Slightly Sacred Poet

Subhuman Redneck Poems

by Les Murray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 104 pp., $18.00

A treasured Australian legend, which like all legends is best left anonymous though its participants were real enough, relates how two poets of that culturally conservative country decided to show up the pretensions of modernism by inventing a wholly fictitious homegrown poet who wrote in a rich but ridiculous mixture of the style and vocabulary of the moderns (the era being about that of World War II). Since the authors of the hoax were genuine poets they produced some splendidly bizarre effects, and the advent of a new native poet, who wrote with true natural originality in the style of Pound and Eliot and their followers, was hailed in the country’s leading poetry magazine. So successful was the hoax that it backfired, with culture-conscious members of the Australian public refusing to believe that this great new poet did not in fact exist.

And in a sense of course he did exist. Though the authors of the hoax intended to mock as well as to parody modernism’s abandonment of conventional sense and reason, they were themselves the involuntary bearers of its gospel. In the Antipodes modernism could become wry, tough, and comic, not at all a hothouse plant. It could grow on native soil and produce its own original species, of whom in a sense Les Murray is one. Now fifty-nine years old, he is, as a poet, entirely his own man, saluted by Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott as lord of his own language, and one by whom language lives.

But the language of poetry is never absolute or unique. Part of its fascination for the reader is the way in which it can disclose endless new variations of its own ancient possibilities. That can happen when it becomes the instrument of a poet who is as unafraid of its old sly echoes and duplicities as Les Murray has always been. Take the marvelous poem “Corniche,” one of many gems in Subhuman Redneck Poems, his seventeenth collection. Like all completely new poems it is also instantly recognizable: otherwise how would we tell it was so new? Philip Larkin once said something to the effect that writing a new poem was like trying to recapture an old tune, once heard but now tantalizingly forgotten. The tune discovered is so fresh and confident that it can talk to its new reader with total ease about the secret and sacred places it comes from. (Walcott has said of Murray that “there is no poetry in the English language now so rooted in its sacredness…and yet so intimate and conversational.”)

“Corniche” opens with a flamboyantly parodic echo from Larkin’s “Aubade,” a poem that clings so desperately to the knowledge that each dawn brings death a little nearer that it ends paradoxically by embracing the fact as if it had become a new gift of language. Murray’s poem takes “Aubade” in the genial grip of fellowship and friendliness, echoing its opening line (“Iwork all day and get half drunk at night”) in a way…

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