Books: Even As We Speak — Les Murray and his Master Spirits |
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Les Murray and his Master Spirits

Over the hundreds of years it has taken for the colonies of the old European empires to become nations, there have been cases—most notably, of course, the United States—where a creole literature has made an important addition to the literature of the homeland, but there has been no case quite comparable to that of Australian poetry in this century. The Spanish poetry of the Americas comes close—a history of poetry in the Spanish language that did not give Rubén Darío a crucial place would be no history at all—but even that has little to compare with the burgeoning of Australian poetry in the last hundred years. Trainee midwives on tenterhooks, Australian nationalists eager for every sign of a successful parturition from the homeland have a lot to go on. Though it remains necessary to call them unwise, it would be unwise to call them fools. What they really want is for Australia to become the new U.S.A.: the ex-colony that made it all the way to the status of world power. The more likely realization of so gullible a wish would be Australia as an extra American state—a new Alaska with a better climate, or at most a new California with a better social security system. But since it undoubtedly would also have a better literature, there is something to be said, from the cultural viewpoint, for these dreams of autarky. Barry Humphries’s yodelling alter ego, Sir Les Patterson, minister for the Yartz, has never been entirely wrong on that point: it is only by missing the larger point that his view becomes ridiculous. A culture can never flourish as a hedge against the world. It isn’t a bastion for nationalism, it is an international passport.

The best known internationally among his generation of Australian poets, Les Murray would count as a nationalist if there were such a thing as a purely political view. Up to and including the prospect of severing all monarchist ties with Britain he believes politically in the Australia he gave a name to: the Vernacular Republic. But as his collections of densely wrought essays prove, when it comes to culture he also believes that such a thing as purely political belief can’t be had. The secret of his pre-eminence as a writer of critical prose in Australia today is his capacity not to simplify what he would like to change. Blessed with a sense of history and the gifts to articulate it, he would be an important man of letters even if he never wrote a poem, and he would be a vital shaping influence of Australia’s emergent poetic tradition if only by dint of his anthologies. Murray favours what Ezra Pound used to call the active anthology: one whose poems are chosen because they are all inventions, and not just representative of their authors’ reputations. Wide-ranging and generous in his choices, adept—sometimes too adept—at leaving himself out of the picture, he chooses from the creole heritage to bring out the full complexity of the relationship between the Australian poets of previous generations and the old Empire that was always on their minds even when they tried to repudiate it.

Murray’s anthologies could easily have been more tendentiously selective. In his New Oxford Book of Australian Verse he includes a striking proportion of Aboriginal poetry: any Mexican anthology that included so much Indian poetry would be accused of pushing the mestizo ideal to the point of nationalist fervour. But not even his Oxford book tries to pretend that the imperial past was a state of false consciousness from which Australia had to awake before it could breathe free air. Because he has played so straight with the complexities of history, Murray has established impeccable credentials for himself as an interpreter of his country’s present. As a consequence, everything he does as a man of letters takes on a growing burden of responsibility. His poetry can look after itself: none better. But he finds his merest book review being scrutinized for political resonance, and an anthology like his new, quirkily named Fivefathers acquires a significance beyond the literary. Speaking as a devout cultural reactionary, my own first reaction to Murray’s latest survey of his literary forefathers (Fivefathers equals forefathers plus one: I just got it) is that if all the other nationalists were as judicious as he, the prospect of a republic would be a lot less daunting. To borrow Thomas Mann’s classic formulation about Goethe, Murray is radical enough to understand the good.

