Standing up to the city slickers

C.K. Stead

  • Selected Poems by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 151 pp, £3.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 85635 667 0
  • The Daylight Moon by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 86 pp, £6.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 85635 779 0

Les Murray (b.1938) grew up on a dairy farm in northern New South Wales, an only child whose mother died of what seems to have been a medical misadventure when he was 12. The farmhouse was hardly more than a timber shell with an iron roof – there was no lining or ceiling, and conditions were primitive. He was a fat boy, and still quakes inwardly when he finds himself in a school-yard, remembering taunts of long ago. (One of his cleverest poems, ‘Quintets for Robert Morley’, is a tribute to the skills, social, psychological and physical, developed by the world’s heavyweights.)

At school, works by Australian writers disappeared from the curriculum once senior classes were reached and the study became ‘serious’. For a long time poetry left Murray unmoved, though he does remember reading all of Milton in a single long weekend. Somewhere late in his schooling a door opened. He mentions in one place help he received from a skilful teacher of English. In another he describes something like a moment of revelation ‘one evening in the mid-Fifties’ beside the Coolongolook, one of the rivers of his home territory, in which the certainty that he was to become a poet arrived.

In 1957 Murray arrived at Sydney University, whose motto Sidere mens eadem mutato he likes to translate ‘We’re gonna make this place as much like Oxford as we can.’ He dabbled, dressed in a Parisian beret and navy polo-neck sweater, played the poet, and left without completing his degree. He hitch-hiked around Australia, returned to Sydney with no money and no prospects, and for a brief time lived in a cave on the Bondi golf-links. At some time in the Sixties (I’m uncertain of the chronology), he made his first visit to Europe, completed his Sydney BA, and found work in Canberra as a translator. But his profession was that of poet. He consistently argued that society owes its artists a living, and since the Whitlam Government of the early Seventies behaved as if it thought so too, Murray has been able to sustain himself and a family on grants, writer-in-residences and royalties. As he puts it, ‘I finally Came Out as a flagrant full-time poet in 1971, and have not held a paying job since then.’

Central to a great deal of the literature of Australia and New Zealand is the question of identity. The Romantic inheritance is strong, but perhaps also confusing, because while it fortifies notions of local difference through a mystique of landscape it is, nonetheless, a derivation from the European source. Physically and psychologically, we are products of a particular soil and climate. Intellectually and socially, the lineage is more complex. Along with custom, law, language and history, more of ourselves is delivered from the parent culture than the post-colonial mind, impatient for definition, is commonly willing to admit. On the other hand, in one and a half or two centuries of settlement a great deal has been said, thought, written and enacted in the new place. And then there is the fact of growing up together in a society and physical setting remote from all others, so that in many ways (but not in every way) an Australian of British stock will have more in common with a Chinese Australian than with his London cousin. These problems of definition demand precision and subtlety at the same time that they promote extravagance and assertion.

Murray tends, I suppose, to extravagance and assertion. Where questions of identity arise he writes always confidently and consistently and his work is never without its Oz framework. His view is essentially that of the Jindyworobak movement of the Thirties and Forties, but perhaps expressed with more force and confidence, and with more poetic talent, than any of the Jindyworobaks could muster. Like them, he holds that the truest Australian consciousness is rural and agrarian: but because ‘culture has followed commerce,’ rural Australia has been neglected and relegated to Third World status. The cities, mimicking the larger world, tend to distort and conceal the real Australian identity.

Murray claims always to speak for rural Australia against the cities; for Pacific-centred rather than Eurocentric Australia; for the people against literary and academic élites; for the Celtic against the Anglo-Saxon tradition; and for republican against royalist Australia. It is a peculiar and peppery mix. In public argument Murray continually presents himself as the poor boy from the back-blocks standing up to the city slickers. He is frequently on the attack, often simplifying, and usually surprised and hurt when his opponent strikes back. He is also extremely effective at delivering insults, as when he wrote of one of his literary adversaries that he was ‘the only man I know who can be simultaneously at your feet and at your throat’.

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[*] ‘Eric Rolls and the Golden Disobedience’, Persistence in Folly, Sydney, 1984.

[†] The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces, Queensland, 1978