I feel John Scott works through French poetry more than anything else.
JK: You’re a friend of Scott’shave you worked together in any capacity?
JT: Yes, I’ve known John Scott for quarter of a century. We’ve written poems together.
JK: Where are they to be found?
JT: We did a group of collaborations. Uhthey’re in print, in John Scott’s book Smoking. John Forbes, I haven’t written poems with him, but I’ve known him since 1971, twenty years, almost, and I’ve known his work closely. I published John Forbes’s second or third book, Stalin’s Holidays. So I know Scott and Forbes very well.
JK: Ken Bolton signifies another thread in contemporary Australian poetry. What do you think of Bolton’s work?
JT: Ken’s one of the most erudite people I know in the world of contemporary art theory. There’s a lot of learning in his work having to do with art theory, contemporary recordings of blues musicians, and so on. His work is quite different from anyone else’s. Although it’s rather like John Jenkins’s work, but then perhaps that’s because they’ve collaborated on a lot of things.
JK: What do you think of the Ferrara poems?
JT: I’m not immediately attracted by that aspect of Ken’s writing. It has an air of whimsy that I should like, but in fact I find it slightly exasperating. But it’s a large project, and an interesting example of narrative verse. Inspired by Clough, the English Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough, I imagine, a poet I like. Why do I like Clough? I don’t know. Yes, I know why. The hexameters for one thingare they dactylic?a very peculiar rhythmic effect, and a daring choice for the long narrative discursive poetry he mostly wrote. It’s a narrative that’s got philosophy behind it as well, a kind of intellectual epic, or epyllion.
JK: Clough almost came to Australia, did you know? He applied for a job in Sydney, and almost came to Australia, in 1852. Like Freud, who almost took a job in a hospital in Bendigo, in the 1800s, I think.
JT: Clough has turned into the figure of a neglected writer who could have been quite important. He was the son of a Liverpool cotton merchant, he went to Rugby, and to Balliol College at Oxford. He could almost have been another Matthew Arnold. And in Ken’s work you find an interest in cult figures that are obscurewriters, painters, blues musicians like ‘Two-Sheds’ Jacksonpeople whose work could have been famous but never was.
JK: On the flip side of that equation we have something like Robert Adamson’s obsession with Mallarmé. Not a resurrection but a conjoining maybe. Or maybe an iconoclastic relationship.
JT: I find it strange that he’s interested in Mallarmé. I couldn’t imagine two people being more opposite in their style of life, and in their aims in life, and in their ways of writing poetry. Mallarmé has not been taken up much in the twentieth century. We’re all supposed to know about him but writers don’t seem to talk about him at any length; you don’t often see him mentioned in articles or reviews. So he’s an obscure figure; a difficult minor poet from the recent past who has no current influence. I actually spoke to Robert Adamson the other night about thiswe were having a beer at the Harold Park Hotelabout how he likes Mallarmé, and Bob said, ‘Yes, and you like Rimbaud’, as though we were supporters of two opposing football teams. I said, ‘It really ought to be the other way around’, and that suddenly seemed so obvious we both burst out laughing. It should be the other way around. I did read Mallarmé thoroughly when I was a young poet, in English translation; and in fact I used a quote from Mallarmé as an epigraph to my poem ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’, many years ago: ‘The whole of my admiration goes to the Great Mage, inconsolable and obstinate seeker after a mystery which he does not know exists and which he will pursue, for ever on that account, with the affliction of his lucid despair, for it would have been the truth .....’ The italics are Mallarmé’s. Now, that’s a remarkable statement; one of the most extraordinary statements in the history of Western literature, at least in the history of modern poetry in the West. I love the way it rescues itself from apparent contradiction at the last minute, yet still remains mysterious. However, that’s about all I retain from Mallarmé, whereas Bob keeps going back to it.
JK: Now I’d like to focus on a specific group of your poems, the sonnets. In 1977 you published a book, Crying In Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets. Can you outline how you came to write them?
