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Requiem for a Heavyweight

The legend of Les Murray has it that he is the large-spirited, innocent, canny and merely well-intentioned (and prodigiously gifted) figure—bigger than his critics—whose simplicity, goodness and vision have attracted attack in direct proportion to the virtue they represent. (If this is PR it happens also that a similar trope or pattern is figured within the poems themselves. Both the life and the poems offer it as a truism—quasi-Biblical, hence the authority that accrues.)

Oversophistication, bad faith, the self-hatred that finds in his natural goodness a reproach, these things are the source of criticism of Murray: ordinary folk, goes the rest of this equation, accept and understand the Bard from Bunyah.

It is the triumph of this PR job that the cover of Murray’s Collected Poems is designed to invoke—as a joke on and taunt to his critics. The cover illustration shows a detail from The Strife of Lent with Shrove-Tide by Breugel: a vastly plump monk being bitten on the cheek by two emaciated clerics, who look distinctly feral; the friar accepts the bite more or less stoically. It’s a masterfully wicked joke and you have to applaud it. The guy has a sense of humour—or, alternatively, a self-pitying paranoia. For the other side of the story is of Murray as victim, first in the schoolyard, then in later life, where he battles courageously against the power of left, citified and lesbian-feminist dominated institutions; peer group committees who approve and fund their own; publishing houses similarly dominated by ism-driven urbanites and so on. And yet Murray edited Poetry Australia for some time—if he wanted a magazine—and controlled Angus & Robertson’s poetry list for many years, publishing many of the names associated with him and very few of those conspicuously opposed; and he did well—as did many allies—from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. Finally, he’s gained prominence in and access to the media. His is a persecution complex that suggests that—along the lines of Chuck Berry’s “Too much fun, that news to me”—you can never get enough! Or perhaps it is a strategy. Perhaps both. In sports commentator parlance, Murray has “stayed hungry”.

Typically I used to experience a series of jolts from the first few lines of a Murray work, the unaccustomed encounters with an abundance of “the signs of poetry”—“vivid” imagery, the stance and tone of moral-drawing (“And they will be drawn, oh yes, they will be drawn!”—as the heroes of Wayne’s World might say), the annointed outsider’s point of view: and the pithy lesson unfurls, moderately quizzical, in its querying of the urban and obsessed; or uplifting, in its celebration of the ordinary and the ability to see the divine just there. And it’s in a kind of colloquial patois—though whose?—that offers itself as natural, yours, or better than your own, but whose special authority is its tie with the past and the nation’s moral (i.e. rural) centre.

It is an experience I find reminiscent of school days—as when reading something not yet archaic, yet still distinctly different in time from one’s own: there is a call for tolerance and allowances: after all, the old poet might really mean something. As a student you tried to catch the focus intended beneath the now fusty manner. But Murray’s poems quickly come alive. And this seeming pastness, really, is their cover.

Murray castigates (and thereby reduces and abstracts) a world of culture and opinion as a means of reifying it—not so much to defeat it, but so as to place himself in an attractively eccentric but recognisable relationship to its monolith—a bumptious and loveable Quixotic figure. That is, there’s a place for him. A beloved opposition of one—a wise Li’l Abner. Murray orchestrates the Spectacle of Himself. He is the sop the culture allows itself for its lazier self doubt, its mistrust of its own brain.

Murray is always telling you something, something you can’t argue with. The rhetoric is designed to have the reader listen, or agree to slip into the pilloried position of the poet’s adversary, implicitly stereotyped as in one way or another “the problem” with the way things are. (A punishing option.) Well, one is silent in the face of any poem, in some senses—but empowered reflection (the entertaining of one’s doubts, reservations, or tentative, qualified, measured or enthusiastic support) is not your option with Murray’s work. At its best it is impressive yet boorish—impressive so as to be boorish, to stay the audience’s dismissal of the voice, the withdrawal of attention.

Maybe this “certainty effect” is the resemblance to the canonical that has led many to high evaluations of his work. That & the “lose/lose” position the reader is placed in: you can’t argue with Murray and you can’t argue with success. That is, “I know he’s wrong—but you’ve got to hand it to him.” 

Where the poems themselves “entertain doubt”, it is as in a demonstration exercise. Stand back, let the master do his stuff. (Think of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson.) Commonly these poems end with remarks of firm generality as to what humans, people, “we”, think or do or feel. Murray knew all along.

