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’.

Authentic Australia, he insists again and again, is a ‘vernacular republic’. The appropriate literature for the New World must be written ‘against the grain of Literature’. It requires what Murray calls the Golden Disobedience – disobedience of the dominant literary sensibility: ‘I grew up near and often in the great forests of the New South Wales lower north coast ... my father had been a bullock driver and timber-getter in those forests before he married and started dairy-farming – and yet even I was almost seduced by the myth of the alien bush, as I began learning to write poetry. A received sensibility almost had me subscribing to its agenda, in spite of my awareness that the bush wasn’t alien to me at all, but a deeply loved vastness containing danger and heavy work, but also possessing a blessedly interminable quality which was and is almost my mind’s model of contemplation.’[*]

Contradictions abound. The writer who insists on an Australian consciousness and the severing of ties with the Mother Country is obsessed with his Scots ancestry and the Celtic literary inheritance. The country conservative, deeply distrustful of leftist causes and fashionable radicalism, addresses anti-monarchist meetings and designs an Australian flag which leaves out the Union Jack. The spokesman for ‘the people’ against intellectuals and high culture writes poems whose verbal density and range of reference are about as populist as champagne and caviare. The believer in the innate virtue of productive labour and the sweat of rural brows is unabashed in demanding, and receiving, a living from government hand-outs.

Perhaps the oddest element in it all is Murray’s Catholicism. He is a convert, received into the Church in 1964 (possibly through the influence of his wife), and what Catholicism means to him inwardly, spiritually, is never clearly revealed. In his prose it figures mostly as a large club with which to strike down modern urban intellectuals, conceived of always as rationalist and radical foetus-killers. The absolute authority of the Church is never questioned. No apparent – or anyway public – attempt is made to explain how it is, for example, that while Marxist radicalism is foreign to the mystique of the great Australian continent, and therefore an aspect of colonialism, Catholicism is not. Nor is it easy to see how he can write of a Scottish group who were praying over their crops to make them grow, and claiming to have encountered the spirits thus conjured: ‘That is pagan stuff, belonging to an old tradition whose gods and powers have long been superseded by a higher revelation. I am a Christian, and thus not obliged to be indiscriminate in religious matters’ – while at the same time according, as he does consistently, a sort of Jindyworobak priority and authority on Australian soil to ancient rituals and mysticisms of the Aborigines. But any challenge offered to his intellectual superstructure which includes references to his Catholicism will be dismissed simply as ‘anti-church’. Murray’s faith is not available for questioning.

The terms of Murray’s dialectic received their clearest definition in his essay ‘On sitting back and thinking about Porter’s Boeotia’,[†] an essay which takes off from Peter Porter’s poem ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Hesiod’, and which seems to have followed on from their interchange at the 1975 Poetry Australia ‘Write-In’. Athens and Boeotia are seen as ‘two models of civilisation between which Western man has vacillated; he has now drawn the rest of mankind into the quarrel, and resolving this tension may be the most urgent task facing the world in modern times.’ Athens is the ‘urbanising, fashion-conscious principle, removed from and usually insensitive to natural, cyclic views of the world’. It is ‘always scornful of rural, traditional-minded, predominantly smallholding Boeotia’. ‘The Boeotians, living to the north-west of Attica, were held to be rude, boorish and stupid, their country swampy and cheerless, their arts old-fashioned and tedious.’ Boeotia is ‘mistrustful of Athens’ vaunted democracy’ which is based on ‘the labour of a large slave population’. Poetry, having its roots in the soil, is the Boeotian art, drama the Athenian. The English repression of Gaelic languages and literature was an Athenian repression. As for Australia, its home-grown would-be Athenians (Sidere mens eadem mutato) are going against the grain of the place: ‘our culture is still in its Boeotian phase, and any distinctness we possess is still firmly anchored in the bush.’ The only good Australian Athenian, then, is not a dead one but Peter Porter, who has had the good sense to live as an expatriate and to admire Boeotian Murray from afar.

To some of this Porter has replied in passing in a recent article in the Melbourne journal, Scripsi: ‘I rest my case on the conviction which will probably be unpopular with more Australians than just Les Murray – that we are unflinchingly European people, and still owe more to those far-off shores than we do either to the landscape or the original inhabitants of the continent.’

Murray’s mind, always powerful and inventive, gains some of its strength from being untroubled by fine shades and subtleties. Pondering on what it is that makes the difference between him and Allen Curnow, two poets remarkable for the multiple pressures they impose on the language of their poems, it occurred to me that Murray’s skill is that of a natural linguist: Curnow’s is that of a genuinegly philosophical mind. If Curnow forces language to bear burdens, it is because he is trying to make it measure up to a sense of how elusive and difficult ‘reality’ can be. Murray, on the other hand, demands a great deal of language because he wants it to be worthy of, and to celebrate, a vision of reality which is fundamentally bold and simple.