JT: It started nearly twenty years ago. In 1973 I’d come back from a couple of years of employment as an editor in Singapore, and I gave a manuscript of various poems I’d been working on to Angus and Robertson Publishers. The poetry advisors at that time were Rodney Hall and David Malouf. They said they liked one part of the manuscript, and not the other; it was sensible advice. The material they liked turned into the sequence ‘The Alphabet Murders’, which I worked hard at expanding, rewriting and revising, through 1974, on my first grant, and that was eventually published as a small book by A & R. The rest of the materialwith a lot of reworkingbecame The Blast Area, which Martin Duwell brought out in Brisbane a year or so later as a small booklet.
And I still had a lot of things left over, fragments of poems that didn’t seem to fit into either of those other two books. And at some point I realised they were all say from ten to sixteen lines long. I thought: wait a minute, that’s around about fourteen lines long, which is the length of a sonnet! So I thought I’d trim a few back, and expand a few others, until they were all fourteen lines long, and see what they looked like. I ended up with thirty or forty sonnets. Well, they weren’t conventional sonnets; only half a dozen of them rhymed. The rest were free verse, and rather fractured free verse at that. But they were all had fourteen lines, divided into an octet and a sestet. I showed them to Martin Duwell, whom I’d come to know and like when I moved to Brisbane in 1975. He said, ‘Why don’t you write a whole book of them, and I’ll publish it. We’ll need more than that, to make up a book; could you write some more?’ So I thought about it; if I did two to a page, say fifty pages of them, then the book would turn out to be about sixty-four pages long, and that’s about right for a book of poems. That’s a hundred poems. A nice round number, so I thought: I’ll write a hundred sonnets.
When I first came across the book . . . well, I first came across a comment in either The Bulletin or Newsweek in a doctor’s surgery. There was a reference to Doctor Spock’s book of child care.
I couldn’t think of a title for the book; it worried me for months. Then I saw the phrase ‘Crying in Early Infancy’ on the back of a copy of Spock’s book; Lyn and I had just had our second child, Leon, at that time, and the book was lying around. It seemed just right, somehow.
It was all very quaint. And I sort of tracked it down and got hold of a copy that had been signed by a poet I thought would have little interest in your workHart-Smith.
The sonnets are all short, of course; but the book as a whole is quite long. You seem interested in long sequences of related poems. Those sonnets form one; earlier there was the 27-poem sequence ‘The Alphabet Murders’, in 1976; then there was the 24-poem sequence ‘Sex Chemistry’ that first appeared in Scripsi magazine a decade later. Would you like to talk about the composition of ‘Sex Chemistry’? The style of some of those poems seems strange and rather fractured.
You’re right. I suppose it’s the composition of that sequence that distinguishes it from my other works. I’d been working on a computer for a couple of years at that stage, and I discovered in using the computer that I could manipulate lines and phrases and paragraphs of texts on a pageon the screen, that isvery easily. I happened to have a vast amount of text material stored in the machine: letters, reviews, notes, earlier poems, drafts, and so on. I dragged some of this material up onto the screen, chopped it up, rearranged it, and then looked at the mess I had left and tried to make a poem out of it, rewriting it to pull it towards meaning. It seemed to work well. I did another one; it worked well. Writing like that is really tiring; you seem to be cranked up tight all the time. Anyway, in ten days I’d written twenty-five poems, which is a record for me. And that’s how I wrote ‘Sex Chemistry’. Mind you, very few critics have liked it. Christopher Pollnitz had some amusingly dry things to say about it in a Scripsi review of Under Berlin.
JK: Has this mode of composition affected much of your more recent work? And what of ‘Stella’ and ‘Gloria’, the long narrative poems?
JT: No, I wrote ‘Stella’ and ‘Gloria’ as straightforward narratives. In fact my adventures with narrative verse began as drafts for a chapter of a novel which I never went on with. I seem to do that every five or ten years.
