Archive | December, 2011

The Ultimate Commitment – Michael Dransfield: Collected Poems

22 Dec

Michael Dransfield Collected Poems Edited by Rodney Hall. University of Queensland Press 1987.  Southerly Volume 48. No 4. 1988.

When Michael Dransfiled died on Good Friday, 1973 at the age of 24 he had already published three collections of poetry and established a reputation as one of the most successful and popular of the new wave of young Australian poets who had emerged in the late 1960s. Since his death a further four collections have appeared, culminating in the Collected Poems (UQP 1987). When one considers Dransfield’s rapid rise to prominence, together with the attention focused on his lifestyle and the tragedy of his early death, it was almost inevitable that, to some extent, his life would come to overshadow his poetry. In fact, in the fifteen years since his death, the ‘Dransfield myth’, together with the decline in fashionably of the romanticism at the heart of much of his poetic imagery, has meant that his reputation as a poet has been attacked by a number of critics. In such a context, the publication in one volume of all of Dransfield’s published work, provides us with the opportunity to review his overall achievement and, hopefully, to reach a more realistic assessment of his work.

One cannot begin to examine Dransfield’s career, however, without noting the important role Rodney Hall has played over the last twenty years in bringing Dransfield’s work to the poetry reading public. It was Hall, then poetry editor of The Australian, who first ‘discovered’ Dransfield’ in 1967. It was Hall who passed Dransfield’s work onto Tom Shapcott who was then putting together an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry for Sun Books which would eventually become Australian Poetry Now.  Shapcott and Hall also helped Dransfield prepare his first two published collections, Streets of the Long Voyage (UQP 1970) and Inspector of Tides (UQP, 1972). While Hall encouraged Dransfield during his life, Dransfield’s death revealed the extent of Hall’s devotion to the younger poet. Hall took on the task of collecting all of Dransfield’s unpublished poems and prepared a selection for publication. The result were the two posthumous collections, Voyage into Solitude (UQP 1978) and The Second Month of Spring (UQP, 1980).

Hall has organised the Collected Poems so that the volumes in which the poems first appeared are mostly kept intact. As a result the poems appear in rough chronological order beginning with Streets of the Long Voyage (containing poems written between  1964 and 1969), The Inspector of  Tides (1968 to 1971), Drug Poems (1967 to 1971), Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal (poems from mid 1971), Voyage into Solitude (a posthumous collection of unpublished poems from 1967 to 1971) and The Second Month of Spring (poems from 1972). Not all these volumes, however, have been left intact. In the introduction Hall argues that where a poem has been published in more than one collection, he has chosen to leave it in the ‘large book’. As Hall believes that Drug Poems was an anthology of  “pieces addressing a particular subject”,  a number of poems that had previously appeared in Streets of the Long Voyage and Inspector of Tides,  and others that would later appear in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, have been left out of the Drug Poems section in the Collect Poems. While Hall’s argument for this exclusion is, of course, perfectly reasonable, it means that the overall effect of the Drug Poems section in the Collected Poems  is reduced.

Reading through the poems from streets of the Long Voyage  and The Inspector of  Tides I was once again struck by the balance Dransfield is able to find between the apparent simplicity of his individual images and the overall complexity of his most successful poems. This can be clearly seen in one of his best known poems, ‘Pas de deux for lovers’, which begins

Morning ought not

to be complex

The sun is a seed

cast at dawn into the long

furrow of history

A seed is, of course, a simple object. But it contains the potential to be something far more complex. So Dransfield’s morning sun becomes a planted seed and, as it sprouts, the day suddenly becomes far more complicated until we reach the final line:

…………Day

is so deep already with involvement

This overall richness of imagery, achieved by selective use of language and a careful juxtaposition of individual images, is one of Dransfield’s great strength in these first two books. One can recall numerous poems where he achieves it – ‘Chris’, “Surreptitious as Desdemona’, ‘Linear B’, ‘Death of Salvatore Quasimodo’, ‘Bum’s Rush’, ‘Ground Zero’, ‘Geography’, ‘Loft’ and ‘Inspector of Tides’ among others. While Dransfield, of course, was not the only one of his contemporaries to achieve this, the ease with which he achieved it again and again in these first two books, both of which were published before he was 22, is an indication of just how early he matured as a poet.

