Michael Dransfield’s Innocent Eyes

24 July 2007

When you think of ways to interrogate innocence, you will sooner or later come to a moral dichotomy. It can be unpackaged as either good or bad. It can oppose guilt, and by implication your innocence allows that you have done only what is good, what is moral. Or it can mean you lack experience, and are 'innocent of the ways of the world'. Both definitions work biblically and allow for the complexity of religion. But Dransfield's innocence falls into a third category. It is a constructed way of seeing.

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.

You might dip into Michael Dransfield's poetry and find the weather intemperate. But occasionally it's okay: he's sitting inside with a goblet of wine, a Chopin record playing. It's dry and the rain beats gently on a window. You sit down with him, and listen to him talk for a while about life, art, himself- it doesn't matter what's going on outside. In the poetry you can get to know Dransfield. You can't help but do this.

First you find out he likes the rain and the wind, but later you see he also likes to write in this weather. He is a writer that likes to see himself writing, to see himself experiencing from within and without. He is more rain than speaker in 'Portrait of the artist as an old man':

My study is the largest room upstairs;
There, on wet days, I write
Archaic poems at a cedar table

His Courland Penders construction is wistful fantasy, and yes, these aristocratic portraits can regress into self-indulgence; yet maybe after visiting both Dransfield's modern and imaginary estates, you feel something familiar. It gives you pause to think.

You think of days when you too felt a numbing comfort. Maybe you lay on a beige carpet once with your feet on a heater, reading a never-ending book where animals went on adventures and possessed human personalities. It was cold and drizzling outside, but inside you were cosy. Perhaps you ate buttered toast too. The feeling is not quite nostalgia, but it's close.

Such sensory consolation can only happen in that space where time stretches, in childhood. The comforting glow wasn't present then though – it only occurs with this act of recreation. Living within memory brings a return to innocence. It comes with inhabiting the space. Sometimes you do wish you could go back to the point of origin, yet you know that wouldn't be as good. You want to see things with your attuned eyes, but you also want to undo those learnt structures of wit, world-weariness, and adulthood. The same things you are still so focused on attaining.

Dransfield, at times, seemed able to negotiate this paradox within his poetry. It is part of the allure of his work: the unravelling of cultured refinement brings a unique clarity; but more importantly, the pleasure of living is shepherded into a non-temporal position. For him and his reader, fleeting moments can stretch into sensuous complexities. Like 'Pissing rainbows':

i make a little
russet rainbow

there'll be no pot
of gold at the end

between the urinal
and velvet

Pissing itself isn't that profound, and so you might read metaphor into this poem, or simply take an image from it, or both. The point is that this poem exemplifies what Dransfield proves capable of again and again in his works: he lingers or dallies within fleeting moments and ideas: his simple and at times plainly literal language can create vivid incidents, facts that expand beyond any possible axis of 'occurrence'.

Okay so it's raining and gloomy a lot, but too much can be made of Dransfield's 'gloom' (it can, and has been: some readings stress Dransfield's mental instability, his descent into drug-use). But darkness can be romantic, invigorating. And the rain-clouds didn't follow him around all the time. You can hide away and create your own world within literature, if you want. It is just that easy.

Of course then an argument will be thrust Dransfield's way: what if things really are bad, and not just in your own head? What if people are being sent against their will to another country to die? Can you continue to create from that innocent position of time without direction? Is being apolitical a real alternative? What are you hiding for, huh?

You can't answer these attacks on Dransfield's poetic focus with logic. He could have meant it when in 'Differencias' he wrote 'reality is superfluous', and the overtly ironic tone of the line might be not so ironic; or (as is more likely) he simultaneously chose to occupy two positions: fantasist and diarist. Yet he wasn't bound by a style of documentation, and furthermore, reality can be just as superfluous to the people and artists of any time.

The 60s for example are characterised by free-love, but also war; drug-use increases alongside the expansion of suburbia and the 'modern family'; music arguably attains a creative and poetic high, but then also becomes subject to marketing, 'packaging'. One response would be to see any generational construct or lens as a little superfluous. All times are muddled and complex but Dransfield tried, more than most, to see it all.

For him reality is the original stuff with which we refashion an existence, via poetry. You cannot ignore it. You must look at it openly, innocently even, and then write. It doesn't matter that eyes can see only so far.

A dark moon hangs badly
Among artificial stars. These zircons of the firmament
break one by one, and fall into the sea –
nothing remains of them but holes in the air.

Some of the isolated elements in 'Poets' picnic' – artificial stars, holes in the air, and even a dark moon – are real poetic facts despite a surreal or artificial lexical status. The images are linked to other meanings, perhaps even other contexts, but they only become facts when Dransfield makes them so. It is important that the poet know what is worth suspending indefinitely. Dransfield sees what he likes, in the way he likes, and then knits his field of vision into an a-temporal firmament.


But did Dransfield, as Dobrez writes in her biography, always live '-simultaneously in several mental spaces'? You might say his writing displays a child-like lack of coherence at times, and rather than place him as a precursor of some post-modern movement, you might think him simply scatterbrained, a strange bird. The poetry where he does tackle political issues can seem light, but then sometimes deep: 'Outback' takes the light road; 'Letter to people about pelicans' recognises the poet's own lightness, and gains from it.

Of course Dransfield died young and while he is canonised (and regularly anthologised) the common refrain is 'A talent yes, but what could he have done, had he only lived?' Karalis in a recent article summarises it this way: 'He died young and therefore his work exudes somehow the feeling of unfulfilled promise.' This 'unfulfilled' notion is interesting because it suggests Dransfield might have honed his art with further experience. Perhaps he would have resolved his scattered self and found a suitable momentum.

