Les Murray and the Purpose of Poetry

Waiting for the Past
by Les Murray
Black Inc, 2015, 96 pages, $24.99


les murray smallStill alive when Les Murray was a young poet, Kenneth Slessor called him to a meeting and passed on the torch. As far as I know, Murray has never recorded this moment in print, but I once heard him refer to it. He was rightly proud, because Slessor, in those days, was the Australian poet who filled our sky. Today Murray fills the sky not just in his homeland but in all the world. His achievement has been magisterial, and needs no further proving. If he adds more poems now, it can only be because he loves what he does.

His new book is full of his characteristic joy at getting things made. Even when writing about tragedy and suffering he can’t quite suppress the sheer thrill of hand-crafting the miracle. The book’s title, Waiting for the Past, is already a language game, which many of his admirers are already playing, reaching various solutions. Helping to soothe the puzzlement is our long experience of his precision. When his precision is better than our precision, however, he can be daunting.

To open the book is to begin the usual bipolar process, when Murray is the author, of skipping through and stopping to ponder, so that a preliminary scan takes about a day. In “Nuclear Family Bees” the hive of native bees is “a vertical black suburb / of glued-on prison cells”. Well yes, of course. As long as we remind ourselves that it isn’t “of course” until he’s written it. The great poet thinks what you think: it’s just that he always thinks of it first.

In “The Glory and Decline of Bread” it is on for young and old from the first line, although the young won’t get it yet. “Sliced bread (sic) / A centimetre thick …” The “centimetre” takes me back to a time when both he and I had to be taught that there were 2.54 centimetres to the inch. In the USA and the UK there still are, but Australia went ahead into the supposedly more rational field of the metric system, having deemed it a kind of global civic duty to make it easier for Germany and Japan to sell us cars.

For the young, though, that bracketed little word “sic” will need explanation. Usually, kids, “sic” is something you put in when you want to indicate that the word or term just ahead of it is really meant; but here it also evokes the sound of the bread being sliced, and the amalgam of the two usages gives us … ah, forget it. It’s just word-play.

But Murray has always been beyond word-play: or anyway beyond any notion that poetry could possibly start from anything else. When you look at an anthology-piece classic such as “Bats’ Ultrasound”, what is it? A game? Or a multiple interchange, complicated beyond parsing, of mimesis, perceptual analysis and evolutionary biology? Which is to say, is it a small game or a big game? (Once, at the Ledbury Festival, I watched Murray recite the poem in performance, and it was like watching the switching-on of one of those mainframe computers that used to go bloop and bleep: a truly stunning array of electric eclecticism. Staid British jaws hit the floor.) The Murray reader must go big-game hunting through jungles of small details, across deserts of pebbles that have all been collected from different oceans.

Waiting for the Past can be purchased at Amazon.com

As usual, there are scores of charming moments like those I have listed above: points of light before you start spotting the points of darkness. Here’s one of the grimmer pictures now, in “Vertigo”:

Last time I fell in the shower-room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Taken to the town clinic, I
described how I tripped on a steel
rim and found my head in the wardrobe.

les murray waiting coverThis is a generously funny piece of opera buffa but the language of a last act is already there in the “tumbril dandy”. Strictly speaking, the dandy wouldn’t bleed until he was taken from the tumbril and put to the guillotine, so the image has flashed forward a bit even as it flashes back: or perhaps he had a bad night in the holding pen. He will take a tumble in the morning, when the tumbril takes him from the Conciergerie to the Place de la Concorde. But hold hard: this isn’t our game, it’s the poet’s game, although you can just imagine a gifted young reader joining in the pun-fun, some clever kid out of J.D. Salinger, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia or Edward St Aubyn’s novel Mother’s Milk.

A bit less inclined to burble even in our dotage, we seniors hear the tones of a man who loves to speak even as his life begins to give up on him. We should be slow, however, to assume that an apparent end-game means the end. Murray has always been a man of immense physical vitality, and his creative vitality is superhuman. Well looked after there in Bunyah, and with no reason to bestir himself further unless the King of Sweden commands him to Stockholm, he could keep writing these little poems forever; or perhaps he might roll another Fredy Neptune out of the shed, and change the whole game with it.

Meanwhile, he contemplates finality: but when did he ever not? Do another preliminary scan, and you might find yourself lingering over this stanza, in a gorgeous grab-bag (yet another anthology piece, for sure) called “The Backroad Collections”:

tie dye, mai tai, taupe lingeries—
and cattle who haven’t yet entered
any building wander, contented,
munching under their last trees

When the cattle enter their first building, it will be the abattoir. Oncoming death is everywhere. But their contentment is real. Legitimised by his powerful supposition that it is all God’s idea, Murray relishes the alternation of life and death, noting every detail of transition with the acute eye of John Aubrey, even when the octopus in the baths turns to “extinct pasta”. It’s a shambles that the faithful mind must pray to make sense of. In “The Privacy of Typewriters” he stands defiantly revealed as one who still “composes on paper” because the computer scares him with its “text that looks pre-published”:

I trust the spoor of botch,
whiteouts where thoughts deepened,
Wise freedom from Spell Check,
Sheets to sell the National Library.

