by Les Murray
Published November, 2018
Les Murray’s new Collected Poems (there was an earlier one in 2002) has a pleasing symmetry about it: fifty years of work selected from fifteen volumes, 1965-2015, and emerging just as the poet himself turns a round eighty. It runs to 686 pages of poetry, not counting indices of titles and first lines, and weighs in at 1.24 kilos. Characteristically for Murray, there is no introduction — just an accompanying note from the publisher saying, on the author’s behalf, that the book ‘contains all the poems he wants to preserve’.
How can one possibly assess such a body of work? It is important to remember that the last three lines of one of Murray’s finest poems, ‘Equanimity’, apply as much to the poet’s own output as to the world more generally:
a field all foreground, and equally all background,
like a painting of equality. Of infinite detailed extent
like God’s attention. Where nothing is diminished by perspective.
There is no point then in painstakingly tracing the poet’s ‘development’ from The Ilex Tree (1965) to Waiting for the Past (2015). That would get us nowhere very much — except perhaps to observe that the majority of Murray’s most celebrated poems are from the first twenty-five years of his career rather than the last twenty-five. Perhaps the most useful thing a reviewer can do is select a number of favourites (fourteen, as I’ll argue shortly) and discuss in some detail their various merits. Of course, some reviewers may argue (yet again) that Murray’s virtues have been oversold and churlishly select some lesser poems or lines to illustrate their point.
Murray, we know, from quite early in his career, has been a controversial figure in Australian poetry — mainly without seeking to be. His talent was recognised early and resented in some quarters simply for that. As poetry editor for Poetry Australia and Quadrant, Murray supported a relatively conservative aesthetic while remaining open to ‘experiment’ and, unlike many other editors, did not dismiss names to which no reputation had yet attached itself. (I recently wrote about his editorial legacy for Quadrant.)
Murray’s politics (in his work and more generally) are highly idiosyncratic and not to be simplified. They have also been much misunderstood. Identifying strongly with the social group from which he emerged, namely the rural poor, Murray was resentful of city-dwelling types who, he thought, considered themselves more ‘fashionable’. He wasn’t much fonder of the rural gentry. This negativity reached its climax in the fiercely-ironic, if not paranoid, title of Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996). It’s a point from which he has retreated in more recent years.
These are a few of the reasons why Murray hasn’t always been as popular as his best poetry should probably have made him. He may not have been helped either by the huge, though not inherently inaccurate, claims made for his work by his more enthusiastic fans and supporters — and by well-known poets outside Australia. The Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, famously found that: ‘There is no poetry in the English language now so rooted in its sacredness, so broadleafed in its pleasures and yet so intimate and conversational’.
We may wonder if Walcott was acquainted with all the poetry in the Anglosphere but it’s not a bad description of the best of Murray’s work even so. Clive James’ statement that the present work is ‘One of the great books of the modern world’ may also seem hyperbolic. James is a prodigious polymath, we know, but he can’t have read every modern book in every language. These are the sorts of puffs that can earn a writer more enemies than friends. By contrast, the capturing of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1996 and the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 2004 are no common achievements for an Australian poet.
With all this talk of friends and enemies, this reviewer should perhaps disclose that he might also be regarded as a friend of Murray’s. As a magazine editor, Murray has also published many of my poems as well as recommending several successive collections of mine when he was in charge of poetry at Angus & Robertson and Heinemann in the eighties and nineties. I was even once accused directly by an anthologist of being a Murray ‘acolyte’ and so omitted explicitly from that particular book of modern Australian verse on the grounds that it ‘already included work by Les Murray’. I don’t know which of us found this more amusing. Was it that I grew up on a cattle station and he grew up on a dairy farm? As an agnostic, I certainly wasn’t a coreligionist.
There’s no doubt then that my attitude to this enormous book is fundamentally positive. It certainly is, and will remain, a key work in the history of poetry in English in Australia. It will also find a wide readership in the UK and the US and other countries where our language is widely spoken. It may also be translated into German and some other languages — though that would be a gargantuan task. It may even be a convenient book for a Nobel Prize for Literature committee to thumb through.
