Gus Goswell Reviews Les Murray

11 February 2008

murray.gifSelected Poems by Les Murray
Black Inc., 2007

One of the most revered, most hated, most praised and most criticised figures in Australian literature, Les Murray is Australia's best-known living poet. He has been awarded the Mondello prize, T.S. Eliot Prize, Queen's Gold Medal for poetry and many other local and international titles. In 1999 he helped John Howard draft a preamble to the Australian Constitution. He has been officially designated a Living National Treasure and his name is often accompanied by the appellation 'Australia's national poet'.

But who is the real Les Murray? Warrior for the Christian deity and for the forces of Australian neo-liberalism? Poet-Seer of the Australian rural landscape? Faithful and empathetic chronicler of our changing nation? Reactionary critic and propagandist? Murray himself is clearly conscious of the mythic proportion of his reputations. He writes in his contributor note to the John Tranter edited Best Australian Poetry 2007 that: 'Les Murray was invented in the late 1960s as a bogeyman to frighten Aust. Lit. students. Being of only tenuous reality, he found it easy to ascend into space and study the patterns of human lighting on the planet below.'

Promoted by his current publisher Black Inc. as an ideal introduction to Murray's work, this latest Selected contains poems from all of Murray's published collections except for his two verse novels. As a reader who, although aware of Murray's many reputations and familiar with some of his more recent work, hasn't made a systematic study of his writing, this volume was my first opportunity to experience the breadth of his output and test the validity of the Murray myths.

Murray's reputation as a rural poet asserts itself from the opening pieces. 'Driving through Sawmill Town' and 'Driving to the Adelaide Festival 1976 via the Murray Valley Highway' and the ten pages consumed by 'The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle' are noteworthy early poems. While many of these poems are clearly the work of an outsider (as the driving motif suggests), in other poems Murray positions himself as an intimate within the landscapes and the lives of the characters he records. These poems are full of gum trees, barbeque smoke, billabongs 'pregnant with swirls' and other images of an Australia and its inhabitants that exist more as myth than reality for many Australians. Yet Murray is certainly a poet with the ability to throw a visual image onto the mind of his reader. In 'The Hypogeum', for example, he gives us 'a black lake glimmering among piers, electric lighted,/windless, of no depth' and the 'rare shafts of daylight' that 'waver at their base.'

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Murray has attempted to capture the particular rhythm of the Australian vernacular in these poems, although his conception of Australian-ness in speech, like many of aspects of his work, has been criticised over the years. A poem such as 'The New Hieroglyphics' gives further insight into Murray's fascination with our diction and its delivery. Australian animals are also a fascination of Murray's. Particularly noteworthy is the series of poems from his 1992 release Translations from the Natural World that are written from the point of view of the animal. 'The Cows on Killing Day', for example, is a disturbing account of slaughter from the perspective of another member of the species:

Me in the peed yard. A stick goes out from the human
and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear.
Me, that other me, down and dreaming in the bare yard.

Here Murray's ability to find a poem and a perspective in his observance of daily life is on display, as is his love of stories. Many of his poems are really verse tales of rural and city life. A recurring element within is the poet's family history, with voyages to Australia mapped out and a mother figure emerging as a key motif. Religion, and the poet's relationship with God, is another theme that spans decades of output. This Selected, like many of his other books, is dedicated 'To the glory of God'. In 'You Find You Can Leave It All' he piously asks, 'God, at the end of prose, /somehow be our poem'. The tone is altered, but no less earnest, in 'The Last Hellos':

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck them. I wish you God.

A short piece attacks 'Higamous hogamus/Western intellectuals' and makes observations regarding poetics, as well as politics. Murray's close association with the journal Quadrant seems to suggest something about his personal politics, but in this collection the poems tend to advocate a general distain for political dogma, although collective action is also lambasted in 'Demo'. While often insightful, there is a didactic element to many of these poems which limits their success as music, as pure image. In the best of Les Murray's poems, image and emotion are inseparable. In others, the image contorts within the screw-press of the poet's opinion while emotion hardens into conviction. In the weaker poems the voice is too literal and susceptible to verbiage. Yet in 'Poetry and Religion', an unwieldy piece that stretches too far beyond its potential, for example, there is evidence of Murray's skill; a persistent reader may discover the poem within the poem:

Nothing's said till it's dreamed out in words
and nothing's true that figures in words only.

Murray's experiments with form can be found across the collection, but most of the poems are written freely. While Murray's lines become tauter as the collection continues, and his line breaks become more aggressive and challenging, the basic themes and forms are explored over and over. You get the sense that Murray found a poetic voice early on, and while he has learnt much about modulating that voice, he has felt little need for a new tongue. But the voice that speaks within the later poems isn't necessarily any more confident than that of the earlier pieces. If anything, the poet reveals an increasing sense of vulnerability, often through seemingly personal poems recalling a childhood. In 'Burning Want' we read:

But all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale.
Mass refusal of unasked love; that works. Boys cheered as seventeen-
year-old girls came on to me, then ran back whinnying ridicule.

The pieces taken from his 2002 collection Poems the Size of Photographs provided welcome relief at a point in this Selected when the form and content of his longer work had become predictable, even wearying. In these shorter poems, I rediscovered Murray's sharpness, his ability to deftly render image into word. Here is a complete poem, 'Visitor':

He knocks at the door
and listens to his heart approaching.

The work that follows the Photographs poems is more anarchic. 'Panic Attack' immediately precedes 'Sunday on a Country River' and, strangely, Murray seems to simultaneously be at his most contemporary, and most traditional, in these later pieces. The final poem in the book is 'Industrial Relations', a perplexing poem that seems both to confirm and contradict antonymous interpretations of Murray's politics, poetics and philosophy.

Murray's Selected Poems is an opportunity to find the points where reputation and the written record intersect and, importantly, to hear the poet speak in his own language. Something of the breadth of Murray's work is on display here. The themes and forms that have contributed to his reputations are also on display, as are his strengths and weaknesses. The result is a book of almost three hundred pages that reveals much about our most recognisable living poet and the fascinatingly contested place he has hewn for himself within the poetic landscape of Australia.

Gus Goswell tutors in The University of Melbourne's Media & Communications program.

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