John Tranter’s 24th book of poems is a generous read at 137 pages. The book is in three sections, the first two largely composed of “Terminals” – poems that have borrowed the end words of each line from other poems that appear in The Best of the Best American Poetry, from 2013, and The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine. This device might seem, at first, to be engaging, but the novelty soon wears thin and the poems read like self-aware contrivances. They have the feel of striving to be original and edgy, yet most lack authority. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon has already stamped his mark on this style of poetry so palpably that all else seems banal by comparison.
John Tranter was, at one time, seen to be a major force within Australian poetry, yet these works seem little more than a recalling and reworking of old ideas from his well-known influences, most notably Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler and Ted Berrigan. In “Bare Skin”, the Berrigan / New York School influence has flashing lights around it:
And so the pretty young girl
rushes off to the drugstore, and then returns
with an armful of drugs and soda cans.
“Doting on Blubber” is a parody of Mark Doty’s poem “Difference”, where jellyfish are the central motif in a poem that engages with simile and metaphor. Tranter’s poem might have succeeded if he’d been able to resist the attempts at humour and the urge to be self-satisfied:
...the page is full as the bay is full
of smellyfish - sorry, jellyfish, a whole world
quivering into a jelly-shaped bowl.
Section three contains the best and worst poems in the book. “Rubies”, Tranter’s lyrical, eloquent take on Snow White, bristles with wit and terrific images. Then over the page we find “Four Variations on a Poem by Pam Brown”, in which Tranter name-checks not only Pam Brown but Laurie Duggan, Harry Reade and the American poet Larry Sawyer. It’s all very in-house and loaded with winks and nods. And it’s bad poetry.
Sadly, much of Heart Starter contains prose-like sentences, clumsy enjambment and awkward rhythms. Finally, the “Notes on the Poems” section at the back of the book runs to 11 pages. This overindulgence in what Tranter deems to be important only adds to this collection’s failings. DL
Puncher & Wattmann, 152pp, $25
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "John Tranter, Heart Starter". Subscribe here.