It is clear that Dransfield's unaffected vision (part self-constructed; part unavoidably manufactured) underpins the whole of his relativistic, and somehow coherently lyrical, body of work; at some point the accepted facts and opinions about his life need to be removed from the equation. No sense can be made of the absences – what he didn't see. We know he did see the road and the birds and the trees: sometimes he saw things as if he had a thousand years up his sleeve, simply to dwell in images and impressions:

In the hedges live tiny birds
who sing in bright colours you would not hear
in your fast vehicles. They sing for minstrels
and the sheep. The wires sing too, with the wind;
also the leaves, it is not lonely.

Dransfield did live through times of political unrest and protest, but one approach to a problematic society is to live in an alternate manner, to 'tune out', to ignore much of the noise or distortion. And Dransfield lived his most successful moments through poetry. As Livio Dobrez says in Parnassus Mad Ward, he 'practiced poetry as a form of living, carrying to its' limits an aesthetic'.

Can lyrical poetry be that tied to life, to experience? On the one hand, Dransfield sheltered himself, and lived inside with books while it rained. On the other hand, he strode through the country, writing of what he found, but for the most part leaving the political landscape unacknowledged. Both styles of living and working are compatible if thought of as expressing an innocent approach. You could think such a combination is na??òve, but it pays to give Dransfield more credit than this. You should hazard or even suspect that his extant body of work would not have been rendered juvenilia, even had he perhaps 'lived'.

In John Tranter's 'Breathless' (a poet who did 'live') one of his characters retorts:

Undergoing all experiences, indeed!
What of the experience of ingesting
wet cement, pray tell? What of leprosy?

The poem highlights what is not lived, and how it too can become the stuff of narrative, of poetry. Tranter's poetry often does foreground the 'not real', and thereby make it real as poetry. Dransfield if anything perhaps foregrounds the real until it blurs. This means images at times seem strangely artificial, yet then become more real as poetry. He had this fanciful hunger for experience but it was because he was itching (you can feel this nervous itch in his work) to almost instantly turn experiences into poetry.

Of course a hunger for vision can be destructive. Dobrez feels Dransfield turned to drugs because he found he could fit in a lot more, at least in the beginning. He could work 9 to 5, and then get straight into an altered state on the weekend. Dransfield might simply have liked drugs – he might have liked getting wasted. Either way it doesn't matter. Dransfield packed a lot into his short life, living a beat life in all its semantic variance: the road, the rhythm, the utter exhaustion.

Wallace-Crabbe writes that 'Poets are linguistically aware, intensely aware, of the pathos of our situation as sentient beings, swimming in time.' There is importance in what a writer can do, locating moments of signification that swim against the illusional direction of time. Accordingly, one might be overwhelmed by what can be done and the associated pathos, or challenged. If you build on Dobrez' idea of Dransfield as a schizophrenic constructer of selves, Dransfield was maybe both challenged and overwhelmed.

That's okay because directions can be confusing, like in 'Daylight rain', where you find a poet

walking round
in the spacious
museum of his memory
Waiting at the bus terminal to
go forward.
Time isn't forward, it
won't take you anywhere, you have to
get a map and search.

In the same essay Wallace-Crabbe quotes Buckley, who argues some poets use 'their imagistic power to suggest that the world may be au fond innocent; hence the ambience or radiance of innocence that tends to surround their images.' And then 'the implicit suggestion is that if the world of innocence can be created in poetry, it may come to reveal something that corresponds with it in the 'real' world-' There is usefulness in this, but Dransfield's work destabilises any implicit suggestion of an 'innocent' external reality. His preoccupation with time, and his efforts to rise above it, were not in order to reveal something about experience – something that in the end justifies the continued delight of poetry. It was, and continues to be, all about the radiance. All about the moment that stretches and destroys all other concerns. The drugged sunny afternoon of a poem.

Perhaps the day after reading Drug Poems, or the Collected Works, you are sitting in your car, waiting for someone. Across the road from where you are parked is a soccer field, and hundreds of kids are at practice. Every one of those kids – with not much more evidence needed than the fact they can walk, kick a ball – believes they will be a star and play in a future world-cup. You know this is not possible. You know it's more than likely not a single one of them will ever have a career in soccer. And you know too, they will learn this soon enough.

They will all, in time, modify the way they think and learn and see themselves. They might experiment in similar ways with sex, drugs, music, poetry. Because with further experience vision changes. It's not to say all is lost: there is an innocence of vision the soccer kids have right now, and it's similar to the thinking Dransfield tried to process in his work. You should see it not as a simplistic open-eyed wonder at the world; nor some form of extreme naturalism. Dransfield of course had failings, some poetic, some more fitting a biography. His major success (and ultimate failure) was to attempt to master an aesthetic of cultured innocence.


Dobrez, L. (1990). Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Dobrez, P. (1999). Michael Dransfield's Lives: A Sixties Biography. Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.

Dransfield, M. (1987). Collected Poems, edited by Hall, R. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Karalis, V. (2006). 'The City as the Topos and the Habitus of Modernity in the Poetry of Michael Dransfield', in Literature and Aesthetics, 15 (2), 217-226.

Tranter, J. (2006). Urban Myths. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Wallace-Crabbe, C. (2005). 'Poetry, Prophecy and Vestiges', in Read it Again. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Salt Publishing.

Image: Louise Molloy, Worlds.

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