Patricia Dobrez: Michael Dransfield's Lives : A Sixties Biography
(Melbourne University Press,1999)
Dransfield, who wrote
200 poems each day,
was wiser than his editor
who printed them.
Laurie Duggan, Epigrams of Martial, VIII, XX
Well maybe not two hundred , but the arch-fabricator, Michael Dransfield, claimed to have written eleven poems in one morning during his stay in a psychiatric ward in Canberra in 1972. Michael Dransfield excelled, to quote Patricia Dobrez, in "extensive self-mythologising" - he was, to his less courteous contemporaries, a romantic bullshit-artist. A private schoolboy growing up in suburban Brighton-le-Sands, he invented a memorially grand family home called "Courland Penders" and imbued it with overblown nostalgia. When his book Drug Poems was published by Sun Books he bragged that it had sold 2,400 copies in the first six weeks - actually, it had sold only 31 copies in two months. But his admirers aided his self-embellishing - told by Geoffrey Dutton to expect a young Rimbaud (what pretention) the Melbourne artist Mirka Mora dutifully did-
When he entered my studio...For me it was like Rimbaud coming in, something special had come to my house. He looked like a tall, beautiful spider. Michael had something of an animal about him, a happy animal, as you find in the country.-
Dransfield, the heroic victim, exaggerated his injuries in bike accidents and decided that it was hospital pethidine that got him hooked on drugs. Patricia Dobrez faithfully, although somewhat patchily, chronicles his fantastic versions of himself.
I should have known Dransfield - contemporaneously I attended anti-Vietnam War rallies, wrote & published poetry, lived on the Surry Hills side of the same street, worked at Paddy's Markets on a similar stall and accompanied my heroin-addicted boyfriend to the same rehabilitation farm at Caloola. I probably met him but I lived in a different section of the "counter-culture". Dransfield was taken up by established figures like Geoffrey Dutton & Rodney Hall and was published by the new verse culture vying at the time to topple the old guard (and who unwittingly eventuated as the official verse culture). They had a poetry society with as normative a bureaucratic structure as a Rotary Club or a social committee - a president, treasurer, secretary and, crucially, a magazine. We had an offset printing press in the front room churning out workers' control & pro-abortion pamphlets and poetry broadsheets, a few silk screens for posters , Ubu group filmmakers, women's & gay liberation, the Yellow House and politics. Mostly everyone used some kind of drug. I had heard of Michael Dransfield more for his habit than his poetry. He seemed to me to be a purple-hazer.
Although Patricia Dobrez devotes a chapter to an analysis of what biography is and questions whether or not she's writing one I'd say that Michael Dransfield's Lives fails as a biography. It's very long (over 500 pages) and it's fairly witless in its lofty historiographical construction. Really, Dransfield was not a key figure in poetry for anything other than his untimely, tragic death at 24 in 1973. As John Forbes contended - he died too soon. Dead now for over 25 years - he missed out on some exciting isms. He missed feminism, he missed gay liberation and, given his (typical-of-the-times) problems with girlfriends and his sexual ambiguity he might have enjoyed those movements. He missed a Labor government, he missed the end of the war against Vietnam, he missed multiculturalism and the rise of environmental & aboriginal rights movements. He missed performance poetry, Sylvia & the Synthetics, the Film-makers Co-op, the Tin Sheds, the Poets Union, pub readings, Town Hall dances, Jura Books readings at La Pena, the Poets' Balls - events and organisations which could have provided a deepening and an accompanying sense of celebration for him as they've done for every poet who outlived him. Dransfield was a prolific, slightly gloomy but not always interesting poet made central to the early '70's by his loyal patrons (imitating Dransfield's own self-romanticising) -Tom Shapcott &, especially, Rodney Hall who published excessively (as Laurie Duggan's epigram suggests) everything posthumously. I disagree with Tom Shapcott's 1970 assessment of Dransfield as being "terrifyingly close to genius" - some of the poems quoted in the biography now seem very youthful and not as critically accomplished as the poetry of his peers in the same period - John Tranter, Rae Desmond Jones, Nigel Roberts, Robyn Ravlich, Laurie Duggan, Vicki Viidikas and Tim Thorne.
Subtitled a sixties biography, this book's really about the 1970's and, for me, is most interesting as a record of some of the alternative or underground little magazine publishing activities and for its documentation of the warring verse-culturatis around what became Robert Adamson's New Poetry magazine. The author's method is to use Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, Baudrillard, Barthes, Habermas, Lyotard and even Monsieur Derrida to reclaim or re/place Dransfield in post-modernity. It's a highfalutin pursuit and succeeds in enlarging a hole in Australian literary history. I wish some poetic historian would let Dransfield's short, sad life lie and get on with writing a comprehensive account of what were extremely dynamic times.
Endnote - the title "no freer than before" is from the last line of Michael Dransfield's poem "Bum's rush II"
This short review was published in Overland magazine in 2000
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