John Tranter: Heart Starter

Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015, 149pp.

The first fifty-six of the one hundred and one poems in John Tranter’s new book, Heart Starter, are “terminals”, poems which take another writer’s poem and, by retaining the words that end each of the lines, allow the poet to construct a new poem. It’s a form, as far as I know, developed by Tranter alone though it has its origins in a poem of John Ashbery’s which was based on the words ending the lines of Swinburne’s double sestina, “The Complaint of Lisa”. It is, as Brian Henry notes in an essay in The Salt Companion to John Tranter, a poetic form which is “vastly open to possibility”. Far from being a matter of proposing new patterns of rhyme or new stanza shapes or variations in syllabic requirements it can be as varied as the immense number of poems which it can take as a base. It is closest, if anything, to the sestina where an initial choice (which words will appear at the ends of the lines of the first stanza) generates a set of requirements for the final words of the rest of the poem. It thus oddly combines almost infinite freedom with what can be a mind-bendingly difficult formal requirement. Tranter’s Studio Moon had a number of examples but fifty-six poems is a more substantial sample when it comes to investigating the possibilities and implications.

Usually, in Tranter’s comments about his generative practices, there is a strong sense that the chosen method provides not a poem but a draft that might be made into a poem. You feel that the author here wants to take final responsibility – he must be satisfied that the poem “works” and the original poem for a terminal is thus merely a starting point. But the poems of Heart Starter re-establish the importance of the relationship between the original work – the source – and the terminally-derived new poem. You can see this foreshadowed in the two early terminals which were based on Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, a poem which seems to invite reworkings, perhaps because it is an almost canonical example of a certain kind of defeated response to the growing horrors of the modern world balanced by the precarious faith that to be true to one’s loved-one remains a value that an individual can espouse. As such, this poem remains as relevant and almost as often quoted as Yeats’s “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (who says that the poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries doesn’t speak to our present twenty-first century condition?) Arnold is certainly a figure with whom Tranter has a complex (and generally hostile) relationship: “The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile” from the 1979 volume, Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, makes fun of Arnold’s pastiche mini-epic “Sohrab and Rustum”. And the two terminals based on “Dover Beach” – “See Rover Reach” and “Grover Leach” – gain much of their interest by the way in which they assault the homogenous, even-toned, despairingly calm, language of the original. “Grover Leach” seems like a mad, slightly disjointed version of a poem by Edward Arlington Robinson or Edgar Lee Masters, and the opening lines of “See Rover Reach” proclaim sudden shifts in subject and register:

Something’s bothering the dog tonight -
the neighbour’s pig, maybe – it’s not fair
the way they feed that thing. Your hair, under the porch light,
it reminds me of Jenny, my long-ago one-night stand -
at least we thought it was a one-night stand – at Baffin Bay,
drinking vodka and pissing on the ice in the night air!
And then there was the time on the “Ocean Spray” -
some affair! – stranded miles from land . . .

Poems like these seem to suggest one of the strengths of the terminal. You take a canonical poem, scoop out most of the content and rewrite it in such a way as to bring it screaming into the disjointed world of modern fragmented and multi-layered discourse.

But, we can now see, there is much more potential in the terminal than this. And much of this potential derives from which poems are chosen as sources. All the terminals in Heart Starter derive from two canonical anthologies of American poetry. The first is Robert Pinsky’s The Best of the Best American Poetry of 2013 – an anthology selected from the twenty-five annual editions of The Best American Poetry series (and not to be confused with Harold Bloom’s Best of the Best American Poetry of 1998 which selected from, and celebrated, the first ten years). The second is The Open Door which collects one hundred poems over the one hundred year existence of what began as Harriet Monroe’s little magazine. This anthology begins with the high modernists – Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Yeats – and works its way through most of the major developments in American poetry up to the contemporary. Both source anthologies are, in other words, convincing snapshots of the major national poetry in English: one covering the last century, the other the last quarter of a century. So the very act of choosing them as sources for a set of terminals alerts one to the prospect that Tranter may be wanting to say something about American poetry or wanting to do something to it. If terminals are inherently hostile then the poems of Heart Starter are an attack on the American poetic century; if they are, instead, essentially polite hommages then the book is a genuflection in the same direction. It’s also just possible that they are hubristic acts of competition: show me your poem and I’ll rewrite it in a way that shows I’m a better poet. If this seems unlikely (or undignified) it’s worth remembering that the improvisation competitions in which the early Beethoven took part in Vienna were not dissimilar and that the most famous of these (with Daniel Steibelt) involved Beethoven’s taking his competitor’s music, turning it upside down and setting off with what became, later, the theme of the variations that make up the final movement of the Eroica Symphony. That’s a process not so dissimilar to what happens in a terminal. And, dauntingly, attack, homage and competition are only three of a large spectrum of responses.

