Four pages in the New Yorker should be enough attention to satisfy the ego of even an Australian poet. It is not likely that Les Murray will be basking in Dan Chiasson’s article about him for the 11&18 June issue.
As Chiasson notes: “You have to be a little bit of a lunatic to bear the specific, outsized grudges Murray has borne” despite the mass of attention and praise that has come his way. “And, indeed, there is always something demented about Murray’s poems; even at their most painstakingly rational, it is as though, to quote [Emily] Dickinison, ‘a plank in Reason, broke’.”
Murray imagines himself as the victim of a conspiracy. Typos in three poems in The Age are proof that someone was out to ruin his reputation. Lesser versifiers might suppose that a trifecta of acceptances indicated that an acolyte was boosting you.
Gerard Henderson pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 2003, that Murray sounds delusional when he denounces the “neo-Marxist” and “politically correct” Australia Council from which he received $339,873 between July 1983 and July 1993.
Chiasson reports that Murray is often spoken of as one of “the three or four leading English-language poets”, though he does not seem persuaded. He points out that Murray’s “temperament allows for only a beat or two between data and conclusion (synonymous too often for Murray with ‘condemnation’). This bluntness can be off-putting; Murray often lacks a middle register of feeling.” Yet, Chiasson admires much in Murray’s later output.
Thus, it is likely that Chiasson’s article will enter the realm of non-facts about Murray along with the dismissal of him by the doyenne of American poetry critics, Helen Vendler, in the New York Review of Books, 17 August 1989.
Vendler pricked Murray’s self-image as rough-hewn. Indeed, she found his poetry “very ladylike”. His content was Australian but his style was colonial, in debt to American and English poetics. She suggested that the “muddle” in his thinking sailed close to mendacity. She equated his descriptions as “poetry’s version of ‘slides from my summer vacation’, precious to the displayer, but stupefying to the audience.” In all, she had “found it painful to read his hundred pages of unmusical lumpy choppiness, turgid and unbuoyant.”
Vendler’s onslaught is not mentioned in either the plodding hagiography by Peter Alexander (2000) or in the critical study by Steven Matthews (2001). Is liquidating Vendler a condition for welcome at Bunyah?
A double standard operates towards Murray from Howard and his court. Murray published a poem in the voice of a suicide bomber, yet has not been denounced as was Griffith University academic David Peetz for doing the same. The difference was that Peetz also exposed the negative impact of Work Choices.
Perhaps Murray bears his outsized grudge because he is aware that the Prime Minister can no more recall a line of his verse than whatshername in Tasmania.