John Tranter

The Best Australian Poems 2007 edited by Peter Rose & The Best Australian Poetry 2007 edited by John Tranter

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December 2007–January 2008, no. 297

Given the Howard government’s recent proposal to include the compulsory study of selected aspects of Australian history for secondary school students, perhaps it is time for more educators to follow the lead of Nicholas Jose and others in urging that Australian literature occupy a more prominent place in the school curriculum. Literature – and poetry in particular – does not have the political buzz that history possesses (especially since the recent ‘history wars’ have worked their way into public discourse), but there is a need for some healthy consciousness-raising about the flourishing state of Australian writing, which is often better understood beyond our shores than it is at home.

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In my dream I was surrounded by seraphs
wearing morning suits, looking at me
quizzically in the crowded Parliament. Then I was being chased
by a Russian mountain lion who drooled a lot

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B, brave brown, C, icicle
pendant, D, dun though pale,
F for faint mauve, fish and bicycle,
G, gothic paint in a green pail

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When I was young I tried different things: drawing, painting, music, poetry, short stories, journalism, reviewing, but poetry turned out to be what I was best at.

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The ice-cream headache has you seeing double
as Goody Twoshoes calls by your table to arrange
some kind of smooth-talk conference full of limitless
possibilities, lots of cocktails, two naked men and naturally

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Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter & The Salt Companion to John Tranter edited by edited by Rod Mengham

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October 2010, no. 325

John Tranter has published more than twenty books since 1970. They include long dramatic monologues, a type of verse novel (The Floor of Heaven, 1992), prose poems and traditional verse forms. Starlight, his new collection, continues his ‘evisceration’, as he calls it, of other poets.

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The Sydney poet Bruce Beaver died in February 2004 after a long struggle with kidney failure that kept him on dialysis for more than a decade. He was seventy-six years old. Beaver was seen as a sympathetic older figure by many poets of my generation, born a dozen years later. I met him when I was in my twenties, and found him to be a generous friend. When the poet Michael Dransfield, younger still, called on him in the early 1970s, it was a natural meeting of minds. In one poem in The Long Game and Other Poems, Beaver says that ‘poor Dransfield draped / me with a necklet of dandelions / once and kissed my forehead / in what must have been / a satirical salute’. I have a feeling that the salute was heartfelt, but Bruce was painfully modest.

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Many see John Tranter as an important, if slightly peripheral, figure in contemporary Australian poetry. He is well known for his long involvement in the Sydney poetry scene, as well as for his role as an editor, particularly for his editing, with Philip Mead, of the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991) and, more recently, of the internet poetry journal Jacket.

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Blackout is a poem written (deliberately, I think) in transition – or even perhaps in transit. Structured such that it lacks a singular, personal voice, it could be read as a response to the question: What is a poem in the era of digital media? Or more particularly, more precisely –Where does such a poem start? What’s its language, how does it end? Blackout, for example, is left unfinished: after the ninth section it just breaks off with a colophon indicating that there could be more words one day, or perhaps not. It’s left unfinished too in the sense of being a work which never resolves into a coherent narrative or even a coherent thought-structure. The polyphony of the text is left jagged and juxtapositional, much in the manner of block music. Or more likely in the manner of a downloaded text where many voices have criss-crossed in a many-timed, interactive way.

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Desert Mother is a collection of poems from a West Australian writer in his late twenties who now lives in Sydney. Many of the poems in it have a double layer of nostalgia – a personal one, for a lost adolescence, and a general one for small towns left on the edge of history.

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