Heart Starter begins with a terminal based on the first poem of the Pinsky anthology, Sherman Alexie’s “Terminal Nostalgia” (this anthology, like all the “Best of American Poetry” anthologies, is organised not chronologically but alphabetically by the author’s surname). Alexie’s poem (he “grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation” and his name sounds remarkably like an anagram of the sort that Tranter sometimes uses for titles or authors of his terminals) is a very funny representation of what the competitive nostalgic spirit (“Brisbane was a much better place when I was a kid!”) might look like from the perspective of a Native American:

The music of my youth was much better
Than the music of yours. So was the weather.

Before Columbus came, eagle feathers
Detached themselves for us. So did the weather.

During war, the country fought together
Against all evil. So did the weather . . .

These opening three of the poem’s sixteen couplets will show how daunting Tranter’s task is with this particular poem. “Terminal Nostalgia” is structured like one of the more intricate varieties of ghazal: each of the couplets finishes with the word “weather” and all the first lines of each beit are either a perfect or half-rhyme with that word. Tranter’s poem is a single verse paragraph, avoiding the refrain-like repetitions of “weather”, and thus has the additional difficulty of needing to make the appearance of the same word at the end of half the lines seem natural. I don’t think he entirely succeeds and Heart Starter opens with what is perhaps its weakest poem but you have to admire the way such a difficult formal task is taken on. The material of “Algernon Limattsia” (the title is an anagram of “Terminal Nostalgia”) is, understandably, not at all about nostalgia and doesn’t seem to engage in any apparent way (as critique, homage or competitor) with the parent poem: it’s about “the weather” in both literal and metaphoric sense – a common theme in Tranter’s poetry (“Voodoo”, “Dark Harvest”, “Storm Over Sydney” among many others). The attraction which ensured that this would not be one of the poems that Heart Starter omits (the fifty-six poems are chosen from two hundred originals) must surely be (apart from its being the first poem) the happy accident of its title, “Terminal Nostalgia”, which Tranter’s practice ensures that we read as “an affectionate regard for terminal poems” rather than “nostalgia taken to an extreme degree”.

The second poem – to continue programmatically for a moment – is based on Margaret Atwood’s “Bored”, a poem about the way childhood boredom, induced while assisting her father as he goes about various chores in Northern Quebec, leads to an acuity of vision unattainable as an adult – “Now I wouldn’t be bored / Now I would know too much. / Now I would know”. Tranter’s poem retains the boat-building of the original but – I think – converts it into a vehicle which will carry its builders to a new, exotic space:

. . . . . 
                    You pointed
at the ocean – look,
you said, it may seem boring, but under
the horizon there’s a much sunnier
place, an island full of coconuts, often
clangorous with birdsong,
even the natives get
excited at the birdsong – but to
get there we need a boat . . .

This may be allegorised out as a voyage to Cythera but it may also be the voyage into a new poetics that The Alphabet Murders of 1976 used as its overarching metaphor. If that is the case then the title “Robed with the Cloth of Gold” (the first word is an anagram of the title of Atwood’s poem) might suggest that the protagonists are burdened with a vatic notion of what poetry is and, awaiting something that will make the boat-building – the construction of the necessary poetry – inspired and easy, end up bored and stuck at the site of what they imagined would be their point of embarkation. If this reading works, then this poem shares with the first, a use of the terminal form to deal with an established Tranter theme rather than being a reaction to a source poem.

Terminals which set out to be critiques of some kind seem to be more common among those whose originals appear in Open Door. I assume that this is because the poems of that anthology cover an entire century and thus the kinds of poems and poetries that a contemporary might disapprove of are likely to be more common. Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty”, a poem from the mid-sixties by a poet born in the mid-twenties, is a wry and elegant observation on ageing with enough unexpected imagery – especially the idea that the slightly less solid ground men in early middle-age find themselves walking on is like a ship in an as-yet gentle swell:

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair-landing
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy . . .

And so on. It’s a fine poem of its kind, suggesting an origin in its author’s experience but generalising it out in a way that avoids cliché. But it is also a kind of poem whose calm, even, wry wisdom can be irritating to a certain kind of reader, as irritating as the same qualities in “Dover Beach”. Tranter’s poem, “Older than Forty” isn’t so much a full-on attack as a slight twisting, allowing a bit more madness, a bit more “verbal intemperance” into its fabric. In fact the entire emotional and intellectual shape of the poem – it’s response to a watershed and the way things are on the brink of sliding out of control very rapidly – is retained:

So now I’m one of these older men, older than forty,
men who move slowly and speak softly
and know who they are, but they may not be
quite who they think they are, as they think to

themselves when they pause on the stair-landing,
eyes flicking back and forth, lips moving.
Don’t they know every cabin on this ship?
Every plank? Their movements are gentle,

the[y] are surprised to find themselves in mirrors
looking old, looking older, hoping to rediscover - 
what was it now? That trick in boy scout lanyard tying
or some other knack, or that other secret

like, for example, how to be their own father.
In the shaving mirror they work at the lather
then shave, then pause – now
while the sun stands still they think of something

they meant to remember – some sound
or some tiny image which holds immense
importance – then they’re sliding down the slope
that ends in the green grassy backyard of all those houses.

