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Poetry

The stump: looking back on the Republic of Murray

When monuments fall, they create ripples, shockwaves, fragments, pyroclastic flow – pick your metaphor. Les Murray was definitely that. Over his long career, he produced more poetry, more critically well-regarded poetry, and – stranger still – more commercially profitable poetry than pretty much anyone else in the Australian landscape. Unlike the famous expatriate coterie of his peers (Peter Porter, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Clive James and so forth), he did it mostly from his own paddock, without modulating his principles to fashion or his prejudices to progress. You could think of Murray as the problematic old bastard grandad some of us had, if he’d been an internationally renowned poet. Structurally rarer, Murray’s work created and sustained an entire idea or moment or myth of Australia pretty much on its own. Let’s be blunt, there just aren’t that many writers who can pull off a feat of that magnitude.

Setting out to write this, I’m attempting to navigate a fair few pitfalls and some possibly irreconcilable priorities, and politics. I’m a poet working in European poetic traditions. A lot of us try to escape or elide that in a number of ways, but settler Australian poetry is European poetry written in and about the Australian continent, it always has been and it continues to be. Forms are not neutral, and these versions of poetry have philosophical and political lineages, and loyalties that are antithetical to – and hostile towards – other ways of thinking and writing, particularly towards the poetries that have been here a hell of a lot longer than we have. This isn’t virtue-signalling, whatever the hell that actually means. Take any prominent definition of the term you like, for instance Roman Jakobson’s

Poeticity is present when the word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their external and inner form acquire a weight and value of their own instead of referring indifferently to reality. (378)

and you’ll find it riddled with binary logics that don’t have any substance in Aboriginal poetics and cosmology. It shouldn’t need stating, but just taking a different poetics and trying it on like Lawrence of Arabia’s keffiyeh, or a possum-cloak, and stitching it to some of the more mythopoeic moments of Greek myth or Judaeo-Christian theology, is also a deeply shit idea.

In the Australian context, this was most famously attempted by the Jindyworobak movement of the 30s and 40s, which was mostly centred around Rex Ingamells. The name comes from the Woirurrung language from around Melbourne. It means to ‘join’, or ‘annex’ – as in Poland, 1939. Not inconsequentially, they found it in a 1929 book by James Devaney called The Vanished Tribes.

Murray was proud to call himself the last of the Jindyworobaks, a problem I’ll discuss in substance below. For now, I want to emphasise the closure, the antinomy that continues to structure settler writing in Australia, in which any simple assumption of formal cadence implies and reifies colonial possession. As far as I can see, this is the deep grammar of settler writing. There is no direct or simple egress from this predicament, and anything that looks like it is selling you something that belongs to someone else. As Derrida has it:

There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language – no syntax and no lexicon –which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.

This isn’t a tangent, or a theoretical cufflink-flash. It’s one of the central problems of Australian Poetry™ and one of the salient issues with approaching Murray’s work.

I write from many of the same traditions that informed his poetry, and in a technical, aesthetic sense, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think that some of it’s very good, and occasionally even brilliant. But I’m also writing as a Marxist with deep commitments to the possibility of a decolonial future for this country, in which Aboriginal land rights, culture, poetry, and philosophy are honoured as the vital forces they are, and it’s equally true that Murray went out of his way to elaborately fuck over exactly these kinds of progress.

So, a discursive tangle. Unlike a lot of people in the scene, I never met Murray, so I’m even less interested than I would otherwise be in writing the kind of roseate well-fuck-it-he’s-dead-here’s-a-nice-poem kind of eulogy that’s doing the rounds – though I note some of them are admirably balanced and incisive. But to be honest, I’m also uninspired by the idea of a conventional paint-by-numbers leftist critique of his politics. It’s too easy, and he was too complex and too influential a figure to dismiss so simply. So, in terms of critical praxis, this is going to be eclectic to say the least. Borrowing one of Murray’s metaphors, I think I’ve demonstrated I can swing an axe, but strong poetry often knows more than strong poets – Murray said that somewhere, and so have a lot of other people – so hopefully Murray’s working forest can live and breathe and echo with other voices and other politics. The politics, of course, is the big fucking problem.

***

There have been substantial arguments between aesthetics, politics and ethics since at least Plato and Aristotle, and they’re probably not going anywhere quicker than the earth’s biodiversity. On the one hand, we obviously can’t separate the art from the artist or the artist’s politics. On the other, as Barthes demonstrated, the author is dead even when they’re alive, and their work is transposed, reinterpreted and repurposed in myriad acts of reading far beyond their original contexts or politics. On the third hand of this rapidly mutating argument, it’s naive to think that morally indefensible art can’t be compelling or beautiful. The more important pragmatic question, I think, is who’s in the room to make these fine distinctions, and who is pushed or driven out of that room by content or ideology.

In his celebratory review of Murray’s most recent – of many – Collected Poems, Geoff Page argues in The Sydney Review of Books that Murray’s politics were ‘idiosyncratic’ and shouldn’t be simplistically labelled or dismissed. In a brilliantly thorny review of the same book for The Monthly, Nam Le agrees and so – sort-of-to-a-limited-uncomfortable-extent – do I. Sometimes poetry should make you uncomfortable. But when I, and Geoff and Nam enter into this kind of discursive contract, we’re conceding to terms not all that different from the (mostly male) 60s and 70s destructive mythologies of libertarian artistry that Murray despised so much. And felt himself so much above.

Bluntly, I’m conscious of all those other, different, writers to which we never grant the same kinds of special pleading. Certainly not in the pages of Quadrant, anyway. And at the reading end, who is afforded the time, or the care, or the thought, or the labour to appreciate or learn from the formal innovations of a work where the content demands so much of different kinds of reader? Some of the lazier equations between reading and emotional labour that get made are frankly just stupid. But writing as an educator in AusLit, how do we approach most of Murray’s landscape poetry, let alone something like ‘The Conquest’ (1972), knowing that even the most nuanced interpretation can’t palliate a text that legitimates – or sometimes even celebrates – genocide and dispossession? This last point is probably the one that’s gonna stick. I’m going to try to think through some of these problems, looking at some of his most celebrated and some his most criticised poems, within and without their historical contexts. Given Murray’s bone-deep commitment to his own frontier brand of individualism, I doubt he’d mind too much, and in the event that I end up pissing-off Everybody instead of just Half Of Everybody, he’d be positively delighted.

As the plethora of eulogies published by mainstream sources in the last week demonstrates, in the late twentieth-century Murray was probably the one living Australian poet most people here or abroad associated with Australia and/or Australian poetry. Unofficial poet laureate writes ΠΟ with a handful of salt. The personal tributes I’ve seen from a wide range of people who knew him indicate that he was also often kind and generous, particularly to younger and/or emerging writers. But, straight-up, he was also a rigidly narrowminded ideologue who universalised his own experiences of class, grief, sexuality, and mental illness into an effectively militant metaphysical and political narrative.

