Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography by Patricia Dobrez reviewed by Robert Adamson.
Robert Adamson originally reviewed Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography in The Australian Book Review in 2000. While this article is based on the originally review, it has been completely revised and rewritten so that very little remains of the original article.
Michael Dransfield was a prodigy whose life was cut short. When he died at 24 he had already published three books of poetry, since then another five volumes have eventually been published. By the time UQP released his Collected Poems in 1987, Dransfield’s reputation had grown, his poetry had been discovered by a broad readership, and his Collected Poems became the best seller in the entire series. Although his first book Streets of the Long Voyage appeared in 1970, when Michael was 22, he had been writing poetry from an early age.
Michael’s life became mythic and his reputation obscured his poetry. This 600 page biography Michael Dransfield’s Lives by Patricia Dobrez might be the place to look for what we can know of the reality of Dransfield’s life and work. Dobrez asked “Who was Michael Dransfield? ‘Did he himself know the answer to this question?” How does his poetry stand up after 39 years? His work is popular among young poets and has been highly regarded by three generations of poets who are now well established. His books have sold consistently over the years, and in 2002 a new selected poems was released, Michael Dransfield: A Retrospective, introduced and edited by John Kinsella.
There is a vast body of research behind this biography. Dobrez had access to Dransfield’s correspondence and papers, and she interviewed his family, friends and fellow poets over a long period of time. Here are lists and dates, the letters and plans for a future sketched on scraps of paper and envelopes; an archaeology through layers of time, facts and memory. There’s the infamous incident when Michael was invited to the Adelaide Writers Week by Geoffrey Dutton, but then when he was told that A.D. Hope would be appearing on the same program, Michael refused to go. This book is in honor of Michael Dransfield and his ‘lives’ but he is still not turning up for the literary festival. I thought knew Michael quite well for several years and yet after reading this book found myself wondering just how well I knew him after all.
Dobrez’s generous quotes from Dransfield’s work give the biography much of its energy, written in a jump-cut style which carries the narrative along swiftly, when it’s not cluttered with theory or quotes from other writers. At times Dobrez employs language that fogs up the clarity of both her own prose and the lucidity of Dransfield’s poetry. In the chapter ‘Age of Aquarius’ Dobrez quotes from the poem ‘Island’
there is no real thing.
none of these things is real.
he takes another book from the shelf,
glances, puts it aside, jabs a
needle in his
arm, listens to the wireless, kills it
with a touch.
there is no real thing.
he rises, and the face of the mirror empties.’
The sparse language, and short lines are insisting: ‘these lines’ are not real either, this is not confession, it’s poetry’. Dobrez, however, comes up with this interpretation: ‘It is as if enveloping post modern technocratic society were conspiring to rob its members of the real, so that relief might come through artificial channels, the mass media, or books, or drugs,’ what Dobrez misses is that poetry itself could be for Dransfield yet another ‘artificial channel’. He didn’t write in the ‘confessional mode’ that was so popular at the time. (In 1967 Sidney Noland’s portrait of Robert Lowell adorned the cover of TIME magazine along with a story about ‘confessional poetry’.) It’s always misleading to look too closely at the poetry for clues about the life. Dransfield can be flexible and witty, he can swing from symbolist to dada in one line, or from lyric to parody in a poem. He can easily mix the whimsical realism of Jacques Prevert with the sarcastic rhetoric of Gregory Corso.
Based on a reading of the poetry this biography gives the impression that Dransfield was a heroin addict, and it’s true he used drugs, he certainly smoked dope and tried acid and pills but there’s no proof he was addicted to heroin. Dransfield was never charged with using or possession and yet when he died the newspapers reported his death was from an overdose of heroin, this was not correct, no substance which may have caused his death was identified in the autopsy. Dobrez reports that the coroner’s ultimate finding on the cause of death was ‘acute bronchopneumonia and brain damage.’ In a later entry in ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ Dobrez adds an even more curious note: ‘The coroner found that his death followed a self-administered injection of an unknown substance.’ This makes sense when one considers the fact that Dransfield couldn’t have afforded a serious heroin habit. He hardly worked other than on his poetry during the last two years. In Dransfield’s company of friends there was much experimentation with prescription drugs like Mandrax and tranquilizers, where the tablets were crushed and cooked in a spoon, filtered with cotton wool and then injected intravenously. The ‘mystique’ of the hypodermic and the vein was practiced in circles where there was no money available.