Dransfield was a self-declared romantic and the richness and delicacy of his imagery was an important part of his romanticism. The poems in his first two books are filled with what might be called clichéd romantic symbols – magic carpets, crystal wine glasses, Greek mythology, Vincent van Gough, ruined mansions , fallen aristocrats, candles and dukes. But Dransfield’s romanticism was not confined to his poetry. He increasingly attempted to live the romantic image of the ‘suffering’ artist cut off from mainstream society because of his/her sensitivity. This can, perhaps, be best seen in his drug poetry. Streets of the Long Voyage, The Inspector of Tides and Drug Poems contain some very powerful and moving drug poetry. ‘Bum’s Rush’, for example, is one of Dransfield’s best poems. But as his addiction deepened, drug related imagery began to dominate his poetry more and more.

In his earlier poetry drugs became a vehicle for his romanticism:

                                                 Becalmed now

on Coleridge’s painted sea in Rimbaud’s

drunken boat. High like de Quincey or Vasco

I set a course

for the Pillars of Hercules, meaning to sail

over the edge of the world

                                                          ‘Overdose’

Even death, if it was surrounded by drug imagery, took its place in Dransfield’s iconography of romanticism:

last week,  I think on Tuesday,

she died

just gave up breathing

toppled over

a big smashed doll

with the needle still in her arm

I made a funeral of leaves

and sang the Book of Questions

to her face as white as hailstones

to her eyes as closed as heaven

                                   ‘For Ann so still and dreamy’

Dransfield, in fact, clothed the life of the poet and the junkie in the same romantic imagery;

Once you have become a drug addict

you never want to be anything else

                                        ‘Fix’

to be a poet in Australia

is the ultimate commitment

                                    ‘Like this for years’

The inference here is clear, poets and junkies are really two sides of the same coin. This sense of the suffering individual artist/drug user, while clearly growing out of the milieu of the late 1960’s, has come, in time, to represent the less successful aspects of Dransfield’s romanticism.

On the acknowledgement page of the original Sun Books edition of Drug Poems, Dransfield states that a number of the poems “will appear in Memories of a Velvet Urinal to be published in the USA in 1972.” This was an overly optimistic note. According to Hall, Geoffrey Dutton had promised to take the manuscript with him to the US but, as it turned out, it was not accepted for publication.  Memories of a Velvet Urinal was, in fact, to remain in a number of different manuscript forms until Maximus Books in a Adelaide published a version in 1975.

Shortly before his death, Dransfield gave Hall one of the manuscripts of Memories of a Velvet Urinal which Hall then sent to a British publisher. As this was clearly a later version of the manuscript than the one eventually published by Maximus Books, Hall has used it in the Collected Poems. The differences between the two versions are quite important. Dransfield had actually discarded a number of poems which appeared in the Maximus edition – “madness systems parts one, two, three, four and the last”,  “Making it legal 1 &2”, “Flametree” and “To the great presidents” appear only as appendices to the Collected Poems. The situation is complicated by the appearance in the Collected Poems  of  another poem with the title “To the great presidents”. In the Maximus edition this poem appeared under the title

were                  no

           mar

no   more   war

Hall argues, and the evidence would appear to support him, that this actually represents a separate concrete poem and not a title. At this point I would have appreciated a further note of explanation from Hall concerning the transfer of the title “To the great presidents” from one poem to another.

