Tranter, John (Ernest)

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TRANTER, John (Ernest)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Cooma, New South Wales, 29 April 1943. Education: Moruya Intermediate High School; Hurlstone Agricultural High School, graduated 1960; Sydney University, B.A.1970. Family: Married Lynette Maree in 1968; one daughter and one son. Career: Darkroom technician, 1967–68, script editor and writer, then radio drama and features producer, 1974–77, and coordinator, Radio Helicon arts program, 1987–88, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney and Brisbane; Asian editor, Angus and Robertson publishers, Singapore, 1971–73; sub-editor, Special Broadcasting Service Multicultural Television, Sydney, 1981–86; visiting fellow, Australian National University, Canberra, 1981; guest lecturer, University of Sydney, and Macquarie University, Sydney, both 1982, Australian National University and New South Wales Institute of Technology, Broadway, 1982–83, and Canberra College of Advanced Education, 1983; editor, External Course Development Section, New South Wales Department of Technical and Further Education, 1983–84. Writer-in-residence, New South Wales Institute of Technology, 1983, Macquarie University, 1985, Australian National University, 1987, and Rollins College, Florida, 1992. Publisher and editor, Transit Poetry, Sydney, 1980–83; poetry editor, Bulletin, 1990–93. Awards: Australia Council fellowship, 1974, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1991; Grace Leven prize, 1988; New South Wales Premier's award, 1988; Australian Artists Creative fellowship, 1991–93; Literature Board fellowship, 1994–97. Address: Literature Board, Australia Council, P.O. Box 788, Strawberry Hills, New South Wales 2012, Australia.



Parallax and Other Poems. Sydney, South Head Press, 1970.

Red Movie and Other Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1972.

The Blast Area. Brisbane, Makar Press, 1974.

The Alphabet Murders: Notes from a Work in Progress. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1975.

Crying in Early Infancy: One Hundred Sonnets. Brisbane, Makar Press, 1977.

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. Sydney, Island Press, 1979.

Selected Poems. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1982.

Gloria. Privately printed, 1986.

Under Berlin: New Poems 1988. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1988.

Days in the Capital. Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1992.

The Floor of Heaven. New York, HarperCollins, 1992.

At the Florida. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993.


Radio Plays and Scripts: Looking for Hunter, 1974; Le Morte d'Arthur, from the work by Thomas Malory, 1974; Knight-Prisoner: The Life of Sir Thomas Malory, 1974; Sideshow People, 1976; The Poetry of Frank O'Hara, 1976(?).


Editor, The New Australian Poetry. Brisbane, Makar Press, 1979.

Editor, The Tin Wash Dish. N.p., ABC Books, 1988.

Editor, with Philip Mead, Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry. Melbourne, Penguin, 1992.

Editor, Martin Johnston—Selected Poems and Prose. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993.

Editor, with Philip Mead, The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1994.


Manuscript Collection: Australian National Library, Canberra.

Critical Studies: "Opening a Murder List" by Alan Gould, in Nation Review (Melbourne), 4–10 June 1976; "Poems That Go Angst in the Night" by Martin Duwell, in The Australian (Sydney), 11–12 September 1982; "Tranter's Plots" by Kate Lilley, in Australian Literary Studies (Brisbane), 14(1), May 1989; "Casual Slaughters" by Andrew Riemer, in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney), 19 September 1992; "Playful Poetry of Florida" by Martin Duwell, in The Australian (Sydney), 13–14 November 1993; "Feral Symbolists: Robert Adamson, John Tranter, and the Response to Rimbaud" by David Brooks, in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia, Queensland), 16(3), May 1994; in In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets by Barbara Williams, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1998.

John Tranter comments:

Australian reviewers have called my work complex, technically assured, cynical, humorless, humorous, too concerned with avantgarde ideas, conservative, and experimental. Though I like a poem to be moving, I dislike gush; though I admire wit and skill, I like to have a good time.

