Clive James on Les Murray

Clive James on Les Murray, Australia’s leading poet and Quadrant’s Literary Editor:

Some day soon, perhaps, a jet will take him to Stockholm. Only occasionally changing its personnel and never changing its dark suits, the Nobel Prize committee has seldom been a good judge of poetry, but once in a blue moon they get it right, and Murray’s world currency is hard to miss. The question of why this should be so is always worth asking. There are poets, even Australian poets, as universal in their scope and even more learned: Peter Porter is only one of them. But Murray’s international appeal works on the assumption that he speaks a lingua franca. The assumption is not quite so absurd as it might at first seem. When you get right down to it, he does. The perceptions and connections would show up in any language that could find the verbal equivalents.

The trick, from the Stockholm angle, lies in the translation. The translator needs not only to be a master of their own language, they need to be terrific at English. You can imagine Murray’s Japanese translator consumed for a full year – the time needed to anneal the blade of a good sword – in finding the equivalent for that half-line in ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ when the ibises, having arrived at their place of work, get busy, “Prolonging the earth, they make little socket noises”.

But it could be done, because, first and foremost, so much of Murray’s inventive force is antecedent to language. Seeing the shape or hearing the sound of one thing in another, he finds forms. A world of forms is what Picasso inhabited, and when he started painting the pictures to prove it, he left the world of immediate charm. Murray has never done that, although lately he has shown signs. There are poems in this book that are hard to figure out, which isn’t like him.

For all his career, close reading has been rewarded with meaning. The implication that meaning might be beyond reach is rare for him, and really something new. Perhaps he’s getting ready to start again. Perhaps the Versailles–Hermitage was only a shed and now he wants to build the real palace.

Source: The Monthly

Read about Les Murray’s new book here…

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