Murray’s childhood was awful by most (white) standards, his grandfather was a mean son of a bitch, and his mother died of pregnancy-related complications at the age of thirty-five, when he was twelve. For most of his life, Murray blamed the class-snobbery of a doctor at Taree hospital for refusing to send an ambulance but – as so often with Murray’s mythologising – the truth was muddier, sadder and more human. His father Cecil refused to drive her to hospital or explain her situation to doctors or relatives for a range of traditionally masculine and familial reasons. Grief reduced Cecil to a husk, and for much of this period Murray was either caring for his father or wandering the farm alone, abandoned to the psychological wasteland of his own loss.

Pseudo-psychoanalytic criticism has a lot of bullshit to answer for over the last forty years, but in Murray’s case it seems clear that some of the darkest strains of his work link to this period, and foment in his next years at Taree High, where he had an Objectively Shit Time. At points here, and throughout his youth he would take a rifle and walk or ride through the bush shooting most things that moved. He wrote about it in a number of different registers. In Poems Against Economics (1972), there’s an entire poem about a first world war rifle ‘SMLE’ (Short Magazine Lee-Enfield), and in an otherwise unpublished poem included in Peter Alexander’s borderline-sycophantic 2000 biography, he writes about a hawk:

He pivoted and hung, and hunted
Till I shot him with my dark
Rifle from where I sat my saddle:
I see him yet, a wrecked thing drifting
Down the ringing air, and I

Full of deepest heart’s own winter
Ride to pick my eagle up… (70)

The taint of regret recalls Coleridge, but what hangs in the poem’s echo is the violence itself, more like Ted Hughes’ ‘Hawk in the Rain’. Murray’s and Hughes’ poetry have many things in common, incidentally, and the latter was responsible for Murray being awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1998. In European traditions from Homer down, lots of poets have been fascinated and compelled by violence, force, action – it’s not uncomplicatedly a criticism, to my mind. In ‘The Abomination’ (1969) the speaker transforms the morning task of killing trapped rabbits into a chthonic ritual, sacrificing an animal to the infernal embers of a stump-hole fire. On the text’s surface the rabbit is already dead, but there’s a visceral sense of horror or shame in this poem’s bowels that speaks other contemplations:

… Here I killed
one final time, and slung my heavy bag
to approach the blaze – as I had known I would.

Behind the black terrazzo of old heat
Light glared from crumbling pits. Old roots are tough
But when they catch, their blinding rings each deep
And rage for months and suck your breath away
If you kneel before them too long, peering in…

as I knew I had by the pallor of the sky.
Scrambling up to go, I told myself
no harm in this. I was just looking down
to see how far back the earth might be unsafe.
it wouldn’t do to break through on such heat.

Budded with light on light, the butts of glare
in their fire-burrows were a deeper fact
that stared down my evasions, and I found
a rabbit in my hands and, in my mind,
an ancient thing. And it was quickly done.

Afterwards, I tramped the smoking crust
heavily in on fire, stench and beast
to seal them darkly under with my fear
and all the things my sacrifice might mean
hastily performed past all repair.

This poem gets interesting at ‘as I had known I would’, as it leans towards a compulsion or a ritual. Within its own pastoral lens, it enacts a kind of nekyia, an ancient Greek form of cultic communion with the nether-world. However, rather than to ghosts per se, the speaker fearfully seems to offer sacrifice to darker atavisms. This one also recalls Hughes – the final image of ‘Pike’ (1995): ‘… the dream / Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,/ That rose slowly towards me, watching.’ What is the abomination here, the act, the glimpsed depths of hell, or the possibilities of the speaker’s own mind? As a prodigious linguist, and a catholic, I expect Murray knew that abominatio comes from the hatred or fear of corruption from pagan idols but, like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, the speakers in these poems finally know where the horror comes from. This last point is part of an implicit critique made by John Kinsella in ‘The Hunt’ (1998) (a poem dedicated to Murray), in which rural brothers pursue one of Australia’s crypto-mythological big cats to pay their dues to the patriarchal symbolic order. They succeed, after a fashion, but – like the speaker of ‘The Abomination’ – they’re left with a classical sense of miasma, an indelible stain of transgression.

This ugly vein of Murray’s work probably reaches its most feverish in his angriest book Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996), interestingly enough also the one that got him the TS Eliot prize. Here and elsewhere where he writes about high-school trauma there’s an almost childish depth and purity of pain, and unrefined fury, that bleeds off the page, even from texts written decades after the experience. Probably the worst, in several senses of the word, is ‘Rock Music’. This poem is an easy target for a polemic, it attracts Murray’s critics, and his acolytes tend to give it a wide and diplomatic berth:

Sex is a Nazi. The students all knew
this at your school. To it, everyone’s subhuman
for parts of their lives. Some are all their lives.
You’ll be one of those if these things worry you.

The beautiful Nazis, why are they so cruel?
Why, to castrate the aberrant, the original, the wounded
who might change our species and make obsolete
the true race. Which is those who never leave school.

For the truth, we are silent. For the flattering dream,
In massed farting reassurance, we spasm and scream,
but what is a Nazi but sex pitched at crowds?

It’s the Calvin SS: you are what you’ve got
And you’ll wrinkle and fawn and work after you’re shot
though tears pour in secret from the hot indoor clouds.

This poem is obviously fucked. Like Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ – technically a very strong poem – it translates a global atrocity into a metaphor for private loss and private trauma. I doubt anyone can find a poem that manages that without grossly trivialising the former. At a conceptual level the text’s connection are distorted, spasmodic almost. It pivots too smoothly from to the fascist mastery of a particular aesthetic to a closing image that blurs the agony of the solitary teenager with that of the gas chamber. The inequity of eros elides race, slaughter, genocide, ie: the whole Shoah. As I said, this is an easy target, but poets get remembered for their worst as well as their best.

Other commentators, including sympathetic ones, have noticed a discomforting affinity between this theme in Murray and the digital men’s rights’ activist or ‘incel’ phenomenon (which should only ever be used in scare quotes). But this does slant towards self-awareness of a kind in his work. From the later poem ‘A Torturer’s Apprenticeship’: ‘But for the blood-starred spoor/ he found, this one might have made dark news.’ Ironically enough – given Murray’s problems with feminism –this gradual progress from subterranean rage and confusion that gradually moves through the difficulties of self-awareness and forgiveness, particularly notable in his second verse novel Freddy Neptune (1998), could be read and taught hypothetically as a powerful critique of the insidious dangers of toxic masculinity.

