As an antidote to Modernist despair, Les Murray recommended a dose of late nineteenth century Australian verse…
Les Murray, David Naseby, 1995
The New American Poetry both captured and helped to create the spirit of the 1960s. In its first decade it sold a hundred thousand copies; in 1999—by which time half the young rebels it had announced were in the grave—it could be republished as a classic.
The new wave took some years to reach the Antipodes. When the anthology did wash ashore in Sydney, it was promptly impounded by a customs service charged with protecting the morals of a notably prim public (Joyce’s Ulysses could not be openly sold in Australia until 1953). Once it was released and absorbed, however, its effects were far-reaching. The Australian body poetic divided in two, enthusiasts for the New Americans clustering under the umbrella of the magazine New Poetry, while doubters migrated to Poetry Australia, edited (from 1973) by Les A. Murray, a poet with, by then, two books of verse to his name.
Though not unreceptive to American examples—his early poems owe a clear debt to Robert Frost—Murray was hostile to Modernism in most of its manifestations. Allen’s poets appear to have been given only the most cursory of readings. In Gary Snyder, for instance, Murray detected the “almost affectless equanimity of the uprooted modern person”—about as thorough a misreading of Snyder as is possible. But Murray was using Allen’s poets only as stand-ins for a larger and vaguer target: the Modernist sensibility, the Modernist worldview. Modernists, in his dismissive diagnosis, wrote out of a “pathological state [of] depression.” “Modernism’s not modern: its true name’s Despair.”
As an antidote to Modernist despair, Murray recommended a dose of Australian verse of the kind popular in the late nineteenth century. To back up his prescription he would go on to produce his own anthology, The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, in which convict ditties, drinking songs, and anonymous ballads were strongly represented, as well as Aboriginal songs in translation.
Murray’s wholesale rejection of Modernism may seem to mark him as simply an isolated provincial conservative swimming against the tide of the times. But there was more substance to his response than that. For a poet to repudiate newfangled foreign fashions and stand up instead for a home-grown tradition that celebrated the life of the mounted frontiersman (or his outlaw cousin the bushranger) was, in its Australian context, a clear political statement.
Watch The Daylight Moon, a documentary on Les Murray: