Rereadings VII: Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective, edited by John Kinsella

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2002, 92pp.

In just over one hundred days it will be fifty years since Michael Dransfield’s death in 1973. A half a century, as I have observed elsewhere, is a very long time in literature, especially modern literature and especially modern poetry whose history – influenced at least partly by the accessibility of poetry from what were, in the past, unavailable cultures and languages – is inclined to develop at breakneck speed. With a nice harmony, it is twenty years since the publication of this retrospective edited by John Kinsella which, itself, appeared after the two major contributions to understanding Dransfield’s life and work: Livio Dobrez’s Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry (1990) and Patricia Dobrez’s biography of 1999.

Kinsella’s book is an ideal introduction to Dransfield for those in 2023 coming for the first time to what now must seem like a poet of the distant past. Like all critics I have my own imaginary selection from Dransfield’s poems and it would contain even more poems from the first book, Streets of the Long Voyage, despite the fact that nearly a third of the poems of that book are included here. I might also have tried to find space for pieces like “Sub Judice” and “I Do This I Do That” from Drug Poems, “Returning” and “The Process” from Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, and “Lonely as a Cloud” and “Distance” from Voyage Into Solitude. The poems Kinsella has chosen make an excellent introduction to Dransfield’s obsessive themes although this is surely because Streets of the Long Voyage is itself such a good introduction to these themes, containing as it does the earliest poems of leaving (“Pas de Deux for Lovers”) and its concomitant themes of journeying (“Morning, Silk Road”) and minstrelising (“Minstrel”, “Goliard”). We meet the first Courland Penders poems (“Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man”) with their evocation of the imaginary, inherited decaying country mansion that occupies such an important place in Dransfield’s imagination and we meet the first of the drug poems (“Overdose”, “Fix” and “Bum’s Rush”). And, in a piece like “Lamentations”, we get a first taste of a generalised anger about his contemporary culture: a dislike of its colonial past – “They ringbarked the Dreamtime” – of Capitalism and of city-culture.

Tracing Dransfield’s career – not always an easy task because of the fact that the poems’ dates of book-publication don’t necessarily coincide with dates of writing – you can see the treatment of these themes darken as addiction and its concomitant ill-health casts an ominous shadow. The first drug poems are comparatively dispassionate accounts, for example, but in many of the poems in Drug Poems (which reprints some of these earlier ones) there is a flaunting of being a drug insider, cool with other users’ dying and happy to reproduce its sub-US slang – “in the bluejean days / when acid was still legal / we used to sell shit for fourteen an / oz & everything was cool & the DS only had / three cops”. At the end of this darkening – a period when, as Rodney Hall, the editor of the posthumous The Second Month of Spring, says, Dransfield was “a man in the desperate throes of a struggle to survive, far less concerned with illuminating the metaphysical relationships of culture and the natural order” – there is a clear tone of paranoia and the result, at its worst, is something like “Bi Shits Revisited” a crazy assault on David Malouf for expressing reservations about The Inspector of Tides in a review. It’s a long way from the tone of the earlier poems whose titles alone – “Chopin Ballade”, “On a Theme of Taktakishvili”, “Scriabin” – and so on, indicate comfort with the arcana of “high” culture. (In some of these early poems, we seem to be in the same world as early Slessor with its comfortable inhabiting of the late medieval and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It could be a matter of influence, of course, and we know that the young Dransfield wanted to impress Slessor but it may also be something that happens to prodigiously precocious young poets who want to expand into areas that they feel they inherit as part of their territory.) And the distance travelled in a career of eight or nine years is expressed by these changes of tone, I think, rather than changes of theme. The one important theme which is only hinted at in poems from the first book is that of solipsism, the state where windows become mirrors. “Miss Havisham” – based on Dickens’s character who, abandoned on her wedding day, spends the rest of her life locked up in a suite of rooms – and “Chaconne for a Solipsist” are important poems here. But, it could be argued, this is just the solitariness of the journeying theme, or the Courland Penders retreat theme, developed in a darker key.