JK: Stellagreat name. How did you come to use it?
JT: Well, I wanted a name that sounded late forties, and I thought about it and talked to Lyn about itI talk to Lyn about most things I writeand we finally found the name. I was after a name that would be evocative of a period and a style; that luscious, slightly sad jazz from the forties, say; ‘I Can’t Get Started’, or ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, that sort of thing.
JK: Is there much of a connection between the composition of your poetry and that of music? Do you play music when you write, for example?
JT: I play a lot of fifties jazzChet Baker, Miles Davis, Anita O’Day, that sort of thingbut not when I’m writing. Music attracts me, and distracts me so that I can’t concentrate on my writing. Poetry is different. In fact the beauty and power of poetry is that it’s impure, it’s ‘dirty’; that is, it’s contaminated by all kinds of history, the traces of a billion exchanges, a hundred million emotions, negotiations, borrowings, the detritus from a hundred civilisations. Its richness lies in its denotative wealth; music has only mood and mathematics. Of course music can have words too, as in Mozart’s operas, or Anita O’Day’s versions of Cole Porter, or the mid-period Bob Dylan; and then it can be really powerful.
JK: You completed Under Berlin in 1988. What are you working on now?
JT: I’m working on some long narrative poems, the ones we mentioned earlier, mostly about women characters’Gloria’, ‘Jealousy’, ‘Stella’, ‘Breathless’, and ‘Rain’, adding up to around a hundred and thirty pages. They’ve all appeared in various magazines by now, but not yet in a book.
Another project is a sequence of thirty or so ‘haibun’, which are poems each about a page long. I got the idea of the form from John Ashbery’s book A Wave, which contains a few orthodox ‘haibun’, a form developed in Japan in I think the seventeenth or eighteenth century, consisting of about a page of prose-poetry followed by a haiku. I’ve inverted that form; I write twenty lines of free verse followed by about a third of a page of prose. Some of those are very incoherent and difficult to read; some are a little less strenuous.
I’m also working on another group of a dozen longer poems, about forty pages in all, that seem related more by their tone and scenery than by anything else. It’s a loose, meandering, discursive tone; and the scenery is pluvial and lacustrine, to borrow a word from John Ashbery’s ‘Those Lacustrine Cities’: the backdrop seems to portray lakes, shores, ponds, pools, river banks, and there’s often mist and light rain. It’s a lovely ambienceI think I’d like to live there, if only I could find the place. What does Seferis say, in that sad little poem? ‘We knew that the islands were beautiful, somewhere around about here where we were searching: a little nearer or a little further: the slightest distance . . .’ The material emerged in a garbled form from some computer experiments with letter-group frequency arrays I was interested in a year or so ago, and I’ve been dragging these poor bewildered poems towards the clear light of reason and meaning ever since. They get better the more I work on them, but I musn’t work on them too much. Was it Mallarmé who said that you should leave a little mystery in your poems?
Then there are the odd pieces, the long and the short and the tall, that I write from time to time, in different forms, as the mood takes me. I suppose I have about ten or fifteen of those not yet published in book form.
JK: As well as writing your own poetry, you’ve also done a lot of other work in the field of anthologising, compiling books and radio programs . . .
JT: Yes; the current project I’m excited about is the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, which adds up to around five hundred pages. I’ve been working on that with Philip Mead as a co-editor for around two or three years, and that’s finished now. It’s been exhausting, as you can imagine; the proof-reading seemed endless. And of course when it comes out and my fellow-poets get unhappy about not being in it, or being in it but with not enough poems, or the wrong poems, or seeing none of their best friends in it then it will be more exhausting still. But I’m used to that; almost.
JK: And what about the Martin Johnston book? I read somewhere that you were doing a Collected Poems.
