Les Murray, Anthologist

I will confine myself to describing for you Les Murray the anthologist, and begin by observing that he so evidently enjoys the task of sitting at a desk, winnowing poems or other written material that has been passed to him as aspiring to literary art.

This enjoyment has been true for as long as I have known the man, which is thirty-seven years. Indeed, the first word I recall him applying to himself was this verb winnow, cited in a postcard from him to Rosemary Dobson in 1975 that I happened to see and which referred to a box of submissions to the journal Poetry Australia that needed the flail and where he was editor at that time.

What does this engagement imply? Guessing my way into the mind of another, I conclude Les is drawn to place himself just at that point where human imaginations are coming up with their findings on what it is like to be alive. Here, in the distrait mental attitude that puts the claims of the everyday aside in favour of what is being evoked on the page and how well it is being done, he finds both the resource and the intentness of living. I say “the page” for this is how we should imagine him in session in his study. To one side is a pile of manuscripts that are paper-clipped to their stamp-addressed envelopes. On the other side are two further piles, one alas larger than the other. But his editing is a paper process, for there is no mouse, no UBD cable, no screen. Correspondence from this office comes from a typewriter or on postcards miraculous for the compression and clarity of the calligraphy placed around the little island where appear a name and address.

Les has a magpie eye for the telltale flash of noteworthiness in an item of writing, the detail that is going to lead to the age-old reward of reading where words have struck a note of what is vibrant, true, and fair as to human experience. Having occasionally watched him go through a group of poems I can say he seizes upon these details. Hah! One hears, and those round about pause in their conversation to watch a paper join the smaller pile.

The effect of these assorted items as they transform context from a pile of arbitrary papers to a patterning in anthology or journal is a little like inspecting both ends of those kaleidoscopes children used to own. Behind the opaque screen at one end we perceive a few dozen pieces of coloured plastic with no apparent order or vibrancy, while at the other end we squint through the peephole to witness a luminous patterning of those nondescript chips. Always there is the jolt of surprise at this transformation and it is the anthologist’s eye that has allowed us this uplift from chips to patterning in our perception.

Behind Les’s eye-for-opportunity there are values, and as I observe it, the central value behind his choice of poems and other literary material is the conviction that only the work can speak effectively for itself. This means it might come from anywhere. It does not accrue significance from the previous reputation of its author nor the circumstances in which it was written. This is not the same as saying that everyone has literary talent, but it does say that Everyman’s imagination is where you have to go to look for it.

Over the years I have read, I think, five poetry anthologies edited by Les, as well as the issues of Poetry Australia and Quadrant where he has presided as literary editor, and the effect of this readiness to look to Everyman for effective writing is twofold. First, a Murray anthology will always be charged with surprises, detonations of what I have called elsewhere the “yes-wow” response to a piece of art. Here’s one instance of it, called “A Queer Thing” by Nancy Keesing, included in Les’s New Oxford Book of Australian Verse

Wasn’t this a queer thing? I stood with your mother
At mid-day in her hot, still, polished kitchen
Preparing a mountain of ordinary bread
And wholesome butter. Where can be more quiet
Than stifling Brisbane noon? I heard a tread
On the wooden stairs—a slow deliberate climb.
“They’re back early, and lunch not ready in time,”

I said. And she: “It’s my husband, ten years dead:
He often calls when all the house is empty.”
“But I am here.” “You are not,” your mother said.

Second, the sheer range of contributors on Murray pages will be both conspicuous and characterised by no editorial consideration of their “rank” in literary discourse. So the effect of the anthology’s pages—and the anthology we have with us tonight (The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2001–10) is a fine example of this—is one that can be described by that phrase from Piers Plowman by the Middle English poet William Langland, “a fair field full of folk”. I should add that my own view of the Murray Collected Poems finds this Langland phrase a most just and close description for its unifying principle.

Let me return to that telltale flash, the moment where the Murray eye or ear have been aroused. If I can identify what is characteristic in this arousal I would say it lies in an attraction to the freshness of human particularities or the outlandishness of modern dislocations. I have in mind, for instance, the poem from this anthology, “A Day in Bed with Aunt Maud” by Elizabeth Smither, where the self-possessed aunt takes time out from the world with a result that the world is set askance at the same time as an individual comes into a robust but slightly removed presence: 

She contemplated the plaster ceiling rose
And all the world that swam around it
A spider web from her day in bed. 

What is evident from the high incidence of poems of this sort in his anthologies is the joy Les Murray takes in robust individuality. Among his muses is the Muse of Quirk.

One quality underlies all of the above. It is Les’s steadiness of nerve in the task that he undertakes. Art is what people make. It has also become, perhaps infectiously in our era, the means by which they seek to be witnessed. Editors know this and deal with its effusion. To return poems to an author with a rejection slip can be both to belittle a made thing and repudiate a wish to assert presence. If you are both editor and a poet who travels the country and engages in copious correspondence, you will frequently encounter, face-to-face, those to whom you have served these disappointments. Some may be miffed celebrities. Some will have a back-story of misfortune. Some will undoubtedly be your friends—ladies and gentlemen, I could lift my shirt and show you some of my own bruises from the Murray rejection slips. But as long as I have known him, Les has never allowed this painful part of the task of anthologising to daunt him. Steadiness of nerve? Yes, it is that. But this in turn is a quality of moral courage and by my observation it attends both his anthologising of written art and his own practice of it.

Alan Gould delivered this address to launch The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2001–2010 at a dinner at the Union, University & Schools Club in Sydney in June. 

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