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Les Is More

The Vernacular Republic: Selected Poems by Les A. Murray (Canongate, 1985)

Australia is still a foreign country for everyone including Australians, most of whom live in the cities and rarely penetrate into the hinterland, although in the last quarter-century or so there has been a determined attempt at cultural self-discovery. But most of the discovering has had to be done in the first instance by artists of various kinds, first mainly the painters and later mainly the writers. Australians, inhabiting a stretch of ancient geology on which modern civilisation sits conspicuously even when it does not look awkward, rely on having their surroundings described for them, so that the strangeness can acquire familiarity and the vastness a set of names. The job was done badly before it was done well. In this century it began to be done very well, and by now there are subtleties forming which should interest anybody anywhere. Les A. Murray’s fine book of poems is certainly one of them.

Murray, among the most original of the new generation of Australian poets who came to prominence in the 1960s, brings the landscape into sharp focus, detail by detail, without urgency but with a special fastidiousness, as if his spiritual life depended on it. He takes his city-educated sensibility back out into the countryside. When he writes about the cities, it is with the reinforced self-definition gained by having submitted himself to a geography without history, a panorama in which aboriginal totems have the status of the Domesday Book and white civilisation is only a few generations deep. Confessedly a member of the awkward squad, yet determined to achieve personal equilibrium by getting back to nature, he is like a latter-day, antipodean Leopardi, tubby instead of hunched. But his language has abundant reserves of grace, equal to what it describes. Australia, he suggests, is waiting to be found by anyone with the nerve to stop looking for Europe or America.

His mudguards still wet from mountain cloud, the narrator of ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’ drives slowly through a town in New South Wales and listens.

The half-heard radio sings
its song of sidewalks.

For the American reader, the word ‘sidewalk’ will need interpretation, precisely because he understands it. The Australian word for ‘sidewalk’ is ‘footpath’. So by saying that the radio is singing about sidewalks, the narrator is saying that it is singing an American song. The British reader, for whom the usual word is most likely to be ‘pavement’, might also get the idea that the Australians use the same word as the Americans. But Murray’s writing elsewhere in the book is too vivid to allow the possibility that he has written a flat line here, so even the American or British reader who knows nothing at all about Australia will be able to guess that something is being implied, although he might not be able, through the barrier of a common language, to tell quite what.

What Murray implies is that Australia is not yet fully in possession of its own culture. He is also implying, throughout the book, that the Australian poets of his generation have a duty to do something about this, and should forgive themselves a certain inescapable measure of self-consciousness as they set about the task. It could be argued that this is a greater burden of implication than a single book of poems should be asked to bear. But in fact the question does not arise in that form, because the first thing that strikes you is how successful Murray is in speaking a version of English that should not only be understood wherever that language is spoken, but also immediately apprehensible as poetry. He has an enviable way of putting things:

the snake rose like a Viking ship
signed mud with a scattering flourish and
was into the wale of potato ground
like a whip withdrawn...

In Britain at the moment there is a school of poets, called the Martians, who are composing poems exclusively of such startling verbal effects, but rarely do they make it look that easy. Ted Hughes would make it look natural but not sound so detached. In Australia I never heard the word ‘wale’ used, but then, like most of Murray’s fellow students at Sydney University in the late l950s, I was an urban boy, and not even Murray realised until much later that the really interesting subject matter was back up-country where he had come from. Perhaps they said ‘wale’ around the potato patches of northern New South Wales, but more probably Murray got it from the OED, where it turns out to mean ‘ridge’ and date from the Old English. But even were ‘wale’ a specifically Australian word, there is nothing about this confluence of imagery that could not be instantly understood and appreciated in Durham, Dublin, or Dubuque. And any reader, while being properly wary of the enactment fallacy, can appreciate how the movement of his eye between ‘ground’ and ‘like’ reproduces the way his eye would move if he were watching the whip being withdrawn.

But poets get even their calculations from instinct. They make happy discoveries. It is their mark to be unfairly interesting, as if they didn’t deserve to get so much said in such a short space. When Keats read Shakespeare he made notes in the margins about the quality of the ‘bye-writing’, by which he meant the wanton number of instances in which the poetry was good when it didn’t need to be. It isn’t possible to be Shakespeare again, and least of all in an ex-colonial country, but that original capacity to surprise himself is still the poet’s insurance against sophistication.

