On Les Murray, 1938–2019
Les Murray, David Naseby, 1995 (detail)
by Erik Kennedy
One indication of Les Murray’s greatness is the extent to which he has come to represent an entire country’s poetry, at least for many readers in the northern hemisphere. For better or worse, he is to Australian poetry what Slavoj Žižek is to Slovenian philosophy: a symbol, a cynosure.
Murray was always involved in the internecine literary squabbles of his country—the Australian ‘poetry wars’ of the seventies, with Murray and John Tranter perceived as the major antagonists, were just a continuation of traditionalist vs. experimentalist hostilities that broke out in the thirties and forties, the era of the Jindyworobaks (Murray once wryly called himself the ‘last of the Jindyworobaks’) and Angry Penguins. But he was also above the fray, writing for future anthropologists more than contemporary critics. This plays out across his large and magisterial body of work, which is local and universal in endlessly productive ways.
The uniting force is the sheer power of Murray’s imagination. I can’t begin to count how many times over the years I’ve been reading Murray—since 1996’s Subhuman Redneck Poems—I’ve been smacked in the nose by bits of only-Les-Murray-would-think-of-this language. On a river seen from a car:
Ships rotting in the woods, ships turning to silt in blind channels;
one looked like a bush pub impelled by a combine header.
On Sydney office buildings:
The inner streets of this oppidum
are paved with grey carpet, and inmates
lie on them for cool negotiations
or to write in big pads. Footsteps with vocal
animate the stairs and little squares;
odd walls not yet built over
catch sun and frecklings of leaves;
a coffee shop may form round a stairwell.
On milk lorries:
Now the milk lorry is a polished submarine
that rolls up at midday, attaches a trunk and inhales
the dairy’s tank to a frosty snore in minutes
but its forerunner was the high-tyred barn of crisp mornings,
reeking Diesel and mammary, hazy in its roped interior
as a carpet under beaters, as it crashed along potholed lanes
cooeeing at schoolgirls.
On a photo of himself:
With temples this military-naked
you see muscles chewing in the head.
On a drag racing car:
An aircraft-engined kewpie doll
in chrome, with vast fat tyres,
stinks hotly of injection and rubdown
and little wheels splay at the far
end of its blood-red stick—
how else should it look,
the top alcohol contender?
On a bird that’s got itself indoors:
Modest-sized, as a writing hand, mushroom fawn
apart from its paua casque, those viridescent closed wings,
it was an emerald Levite in that bedroom
which the memory of it was going to bless for years
despite topping our ordinary happiness, as beauty
makes background of all around it.
A big part of me would love to write lines like these, but if you’ve ever tried you’ll know it’s impossible, and you wind up sounding like Craig Raine would sound if he had got stranded at Sydney Airport for thirty years and the only things to eat in the shops were tea, Tim Tams, and acid.
Posthumous appreciations of poets are always peppered with good lines, which tends to give the false impression that all well-known poets are hitmakers. They are not, but I could go on for pages and pages pulling choice bits from Murray. The staggering observations live in close quarters, crammed in and on top of each other, as if in a Kowloon Walled City of verse.
Every poet is a ‘poet’s poet’ to someone, but Murray is surely a common favourite for poets who are technicians and tinkerers, bonnet-lifters and explosives-makers. Some Les Murray poems are so dazzling (do have a look at ‘Roman Cage-Cups’) you could wear them on your head to Royal Ascot. As a maker, he has influenced poets from Roy Fisher to Sinéad Morrissey to Michael Robbins to Elizabeth Smither to Philip Hudgins to Ian Duhig to Pascale Petit. Oh, and me, obviously.
He has been less influential as a social figure, as his politics have always hewed somewhat to the right of today’s average poet-cum-cosmopolitan (and far to the right of mine). But Murray’s was an old-fashioned anti-authoritarian kind of rightism, practically extinct today, that had nothing in common with the money-poisoned, soul-sickening populist flim-flam that passes for conservatism in 2019. As I understood it (as a non-Australian), it was an idiosyncratic, inclusive vision of enlightened fair-dinkum-ism that he described in a letter to a magazine in 1972, saying, ‘Australia will be a great nation, and a power for good in the world, when her head of state is a part-Aboriginal and her prime minister a poor man. Or vice versa.’ His work also gives an impression of championing the little guy: a ‘spinster’ farmer, an autistic son, Gaelic speakers in colonial New South Wales, etc. But his association, as poetry editor, with Quadrant—a magazine that systematically downplayed the impact of the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal communities—will always be troubling.
Murray was empathetic. No great poet can not be. He was not perfect. No person who is of his time ever is. I appreciated an anecdote that appeared in John Kinsella’s remembrance piece in the Guardian: ‘Les liked the fact that, at a point in my life when I had reached rock bottom and had managed to hold on to only two books, one was JH Prynne’s poems and the other was [Murray’s] selected poems, The Vernacular Republic. The generative nature of language in preserving rights and preventing, say, the rural being overrun by city decisions, caught my attention.’ If Kinsella, an anarchist who presumably has little time for the poetics of nationhood, considers him to be a ‘forever poet’, then that’s a bit special.
‘Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence’, Murray wrote, and probably everyone except the Swedish Academy thought he should have won the Nobel. Not that it bothered him. When asked in an interview about how he would like to be remembered, he replied, ‘For having written a few good poems. That’s all that any poet ever gets. I’ve got a short list of about twelve I think are good.’ A poet who thinks this way is well beyond the vanity of prize culture and well on his way to being remembered for the right reasons—because he made art.
Murray famously dedicated all his books from the eighties on ‘To the glory of God’. Even in our disenchanted world (in the Weberian sense), he consistently gets away with smuggling in wonder and, yes, even glory. Let us end with the ending of ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’:
At every hour of daylight
appear more that you missed: ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided,
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,
beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice
that the noon glare or cloud-light or afternoon slants will uncover
till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many, or
do they form in an hour? unfolding into reality
like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions,
like edible meanings, each sealed around with a string
and affixed to its moment, an unceasing colloquial assembly,
the portly, the stiff, and those lolling in pointed green slippers . . .
Wondering who’ll take the spare bagfulls, you grin with happiness
– it is your health – you vow to pick them all
even the last few, weeks off yet, misshapen as toes.
About the Author:
Erik Kennedy is the author of the chapbook Twenty-Six Factitions (2017) and the full-length collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (2018).