How then to deal with this vast collection of poems? Synecdoche may be the best approach. I’ve long asserted both privately and in print, and not always light-heartedly, that it is only by the poet’s best fourteen poems that he or she is remembered. Of course, the number is arbitrary; it could be thirteen, fifteen or twenty but certainly not forty. A few poets have had to be posthumously content with one or two. Over time, however, due mainly to the work of successive anthologists and a few scholars, the poems that may once have filled six collections, or thirty, are filtered back to the fourteen or so that will reappear in anthologies every few years for the next century or two. This is not just laziness among compilers. There are good reasons why these fourteen should be re-run.
Which then are Murray’s fourteen? I started my count with twenty-two and, with considerable reluctance, have had to abandon poems as uniquely powerful as ‘The Conquest’, ‘Memories of the Height-to-Weight Ratio’, ‘Rock Music’, ‘Burning Want’ and ‘The Meaning of Existence’ in favour of the fourteen I will discuss in this essay.
As you would expect, most of Murray’s fourteen are already well-known and loved, as they deserve to be. Many are recited at eisteddfods or in school assemblies. I hope, however, to celebrate their distinctive virtues and notice one or two aspects that may not have been obvious previously.
The first of my fourteen, chronologically speaking, is ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’ from The Ilex Tree (1965), which he shared with Geoffrey Lehmann. It’s a sequence in four sections and an important introduction to ideas that have marked the rest of his career. It’s not the classic Bunyah, NSW, landscape this time but higher up, near the tablelands. ‘In the high cool country’ the second person narrator, ‘having come from the clouds’, drives ‘without haste’ into a town which is really a ‘hamlet … built of boards’ where even the landscape echoes the shyness of its citizens — ‘a little sidelong creek alive with pebbles’.
Here ‘The men watch you pass’ but when you ask for directions it is only ‘the older men who come out in blue singlets and talk softly to you’. The men have a subtlety the youths haven’t acquired yet. In the poem’s third section ‘women listen / for cars on the road’ — and, poignantly, to ‘a half-heard radio (which) sings /its song of sidewalks’. In the final section it is evening. ‘As night comes down, the houses watch each other: / a light going out in a window here has meaning.’
The whole poem is an unillusioned but compassionate portrait of a marginal group to whom the poet feels very close. They are yearning at least a little for what it seems they can’t have (especially the women). In the background is the ambivalent but not-quite-stated sadness of those fated to cut down what sustains them, a quandary Murray also observed in his timbergetter father, Cecil.
My second poem, ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, is probably Les Murray’s most famous poem. Like ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’, but unlike some others from his first book or two, it’s something only Murray could have written. It’s also the first of my fourteen to remind us that Murray is essentially a religious poet.
It’s set in Sydney in the fifties or early sixties rather than on his home ground. Murray lived in Sydney for a couple of decades before returning home in the mid-eighties and, in some ways, found the city no less conducive to poetry than Bunyah. His dairy farmer credentials have sometimes been exaggerated. It was only in Sydney after all that Murray could have ‘read the whole of the Fisher Library’, as he once claimed.
Arranged in five-line stanzas (which may relate to the weeping man’s ‘pentagram of sorrow’) and using mainly long, unfolding sentences, the poem tells the story of a man, an ordinary man, weeping unashamedly in a public place (Martin Place, to be exact) — not a common thing in 1969 when The Weatherboard Cathedral, the book which contains the poem, first appeared. It’s rare even now.
Like ‘The Barranong Angel Case’ in the same volume (an excellent poem which Murray has long refused to reprint), ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ recounts a story (or parable?) of our strange inability to deal with a genuine spiritual experience. ‘Believers’, Murray implies, are no better at it than disbelievers. Believers and sceptics alike are drawn to the event (‘crowds come hurrying’) but they are also repelled by it, drawing back from ‘the hollow he makes about him / in the midday light’.
The revelation is at noon rather than the more traditional three o’clock in the morning. The ‘rainbow’ of spiritual experience is ‘absolutely ordinary’. A key couplet is: ‘and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more / refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance’. The weeping man himself, surely a kind of Christ-figure, is not concerned with the reaction of others;
he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.
Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.
The last line is a useful reminder that Murray, who converted to Catholicism in his early twenties, has never been at all dogmatic about his religion. The weeping man is not a priest or a hellfire preacher. He is simply ‘one / man who has wept’. He doesn’t stay around for commiserations, consolations or congratulations. ‘Believers’, he knows intuitively, are to be ‘evaded’. It is they who ‘will say, in the years to come, a halo / or force stood around him. There is no such thing.’
‘The Broad Bean Sermon’, the third of my fourteen, (from Lunch and Counter Lunch in 1974) is hardly less famous than ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’. It too is well known in the schools. And it likewise is clearly a religious poem. Nine long-lined tercets celebrate human diversity, via an extended metaphor consisting of dozens of smaller metaphors. In public readings of this poem I have heard its author joke blithely about ‘human beans’ by way of introduction.
Murray’s backyard beanstalks make a ‘thin bean forest’ and ‘keel over all ways’ in prolific confusion. Within this world is the smaller one of ‘snails rapt in their food’, ants, spiders who ‘tense and sag like little black flags in their cordage’. Most important is the sheer profusion of it. ‘An hour or a cloud later / you find shirtfulls more.’
The remainder of the poem is a prolonged rejoicing in what we may take as the reckless superabundance of God’s creation. His beans are not necessarily beautiful. They can be ‘knobbly’, ‘frown-shaped’, ‘bird-shouldered’ but they are all to be celebrated. Towards the poem’s end the human comparisons become more explicit. Broad beans are ‘unfolding into reality / like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions’. As with the bread in the Catholic mass, they are ‘edible meanings’.
The final tercet of ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’ memorably embodies the generous thrust of the whole poem. Again it is impossible to imagine anyone other than Murray having written it. ‘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.’
Number four of my fourteen is ‘The Mitchells’. It embodies a particular Australian style, originating in the bush, but also to be found in the cities (though perhaps less often now than when the poem appeared in Ethnic Radio (1977)). Murray is famous for having asserted that the only class is those who speak of class and ‘The Mitchells’ is an apt illustration of the argument.
In just fourteen lines, the poem offers us two Mitchells. One has been rich but ‘never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat’. The other, by implication, is and has been poor. They are both working uncomplainingly at the manual, but reasonably-skilled, task of installing a telephone pole. One of them, ‘if asked’, would declare, ‘I’m one of the Mitchells’ — but so, ‘looking up with pain and subtle amusement’, would the other one.
The poem is not a paragraph of sociology, however. Murray closely observes the men’s behaviours (and the values they imply) — and renders them exactly. They boil water in a ‘prune tin’, not because they can’t afford an aluminium billy, but because a prune tin is good enough. They eat ‘big meat sandwiches’ rather than, say, delicate cucumber or asparagus ones. And they have kept those sandwiches cool in a ‘styrofoam / box with a handle’ — not an ‘Esky’ as a reviewer once berated Murray for not saying.
While Murray observes, truthfully enough, that ‘Nearly everything they say is ritual’ we should remember that it is only ‘nearly’ and not ‘everything’. They are also capable of quoting, if not themselves personally inventing, a forcefully poetic phrase such as ‘like trying to farm the road’. This is the sort of vernacular utterance to which such men can effortlessly rise. Murray also neatly avoids barracking for his own team by pointing out that ‘Sometimes the scene is an avenue’. In other words, Australia’s laconic style is not only to be found in the country, where it almost certainly originated, but also in the cities where most Australians live.