My impression of Murray’s critical reception is that it is partly based on laziness: critics don’t want to deal with him. They don’t want to argue, don’t want the bad light the poems put them in as adversaries: politically correct (how unsexy) and less mobile verbally than the poet himself.1 A modernist sensibility or instinct would treat the too evident signs of Poetry very severely. My own taste runs this way. Clement Greenberg, to quote from fundamentalist modernism, had it that “art imitates the methods of art, kitsch imitates the effects (the “look”) of art”. Postmodernism allows a great many more tastes—and so would not so quickly diagnose kitsch on this basis. And fair enough. Postmodernism, though, would hardly take these effects at face value or as anything but signs (as suggestive of artifice, pastiche, parody, or of a style removed from any dream of directness or “zero degree”). 

These are arguments critics are unwilling to make, in these “pluralist times”. The reasons being: a fear of seeming severe or pedantic; the fact that in the popular press one addresses an audience impatient with that with which it is unfamiliar—poetry and its attendant critical issues; the impatience people have with argument in an area that can never finally be decided; the general perception that now Anything Goes. Artists, though, are habitually and of necessity more forthright and certain in their judgements—of course. 

The Greenberg rubric can allow that this conventional (but effectively) non-art can involve skills and talent. Think of late nineteenth-century academic painting as the background against which Manet stands out—and of the once enormous but now forgotten reputations of Meisonnier et al. (By the same token, of course, an avant-gardist could be inept. And ineptitude is scarcely a strong suit.) Finally it is not simply a matter of “taste” but of an ethics of writing, an avoidance of the ideological semes and tropes with which older styles, older stances, become encrusted, and whose presence they must deny in the interests of claiming transparency and the natural as their own. The interesting and obvious thing about his latest collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, is that the non-ideological, absolutely ordinary bloke stance is dropped.

Murray’s alliance with the anti-correctness push in the media, the regular column in the Independent Monthly for example, must be for him a little dispiriting—the support of the hard-ball crowd who have no time for contemporary poetry but approve Murray as a further spoiler against liberal taste and opinion, viz his party-line deference to the Pauline Hanson phenomenon (in The Australian, Saturday 21 September 1996, which includes his attack on “playground ‘girl’s derision-rites’”). I guess if one were the leader of the spiritual wing of the Country Party one would be only the junior partner in a rather mean-spirited coalition. Effectively, this is Murray’s job—in sucharticles as that in the Australian—to wisely prefer Hitler to Stalin and Mao for example (leftists, you see) and so indicate and legitimise the new-found freedoms ushered in by Howard and Hanson.

Murray’s is a reputation brokered by means of his bullying insistence on a spurious Greater Authenticity vis a vis a self-doubting, or relativist, larger audience and its critical spokespersons. There is no denying that there are strengths to his work. Blarney and bluster alone could scarcely have carried Murray so far. There are marvellous flashes of brilliance, humour, ingenuity and the satisfactions of (assenting to, or entertaining) totalising and final statements: generally, a high calorie confection of the old (but neither sufficient or essential) attributes and roles of capital “P” poetry. And there has been a genuine gift for real speech, and plenty of true verbal wit. Plainly these things are of real value. But contemporary poetry has led elsewhere and to my mind these characteristic strengths have not produced in Murray’s hands a useful engagement with contemporary life or a delineation of its concerns. The poetry is less interesting in its own right than as cultural phenomenon, as symptom, as projection, denial and consolation.

Murray’s poetry represents a dissenting minority report, more puzzled than its air of certainty suggests, and which seeks refuge in a past that, mythical or not, is past. Some of its criticisms are relevant, very few of its answers. Still less so is its increasingly attenuated, dessicated base attitude—as evinced in Subhuman Redneck Poems, in poems in which Murray seemingly retires hurt, with imprecations of resentful and Pyrrhic spite.

It would be unfortunate for Murray if the poems in Subhuman Redneck Poems lead too much to a revision of his work’s standing.2 Compared to earlier work they are less subtle and less complex in stance and are rather forced technically. And, one by one, the poems are often rather silly. Yet the book represents only a coarsening of attitudes that are continuous throughout the body of his work. Revaluation seems likely.

Where often Murray’s poetry has met, as if halfway (and ambivalently, or quizzically), an ideology with which it disagrees, here it is in undisguised and simple reaction, aggressively defensive and rather assuming of rejection—with no meeting of different worlds being involved. There is, sure enough, a meeting involved within the book’s publication strategy—witness the title—but this is external to the individual poems. Mostly they enact the taking of a dive before the effete (“snobbish”) urban or “typical” reader—and enact Murray’s rejection of that reader. Neither of them very promising moves. So the better poems—though there are others with brilliant flashes in them—are those in which the poet keeps himself to himself, sometimes implicity but expressively shrinking from the world of ideological conflict, or those poems in which there is no conscious ideological agenda at all. Among the few poems I would nominate as good are “Water-Gardening in an Old Farm Dam”, “The Year of the Kiln Portraits”, “The Last Hellos”, “Below Bronte House”, “Dry Water” and “Blowfly Grass”. But there is no basis in them for the characterization Major Poet.