***

‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ is among Murray’s most anthologised and syllabised poems, such that it’s hard to encounter the actual poem through the culture-fog and even the poet came to resent its popularity (Alexander, 74). It’s from The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969) but what strikes first is the poem’s  deliberately belated temporality: historically, its urbanities make more sense in a Slessor poem from the 30’s. Content-wise, it’s about an anonymous man who weeps in Martin Place and effects an almost Christic halt to the bustle of Sydney:

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
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly – yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

In terms of imagism, this poem has its moments – ‘pentagram of sorrow’ and, later, ‘his writhen face and ordinary body’ – but this poem gets its effect from the strength of its content, aligning suffering and vulnerability with a striking depth of dignity. Today, I’ll only note that it would be strange to find only one person weeping in Martin Place.

You’ll also find a lot of landscape or ‘eco-poetic’ poems among his more celebrated. ‘The Gum Forest’ from Ethic Radio (1970) has some brilliant image-work:

Foliage builds like a layering splash: ground water
drily upheld in edge-on, wax-rolled, gall-puckered
leaves upon leaves. The shoal life of parrots up there.

Leafing (another Murrayism) through his books at random, you find rural imitations and pretty execrable Robert Burns impressions shouldering up against discursive and preachy ‘philosophic’ poems like ‘Politics and Art’:

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

The sentiment of which is kind-of true I guess, but doesn’t putting it in a poem contradict the whole point &c? And most lingeringly, some of the stark, estranged-eye imagery we associate with Modernism. This section is pretty good, ‘Antarctica’ (2007):

the planet revolves in a cold book.
It turns one numb white page a year.
Round this in shattered billions spread
ruins of a Ptolemaic sphere,

***

During the bathos of the stupidly titled ‘poetry wars’, Murray would come to be polarised against the American inspired experimental poetry exemplified at the time by people like Adamson, Forbes, and Tranter, but he and Bob Ellis shared a room for a time and, like many others, he squatted in a Sydney Push share-house in Milson’s Point. At school, his exclusion from the cult of beauty and popularity impelled an embrace of another cult, the cadets, and with it his fascination with all things military. Here, too, a few abrasive encounters with the ’68 poets – hardly saints themselves, cf. Kate Lilley’s Tilt (2018) – accreted into the binary mythos of Murray’s world-view. This can be thought of as a more sophisticated and more paranoid version of the old Sydney and the Bush dichotomy. At one pole, he saw everything he hated about modernity: sneering cosmopolitanism, cynicism, atheism, fascism, communism, feminism and a lot of things about sex. At the other, there was honesty, spirituality, humility, tradition, and – weirdly enough – Indigeneity again (which I’ll discuss more below). In other words, it was bullshit: a towering heap of the formation he despised so often in others – ideology, but nonetheless an ur-narrative which his otherwise subtle exegetic mind could acrobatically deploy to justify some deeply contorted loyalties. You can find some evidence of this adolescent logic in most of Murray’s books but, as mentioned above, it’s most obvious in Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996). Some of these poems are so fucked up that they don’t warrant the name or the attention – hate is a powerful stimulant but even Murray’s abilities could strain trying to turn it into art. Here’s an excerpt from ‘The Demo’:

Whatever class is your screen
I’m from several lower.
To your rigged fashions, I’m pariah.
Nothing a mob does is clean,

not at first, not when slowed to a media,
not when police. The first demos I saw,
before placards, 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.

Murray’s sense of affective exclusion and sexual exile blurs groups into a single, hostile entity and a protest against oppression turns into a mob, definitionally a force of oppression. This etiolated sense of victimisation explains a lot about Murray, and perhaps about Australian conservativism generally. Murray’s 1999 poem ‘A Deployment of Fashion’ starts by resonantly criticising the rampant misogyny of Australian public life, but ends up defending Pauline Hanson and somehow translating Helen Darville into a crucified victim instead of the kind of vicious hack who who pretended to be Helen Demidenko to make her racist book sound less racist and recently salivated on twitter over the prospect of Greta Thunberg having a spectrum-meltdown.

As Le emphasises, strong poets create their own myths and define their own subjectivities. While Murray’s subjectivity was intricately informed by his earlier experiences of social relegation – some of which I share and sympathise with – for much of his career that myth was articulated from a position of power, prestige, and hegemony. As Le puts it, he was top dog. In their excellent study of the culture wars The Virtual Republic (1997), McKenzie Wark makes the same point about Murray’s idea of a vernacular republic:

A key point Murray makes in his ‘republic’ essay is that various squabbling factions of the Ascendancy will never admit that they all belong to the same class. Each claims to speak for the public interest, and each tries to exclude other claims to articulate the common world. My only dissent is that I think we need to include Murray himself as well, even though he would like to appear as the ‘peasant mandarin’ somehow outside that social class of talking heads who populate the world of appearances. (265)

More, this myth, with the intricacy which a mind like Murray’s could give it, lent cover and capital to the saurian minds at Quadrant, which far from a site of relegation was for much of that time the mouth-piece of the conservative wing of a ruling political party.

This passage from Wark wasn’t written specifically about Murray, Quadrant, or The Ramsay Centre for that mind, but it works all the same:

I don’t miss the cold war, but clearly some people do. Needing some polar axis to cling to, in needing to believe someone is still listening, old cold warriors crank up the old drill of the ‘present danger’. Only the Reds aren’t lining up on the other side any more. So ghostly images of them have to be conjured out of half-remembered ‘security assessments.’ (209)

Quadrant was funded by CIA Kulturkampf loot shelled out to prevent the cultural spread of communism in the pacific. Under the inaugural editorship of the poet James Macauley, it established a legacy of embattled contrarian and conservative Catholicism, which Murray’s contribution as the magazine’s literary editor between 1991 and 2018 continued.

Quadrant’s always had a reactionary slant but there were periods when it was a serious journal devoted to actual discourse – and in turn capable of being taken seriously by a fair-minded reader. In 2007, the pseudo-historian Keith Windschuttle – think a semi-academic version of John Howard – assumed the editorship. During his crazed tenure, Quadrant gradually warped into something closer to the murky parts of reddit than a journal of critique. Even Murray’s polemical writing is nowhere near as bad as the average piece of barbarians-at-the-gates pearl-clutching you’ll find in Quadrant. His essays almost always maintained argumentative subtlety and a degree of irony, but nonetheless he was happy enough to suspend those standards by association and, by doing so, dignify truly indefensible positions.

This isn’t a new take: when Murray invited him to submit poetry to Quadrant in 1990, Tranter replied:

the publishing of literature in Quadrant [has] other purposes than the disinterested support of writing … the poetry has always been at the best window-dressing, and at the worst a way of making the magazine’s other purposes look as though they had the implicit support of its best literary contributors. (in Alexander, 240)

I don’t uncomplicatedly support de-platforming or the like as a reflex action, but from where I stand, the decision taken in 2014 by then Poetry Editor of Overland Peter Minter not to publish poets who also published in Quadrant was irrefutably the right one. It’s Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance – if you can’t accept the diversity of voices in the room then fuck off out of the room.

