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The Prodigal Prodigy

Learning Human: Selected Poems

Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 230 pp., $27.00

There was a time when Australian artists with something new to say packed their bags, left the country, and didn’t return until they had made their reputations in more sympathetic surroundings. During the early Sixties, for example, most of Australia’s best painters were working in London: Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Colin Lanceley, Brett Whitely, Lawrence Daws, John Perceval. Also in town were the young Robert Hughes, the poet Peter Porter, and Barry Humphries, Australia’s own megastar in the making.

When Albert Tucker, the first of the painters to leave, got on the boat to Europe, he explained bleakly, “I am a refugee from Australian culture.” London, of course, was famously swinging in the Sixties, although a decade or so earlier its culture had been as timorous, narrow-minded, and fiercely antimodernist as Australia’s. Yehudi Menuhin’s first performance of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto and the Tate Gallery’s exhibition of the great wartime canvasses of Picasso and Matisse provoked storms of outrage and derision. But these were mild compared to the whoops of philistine delight inspired by the Ern Malley affair in Australia during the war.

Like Chatterton’s Rowley poems and Macpherson’s Ossian, Ern Malley was an elaborate literary hoax. It was cooked up by two clever young conscript poets, Lieutenant James McAuley and Corporal Harold Stewart, as a joke, they claimed, to while away a boring Saturday afternoon in the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. Unlike Chatterton and Macpherson, however, McAuley and Stewart’s intentions were wholly malicious. Rowley and Ossian were acts of homage to the Romantic-Gothick style; that is why Wordsworth and Keats worshiped Chatterton, and Ossian was revered throughout Europe—even by Napoleon. Ern Malley was designed simply to expose the sham of modernist verse and the gullibility of those who promoted it.

To this end, his creators gave him all the appropriate credentials for a misunderstood genius: they made him a misfit and a loner who worked as a garage mechanic, sold insurance, then died at the age of twenty-five, leaving a sheaf of poems which his bereaved and appropriately uncomprehending sister, Edna, bundled up and sent to Angry Penguins, Australia’s most belligerently avant-garde magazine. Max Harris, the editor, was convinced he had discovered another “marvellous boy,” the Antipodes’ answer to Rimbaud and Chatterton. With much trumpeting, he published Malley’s complete works in a special edition of his magazine, with a brilliant imaginary portrait of Malley by Sidney Nolan on the cover. The hoaxers then tipped off the tabloids, and poetry—for the first and probably last time in Australian history—became front-page news. Harris was not merely made to look a fool, he was hauled up in court by the police, charged with publishing obscene material. McAuley and Stewart had their moment of triumph, but it was Ern Malley who had the last laugh: the poems they concocted for him turned out to be more interesting and enduring than most of those they wrote under their own names. But the final triumph was for the philistines. The Ern Malley affair set Australian culture back for years.

Although it was a literary scandal, it was the painters who bore the brunt of it. On one level this was inevitable: reading poetry is an acquired skill and the audience is always small; painting, in comparison, is a more visible art in all senses, and every ignoramus knows what he or she likes. More important, painters like Nolan and Boyd were major figures and, as poor Ern Malley was pretending to do, they were using modernist techniques to create a specifically Australian art. For example, when Nolan hung a cow in a tree, it wasn’t a homage to Chagall. It was something he had seen in the outback after a freak flood, and he had photographs to prove it. The painters were trying to do justice to the eerie Australian landscape, with its peeling gum trees and burnt hills and dazzling light—a light like that in Dante’s Paradiso, so clear that there might never have been a cloud. Australia had one or two good minor poets at that time—above all the fastidious Judith Wright—but they were fettered to the Mother Country and, until Les Murray, who was born in 1938, appeared on the scene a couple of decades later, none of them had the range or the talent or the sheer ambition of the painters.

Murray announced his arrival with extraordinary self-confidence:

It began at dawn with fighter planes:
they came in off the sea and didn’t rise,
they leaped the sandbar one and one and one
coming so fast the crockery they shook down
off my kitchen shelves was spinning in the air
when they were gone.

They came in off the sea and drew a wave
of lagging cannon-shells across our roofs.
Windows spat glass, a truck took sudden fire,
out leaped the driver, but the truck ran on,
growing enormous, shambling by our street-doors,
coming and coming…

By every right in town, by every average
we knew of in the world, it had to stop,
fetch up against a building, fall to rubble
from pure force of burning, for its whole
body and substance were consumed with heat
but it would not stop.

And all of us who knew our place and prayers
clutched our verandah-rails and window-sills,
begging that truck between our teeth to halt,
keep going, vanish, strike…but set us free.
And then we saw the wild boys of the street
go running after it.

And as they followed, cheering, on it crept,
windshield melting now, canopy-frame a cage
torn by gorillas of flame, and it kept on
over the tramlines, past the church, on past
the last lit windows, and then out of the world
with its disciples.

