Q & A: John Tranter
Rossetti said, “A sonnet is a moment’s monument,” but here our speaker visits a contemporary “monument” that reduces James Wright to a sound-bite. Is this a commentary on the way that poetry is disseminated today?
No, it’s much deeper than that! I have always liked that James Wright poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” In fact, I looked at it again only last week. I studied it in an English class at university forty years ago. The final line in that poem, “I have wasted my life,” is also the last line in my poem.
It’s odd, because I know Rimbaud backwards, having studied his life and work for fifty years, but it took decades for me to realize that Wright’s last line was a translation of Rimbaud’s “J’ai perdu ma vie” from “Chanson de la plus haute tour” (May 1872). Rimbaud’s poem is in the form of a children’s song: quite beautiful. Its first (also the last) stanza runs like this:
À tout asservie,
J’ai perdu ma vie.
Ah! Que le temps vienne
Où les cœurs s’éprennent!*
But is Wright translating Rimbaud, or telling us something about himself, or both? Maybe we’ll never know.
Rimbaud is a major figure in my life as a poet. The great mystery and irony of his life is that, yes, he did waste his life, as he had lightheartedly written as a teenager: either the whole life was a waste, as no doubt his poor wretched mother felt. He was a brilliantly promising schoolboy, and he should have done a useful degree and found a job with a good pension. Or, from his seventeen-year perspective as a petty capitalist, from the ages of twenty until thirty-seven when he died, his brief three-year period as a teenage drug-addled gay alcoholic poet was a total waste.
I should confess that the recorded voice of the dead poet was originally the idea of Mark Strand. He visited Australia in the early seventies, and over dinner one night at a Sydney restaurant he outlined his plan to make some real money: set up a company that records a personal message from a client; then, when the client dies, the recording is placed in a small machine in the headstone on the client’s grave, and friends and relatives can visit the graveside, place a coin in the machine, and hear the beloved’s words. You could call it “Jukebox of the Dead.” Wonderful idea: it has stuck with me for four decades.
The use of logic in this poem seems fascinatingly, and intentionally, flawed. Could you say more about that?
Part of that is due to how the first draft of the poem was created, by a confused computer program trying to decipher French. I redrafted the poem to give it a more coherent narrative, but I didn’t want to make it too sensible. I think it is a mistake to ask poems to have the same clarity as a lesson in chemistry. Logic belongs in textbooks or newspaper articles; there we need truth and economy and clear structure and lots of plain daylight. Poetry belongs to the other part of the mind, and its best energies relate to our shadowy unconscious urges.
I have come to believe that the kind of meaning a poem has is like the kind of meaning a dream has: intense, loaded with symbols, quirky, personal, and obscure. For that matter, many of the best novels and movies have that kind of meaning, too. Think of The Big Sleep: a storyline so confused that even the original writer, Raymond Chandler, confessed he had no idea who murdered the chauffeur, yet a marvelous movie nonetheless. Perhaps the illogical sequence of statements in the poem is meant to shock the reader into this kind of realization—that we are now in “The Twilight Zone,” where different rules apply.
Then there is the subject matter: for example, the illogical contra-dictions involved in Western democracy—we demand honesty from politicians, yet our real demands force them into dishonesty. And the contradictions involved in Rimbaud’s decision to be a poet, then his decision not to be a poet ever again. Both these contradictory positions were held with fervent sincerity. As a youth he despised the bourgeoisie, yet he spent all his adult life as a hard-working trader, a petty capitalist. So is poetry just a superior kind of interior decoration, that the older (and wiser?) Rimbaud was right to despise? What happens to the anti-bourgeois tirades of the outsider artist when they are marketed by savvy publishing houses to the very bourgeoisie these artists supposedly excoriate? Did Kerouac want On the Road to be a howling success with the American middle classes?
*Idle youth enslaved by everything, by being too sensitive I have wasted my life. Ah! let the time come when hearts are enamored!