The Collected Poems version also rearranges the order of the poems so that the book is now divided into four sections. This is, in fact, the most important change as it brings Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal into line with both Streets of the Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides, both of which were divided into sections. The Maximus edition has the feeling of almost being thrown together. It begins with ‘Epitaph with two quotations’, a poem which is physically difficult to read and one of the weaker poems in the book. The Collected Poems  version, on the other hand, opens with the title poem, ‘Memoirs of a velvet urinal’, a striking poem about a homosexual encounter. Dransfield, by regrouping the collection, and rejecting a number of poems, has tightened the book considerably. Whereas it was quite easy to believe after reading the Maximus edition that all the poems had been written in the four-month period between May and August 1971 (which, in fact they had), the Collected Poems version has a much more crafted and professional feel to it.

There is also a tendency in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal for Dransfield to move away from the heady romanticism of his earlier work. In a poem like ‘Play something Spanish’, lines like:

planes of light.  yes.  they were effective.  yes.  you

are lost in them,  their obvious coast

led you away to a place you cannot identify.  spain?

never.  play something metaphysical…..

suggest that contemporary American poetry was beginning to have a greater influence on his work. Unfortunately, there are also poem, such as ‘Poem started in a bus’, which depends upon a heavily clichéd, moralist ending:

                                                              …..Its easy

to forget violence while violence

forgets you

It’s difficult to escape the feeling that Dransfield  could still have done more to the manuscript of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. The evidence suggests that, in the face of a number of publishers’ rejections, this editorial process was well underway at the time of his death. If he had lived, Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, in time, may have been shaped into a volume which surpassed the achievement of his first two books.

Voyage into Solitude is the first of two collections of unpublished work which Rodney Hall edited after Dransfield’s death. In this first collection Hall assembled his selection from the period 1967 to 1971. In effect this represents the material that Dransfield, and those who helped him, rejected when editing material for those books he did publish during his life.

Overall it is probably fair to say that Voyage into Solitude is a tribute to the editorial process which went into the first four books. There are only a few poems in this collection which I would have been prepared to argue for. These would include ‘Sonnet’, ‘The sun but not our children’ and the wonderfully descriptive ‘Pioneer Lane’. For the most part, however, it is easy to see why these poems were left out. Many seem incomplete, an image doesn’t work properly or, as is more common, is too clichéd to be effective. Though it was obviously important for Hall to collect and publish these “rejected” poems, in the context of the Collected Poems, Voyage into Solitude remains a book primarily for the Dransfield scholar or enthusiast.

While Dransfield seemed to be developing, almost organically, away from the lush romanticism of his earlier work in Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, the poems in Hall’s second posthumous collection, The Second Month of Spring (UQP 1980), marks a dramatic change in both style and content. All the poems in this collection were written during the last year of Dransfield’s life. In April 1972 Dransfiield, while riding his motorcycle, was run off the road south of Sydney by an off-duty policeman. Besides some serious injuries to his head and leg, the pethadine he was given in hospital undid months of effort put into overcoming his addiction. As might be expected, the accident figures prominently in these last poems:

used   to get  through

three  five  six

books  a  day

now  can’t  read

much  more  than

one  short  poem

or  an  article

blame  it  on

medication

happens  to  all who  happen  here

it  was  the  same

in  darlo

months  ago

since  my  last

accident

april

in  fact

i  write

cannot  revise

they  also  serve

                                 ‘October elegy for Litt’

Dransfield stopped referring to his work as poems during this final period, preferring to call them raves. In effect the work in The Second Month of Spring can be likened to the final explosion of light a star gives off as it starts to collapse in upon itself. These last poems are, in fact, intensely personal, almost to the point of being a diary in verse.

As far as style goes they are poems cut back to the bare essentials:

even an

ugly joint

will get you high

as afghan

hills

                                ‘imports’

Word plays often become an end in themselves, and even his earlier work is not safe:

look ahead

straits of the long

voyeur

                          ‘cadlike’

While this is not great poetry, it is difficult not to be moved by the extremes of emotion – anger, hope, resignation – and, at times, the intense physical pain, which these poems highlight.

Rodney Hall, in his introduction to Voyage into Solitude, made the point that Dransfield is one of the few Australian poets to ever have “a genuine popular following….among people who do not otherwise read poetry”. The sheer size and scope of the Collected Poems, I believe, illustrates why Dransfield was able to build up this following.