There are worse, much worse, contortions in Murray’s relationship with Indigenous culture. On the one hand, he claimed to respect a particular archival version of Aboriginal knowledge, but it was a purely historical or anthropological version which precluded a material acknowledgement or engagement with the ongoing realities of Aboriginal experience. The nakedly expropriative way he deploys cultural terminology – think of the ‘dreaming silence’ in which the persona contemplates his Scots ancestors in ‘Noonday Axeman’ – rigidly positions ‘the Aboriginals’ as a subject of rather than a participant in literary discussion.

Inevitably, this takes me to one of Murray’s best-known poems, the much celebrated ‘Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ published in Ethnic Radio (1977). According to Le, this is ‘the seminal poem of modern Australia’ and if Murray had written no other good poetry, it would still render its collection ‘one of the great books of the modern world’ (in terms he borrows from Clive James).

According to a deeply problematic essay Murray published in Meanjin in 1977, he was inspired to write this poem by the anthropologist Ronald Berndt’s translation of one of the Wonguri Mandjigai people’s Dreamings, The Song Cycle of the Moon Bone. Murray praised this translation for the way it renders Aboriginal poetry ‘deeply in tune with the best Australian vernacular speech’ and that priority is a big part of the problem.

In an article I published last year in Australian Literary Studies, I argued that Australian Literature is intricately involved with the containment and erasure of Aboriginal people, as a late stage of what Patrick Wolfe calls a logic of elimination. ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ is an extremely sophisticated version of that elimination: it appropriates the cadence and the ideas of Aboriginal culture to describe and praise the white Australian society which tried so hard to eliminate it.

The Jindyworobaks were culturally and politically misguided, but thankfully they were also on the whole shithouse poets. Murray was similiarly misguided, but his poetic mind was generally exceptionally strong, and this poem is technically a good one in a number of ways.

There are big claims being made about Murray and his times, here’s mine: ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ poem is also uncomplicatedly evil. It’s a chilling glimpse of the complete success of the logics of elimination identified by Wolfe. It illustrates an Australian culture of successful genocide, one which has completely absorbed the signifiers of the culture it destroyed. Given the way canons work, Murray’s poetry probably isn’t going anywhere, and I imagine this poem will continue to be read and taught, but, if so, it should be taught in tandem with the real thing: writing from the culture it steals from. Bill Neidjie’s Story About Feeling (1989) comes to mind. And, most importantly, it should be taught as an example of the ways in which Australian writing has participated and continues to participate in the legitimation of a colonial project on the Australian continent, and as an example of poetry’s unique power to tell beautiful lies.

***

A book where Murray did meaningfully contribute to ethical representation is Killing the Black Dog (2009), his vivid memoir on living with major depression. Today, most people with neurologically diverse experiences don’t conceptualise mental illness the way he did. Nonetheless, this book contributed to a destigmatised conversation. When the symptoms of my own conditions were first presenting, in my late teens and early twenties, I, like Murray, was a working class kid trying and failing – sometimes literally, if we’re talking about marks – to navigate the bastion of slick privilege that was and continues to be Sydney University. That book spoke to me, and the marrow-deep rage of some of his worst poems makes terrible sense in stages of psychological extremity. Its targets are undeserved, and its connections are false, but it’s bitterly true that there are few further exiled from the communities of human kindness than the mad. Of course, the book couldn’t have given the same comfort to the many other kinds of people who struggle with mental illness in modern Australia, most of all the Aboriginal people who continue to be horrifically over-represented in prisons, asylums, and suicide statistics.

***

So, what now? Murray leaves a legacy of strong writing which, like much Australian literature, is tainted by indefensible principles and politics. These are the facts of our history, and we know too much now to simply celebrate it, even when it’s well-written. On the other hand, ignoring or repressing this legacy plays into the hands of the cult of forgetfulness that already dominates Australian historical sensibility, and concedes a lot of ground to the wonks at the Ramsay Centre – who, I note, include both ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ and The Song Cycle of the Moon Bone in their hypothetical curriculum. For the settler mind, this is a conceptual problem, an antinomy, a contradiction between laws or axioms. For my money, white Australian thought doesn’t have an answer and is probably structured so as not to have an answer. Every piece of competent art – or writing about art – to some extent legitimates, allegorises and reifies the context in which it was produced. This is true even of the best and most critical Australian writing, in a local version of the paradoxes of political art identified by Jacques Ranciere and Fredric Jameson. In attempting a sophisticated critique, exorcism and recapitulation of a certain version of the textual product labelled ‘Murray’ on the shelves of our bookshops and libraries, I imagine I’ve done the same thing.

To end on a hopeful note, and with the Uluru statement in mind, the breadth and vigour of diverse writing published here in the last twenty years is changing things. Conspicuously, the boom of Indigenous literature represented by people like Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Jeanine Leane and younger poets like Alison Whittaker and Evelyn Araluen seems like it might be gesturing to a time when we can appreciate the good in Murray’s work without endorsing the rest, and without silencing other voices – in the same way we can talk about Eliot’s mastery of cadence in The Waste Land without subscribing to his antisemitism. For me, we’re not even close to being there, and it will be an Aboriginal critic who decides when we are. If that’s a cop out, then it’s a cop out.

***

Embittered Postscript: I came up with this critical experiment before the catastrophic national idiocy we witnessed during the recent election. In light of that, I’m sad to say that the movements towards balance and synthesis I’ve attempted above seem grossly optimistic, naive, and pretty much fucking utopian. Rather than just delete them, I’ll let them stand as spectral gestures of the possibility of a just and decent Australia honestly committed to addressing the wrongs of its past, and the fragility of its future. The one we glimpsed – just glimpsed – in moments of the Whitlam, Hawke, and Keating governments. But for now, they need a bleak, sober, sad revision: Murray lived, he wrote some good poems, he was very wrong about some very important things, and he died at a venerable age that most Aboriginal people today will never approach. In the words of Murray’s lord, let the dead bury the dead.

 

Alexander, Peter f. Les Murray: a Life in Progress, Oxford UP, 2000.
Bourke, Lawrence. A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry. New South Wales UP & New Endeavour Press, 1992.
Clunies Ross, Bruce & Hergenhan, Laurie ed. The Poetry of Les Murray. Australian Literary Studies & University of Queensland UP, 2001.
Hughes, Ted. New & Selected Poems 1957-1994. Faber, 1995.
Jakobson, Roman ‘What Is Poetry?’ v. 3; O. Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, trans. R.L.C. Simms, 1973.