The severed trunk
slips off its stump and drops along its shadow.

Not only do you wonder how he thought of that, you imagine him wondering too. Such flourishes are hearteningly numerous in Murray’s poems. Here is an example of a prepared phrase coming back to life:

Dead men in the fathoms of fields
sustain without effort millennial dark columns...

He could have read ‘sustain without effort’ in a ballet review or cricket-match report, but placed six feet below the ground the same idea seems very different — and yet even more unstrained, as if, beyond the relaxation of cliché, there were a further carelessness where meaning bubbled up whatever stock phrase you wrote down. Or try some of the beans from ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’. Admirers of Richard Wilbur’s poems about such staple foods as the potato will find the same easy-seeming accuracy.

beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,

beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice
that the noon glare or cloud-light or afternoon slants will uncover

till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many,
or do they form in an hour? unfolding into reality
like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions...

This is all alive, and none of it fails to count as good noticing, but the hemistich ‘like templates for subtly broad grins’ is the lucky strike. There is another good example in ‘The Power-line Incarnation’, a poem about how it feels to clear fallen power-lines off the roof of your house and find them to be still transmitting their full load of electricity.

When I ran to snatch the wires off our roof
hands bloomed teeth shouted I was almost seized held back from this life
O flumes O chariot reins
you cover me with lurids deck me with gaudies...

The non-Australian reader need not think that there are outback Australians who call wires flumes. ‘Flume’, meaning an artificial channel, is Middle English following Old French, and comes out of the dictionary, not out of colonial usage. But the flumes, lurids, and gaudies seem appropriate here because the shock has sent the narrator back to the roots, of language as of life; the voltage has impelled a Jungian power-dive into the collective unconscious.

At such moments Murray’s copious vocabulary is powerfully put to use. It only sounds like a paradox to say that a poet does not always gain from being interested in words as such. In Auden’s later volumes you could guess when he had been reading the OED, because his use of what he discovered in it tended towards the mechanical. But Murray, on his smaller scale, has absorbed several different European dictionaries by a purer instinct, as a way of getting Australian English back in touch with the variety of languages from which it grew. This is an opportunity open to the colonial writer, because of the way that the usages of the old country get trapped by time pockets in the new land. But to seize the opportunity takes a sure nose for lexical wealth.

And indeed Murray, in this regard, does better by touch than he does by thought. The question of where a unique Australian literature is to come from, like the question of where a unique American literature is to come from, was answering itself before it was posed. There can be no such thing as a unique Australian or American literature. But the question of a unique Australian culture is something else. To begin with, it is not just a question but a problem. The example of America has not yet been sufficient to teach many Australian writers that such a problem has to be lived through. It can’t be hectored away.

Culture is a much more inclusive affair than literature. Among other things, it includes discussions about itself. There is a lot of discussion about Australian culture in Murray’s poetry and rather too much hectoring on top of it. A poem about the allegedly oppressive British connection, called ‘The Swarm’, will do to exemplify the hectoring.

On a stone wall, adrift from their hive
seeking shelter away from the wind
of a bitter blue day, this tight swarm
of brown English bees is adhering.

Poor monarchists, clumped around their queen,
they look like a furry, half-risen
loaf of gingerbread dough, with transparent
mica scales crusted on it: worn wings.

This poem has gained resonance in the aftermath of Gough Whitlam’s fall. You did not have to be a republican to be annoyed that the British government, acting through Governor-General Sir John Kerr, helped to push him. But even though the narrator’s passions are screwed well down, the ironic tone is still bombastic. It could be said that those Australians — the majority — who want to retain the connection with the British monarchy, or anyway don’t want the fuss of getting rid of it, lack sufficient political acumen to see that Whitehall still has altogether too many powers of interference in Australian affairs. But to say that they are seeking shelter away from the wind of a bitter blue day is the merest rhetoric. It implies that only the republicans have courage and imaginative grasp. Yet in fact even the republicans are proud of the courage which Australians have shown in wars that the British helped to get them into: often the loudest critics of imperialism are the most dewy-eyed about the Dardenelles. Nor, more seriously, is it at all certain that there is anything unimaginative about a wish to keep the monarchist tradition.

