Saturday, 25 February 2017

Michael Dransfield

MARCH 2003
Posthumous Poet
Philip Harvey
John Kinsella (ed.)
UQP, $19.95pb, 92pp, 0 7022 3298 X
OR THOSE WHO grew up reading his dreamy,
solipsistic sequences, Michael Dransfield met
immediate needs. He expressed overtly the counter-
cultural attitudes of the times, and portrayed the frustrations
and elations of transition into one’s twenties. He was the
most convincing of the slash/dash lower-case poets, one
whose experiments were not a plaything but the means to
new meaning. Rereading him now, we meet a gifted but also
indulged individual — a young man with his own country
estate, a stash of opiates and a library of Romantic literature.
His own portrait of himself to the world is of a doomed youth,
a Dedalus of Darlinghurst, set ‘to deify doubt’.
Dransfield was always up against ‘the problems of the
day’. His philosophy is concerned with what he calls
‘complexity’. Dransfield incisively demonstrates the shift
in thought from the adolescent who knows everything to
the adult who knows otherwise, due to consciousness of
complexity. In social terms ‘there / are no people in cities, only
strangers, populations, / or the sometime consolation of famil-
iar / others’ (‘Geography’). In literary terms, the complexity is
wrought between ‘my first love / the silence’ and ‘the craft of
singing’ that ‘recruits apprentices from the abyss’. Relation-
ships are a delicate complexity: involvement is tentative, and
solitariness soon resumed. This last complexity is the result
of an unresolved, transcendent narcissism. Identifiable in
many of the fantasy poems, but also in his works of self-
defeat and imminent death, it informs the epigraph: ‘I’m the
ghost haunting an old house, / my poems are posthumous.’
Dransfield may haunt these pages; the editor, John Kinsella,
overshadows them. The introduction is as useful for Kinsella
studies as Dransfield studies. Dransfield was his teenage
hero, and Kinsella is quick to laud the poet, sadly a eulogy
that turns into overbearing appropriation. Unlike most selec-
tions, meant to show the artist’s best work, this one is made to
prove a thesis: ‘it was Dransfield who lifted Australian poetry
into a heightened state of modernism, bordering the post-
modern.’ Poets who border postmodernism are numerous as
grains of sand; the ‘little pebble’ Dransfield is singled out for
dual-coding, hybridisation and meta-textualisation, though
there is plenty here of a more conventional nature.
More dubious is Kinsella’s extravagant claim that ‘critical
analysis of twentieth-century English-language poetry will be
realigned once a thorough textual investigation of Dransfield’s
poems [is] made’, an unqualified apostrophe that sounds
hollow after Kinsella initiates little such investigation himself.
Placing Dransfield in some phoney hierarchy of world poets
in English is to up the odds dangerously, especially when the
argument wavers around words like ‘perhaps’. All of which is
a pity, as Kinsella has some fine perceptions about his idol,
once he gets past his Parnassus complex. He is helpful in
showing how Dransfield was a blocked individual, someone
who didn’t break through early restrictions of place and iden-
tity. ‘Let yourself vanish,’ the poet says in ‘Bum’s Rush’,
though this captivity to a psychology is found in his restless
tidal poems as much as in those of wilful self-oblivion. Addic-
tion, dissembling, misanthropy, doom and useless longing
preoccupy this loner.
Kinsella is right to dismiss the idea of Dransfield as a
confessional poet. But it is impossible to separate Dransfield
from the presentations of himself that animate his poetry.
Poems such as ‘Island’ and ‘The Hermit of Green Light’ are
elaborate scenarios reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites he so
admired. The trick in these works is how he turns the dis-
course around by reference to an ‘I’ or ‘he’ that we know to be
the poet. Self-reflexiveness is Dransfield’s haven, the fall-
back of someone engrossed in self-reflection. Mirrors are a
common object in his poems; the world of self-made illusion
seduces and troubles the poet. The pathos of the lone voice
is turned into performance.
Because this multifaceted portrait of the ‘I’ is so central to
any reading, we have to interpret some incontrovertible evi-
dence, even if it is not called confession. Here is a suburban
boy who lives in an escapist dreamworld of ancient manor
houses and medieval retro; a drug addict who lives where
there is ‘nothing beyond the candle and the spike’ (‘Mazurka’).
Here is familiar post-adolescent behaviour, frustrated but also
skilful, feeding off neuroses. Perhaps not so familiar are the
corresponding elucidations of strangeness and disintegra-
tion that Dransfield tables with the same equipoise.
This seamless drift in the
toward ‘the long
voyage into solitude’ (‘Going Away’) is the most disturbing
sensation left by the poetry. The personal mood of disquiet
engendered by this drift is indistinguishable from the
emotional life of Michael Dransfield and implausible as
merely the result of a series of clever constructs.
Dransfield’s achievement has to be assessed beside its
untidy profusion and editorial indiscretion. He shows the
makings of a great social satirist. The politics of ‘Endsight’
and ‘Letter to People about Pelicans’ is pointed and far
removed from the caginess of his poetic personae. His lyric
gift can be calmly dilatory or rigorous.
Dransfield, permissive with subject, elastic with grammar,
a perfecter of instant cadence, is unquestionably a source
figure for contemporary Australian poetry. It is on these
grounds, rather than tendentious agendas for making him a
harbinger of postmodernism, or a token god of international
English language poetry, that this collection is justified.
Kinsella, conscious of Dransfield’s tendency to expatiate with-
out resolution, has selected non-rambles that are amongst the
best of Dransfield’s tight experiments, including great works
(‘Geography’, ‘Chopin Ballade’) that are layered with the
philosophy of ‘complexity’.
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