In more narrowly literary terms, Murray’s position has been anti-Modernist. His 1974 review of the Pisan Cantos no doubt owes a lot to Noel Stock, but I think it is better than Noel Stock could have written, and it is one of the most succinct and comprehensive anti-Pound statements I have read. I don’t think I would want to disagree with a word of it. Everything it says against Pound is true. It only leaves out, and suggests a blindness to, the things which Pound did not only well, but better than anyone else had ever done before. ‘He was crushed by the weight of what he embraced. His verse, increasingly with the years, has a sort of interminable cunning obliquity common to the socially insecure and the mad, in so far as both desperately want to be heard but are terrified of giving themselves away. Everything is allusion and significant winking, every impending lucidity in the Cantos is hurriedly deflected by magpie philology, in case any of the sophisticated readership which the writer courts and fears should ever impute a barbarian simple-mindedness to the clever boy from Philadelphia.’

For Murray the great fault of what he calls Franco-American Modernism is that it was the creation of two men, Eliot and Pound, who were in flight from New World egalitarianism, which they believed could not be reconciled with their ideal of high culture. Because they were involved in burying their own origins and inventing for themselves a tradition which was not in fact the one they had inherited, they turned modern poetry into something secretive, occult, specialist – alien to people outside the literary-academic circle. It soon became the preserve of the universities, which were entrusted with, or anyway claimed possession of, the keys that would unlock its mysteries. This in turn meant that young people were not exposed directly to the shock of new poetry, but received it through the normalising and selective filter of the teaching process. There are a dozen things, and perhaps a dozen more, to be said against all this: but like most things Murray argues, it contains a hard core of truth, and one which is usually overlooked or ignored.

In his anti-Modernism he shares some ground with his compatriots James McAuley and A.D. Hope: but his advantage over them (apart from sheer talent) is in his practice as a poet. He was never disposed, as they were, to re-enact old laws about rhyme and regular metrics, nor to insist that 20th-century experimentation with form had been charlatanism and non-poetry. Like any serious poet writing today, Murray inherits and profits by what has been done in a variety of schools and by a number of very different masters. He describes his own procedure as ‘trying to make not so much “high” as rich and flexible art out of traditional and vernacular materials.’ He is also, no doubt, describing his own style when he writes that ‘the central and best tendency of Australian poetry’ has been ‘an enlightened, inclusive, civil mode of writing which belongs ultimately to the middle style, but allows itself to dip up and down at need’.

Murray has a marvellous gift of phrase which is sometimes purely descriptive and celebratory, but often pushes also towards an abstract idea. More than any other poetry I can think of, except perhaps the early work of Judith Wright, his has caught the distinctive feel of the Australian experience without rendering it in a way which makes it seem underdog, outback, offbeat, downcast, outlaw – proper stuff only for ballads and popular yams. He has managed this because his roots are in his own country experience; and there is no doubt about the genuineness of his sense that his gift is dependent on loyalty to that experience. But his loyalty, however little he may emphasise it, is also to the language and to the best traditions of poetry in English. He says the poet must ‘speak to the tribe’, but speaking for it might be more accurate. What Auden said of his and Louis MacNeice’s readers must be true also of Murray’s: ‘our handful/ of clients at least can rune.’ If you can’t ‘rune’, a lot of Murray will pass you by. But if you can, there is something reassuring about even his denser, more opaque passages. As with Lowell, there is an authority in the writing that is felt immediately and is more important than simple intelligibility.

Walking on that early shore, in our bodies,
the autumn ocean has become wasp-waisted:
a scraped timber mansion hung in showering
ropework is crabbing on the tide’s flood,
swarming, sway, and shouting,
entering the rivermouth over the speedy bar.

His talent is first for observation, then for making the best use of it without explanatory clutter. I suppose you have to have looked hard at cows, for example, to receive the full shock of recognising how hard Murray has looked:

A sherry – eyed Jersey looks at me. Fragments of thoughts
That will not ripple together worry her head
It is sophistication trying to happen.

Or this of a horse and rider:

We talk with him about rivers and lakes; his
         polished horse is stepping nervously,
printing neat omegas in the gravel, flexing its
                        skin to shake off flies;
his big sidestepping horse that has kept its stones.

Or this, less economical, but marvellous in its way, of fast-flowing mountain water:

a harelip round a pebble, mouthless cheeks
                    globed over a boulder, a
finger’s far-stretched holograph, skinned flow athwart a snag
– these flexures are all reflections, motion-glyphs,
                            pitches of impediment
say a log commemorated in a log-long hump of wave,
a buried rock continually noted, a squeeze-play
through a cracked basalt bar, maintaining a foam-
                               roofed, two-sided
overhang of breakneck riesling.