“A Brief History” is a case in point. Partially a declaration of Australia’s history and identity, it quickly becomes a sarcastic mock declaration, then modulates to self pity—on behalf of us all, but most centrally on behalf of Anglo Celtic mainstreamers. These same twists, offered as anguished, torturing, self-lacerating or whatever—and, of course, as witheringly scornful of apologists for liberal sentiment—are repeated throughout the collection.

“We are the Australians. Our history is short./ This makes pastry chefs snotty and racehorses snort.”So the poem begins. So much for Europe, right? From the humour of this deflating equation—of Old World authority with petty snobbery and, I suppose, inbred and baseless arrogance—the next three lines move to a much less clearly put diagnostic thesis, obscurely asserted rather than argued. There follows a little history: the Empire’s treatment of the “exiled” colonial population and subsequent eagerness to employ it as cannon fodder, which “taught many to be / lewd in kindness, formal in bastardry.” (Did you know that? What does it mean?) Far too often Murray seems to be citing an argument he’s made before to his own satisfaction somewhere in his head, in a newspaper column, or in another poem perhaps. The effect is of a knowing challenge that we accept his authority’s assertion or query it: the implied threat is the boor’s You don’t want to ask, ’cause I’ll tell you at Great Length, and I could!

The poem makes its discussion partly in terms of the use (the use/the non use/the false use) of the word “mate”. (Of course most women don’t use it anyway, but that’s part of their trouble—more on women later: individually they can be okay, but as a class, mate, let me tell you, they’re a worry—why ever since I was at school … etc etc. Murray does not naturally address women.) “(B)ut to have just one culture” the poem says—

is well out of date:
It makes you Exotic, i.e. there to penetrate
or to ingest, depending on size.

This is pretty witty—and true—except that it applies much more cruelly to those conventionally regarded as exotic than it does to would-be victim Murray—who wishes to qualify by virtue of mere blameless Anglo-Celtic monoculture. (Which is not so mono as all that—as Murray’s own polyglot instance, in paticular, knows). For the Anglo-Celts are “immigrant natives without immigrant rights.” There’s more: “Unmixed with these are Ethnics, absolved of all blame.”

This might now seem Hanson-style special pleading and divisiveness—but before her advent Murray had a fair claim to a patent on it. Curiously the next line makes the big, innocent plea on behalf of “all people”—against some others. (Those are people whom Les says are people. It is Les who gets to say who “people” are.) Viz—

All of people’s Australia, its churches and lore
are [sic] gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war

Oh, poor baby. But it’s true, isn’t it—one does wonder why there aren’t more fundamentalist Christian, Islamic etc comedians and satirists around and why “people” don’t find them funnier. It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it. (Les?) The complaint continues thus —

and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor,
our mandarins now, in one more evasion
of love and themselves, declare us Asian.

I suppose this is the proposition that our mandarins (Nick Bolkus? Al Grassby?) sought to depress the employment prospects of the local poor by importing competition. As to the mandarins’ further evasion: whether we are “part of Asia” or not, that is not the same as saying we “are Asian”. But poetry is not being used here for subtlety of distinctions—more as a provocative grenade to, um, generate discussion.

A question of clarity arises as to these “fresh victims”. In each case blame would be attributed differently—to poetry-reading bureaucrats here or poetry-reading bureaucrats over there. Are they victims in needing to emigrate or victims in being immigrants here? I realise emigration is a terrible fate for most and a major hurdle even for those who prosper: but, for many reasons, Australia is a chosen destination—though one of the least of these would be the recent poetry of Les Murray.

Finally, Australians “won’t read this poem / or any, since” ( the sense of “since” is “because”, causal rather than temporal—Murray will not be specifying too precisely when this happened), “since literature turned on them”. The reader is to understand it was not Murray’s literature turned on them, but other, non-people’s literature, yours and mine—

and bodiless jargons without reverie 
scorn their loves as illusion and biology, 
compared with bloody History, the opposite of home.

This is itself rather bodiless jargon, without even the excuse of precision or clarity. But then the poem is not addressed to Australians, or to most people (who’ve been, remember, “turned” upon). It’s addressed to Murray’s target whipping-boy (?), the poetry reader—who is of that class of non-people/non-Australians who’ll be able to figure out that he alludes, if clumsily, to post-structuralist, postmodern, feminist, leftist conceptions of such things as “discourse theory”, “ideology”, “episteme”—and others (because now that I think of it, I must be a slightly real person, and I can’t name the possible evil conceit that would explain one of the more human Australians’ “loves” as “biology”. Not Freud. Skinner?).