Dransfield may have felt that being a poet in Australia was “the ultimate committment”, but there is no doubt that the late 60s were an exciting time to be a young poet in Australia.  While most of his contemporaries saw themselves as “modern” poets, breaking the hold of the conservatives on Australian poetry, Dransfield was reading the romantics as well as contemporary American and European poetry. Though critics may disapprove of  Dransfield’s romanticism, there is little doubt that, during the late 60s, it tapped a feeling among young people and, as a result, can be said to lie behind much of Dransfield’s initial popularity.

Perhaps, in the final instance, Dransfield’s greatest strength can be seen in the development we can trace in the Collected Poems from the early, richly romantic poems, through to the more hard-edged poems of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal. Sadly, his tragic death in 1973 cut short this development. We should be grateful to Rodney Hall for editing this collection because, if nothing else, it has helped focus attention back towards the poems and away from the “Dransfield myth” which has come to dominate his reputation since his death.

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Breaking Through the Silence: NO REGRETS 3

14 Dec

No Regrets 3: An Anthology of the Sydney Women Writing Workshop. Published by the No Regrets Group. 1985. Review Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406) 11 December 1985.

“Literary history and the past are dark with silences”, declared Tillie Olsen in Silences. These silences, she argues, were due to a number of factors ‘including class, colour, sex and the times and climate into which one is born.”

Over the last decade, women writers in Australia have been attempting to make themselves heard above that silence. A measure of their success has been the number of contemporary women writers being published and the growth of women’s publishing ventures such as Sybylla, Sea Cruise Books and Redress Press.

Another result of the revival of women’s writing has been the ‘rescuing’ of women’s writing from literary oblivion. The republishing of works  by authors such as M. Barnard Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark and Christina Stead among others, has created an alternative to the conservative, male dominated, traditional literary history of Australia.

The creation of an alternative structure to the existing literary hierarchy has been one of the most important long-term results of the women’s writing movement. It is probably this aspect that the literary establishment finds the most threatening.

There are many reasons behind the growth of women’s’ writing which, of course, parallels the growth of the women’s movement in general. However, in part it can also be seen as a reaction against the writers of the so-called ‘generation of ’68’.

The generation of ’68 is a term used loosely to describe a number of young writers who first came to prominence in the late sixties. They saw themselves as ‘poetic revolutionaries’ attacking the bastions of traditional Australian literature. With a few exceptions, however, they were male. The vast majority of women in ‘the scene’ were there as girlfriends or wives.

In time, a number of women only writing  workshops were formed, one of which was the Sydney Women Writers Workshop (also known as the No Regrets Group) in 1978. For over seven years the No Regrets Group has met at member’s houses to read and discuss their work, as well as discussing practical and theoretical issues. Their influence, however, has extended beyond the actual group members through the compilation of three anthologies. Their most recent publication, No Regrets 3,  was recently launched at the Performance Space in Sydney. It contains work by sixteen women from the group, together with statements by each on their writing.

Although it is an often repeated assertion that all writing is political, it remains a concept which the literary establishment has difficulty coming to terms with. The women in No Regrets 3, however, repeat this assertion with a convincing directness  which comes from personal experience. Barbara Brooks, for example, says “You can hardly put pen to paper, or even open your mouth, as a woman writer, before you have to confront your experience as a woman, your power, or lack of it.” Anne Lawrence is a little more positive: “being a writer is just my way and I know that there are more women finding and owning their voices, power and creativity with honesty , integrity and great responsibility.” Uyen Loewald sees her writing in terms of her position as a migrant in a society where people refuse to try and understand her: “I began writing….when I realised that there was no other way to establish justice for myself and other people like me.”

The writing itself is varied and refreshing in its scope. It is particularly exciting to come across work by writers I hadn’t heard of before, such as Chitra Fernando, Marion Consandine, Coren Caplan, Anna Valerio, Loretta Re and Jo Garolis.