Image: David Naseby, Les Murray (detail)

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jonathan Dunk is the Kenneth Reed Postgraduate Scholar at the University of Sydney, where he teaches literature and critical theory. His scholarship, fiction and poetry have been published in JASAL, Tripwire, Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Australian Poetry, shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University prize, and awarded the AD Hope prize. He lives on Wangal country.

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Comments

  1. Nice re-finding of the funeral, so to speak. I can only add that if there were a men’s shed for poets, Murray founded it and spent his latter later years there, permanently.

  2. Brilliant essay!

    ” like much Australian literature, is tainted by indefensible principles and politics.”

    Interested to know what you make of David Ireland? The Glass Canoe and Unknown Industrial Prisoner are amazing, experimental works I think. Though others have pointed to his depictions of women in these novels and others… And of course he was out of print for years until Text republished some of his novels a few years ago.

  3. Thanks for this, Jonathon. At the risk of casting fuel on fire (or of axing a fallen tree), I think Les Murray’s homophobic poetry should also not be forgotten. This little ditty, ‘East Sydney’, from The Weatherboard Cathedral, gives us a fair insight into Murray’s warped politics:

    I shot an arrow in the air,
    It fell to earth in Taylor Square
    Transfixing, to my vast delight,
    A policeman and a sodomite.

    This is not some “I” speaking latently through the work, the speaker is more obviously Murray (than in Subhuman Redneck Poems, which as you point out are awful whichever way you look at them). At a time of social and sexual revolution (1969), whether one agreed with the libertarian artistry of the time or not, this ditty is what our so-called national poet had to offer. No thanks.

    If I had to offer a saving grace, much as you’ve done (why do we need to—because some people love his self-mythologising or because we’re in thrall to binary logic?), perhaps Murray’s book Translations from the Natural World is his most interesting, aesthetically speaking, though we could easily tear it down for some of its ventriloquising of animals.

    • I remember reading a criticism of that poem by John Tranter similar to yours, which criticism did indeed inspire a little piss-take of my own in my recently published book ‘Hangover Music’. But I don’t think Murray’s light verse here is particularly damning; the poetic ‘I’ is clearly not the same as Murray’s actual ‘I’; Murray did not go around practising archery in public places. The mnetaphor is violent but then again, so is a lot of light verse (spot of Belloc, anyone?) ‘Sodomite’ is not pronounced so much as an old-fashioned Biblical style denunciation as it is to get the rhyme and metre right.

  4. Les Murray’s State Funeral is next week. Let’s bury the man properly before putting the boot in, Ok? How insensitive and mistimed.

    btw, the comments on Murray’s poem ‘Rock Music’-

    “This poem is obviously fucked. Like Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ – technically a very strong poem – it translates a global atrocity into a metaphor for private loss and private trauma. I doubt anyone can find a poem that manages that without grossly trivialising the former.”

    Not only is this typical PC-blinker vision judging-past-by-present-morality, and incorrect, especially with regard to Plath’s bone fide masterpiece, ‘Daddy’, but hypocritical, seeing that Overland’s own ex-poetry editor once wrote:

    “Let’s imagine we are in Germany in the 1930s. We are writing what we think are good poems, free of any overt political substance, and we decide to send them to the ‘Nazi Literary Weekly’ for publication, because the poetry editor loves poetry and everyone thinks he is going to win the Nobel Prize and so they all suck up to him in order to gain the satisfaction of feeling that they are being ordained by the holy poet. The Big Poet publishes the poems and everyone feels nice. Nevertheless, and this is the crux, history will shine its irrevocable truth upon the poets who submitted their poems to the “Nazi Literary Weekly” and they will be forever stained by the association. . . so you can say whatever you like about how wonderful it is to be published by Les Murray (those of us who know also know that this is not what it seems!!) the fact remains that those who choose to publish in Quadrant will be forever stained by the association…” — Peter Minter

      • Jacinda, I don’t know who Peter Minter is but that statement above does not come from the pen of a ‘principled’ anybody. The Nazi slur is invoked on an almost daily basis to silence debate and to smear political opponents. This is so common and predicable that it is now known as Godwin’s Law (or Godwin’s Rule of Hitler Analogy ie. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” No editor in any position of responsibility should be stooping to this kind of low ground. This is shameful.

        • You clearly are ignorant of this debate, as you just said that you don’t even know who Peter Minter is. And Joe’s comment above is one paragraph from a serious and lengthy debate. I am frankly surprised as to why you felt the need to respond.

          It’s this kind of arrogance – where the right see one comment and think they understand a complete argument and apply some general principle to it – that is so concerning in Australian literature and politics. And this is why the right have nothing interesting to say about literature and politics, but are quite comfortable denying Stolen Generations, or running campaigns that are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-working class and anti-union.

          • Jacinda, I don’t need to know who Peter Minter is, I don’t need to know about whatever debate you are referring to, which btw is irrelevant to this thread – and I don’t even need to know who you are. I assume you are the editor but you certainly are taking up a lot of oxygen defending Mr Dunk, who ought to be speaking for himself.
            Perhaps if you reread his Nazi reference ‘ … it translates a global atrocity into a metaphor for private loss and private trauma. I doubt anyone can find a poem that manages that without grossly trivialising the former…”.
            Joe’s comment attacks the hypocrisy of that statement coming from Overland, as it’s pretty clear Overland has been guilty of the exact same thing. It is there clearly in Minter’s words. Am I wrong? Then refute it directly.
            But primarily, and even more offensively, according to Dunk’s narrow definition, S. Plath’s great poem, and just about everything that is written by holocaust survivors regarding ‘private loss and trauma’ falls under that ridiculous umbrella.
            You are flirting dangerously with anti-semitism here so I suggest you stop throwing those ‘anti-‘ words around so freely from your (very low) moral high ground.

    • The obvious thing to say to this is that there’s a massive difference between a writer invoking one of the most horrific of historic events to describe their own personal perspective on a wildly unrelated and incomparable individual experience, and an editor discussing comparatives in a political context (a context which occurred prior to the Holocaust). They’re just not on the same scale or to the same ends of invocation, and to suggest that Jonathan is applying one rule to Murray and Plath and not to Minter is to completely misread both Jonathan and Minter’s terms.

  5. This essay reminds us how fortunate it is we live in the age of computers and the internet. Had it been delivered on old-fashioned paper the text would have been largely illegible for the wank stains.

    “Pyroclastic flow” when a monument falls! Well that lets Vesuvius off the hook for scorching the life out of Pompeii. Must have been a statue toppling in the forum.

    Warning: don’t touch the biscuits in Overland’s office kitchenette. They’re apt to be very soggy indeed.

    • How much time do you spend thinking about masturbating on biscuits? Or are you more a man of action?

  6. As a novice poet, I spent an entire day haunting Murray’s footsteps when he visited Melbourne, around Year 2000.

    I went to a bit of trouble to determine his schedule and turned up front row to several (?all) readings he gave, right across the city.

