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On The Genius of Les Murray

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.

Sir Walter Ralegh

The unofficial poet laureate of Australia Les Murray died in April 2019. I first met him at the Adelaide Arts Festival in the early 70s where i asked Ted Hughes did he kill Sylvia Plath, cos i couldn’t see how come he was in Australia out on bail. After a few other confrontations, i found myself alongside Les Murray, and he said that before i left poetry i’d make a big splash — and i remember turning to him and thinking he better not jump in the pool or there won’t be any water left. He may have been a good poet ‘with a genius for language’ as John Kinsella said but he had ‘some terrible politics’. Elsewhere i’ve talked about Les’s supposed decadency from the great James Murray the lexicographer who gave us the dictionary ‘proper’ — more foundation stories? — and my reaction to his appropriating and usurping the ‘ethnic’ debate by taking centre-stage with a book entitled Ethnic Radio. This ‘self-styled bard of the people’ even claimed be a descendant of Aboriginal stock — he seemed to be everything — a great publicist being No 1.

Tom Shapcott head of the Literature Board confessed to me on one occasion that when the Board in the 70s began giving out grants, Les refused to apply cos he was worried they might cut the grants from under him, and he’d be rendered unemployable. But they were desperate to have him as part of their stable, if only to be able to point to him as a highlight of their success at fostering great literature. When they agreed (unofficially) to bankroll him unconditionally year after year, (to the tune of ¼ to ½ a million $s over the years — not including grants to his publishers etc) he became their raison d’être, and with such success under his belt, he began dictating who was in and who was out in anthology after anthology. His reactionary poetics, stifled and squashed a lot of great poetry written outside the mainstream. And he was gracious enough in 1993 to openly declare the abolition of the Literature Board.

In the last 2 or 3 decades before his death, he seemed to also cultivate a ‘cockie’ identity to match his poetry-subjects, and he began to ‘play’ the naive (even tho he had a University education) thru his conversational-style. You can hear it, in his voice if you compare tapes & video footage of him in interviews over the decade — you’ll notice that he develops a kind of auditory hee-haw-ing that seemed to increase in frequency between sentences — not unlike some kind of redneck from the wilds of Kentucky or Louisiana.

My next encounter with the great bard was on a panel discussion at the Melbourne Writers Festival at Federation Square in 2010. I said i didn’t think there was any such thing as a ‘genius’ — the famous cellist with the new autobiography disagreed, the famous poet from America disagreed also, so we all turned to the local monolith before us, and he refused to engage, and instead, folded his arms around himself, turns his head to the side, and stuck his nose-up in the air in the worst case of noblesse oblige i’d ever witnessed — i was obviously on the wrong panel! — the only non-genius there. The dictionary defines noblesse oblige as behaving ‘in a fashion that conforms to one’s position and privilege that one has been born into, bestowed and/or earned’. But my encounter was not unique as it turned out. In The Age after his death Oslo Davis the cartoonist in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald also had (it seemed) a similar encounter: Youngster to the great Bard ‘I’m not worthy’. Bard to youngster ‘That may be so’, and captioned underneath all that ‘The time i met the genius that was Les Murray’. I hate geniuses — or should that be genii? Thomas Keneally said (in The Age) ‘I salute you, Les! You should have got, for what it’s worth, [Bob] Dylan’s wasted Nobel [Prize]’ — what planet is that bloke on?!

Which brings me to the question of just why Les’s poetry — the poetry of the ‘bush’, and not the poetry of the ‘street’ or city say. It must be remembered (as Guy Debord told us in The Society of the Spectacle) that the aesthetic credo under Capitalism is ‘That which appears is good, that which is good appears’ — cos aesthetics is also a socially-constructed activity, and our heads have been steered, not only towards the bush, but away from the sea or city, or anything else starting with C. John Kinsella sez in his posthumous tribute that Les ‘strangely’ had ‘more in common with many experimentalists than with the more conservative traditionalists who lionise him’ — which i suggest you take with a grain of salt — as one wonders what Kinsella means by the word ‘experimentalists’ here — no family that i belong to that’s for sure.

But why is this word ‘Genius’ being bandied around so much in poetry here, in Australia in particular – the noun in particular — not so much the adjective which very loosely is a synonym for ‘ingenious’ meaning ‘well thought out’. Genius, the noun sounds more like it belongs to the era of the Industrial Revolution, in an age that included the steam-whistle and train shovel — when industrialists & merchants took 2 round cast-iron plates and had them riveted together — perhaps they were merely being ‘engine-ious’. Was Ned Kelly a Genius? Does the rest of the world still talk in terms of Geniuses? Is (or has) John Cage ever been referred to as a Genius? Or, T.S. Eliot? Or Ezra Pound? Was Elvis a genius? Howabout Sidney Nolan? Or for that matter Gertrude Stein – wasn’t she nominated & given the Lollipop award? It seems to me Genius is a kind of black-box category, that mustn’t be tampered with too much. Mozart’s early works were not outstanding. The creative act itself, is an ongoing struggle with the relevant material, and in some cases shows a kind of improvement or development that (under the right conditions) gets appreciated. But i’m sure you don’t want to hear that – easier to just bask in the glow of something too fabulous to contemplate. The concept of ‘Genius’ posits the subject into a transcendental sphere, and marks it off as a ‘no go’ area.

My next encounter with the Mighty Bard, was in The Age 2/5/2015 — i almost choked on my croissant (joke*!) (and black coffee) (being a child of coffee culture) one Saturday, when i read Robert Gray’s review of Clive James’s Sentenced to Life in which Gray quotes the poem The Conversation by Les Murray which, (as far as i was concerned) had my DNA all over it. Gray described it as an ‘easy avant-gardism’ that Clive James (apparently) ‘tried’ his hand at also — not as well as the resident Genius (Les) of course, or me presumably – who by the way didn’t get a guernsey. Seems Genius doesn’t mind being influenced by the lowly to try out its unoriginal hand. The extracts below are from one of my poems, and the other is from one of Les’s – note the similarity between the use of the ‘informational line’ or fact – so much for Genius.

Below are 2 stanzas, one by me, and the other by Les — you be the judge as to which one’s who’s in this game of ‘easy avant-gardism’ – !

Exhibit A:

The best time to see kangaroos (from
the air) is at dusk. We hear ‘one note’; a galah 12.
Why should anyone without a head, want a hat?
You need 6 pints of blood, for an Open-heart.
When you stumble, you fall about.

Exhibit B:

One woman had sixty-nine children.
Some lions mate fifty times a day.
Napoleon had a victory addiction.
A full moon always rises at sunset.
Soldiers now can get in the family way.