David McCooey on Les Murray

The following extract is from David McCooey's essay, 'Contemporary Poetry: across party lines', from The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature ed. Elizabeth Webby (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Viewed as theme, rather than convention, contemporary pastoral is an ambivalent, self-critical mode. This is so even with the poet most associated with rural Australia. Les Murray is unavoidably aligned with metaphors of largeness: his linguistic facility is vast, he writes fluently, his imagination is capacious, his use of ideas prodigal. Murray's large claims for poetry - and his polemical attitudes - have attracted much praise and censure; his international reputation has exceeded that of any other living Australian poet. The pastoral is central to Murray's development of an authentic Australian tradition. In his essay on Peter Porter's poem "On First Looking in Chapman's Hesiod", Murray posits a postcolonial distinction between Athens (representing the urbane, imperialist and fashion-conscious) and Boeotia (representing the traditional, rural and "small holding"). This pastoral theme is expressed in poetry where the land represents connection, repetition, and living culture. Where it concerns loss, the poet's bardic function allows a rhetorical healing, as in the elegy for Murray's father, "The Last Helios". Here individual death is social loss. Despite the description of the collective mourning that this engenders, the poem ends on a note of division: "Snobs mind us off religion / nowadays, if they can. / Fuck them. I wish you God". This opposition is characteristic, suggesting a tension in Murray's position. Boeotia requires a threatening Athens, despite Murray's stated hopes for reconciliation between urban and rural.

Ambitiously nationalistic, Murray attempts to fuse rural, urban and Aboriginal strands of Australian culture. But this unifying project has a concomitant concern with division, seen in the dualism of The Boys Who Stole the Funeral; the divisions of self and society (sometimes controversially) imaged in Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996); the divided character of Fredy Neptune; the divisions of history (Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment world views); and Murray's concepts of "wholespeak" and "narrowspeak", "poems" and "poemes". Murray's clearest attempt to heal divisions is his fusing of poetry and religion. For him, "Religions are poems". Murray's "sacramental view of poetry" and "poetic view of religion" is seen in Translations from the Natural World (1992) where intense focusing on the natural unveils the numinous, producing a nature poetry cosmic in interest, from "Animal Nativity" to "Cell DNA" ("life's slim volume / spirally bound").

The scale of Murray's project produces a strain. Violence seems structural, inherent in the wrenched syntax and metaphysical imagery (heterogeneous ideas "yoked by violence together", as Johnson defined it). Murray's style is heroically paratactic; seen in ellipses, lack of conjunctions, portmanteau words. Fusion (or violence) can also be seen in opposing poetics. "Bats Ultrasound" owes as much to Kurt Schwitters as to Celtic mouth music. But Murray has sought the widest audience for poetry, seen for example in the narrative poems of Dog Fox Field (1990) and his editing of The Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986), which includes light verse, ballads and folk songs. This suggests a persistent Murravian paradox: Murray's antimodernist belief in a general readership, and the continued validity of poetry to vernacular culture, alongside his original poetic idiolect and deep knowledge of twentieth-century poetics.

Murray's interest in violence is related to a sacramental imagination, where incarnation and grace are connected to sacrifice. This relationship is seen in Murray's long narrative poems: The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980) and Fredy Neptune (1998). The former is a technically stunning and well paced narrative, made up of 140 heterogeneous sonnets. It is also ideological and dualist in nature, and concerns two boys, Kevin and Reeby, who steal the body of an old digger to give him a fitting rural burial. It ends with Kevin's rebirth and Reeby's violent death. Modernity is represented by effeminate men, masculinised feminists, and decadent loss of belief. Such inversion is symbolised most egregiously when the feminist Noeline Kampff pours a bucket of blood on Reeby, a perversion of the legitimate blood sacrifice of the Mass. The work's "blood theology" here is orthodox: through Christ's blood there is forgiveness of sin. More idiosyncratic is the vision of "the Common Dish" which contains "work, agony and laughter" (p. 46), a "difficult food" that some choose not to eat and that affects Kevin's redemption.

Less tendentious is Fredy Neptune (1998), Murray's heroic poem for an unheroic age, comedy for a tragic world, and search for "benign" nationalism in the shadow of nationalism's worst phase. Friedrich Boettcher, a German-speaking Australian, loses bodily sensation after witnessing the burning of a group of Turkish women during World War I. This loss of sensation makes him a peripatetic strong man, experiencing the century's violent events: war and Depression. Like other contemporary long poems, Fredy Neptune is both aware of literary antecedents and free of strong generic determination. Sometimes phantasmal, sometimes a classic Australian pioneer, Fredy is Odysseus-like, a picaro, a trickster. The poem's violence is a conscience for the artistic act: "How good's your poem? / Can it make them alive again after dancing in the kerosene?" Fredy's condition suggests that of the artist, shocked by the imagery of violence. Ultimately, the work attempts to deconstruct one of this century's most pervasive myths: that violence is stylish.


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