Saturday, November 03, 2007

Poets: Michael Dransfield

Last weekend I wrote an entry on Steven J Bernstein, a poet and writer. I thought about it for a few days after, about how important poetry has been for me since I was a teenager, how much I enjoy reading it, and how many poets there are that I like. So, as a result I am going to begin another regular weekly theme for this blog; Poets! My next subject in the poets series is a poet who was a god for me when I was between the ages of 20 and 26. His name is Michael Dransfield (12 September 1948–20 April 1973).

"A picture of me as a priest"

Michael Dransfield (12 September 1948–20 April 1973) was an Australian poet of the 1960s and early 1970s, who acquired a considerable reputation before his premature death. Dransfield was born in Sydney, and educated at Sydney Grammar School. He briefly studied English literature and language at the University of New South Wales and Sydney University before dropping out. He worked for some months as a clerk at the Australian Taxation Office before drifting into the counter-culture. From then on he worked intermittently, living mainly in Paddington, Balmain, and Darlinghurst in Sydney, and in the north coast town of Casino, and he travelled frequently between Tasmania and Queensland, visiting his large group of friends and fellow poets. (Wikipedia)

My introduction to Dransfield came from my father, who also wrote poetry and once had a poem published in The Bulletin. My father was born in 1940 and was part of the Australia generation that came of age in the 1960s. Our library at home had copies of Dransfield's Streets of the Long Voyage (1970) and The Inspector of Tides (1972).I did not start to read Dransfield until I was about 21 however. I was then completely stuck by the beauty of the language and its fragile sparsity as well as the rebellion and hippy eastern vision. Take these lines from That which we call a rose:

I dreamt of satori a sudden crystal wherein civilisation was
more truly than with cameras but it was your world not ours
yours is a glut of martyrs money and carbon monoxide
I dreamt of next week perhaps then we would eat again sleep
in a house again
perhaps we would wake to find humanity where at present
freedom is obsolete and honour a heresy. Innocently
I dreamt that madness passes like a dream.

The last line is the vortex, where the image implodes in on itself inside the mind. Reading Dransfield now I am very much more aware of the self-absorbed quality of the lyric, but how can we blame him. He wrote most of his verse before he was 23...when I was that age I was not aware that other people existed, let alone what they may think and feel. My first direct encounter with the ghost of Dransfield came when I met the poet Chris Mansell, who was writer in residence at my university in 1990. I remember she told me she had seen Dransfield read somewhere and that he was highly thought of by many literary minded young women in the 'counter culture' at the time. In 1991 when I was studying at the University of Queensland (Dransfield's publisher) I made a request to look at a photocopy of the manuscript of Memoirs of a velvet urinal kept by the Fryer Library there. Written in it margins where addresses (his and of friends) notes and corrections by Dransfield. When I moved to Sydney in 1992 I pursued Dransfield, I met someone who told me a story about him staying with some friends in Newcastle and when they were out at work one day he sold their fridge for drug money. I worked as a nurse in Sydney and often did night shifts. One night I did a shift at a small private hospital in Balmain and leaving work in the morning at about 7am and walking down the soft sunlit streets with their little "cardboard cottages" I thought I got a taste of how Dransfield saw the world. Small beauties and intricate dramas floating swirling round him in a sea of tragedy.
There is relatively a lot on the net about Dransfield:

A Tribute
This site is said to "be under construction" (or decomposition??). The only links that are working are for a collection of 24 poems and Links (some good ones). The poems chosen (Dransfield left over 1000 complete poems when he died at the age of 24 but many of them were derivative examples of the same theme or verse, however he was a prolific poet).

The Poetry Explosion
Virginia Osborne introduces six talented young Sydney poets Vogue Australia, April 1971
This is a contemporary piece of journalism that captures the mood of Dransfield as he took stock of the Australian culture around him, past and present. His solution was:

He has also bought an island in Moreton Bay in Queensland, where he and Hilary will live in the winter and plant avocados which they can later sell. He has been given a beautiful old printing press, and they want to bring books out under the imprint of Mangrove Press.

Of course the island was an invention. The printing press may have been true, however one does get the impression that Michael felt himself surrounded and in need of autonomy, the Morton Bay island being one of two that he thought of retreating to mentioned in the article. This piece also provides a fascinating insight into other poets of the time, each equally committed to their vision.

Guide to the Papers of Michael Dransfield at the Australia Defence Force Academy
God knows what Dransfield would think with a military academy keeping a large group of his papers. He was by no means into the army. This is, however, a nice source for biography and information about the interesting connection between Peter Kocan and Dransfield:

On Tuesday 30 August 1966, Kocan fired a sawn-off .22 rifle at the Labor politician Arthur Calwell. Fortunately, Calwell suffered only superficial facial injuries, and he returned to work a week later, and publicly forgave Kocan. At the age of 19, Kocan was sentenced to life imprisonment in Long Bay Goal for the attempted murder

Michael Dransfield corresponded and exchanged poems with Peter Kocan from 1967-1969, whilst Kocan was a patient at the Morisset Mental Hospital. The letters comprise drafts of poems by Dransfield; quotes of poems by other poets; and recommendations for books Kocan should read.

Posthumous Poet. "Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective" by John Kinsella (ed). [review]54.pdf 298Kb Adobe PDF
For 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'.

John Kinsella, Towards a Contemporary Australian Poetics
"The point I am trying to make is that what was being received at the coalface, by which I mean your school student or average reader outside the cliques of poetry, was a very different picture of where Australian poetry was than was actually so. This is the case with any poetry in any country, but probably more marked in a (post-)colonial society such as Australia's, due to the inability to shake free of the defining poetics of the "centre". To add a Tranter, a Murray, a Harwood, or any other of the Australian poets active during this period, was to displace a member of the Australian (English-influenced) academy's canon. Of course these poets were added, but only slowly, and usually only with those poems that best accommodated this notion of the English poetic."

Derek Motion: Michael Dransfield’s Innocent Eyes
By all accounts Dransfield was neither morally innocent, nor did he lack experience of the world. You might say that following these narrow definitions it is likely that no-one can be innocent. But Dransfield – possibly unconsciously – distilled the usefulness in the concept of innocence. When we see things as new entities we ingest and process like lightning. We commonly accept the aphorism that children understand so much more than we think, without thinking about it. Dransfield attempted to recapture an a-temporal vision, and use it to inform his art.

Finally one of my old favorites:

Residence in Transit

our lives packed
in boxes

on the back of

leave a stilton blue
some bread and wine

on the table
they were good to us

the household

leave coal in the grate
pipes of hashish

in the bedroom
and a sitar

to make some
vagrant minstrel


Michael Dransfield


derek said...

hi jim,

i look forward to reading your further 'poet' entries.

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Thanks Derek, I look forward to writing it.
I once wrote in a poem:

"Poets, First on and last off this rock, earth"