Michael Dransfield- Australian Poet

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 was 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 struck 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
seen
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freedom is obsolete and honour a heresy.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.

Dransfield left over 1000 complete poems when he died of organ failure at the age of 24, but many of them were derivative examples of the same theme or verse, however he was a prolific poet. His short life was a exercise in poetic imagination, with the vision of Cortland Penders being a prime example.

Courland Penders was his imaginary ancestral home somewhere in rural Australia. The ghostly house and its grounds recall the glory of the past, but they are also Dransfield’s way of placing himself in space and time, then and now. In gradual overlays, ghosts from Michael Dransfield’s childhood Sydney appear amid trees, sandy grasslands, dusty corners, curtains and windows, while a heavy door opens to a parallel reality.”’ (Courland Penders : Coming Home Ronald Corlette-Theuil , 2014)

He also dreamed of buying an island in Moreton Bay in Queensland, where he and his girlfriend Hilary would live in the winter and plant avocados which they could later sell. He was given an old printing press, and they wanted to bring books out under the imprint of Mangrove Press. None of this came to any material frutition. 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.

But Dransfield could also inhabit the social, human and real. On Tuesday 30 August 1966, Peter 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. Poetry was Dransfield’s absolute calling. He thought of nothing else, but also made it into a human and social cause. It could change the world for anyone.

Michael Dransfield channelled 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’.

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. In this sense he was a Post-Romantic, who accepted that the ‘Golden Age’ is gone. For Dransfield we can but cast shadow in our own failing society, with chemicals and the seer’s burden being the most accessable and successful means to regain the light of Parnassus.

Finally one of my old favorites:

Residence in Transit

we’re
splitting
our lives packed
in boxes

on the back of
trucks

leave a stilton blue
some bread and wine

on the table
they were good to us

the household
gods

leave coal in the grate
pipes of hashish

in the bedroom
and a sitar

to make some
vagrant minstrel

dream

— Michael Dransfield

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James Barrett

James Barrett

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Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.