Like its original it plays with the involvement of the author’s own experience, making the innocent question – “Is this a personal or impersonal poem?” – even more difficult to answer than usual. It reminds one also that one of Tranter’s earliest rewritings (and one of his best poems, one which poses the questions about the relationship of a rewriting to its original that I have been looking at here) is “Having Completed My Fortieth Year” from the 1988 collection Under Berlin. That poem rewrites a poem by Peter Porter and perhaps overcomes any scruples about the act of rewriting since the Porter poem is a response to Byron’s famous poem. Like “Older than Forty” it keeps very close to the structure of its original, letting only a few intimations of an out-of-control verbal intensity into the text. It can be read as a critique though, not of Porter’s poem but of his preparedness to move from Australia to England and become a feature of an English rather than Australian literary landscape.

Craig Arnold’s “Meditation on a Grapefruit” seems to have the even-toned meditative register of the Donald Justice poem and is “about” the moment in the day when infinite possibility gives way to the inevitable agitations. This hinge is occupied by a precise breakfast ritual which, empty of meaning in itself, is nevertheless crucially important. It finishes, as many poems do (Stevens’s “The Snow Man” is a good example), with a piece of subtle ambiguous syntax that opens up possibilities:

. . . . .
                    so sweet
                              a discipline
precisely pointless          a devout
involvement of the hands and senses
a pause          a little emptiness

each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without

Tranter’s version, “Meditation at Breakfast”, immediately seizes on the faux-Buddhist notion of meditation, its proper subjects and its creative possibilities, rewriting it as a rather manic interrogation of a potential neophyte conducted by member of a Meditation Centre:

You want to meditate on what? No, that’s not possible.
Maybe tomorrow, you can meditate on it, maybe the day
after tomorrow. You know, the angry way you
shout when you think you’re alone in the kitchen,
that’s not a good sign. Meditate on a basketball?
Are you serious? Come on, have a little breakfast
and cheer yourself up.
. . . . . 
Now Kevin, I think it’s time we talked a little about discipline.
You know here at the Meditation Centre we’re mainly devout
Buddhists or at least pantheists, having come to our senses
about the problem of meditating on the general emptiness
that people – Kevin? – people generally find within
themselves – Kevin? Are you listening? Within or maybe without . . .

It’s a very funny poem deliberately rupturing the meditative calm of “Meditation on a Grapefruit” so that, although a dramatic monologue replaces the “overheard eloquence” of the traditionally lyrical original, the voice and character of the speaker are unstable and very unexpected: the opposite of the bland paradoxes that either infuriate or impress westerners experiencing a meeting with oriental religious thought and practice. There’s an additional frisson in the very Australian name of the neophyte: it may have no especial significance but it’s hard not to think of both Kevin Hart the poet and Kevin Rudd the former Prime Minister.

As Tranter points out, the final words of the lines of the originals are only starting points and they are open to emendation. Formally the most free of these poems is “The Animals” in which Anne Carson’s “The Life of Towns”, a mini-anthology of thirty-two poems with a prose introduction (which has the same inconsistent and unstable speaking voice as many of Tranter’s poems) generates an eighty-four line poem. “Three Lemons”, based on Bukowski’s “Three Oranges”, is also very free in its opening two stanzas. The final poem can be read as a redirecting of the hatred of the original. In the Bukowski the target is the parent who reads the title of Prokofiev’s opera as saying that sex can be bought for no more than three oranges whereas the child had read the three oranges as a triple love-object. In the Tranter, the target is a father-figure poet/composer whose initial is either P (for Prokofiev) or B (for Bukowski) who has the capacity to take:

                                         . . . this heap of cheap ideas,
eating food, drinking drink, smoking, sex,
and in the blender of his art he turns it
into a handful of damned lemons!
 . . . . .
Now he’s dead, thank God, I listen to that
composer, what’s his name, I’m stuck
remembering his name, starts with
P, B, no . . . I have a real home now, I’m in
clover . . .

Again, this is a fairly manic dramatic monologue and the speaker’s criticism of Bukowski shouldn’t be taken as being endorsed by the author, but it’s hard not to read the poem as being critical of a certain “raw experience” tradition in American literature. At any rate, the freer the version, the less the engagement with the original can be seen as a conscious response – hostile or benevolent – to it. The original, in a free version of a terminal, becomes no more than a quarry to be mined in order to produce a poem that “works” – and, as I have said, this is what most of Tranter’s generative practices do.