JT: Yes, and no. I’m compiling a selection of Martin’s poems and proseMartin was a dear friend, who died in June 1990that will come to around three hundred pages. The selection of poems will amount to about 100 pages, together with some of his translations of Greek folk songs and modern Greek poems, then there’s another 200 pages of prose: some essays, including a strong piece on John Berryman’s elegies which is unfortunately unfinished; lots of his book reviews, which are wide-ranging and witty and erudite in a very nice way; excerpts from interviews, and so on. It will make up a rich and likable book, I hope. I’m due to have that finished by the end of this year, 1991, for the University of Queensland Press; I think it’s to come out in 1992 or early 1993.
JK: You’ve said that you’ve always been interested in writing from overseas, and you’ve done some reading tours overseas yourself. Do you plan any more of those?
JT: Yes, I have a ten-week trip to the States planned for early 1992. I have a residency in Florida, and some readings to do in Chicago and San Francisco, and a conference in April, the American Association for Australian Literary Studies in Eugene, Oregon, where I’ve been asked to do a talk and a reading from the Penguin book.
JK: You’ve been involved in three anthologies, The New Australian Poetry in 1979, The Tin Wash Dish for ABC Books in 1989, and now the Penguin book. What are your views on the poet as anthologiser?
JT: Well, for a start, anthologies are always acts of criticism, and that’s interesting, because criticism at its best is a dialogue, a way of talking about the art form that invites responses. The word ‘anthology’ comes from the Greek, and means a collection of flowers; the corollary is that you leave the weeds to wither. Sometimes readers need a little help in picking the flowers and leaving the weeds aside. (I’m joking.)
Anthologies also preserve poems. So many poems simply disappear into the maw of the past, and anthologies are perhaps the only way of making sure they’re preserved for future generations. We’d have no Callimachus or Sappho if other people hadn’t anthologised, quoted and argued about their work.
Of course when you have a poet anthologising other poets, there are dangers. For example in Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann’s anthology The Younger Australian Poets, the three poets with many more pages than anyone else were Les Murray and the two editors. But I don’t think anyone was particularly worried about that. I suppose there’s a danger that the poet will be partial to her or his friends, or will exclude someone she or he personally dislikes; but any honest person will try hard not to do those things. A critic or an academic scholar is just as apt to be biassed in any case; Look at The Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature.
That was supposedly a work of academic scholarship, and it turned out to be a rather inadequate collection in some areas, to put it politely.
JK: Would you care to discuss the concept of the ‘Generation of ’68?’
Well, I talked at boring length about the so-called ‘Generation of ’68’ in the introduction to The New Australian Poetry, and also in my piece in Joan Kirkby’s collection of essays by various hands titled The American Model. I don’t want to go on about it too much. I think Tom Shapcott or Andrew Taylor coined the phrase around 1975; it reminds me of the label ‘The Generation of ’45’, that generation of Indonesian military and political leaders formed by the struggle for independence from the Dutch after 1945.
I have a half-serious theory that there are waves of new poetry in Australia every twenty-four years: 1896, 1920, 1944, and 1968. The next one is due around the first of May, 1992. (Parenthetically, we should take into account 1872, the year in which Rimbaud wrote his epochal experimental poems, but perhaps that’s stretching a point.) Certainly the period 1965 to 1975 saw more new poems and more new and various poets appear than in any other decade in our history. It was a wonderful time to be a writer, and the cultural shifts were even more exciting. Australia turned from being a closed-off, authoritarian, rather British village at the bottom of the planet to a much more open, cosmopolitan, adventurous society, fully at home in the modern world. The change went very deep into the structure of the society. And of course there were just as many interesting older poets around too, in those days; it wasn’t just young people. The arguments, the conflict, the dialoguethese were all important in opening up the field of writing to more varied forms and different sources of energy.
JK: Could you discuss the correlations between narrative in your poetry and that in film?
