"Prose isn't here to stay": The Poetry of Les Murray


by Justin E. H. Smith

Around the same time English-language philosophers were debating whether or not you can know what it is like to be a bat (generally deciding that you can not), the Australian poet Les Murray was busy directly transcribing the thought-world of an imagined representative of this order. Here are the final six lines from his 1986 poem, “Bat’s Ultrasound”:

ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array
err, yaw, row wry—aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Murray channels the inner language of other species as well. For instance, pigs, in his 1992 poem, “Pigs”:

Us shoved down the soft cement of rivers.
Us snored the earth hollow, filled farrow, grunted.
Never stopped growing. We sloughed, we soughed
and balked no weird till the high ridgebacks was us
with weight-buried hooves.  Or bristly, with milk.

While the individual pig refers to the collectivity as ‘us’, Murray imagines that cattle conceptualize that same first-person plural as ‘me’. This from “The Cows on Killing Day” of 1998:

The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals.
Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed.

The individual ‘me’ (to the extent that these can be individuated), the cow that narrates the poem, ends up slaughtered by a blade, and now sees the blood, or perhaps the guts, running out of her as ‘me’ too:

Looking back, the glistening leaf is still moving.
All of dry old me is crumpled, like the hills of feed,
and a slick me like a huge calf is coming out of me.

So, it turns out you can know what it is like to be a bat, or a pig, or a cow. As far as I am concerned, Murray proves as much: he offers a verisimilar report on the inner world of these animals. He does so ‘shamanistically’, to deploy one of his own key concepts. He moves himself poetically into a position of certainty, a position that overcomes the skeptical limitations of philosophers, which are, one now sees, the same limitations that constrain the philosophers to write in prose.

Murray is often criticized, particularly by fellow Australians, for his presumption of authority, for his self-assured declamations about how the world really is. But this is to fail to engage with the poet on his own terms. Murray’s certainty is not like the ‘intuition’ of armchair philosophy, which purports to be getting the world right in view of a unique capacity possessed by human beings, called ‘reason’, a capacity that all too often with distance or retrospection can easily turn out to be a mere cataloguing of prejudices. Murray’s reports are rather, by his own description, a result of the proper combination of three varieties of mental activity: daytime consciousness, dreamtime consciousness, and ‘the body’. Any writing that does not pay proper respect to all three of these is mendacious. It is the last of them, in particular, that gives the poet access to certainty about how the world, or nature, is, since this certainty is really only something that he shares with everything else in nature, but from which language has the power to cut us off. In an astoundingly simple, direct, self-assured, and utterly true poem of 2002 called “The Meaning of Existence,” Murray sums up his metaphysics (if that word may be used):

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

One of my regular preoccupations in this space is to provide some sort of account for why, in spite of my official job title, I do not feel naturally inclined to philosophy. The most straightforward account might just be to say that I share Murray’s metaphysics entirely. I know nature knows what’s going on. I believe philosophy, or prosaic argument, or ‘daytime consciousness’, is the cause of the loss of this certainty, and not at all the best hope for preventing this loss. I believe Descartes’s argument that he is not dreaming, quite apart from the question of its soundness or validity, represents the limitations of the tradition in which I am implicated; it takes for granted that dreams are spurious trickery, rather than vehicles of truth. I believe Descartes is mistaken about dreams. (I know I’m sounding like a vapid new-ager, but the fact that I can only sound this way, in saying something that ought to be obvious, is itself a measure of the depth of the prejudice I am trying to expose.)

Murray has said that poetry beckoned him from an early age “by its not putting humans above other subject matter.” He credits his early life on a farm as the initial source of his animistic sensibility. In politics, he claims to be above the left-right divide, but is defiantly anti-Marxist and scornful of the formulae of academic leftism. He believes that the rural point of view is one that is systematically left out of academic attention to the various species of otherness, complaining of his early experience “of being relegated and scorned, as a country bumpkin, an uncultured yahoo, all that sanctified anti-rural prejudice that goes right back to classical times and which no antidiscrimination law or postcolonial rhetoric ever protects you from—so to hell with those.” Of course, at the same time, he presumes to know all possible forms of otherness– if you can know what it is like to be a bat, then it is not so difficult to work your way into the thought-world of an Australian Aborigine, or to imagine that you have worked your way in. Murray’s complaint is not that the urban academics do not value otherness enough, but that in their limited daytime consciousness they are unable to appreciate what is really at stake in being other.

I probably value New Left prose and arguments a good deal more than Murray does, but I also appreciate his defiance of the prevailing left ideas about the forms otherness can take. When I hear academics carrying on about ‘intersectionality’, and composing recipes for social difference from a very short list centered upon race, gender, and sexual identity, I want to ask: but what do we get from the intersection of a Hmong peasant, say, or an Amazonian forager, with the institutions of modern society, institutions to which all intersectionality fans –being essentially urban, western, and bourgeois– submit as if these were timeless and self-evident (particular inheritance structures, the use of first and last names, monogamous pair-bonding as the basis of child-rearing, the relative importance of fathers and unimportance of maternal uncles, a more or less utilitarian conception of human well-being…)? What about the animals? What about the ancestors? Anthropology has typically done better than philosophy at accounting for the true depth and range of human difference, but it too is constrained to do so in the language of daytime consciousness, even as it comes up against subjects and structures that are understood equally by means of dreaming and the body by the people who live them, the people for whom they have meaning.

Poetry is infinitely better equipped; it is not another domain of inquiry, but rather another modality of thought. It alone enables a person to move away from the circumstances of identity and to claim to speak for others, or for everything at once, with the universal ‘me’ of a cow.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website