I believe there is as much fiction in Dransfield’s ‘drug poetry’ as there is in the ‘Courland Penders’ work, where Michael explored his imagined ‘aristocratic’ family and their inherited mansion, although I find the drug poems much more convincing. Dransfield loved pretense and outright fantasy and used both in his life and poetry. He invented a world for himself that he could retreat to when he wanted to live an imaginary life. Dobrez calls this particular ability of Michael’s ‘Imagineering’, and it’s woven through his existence. Imagineering, even though it sounds a bit clunky, is a good word, portraying the sense of Dransfield as he attempts to steer his future onward as a poet. His talent for self-promotion was as strong as his talent for writing, don’t be fooled by the hippy vagueness, underneath the theatrics there was a steely deliberation. Dransfield embroidered everything with his imagination, his correspondence, conversations and even his relationships. His existence wove in and out of reality, and many who weren’t poets found it difficult to tell what was real or imagined (in fact, there were many poets who also found Michael’s ‘imagineering’ hard to take.
When Michael turned up at 50 Church Street, Balmain, the house where we edited Poetry Magazine, he knocked on the door and introduced himself. He told me he had just finished a manuscript and knew I was looking for poems to publish. He said he could write several poems in a night and I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t long before I learned that he could indeed write several poems in a day, some would turn out to be keepers, however this ability to create spontaneous lyrics wasn’t as much a gift as a handicap. He needed tough and critical friends around him but I don’t think he was ready for them. He returned the next day with a manuscript and submitted it to the magazine. I read through it and thought there were a quite a few poems that were more than good enough to publish. My co-editors, Martin Johnston, Carl Harrison-Ford and Terry Sturm weren’t so easily impressed, but they eventually agreed to publish some of Michael’s tighter, less romantic poems. The first was:
memorise what you see
it may be gone tomorrow
everything changes. Someday
there will be nothing but what is remembered
there may be no-one to remember it.
wherever you stand is ground zero
a moving target is harder to hit
Looking through back issues of Poetry Magazine and New Poetry, I must say the editors’ decisions made a lot of sense, after 40 years Michael’s poems continue to read well. There are major poems like ‘Geography’ and ‘After Vietnam’ along with fine lyrics like ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Environmental Art’..
I read this biography by Pat Dobrez alongside Dransfield’s Collected Poems—I must say this book was more compelling to read now than it was when first published in 1999, especially in terms of reassessing Michael’s work—as one reads you are compelled to re-read the poetry. Dobrez conjures a simulacrum of Dransfield by determination and a dogged scholarship that opens out the poetry to be reassessed in its historic context. In Streets of The Long Voyage and The Inspector of Tides the poems seem more accomplished and innovative than I remember. There’s a lightness of touch, he made strokes with words like a painter, I kept thinking the most attractive feature of Dransfield’s work was its open lyricism. There’s an ease of movement that only comes with much consideration of form and practice. Dobrez quotes Felicity Plunkett who writes that Dransfield’s poetry makes a determined ‘appeal for the right to a fluid subjectivity’ and this quality adds to the apparent ease of his work. Along with the English Romantics and the European poets he loved, Michael had absorbed lessons from Don Allen’s New American Poetry. By 1971 much of his best poetry was written in an open field style he adopted from the Black Mountain school. He was interested in crossing the styles of the French Symbolists with the New American poetry. ‘Byron at Newstead’ is another of his poems we published in Poetry Magazine, in the final stanza he evokes lines from Mallarme’s letter to Henri Cazalis, May 14, 1867 : where Mallarme says that he had almost forgotten what the self was, that he needed to see himself in a mirror in order to think. Here’s the final three lines of Dransfield’s poem:
to be a poet
what it means
to lose the self to lose the self
Dobrez points out that Dransfield was ahead of his time in his decision to be a professional poet. What poet in this country before him tried to make a living from poetry alone? In his early years Les Murray, around the time of Dransfield’s first book, was employed at the National Library with translation work. Something Les said recently would have appealed a lot to Dransfield: ‘Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.’ Before Les Murray, Henry Kendall comes to mind, though in his case being a professional poet wasn’t a choice, Kendall found it difficult to hold down a job. The question is multi-layered. The acting out of the role of ‘poet’ is a complex business, it can be seen as a rebellious act, or as John Forbes once said, it can lead to a poet into a position of becoming a ‘socially integrated bard’. In the 1950s and 60s established poets hardly mentioned their employment, on the backs of their books they pared away the personal details, you’d be lucky to come across their hobby or sport.
These lines from Dransfield’s poem ‘Like this for years’ are often quoted by young poets as evidence of Michael’s courage, as a challenge and an example, especially the final couplet:
In the cold weather
the cold city the cold
heart of something as pitiless as apathy
to be a poet in Australia
is the ultimate commitment
This poem goes beyond the idea of poetry as a profession, it speaks of attitudes many Australians have towards a person who might call themselves a ‘poet’. It reminds me of similar concerns in these lines written by Hart Crane in his home town of Arkron in 1921:
‘The stars are drowned in a slow rain,
And a hash of noises is slung up from the street.
You ought, really, to try to sleep,
Even though, in this town, poetry’s a
Hart Crane’s lines are the reverse side of Michael’s bravado. It’s true that to call yourself a poet in Australia can sometimes be the ‘ultimate commitment’, firstly there’s no money in it and secondly, to call yourself a poet in some quarters would be to engender ridicule. When Hart Crane wrote these lines about his home town he was 22 years old, the same age as Dransfield when he wrote ‘Like this for years’.
