Fade to black...
1943: a dirt road winding through the
brush near the little town of Dalmeny, on the east coast of Australia. Late at night, a
young boy of four is asleep in his mother's arms. The passenger-side door unlocks. He
falls out of a moving sedan, bounces, and lands bloodied in a ditch. The car disappears.
Guy Shahar: This was your first memory: a dark
and isolated feelingYou were literally pulled from your mother's arms. Tell me
how this affected the rest of your life from that moment on.
John Tranter: I guess an experience like that
gives your nervous system a shock of some sort. Whether it was that accident or something
else genetic, I grew up into a rather anxious person. My early poems are often about loss
or death, which is the worst kind of loss. I seemed to see a lot of death. Three kids I
knew at school died violently. One of our farm workers had a heart attack and drowned in
six inches of water; a favorite uncle died of a heart attack when I was fifteen, my father
died when I was nineteen. I had a stammer as a kid which troubled me for many years.
Through my adult life I've suffered from anxiety and depression at various
times. Not that life is all doom and gloomI've had a wonderful life and
I've been as happy as Larry most of the time.
When I was travelling through India thirty years ago an Indian
friend examined the whorls on my fingertips and pronounced that my life would be
"ninety per cent lucky," and he was right. I certainly try to appear cheerful.
But my early poetry was often accused by critics of being grim and too obsessed with the
darker side of life, and I guess those childhood experiences were partly responsible for
Guy Shahar: The intense traumatic experiences
must have thrust knowledge upon you that you had not asked for. Did it force you to mature
quickly, or at least think differently than the other boys?
John Tranter: I don't think so. I mean, I felt a
little different from other people, growing up an only child, miles from anywhere, out in
the bush. I had different talents: I was good at writing school compositions, and got a
lot of enjoyment out of that. I enjoyed art as a kid. Where the other boys chose technical
drawinga practical subjectI chose art, and found myself stuck in a classroom
with a lot of girls. It didn't turn me effeminate, mind you. I ended up going to an
all-male agricultural boarding school, with a lot of other farmer's kids. They were a
tough lot, and gave the teachers hell. In the final exams I failed agriculture, would you
believe. And I was the first pupil at that school to gain honors in English for a quarter
of a century. Or so I was told. Then I failed English at university and dropped out for
five years, doing menial work and hitch-hiking through Europe and Asia.
You know, it is both surprising and ironic when you look at the
track records of some of the greatest minds of our time and you find that, in the
beginning, they often failed miserably in their respective standardized institutions only
to emerge years later as key trendsetters in their various fields.
Your writing seems to have a lot to do with people, and the mental pastures or prisons
they are in. I quote a line from The Colors of the Days, "She comes back
from Europe, old, tired and unwell, distressed at having wasted the best part of her
life." I wonder if you collected these penetrating insights into other people's lives
while you were hitch-hiking your way around the world?
You have to understand that Sydney, Australia in the mid 1960s
was a horrible place in many ways. The social structures were mindlessly authoritarian.
There were thousands of petty rules and regulations. There was an extraordinary
internalized censorship in every area of life, the landscape had been ruined with ugly
brick buildings with red tile roofsD.H.Lawrence describes his first glimpse of
Sydney wonderfully in his novel "Kangaroo". There was no tradition of dissent
like there was in the USinstead, Australians had a tradition of obedience to petty
bureaucrats. So it was like a dull English seaside town on a wet Sunday somewhere back in
the 1930s. Getting out was a liberation. I left in mid 1966, for London, and later Europe
and Asia. Lyn followed me to London a few months later.
I should have gone to New York. I would have had time to meet Frank O'Hara, just, and
Ashbery. I didn't meet Ashbery for another twenty years. That was a shame.
But the US didn't let people in unless they had money and a ticket out. I don't think
Americans realize sometimes just how threatening the American border looks to someone from
It was wonderful to come across cultureslike Italy say where people enjoyed
breaking the law, and knew that good coffee was an important basic part of life, not a
sinful luxury. It was interesting to see and feel real bone-grinding poverty. To become so
broke you had nothing to eat for three days. And to come across Afghanistan and Iran, with
their layers of Moslem lawsin Kandehar, in Afghanistan, we were stoned by a mob of
schoolchildren because we looked different. We could have been killed. It was interesting
to come across real hippies, and a couple of obvious CIA agents smuggling lapis lazuli out
of Afghanistan, and a French truck driver with a hare lip who gave us a lift for three
hundred miles and grew so fond of us he burst into tears when we turned off at Bayonne and
headed for Spain. Just the blast of different cultures and different outlooks suddenly put
Australia into perspective. Until then we had thought that the way Australians thought was
the only way to think. We had absorbed that unconsciously, as everybody does who grows up
in a little village. To come face to face with the sheer variety of human life was very
Is that how you met Lyn?