    He read a poem about a man weeping in Martin Place in Sydney (An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow) that has stayed with me, and perhaps informed some of my subsequent work.

    Always worthwhile to sit at the feet of the master.

    • Frank, Excellent collection of tribute poetry in memoriam Les Murray in the June Quadrant from many other poets, including Clive James and Sharon Olds, who feel the way you do. Peter Goldsworthy also praised his influence in The Saturday Paper (No. 251):
      ‘A natural, a maverick, a rare fluke in a baggy wool jumper who was as original in his life as in his work.’

  7. Very 17th century view of masturbation above. Initiated by Tissot and promoted by Voltaire and Kant. Used all through the early 19th and 20th century to fill teenage children with guilt.
    As usual, these kind of mal-formed comments tell you more about the writer than the issue they are referring to. Here’s the 2019 FYI:

    ‘In recent times the UK National Health Service slogan: An Orgasm a Day Keeps the Doctor Away encouraged teens to practice once daily
    to stem youth pregnancy. The Spanish region of Extremadura distributed leaflets: Pleasure is in Your Hands. Current theory shows regular activity lowers probability of prostate cancer,
    reduces coronary heart disease in males over fifty, improves sperm motility and health
    and if practiced by women before coitus increases fertility. Relieves depression,
    leads to higher self-esteem, increased relaxation and better sleep.’
    (And, FYI, ‘men of action’ masturbate, too.)

    • Um … … … okay … (though I’m not at all convinced you understood the comment you seem to be trying to reply to)

  8. Given the recent election – it is inevitable that responses to Murray and his prolific output should be fractured down party lines – was Murray tar right?

    • It’s fair to say he was very conservative and aligned himself with a great many right wing thinkers – some specified above (Hanson et al). Big mates with Tony Abbott. I think he tried to justify it as a class thing, which is all the more ironic. His work with Quadrant is a more obvious demonstration of his politics – conservative, nationalistic, jingoistic, and for my money pretty anti-intellectual.

      • Thanks for that summation – pretty much far right then on your reading – and I should have stuck ‘(sic)’ after the word ‘tar’ in my comment – where I was going for a dumb/serious joke:

        ‘Tar made from coal or petroleum is considered toxic. It causes cancer because of its high benzene content. In low concentrations, however, tar is used as a medicine on the skin.’

  9. It’s no surprise that I think this is a fantastic piece of criticism, or that I stand by Jonathan’s position here to the hilt. I too have read and admired aspects of Murray’s work while feeling deeply uncomfortable about a number of its implications – alongside his affiliations with an organisation that profits off hate-mongering, divisive screed with less intellectual integrity than a wet sock. The accusation that this piece of well-considered critique is just PC-whatever-the-hell comes from that same wet sock school of critique. I’d be more willing to listen to arguments accusing this of being in poor taste so soon after his death if it were coming from people who ever bothered to extend dignity to some of those they’ve harassed, intimidated and vilified while living. The terms of Jonathan’s critique are concerned with a social and cultural ethic that many disciplines and readers don’t care about. Fine. But Murray was the poetry editor of a journal that has attacked multiple individuals and communities in conservative versions of those terms. To say we can’t judge texts from a contemporary standing is anti-intellectual and enormously hypocritical. What the hell are we supposed to do with this work then? It’s an effort for any Murray fan to smooth down every edge, and a profound waste of time. The man is going to have his legacy regardless of what’s said by a young critic who has shared a deep affinity with some of his experiences but can’t reconcile the violence upon which Murray’s well-worded idea of this world is built upon. I personally know how Jonathan came to that place, and it was with dialogue and relationships and participation with Aboriginal community and land, as well as over a decade of research in Australian literary studies. Everyone loses heroes and sometimes that happens before they’ve actually died. Don’t be so precious – if Murray’s legacy can’t stand up to intelligent and ethical critique then what kind of legacy is it?

    • “I’d be more willing to listen to arguments accusing this of being in poor taste so soon after his death if it were coming from people who ever bothered to extend dignity to some of those they’ve harassed, intimidated and vilified while living.”
      If this refers to me, as I assume it does, in this context, Ms Araluen, you better do some more homework before you ignorantly dismiss those who have been ‘extending dignity’ to other people before you were born. You demand respect for ‘elders’ yet you demonstrate none. Your shallow comments are an example of your own personal ‘wet sock school of critique’.

      • Why do you think you deserve respect, Joe? You’ve shown yourself to be racist, dismissive and right-wing. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous to pretend you deserve respect, when even in this debate you have have been sock-puppeting in the comments section. What exactly are you trying to achieve here?

        I’m sorry that you find it so difficult to understand that people disagree with you and your politics.

        • Jacinta, you are the one who is dismissive of counter-views, and a radical left-wing ideologue. You lump everyone who publishes in Quadrant in one big mob-mush when, in fact, every single contributor over there has varying percentages of Left-Conservative-Right beliefs. Geoff Page, Dave Mason, Clive Davis, Andrew Lansdown, Sharon Olds, Pascale Petit, myself, Lin van Hek.
          To call me Right Wing shows you have no credibility to criticize me in any fair way. Anyone who knows my work knows MUCH different, including Pen MELBOURNE who just accepted three of my poems.
          You completely misrepresent me with your utter ignorance.
          I dare you to prove your allegation. Show me one Right Wing article or poem I have published and reference it here. If you cannot do this, then you will have shown everyone on this thread that you are merely a name-caller.
          Re: the 2014 stosh: Peter Minter wrote a letter of apology to Les Murray for his atrocious slander of him (I’ll bet Peter didnt tell you that).
          You, on the other hand, as present Overland editor, continue to defend that kind of behavior as though it were ‘terrific and principled’ and Overland policy.
          When Paul Mitchell, from Going Down Swinging, asked ex-editor Jeff Sparrow about Minter’s statements, Jeff told him that Minter’s email to me had been off-the-cuff and that no such editorial policy existed at Overland.
          So someone was lying. And I was a subscriber to Overland at the time which was doubly offensive.

          • You’re obviously free to stick to any versions of events that you wish.

            Here’s what I can say about your behaviour here over the past couple of days: you have assumed multiple aliases. You have been patronising, sexist and racist to commenters above. You are seemingly obsessed with Quadrant.

            I absolutely do believe that ‘literary works’ cannot be separated from the racist views published alongside them. If you publish in those pages, you tacitly support the broader political values of that magazine – I honestly don’t know how you can pretend anything else – and you do not care about the damage your little magazine does.

            Here’s a little song I’d recommend for you:

    • You are a name-caller and that’s all you are.

      “I absolutely do believe that ‘literary works’ cannot be separated from the racist views published alongside them.’

      Good luck with that point of view.