Solipsism is a subject treated at some length in Livio Dobrez’s book and it should be noted that it, Patricia Dobrez’s biography and Kinsella’s introduction share a common interest in positioning Dransfield and his work as though this was the central desideratum. Livio Dobrez’s book is an attempt to argue that Dransfield is more central to the poetic movement anthologised in John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry than most people then, or in retrospect, have believed. In other words, it attempts to put him into a version of literary history both in relationship to his peers and to his forerunners (largely represented by Hall and Shapcott’s anthology, New Impulses in Australian Poetry). It also, unusually for poetry criticism in Australia, explores connections with the visual arts, positioning him especially vis a vis the painting of Brett Whiteley. Patricia Dobrez’s biography is, as its title, Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography, suggests, an attempt to position Dransfield in relation to the unusual times in which he lived and wrote, the times of hippiedom and the Vietnam war which were already requiring a lot of explanation to the generation that followed them. Kinsella’s selection, too, is a retrospective attempt at positioning, trying to move Dransfield more in the direction of the issues which Kinsella himself was speaking of and which have, in the last twenty years, become even more dominant: settler status, colonialism, environmental issues and a more postmodern sense of self and art-styles. In an engaging introductory essay to this selection, he sums up his view of Dransfield as: “Environmentalist, critic of the power establishments of the day, libertarian with personal safeguards, and, I believe, an anarchist individualist”. And he makes a good case, despite the fact that, superficially, this looks like nothing more than a back projection of Kinsella’s own interests.

Such a perspective does, of course, have an influence on the selection of the poems but I can say at the outset that there are no really bizarre omissions or inclusions in this retrospective selection. No matter what perspective you read them from, Drug Poems and Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal are poor books by Dransfield’s standards and are only lightly selected from here whereas the two posthumous volumes edited by Rodney Hall, Voyage Into Solitude and The Second Month of Spring (especially the former) are treasure troves and are selected from generously, as they should be. Mapping the tastes of an editor against selections is actually quite an enlightening practice in Dransfield’s case. At one extreme there are the three anthologies compiled by Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Two of them omit Dransfield entirely and the other – The Younger Australian Poets – includes only two minor pieces accompanied by a contemptuous “explanation” which describes his philosophy as being made up of “hippy clichés”. In other anthologies – by Vincent Buckley and Peter Porter, for example – the selection reflects the tastes of its editors more than such selections usually do and so, in a way, Dransfield could be seen as something of a litmus test for anthologists, focussing more than almost anyone else the editor’s notions of what poetry – and Australian poetry, specifically – actually is. A subject that might repay a lot of careful study by some imaginary scholar in a utopian future.

I want to continue this issue of positioning Dransfield in this Rereading but to do so in a counter-intuitive way, rather as a sort of “thought experiment”. The other positionings operate on the basis of the poet’s having a set of beliefs, sensations and practices which are, in some way “expressed” in the poetry: in other words, for all the sophistication of the analysis, a communicative model lies behind it. And Dransfield is rich pickings here since, as all commentators and critics note, at the “beliefs and practices” level he is a lively mix of contradictions. A “hippie” with a private school education; a pacifist with a respect for the military (his father and grandfather were soldiers); a dropout and drug-user driven by old values of pride and dignity, obsessed by an imaginary aristocratic past; a ruthless critic of the capitalist power-structures of his country who considered himself to be a canny real-estate dealer; a self-indulgent ascetic; a “tell it like it is” realist who tried to convince others that he owned an ancestral estate. And so on.