It is a further mark of Murray’s respect for the Mitchells that he has taken the trouble to write their poem so expertly. It’s a well-constructed, well-finished artefact, in much the same way as the pole the two men are about to raise will be well-cut and solidly placed. ‘The Mitchells’ is a Petrarchan sonnet for a start, even if its rhyme scheme is a little irregular. It provides an opportunity to think about Murray’s rhythms which have always been highly individualistic but no less real for that. Naturally, in a sonnet, we expect iambic pentameter but Murray rarely, if ever, gives us that exact satisfaction. The poem’s second line, for instance, has thirteen rather than ten syllables but we can still sense the pentameter’s five stresses: ‘they have dug / a hole / for and will, / after dinn/er, raise’. The use of some extra unstressed syllables can also be seen in the line ‘and look/ing up/, with pain/ and subt/le amusement’. Although the first four feet may seem perfectly iambic it’s significant that the poet doesn’t maintain the metre right to the end. Murray thereby produces his own version of the Mitchell’s vernacular where an irregular number of unstressed syllables serves to emphasise the stress when it comes — rather in the manner of the irregular four-stress lines in Anglo-Saxon from which poetry in English developed.
‘Employment for the Castes in Abeyance’, also from Ethnic Radio, is the fifth of my fourteen, and the first so far to employ the autobiographical ‘I’. It’s the best of a number of comparable poems, such as ‘Memories of the Height-to-Weight Ratio’, which draw directly from Murray’s personal life. It remembers, with both affection and irony, his experience as a translator at the ANU in the mid-sixties. ‘I was Western Europe,’ he says. ‘Beiträge, reviste, / dissertaties, rapports turned English under my / one-fingered touch.’
‘It was a job like Australia:’ Murray continues; ‘peace and cover, / a recourse for exiles, poets and decent spies.’ Among them were numbered ‘My Chekhovian colleague who worked as if under surveillance’, an academic who knew about the ‘ Earth’s crystal plates’, as well as an expert in myxomatosis and other scientists who ‘were translating the universe into science, / believing that otherwise it had no meaning’.
Eventually, Murray remembers being told that ‘Prince Obolensky succeeded me for a time / but he soon returned to Fiji to teach Hebrew’. It’s a crazy detail which nicely caps off a cheerful, even nostalgic satire on a group of people all of whose lives at that point were in ‘abeyance’ or ‘suspension’, as the dictionary reminds us.
It’s also very informative about its author’s mental disposition — as it was then and has, by and large, remained. The poem may not be as moving or profound as some of the other thirteen but it is, in its own way, equally indispensable.
A third poem from Ethnic Radio that makes my selection is ‘The Future’. Its opening has a typically confident tone (some readers have found it over-confident). ‘ There is nothing about it,’ declares Murray.
Much science fiction is set there
but is not about it. Prophecy is not about it.
It sways no yarrow stalks. And crystal is a mirror.
That’s a lot to set aside in only three lines. ‘We see, by convention, a small living distance into it / but even that’s a projection.’ A few lines on, and again in the final stanza, we encounter some of the poem’s most poignant and human details. The ‘future’ will be ‘A day to which all our portraits, / ideals, revolutions, denim and deshabille / are quaintly heartrending.’
‘To see those people,’ Murray goes on, ‘is impossible, / to greet them, mawkish’. He then imagines for us:
a cheerful picnic party,
the women decently legless, in muslin and gloves,
the men in beards and weskits
… relaxing on a stone verandah. Ceylon or Sydney.
What an evocation of the nineteenth-century imperium this is. I cannot resist quoting the last few lines in full. They certainly help to scale back our own hopes and pretensions.
I know they are utterly gone,
each one on his day, with pillows, small bottles, mist
with all the futures they dreamed or dealt in, going
down to that engulfment everything approaches;
with the man on the tree, they have vanished into the Future.
For secular agnostics like this reviewer that capital ‘F’ is more than a little disturbing. It’s also the end of a powerful, if hardly orthodox, religious poem. One almost needs to step outside (onto a ‘stone verandah’?) to collect one’s breath.
‘Equanimity’, the seventh of my fourteen, from The People’s Otherworld (1983) is a poem of comparable centrality in Murray’s oeuvre — even if he did choose to omit it from The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray (2012). Sadly, in recent years, Murray seems to have fallen out of love with his more essayistic poems in favour of a kind of latter-day Imagism. ‘Dreambabwe’ (1996) is a good early example of the trend but it’s not among my chosen fourteen:
Streaming, a hippo surfaces
like the head of someone
lifting, with still entranced eyes,
from a lake of stanzas.