Bad thinking—and coincidentally bad poetry: the sentimental and, here, idiotic word “reverie” transparently in place for the sake of rhyme. Imagine a jargon with “reverie”.

Habits of thought, of versification, of rhetorical ploy witnessed in “A Brief History” characterise a great deal of the poetry in Redneck Poems. Among these are: a tendency to abstraction via metonymy, metaphor or curious periphrasis;3 a wish to legislate and apportion good and bad—via classifications that at one turn seem quaintly specific yet at another are asked to bear the weight of vastly larger generalisations; a sense of lost logic, of suppressed background argument and the corresponding tacit assurances “As I’ve always said,” “as I’ve said elsewhere” and “That’s the trouble, you see.” These phrases can be imagined appearing time and again in the interstices of the poems.

So with “Where Humans Can’t Leave and Mustn’t Complain”, one of those poems based on the game-plan of Guess what I’m describing? (What has ten wheels, is both soft and hard etc…and striped.) The reader will guess finally—or quickly enough if you know the Murray legend—that, despite the heavy terms, Murray is describing school-yard taunting.

Its sniggering stare
breeds silenced accomplices. Courage proves rare.

This models revolution, this draws flies to stark pools
This is the true curriculum of schools.

If a poet has the audacity to deplore bullying in schools, well, not very original but, if that’s how you feel… But the last couplet: what are the flies and the stark pools? Blood? Blood in the playground, or in revolutions? B-b-b-both? Are all revolutions a bad thing? Elsewhere Murray comes out against even demonstrations, with these sternly Victorian sentiments—“No. Not from me. Never./ Not a step in your march/ not a vowel in your unison, / bray that shifts to bay.” Actually, though, it’s the playground again: “Demo” continues, “The first demos I saw…/ were against me,/ alone, for two years, with chants,// every day, with half-conciliatory/ needling in between, and aloof/ moral cowardice holding skirts away./ I learned your world order then.” One longs to ask him, All demonstrations? Those during the Depression? Those against the Vietnam War? Those against Milosevic? The struggles and insurrections of the Chartists, Owenites and workers’ organisations in nineteenth century Britain, the struggles of Feminists? Are revolutions, in fact, led by school bullies? 

Lastly, that everything that Murray disapproves must be linked into one big bad black picture seems to me paranoid.

“The huge-headed,” says Murray in “Green Rose Tan”—I think referring to the starving (whose heads might look large, relative to their emaciated bodies? is that it?)

Are sad chaff blown by military bohemians.
Their thin metal bowls are filled or not

from the sky by deodorised descendants
of a tart-tongued womb-noticing noblesse
in the goffered hair-puddings of god’s law

who pumped pioneer bouillons with a potstick,
or of dazzled human muesli poured from ships
under the milk of smoke and decades.

Here, I think, the reader must wonder at the possible identity of—and the possible justice of so naming—“bohemians” and “deodorised descendants” (who are—what—the United Nations? Europeans? Americans? Aid Organisations?) as “descendants of a tart-tongued womb-noticing noblesse”? What degree of attention do wombs warrant exactly? And what to make of the “goffered hair-puddings”? One tires of the endlessly locating prepositions in this ‘analogy’: “by”, “ from”, “ by”, “of”, “in”, “of”, “from” and “under”. Lost?

The poem in question is the slightly millenarian (if I’ve got it right) “Green Rose Tan” and Murray’s vision seems to picture the human melting pot (wherein black and white have “dwarfed” red—the decline of the American Indian?) turning people “green rose tan”. Green rose tan happily turns out to be “land’s colour as seen from space” as well as “convergent human skin colour”. Could green/rose/tan be a considered a convergent colour? The colour of skin? Green? “(C)onvergent human skin colour, it rises”—the grammatical status of “it” here is a little unclear, though after the multiple shocks of “womb-noticing” and “goffered pudding” who’s noticing?—

it rises
out of that unwarlike epic, in the hours
before intellect refracts and disdains it.

Wouldn’t you know it, the intellect is in the dock again? Murray perhaps pretends the mass rise into dignity and comfort (his phrasing) in no way derived from the operations of the intellect—or from demos or revolution. Oh well, so he’s not a thinker. Is he a poet? “Dazzled human muesli poured from ships” would persuade some perhaps. “(D)ead trees in the dam / flower each morning with birds” and some of the other ingenious likenesses drawn a few pages further on, in “Dead Trees in the Dam”, might further persuade the same reader. They seem designed to. But it seems very conventional stuff, if rhythmically sure: that is, the “wonder” of “flower”, the innocence and beauty evoked by “birds”. Who’s noticing?