What if we position Dransfield in terms of poetry itself, asking not “Where does he fit in the history of Australian poetry or culture?” but “Where do his poems fit in the world of poetry?” – that pan-cultural, pan-temporal expression of human creativity? In other words, to subjugate the beliefs and practices to the poetry rather than vice-versa by asking how useful his themes are in the poetic cosmos rather than trying to evaluate their correctness in social analytical terms. I think the first thing that emerges in this notional approach is that contradiction or tension within the beliefs and practices forms a very valuable base. This leads one into thinking of the different relationships ideas can have with the poems that manifest them. At the opposing pole to rich contradiction, for example, would be the situation in which the poet has a coherent but complex philosophy that lies behind lyric poems that only express a part of the complicated web. To understand a potent piece like Yeats’s “The Second Coming” you have to know a bit about Yeats’s distinctive notions of the cycles of universal history and to make any sense at all out of “Byzantium” you would have to know a lot more. This, of course, is grist to the mill of academic approaches to literature because it introduces an ennobling intellectual quest motif – Can I construct a map of the ideas that lie at the heart of x’s poetry? – though it also tends to have difficulties when a poet’s convictions undergo modifications over time. Another potent generative device for lyric poetry is frustration, which could just, perhaps, be seen as a sub-species of contradiction. All of those extended sonnet sequences spawned by Petrarch’s love for Laura are generated not by the emotion of love or by the poet’s conception of the nature of love but by the continuous frustration of denial so that individual poems keep returning to the same issue from a slightly different perspective like a robot vacuum cleaner negotiating a chair leg. And something similar could be said of the troubadour tradition of the thirteenth century. At any rate, without following this lead too far, it is possible to claim that in Dransfield’s case, a set of contradictions might be enriching poetically rather than debilitating.

The broadest description of Dransfield’s place in poetry is as a lyric poet, though this is a “Western-heritage” notion and might lead to complicated attempts to define the meaning of the word “lyric”. But keeping it as a notional, provisional description we can say that lyric poets tend to share some personal features and some poetic features. The former of these I want to abandon immediately since the psychological profile of poets is beyond any expertise I have (and, I suspect, beyond anybody else’s). On the other hand, though, there is something familiar about what one might call Dransfield’s impracticality or lack of perspective. Shakespeare (or at least his Theseus) passes this off as a “head-in-the-clouds” phenomenon whereby the poet’s eye “in a fine frenzy” oscillates between heaven and earth, ie between the ideal and the sordidly practical. One thinks of Li Bai as a classic of this type and I suspect Catullus was too: it certainly takes a lack of balance and perspective to insult Julius Caesar.

But putting the murky world of the psychology of lyric poets aside, we are likely to find that the map of types of lyric poetry is a complex one, describable only by using all sorts of complex topologies. The best start might be with a cloud since the borders of “lyric” are very vague (should dramatic monologues be included, or something extended like “Lycidas”? If “Lycidas” what about an even more extended lament like Shelley’s “Adonais”?) and we would need to keep the outline “fuzzy”. My own image for what happens inside this cloud is that individual poems exist on a series of scales (I want to avoid the word “spectrum” since it suggests clinical diagnosis) which I imagine as straight lines in the form of sticks. As an example, there is a scale that goes from “Self-contained Object” at one end to “Fragment of Process” at the other. Another is a scale that goes from “Momentary Disposable Engagement with the World” at one end to “Masterpiece that the World will not Willingly Let Die” at the other end – those poems that deliberately try to change the history of poetry. There are dozens of other scales and an individual poem will seem like a node penetrated by a lot of sticks when it is mapped onto them. Importantly a poem’s description is the sum total of its scales and no one is necessarily more important than the other.

One scale which I will look at a bit more deeply is that of the poet’s position and stake in the poem. At one end are those impersonal poems (sometimes called “song lyrics”) in which, although an “I” may possibly speak, and although intense experiences and emotions may form the material, it is entirely a conventionalised personality. You don’t listen to “Yesterday”, for example, to learn about Paul McCartney’s problems. At the far end of this scale (on the “right” so to speak) are poems which are anguished (or ecstatic) and marked at every point by the situation of the poet: Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son” being one example from a long list of possibilities. This scale enables us to locate – though it is in only one of many dimensions – something like Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving”. In a way it masquerades as a folk song and so wants to be placed at the left end of the scale but we know enough about Byron to know that it is built on specific personal experience: exhaustion and disgust from too much sex at the Venice Carnival and the sly little dirty joke of the sword outwearing its sheath – delivered, one imagines, with a knowing wink to the audience – means that we should drag it farther to the right of the scale.