*  *  *

In 1968 John Tranter achieved publication of a substantial collection of poems, Parallax, through the slightly devious means of a special issue of the magazine Poetry Australia. It was one way of sidestepping the Commonwealth Literary Fund (then the major funding body), which had refused support for the manuscript. It is always easy in retrospect to illustrate the insensitivity of any official patronizing and funding body, but in the instance of Tranter the action does seem extraordinary. Reread years later, Parallax almost bends over backward to present a conservative front, though it does so with integrity. Its direction, however, is clearly toward an absorption of the then recently available American experiments in formal innovation and the so-called drug culture. Parallax remains a reprimand to orthodox conservatism. The elements that spoke compromise can now be seen as the least creatively helpful for the young poet, and the elements that pointed toward innovation and genuine growth were, in fact, modified by the existing cultural climate even though their freshness remains stimulating.

It was with the publication of his volume Red Movie in 1972 that Tranter spelled out the real dimension of his innovative talent. The early poems had shown an eclectic voracity for stimuli—from Bly to Slessor, from Ginsberg to Beaver—but Red Movie made eclecticism a virtue. The work, especially the title poem, remains a pivotal experiment in language, in making language rub against itself, in making it rub against a culture, a commerce, an environment. Although its surface mimics, perhaps even mocks, American preoccupations with surreal and telescopic forms, its essential laconism is peculiarly Australian. It was succeeded by a follow-up series of poems, some of them successful, some blatant (and provocative) in their failure, but Tranter's Crying in Early Infancy became for the late 1970s what Red Movie was for the first half of the decade—the quintessential statement. Subtitled, significantly enough, "One Hundred Sonnets," it shows a renewal of interest in older forms that was part of late-1970s culture, though the deeply ironic undertones are particularly Australian and personal. These sonnets are indeed classic in their combination of "sounding against each other" and sounding upon the admass culture of the generation. Nothing in Australian writing quite precedes their constructive use of negative associations to build up a resonance of deep vulnerability. In Crying in Early Infancy Tranter brought what is perhaps the most intelligent verbal equipment of his generation to a point of creative breakthrough and of challenge. The challenge is enormous, partly because the alternatives now presented to Tranter are so sharp; his tone of wry mockery may become dangerously brittle and his cautious exploration of the self self-defeating. He is, essentially, a city poet, thoroughly urban in his preoccupations. No other poet of his generation is so well equipped to define whole areas of poetic territory as Tranter, and possibly no other is so sharply aware of the risks.

With the publication of his award-winning volume Under Berlin: New Poems 1988 Tranter has been generally recognized as having reached out into new territory. Although the book is still clearly imbued with a sense of urban reality, expressed in the dislocations of media glare and eclecticism, there is in it a new openness to personal and emotional response. A quiet, elegiac tone underlies the games playing and the teasing voice, which results in a new plangency. This does not undercut Tranter's characteristic sharpness, but it does reinforce the vulnerable humanity that had first gained a footing in his earlier, and still central, Crying in Early Infancy. Under Berlin is a more mature work, however, and it gives a striking indication of a rich vein of development, making Tranter surely one of the most inventive of contemporary Australian poets.

The Floor of Heaven (1992), Days in the Capital (1992), and At the Florida (1993) appeared in quick succession and hard on the heels of The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991), edited by Tranter and Philip Mead. The lucidity and introspective tone of the award-winning The Floor of Heaven helped prepare the way for some of the underlying narrative anguish of At the Florida. The latter work affronted some because of its "American cool" and its violence and also because the narrative technique had been pared of anything in the least "poetic." The work does perhaps point toward a new direction for Tranter-prose fiction. In 1993 Tranter also published his edition of selected poetry and prose of Martin Johnston, and in 1994 there appeared The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Australian Poetry, edited by Tranter and Mead. Such a prolific burst of activity heralded an undoubtedly significant turn in Tranter's already notable career: from self-proclaimed leader of the Generation of '68 to the almost urbane man of letters, proficient in a range of forms, editorially sharp, and constantly inventive within his declared parameters, which have broadened to include his own version of the long narrative poem, one of the recurring challenges of the decade.

—Thomas W. Shapcott