No, I met Lyn in a bar in 1964. There was a wonderful pub in
Sydney called the Newcastleit's gone nowthat in the early 1960s actually
allowed women to drink in the main public bar. That was forbidden in most hotels and pubs.
Australia didn't have bars as such. We weren't permitted to set up places like bars, where
people went to get drunk; we had to pretend that they offered accommodation too, and the
only bars I saw were in hotels. The Newcastle was a retreat for liberal-minded people,
philosophers, students, professors, left-wing unionists, film theorists, secretaries with
radical views, poets.
Anyway, I was drinking in the Newcastle one Saturday night. A friend of mine was having an
engagement party after the pub, and he asked me to come along. "You have to bring a
girl," he said.
I didn't have a girl, I replied.
"Well, ask that one over there," he said, pointing, and I did.
I remember I talked about Rimbaud all night, which must have impressed Lyn. Her father was
a policeman, and I don't think she'd ever heard anyone talk about books before. We were
married four years later.
How much of an influence on your career is she?
Lyn has been a strong support over the years. Poetry is not much
of a career, frankly. I would have been better off in a material sense doing almost
anything else: architecture, which I dropped out of; radio features production, which I
dropped out of in order to write poetry, editorial work with a publishing house, ditto.
Lyn has always seen the need for me to do those things, and supported me all the way.
Somehow we've raised two kids and managed to pay the rent.
She also encouraged me to go back to university and complete an abandoned arts degree,
which was important in allowing me to find less menial jobs through the 1970s. I hated
doing it at the time but I'm glad I did now, especially for the sake of the kids.
She's also a very sharp critic, with an immediate sense of when a piece of writing is not
working, and why.
Very early on you discovered the reckless youthfulness of
Rimbaud. What was it about his writing that you identified with?
Three things. First was the brilliance of the writing, line by
line, image by image. He really is one of the most dazzling poets of all time. I loved the
way he took traditional forms and mastered them, and then turned on them and tore them
apart. And then there's a very moving lyrical urge underneath all he wrote, even the
deliberately ugly pieces. The other side of that coin is his cynicism, just as his
blasphemies are the verso of his deep religiosity. He's a Lucifer figure in many ways, and
we always admire the bad boys more than the goody two-shoes.
Then there was the initial shock of confronting a poetic figure who took poetry more
seriously than anything else on earth. I was seventeen when I first read Rimbaud, a kid
from a country town, like he was, and the sheer effrontery and bravery of that choice
really made me blink.
Then in the end there is the dilemma of his renunciation of his gift. By the time he was
twenty he had thrown it away. His loathing for the poetic life was total after that point.
It can drive you crazy, trying to work that out. Charles Nicholl's recent biography
("Somebody Else") is very good at probing that mystery, and the barren,
exhausting decade that followed as he wandered around the Mediterranean and back and forth
across North Africa in pursuit of money and security.
I'm not so interested in his early left-wing politics and his later conservative
mercantile views. For one thing, they're so common in every time and culture since about
1780. They're predictable for someone at those various stages of his life
particularly his adolescent response to the French defeat at the hands of the Germans and
the subsequent political events in Paris. Perhaps you could say that his homosexuality is
also predictable, given his stern, emotionally barren mother and his absent military
father, and the opportunistic Verlaine. Those things are contingent, not essential, in the
way the actual writing is essential, and his eventual renunciation of poetry.
Where to from there?
I guess I've never really moved on from Rimbaud: I just digested
what I could and started looking elsewhere, and kept coming back to Rimbaud from time to
time. I still read him, in the Oliver Bernard translation for Penguin; I think it's the
best available, given a few minor infelicities. Much better than the Wallace Fowlie or the
Varese, in my opinion.
I read everything I could through the 1960s, including Chinese poetry, Zen Buddhism, the
Beats, the academic North Americans (in the Penguin "Contemporary American
Poetry"), Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the 20th century French poets, Auden, Dylan
Thomas (funny how very few people read Dylan Thomas these days...), and Eliot and Pound,
who had a huge effect on my style of rhetoric.
I was also reading novels (Gavin Lambert, J.G.Ballard, Graham Greene, Kerouac, John
Clellon Holmes, etc) and devouring movies. I was also painting, and writing prose, and
writing experimental plays; none of which I did very well.