JT: Film always works through narrative. Well, there have been exceptions; I’m thinking of a colour short titled ‘NY, NY’ back in the sixties, a piece about half an hour long that featured distorted reflections of New York; reflections in hub-caps and rippling pools of water, with a jazz sound-track. But film depends, in terms of economics, on audiences of a certain size, and they have an appetite for narrative, and essentially narrative that embeds characters in a plot; a plot that constructs the responses of the characters. So most movies are rather like novels; long and narrative.
I think most contemporary ‘lyric’ poetry is more like that short film I mentioned, ‘NY, NY’selective, coloured, distorted, without a linear time-frame, and with a few small but intense points to make.
These long narrative poems I’ve been writing for a few years now’Gloria’, ‘Rain’, and so onthey’re perhaps more like conventional movies, in terms of scale, duration, narrative approach. You can read most contemporary lyric poems in about five minutes, but ‘Rain’ is forty pages long, and it has characters and a storyline.
One of my books back in 1972 was called Red Movie. When I signed the publishing contract with Angus & Robertson I kept the movie rights, as a kind of minor joke.
JK: Semantically, how do you view language structure in your poetry? I’m particularly interested in the new, shorter forms you are using and how this implicates content in a theoretical context. Do you see any form of structural conspiracy in this? Are you signposting concepts that can be used as keys to unlock your narratives and early sequential work?
JT: Well, no, the narratives are quite different. And no, I don’t see any structural conspiracies. With modern poetry there’s always a tension between the older formal structuresit’s amazing how much energy the sonnet and the iambic pentameter still have, and alliteration is perennially energeticand newer looser structures, particularly the American demotic forms.
With my ‘haibun’ poems, I guess a reader would find a simple tension between the twenty lines of free verse which make up the first stanza, and the prose that makes up the second. They have different rhythms, different densities. And in a sequence of them, you might find a tightening and loosening effect as the verse and the prose alternated, like waves on the ocean. Then in those poems there’s a different tension, between varying kinds of content: old-fashioned content on the one hand, where meaning lies in description or argument or tone, and an apparent denial of content on the other, where meaning seems to be contradicted, disrupted, fragmented and eventually denied.
When people talk about poetry they often focus on shifts in tradition, or style, or form. The formalist debate is strong in the US now. Where does content come into this?
I think that content is an important unexamined problems of modern poetics. I think Gertrude Stein tackled it, I think Ashbery was addressing it in a different way in his early book The Tennis Court Oath. That’s the book so many people, including me, find hard to read, but that’s the point in some ways. You could say that the Iowa Writing School poets take it for granted that there’s no such problem; the so-called ‘Language’ poets take the problem as their main focus. Form and content are traditionally supposed to work together to create meaning; but we’re now beginning to see that meaning is constructed by the reader as much as by the writer, and that it’s constructed by the society, and by the complicated and powerful traditions of writing, editing, publishing and marketing, as much as by the individual reader.
At the moment I’m interested in a text-generation computer program called ‘Breakdown’, which reconstructs a piece of text from any sample you might care to feed into it, using letter-group frequency arrays. It’s too technical to explain here, and anyway I’ve explained it in detail, with examples, in an article in Meanjin; I think it’s due to appear in the last issue for 1991. The program can imitate the texture of a particular writer’s work, without imitating the meaning in any why, by reconstructing a text with the typical sequence of letters the writer tends to employ. The content iswell, there isn’t any, it’s a blank, because nobody meant any of it; nobody wrote it. The computer merely assembled it. So you can have stylestyle so pure you could say it’s been steriliseduncontaminated by any considerations of content. And yet as a reader you’re constantly scanning for meaning, for content. That’s what makes writing readable. Fascinating.
In the past I’ve always been interested to find a new style, a new way of saying things. But content is starting to interest me more. It’s related to humanism, of course, which is problematical. It’s concerned with what works of art are ‘about’. It’s a problem that may just lead us through postmodernism into whatever is waiting for us up ahead, just beyond the year 2000.