The Burning Truck” is the poem Murray puts first in Learning Human, his chronological selection of the poems he considers his best. Its subject is war and it was written around 1965, a time when Australian verse was still taking its cue from elsewhere and antiwar agit-prop was all the fashion. But the war Murray writes about is the World War II he experienced in his childhood, not Vietnam, and his attitude toward it is anything but self-righteous. An incident that might have been full of dread—a low-level Japanese fighter raid—becomes instead a source of wild excitement, a child’s delight in the anarchy and violence that erupts when rules are turned on their heads and the placid certainties of “all of us who knew our place and prayers” are vacuumed up in a great liberating rush of adrenalin.

But that’s not the whole story. Although “The Burning Truck,” like all of Murray’s best poems, is suffused with energy and appetite, something deeper and stranger is going on below the surface. It is as though the poet himself were physically swept up in the backdraft of the excitement. He doesn’t simply observe the incident and describe it; he somehow becomes it—becomes, that is, the burning truck “growing enormous, shambling by our street-doors,/coming and coming…a cage/torn by gorillas of flame.” He might as well be announcing his own arrival on the literary scene, and he expresses it as a curiously physical experience.

This fits with his conception of poetry as a process that brings mind and body and fantasy together all at once: “You’ve got to be able to dream at the same time as you think to write poetry,” he has said.

You think with a double mind. It’s like thinking with both sides of your brain at once. And if you can’t do that, you can’t write poetry. You can write expository prose, but poetry is as much dreamed as it is thought and it’s as much danced in the body as it is written. It’s done in your lungs. It’s done in every part of your muscles—you can feel it in your muscles.

That quotation comes from Peter F. Alexander’s Les Murray: A Life in Progress, a shrewd, measured, meticulously researched interim biography, written with the poet’s cooperation.*

Alexander makes it clear that Murray was a prodigy from the start—“a word freak,” he called himself. He was speaking before he was two, tod-dling around the yard reciting nursery rhymes by heart; by four he was reading, devouring every book in the house; by the time he went to school, at nine, he had memorized great tracts of his mother’s eight-volume encyclopedia. Later he developed an extraordinary knack for picking up foreign languages effortlessly, as though by osmosis. (His first, and virtually only, steady job was in the Translation Unit at the Australian National University at Canberra. He gave it up to concentrate on his poetry.)

Being a prodigy, however, was not necessarily an advantage in the impoverished New South Wales backwater where the Murrays lived. Bunyah was populated by the kind of “good country folk” Flannery O’Connor wrote about so sardonically—hardscrabble farmers, suspicious of anything that smacked of pretension, especially books. “We didn’t dwell a lot on readers,” one of the locals told Alexander complacently. More important, Murray was a disturbed child, always on the go, intemperate, impossible to control. “Semi-autistic” is how he described himself—the modern diagnosis would probably be Asperger’s syndrome—and his parents didn’t know how to cope with him, even though his mother was a trained nurse—a city girl and a cut above the neighbors. So his father did to his son what his own father had done to him: he thrashed him brutally for every misdemeanor, and went on thrashing him until Murray was too big and fast on his feet to be subdued.

The Murrays were stern Scottish crofters who had emigrated voluntarily to Australia in the middle of the nineteenth century and had been settled in Bunyah ever since. They owned land and had prospered, but the poet’s grandfather was a vindictive, drunken brute who deliberately kept his son poor—not hard-up, but dirt poor, barely managing to scrape a living from a few head of dairy cattle. The house the poet’s father built for his wife was a leaky wooden shack with unlined walls, and stamped-earth floors covered with linoleum. It had two rooms—the parents’ bedroom and a living room. A lean-to kitchen was tacked onto one end; at the other was a rickety porch which doubled as Murray’s bedroom. There was no running water and no electricity. This dire poverty was a source of such shame for Murray’s parents that they kept their son strictly apart from his many cousins in the farms around and refused to allow any of them into the house because, the poet told Alexander, “Home was too demeaning to let the terrible frank eyes of kids see it.” Murray didn’t begin to mix with other children until a little local school opened in the valley. By then he was nine years old and set in his ways as a loner and an autodidact. Even at school, a cousin said, he was “always in the back room, querying those books.”

The books set him apart and so did his build. He was a big child, prodigiously strong and prodigiously fat. Australian culture is famous for its resentment of the unusual, its passion for cutting everyone down to size—they call it “the tall poppy syndrome”—and later Murray suffered for his gifts at the hands of envious minor poets. His weight, however, was not a problem for him until he went away to high school in a distant town. For two nightmare years he was taunted mercilessly for his obesity—especially by the girls. But by then his life was already in ruins. When Murray was twelve his mother died as a result of a miscarriage and his father, who had been too ashamed and embarrassed by his wife’s pregnancy to call an ambulance, retreated into chronic depression. It was a dark time the poet never forgot or forgave:

From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,
we’d boil sweat-brown cloth; cows repossessed the garden.
Lovemaking brought death, was the unuttered principle.