Murray’s Fivefathers were all active in what he tellingly calls the pre-Academic era, when Australian poets had to make their way without any support from the as yet undeveloped academic industry, and were not necessarily the worse off for it. First-time readers of Australian poetry in Britain, at whom this Carcanet publication must principally be aimed, should be warned that another criterion for inclusion is death. None of these five fathers is among the living or even the recently departed, which means that there are some comparable contemporary figures who are not present and should be sought elsewhere. There are fathers like A. D. Hope, mothers like Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood, and sisters, cousins and aunts who should ideally be here too. But Murray’s anthologizing activities always lead you in that direction: each of them feels like the beginning of the ideal inclusive book, the one that, nothing but art, contains all the art. What we need to remember is that such a book can no longer be compiled: Australian poetry has become too big a subject—has become a field, to which we need a guide, and eventually quite a few more of those academic help-words of which Murray is so rightly suspicious, believing as he does that they threaten the death of personality. Like all true humanist critics an implacable enemy of literary theory, he wants us to experience his five fathers as living men, and it is permissible to suspect that he wants this with particular urgency in the case of the first father in the queue, Kenneth Slessor, from whose work Murray’s selection is particularly lavish and—dare one say it?—loving. Of this father, Murray speaks as a true son.

At Sydney University in the late 1950s, most of the young poets were men but would haunt the cafeteria of the Women’s Union, Manning House. The reason was simple: in Manning House you could linger over a single coffee cup for hours without getting thrown out, whereas from the Men’s Union ejection followed precipitately upon the first gurgling of the dregs. With the conspicuous exception of Murray—even in those days, he stood out like Sydney Greenstreet miscast as Ginger Meggs—few of the Manning House poets had the heritage of Australian poetry much on their minds. My own Stammtisch would be decorated with slim Faber volumes in their original glamorous wrappers, all purchased from Tyrrel’s second-hand bookshop at the Quay end of George Street: Auden, MacNeice, T. S. Eliot and the occasional impressively fat black-bound fascicle of Pound’s Cantos, which inchoate effusion I held at the time to be omniscience distilled into a crucible of obsidian. Robert Hughes wouldn’t even be reading in English: if he hadn’t already memorized it, he would be carrying Mon coeur mis à nu, muttering lines from it while he drew caricatures in the margin. Home-grown literary magazines like Meanjin and Westerly were for old lecturers in gowns who cared about Vance Palmer and were sincerely, absurdly, bent on setting up a Department of Australian Literature. For them, and for Murray.

For the rest of les jeunes, the very concept of an Australian literature seemed far away, yet even those of us already committed in advance to a breakaway existence knew about Slessor. Everyone owned a copy of One Hundred Poems. In those days books of poetry published in Australia looked and smelled like books published in the Soviet Union throughout its benighted career: i.e., they looked like tat and smelled like glue. Cherishably well-presented volumes like the Edwards and Shaw edition of A. D. Hope’s The Wandering Islands were the very rare exceptions. Slessor’s One Hundred Poems was an Angus and Robertson booklet bound in an uneasy combination of paper and stiff cardboard. It was pitiably unimpressive to look at. But we all knew that the stuff inside it was the best Australian poetry anybody had yet seen. Shamefully, at least one Manning House habitué for too long employed this awareness as an excuse to dismiss everyone else, and even in Slessor’s case I had been away from Australia for twenty years before I took his full measure as an artist, memorized everything, and began the long job, which his example necessitated, of getting the national literature into perspective within my own mind.

The main point to make about Murray’s relationship with Slessor is that Murray saw Slessor’s pivotal importance straight away, and with a thoroughness that helped determine his own attitude to his privileges and duties as a poet in Australia, as opposed to the poets from Australia that most of the rest of us vaguely dreamed of ourselves as being, if not yet then some day soon. At his own table in Manning House, Murray always looked as if he was dug in to stay. A boy from the country for whom Sydney was exotic enough, he approached Slessor personally, made his admiration clear, presented his own work for criticism, and was eventually rewarded with Slessor’s acknowledgement that he, Murray, had been determined by fate to pick up and carry on the torch that Slessor had dropped. In private life, when the company is suitable, Murray has been known to recount the details of this apostolic succession. His pride is justifiable, and a nice example of the anecdotal human scale that still vestigially applies to the Australian literary life even in this later age of arts-section hype, globe-girdling travel, and the isolation that forms unbidden around famous names. I got that story out of him over a glass of white wine at Australia House the last time he read in London, and it was only a few weeks ago, in Bloomsbury, at a publisher’s jamboree for booksellers, that David Malouf easily secured my agreement to the proposition that Murray’s critical prose was by far the best thing of its kind being written in Australia now. The idea of an Australian international literary mafia is not a very good one (principally because it is not a very good metaphor) but if there is something to the notion of an extended family of those devoted to literature, then in a large part it goes back to Slessor, a godfather in the best, most benign sense, even when—perhaps especially when—he was no longer creative.