The last part of Heart Starter is a collection of poems which demonstrate some other generative and structuring devices than the terminal. There are sonnets with various rhyme schemes (including that of the stanza form of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin) a number of which follow out Rimbaud’s ideas about the colour of vowels. There are a group of poems which Tranter calls “quintets” which work by choosing the first and last sentences of a novel and placing between them three other sentences. This sounds like Roussel’s method whereby the text of an entire novel is a way of working from the first sentence to the last (which is homophonically – and in other ways – derived from the first). But actually Tranter’s quintets are rather the opposite. Instead of fabricating smooth transitions so that the resulting short poems read as homogenous statements, the result is a very Tranterian poem which, rather than smoothing over the disjunctions, exploits them so that the slightly fractured speaking voice is in keeping with that of other poems. “Power”, derived from Greene’s The Power and the Glory, is a good example:

Mr Wilson went out to look for his gas cylinder,
into the blazing Spanish sun and the dust.
Anyone can tell you’re a man of education.
It was, of course, the end, but at the same time
you had to be prepared for everything,
even escape. “Bastards,” the man said,
and his hand lay wearily where it had got to,
over his heart; he imitated the prudish attitude
of a female statue, one hand over the breast
and one upon the stomach.
But the boy had already swung the door open
and put his lips to his hand
before the other could give himself a name.

“Four Variations on a Poem by Pam Brown” and “Variations and Reverse Mazurka” adopt different sorts of variation techniques and are thus an interesting way in which one of the staples of art-music can be brought into poetry. In Tranter’s work this goes back at least as far as the eight sonnets beginning “She turned off the radio and listened to the blues” which were published in the 1977 volume, Crying in Early Infancy (and which were the first poems of Tranter’s that I fell in love with).

The two poems that stand out in this final section, though, are “Manacles” and “Loxodrome”. Significantly there are no comments in the notes about the generative principles behind these poems. “Manacles” (presumably recalling Blake’s “mind-forged manacles”) begins as though it is going to be an assault on vatic notions of inspiration – “I was born with a silver ribbon in my hair, / a fizzing link to the aether that compels me to / listen to the sky babbling. . . ” and, though it moves on disjunctively to other topics, this issue continues to return. The second stanza begins “Sit and doodle, that’s how it’s done?” and the third stanza opens with the idea of there being a key to the barbarous sideshow of the universe:

write “We were born into the secrets of Gomorrah
Under the Sign of the Double Key” -
that is, lock slot metal type reversing mirror
nihil obstat, determined to learn it quick
under the humming sign
of the Great Reader above and behind
the edge of the observable universe . . .

In a sense it is a theme – “How Messages are Received” – with variations. And the variations occur at the verbal level as well: “nihil obstat” recalls “nil bullshit”; “Double Key” recalls the earlier “bar code key”; “bracket creep” recalls the earlier “bracket racket” and so on. “Loxodrome”, which looks as though it might be structured like “The Anaglyph” from the previous book, Starlight, actually feels more like “Ode to Col Joye” in that you have the sense that the poem is making itself and its own form as it progresses. It could be described as a set of variations on the idea of finding oneself in a place – almost all of the stanzas begin that way – and thus attempts a set of answers to the question “Where Am I?” posed literally and metaphorically. It also has a passage about connections that reveals something of Tranter’s engineer-like interest in the mechanisms not only of poetry but of the world itself:

. . . . . 
Refreshment break: Sir Francis Bacon and Charlie Parker
had one thing in common: they stopped for a chicken.
It killed Bacon, and at the start of Parker’s career
may have seemed a sign. Sigmund Freud and
Arthur Hugh Clough both applied for jobs in Australia,
and were knocked back. Then, when you think about it,
Clough and Cartier-Bresson had one thing in common:
they were the ambitious sons of rich cotton merchants . . .

“Loxodrome” also contains a good deal of autobiographical material deriving from place: listening to Ken Bolton at a conference, reading with John Forbes and Peter Schjeldahl at the Harold Park Hotel, for example. And this brings us to the question, common in thinking about the nature of Tranter’s poetry, of the degree to which it can be said to be abstract – ie concerned only with the processes of language and poetry. My own feeling about this (stated many times) looks like fence-sitting: Tranter’s poetry points in both directions and is simultaneously interested in forms and contents. The poems in this rich and completely engaging book are not exercises in any sense but genuine explorations and though they may mock conventional well-made poems and their understanding of our inner and outer lives (especially by allowing the speaking voice to fragment under the pressure of verbal intemperance) they have a lot that they want to convey. There is certainly an “abstract” side to Tranter’s poetic personality but there is a good deal of the expressionist as well.