I met a tall adopted girl some kids thought aloof,
but she was intelligent. Her poise of white-blond hair
proved her no kin to the squat tanned couple who loved her.
Only now do I realise she was my first love.

But all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale.
Mass refusal of unasked love: that works. Boys cheered as seventeen-
year-old girls came on to me, then ran back whinnying ridicule.

Like his father, Murray had always been prone to what Winston Churchill called “the black dog” and he responded to depression by eating voraciously. (Years later, when he was fifty, he went into a depressive breakdown that lasted eight terrible years; by the end, his weight was up to an astonishing 350 pounds.) Murray has always seemed proud of his girth, as though it were an outward sign of his appetite for the visible world and the physicality of his language. One of his jauntiest poems is in praise of fat people and is dedicated to Robert Morley:

Is it possible that hyper-
ventilating up Parnassus
I have neglected to pay tribute
to the Stone Age aristocracy?

I refer to the fat.

We were probably the earliest
civilized, and civilizing, humans,
the first to win the leisure,
sweet boredom, life-enhancing sprawl

that require style….

It’s likely we also invented some of love,
much of fertility (see the Willensdorf Venus)
parts of theology (divine feasting, Unmoved Movers)
likewise complexity, stateliness, the ox-cart

and self-deprecation.

Not that the lists of pugnacity are bare
of stout fellows. Ask a Sumo.
Warriors taunt us still, and fear us:
in heroic war, we are apt to be the specialists

and the generals.

But we do better in peacetime. For ourselves
we would spare the earth. We were the first moderns
after all, being like the Common Man
disqualified from tragedy….

Fatness and informality are principles of faith for Murray and he has written about them in many forms—“The Quality of Sprawl,” “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”—always tenderly, wittily, yearningly. They go with his love of grunge, his terrible teeth, and his youthful reluctance to bathe, as though sheer size absolved him from having to bother about appearances.

They also go with his image of himself as a typical Australian, since Australians have a talent for informality and present themselves to the world—triumphantly in the recent Olympics—as easygoing, friendly, and hard to impress. (The leveling, envious poppy-lopping is the downside of this democratic spirit.) Even so, Murray was ahead of his time. As a student at Sydney University in the late Fifties, he was slopping around in government-surplus castoffs while his contemporaries were still wearing ties, tweed jackets, and brogues.

Zero Mostel once said, “Success didn’t go to my head. It went to my waistline.” Murray’s girth seems directly proportional to his poetic reach and, among many appetites, his truest is for Australia itself. Unlike poor Ern Malley, Murray never wanted to imitate the modernist masters; he wanted to transform Australian vernacular and Australian back-country life into his own unique form of modernism. “My ‘reply’ to the expat. generations,” he said, “was to succeed from home.” He has a Whitmanesque ambition to pin down the commonplace reality of his country in verse, to include everything, especially the everything that more finicky poets turn away from—the deprived and depriving world he was born to. Hence the fighting title of one of his recent collections: Subhuman Redneck Poems.

It doesn’t always work. Like all prolific writers, he is inconsistent, even in this personal selection. At times his ambition gets the better of him and his sheer technical proficiency becomes a burden. The rhyming seems too easy, the verbiage too lush, as though Murray the “word-freak” had been seduced by his love of language and the thick taste of words in his mouth. He is least effective in big, set-piece landscape poems like “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” and “Flood Plains on the Coast Facing Asia,” which read like travelogues—roll calls of place-names and scenes, clogged with details, overstuffed with double-barreled adjectives, though clearing intermittently to a kind of King James Bible grandeur: “the storm veers mightily on its stem, above the roof; the hills uphold it.”

But when he is truly attending to whatever is before his eyes the results are sometimes extraordinary:

Going out to pick beans with the sun high as fence-tops, you find
plenty, and fetch them. An hour or a cloud later
you find shirtfuls more. At every hour of daylight

appear more than you missed: ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided,
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck.

It’s all a question of tone: the casual leading into the rococo, setting it off, calming it down.

Casual is what Murray does best. To my mind, the most successful poems in the book are the simplest and most intimate. This, for example, to a fellow poet:

Since you’d become happy,
you told me, you’d stopped writing poems.
I should wish you a long silence. I do,
I do, if you mean it.

And this, to his daughter on her wedding day:

This must be the secular human lot: health
till high old age, children of character,
dear friendships. And the testing one: wealth.
Quietly we add ours: may you
always have each other, and want to.

Murray is a great virtuoso and he has used his manifold talents to put Australia literally on the poetic map. But virtuosity is an ambiguous gift; given its head, it takes over and descends into mere flamboyance—mannerism, word-play, language for language’s sake. In “Quintets to Robert Morley” he writes, “Never wholly trust the fat man/who lurks in the lean achiever/ and in the defeated, yearning to get out.” In his own case, the reverse is mostly true. Murray the fat virtuoso, flashing up and down the verbal keyboard, is less impressive than Murray the lean Australian—offhand, unfooled, and blithely at ease with himself.

  1. *

    Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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