Just why Slessor has to be thought of as dropping the torch, rather than merely setting it into an iron ring against a stone wall to burn by itself once his arm was tired, is a subject Murray is ideally equipped to treat one day, in an essay that should be a pleasure to read, even if tragic. The foundations have been laid by Geoffrey Dutton’s excellent biography, but we need an analysis that traces the line of destruction from the personality into the poetry. Alcohol had something to do with it; and alcoholism in turn had something to do with Slessor’s disappointment in the culture that had grown up, or failed to grow up, around him: a disappointment which had somehow been prepared for, within his estimation of himself, by his comparative failure as a war correspondent vis-à-vis such stars as Alan Moorehead; and so on. But there can be no doubt about the intensity with which the torch burned while he could still run with it. In his “Five Visions of Captain Cook,” when he wanted to evoke the confidence that the junior officers of the Endeavour had in their captain’s powers of navigation, he did it like this.

Men who ride broomsticks with a mesmerist
Mock the typhoon.

Just try forgetting that. Slessor favoured the extended, multi-part poem, but he was always epigrammatic even at his most thematically expansive. After returning to it many times over thirty or more years, I can now see his twelve-part poem “The Old Play” as a masterly set of varied tones and dictions, but his sheer power of compressed evocation is still at the heart of it.

In the old play-house, in the watery flare
Of gilt and candlesticks, in a dim pit
Furred with a powder of corroded plush,
Paint fallen from angels floating in mid-air,
The gods in languor sit.

Otherwise an admirer of Sickert, I have always found his theatre paintings disappointingly dark: his muddy palette is meant to call up faded glory, but only the fading shows. In Slessor’s lines you can see the glory. Furred with a powder of corroded plush is something better than an image: it is an attitude, regret distilled into an elixir. In his most famous multi-part poem, “Five Bells,” such stellar moments gravitate together and join up: the whole effort is alive with sayability, assembled from a kit whose parts are quotations.

The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs...
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid—
The tide goes over you, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair ...

I have never written or even spoken about Slessor without quoting those last two lines. Precisely registering what the surfer sees on the sand beneath him when he ducks under an incoming dumper, they were with me when I left Sydney; they were my way back to him when I later sat down to read everything he ever wrote; and perhaps, eventually, they were my way home. But Murray’s extensive selection proves that such clean, clear, shapely, and striking simplicity—the speakable directness that many of us would like to feel is, or should be, the defining characteristic of Australian poetry—was hard won from a deep complexity of mind and spirit, and from an inherently tortuous connection with the whole heritage of European culture. Slessor was a learned man who knew just where and when to place his epigraphs from Heine. Natural utterance did not come naturally: it was a quiet triumph of sustained artifice. Finally our realization of the full impact of his poetry depends on his realization that the search for a personal voice would have to be self-conscious, if only because the demand for a national voice had taken on a political dimension. In this regard it is a pity that Murray did not have room to include more of Slessor’s light verse (the term was never more of a misnomer: the merest lyric drips with melancholy) from the two collections Darlinghurst Nights and Backless Betty from Bondi, because it was those two books that most clearly pointed up the source of the discipline that sharpened his sense of form and loaded his line without blurring it—Tin Pan Alley. The impact of the American forces during World War II, both as comrades in arms and as what amounted to an occupying power, decisively shifted Australia’s position in the old Empire, and Slessor not only presaged the whole event during the Depression years, he set the linguistic limits for it, outlining the tonal range in which an Australian poet, as an agent instead of a patient, could write about a wider world.