This is only an example. Using a Formal to Informal scale, Byron’s poem would appear close to the left end (it is three, four line, regularly rhyming, metrically rhythmical stanzas). Dransfield, like almost all lyric poets, operates in a variety of styles so that his collected lyrics look like a kind of cloud within the larger cloud. But I want to test out this idea of positioning him poetically rather than thematically by focussing on a single poem, ”Pas de Deux for Lovers”. It comes from the second section of Streets of the Long Voyage and is the third poem in Kinsella’s selection:

Morning ought not
to be complex.
The sun is a seed
cast at dawn into the long
furrow of history.

To wake
and go
would be so simple.


how the
first light
makes gold her hair

upon my arm.
How then
shall I leave,
and where away to go. Day
is so deep already with involvement.

Readers (with the exception, presumably, of Gray and Lehmann) have admired this poem since its publication and fifty years and a succession of modal changes in poetry are unlikely to have changed this admiration. It can be looked at in terms of Dransfield’s ideas and responses, of course, and be seen as a poem reflecting a dropout’s tendency to prefer serial relationships but it looks different from within the perspective of lyric poetry itself. Like Byron’s poem, it suggests that a personal experience rather than a generalised one stands behind it. In other words, it is expressive of an individual’s actual experience although there are no obvious hints like Byron’s joke, and the assertion is based on an informed subjectivity which most would go along with although there is no evidence that would stand up in a court of law. This tension between a conventional speaking position and an individual, personal one can be frustrating for readers I think though it doesn’t seem to be as frustrating for poets. As readers we want to see Catullus’s poems to Lesbia as intense expressions of his love for, and frustration with, an actual person, probably Clodia Pulcher. But there is always a group of scholars arguing that the entire situation is a mere convention unrelated to any specific experience. The more intense the poems the more frustrated are the readers since we are forced to choose between entirely different, even contradictory, responses: intense engaged sympathy for a fellow human or admiration for a clever job brilliantly executed.

And then there is lyric structure. “Pas de Deux for Lovers” would be reasonably close to the formal end of the Formal to Informal scale. There are all sorts of formal structures of course, rhyme patterns, verse patterns, syllabic counts and other numerical patterns, and so on. Deep down, you feel, most lyric poets have a tendency to formal structures: they are not something imposed by dreary literary traditions that the great bravely react against. Dransfield’s poem avoids all patterning of sound – rhymes, half-rhymes, internal assonance and consonance etc – and is decidedly un-Tennysonian. Its structures involve the interaction of syntax and line length. Enjambments – the default device for the movement of the syntax into lines – enable the six sentences to be spaced into a stanza pattern of 5,3,1,3,5 lines, something that has a formally pleasing quality (I’ll avoid speculating about the potential numerical symbolism and the avoidance of the number two except as the unit by which the stanzas are reduced – going away – and increased – staying and suffering the involvements). It’s, obviously enough, a poem about balance something that it enacts mimetically by having the quintessential proviso word “yet” at its exact centre. It not only balances the two desires – to continue a relationship into a world of lasting “true love” or to break free into a world of serial relationships none of which can be restrictive – but it also balances the firmly assertive propositions of the first half with the dreamier thoughts of the second.

In fact – not too sound too much like one of the early New Critics – it could be said that there is a tension within the poem between balance and change. The formal structure indicates balance as the controlling principle but the language suggests a one-way journey from certainty to doubt. And it does this at a number of levels. The opening two sentences are strong statements: morning ought not to be complex and, as a metaphoric development of this theme, the rising sun creates a jungle of complexities as though it were a seed cast into the ground. By the latter half of the poem we have moved into a much less assertive tone indicated by the very slightly precious fact of the sun lighting up the girl’s hair, and the very slightly mannered phrase “where away to go” (both of these give the poem a rather pre-Raphaelite air) and so the final statement does not have the certainty of the two opening sentences. (This matching of sentence to theme would put the poem towards the left of another imaginary scale which might move from mimetic to non-mimetic.)