For the Murray adept, “spoor of botch” clearly echoes his previous advocacy of “sprawl”, but we wouldn’t want to sound scholarly about it: not yet. Scholarship is always for afterwards, when the National Library has all the sheets. Better to notice the new ideas. I can remember when the unmarked paper, before the typing started, was indeed a white­out, and there can be no doubt that Spell Check is a tyrant: as I tap this piece into the Mac, almost every word of Murray’s is being rewritten as something else. At a second insistence, the strange word is allowed to remain, but it’s a clear case of civilisation eating away at its own foundations. Soon everyone will write like the machines: it’s too much of an effort not to.

Murray is unbeatable at totting up the cost of what we gain. His eidetically vivid sense of history is piercingly exemplified in the poem “Holland’s Nadir”. When he and I were very young, “close to the end of wartime”, there was a submarine moored in Sydney Harbour that the kids were allowed to visit. Revisiting it, Murray remembers “the age of rebirthing nations / which would be my time”.

It would be my time too, but today I didn’t remember, until the poem reminded me, that the submarine was Dutch. Saved after their battle with the demons, the free European nations were rebirthed, but not their empires. The great poet, not letting go of anything he knows, draws history from the past, not just the present. In the present, there are things I would like him to do. When he mentions the bridge to Hindmarsh Island, he makes no mention of the “secret women’s business” by which people identifying as Aborigines delayed its construction to suit the wishes of people identifying as environmentalists: a satirical opportunity forgone. But Murray has better things to do than satire. Satire is vengeance: and vengeance belongs to the Lord.

There are fewer than eighty pages of text but one could go on quoting forever. Had you realised that lagoons gummed with water fern were like saucepans of wet money? Now you have. He makes us all brilliant. Sometimes he screws the metaphor so damned tight that I can’t figure it out. Possibly I might later, but he seems aware that there could be a danger. The poem “I Wrote a Little Haiku” is a half-acknowledgment that he might have overwound his miniature poem “The Springfields” (it’s in his previous collection, Taller When Prone) by neglecting to say what the Springfields actually were. As it happened, I knew that he meant Springfield rifles in the American Civil War: but I knew it only because I, like Murray, had been a weapons freak in my boyhood. (When we first knew each other at Sydney University, in that first big wave of the Commonwealth Scholarship era, we used to trump each other with the names of Japanese and American carrier-borne fighters.) I could just as easily not have spotted the reference; and several of his closest readers didn’t, and wanted to know what he was up to.

In his current half-apology for an obscure moment, Murray is only half-raising the question of how much freight of reference a poem can carry and still be intelligible now, let alone in the future. It’s a question for critics to answer, not poets; and since Murray himself is one of the most comprehensive and historically minded critics in Australia, we could safely leave it to him, if he didn’t have better things on his mind. Considering that he wouldn’t now hold his planetary position if he hadn’t been intelligible for most of the time, the occasional obscurity has to be forgiven, even when—as sometimes seems possible—it might be a deliberate obscurity, meant to remind the audience that the ways of God are strange.

Whether in poetry or prose, he has always, in almost all instances, striven to make his uniquely penetrating perceptions clear. If we blink, it’s because he dazzles: and the long result of his example is—and will always be, or so we must hope—to have a cleansing effect on the language itself.

We’re always going to need that: starting, strangely enough, in Australia, where our great poet has attained his full glory at the very time when the language he must use is being eroded from all sides, like a tooth left overnight in a glass of Coca Cola. But it’s a mark of servility to assume that the decay of the English language can be instigated only in America, with its stifling (they would call it conflicted) combination of literal-mindedness and political correctness. The other nations of the Anglosphere are just as well equipped to destroy it. As Derek Walcott has persuasively argued, the language is the Empire; so it is no surprise that those Australian writers and intellectuals who deplore any connection with the UK should feel free to vandalise the language in order to bend it to their own political desires.

That the very people who are most touchy about Australia’s position in the world’s regard should be the most keen to write in a local patois is, however, a mystery which might benefit from academic examination. It would make a better thesis topic than many. But for now we can content ourselves with saying that Australia leads the English-speaking world in the linguistic rush to nowhere. Just to take the top fad of the day, in the USA the once-influential magazine Newsweek can run a headline as stupid as “More fatal earthquakes to come, warn climate change scientists”, but only Australia can offer the Ben Jonson scenario in which a salaried climate expert not only advocates “climate denial legislation” to silence those who disagree with him, but he offers it from his position as a leading light of something called the Victorian Ministerial Reference Council on Climate Change Adaptation. There are also the Sustainable Society Institute of Melbourne University and the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute. The latter outfit has a Climate Communications Fellow. Thus the parasitic spirit of the Rudd–Gillard neo-Malthusian bureaucracy has dispersed to the universities, where it has taken up residence like an octopus in the baths.

