Now for the Hills

Stephanie Burt

  • Collected Poems by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 476 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 1 85754 369 6
  • Fredy Neptune by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 256 pp, £19.95, May 1999, ISBN 1 85754 433 1
  • Conscious and Verbal by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 89 pp, £6.95, October 1999, ISBN 1 85754 453 6

Prodigious and frustrating, welcoming and cantankerous, Les Murray’s body of work has made him both Australia’s best-known poet and its most powerful. Full of Australian history, places and things, his poetry also displays the more abstract qualities Murray likes to think of as Australian. Chief among these is ‘sprawl’, defined as ease, cheerful excess, unbuttonedness and unsnobbish self-confidence: ‘Sprawl is really classless ... Sprawl is loose-limbed in its mind.’ Murray’s verse really does sprawl, and there’s a lot of it: some is blustery, sloppy or hard to listen to. His work flaunts its roughness, its male friendliness, its ‘defiance of taste’, its provincial or Boeotian identifications, its ethical doctrines and its Catholic ideals. His attitudes can be difficult to take, but his accomplishments are difficult to ignore. Among them are spectacular feats of description; character-studies with real moral force; sharp storytelling; and, now, the best very long poem in English for some time.

Born in 1938, Murray grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Bunyah, New South Wales: by his own telling, he seems to have been an isolated child, and then an exceptionally unhappy adolescent: ‘all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.’ Murray went to university in Sydney, married in 1962, entered the Roman Catholic Church the following year, and published his first book of poems (a split volume with Geoff Lehmann) in 1965. In 1975 Murray bought the farm in Bunyah, succeeding where his father had failed; he, his wife and their children made it their full-time home in 1986. Murray’s involvement with farm life has made him a master of poetry about it; his youthful exclusion (‘I was never a teenager’) has fuelled his anger against in-crowds, élites and urban centres. ‘I hate people being left out,’ he is quoted as having said. ‘Of course, that I suppose has been the main drama of my life – coming from the left-out people into the accepted people and being worried about the relegated who are still relegated. I don’t want there to be any pockets of relegation left.’

Murray’s often defensive rhetoric champions the unsexy and the inarticulate; and unlike most poets who claim to do this, he has developed a real (and articulate) style for this purpose. ‘Ill Music’, one of Murray’s most memorable early poems, begins with slashing, deliberate unsubtlety:

My cousin loved the violin
and played it gracefully in tune
except when, touching certain chords,
he fell down, shrieked and bit at boards
till blood and froth stood on his chin.

The froth stands when the cousin falls, and even the laws of gravity seem upset. ‘Jim said little when his kin/found a place to place him in’.: the original shock of witnessing the seizures compounds Murray’s horror at a family which could simply institutionalise Jim, which fell down where it should have stood up for him. Solidarity with people like Jim requires that Murray’s poems, too, make ‘ill music’: they should not sound well-made nor pretend all is well.

Murray extends his solidarity to those whose disadvantages are not only social or physical but cognitive. The volume Dog Fox Field (1990) took its title from a Nazi test for mental function; the title poem is an angry elegy for the ‘feebleminded’:

These were no leaders but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:

Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,

Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.

Insisting that the dignity of persons is not based on intellect or achievement, Murray can be astonishingly good at expressing bodily feelings – physical disgust, or hunger, or jocular satiety: ‘Pie spiced like islands, dissolving in cream, is now/dissolving in us. We’ve reached the teapot of calm.’ His ‘quality of sprawl’ extends from the political to the simply sensual: against other people’s exclusive hierarchies, Murray’s verse stretches out to let everything in.

Such attitudes have broad formal consequences; one is a distrust of artfulness. His bad poems mostly seem ungainly and formless; the good ones tend to justify their forms by analogy with people’s deeds, with artisanal work, or with shapes and events in the non-human world. He especially enjoys mimesis of action – lines emulate ‘motoring down the main roads’, riding a horse, wielding a hammer, lying in bed. He relishes onomatopoeia:

The channel-billed cuckoo
shouts, flying, and the drug-squad helicopter
comes singing I’ll spot it, your pot plot.

Murray avoids a consistent level of diction as he avoids regular iambics, riding with tractor treads over the contours of individual words. His jaunty or angry rhymed poems can recall Kipling’s: an accordion ‘can conjure Paris up, or home, unclench a chinstrap jaw/but it never sang for a nob’s baton, or lured the boys to war.’

Though Murray believes in principle that people have souls and that poems describe them, in practice his work consistently makes clear its roots and references in the material and social world: he remains deeply uncomfortable with lyric’s tendencies towards abstraction, its drive to represent not men and women in particular places but, as Rilke has it, a ‘soul in space’. All Murray’s characteristic effects suit the non-lyric genres in which he excels: narrative, travelogue, topical ballad, verse-letter, scenic description, moralised anecdote and georgic. In one early sequence ‘The Georgic furrow lengthens’; a few books later ‘Laconics’ contemplates the purchase of a farm: ‘Where we burn the heaps/we’ll plant kikuyu grass.//Ecology? Sure./But also husbandry.’ ‘Unsecured farm doors, open/verandahs, separate houses’, some comfortable trimeters from Conscious and Verbal conclude, are Murray’s ‘emblems of a good society’. His attachment to rural life means that his work on this subject shows him at his most moving. The wrenching ‘Cowyard Gates’ seems to describe the house from which his cousin evicted his father. That cousin

     didn’t want an untidy widower ageing on his new farm.
I’ll want the timber for cowyard gates, he said.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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