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The Angry Genius of Les Murray

1.

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.

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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 Modernism may seem to mark him as simply an isolated provincial conservative swimming against the tide of the times. But there was more substance to his response than that. For a poet to repudiate newfangled foreign fashions and stand up instead for a home-grown tradition that celebrated the life of the mounted frontiersman (or his outlaw cousin the bushranger) was, in its Australian context, a clear political statement. Since the 1890s, the lone horseman in the bush had been used, in agitation for union of the six British colonies in an Australian federation, as an icon of national identity. “The narrow ways of English folk/Are not for such as we;/They bear the long-accustomed yoke/Of staid conservancy,” wrote A.B. (“Banjo”) Paterson, much-loved poet of the bush. “We must saddle up and ride/Towards the blue hill’s breast:/And we must travel far and fast/Across their rugged maze.”

In truth, even in Paterson’s time there was more than a little idealization in the picture of Australians as restless frontier spirits: by 1900 a majority were settled in towns and cities (compared with 40 percent in the United States). But in pitting the ballad tradition against the Modernists, Murray was calling on Australian poetry to follow its own native course and foster its own native values, including an optimistic expansiveness that turned its back on both the “narrow ways” of the old Mother Country and the cramped despair of the Modernists, and a no-nonsense egalitarianism, suspicious of all pretensions, including intellectual pretensions. (Of the three rallying cries of modern democratic revolutions, equality has always had more resonance in Australia than liberty.)

Curiously, lone horsemen are pretty much absent from Murray’s own poetry. For him the totemic beast has been not the horse but the cow, which stands for domesticity rather than solitude, settlement rather than exploration. One of his most ambitious poems, the sequence “Walking to the Cattle Place” (1972), traces the line of descent of Australian cattle farming back to the cattle cultures of ancient India and Grecian Boeotia. Boeotia, sneered at by its rival, Athens, as rustic and unsophisticated, is elected by Murray as his spiritual birthplace, a shining example of a decentralized, rurally based polity.

If the good people of rural New South Wales (where Murray is from) are the Boeotians, and Murray is their Hesiod, then the Athenians are represented by the Sydney intelligentsia. “The educated caste,” writes Murray, “has been able to free itself from the older [land-owning] Establishment and become a dominating, oppressing power in its own right,” conducting all-out war on “vernacular Australia,” vernacular Australia being the

republic…inherent in our vernacular tradition, which is to say in that “folk” Australia, part imaginary and part historical, which is the real matrix of any distinctiveness we possess as a nation,…the Australia of our deepest common values and identifications.

One of the weapons used by the intelligentsia against rural white Australians, says Murray, is to stigmatize them as “bigoted, conservative, ignorant, despoilers of the environment, a doomed, obsolete group.” The term he uses for the process of putting down a despised class is relegation. The class war on rural white Australians is only one instance of a wider process of relegation practiced by the post-Enlightenment West against older, unenlightened cultures, including Aboriginal culture in Australia.

Thus what is at stake in the choice for or against Modernism is, in Murray’s eyes, not just the survival in Australia of simple, humane, communal, old-fashioned country values but, more widely, the survival worldwide of a way of life thousands of years old. Murray’s conservatism is defined by his defense of this traditional way of life.

2.

Murray likes to present himself as an outsider to urban networks of cultural power. This is not an accurate picture. Murray is in fact a considerable intellectual and, until his midlife move back to his rural birthplace of Bunyah, NSW, was a substantial presence in the public arena. A polyglot with a degree in German literature, he was employed for years by the Australian National University as a translator, with responsibility for all the Germanic and Romance languages. As an essayist and anthologist he advanced a powerful if idiosyncratic reading of the Australian poetic tradition from its colonial beginnings. As editor of Poetry Australia and as poetry consultant to a major publisher he was also, to a degree, able to steer Australian poetry along the course he wanted it to take.

In spite of his modest origins, his gifts were recognized early: among his patrons were such important literary figures as Kenneth Slessor and A.D. Hope. Used as an unofficial adviser by Gough Whitlam, prime minister from 1972 to 1975, Murray helped devise a system of financial support for the arts, a system that might properly be called enlightened and that Murray himself has benefited from hugely.

Though he has at various times held university fellowships, Murray has little good to say about universities, particularly about what goes on in the literature classroom. Academic literary critics are, to him, heirs of an Enlightenment hostile to the creative spirit. Behind its mask of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, he sees the Enlightenment itself as a cabal of rootless, disaffected clercs scheming to grasp power, usually by controlling the fashion for what may or may not be said in public (“political correctness”). Universities have been turned by the Enlightenment into “humiliation mills” that grind out generations of students ashamed of their social origins, alienated from their native culture, recruits to a new metropolitan class whose Australian manifestation Murray dubs “the Ascendancy.” The term is meant to capture both the “foreign-derived oppressiveness” of the new class and its “arriviste, first-generation flavour.” The Ascendancy is “the natural upper class of a socialist world order”; holding a university degree is the modern equivalent of being a landowner.

In the eyes of most people, higher education offers students a chance to improve themselves and perhaps move up the social ladder. This is what, back in 1957, Sydney University offered Les Murray, son of a struggling tenant farmer. The young man’s response was confused. He missed classes, failed examinations, dropped out to lead a vagrant life, yet finally returned to complete his degree. In Murray’s own account of that period of his life, he took only what he wanted from the university—the resources of its library—while resisting its more insidious sociopolitical project. But the very vehemence of Murray’s polemic against higher education—a vehemence in which there is more than a touch of hysteria—suggests a supplementary reading: that the young man was as much attracted as repulsed by the promise that submission to the rituals and mysteries of the academy would allow him to shed his origins and be reborn declassed.

3.

The self-authored myth of how Murray of the many wiles evaded the Enlightenment, resisted the lures of the Ascendancy, fought off the Modernists, traveled the world, saw many sights, and returned at last to his own Ithaca forms the backbone of a not incon-siderable oeuvre: a five-hundred-page Collected Poems (2002) plus two later collections (2006, 2010); two novels in verse; and a body of essays on literary and political subjects.

Certain themes in this myth stand out for the importance Murray attaches to them or—what amounts to the same thing—for the part they play in his work. The principal of these is Bunyah as the Great Good Place. Another is the poisoned childhood: from being belittled and punished as a child, Murray learned to despise and punish himself, his self-loathing rising to a peak at high school, where he was taunted for being fat and given the nickname Bottom. Another theme is the inherited (genetic) curse, manifesting itself both in inconsiderate, even cruel treatment of those around him (“autism”) and in spells when he is not himself, is out of his mind, in the grip of depression, a.k.a. the Black Dog. A fourth theme is vocation: after marrying a Catholic and converting from the rigid Presbyterianism into which he was born, he discovered how to serve God by being his poet-priest. “Prose is Protestant-agnostic,” he writes, “but poetry is Catholic:/poetry is presence.”

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