The influence of the first two No Regrets  anthologies has extended beyond the women’s writing movement. As the Adelaide based writer, Moya Costello, pointed out on a recent Crystal Set program (2SER-FM Sydney), a number of male writers have obviously been influenced, not just by the way women write, but by the supportive networks set up by women writers and the concerns which motivate many women to write.

No Regrets 3, together with the first two anthologies, provide useful models, not only for women writers, but all writers who feel surrounded by ‘silences’.

Lines of Flight – Marion Campbell

5 Dec

Lines of Flight, Marion Campbell. Freemantle Arts Centre Press 1985. From The Good Reading: 100 Critics Review Contemporary Fiction compiled by Helen Daniel McPhee Gribble 1989.

An intellectually playful novel which follows the career of Rita Finnerty, an Australian  artist struggling to create a career for herself in France. Campbell’s impressive use of language skillfully followers her narrative so that, as the novel opens, Rita’s artistic and emotional freedom is echoed in the expansiveness of the language which draws in elements of art, literature and contemporary French theory. As Rita finds herself increasingly drawn into a small social circle headed by Raymond, a gay French semiotician, and his two students, Sebastien and Gerard, the novel’s language begins to close in on itself. Pressure builds up until Rita finally attempts to crash through the domestic barriers that have been gradually imposed upon her. At the same time as this narrative explosion, Campbell’s language also explodes violently, creating an unnerving and subtly unsettling conclusion.

Susan Hampton COSTUMES – P76 Magazine Issue 1 1983

1 Dec

Susan Hampton COSTUMES Transit Poetry 1981

Over a number of years now Susan Hampton’s reputation as a poet of a consistently high standard has been steadily increasing, largely as a result of the considerable body of her work which has appeared in various literary magazines and journals. It comes as a surprise, then, to realise that Costumes, her first complete volume, has been greeted with almost two years of critical neglect.

If we turn to the book itself in an attempt to find reasons for this neglect, we quickly find ourselves disappointed for Costumes is, in many ways, a virtuoso debut, as Hampton shows herself to be in control of many different  styles and techniques. One has only to compare the surrealist prose piece ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’ with the apparent autobiographical detail of ‘In the Kitchens’, to be aware of the range and scope of her work.

Throughout the volume, Hampton is always conscious of being a poet, both in the way she observes what is happening around her, and how she relates it to her own emotions. We become aware of the importance she attaches to individual words in a ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’; here Hampton describes a method of memorising single words which she has taken into the country:

We begin at the Angel Islington in a pub, looking at ourselves in the mirror. As we looked, she told me the first word. We walked from then pub to a phone-box, to the supermarket then to the tube station, the flowerseller with his red blooms, past a hoarding, then along Upper Street to the doorknocker on her house. At each of these stops she gave me a new word, and I was to recall them by walking this journey until I could do it in my mind, associating each word with an object on the way. It proved successful, and I wondered whether this was how Mandelstam’s wife memorised his poems to bring them out.

Words are obviously important here, and a close relationship exists between the individual words and the associated objects. It is no co-incidence that ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’ opens Costumes, for through it we are introduced to the poetry that will follow. The idea of a “Museum of Words” recalls the various museums in Murry Bail’s Homesickness, but Hampton sees little point in museums themselves:

The Museum of Words. I think this is a bad idea. Leave

these in the gallery for a while, and then give them

to people walking by.

