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If W.H. Auden was right that a "poet's hope" is to be "like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere", then Les Murray – who turned 80 in October – has profoundly realised such a wish. Murray's work is deeply "local" in its engagement with Australian milieus, themes, and histories. Indeed, he has often been named as the obvious choice for a possible Australian poet laureateship – despite stating that he has no interest in such a role.
Les Murray’s imagistic skill is matched by a strong sensitivity to language’s sonic potential in his poems.Credit:Pat Scala
But Murray's poetry is also intensely transnational, taking in world history (natural, social, religious, and political) and non-Anglophone languages and literatures. (As an ex-translator and linguistic, Murray is extraordinarily multilingual.) In some ways, he is not unlike the globe-trotting hero of Fredy Neptune (1998), Murray's picaresque verse narrative that, along with this third iteration of his Collected Poems, makes up the work Murray wishes to preserve.
And what a body of work it is. From the epigram to the epic, Murray demonstrates an astonishing linguistic inventiveness. His poetry is full of puns, forms, original and outlandish rhymes, brilliant metaphors, and jokes, all of which add up to a poetic idiolect unlike anyone else's. Who but Murray could have described an emu in this way? "Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles haircut / raises an alert periscope and stares out / over scrub." It is true that in all this inventiveness, Murray can be wildly uneven, but then so can Paul McCartney (talking of the Beatles), and he is the greatest songwriter of our age.
Collected Poems by Les Murray.
Murray's brilliance was on show right from the start. His first two collections, The Ilex Tree (1965) and The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969), show his fully realised ability to evoke place (usually rural) through striking, sometimes surreal, imagery. For instance, in Tableau in January, a description of the main street of a country town, we find the following: "In the cool of doorways, shirts drink lemonade." Meanwhile a poem such as Recourse to the Wilderness shows how Murray's imagistic skill is matched by a strong sensitivity to language's sonic potential: "Damp furrows smelt of spring, / cool iron and thistle-stems. Far-off windows shone / approaching, receding. Cars dipped below the world's edge / on unknown roads."
Murray's signature style – a potent mix of ordinary language, specialist vocabulary, and eccentric syntax – really becomes apparent in his third collection, Poems Against Economics. This style is especially apparent in two poems concerning colonial violence: Conquests and The Ballad of Jimmy Governor. (The subject of the latter poem is found in Thomas Keneally's novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, also from 1972.) Both poems are dramatic monologues – poems in which the speaker is not the poet – a sub-genre often favoured by Murray, just as he is attracted to second-person address. These strategies both introduce and do away with distance, forming what we might call a sense of "intimate distance".
Critics have long been drawn to oxymoron when discussing Murray's poetry, appropriately so as oxymoron and paradox are central to Murray's poetics. They can be found in his titles (The Weatherboard Cathedral, The Daylight Moon), his imagery (bikies are described as "Santas from Hell"), and in his politico-cultural statements (he is "at once revolutionary and reactionary", as Meghan O'Rourke put it in The New York Times). The yoking together of disparate categories is also seen in Murray's experiments with marrying Indigenous and settler culture, such as The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, a poem widely anthologised in the 1980s and '90s, but that would perhaps now sit uneasily with current sensitivities regarding cultural appropriation.
Possibly less problematic is Murray's bridging of the divide between human and non-human consciousness. The poems in Translations from the Natural World (1992), in which Murray poetically renders a diversity of animals, are among his most celebrated. Here, Murray is engaged in almost pure linguistic play, even as he attempts to occupy the non-linguistic world of animals. Echidna, for instance, presents that animal's consciousness in the following way: "Love is fat is sleep. I feast life on and sleep it, / deep loveself in calm." As this shows, Murray likes to test the limits of his readers' comprehension. As a putatively "national poet", he is no Banjo Paterson.
Murray is often less comfortable, and less playful, when concerned with the human world. This is most clearly, and controversially, seen in Murray's 1996 collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, a collection that deals in part with Murray's sense of hurt over his "relegation" for being poor, non-Indigenous, and rural. This work finds Murray at his most scathing, as seen in poems such as The Suspension of Knock and A Brief History in which he describes "the unspeakable Whites" of Australia as "immigrant natives without immigrant rights", a political sentiment that went on to be more bluntly mouthed by the likes of Pauline Hanson.
But, as Subhuman Redneck Poems also shows, Murray's skills were only occasionally in thrall to his (anti-)ideology. Subhuman Redneck Poems, for all it caused controversy, includes some of Murray's greatest poems, such as Corniche (concerning the poet's depression), It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen (a poem concerning the autism of the poet's son), and The Last Hellos (Murray's elegy for his father).
Since the publication of Subhuman Redneck Poems, Murray has faced a life-threatening illness, overcome his depression (as described in 1997's Killing the Black Dog), and been less inclined to court controversy. Murray's past five collections – from Conscious and Verbal (1999) to Waiting for the Past (2015) – are notable for a comparative sense of equanimity, an attraction to smaller forms and shorter lines (though the "sprawl" of Murray's earlier work can still be found), and a deepened investment (which doesn't always pay dividends) in the quotidian or even the inconsequential.
This latest (hardback) edition of Murray's Collected Poems is suitably large and well-produced. The text is presented as one long stream of poetry, meaning that one has to consult the table of contents to know which poems were originally published in which collections. I can see the attraction of presenting Murray's work as all of a piece, but I am uptight enough to want to know if a poem is, for example, from the marvellously (though perhaps now obscurely) titled Lunch and Counter Lunch (1974) or Ethnic Radio (1977), so I find this editorial decision slightly irksome.
Other than two indices (of titles and first lines), and the characteristic dedication "To the glory of God", Collected Poems is an impressively unfussy summation of a career. These poems stand on their own terms, free of introductions, notes, or any other paratextual matter. This lack of explicatory material and the dedication are related. As Murray writes in Poetry and Religion (from 1987's The Daylight Moon), "Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition; / like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete / with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?"
It is a sublime irony that Murray is considered to be our "national" poet. A rural, university-educated Catholic, married to a migrant Australian, who describes himself as a "subhuman redneck" and who is suspicious of the very institutions that revere him, Murray is neither metropolitan elite nor true-blue ocker. Despite the polemics and the crises of his career, his best poems are everything a Hansonesque Australia would almost certainly distrust: complex, witty, genuinely anti-authoritarian, capacious, transnational, and encyclopaedically knowledgeable.
They are also profoundly human, alive not just to the poet's sufferings, but also to those of others. Murray's humanity is perhaps most clearly shown in his generosity, his sharing of his attentive, thoroughly original view of the world. Only Murray could have pointed out that our heraldic emu has "lips of noble plastic".
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