The Angry Genius of Les Murray


In 1960 a bulky anthology titled The New American Poetry came out under the imprint of Grove Press. It contained samples of the work of some forty poets, most of them young, unknown outside the circumscribed world of poetry readings and little magazines. As a guide to a new generation of American poets it was unreliable: among the rising stars it missed out were Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Richard Wilbur. But covering the field was never the intention of its editor, Donald M. Allen. Rather, Allen wanted to showcase a surge of new writers who were not interested in the kind of poem—the compact, well-crafted, personal lyric—favored in the New Critical schoolroom, who in sprawling verses preferred to denounce the military-industrial complex or sing the body electric or report visions of the Buddha in the supermarket.

Les Murray, December 1962

Grove Press could not have guessed at the impact the book would have. The New American Poetry both captured and helped to create the spirit of the 1960s. In its first decade it sold a hundred thousand copies; in 1999—by which time half the young rebels it had announced were in the grave—it could be republished as a classic.

The new wave took some years to reach the Antipodes. When the anthology did wash ashore in Sydney, it was promptly impounded by a customs service charged with protecting the morals of a notably prim public (Joyce’s Ulysses could not be openly sold in Australia until 1953). Once it was released and absorbed, however, its effects were far-reaching. The Australian body poetic divided in two, enthusiasts for the New Americans clustering under the umbrella of the magazine New Poetry, while doubters migrated to Poetry Australia, edited (from 1973) by Les A. Murray, a poet with, by then, two books of verse to his name.

Though not unreceptive to American examples—his early poems owe a clear debt to Robert Frost—Murray was hostile to Modernism in most of its manifestations. Allen’s poets appear to have been given only the most cursory of readings. In Gary Snyder, for instance, Murray detected the “almost affectless equanimity of the uprooted modern person”—about as thorough a misreading of Snyder as is possible. But Murray was using Allen’s poets only as stand-ins for a larger and vaguer target: the Modernist sensibility, the Modernist worldview. Modernists, in his dismissive diagnosis, wrote out of a “pathological state [of] depression.” “Modernism’s not modern: its true name’s Despair.”

As an antidote to Modernist despair, Murray recommended a dose of Australian verse of the kind popular in the late nineteenth century. To back up his prescription he would go on to produce his own anthology, The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, in which convict ditties, drinking songs, and anonymous ballads were strongly represented, as well as Aboriginal songs in translation.

Murray’s wholesale rejection of…

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