The other four of the Fivefathers wrote about the world before it widened. As a result they seem further back in time than Slessor does, even when their period of flowering was more recent. Murray puts a high value on Roland Robinson, who spent a lifetime trying to incorporate the totemic properties of traditional Aboriginal poetry into his own. The same urge, less subtly realized, inspired the Jindyworobak movement. Robinson had a wider range of tones than the Jindyworobaks, but he was still, and thus still is, limited by the assumption that a proper name from an Aboriginal language has automatic resonance. Nobody would expect to get away with this when quoting from any other foreign language: it is always a plea by a would-be anthropologist with a political programme, and it always stops a poem dead in its tracks.

Now that the fig lets fall her single stars
of flowers on these green waters I would be
withdrawn as Gul-ar-dar-ark the peaceful dove ...

Later on in the same poem, Geek-keek the honeyeater shows up, demanding the same good faith that his name is not a misprint, or a harassed black-tracker’s short way of saying “Take a hike, honky” to an importunate enquirer. As was bound to happen, the subsequent recovery of actual Aboriginal poetry by specialists in the original languages—a process amply drawn upon in Murray’s Oxford anthology, and which continues—pointed up the essential wilfulness of this whole premature attempt to lend native art dignity by misappropriating its detachable tokens. Even at the time, the general impression was of petty larceny masquerading as ethnology, like André Malraux swiping statuettes from pagodas. Later on, in retrospect, the sad spectacle of wasted time spread like a dry lake through a generation. Robinson was an especially poignant example because he had the talent to compose thoroughly in English without having to doll up flat language in borrowed trinkets: the Australian love poem has a sumptuous heritage, and Robinson’s “The Creek” is one of the loveliest poems in it.

I make my camp beside you, a dove-grey
deep pool fretting its fronds and tangled
flowers. Waratahs burn above you. You
give me billyfuls of rainwater wine, a
bright wing-case, a boronia petal, a white
rose tinted tea-tree star.

All of this bush detail is easily recognizable and appreciated by any Australian and none of it would be made more poetic if it were to be substituted for by an Aboriginal word: indeed the opposite effect would be achieved, to the detriment not only of English but of the Aboriginal language as well, which would be made to sound as the Jindyworobaks invariably made it sound—like a formula for boredom. But there was nothing shameful about their doomed fight. It was part of an impulse to make a new nation conscious of the awkward fact that it had existed as a country long before its colonial history began: a fact which it was in the interests of its bourgeoisie to overlook, and of its powerful squattocracy to deny.

For all practical purposes, “squatter” was the Australian word for the creole or the sabra in his most self-confident form: the squatters inherited the earth and it would have been no surprise if whole generations of the landed families had grown up thinking of nothing except their own interests. Australia has yet another reason to bless its luck that so many of its landed gentry cultivated the arts and sciences as well as the soil. However close their connection with “home,” meaning England, they did a disproportionate amount to form the character of the country they were born in—endowing its art galleries, enriching its universities, setting a humane course for its cultural institutions. David Campbell, Murray’s third Fivefather, was a glistening example of a type that filled the Australian social pages only a generation ago: the MacArthur-Onslows, the Bonythons. They are still there, but nowadays keep a lower profile. Campbell’s profile filled the sky. While at Cambridge before the war he played rugby for England. In the RAAF he won two DFCs. He would have made such a perfect husband for Princess Margaret that the joy his poetry takes in his colonial background—seemingly exultant that his background is in the foreground—acquires overtones of heroism.

Here’s to Sydney by the summer!
Body-surfing down a comber
Where the girls are three a gallon
To a beach of yellow pollen...