In this nebulous field alone, there are fellows and professors to a number commensurate with Australia’s astounding glut of useless PhDs, all of them talking a language which was not only invented by Jonathan Swift, but analysed by him down to its roots in the ambitious mind too rarefied for anything practical and too mediocre for anything exploratory. In his poem “When Two Percent Were Students”, one of the quiet jewels of this new collection, Murray glances back to a time when hardly anybody in Australia could spend “all day at the university”. Now hardly anybody doesn’t.

None of this gargantuan waste of time and money would matter quite so much if the Australian mass media had done something to fight it, but the towel had already been thrown in before the new champion arrived. Somewhere back there in the Age of Aquarius, at about the time when Jim Cairns first clapped eyes on Juni Morosi, there was a flight from reason, as when a grown man can abruptly see no worthwhile reward in life beyond the favours of a pretty girl. Apart from a few notably brave and lonely voices, the Australian media ceased to be critical. Since only criticism can keep a check on the abuse of language, pseudo-science was left free to invade science, and the whole field of political commentary became a deafening chorus against anyone who dared to propose that it took more than one political party to govern the country.

It can’t have been because of a shortage of intellectuals. After Gough Whitlam personally instituted the idea of educating the working class—here I borrow the dearest historical belief of the unintelligent intelligentsia—there were suddenly more intellectuals than you could shake a stick at. Unfortunately, far from their inheriting the country’s traditional scepticism, there was almost no fad that they wouldn’t fall for. The result has been the near-ruination of Australian prose. There are always a few hold-outs, but when you look at the collected writings of the late Christopher Pearson, for example, the most startling impression is not of how he shines, but of how he shines almost alone, like a single candle in one of his beloved cathedrals.

Perhaps the tip-off lies in the fact that his posthumous collection of writings, A Better Class of Sunset, is not very carefully edited. It seems to have had several editors all working at once, and none of them to sufficient purpose: in which, perhaps, lies the trouble. The literary world works best when some of the editors could have been writers too, but preferred to guard a publication, giving it the care and energy that might have put their own name in a public light.

Just as the basis of ethics lies in manners, the secret of eloquence lies in a care for detail. The alternative is the ever-spreading swamp of the blog-trolls, in which the opinions of a frothing dolt are so important that no paragraph can last longer than a sentence. Or else he raves on forever without a break: either way, he has no sense whatever of nuanced argument. Nor can he pause to put in the capital letters, the commas and the apostrophes, not to mention the good humour, the sense of proportion and the common courtesy. Cram all that negligence into the frame of Facebook and you have mental cyanide in pellet form. I hate to say it, but of all the countries in the Anglosphere, it seems to me that Australia is the most likely to be the first victim of a web-world and social media coalition that annihilates the hard-won virtues of English prose. If you dread a culture in which every twit’s tweet counts, here it comes.

All this might sound like the carping of an old man on his way out, but I did find it remarkable, as I came back to Australia more and more often in the middle of my life, that the books of expository prose tailed off in quality from year to year. Not every woman writer will ever be able to write like Helen Garner, just as not every male politician will be able to write like Diamond Jim McClelland. But you would have expected the supply of stylists to go up, not down. Born and brought up at a time when such a poet-journalist as Elizabeth Riddell was still active in the Australian media, I never imagined that the female journalists of Australia could have listened to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and not laughed her from the stage.

And was there even a single red-blooded Aussie media man to greet President Obama’s remarks about Australia’s alleged neglect of the climate change threat to the Barrier Reef by telling him, in a single well-shaped paragraph, that the Reef was well looked after and that if he really thought he knew anything about it he was always welcome to take a paddle around a piece of it, barefoot and without a guide, or else, failing that, to bugger off? But no: scarcely a peep. The days when the Australian newspapers and periodicals had plenty of hard-nosed jobbing writers to deal not only with the bullshit manufactured at home, but with the incoming bullshit from abroad, seem long gone. By now, the next wave of literary journalists is looking pretty understaffed, half a dozen surfboard riders sitting out there on a gentle swell.

And there, in that disturbingly unexciting calm, we can see the purpose of poetry—beyond, that is, the crucial purpose it has in not having any purpose beyond its own furtherance, as the queen of the humanities. Call it the cultural purpose, then, or even the political purpose. The cultural and political purpose of poetry like Les Murray’s is to give his nation’s prose a measure: a measure of precision, of lexical agility, and of true inclusiveness. Beginners might start with Murray’s own prose—A Working Forest is the key collection—and wonder where he acquired such decisiveness, clarity and invention. He did it by dedication; by the courage of his cantankerous convictions; and by the long guarding of his gift. All our country needs to rediscover is the satisfaction of working for a distant reward. And all that takes is a confident allegiance to a value that will outlive your life, which means a faith view of existence, even if the faith is merely a belief that we are here by grace, and that the same grace will take us away when our work is done. You can see just such a fine belief in the author’s photograph on the back of this lovely book. Not much smaller than his house yet as full of beauty as a swan, the great man is asking his God, “How did I do?” But by now he knows the answer.

Clive James’s latest book, the poetry collection Sentenced to Life (Picador), was published in April.


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