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Michael John Dransfield (1948–1973)

by Patricia Dobrez

This article was published:

Michael John Pender Dransfield (1948-1973), poet, was born on 12 September 1948 at Camperdown, Sydney, second child of native-born parents John Francis Dransfield, clerk, and his wife Elspeth Gladys, née Pender. Michael was educated at Brighton-le-Sands Public and Sydney Grammar schools. After 'dropping out' of the universities of New South Wales and Sydney, he worked intermittently on newspapers and as a government clerk.

For Dransfield, 1968 was a significant year, marked by an addiction to morphine, the severance of his relationship with Kathy Rees (to whom many of the early poems were dedicated) and the challenge of being balloted for national service. A protester against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, he was eventually excused from service, possibly for health reasons. While living at Casino he wrote of his preoccupations: love, pain, addiction and an inhospitable society; a major poetic symbol was the decaying country house, Courland Penders, into which he built his nostalgia for an older civilization. His work was accepted by Rodney Hall, poetry editor of the Australian.

Next year Dransfield grew his hair longer, joined Sydney's counter-culture and, until early 1972, lived with the Sydney artist Hilary Burns. He was of tall and slender build, with stooping shoulders. Hall discerned that 'there was a grace about him', and was struck by his charm, generosity and talent for friendship. At intervals, when either hitchhiking or riding his motorcycle, Dransfield established 'a circuit of friends from Melbourne to Brisbane'.

Celebrated by the editor Thomas Shapcott as being 'terrifyingly close to genius', Dransfield joined such members of the 'Generation of '68' as Robert Adamson, John Tranter and Nigel Roberts in a rebellion against older, conservative poets, like James McAuley and A. D. Hope. His work appeared in Meanjin Quarterly, Southerly, Poetry Australia, Poetry Magazine (New Poetry from 1971) and ephemeral magazines. University of Queensland Press was to publish all Dransfield's books: the first, Streets of the Long Voyage (1970), won a University of Newcastle award; it was followed in 1972 by The Inspector of Tides, and by Drug Poems which explored states of mind through drug consciousness and served his aim of social protest.

In the 'Nimbin spirit', Dransfield quitted the city and moved with Hilary to Cobargo where he began to circulate the manuscript of Memoirs of a Velvet Urinal (published posthumously, 1975). He suffered a motorcycle accident in April 1972. In October he received a $2500 grant from the Commonwealth Literary Fund to work on a book of prose. After many desperate months in and out of Canberra Community Hospital, trying to shed his addiction to heroin, he returned to Sydney. Dransfield died in a coma on 20 April 1973 in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. The coroner found that his death followed a self-administered injection of an unknown substance. During the last months of his life Dransfield had met (in Canberra hospital) a soul mate Paula Keogh and experienced a last rush of creative energy which resulted in The Second Month of Spring (1980). The manuscript was edited by Hall who also brought out selections of Dransfield's unpublished work, Voyage into Solitude (1978) and Michael Dransfield (1987).

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. Shapcott (ed), Australian Poetry Now (Melb, 1970)
  • P. K. Elkin (ed), Australian Poems in Perspective (Brisb, 1978)
  • R. Hall's introductions to M. Dransfield, Voyage into Solitude (Brisb, 1978), and The Second Month of Spring (Brisb, 1980), and Michael Dransfield: Collected Poems (Brisb, 1987)
  • L. Dobrez, Parnassus Mad World (Brisb, 1990)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Oct 1972, 10 May, 25 June 1973.

Citation details

Patricia Dobrez, 'Dransfield, Michael John (1948–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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