Monarchism at least provides a substantial object for the mythologizing impulse, which the Australian republicans who became vocal during the 1960s showed immediate signs of redirecting towards one another. Murray’s verse is at its weakest when his friends, some of them rather less accomplished writers than his hagiographical treatment of them suggests, get talked about as if they were members of some revolutionary movement. Germaine Greer is referred to as just ‘Germaine’ — a provincial piece of name-dropping which the beneficiary would be the first to mock by pointing out the existence of Germaine de Staël. But these are examples of Murray’s poetry being invaded by the characteristically bad prose of Australian literary journalism, where it is rarely conceded, or even perceived, that the putative issue of a uniquely Australian culture is not one on which a writer, or any other kind of artist, can realistically take sides.

Murray, however, can hardly be blamed for not rising above Australia’s prevailing standard of debate, and usually his poetic instinct is sure enough to keep bad prose at a distance. When working by touch, his verse sinks no lower than a sort of warmed-over Frost (‘I’ll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade. / I’ll go outside and split off kindling wood’), with the occasional intervention of an unqualified bromide (‘a landscape wide as all forgiveness’). Most of the time, though, his acute sense of what is alive about language, allied to his sharp eye for nature, ensures continuous small pleasures of the kind that recall the bye-writing of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as a long British tradition extending back from Andrew Young to Clare and beyond.

But the larger excitement conferred by form has been given up. That Murray is capable of it was proved when he was starting out. One of his poems was among the first by any of my contemporaries that I knew by heart.

In my secret garden
I kept three starlings.
In my secret locket
Three copper farthings.

The poem appeared in the Sydney University newspaper honi soit. I didn’t yet take Murray seriously as a poet, but still could recall the lines when I left for England.

One zinc-grey evening
The birds escaped me
And a crippled man stole
My shining money.

Twenty years later I can still remember all three stanzas and am certain that the memory is exact.

The starlings wandered
Till three hawks took them,
And now my agents
Have caught the cripple.

At this distance the poet might well say that the secret garden is too secret at the beginning, no matter how the imagery toughens up later. But the lasting impression is of a rhythmic force which the poems in this later book do not possess. Murray’s poetry, along with the poetry of many of his best contemporaries as well as all the worst, has renounced all vestiges of set forms. This seems a kind of political gesture — the striking of fetters forged in England. But aside from the distinct likelihood that one imperialism has merely been exchanged for another, there is also the certainty that a range of poetic qualities has wilfully been ruled out.

As is often the way with cultural upsurges, the 1960s made more commotion in the backwaters than they did in the mainstream. Australia was particularly hard hit. One of the benefits was a disinclination to go on accepting the status of a second-hand country, but the new concern with rediscovering Australia’s past did not always entail a proper estimate of what had already been achieved by Australian artists supposedly in thrall to an imported élitism. The young poets got back to nature, but the Australian landscape had already been carefully registered by Douglas Stewart, who had all of their open curiosity and a highly trained formal ability as well, so that his best poems were memorable entire and not just from moment to moment. And in the poetry of A. D. Hope there was an exhilaration, largely thanks to his range of metrical patterning and dramatic strategy, which left you wondering whether the younger generation of poets were not fooling themselves about having made a step forward. It looked more like a step back, or at any rate no more than a new phase of self-consciousness, mitigated by calling itself self-conscious but not fully aware of just how parochial it threatened to become.

The generation of Hope, Stewart, James McAuley and Judith Wright did at least as good a job of seeding the ground as their successors have done of reaping the crop, and certainly those precursors were more capable of critical argument. By comparison, literary criticism among the writers of Murray’s generation can scarcely be said to exist. But art, for a while at least, can get along without criticism, which can always be done later, or somewhere else. Murray’s poems might be formally uncertain but his language is alert, so there is always a case for saying that he has stumbled on something better than symmetry. These are the luminous fabrications of a gifted yarn-spinner. As the Australians have it, you will be sucked in. Finally what counts is the magic sentence, and this is a book full of them.

(New York Review of Books, 14 April, 1983)