For daring young men like Campbell, the arts they practised with such confident grace seemed just another part of noblesse oblige, and all the more daunting for their seeming ease. Like the black bullock’s horns mounted on the grille of the returned Mosquito pilot Kym Bonython’s white Bristol sports saloon, Campbell’s poems were the bagatelles of a dandy. But the successful throwaway gesture is fated to live, and Campbell’s perfect little poem “Mothers and Daughters” is remembered today by men who, when they were young, got no closer to the incandescent women it describes than the social pages of Pix and Women’s Weekly, leafed through at the barber’s in sullen envy.

The cruel girls we loved
Are over forty,
Their subtle daughters
Have stolen their beauty;
And with a blue stare
Of cruel surprise
They mock their anxious mothers
With their mother’s eyes.

For the sons of the squatters, at home anywhere in the world where there were country houses, turning up breezily at Buckingham Palace to collect their gongs, Australian cultural isolation was a non-problem. To James McAuley, Fivefather number four, it was a burning issue, and he eventually reached the conclusion that there was no salvation outside the church. For McAuley in the late—some might say the sclerotic—phase of his conservatism, the Catholic Church was not just the symbol but the living presence of the international order he thought his country needed to be part of, or it would have no standards except its own. There was a paradox in his position, because the Church stood behind and above the heritage of Irish immigration that gave the Labor Party its electoral strength and provincialism its abiding force. Luckily he thrived on paradoxes. They appealed to his sense of symmetry. He had a formal gift that comes singing out of this anthology with the chamfered and inlaid neatness of a Van Eyck angel’s spinet. In stanzas lusciously sonorous he evoked austerity as if thirsting for a vinegar-soaked sponge.

Where once was a sea is now a salty sunken desert,
A futile heart within a fair periphery;
The people are hard-eyed, kindly, with nothing inside them,
The men are independent but you could not call them free.

Since free was exactly what the independent men did call themselves, McAuley could not expect to be popular for taking this position, but he didn’t care. A local Ortega relishing his role as a fastidious rebel against the mass-market future, he was fated to embrace austerity all too successfully—the later epic poetry was thought tedious even by lifelong admirers—but he never lost his unmatched capacity to conduct a prose argument through a poetic form: “Because,” a lament for his parents and the love he never got from them or could give back, is one of the great modern Australian poems and would be worth acquiring this book for just on its own.

The same might be said for several of the poems in the selection from the last of the Fivefathers, Francis Webb, whose fitting task is not to fit into this book or any other except those entirely his. Even at the time, Webb was a one-off, an El Greco-style stylistic maverick: making an entirely unexpected appearance in a tradition, he could be seen to have emerged from it, but he distorted the whole thing. Webb was a clinical case, a schizophrenic who spent a lot of time in hospital and eventually disintegrated, but Murray, with typical penetration, has never fallen for the easy notion that Webb’s poetry is psycho in itself. The answer to the biologist’s trick question of whether there was something wrong with El Greco’s eyes is no, because if there had been he would have compensated for it. Similarly Webb’s poetry is the way it is because of his inner vision, not because of scrambled perceptions. If his cognitive apparatus had been muddled he would have attempted simplicities. As things were and are, his synaesthetic effects have to be compared with Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the hallucinatory extravaganzas that the British Apocalyptic poets of the 1940s aimed for without achieving. The guarantee of Webb’s urge to transcendental integration was the purity of his fragments. Wherever two or three of his admirers are gathered together, you will hear these particles flying. (My own favourite hemistitch, from a poem omitted here, is “Sunset hails a rising”: one day I’m going to call a book that and lay the beautiful ghost of an idea that must have come to him in one of his fevers, like a cooling drop of sweat.) In the enforced retreats of his hospitals and the injected lucidities of his drugs, there might well have been something prophetic about Webb. Certainly he guessed that the Australian poets would become a success story, and feared the consequences.

Now yours is the grand power, great for good or evil:
The schoolboy (poor devil!) will be told off to study you...

