Les Murray
(Image: AAP/Alan Porritt)

Les, old Les is he dead then? Les Murray, Australia’s greatest poet, gone at 80. The news came over the wires just as the sideshow debate was beginning on 7TWO, sandwiched between a Get Smart episode and a Shark Rotator ad.

A tsunami of articles followed — long and pre-written pieces on our greatest poet, national institution, living treasure, etc. That he was writing to the end leaves us with a vast body of work. He identified his own expansive form with the wider world in one of his most striking works, ‘The Craze Field’:

These lagoons, these watercourses,
streets of the underworld.
Their water has become the trees that stand along them.

For all the honours and accolades, few of the obits and features do or can say what Les Murray actually did with poetry, his mind-bending transformation of what it was possible to do with words. Murray’s greatness lies in his ability to undo relations of word and thing, to draw vibrant being out of dead abstractions, to recast relations between the visible and invisible parts of the world.

That wasn’t the sort of thing people whistled to themselves, but to read the funeral lays you’d think some much-loved but conventional poet — a latter-day Lawson — had passed on. Because his “politics” were of the right, Les’ fate was to be taken up by the right; some of whom never read his poetry, or any poetry, beyond ‘Invictus’.

The people who read Les Murray for pleasure are those who wanted the world exploded in a sentence, the constituents of being laid bare. That wasn’t for everybody, and “getting” such poetry isn’t a question of intelligence per se, but rather a being-turned-towards the deep poetic encounter with the mute world.

I can’t imagine how I would see the world if I’d never encountered a poem like ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’ — but trying to teach Les Murray to Year 11 and 12 kids, as a by-the-hour tutor was murder. Kids who would never read poetry again, and had no interest in it, could “get” Yeats or Dickinson or Plath because their work remains at the level of the discursive, of the pronouncement. For a while, Murray’s ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’ — which was first and foremost an imagist defamiliarisation of what a broad bean plant looks like, before pushing on to a more theological point — was on the high school syllabus. For students and teachers alike, it was mostly incomprehensible. Yet it was on such deep work that his global reputation was founded.

Les might have had a shot at being that national poet once. He got an early start, coming to Sydney Uni in the late ’50s (“a time of picking your nose/while standing at attention in civilian clothes”) from a modest northern NSW farming family. By his own account — made tedious through repetition — he was an awkward country boy, bullied at school by mean girls, subsisting through uni on a commonwealth scholarship. 

Then, and in the first phase of his career, he wrote in a plain style, Robert Frost-influenced. This was when he wrote the sole poem of his to have purchase on the public consciousness: ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’, about a weeping man bringing a city to a halt:

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man

Had he stuck to this approach — which evinces a very clear desire to be the public poet, body forth the unsung spirit of our etc — he would have gone nowhere much. It was only when he started to poke and prod at the constituted nature of the world, and the fixed character of nouns and verbs, and using each, words and things, to deconstruct the other, that he created something that has few parallels not merely in English, but in language itself. 

It’s this mature work that was the making of him; it finally reached the high-table of global culture. Feted by Susan Sontag, Derek Walcott and a host of others, Murray was a late modernist producing hard stuff that required a knowledge of the global poetic heritage to understand. That was the paradox he would live for the rest of his life: singing the country into being for a population who didn’t want it, adored by a global elite for whom the Australianness was simply a pretext for the exploration of being in general.

This split produced a clownish tension: he railed against elite and condescended multiculture, while spending half his life in planes and hotels, bouncing around the global festival circuit. Having returned to his childhood home of Bunyah, he convoked a largely imaginary version of the place, and the country, at variance with the mass cultural, globalised rural ‘burb that it, and everywhere, has become. He turned a not-unusual, put-upon childhood into an agon on par with Dante’s Inferno.

Murray was as performative as any right-wing culture warrior summoning a vanished world to ground their politics of resentment. His late support for Pauline Hanson was simultaneously a knowing extension of the yokel brand, and an appalling misperception of Hanson as the voice of the nation.

He wrote and published too much in the end, as all full-time poets do — the style at times tripping into a self-parody. It was never less than good, but it had long ceased to be to any purpose. In the ’80s and ’90s he reverted to rhyme and occasionally tried his hand at political verse (“Hey True Blue, they are slipping one to you”, protesting Labor’s 1983 attempt at an ID card). 

He was a poet who reached across the aeons to Homer, yet he lived in a land which has not taken a single poem to its heart willingly; most Australians know only what was required to pass Year 12, a process designed to turn mere indifference to poetry into active hatred of it. The only Australian poetry Australians seem to enjoy and endure is ‘Flame Trees’, a few Oils songs, and ABBA.

Les never drew the universal presence of mass culture into his work and thus much of his social poetry remained at the faux-naif level. If we have a poet laureate, it’s John Forbes, who could get an ode to beauty and desire out of a torn copy of Who magazine on a plastic chair in a doctor’s waiting room. 

That’s possibly the ultimate paradox of all. One reason why I think Les soared above Heaney, Walcott, and, oh, let’s throw in Anne Carson, is that the national tradition was so light (A.D. Hopes’ ‘Australia’ is, let’s face it, a Qantas ad) that he could regard it as a null set, present but empty, and use the energy of that vacuum to produce stuff that no one had ever done before anywhere.

He was our gift to the world and its to us, and the awe one has at his achievement is secondary to the feeling of it, beyond pleasure. Not into your bones; deeper than that. Les o Les he is dead then. To the glory of dog.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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