These four themes are interlinked, as they are linked with Murray’s wider social and political views. From having it drummed into him as a child that he was wicked, unlovely, and undesirable, Murray grew into a man torn between shame (at himself, at his origins) and anger against those who dared to jeer at him or at what he called “my people.” This anger comes out most nakedly in the Subhuman Redneck Poems of 1996, whose very title is a challenge. Here is Murray on Ascendancy high culture:
It’s my mission to irritate the hell out of the eloquent who would oppress my people, by being a paradox that their categories can’t assimilate: the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems.
The collection includes lines like these:
Most Culture has been an East German plastic bag
pulled over our heads, stifling and wet,
we see a hotly distorted world
through crackling folds and try not to gag.
Over the years, Murray has written numbers of poems that are in one way or another of Aboriginal inspiration. Some explore the history of settler–Aborigine contact; some are based on Aboriginal song forms; some use Aboriginal personae to express an Aboriginal consciousness. The most ambitious of these works is “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle,” a sequence of thirteen poems celebrating the Christmas period when city folk return to the country to join in family reunions and renew the bond with their natal earth. This song cycle, composed in long lines with a dactylic pulse, shows—triumphantly, I would say—how a modern poet working at a high creative pitch can celebrate the values of ordinary folk while remaining accessible to the ordinary reader.
Murray has written at length about the composition of his song cycle and his debt to the traditional poetry of the Wonguri-Mandjikai people of north-ern Australia, whose Song Cycle of the Moon Bone, he says, stunned him when he first read it. “It may well be the greatest poem ever composed in Australia.” He praises R.M. Berndt, its translator, for finding a language in tune with
the best Australian vernacular speech…. It has perhaps been the tragedy, the sickness, of poetry here [in Australia] that it has so rarely caught precisely that tone, and that our audiences have been trained not to expect it from us.
Reiterating his criticism of an arriviste Australian intelligentsia that has cut itself off from the people, he proceeds to make a contentious sociological claim:
[In the mid-twentieth century] the Aborigines were partly a people, partly a caste, partly a class, though really that last term is inaccurate: they were actually part of a larger class of the rural poor, and it is still often more useful to see them in that light than in currently fashionable radical-racialist terms. We, my family, were in the same class ourselves.
On the Murrays he observes:
I suppose we were heirs to the unadmitted guilts of the white conquest of Australia, though I don’t remember our being conscious of them at all. Perhaps we were too poorly educated….They may be no more than an outgrowth of learned liberalism, or a residue of childhood fears. Really, I am not at all sure about white conquest-guilt; it may be no more than a construct of the political Left, that great inventor of prescriptive sentiments and categories.
Murray’s assimilation of the white rural poor with the people whose lands they took over; his reluctance to, in the parlance of today, “say sorry” for the historic crimes of colonialism (“You can’t go apologising for things you [sc. personally] didn’t do,” he objected in a 2001 interview); and, not least, his use (“appropriation”) of Aboriginal cultural forms without the permission of their ancestral guardians have all been controversial.
In response to criticism, Murray has distanced himself from an individualism that looks down on communal forms and a cosmopolitanism that denigrates local attachments. He asserts in their place a color-blind Australian nationalism that encompasses a Romantic belief in culture springing organically from the native soil:
I am grateful beyond measure to the makers and interpreters of traditional Aboriginal poetry and song for many things, not least for showing me a deeply familiar world in which art is not estranged, but is a vital source of health for all the members of a community…. Aboriginal art has given me a resort of reference and native strength, a truly Australian base to draw on against the constant importation of Western decays and idiocies and class consciousness.
In essays written in the 1980s, Murray gives a striking phenomenological account of the experience of reading poetry. Less convincingly, he goes on to make claims for the importance of poetry to our psychic health. The experience of reading a “real” poem, Murray says,
is marked by a strange simultaneity of stillness and racing excitement. Our mind wants to hurry on and have more and more of it, but at the same time it is held by an awe which yearns to prolong the moment and experience it as timeless. We only half-notice, consciously, that our breathing has tightened and altered, submitting to commands from beyond ourselves…. We may say that the poem is dancing us to its rhythm, even as we sit apparently still, reading it. It is, discreetly, borrowing our body to embody itself.
The poem itself is a paradoxical entity, both finite and inexhaustible:
Each interpretation we put upon the poem will wear out in time, and come to seem inadequate, but the standing event of the poem will remain, exhausting our attempts to contain or defuse it.