  10. This is an important article – as a non-poet it’s useful to be gifted a 21st century poet’s perspective on Murray’s legacy without the tedium of nil nisi bonun getting in the way. The man was clearly of legendary status – very rare in antipodean poetry – so an article in a local journal which discusses his ‘problematic’ political complexity shouldn’t be considered too vulgar for adult dissemination. A dignified and honest response to a fallen giant, whatever you might think of the take. The author, Dunk, makes clear his political affiliations, and considering those, this article is even handed and generous indeed.

  11. Maybe a ‘too soon’ factor has caused all the consternation, because interfering with a grieving process. I can get that.

  12. To echo the comments from Francis Guthrie – this is an important article. It reads as an incisive and engaged critique of Murray since his death, and, is able to reflect on the post-mortems of others by becoming its own, autonomous, post-post mortem. I like its meta-textual engagement because it shows a poetics that is concerned with the field as a whole. The timing matters too and I think Overland has done well to publish it on the weekend. It makes for good Sunday reading after the farewell to Barry Cassidy on ‘Insiders’. They were right to call it bold.

    I find Jonathan especially astute when reading Murray’s actual work, and, while there has been a good emphasis on the ideology in it, I think I would also add a complementary note. Namely, the trajectory that Murray took in his politics and his poetry, which both soured over time. The early aspirations of his Commonwealth Party statement, while grounded in a retrospectively reprehensible if unconscious white settlerism, went the way of Katter Jnr. The latter was involved in the DLP split from the ALP during his own father’s representation of North Queensland, and that might be one reason why we have only had glimpses of a truly realised politics in Whitlam, Keating, Hawke. We could have had that far more often. It was also a similarly gross betrayal of the very same people Murray was seen to represent – the rural working poor, and when one looks back at Murray’s own early promise, it seems even sadder that he became so complicit with power rather than refusing it. Speaking truth in a bardic responsibility as a vernacular republican surely does not involving accepting awards from the Queen? And, if you do meet her, why wear a three piece pin-stripe suit rather than make material the dream of wearing shorts forever? And taking that single image as a synecdoche have we been living on fumes for a while now when it comes to reputations forged on the anvil of an antiquated cultural nationalism? Maybe smell the roses rather than inhale the false consciousness no matter if the salts are eucalyptus.

    Jonathan’s piece is aware of all that and also helps usher in a new moment. You can sense the care when you notice the work beneath this essay itself. This type of literary journalism is smart, wry, and wrestles with complex ideas, and we need more of it. I think Francis is right to call it dignified, honest, even handed, and generous. A good read, well done.

  13. There’s no doubting the high quality of Dunk’s reading – it’s the sort of reading I’d expect on Overland – given too the writer’s declared political leanings. What I don’t get is why right to far right supporters of Murray bothered to come across and complain? No way I’d go over to Quadrant, say, and contest the sorts of readings I’d expect there. There’s overdetermination at work for sure, and I’m guessing in respect of disavowed cultural values.

  14. So much to elaborate on and extend from in this exciting and balanced critique of the dialectics of the Muzza legacy. Enviable depth of understanding for the Murray poetic project for white belonging even while the essay heartily deconstructs it. Anyone hoping to discuss Murray in the twenty-first century benefits from such a sober departure from the usual hagiographies. For some of us, Dunk’s conclusion that the possibility of “a time when we can appreciate the good in Murray’s work without endorsing the rest” might be arriving offers a more generous assessment than some of us would give. So it speaks volumes that some people need the memory of Murray’s work to remain an untarnished, electric-fence-protected obelisk.

    For one thing, this essay draws me to rethink “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle” and its logic of “elimination”, as Dunk puts it. The poem is very much in drone view, most of the time, isn’t it; never quite omniscient, never too high up, but never on the ground as such even as it might seem to be. Makes me think of Martin Harrison’s desire for a poetics that sustains a simultaneous feeling of being in the air and on the ground such as Jennifer Rankin’s, but also how this can become drone-like when mastery and territory become its objectives rather than immanence. Murray’s poem never achieves a multifocal view divorced from a surveilling, touring subjectivity.

    Since we have the ear of Quadrant, it appears, I would be so thrilled to learn how it is that Australia’s Milton could publish so much light verse in one editorial tenure. Must be a record! I ask ingenuously — is there a dimension of light verse to Murray’s own work and poetic practice that should also be properly taken into consideration by the hagiographers who won’t let the Murray oeuvre be relinquished from the altar? We’re happy to talk about light verse in the work of Byron, Auden, Parker, or Hughes. Why must we be so reverent with a poet who so freely entertained irreverence? Indeed, the question is worth asking in the context of Dunk’s essay since half of the more egregious of Murray’s poems mentioned above were intended as timely reactions to particular cultural and political issues of his time, something which light verse facilitates pretty well. This tendency continued as late as into the last book of Murray’s I have read, Waiting for the Past (2015).

  15. I am a writer who has been excluded from Overland by virtue of being published by Les Murray in Quadrant (which is not to say that my writing is necessarily good enough). In my case, I picked up my first Quadrant at a newsagent and read only the poetry. I wrote down the literary editor’s name and address and looked up Les, about whom I knew nothing, at the library. I submitted some poetry, and after the modifications he suggested, I had a few poems accepted. I knew nothing about Quadrant until I received a copy for having had poems included. I was later to discover that my fate had been sealed.

    As an immigrant, I was totally unaware of Quadrant’s pariah status and later ended up subscribing to both Overland and Quadrant to get an idea of both ends of the spectrum. I was unsuccessful with submissions to Overland, but was treated with unscrupulous fairness and consideration by Judith Beveridge at Meanjin. Ironically, I am still on Overland’s mailing list and I imagine that its algorithms might not have identified me.

    In the land of my birth, I witnessed how the extremes of the right and left had caused so much injustice and distress and, after watching a battle caused by politics which left dozens dead, I vowed to tread the path of moderation in all matters political. Unfortunately, in Australia, I have been branded as treading the path of the right.

    If you were to read my poems and stories published by Les, you would see that many take an anti-racist, anti-colonialist, pro-aboriginal tack and if you looked at them on their own it would be apparent that they are far from being right wing.

    At university in South Africa, which I attended from my homeland Zimbabwe, I was teargassed and had police dogs set on me at a protest after an address by Robert Kennedy at the campus. It was a regime that was as close to Nazism as you could get! I thought that in Australia I would have been free of blinkered and exclusionary thought.

    I can see both sides of the argument for guilt by association, but having spent much of my life living under dictatorships, am concerned that dogmatic rule prescription precludes the consideration of mitigating circumstances which is the cornerstone of justice, legal and natural.

    I wrote this triolet after reading the article and some of the comments, which crystallises my opinion on the issue. You may choose to exclude it, believing it to be an attempt to sneak a poem into Overland, but I hope that an Aussie fair go will prevail.