This is a lot of space to spend on a single poem but it barely scratches the surface when it comes to trying to describe its position in lyric poetry generally or in Dransfield’s lyric poetry specifically. But if we look at structural features in Dransfield’s poems we can see similarities with other poems not necessarily associated with it thematically. Another great early poem is “Epiderm”:

Canopy of nerve ends
marvellous tent
airship skying in crowds and blankets
pillowslip of serialised flesh
it wraps us rather neatly in our senses
but will not insulate against externals
does nothing to protect
merely notifies the brain
of conversation with a stimulus
I like to touch your skin
to feel your body against mine
two islets in an atoll of each other
spending all night in new discovery
of what the winds of passion have washed up
and what a jaded tide will find for us
to play with when this game begins to pall

It’s a two part poem which since it is sixteen lines and breaks at the ninth line might conceivably be seen as an extended sonnet with additional lines at the octet and the sestet. The omission of all punctuation prevents it being, as “Pas de Deux for Lovers” was, a matter of the interaction between sentences. But it does share with that poem a movement from celebration to a much more down-beat conclusion: something always interesting in poetic shape when most readers expect conclusions to be conclusive and upbeat (think of Rilke’s panther and Stevens’s snow man, examples I have used before). The initial celebration of the skin, couched in a set of marvellous images and done in high style moves towards simple statement – “I like to touch your skin / to feel your body against mine” – and then transitions to an extended sea metaphor whereby the lovers are, memorably, “two islets in an atoll of each other” but which leads to a conclusion where passion is jaded and the couple look only for remnants: presumably sexual memories. It is a poem with a powerful and unusual shape. Possible famous companions from the world of lyric might be something like Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” which begins with high activity and concludes with that famous flat last line, “Before the indifferent beak could let her drop” – an anticlimactic climax.

At a certain level of structure these two poems are not atypical of Dransfield. His advice about structure – “You put the knife in and, in the last line, turn it” – doesn’t preclude an attraction to the downbeat. “Fix” ends with a double twist: “For a while the fires die down in you, / until you die down in the fires. / Once you have become a drug addict / you will never want to be anything else”. Students of rhetoric will know the technique used in the former as antimetabole (“This man I thought to have been a lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among lords”) and would analyse the second as some sort of pun or equivocation on two meanings of “want”. “Fix” might well fit into a mimetic section of the world of lyric since the comparatively intense tone of the body of the poem – “send the dream-transfusion out / on a voyage among your body machinery” – leads to this conclusion in a way that mimics the drug high and the way it inevitably leads to a comedown. The success of “Fix” lies in the way the end is simultaneously intense and downbeat. Or, to revert to New Criticism-speak, there is a tension between the mimetic representation of the rise and decline of the experience that the poem speaks of and an imposed but common-to-the-lyric-poem movement towards an affirmative, upwardly directed finish.

Another feature of the outputs of lyric poets is that they tend to at least try some poems that are at different ends of the various scales that the bulk of their poems inhabit. Tennyson tried long, narrative poems, Browning short ones. Had Dransfield live a long and healthy life he may well have moved into modes which would have made the shape of his output completely different. As it is, there are a couple of pieces which show him reaching beyond his normal operative modes. “Society” from The Inspector of Tides is a set of eleven numbered statements:

1.	The citizens group in categories/officials, wives, children, priests, revolutionaries.
2.	They enter the compartment assigned to their category/ classroom, office, kitchen, garret. . . .

In a sense this is at the mimetic end of the mimetic – non-mimetic scale since it reproduces the mechanised divisions of the capitalist view of the citizenry. But it is also worth looking at as a kind of poem vastly different to Dransfield’s other poems, even those concerned with the vices of Australian society.

And then there is “Love (dialogue) poem”, a piece between lovers built out of reproduced dialogue:

Where can we go today
He’s in Liverpool Street.
We could go to the Park.
Someone might see us.
Where then.
. . . . .

We’d better get dressed. You’ll miss your train.
It doesn’t matter. Will you ring me before you go?
If I can. It’s a bad scene.
When are you leaving . . .

Enough of the detail makes us confident that this built out of one of Dransfield’s own relationships – it is in fact, thematically, a “leaving poem” – rather than a sort of playwright’s exercise in transcribing overheard speech. But it’s an outlier in what is otherwise a reasonably consistent lyrical output. Neither it nor “Society” are likely to appear in selections like this one of John Kinsella’s.