‘Equanimity’, by contrast, does capture details like this but its intention is expository. ‘Equanimity’ points to the best way to interpret Murray’s work as a whole. It’s ‘a field all foreground, and equally all background’. That world may centre on Bunyah, NSW, but it widens to include its immediate surrounds, the city of Sydney in earlier decades, interesting details of other countries such as Scotland or Germany and their pasts. In the days before Google, Murray was its human equivalent. He seemed to know at least something about everything. It’s not insignificant, in this context, that he has long resisted computers and the internet and still handwrites and types directly onto paper.
‘Equanimity’’s opening does give some sense, however, of why Murray has apparently come to view it as overly discursive. Its focus seems to shift lazily and haphazardly from one detail to another (thus, of course, illustrating the poem’s point).
Birds, singly and in flocks,
are hopping over the suburb, eating, as birds do, in detail
and paying their peppercorns.
Murray risks making the point of the poem explicit: ‘we are looking into the light — it makes some smile, some grimace.’ Again I can’t resist the poem’s last three lines:
a field all foreground, and equally all background,
like a painting of equality. Of infinite detailed extent
like God’s attention. Where nothing is diminished by perspective.
The eighth poem, ‘Poetry and Religion’, from The Daylight Moon (1987) is likewise discursive. Murray did include it in his ‘hundred’ — probably because it’s both a personal statement of faith and an ars poetica of the first order. Nearly all poets have an ars poetica hidden away somewhere but not many are as good as this one.
Murray starts with the cheeky assertion that ‘Religions are poems’ and goes on to work through a number of slightly weird but persuasive aphorisms such as this gem: ‘Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words / and nothing’s true that figures in words only.’ ‘A poem,’ he suggests, is ‘like a soldier’s one short marriage night / to die and live by.’ ‘Full religion’, however, is a larger thing and ‘includes ‘the poetry caught in any religion, / caught, not imprisoned.’ Both poetry and religion are ‘‘given, and intermittent’, just like the flight of certain birds ‘who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.’
My ninth poem is ‘The Tin Wash Dish’ from Dog Fox Field (1990), twenty-five years into the fifty year career covered by Collected Poems. It’s a fierce reminder, in these relatively prosperous times, how damaging childhood poverty can be. It’s suitably assertive too in its insistent rhythms and recurrent use of rhyme. ‘It’s never the fault of those you love: / poverty comes down from above.’ Poverty’s impact is lasting — and definitive:
astound the nation, rule the army,
still you wait for the day you’ll be sent back
to the day when books or toys on the floor are rubbish
and no one’s allowed to come and play
because home calls itself a shack
and hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.
Some might consider Murray’s almost cavalier way with rhyme and metre here to be wayward or even incompetent. I think it’s better seen as forceful, a hammering home of a point which might be blander were there more rhythmic regularity and stricter form.
No less powerful is the tenth poem, ‘Dog Fox Field’, also from the collection of that title. It’s a sonnet, again irregularly rhymed, arranged into couplets. It’s also an example of where Murray goes ‘overseas’, as it were; this time to Nazi Germany. The poem’s epigraph is from the judgement at Nuremberg: ‘The test for feeblemindedness was, they had to make up a sentence using the words dog, fox and field’. Murray tellingly uses actual names:
Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big yet giggled small,
Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.
It’s not only a poignant tribute to the murdered but a ferocious dismissal of those Nazis too stupid to realise the talents (not to mention the humanity) of those they were murdering. The sonnet’s final couplet memorably, and uncomfortably, updates the situation: ‘Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end, /they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.’ These last two lines are open to different interpretations, some more generous than others, but it’s hard to escape the impression that Murray feels, even today, our psychiatrists and medical bureaucrats still have a lot to answer for.
