Friday, 1 November 2013

Critics corner: Joe Dolce Reviews John Tranter: SHADOW BOXING WITH JOHN ERNEST TRANTER

A Critique of a Polemic Disguised as a Review of The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2000-2010

In the recent October 13th, 2012, Weekend Australian Book Review, poet John Tranter gives a thrashing to The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2000-2010, edited by Les Murray - the second kicking Tranter has given an Australian poetry anthology this year, the first being Australian Poetry Since 1788, edited by Lehmann and Gray. I’ll focus on the Quadrant one as I had such a laugh following Tranter’s arguments that I would file this as: light entertainment. He backs up on himself so often it's a wonder someone hasn't called in a plumber. Perhaps wielding the closet auger falls to me.
The byline to a photo of editor Les Murray accompanying his review states that ‘Les Murray is widely considered Australia’s greatest poet’ yet Tranter’s entire criticism demeans the quality of the poetry Murray has selected for his anthology. I’m guessing that perhaps Tranter is after the Laurel, after all the quote he uses to introduce his own website is:

“John Tranter may now be Australia’s most important poet.” — US Publishers’ Weekly.

          Let’s look at some of the paper clog in this toilet tissue-thin polemic against Quadrant, and Les Murray, posing as literary criticism. Here’s an example of what I mean by backing up:

‘So who are the poets in Quadrant? Most of the contributors are seldom met with elsewhere, and are represented by one or two poems, often in the style of newspaper verse of long ago. While simple heartfelt poems from the common people are a welcome sight, should they be paid for in taxpayers’ dollars? I think so, but some would disagree.’

What a twisty paragraph! Tranter wants us to believe that he welcomes
 the simple heartfelt poem from the common man, and that taxpayers should pay for it, but it’s those damn ‘some’ that disagree.


‘Most of the poems take pains to speak clearly and, despite Mallarme’s dictum that “too precise a meaning/erases your mysterious literature”, there’s nothing wrong with that. But is direct speech what people ask of poetry?’

Reminds me of that classic repost from The Jerry Seinfeld Dictionary of Terms and Phrases:

“ ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that’ - a phrase that people usually say about being gay, after denying that they themselves are gay.”

When he asks: is direct speech what people ask of poetry - what people is he referring to? Those common people up above who require their poetry heartfelt? If so, I’d say the answer would be yes. Count me in.
Or those some that would disagree people, which might include ones’ eight or nine post-modern-neo-deconstructivist short-black drinking peers? Then, the answer is probably no.
          Tranter cites a recent inaccurate comment by an Australian Council bureaucrat that Quadrant focuses on only publishing a ‘small field of writers’, some of which he refers to by name, including Jennifer Compton and Suzanne Edgar, who, as he says, have ‘dominating voices’ in the anthology, also asking why many of the poets of the past decade, ‘many of our best’ (who have appeared in other anthologies), do not appear in this collection. 
Someone should remind him that this is a collection of poetry that has been published in Quadrant, not a representation of poetry published in Australia.  Perhaps these fine poets he refers to simply did not submit any poems to Quadrant during this period. Has John Tranter ever sent a poem to Quadrant? I would think not. 

       Tranter has the chutzpah to remark that ‘I hope it is not unkind to suggest that the above poets [referring to Jennifer Compton, Suzanne Edgar and others] are not the most outstanding poets in Australia’.
      He relegates two extraordinary poets like Compton and Edgar to the slow class and then perplexingly goes on to include both of them in his own two Black Inc, ‘Best Australian Poems’, compilations, of which he is currently guest editor, both in 2011, and again this year in 2012.  Make up your mind, mate. Half flush or full flush. 
Not only is it ‘unkind’, (and bitchy) to corral fellow poets into poetic chook coops, but I don’t recall Tranter receiving an Order of the Garter to determine who the important poets in Australia are. That job is up to history and time. Especially if his own two edited Black Inc collections are any measure.  Some poets I know, including myself, and despite the presence of Edgar and Compton, consider his 2011 effort the worst of the series.  
Tranter uses the term ‘uneven’ several times to measure the quality of the poems in The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2000-2010.  There are a hundred and sixty-nine authors represented. Why would anyone ask for ‘evenness’ from a wide sprinkling of creative minds? Tranter has indeed achieved a dull evenness of sorts in his 2011 Black Inc anthology – due mainly to his particular choice of poems ferreted out from the veritable uneven broad gaggle of poets represented. But it’s as though he took a stroll through the botanical gardens picking only white two-leafed daisies in order to have a uniform bouquet. Looks good in a small vase but in no way represents the Best of the Botanical Gardens.

It can also be convincingly argued that when Les Murray edited Black Inc’sBest Australian Poems’, in 2004, and in 2005, he produced the most eclectic, exciting and downright plain enjoyable collections. A veritable fireworks display of the craft. Murray has an extraordinary gift for picking corn out of wheat, and popcorn out of plain ol’ corn, in common with US poet Laureate, Billy Collins, who is also delightfully driven to bringing poetry to the people - and from the people -  not just abandoning it to the rarified inbred internal dialogue of academics.  I’d hate to think what Tranter would have made of Henry Lawson, CJ Dennis and Banjo Patterson had they submitted their works to him.  

In an interview I did with Dorthy Porter, the last before she died, she said:

 ‘The older I get the less patient I get with poetry that is extraordinarily hard work often for very little gain. It’s almost as if the more complex and complicated and opaque and obscure the poem the more meager the reward and the more meager the actual poem itself is.’

John Tranter is still too bound up in the plow-horse blinker-visioned 60s poetry wars caste system - still trying to work out whether its more important to be ‘popular’ or to be ‘cutting edge,’ forgetting that a professional whatever should be focusing on making a living from their work and getting off the public teat. Unless he believes artists should either drive taxis or have university patronage.
When Tranter states that most of the poets published by Quadrant are ‘seldom met with elsewhere’, is he referring to Bruce Dawe, Stephen Edgar, Peter Goldsworthy, Lisa Gorton, Clive James, Paul Kane, Andrew Lansdown, Bronwyn Lea, Kate Llewellyn, Rod Usher or Sharon Olds (the New York poet laureate for 1998- 2000)?  

 A maxim he appears to promote: that ‘poets who court the approval of their own time are already out of date’ is plain hogwash. That’s like saying a baker who courts the approval of customers when they bake a loaf of bread is already going out of business. Everyone has to earn a crust. It is no sin to write commercially if one is able to.  He labels the American poet, e.e. cummings, a ‘featherduster’ now in comparison to the ‘rooster’ he once was when he was in vogue in the fifties. e.e. cummings is respected as one of poetry’s true innovators. True genius can multi-task. Make a living in the present and also cut an edge for the future.

Eighteenth century composer JS Bach possessed almost dissonant 21st century harmonic ideas but also earned a responsible living cranking out his weekly tuneful cantata for the common people. Some artists figure out how to reconcile making a living from their art, with cutting edge art – such as Picasso and Bach – and some do not – such as Van Gogh. There is no hard and fast rule. But it certainly is possible. Perhaps Tranter needs a new set of role models.

Someone should also nudge him awake to the fact that, after four decades in the poetry business, he himself forms part of the establishment of mainstream Australian poetry that he flails against. But I guess it’s:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Rage Rage Against the Dying of the Light 

- so good on him for taking a swing at a shadow.

Joe Dolce. 

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