Drawing upon popular psychology of the day, Murray identifies the lately evolved human forebrain as the site of waking consciousness, while the older, reptilian brain is responsible for dreams. A “real” poem, being both truly thought and truly dreamed, represents “wholeness of thinking and of life.” It “enacts this wholeness and draws us into it, so as to promote and refresh our own [wholeness].”
This approach to the defense of poetry, though not unusual in itself, seems curious in the light of Murray’s strictures on Modernism. For the conception of the poem as a timeless object that invites yet exhausts interpretation reminds one of nothing so much as the poem as verbal icon (William K. Wimsatt) or as well-wrought urn (Cleanth Brooks). In fact, Murray’s poetics sits very well with the blend of English psychological empiricism and German idealist aesthetics that made up American New Criticism; and many of his poems themselves respond well to the kind of close, objective reading promoted in the New Critical classroom.
New Criticism was notoriously unhelpful in the reading of “primitive” poetry like the Moon Bone Cycle, or poetry in the line of Walt Whitman or Charles Olson—the line followed in Allen’s New American Poetry. It is to Murray’s credit as a poet that his own more expansive work leaves his theorizing well behind. One of the chief Australian values that he celebrates is sprawl. Sprawl is to Murray what loafing is to Whitman: an at-easeness in the world that upsets the tidy minds of schoolteachers and urban planners. “Reprimanded and dismissed/sprawl,” “listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail/of possibility.”
In an unpublished letter quoted by his biographer Peter Alexander, Murray describes his poetry-writing as “quasi-priestly work” done in imitation of Christ (“It’s His life as I can live it by my efforts”). In this respect Murray harks back to the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, to whom he owes more than one debt.
Paul Kane, who has written the best study we have of poetry in Australia, traces Murray’s views on poetry and religion back to Rudolph Otto (1869–1937), whose book Das Heilige (1917), translated as The Idea of the Holy, Murray read during his student years; and, behind Otto, to the philosopher Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773–1843), who posited a faculty of Ahnung (surmise, presentiment) that allows human beings direct cognition of the divine. It is via this unorthodox branch of Kantian philosophy, Kane suggests, that Murray’s thinking about the poetic vocation ought to be approached.*
In a number of important poems from the early 1980s, Murray explores the state of mind (or of spirit) in which the poet makes contact with the divine. The key terms here are grace and equanimity, abstractions to which his poems essay to give body. The poem “Equanimity”—which in its very tone is a model of even-spiritedness—concludes with a suggestion to us his readers that if we find the spiritual state of equanimity as difficult to grasp via the rational intellect as it is hard to achieve by an effort of the will, we may find it
more natural to look at the birds about the street, their life
that is greedy, pinched, courageous and prudential
as any on these bricked tree-mingled miles of settlement,
to watch the unceasing on-off
grace that attends their nearly every movement,
the same grace moveless in the shapes of trees
and complex in our selves and fellow walkers: we see it’s indivisible
and scarcely willed. That it lights us from the incommensurable
we sometimes glimpse, from being trapped in the point
(bird minds and ours are so pointedly visual):
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.
We should not be dismayed, suggests Murray, by the elusive, flickering, on-off quality of our contact with the numinous. Rather, we should learn to wait with equanimity—as poet or as believer—for the next flash of grace. Poetic insight and revelation are both, by their nature, “intermittent,/as the action of those birds—crested pigeon, rosella parrot—/who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.”
Murray has written poems that belong on any list of the best (“classic”) Australian verse; some of these have been around long enough to seep into the national consciousness. Among them are the ruminative sequence “Walking to the Cattle-Place” (1972) and the celebratory “Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” (1977); “Equanimity” and the pair of philosophical essay-poems “On Interest” (all 1983); numbers of more intimate pieces like “Evening Alone at Bunyah” (1969) or “The Tin Wash Dish” (1990); the virtuoso “Translations from the Natural World” (1992), showing off Murray’s uncanny power to enter into animal minds; and “Dog Fox Field” (1990), about the extermination of the feeble-minded under the Nazis.
The verse novel Fredy Neptune (1998) occupies an uneasy place in Murray’s output. On the model of Voltaire’s Candide, it takes its German-Australian hero Fredy Boettcher, an innocent with physical powers approaching the superhuman, on a tour of world history from 1914 to 1945. As a country boy continually stigmatized for his Germanness, Fredy is an obvious stand-in, if not for Murray himself then for the stigmatized self in which Murray has at times felt trapped.
* Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996). ↩
Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996). ↩