    TWO HEADED COIN

    Reading Quadrant is like watching Fox News,
    while reading Overland, MNBC,
    both of them with equally biased views.
    Reading Quadrant is like watching Fox News,
    but, in both, it is the poetry I choose,
    judging it and not its company.
    Reading Quadrant is like watching Fox News,
    while reading Overland, MNBC!

    Derek Fenton.

    • To be clear, Derek, there is no blacklist of poets or other writers at Overland; that’s just some fantasy that some writers have cooked up. However, editors at Overland are independent to make any editorial choices they please.

      But I don’t think subscribing to a magazine of hate-mongering and fear is the best use of your reading time or money. You’re also talking about a magazine with writers and editors who’d block all immigration to Australia if they could – apart from white South African and Zimbabwean farmers. Hardly neutral.

      Furthermore, I’d like to make it clear that Quadrant is not a friend of writers or the working class. They have frequently argued against any kind of government support for writing, and they’d align themselves with the same forces that would remove any minimum wage, and destroy any kinds of social safety nets in this country.

  16. Don’t know that Overland squares politically with MSNBC, if that’s what you’re referring to, Derek, or whether your rationale for not being published on Overland is accurate, but when it comes to sitting on the fence, Michael Leunig’s your man …

    ‘Come sit down beside me,’
    I said to myself,
    And although it doesn’t make sense,
    I held my own hand
    As a small sign of trust
    And together I sat on the fence.

    Did Murray write verse as light as that, I wonder?

    • Fame

      We were at dinner in Soho
      and the couple at the next table
      rose to go. The woman paused to say
      to me, I just wanted you to know
      I have got all your cookbooks
      and I swear by them!

      I managed to answer her, Ma’am
      they’ve done you nothing but good!
      Which was perhaps immodest
      of whoever I am.

      Perhaps.

  17. Good words on Murray, Jonathan. As a reader bemused by the potency of my brief former dalliance with Subhuman Redneck, I needed you to do this, thanks – and, I suppose, forewarn of other toxic literary alchemies. I never went further with Murray than Redneck and I see no place for PoC to comment on this ouevre without interrogating – and annexing, possibly axing “different poetics” – which would be too…I want to say, taxing. I’m more of an advocate for working separately towards similar goals. Well done again

  18. I agree with Jake about things descending into bathos and can feel myself slipping deeper and deeper into the proverbial and being engulfed on my fence by rising waters to the right and left. I fear that I’m about to throw the baby out with the bathos water by saying:
    I thought it was only the Americans who are reputed to have trouble recognizing irony.
    From my precarious perch on the fence, it seems to me that confirmation bias can make one see only the literal when it suits. Also one can bend the metaphorical, such as with my simile comparing Overland with MNBC where, of course, they can only be compared approximately. It suited my bias! Casting a line in from the fence sometimes catches a fish- if the bait is tasty enough.
    One of the times Les rejected a poem of mine because it didn’t accord with editorial policy was when I submitted an atheist poem which I intended to be taken literally. He said that he thought it was good and that I should try the other well known journals which were more likely to take it because it did not suit the contrarian ethos he supported. He openly stated the reason as he had done with a story of mine which hinted at suicide.
    If, as he believed, there is an afterlife and he is reading this I am sure he might be chuckling. Despite his many failings, he was good to me although he often put me in my place as people here are doing. I feel like I’ve just been dressed downin the principal’s office.
    I was just going to submit this poem about the elections to Les when he fell ill. I would like to believe that he would have accepted it as he did with one that mocked Donald Trump.
    I am impressed by how well written this article is and how even handed it is in many places.
    I don’t doubt some of the things you say about Quadrant, Jacinta, but I am a little suspicious of the hyperbole, simplification and omission.

    GIVING THANKS WHILE SITTING ON A FENCE

    I was asked to choose the left or right wing
    of the turkey for my Thanksgiving meal,
    but both of them seemed to lack any zing.
    I was asked to choose the left or right wing,
    but said, for my supper, I would rather sing
    for the plump middle, a far better deal
    and when asked to choose the left or right wing
    I prefer the breast without blinkered zeal!

  19. A hugely thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on multiple levels. I particularly applaud both the hopeful final note AND the embittered postscript. The all-too-brief (to my mind) paragraph on Murray’s depression is also spot on. I only hope and expect someone will supplement this with a similarly insightful grappling with Murray’s autism – not as a kind of lack which contributed to his social relegation or bitterness, but as a generative creative force. It’s been ignored too long.

  20. dear andy
    i worry greatly about your statement that
    Murray’s “autism” was a “generative creative force”
    just as i worry about people calling him a “Genius”.
    With respect to his Genius
    i think there is a conflation problem at work.
    The antonym of Genius is “ignoramus, illiterate, know-nothing, lowbrow, philistine, ass, donkey, fool, jackass, etc” — which to me points to a kind of fetishizing of his “ability”
    as tho writing for such dumb arses is a thing to marvel
    “Look, the dumb arse can write!!!! All sorts of dumb arses can write, and good too.
    There are many autistics in the world
    its very rare that they achieve the status of “Genius” (in poetry) like obvious Les has
    but to presume that “autism” is the “generative force” is rather presumptuous.
    It was once quite common for some writers who “smoked”
    to say that they couldn’t write UNLESS they were.
    I use to think that too, until i realized i could still write without a cigarette in my hand
    or near the (manual) typewriter, and in fact better.
    I find labelling Les Murray a “Genius”, is a kind of perverse voyeurism
    that keep and has kept a lot of others further down the “scale” (ignoramus’s, lowbrows,
    donkeys, fools, jackass, and mental defects) down.
    To me “genius” is not (as it purports to be) a “scale of merit”
    it has a very strong biological component built into it – as one’s IQ has.
    The antonym of Good, is Bad — it is NOT reliant on a special condition of the body per se
    which such words as ignoramus, and jackass etc do.
    Conflating the scale of “Good-to-Bad”
    with the scale of “Genus-to-Ignoramus” is a categorical mistake!
    And using a 1 to 1 mapping, the implication is always Genius = Good, and Ignoramus = Bad.
    If we are going to appraise his physical “ability” that’s one thing
    if we are going to appraise how “good” he is that’s another.
    This “Genius” bullshit, has just got to be cut out!
    It’s done enough damage
    love + anarchy
    TT.O.

    • Fair enough on the “genius” tag, which always gets attached to a myth, not a real writer. The last thing I want to do is suggest that “generative creative force” = genius or biological destiny or “in a totally different category of human” etc. Autism is a hugely diverse condition, and I’m no expert on Murray – all I can say is that it seems to me that key aspects of his aesthetic are influenced by his way of thinking, which he called “semi-autistic”. I know someone currently writing a chapter within a PhD about Murray in this way, so I look forward to seeing them publish.

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