Or this, where the birds’ unusual swooping flight, both exactly observed and mimicked by the run of the lines, is used as an image of something quite other and abstract:

There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry
or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon,
rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Then there is this, catching as perfectly as a slow-motion camera the action of a flock of ibis landing: ‘Leaning out of their wings, they step down.’ Or an image of winter in the country, when ‘the white faced heron hides in the drain with her spear.’

In these examples the gift of phrase is tied down to particulars: but it can also expand to embrace something so large the particulars must be random and yet exactly right, as in the poem ‘Jozef’, about Murray’s wife’s grandfather who came in old age as an immigrant from Hungary:

but this field’s outlandish: Australia!
To end in this burnt-smelling, blue-hearted
metropolis of sore feet and trains.

Murray has (like the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads) a real gift for narrative. In the midst of his richly ambiguous sequence of seven poems about the Police (one only, ‘The Breach’, included in the Carcanet Selected) ‘Sergeant Forby lectures the cadets’ is a murder mystery brilliantly adumbrated and laconically solved in 37 lines. And he has written a verse novel. The boys who stole the funeral, in 140 Lowellian, or open, sonnets.

Murray’s poems are full of sly humour, concentrating at times into sharp wit: ‘In the midst of life we are in employment.’ Or this of his time at Sydney University: ‘a major in English made one a minor Englishman.’ He is clever, too, at distancing himself wryly from modern technology, as in his line about computers failing to take over the work of translators because they insisted on reading ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as ‘invisible lunatic’; or his description of ‘a new car streaming cricket scores’ as ‘a sit-in radio’.

On the other hand, I would say that Murray’s ear is not always dependable, and that he is not gifted in the use of fixed regular forms. It might be more exact to say that he has a brilliant linguist’s ear, not a musician’s. For that reason, when invention flags he is inclined to let aggregation do the work of form. There is a good example of this in a recent poem, ‘The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever’. The title, and the opening nine lines, seem to catch exactly a mixture of faint comedy and romantic release that the idea of shorts signals in Australasia:

To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in the warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,

to camp out along the river bends
for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,
a fishing line and matches,

or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,
to sit around in shorts at evening
on the plank verandah ...

At that point what seems to me the ‘poetry’ runs out. The remaining seventy-odd lines are a catalogue of varieties of human dress for the lower part of the body, or for coolness – entertaining, I suppose, clever, but disappointing because lacking that peculiar lift with which the poem opens.

Murray’s other weakness is that he sometimes gets caught up in detail which, however good in itself, can clog the movement of the poem. That’s why his free-running sequence ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ seems to me in many ways his finest achievement, and one of the great poems of Australia. It is less packed verbally than many of his poems – but that is partly illusion. It is a poem which is full of its subject: the great holiday migration which he treats as Australia rediscovering its identity, re-filling its spiritual tanks. But that sense of a poem crammed with what lies outside poetry, rather than with the action of language, is only achieved through language. What the language of this poem has in fact is a maximum of unambiguous reference, or signification, combined with an ex-hilarating grammatical momentum. The way the long lines are sustained throughout is the measure of a kind of psychic energy. It is like Whitman without the ego. And its pace, together with its range of reference, is what distinguishes it from Ronald Berndt’s translation of the ‘Moon Bone Song-Cycle’ of the Wonguri-Mandjigai people which superficially it imitates, but which, wonderful in its own way, is static by comparison, and dependent on repetitions.

Murray’s new book, The Daylight Moon, published in Australia last year and now, from Carcanet, selected as the Poetry Book Society’s spring choice, is a collection partly celebrating his return from many years living in Sydney to live again in the region where he grew up. (Approximately the first third of this collection forms the last 32 pages of the Carcanet Selected.) The whole range of Murray’s qualities is richly on display, even to the book’s brave dedication, ‘To the glory of God’. I once thought of dedicating one of my books to my favourite Hollywood star, without her permission. I never thought of God – but I’m sure He will be pleased with most of what He’s offered here. Three of the shorter poems (and probably some of the longer ones as well) would go into my anthology of Murray at his very best. ‘Louvres’ is a marvellous, witty, tropical-Oz poem, as if the mind of John Donne had been reborn and Entirely re-processed by the experience of growing up in some place like Brisbane. ‘The Edgeless’ is something of a puzzle poem, to which the solution may be – I’m not sure – a word that occurs nowhere in the text. ‘Tropical Window’ is one of those pieces of writing where literal seeing becomes meta-phorical – ‘I see’ meaning ‘I understand ’ – and the two are inseparable. In poems like these Murray achieves density without those accretions that can clog the movement of his lines. It is wonderfully disciplined writing, offering what poetry and nothing else can offer, an art that arrests one’s otherwise for ever frustrated sense of the richness of the life that lives only in the moment.

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

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