The poems that follow are definitely not intended to hang in a gallery. Although our first reaction may be that Costumes consists of a number of very good, but also very different poems, as we progress further we become aware of a number of subtle but important ways in which poems of opposing techniques and styles are, in fact, related to each other. This can perhaps be best seen if we look at the way a number of Hampton’s best poems grow directly from everyday incidents. Early in the title poem ‘Costumes’, for example, we read:

Waiting for a bus, I rock gently on the edge

of the footpath, all manner of people coming past me

the ones in green dresses  the ones with very short hair

In ‘Costumes’, and other poems such as ‘Jubilate Sydney’, ‘Ode to the Car Radio’ and ‘Waiting for Rain’, we see emerging a particular way of looking at the city, and, more importantly, the poet’s relationship to that city. The concluding lines of ‘Jubilate Sydney’ reflects one manifestation of that relationship:

For tenthly there’s a cloud accompanying me

my windscreen is better than the latest Italian movie

The same sentiment appears in ‘Waiting for rain’:

& yes, life’s an Australian movie just now, no plot

but some very taking shots

Although part of the attraction of these poems lies in the way the actual incidents are described, their real strength  is Hampton’s ability to suggest an inter-relationship between many apparently trival observations. In a comparatively simple poem, such as ‘Waiting for rain’, this is achieved by the way the richness of the first section, where the poet is riding a bike across the campus of Sydney University, is contrasted with the sterile second section, when she has arrived at work. The poem works towards its final statement in the same way that a skillful scientist might support her/his theory, for when the poem concludes:

I want to go out into the rain.

there seems to be no other possible conclusion.

‘Costumes’ can be seen as an extension of ‘Waiting for Rain’. It is a far more ambitious poem, and structurally more complex, but again it relies upon the poet’s observation of her surroundings. This time, however, she is still and watches the city move around her. Her passiveness, though, is only physical, for the way people “narcissistically half-watch” themselves in the numerous mirrors of the MLC Centre becomes a metaphor for the shallow nature of the glamorous image they seek to buy:

And the mirors say, you have bought something from us,

look at us and see how you shine as you move, buy more

look more, shine more, buy yourself from us  we have

a big range of styles.

The poem becomes increasingly ironical so that when the people leave the mirrors and walk into the street past

                                                                         cripples with badges

fat girls from out of town, warehouse clerks with sore legs

and white noses, past all the losers.

the glamour and shine has all disappeared.

The five poems grouped together in ‘In the Kitchen’ also appear to be largely autobiographical, describing the poet’s childhood in Inverall and Newcastle. There is a gentle feeling of progression about the sequence. Each poem seems immediate and important, perhaps because with the exception of ‘Invererell’, they are all written in the present tense. They reflect a child’s growth, from early memories of an insurance sales and amateur magician, to bars in Newcastle and writing poetry imitating Eliot. The sequence appears almost crafted, for while it has at its centre, the memories of different kitchens, each poem expresses a mood unique to a particular period of growing up.

On e feature, then which runs through an unites Costumes is the way in which the majority of the poems have, as their centre, the poet herself. The best poems in the collection, however, use this as a starting point to make statements which transcend the personal. This is true not only of those poems which deal with the external world, but also those which concentrate on the personal or physical subjects. ‘It’, for example, begins by describing the feelings, both physical and emotional, associated with menstruation:

                                                                It grabs from behind &

whomp! you’ve gone mad again tonight, despite Vitamin B

& the gynaecologist’s plan for sanity.

As the description continues, the poet’s anger grows until, in the final lines, it overflows into violence:

                                                       Now the world’s

a different place, malign for sure, & we’re crying

(big girls do) about nothing, we know its nothing,

but we really want to kick the shit out of something

tonight, we’re violent, & we’re tired of making

little parcels & putting them in the cupboard.

In the final instance Costumes is true to the criteria that Hampton herself stated at the beginning of the collection in ‘Catalogue of Five Words at an Exhibition’. The majority of the poems refuse to be “hung” for an length of time on the gallery wall. Rather we find ourselves recalling the way we have felt in a particular situation,or perhaps see elements of ourselves in the poetry, so that seemingly personal statements suddenly take on a much wider significance. Costumes confirms Hampton’s standing as a poet of exceptional ability, and establishes he position as one of the best writers to emerge over the last few years. The fact that this collection has passed almost unnoticed by the majority of critics (there have been a few exceptions) is a sad comment on the quality of contemporary  criticism.

Mark Roberts

1983

Photograph of Susan Hampton in 1981 by John Tranter.  Thanks to http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/