The eleventh poem, ‘Bat’s Ultrasound’, from Translations from the Natural World (1992) is best heard read aloud by the poet himself, who may well be the only person who has ever done so effectively. (Happily, there’s a recording here.) The poem is an outstanding display of Murray’s ability — not only to see into the minds of other animals without being anthropomorphic but also of his wild way with alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia when the mood takes him. And, of course, there’s a jokey little religious reference at the end. ‘A rare ear, our aery Yahweh’. Are the bats perhaps singing one of the secret names of God?
From the same sequence is the twelfth poem, ‘The Cows on Killing Day’, guaranteed to make the most dedicated carnivore think again (although, at last report, the author himself has yet to turn vegan). The poem is a triumph of empathy, even ‘metempsychosis’ as Kenneth Slessor might have said. With the single, highly original semantic leap of having a cow refer to her whole herd as a collective ‘me’ (in the both the subjective and objective cases) Murray, over a page-and-a-half, presents an unforgettable series of images of how dairy cows understand the humans who control their lives.
Lines like ‘The heifer human smells of needing the bull human / and is angry’ are a great example of the defamiliarisation process, so frequently essential to good poetry. Equally powerful is the killing of a cow who has gone dry and has therefore to be shot. ‘Me shivers and falls down / with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear’. At first the mob, the ‘me’ come running too see what has happened; then, abruptly, they are fleeing. ‘and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky’.
Poem number thirteen is ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’ (Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996). It’s written from the poet’s son Alexander’s experience of autism. As with ‘The Cows on Killing Day’, the poem has an extended and enabling linguistic device, namely referring consistently to autism as an ‘it’, as if the condition has a will of its own and is indulging the poet by allowing its portrait to be captured ‘in line scan’.
‘It still runs him round the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing’. And later: ‘It still won’t allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in it.’ Later though ‘He is equitable and kind, and only ever a little jealous. It was a relief when that little arrived’. It’s important also to remember the subject of the poem is an adolescent of fifteen — a fact which underlies the extraordinary power of its famous last line: ‘I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the future. I gotta get smart!’
The fourteenth and final poem is ‘The Last Hellos’, also from Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996). It’s another personal poem — this time about the poet’s father, Cecil. I met Murray’s father a few times in his last years and gleaned a sense of the relationship between these two very different people, the poet and his timber-getter/dairy-farmer father. If it were relevant, I would vouch for the accuracy of the portrait ‘The Last Hellos’ presents. As with all successful poetic portraits, however, it starts with particulars and ends in universals.
The most important of these universals is our cultural difficulty in dealing with death. ‘People can’t say goodbye / any more. They just say last hellos’. The rural working class may be slightly better at it. The poet does note ‘The courage of his bluster, / firm big voice of his confusion’ but it’s not easy going. ‘You’re bustin to talk but / I’m too busy dyin,’ his father says in hospital on his last day.
Part three of the poem evokes the immediate aftermath of the death. ‘We’re still using your imagination, / it was stronger than all ours’ and certain hard, practical details:
Your grave’s got littler
somehow, in the three months.
More pointy as the clay’s shrivelled,
like a stuck zip in a coat.
‘The Last Hellos’ ends in a kind of outburst, almost as if the poet’s grief has momentarily spun out of control, despite his having claimed earlier,: ‘Grief ended when he died’. No matter what the reader’s metaphysical inclinations are, the poem’s last three lines are both moving and disturbing:
Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck thém. I wish you God.
Certainly, there’s a variety of paranoia here, as if atheists and agnostics are snootily looking down on those who are simple enough believe. It’s notable, however, that Murray, addressing his dead father, can only ‘wish you God’. He can’t guarantee it and has to settle for uncertainty.
Collected Poems gathers another 700 or so poems by Les Murray but these fourteen are, on my reading, where the centre of his work lies. Most of the remainder (but not all) are excellent poems. They certainly work to fill out a field that is ‘all foreground, and equally all background’. Though Murray believes, at least for God, that ‘nothing is diminished by perspective’, the winnowing of time and the tastes of anthologists will tend to shrink this massive book to something like the fourteen poems I’ve been urging upon you. The book may not in itself be ‘a painting of equality’ but it would be silly to differentiate among these fourteen. They are going to be around for a very long time.