Dransfield’s first volume was published in 1970, the second in 1972. I feel he should have waited another year before publishing a third book. He might have caught up with himself and not tripped into his next phase as the ‘drug-poet’. However, a few months after The Inspector of Tides in 1972, Sun Books, released a volume of Dransfield poems entitled Drug Poems. I remember thinking the title was a big mistake in terms of the feedback it would create for Michael. The publisher was determined to cash in on the times, as a book it was packaged to slant towards the sensational. There was a head-shot of Dransfield that bled to the edges of a poorly designed cover with lime green pop lettering. The overall production was cheap, as opposed to the economical design of the UQP paperbacks. Drug Poems, even with Geoffrey Dutton hyping it to the skies, was poorly reviewed or ignored at the time and only sold a few hundred copies. Don Anderson was the only critic who had something positive to say about it, ‘ They are hard, clear, disciplined, fully realized poetry, which add to his already considerable reputation.’ Dobrez comments on Don’s language ‘To have one’s poetry acclaimed as ‘fully realized’ was, of course, to receive the Leavisite imprimatur for mortal adequacy.’
Up until Drug Poems Dransfield had a charmed run with his editors and publisher. Tom Shapcott guided him through the process of publishing and editing the first book, reading several manuscripts, cutting poems then editing a shape for ‘Streets’. Rodney Hall, as literary editor of the Australian, published many of Dransfield’s finest lyrics on a regular basis and this helped gather Michael a following. Then came Shapcott’s important anthology, Australian Poetry Now, a book that contained a large selection of Michael’s poetry, where Shapcott referred to Dransfield in the Introduction as being’ terrifyingly close to genius’; creating a backlash of course, but nevertheless good publicity.
Michael offered both manuscripts, Drug Poems and Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal, to my publishing venture, Prism Books. I advised him to cut poems from both books and create one volume. I also suggested the poems could do with some tightening up and re-drafting. This didn’t please him at all, in fact he threw a tantrum and stopping talking to me for a month. Dobrez notes the disagreement between us at the time but doesn’t include the details. She does however quote Max Harris, he was not at all impressed with Dutton’s promotion of Dransfield as a ‘drug-poet’. Harris thought the
book’s presentation was corny and wrote in his newspaper column, ‘If Michael Dransfield achieves major statue from among the pack of younger poets, the stimulus to his writing and the recognition of his developing talent will have come from the restlessly enthusiastic squawking in the market place by the incurable Dutton’.
When Drug Poems was launched at the Adelaide Writer’s Week in 1970—the year Ginsberg was invited—junkies thought it was a joke and anyway didn’t have money to spend on a book. Ginsberg was friends with William S Burroughs who knew drugs and how to write about them. Readers of Burroughs could see through Dransfield’s work. Younger readers were more easily persuaded. Dransfield included the rigmarole of recreational shooting-up, along with details picked up on the street and described the rituals of heroin addiction. There were several powerful poems in the book and this is what upset the local literary set who didn’t know about heroin and its sleazy world.
I believe Michael Dransfield went astray when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet. Dobrez writes in her first chapter ‘So it is that, in the chapters which follow, we witness the ‘Imagineer’, with one eye turned towards waiting journalists and critics, surreptitiously manufacturing his own myths: the ‘poet who dared to be different’; the poet who was a traditionalist and a rebel, member of a fantastic patriciate and man of the people; the poet of the ‘drug world’ who lived ‘in the underground’; the passionate social critic; a sublimely deluded younger Francis Webb; someone ‘terrifyingly close to genius’.
Who’s to know what he really took and what effect it may, or may not have had, on his poetry? His poems can as easily be read as warnings against heroin as Alan Wearne has noted elsewhere. Dransfield became addicted to the role he played; it was different at the time, even before Brett Whiteley came out as an addict, it was linked in Michael’s mind to pop culture along with the images of the French Symbolist poets and painters. A dangerous game he thought he was merely flirting with. He was a born poet and was still gathering his energies and skills, his roles and the ‘imagineering’ were youthful impulses that went out of kilter. In the end it was his lyrical gift came through for him, profound and timeless, as in his poem Geography:
In the forest, in the unexplored
valleys of the sky, are chapels of pure
vision. there even the desolation of space cannot
sorrow you or imprison. i dream of the lucidity of the vacuum,
orders of saints consisting of parts of a rainbow,
identities of wild things / of
what the stars are saying to each other, up there
above the concrete and the minimal existences, above
idols and wars and caring. tomorrow
we shall go there, you and your music and the
wind and i, leaving from very strange
stations of the cross, leaving from
high windows and from release,
in the forest, the uncharted
uplands of the spirit
Robert Adamson is one of Australia’s leading poets. He is currently The CAL Chair in Poetry in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.