Taller When Prone: Poems
by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 82 pp., $24.00
Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression
by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 86 pp., $13.00 (paper)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The versifying in Fredy Neptune is consistently lively, and there are plenty of striking incidents, but Murray’s skills as a storyteller are limited, and what may be intended as picaresque quickly degenerates into just one thing after another. Murray himself has hinted that the novel is best read side by side with the Redneck poems, that is to say, as a cathartic exercise in getting a weight of resentful rage off his chest.
None of the poems I have singled out as among Murray’s best dates from later than 1992. Since that date he has—aside from the Collected Poems of 2002—published five collections of—in my view—lesser work, the newest of them entitled Taller When Prone.
Murray is not a poet of the inner life. Instead he relies on an acute sensitivity to sensory impressions and an extraordinary capacity to articulate them. Taller When Prone proves that he has lost none of this power. Thus we read of “the appalling/caustic and thistlehead bite” of the waters of the Dead Sea, of a police cruiser “[lying] in cover like a long-jawed/flat dog beside the traffic stream,” of eucalypts in California that “explode the mansions of Malibu/because to be eucalypts/they have to shower sometimes in Hell.”
The new poems are not, in themselves, ambitious. Some are simply snapshots, records of sights that have arrested the poet in his travels. Others note, in a tone more graceful than doleful, the passing of old country ways. Tribute is paid to Hesiod, Murray’s admired ancestor among the shades; John Calvin, patron saint of Presbyterianism, is frostily recognized. The lethal bushfires in Victoria in 2009 are blamed on the ecological legacy of the detested 1960s. Witty remarks are passed on Wall Street and the global financial crisis; some fun is had with Queen Sexburga of Kent (AD 636–700), after whom Murray proposes that London’s newest airport be named.
“High-speed Bird,” recounting a cross-species encounter with a bird that knocks itself out against a windowpane, is the best piece in the collection, but suffers by comparison with “The Emerald Dove,” a poem with a similar starting point written twenty years ago. Overall, the new poems have the feel less of urgent utterances than of demonstration exercises in how a poet’s gaze works, transforming things into likenesses.
Killing the Black Dog reprints a 1997 memoir of Murray’s long struggle with depression. His most devastating spell was triggered when at a public event in 1988 he bumped into one of his childhood persecutors, who pronounced the cursed schoolyard nickname and thereby called forth all the devils of the past, precipitating him into bouts of helpless weeping, panic attacks, morbid suspiciousness, compulsive eating, and bottomless sadness that went on for eight years, until a new generation of antidepressants and the unstinting support of his wife brought him back to himself.
The memoir comes with a combative afterword, dated 2009, in which Murray rehashes old but evidently not forgotten quarrels with “official” Australian culture, condemned for orchestrating media campaigns against him and more generally for being out of touch with public sentiment. The book concludes with twenty-five previously published poems, selected to chronicle the course of his illness from the 1960s to the present.
The time has perhaps come for Les Murray to let go of old grudges. Now in his seventies, he has received many public honors and is widely acknowledged to be the leading Australian poet of his generation. His poems are “taught” in schools and universities; scholars write learned articles about them. He claims that he is read more abroad than at home. This may or may not be so. But even if it were true, he would not be the first writer to suffer such a fate; and it’s a better fate than not being read at all. If there are a handful of purists who for political reasons will have nothing to do with him or his works, so much the worse for them—the loss is theirs.
* Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996). ↩
Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996). ↩