Webb was Murray’s predecessor in guessing that an efflorescent culture would set the challenge of studying it without ceasing to love it. With music and painting, both of which flourish in Australia as if the molecules of the air had been redesigned specifically to nourish them, it is easy to keep passion pure: when the orchestra strikes up, the commentary must cease, and in the art gallery you can always neglect to hire the earphones. But when the academic age dawned it became chasteningly clear that poetry would be hard to separate from its parasitic buzz. One of the penalties for success was a proliferation of middle-men, and eventually, as feminism institutionalized itself, middle-women. The new Oxford Book of Australian Women’s Verse, however, is a welcome sign that the essentials are being remembered. Unlike the notorious Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets of 1987, Susan Lever’s anthology is unburdened by didactic jargon and makes commendably little fuss about the necessarily agonizing problem of getting everybody in without leaving too many good poems out. Fledgling feminists will receive an encouraging message about self-realization growing with time. Those of us who have always taken the importance of women poets in Australia for granted (in the 1950s we were male chauvinist pigs almost to a man, but none of us was going to argue with Gwen Harwood or Judith Wright) will be left free to detect a more edifying progression. Presumably it must apply to the men as well, although perhaps the women—careful now—were always more likely to register its effects: anyway, in this verse chronicle, as the century wears on, the poets become more, instead of less, precise about domestic detail, until nowadays, against all expectation, the housewife tradition looks unbreakably strong.

One of the great strengths of the generation that included Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood lay in the harsh fact that they had no time to be careerists: they wrote from necessity, in the exiguous spare time left over from looking after their men. You would think that the new freedoms would have led to a plunge back into time, a local re-run of the rentier aesthetic leisure once enjoyed by the bluestockings of Britain and America, an inexorable push towards the free bohemian status of Edna St. Vincent Millay: that the ethereal would beckon. But not on this showing. It was once uniquely Gwen Harwood’s way to write about music and philosophy as if they were the bread of life she had brought home from the shops. But here is the proof that it has since become standard practice, thus helping to create, for the Australian reader, perhaps the least alienated and divisive literary culture on earth. Try this, from Susan Hampton’s “Ode to a Car Radio.”

My right eye leaking blood coming home
from Casualty, patched, pirate view, & changing gears
past Rooms to Let $12 p.w. beside Surry Hills Smash Repairs
& a beer gut emerging from a pub door at ten, well,
you can picture the general scene
& click! clear as glass, the flute opening
to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, cool & sweet
as a parkful of wet trees.

Ms. Hampton was one of the hectoring editors of the aforementioned Penguin anthology but I forgive her, as long as she goes on writing like that. Prokofiev gets into the poem unquestioned, which is exactly the way things ought to be, because Australia is a place where classical music is in the air. It didn’t happen by accident. Australia became a clever country because clever people, many of them refugees from harsh political experience in Europe, were wise enough not to accept unquestioned the prevalent intellectual assumptions about the necessary divorce between democracy and art. For the poets of the pre-Academic generation, art was in their lives as sustenance and salvation. Their successors have caught the habit, in the only tradition worth taking the trouble to define, the handing on of a copious view. One of my favourite poems in this book is by Vicki Raymond, whose work I will seek out from now on. Talking about static electricity in the office, she brings off a quietly tremendous coup worthy of the poet whose name she invokes.

You can even feel it through your clothes,
which crackle lightly like tinfoil.
It’s as though you were turning into
something not right, but strange; your hair
floats out like Coleridge’s
after he’d swallowed honeydew.

According to the notes, Vicki Raymond is an expatriate who has lived in London since 1981. Well, it’s an Australian poem wherever it was written. The expatriates are part of all this too, but if put to the question they would have to admit that the vitality grown at home in their absence has come to form the core of the total astonishment, generating the power behind what makes a small country recognizable to the world in the only way that matters—its voice, the sound of freedom.

(Times Literary Supplement, July 5, 1996;
later included in Even As We Speak, 2001)