Now here’s a corker!

Higamus hogamus
Western intellectuals
never praise Auschwitz.
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-
long war against God.
(“The Beneficiaries”)

Has it occurred to Murray to wonder what the shades of Adorno or Benjamin, or of countless other intellectual Jews, might have had to say to that? The poem is too stupid to take seriously except as symptom of Murray’s various kinds of decline. Is it only a joke? Or a taunt? With the new political ascendancy in Australia Murray has perhaps (as one of those previously “chosen” for baiting) well remembered the modes he learned in the playground. For this he gets the T.S. Eliot Prize.

“Year of the Kiln Portraits” is good, my favourite poem in the book and, as it happens, atypical, too: no preaching; not demonstrably self-pitying; not involving showy, ridiculous or tendentious word-forging; no points to score or verdicts to deliver; no “take that” sting in the end; not even, blessedly, a thesis inexorably developing; no them & us. I’m not against ideas per se—in fact I’m for them—but they do not serve the later Murray’s poetry very well.

“The Last Hellos” observes the decline of the poet’s father and remembers aspects of him, his attitude, pluck…his sayings. It is another of the good poems in the book and is part of a line of Murray’s more personal and elegiac poems about his family from throughout his work, which are generally very good.

While “snobs” seems not quite the term (though by this stage in the book the reader must allow that through repetition Murray has more or less made clear his own personal meanings for that word), I do quite like the ending:

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck thém. I wish you God.

It seems to me that feeling, expression, justify “fuck them” and even explain (away) the slight childishness of “snobs”. The weight’s falling on “them” is pleasing and exactly right. As well, “I wish you God” makes sense, though it doesn’t sound well…4

Subhuman Redneck Poems offers itself as a dare to the reader: to cast the stone that is its title. But in fact Murray pre-emptively claims and acts out its status, that role. You said it, Les—in fact, we had expected a little better. Murray consistently cries foul “before the fact”. If this is a late book in Murray’s oeuvre then it compares badly with, say, Gwen Harwood’s Bone Scan. Plainly I am not sympathetic to his work overall. I don’t see the case for a poet I don’t take seriously aesthetically as being, in fact, a major poet. Still, even supporters must feel a return to form is badly needed. In literary terms Subhuman Redneck Poems was a bad hand to play for Murray, a poet who, evidently and touchingly, has wanted “only to be loved” and much of whose reputation has been brokered by a bullying that threatened all along the anger now apparent as that love has not been forthcoming. I guess “you can’t never have too much (love)?”—no, who ever is “loved enough”?

The constellation of assertions the figure “Les Murray” represents hangs together still rather unchallengably—as the meaning of “John Wayne” did in the 70s—though we know its totally ideological character. Polled, Australians describe the typical Australian as a rough diamond in a blue singlet. At the same time we know that most Australians (by a percentage point or two) are women, that the population is massively urban and not in traditional physical labour—and we know that many will have a wider range of involvement with the contemporary world than that which Murray outlines: wise bumpkin, wiley dissenter just down from his tractor to guy waggishly at the pretensions of Paris-New York-Rome and at their local pale acolytes—or, as now, to proclaim in a touchingly small voice, “Stop the world I want to get off.”

1 Recent examples of this deference might include the solicited opinions of the literary community upon Murray’s recent T.S. Eliot prize: a lone dissenting voice that “wished to remain anonymous” and diplomatic John Tranter (in Quiet Pretender mode) issuing the demurral that some of the poems were “a bit strange”. In his own review of the Redneck volume (Australian Book Review #186 November 1996) note the pains taken by Don Anderson as prelude to his reservations that half the poems are really “vile”: that is, a reprise of his previous praise for the poet, and the acknowledging of Murray’s protean and larger than life status. A “poet as supremely confident as Murray” could not need [Anderson’s] “humble services”; and “I am convinced that I triply qualify for inclusion in Murray’s demonology…as academic, critic and liberal intellectual”.

2 Murray suggests the book will be central to interpretations of his work. I would think this could only be harmfully so, that Redneck’s simplifications will be employed as a key to the rest of the oeuvre. On the other hand a nice controversy along the lines of “Was he really such a bastard?” might be productive of academic scribbling for some time.

3 This is not an argument against metaphor as such, but Murray’s often invite puzzlement rather than acceptance, revelation or insight and, like cards, seem ‘played’, as if the fact of their equations was the clinching argument for their proof.

4 A longer version of this analysis will be found at

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