Les Murray, both in public life and in his poetry, is an avowed believer in Australian cultural sovereignty. He is unyielding in his defence of a belief that has grown out of a desire to give voice to a very particular Australian identity, which to Murray’s mind emanates from the Bush. Raised on bush traditions, he sees bush ballads as being vital to the national literature. In some ways herein lies the core of Murray’s much vaunted opposition to modernism (“Modernism’s not modern: it’s police and despair.” – Subhuman Redneck Poems) – that it is a concept of the technological worlds of the northern hemisphere, ignoring and even obliterating the place-specific and demotic voice of a popular literature. Murray is naturally sceptical of the tools of modernity, and while having a fascination for technology, he also recognises its destructiveness and indifference. But Murray consistently suggests that the best approaches to dealing with the dark side of human existence are through spiritual awareness.
Central to Murray’s work is the concept of the Athenian and the Boeotian. Briefly, Athens symbolises the new, the crass, the commercial. It is the abstracting part of the brain (the “forebrain”), the producer of Rationality, while Boeotia is that part of the brain that is imagination, dream and inspiration; it is the place of ritualism and ancestral inheritance (the “poem”). Murray examines history as a struggle between these two forces or states of mind. When the expatriate Australian poet Peter Porter, in his poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Hesiod”, drew an analogy between Hesiod and Les Murray, he said, “Yes, Australians are Boeotians.” Porter was referring to Murray’s 1972 poem “The Boeotian Count”. The arising debate became the core of one of the major discussions in contemporary Australian literature; that is, the conflict between the city and the bush, and the centre and the fringe, etc. Lawrence Bourke, in his critical book on Les Murray, A Vivid Steady State (Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1992), quotes Murray’s description of Athens as “that perennial urbane country of the mind which for ever scorns, oppresses and renews itself from my native Boeotia.” (27) Murray sees white Australian history as being a continuing process of distancing between the urban and the rural, though he feels that ultimately a reconciliation between the two is possible, if anywhere, in the “New World” of Australia.
Les Murray left his country home at Bunyah in the north of New South Wales in 1957, returning almost thirty years later in 1986. This is the place of his ancestors, at least five generations of them, and Murray is as concerned with tracing this inheritance through Australia as he is with his original Gaelic roots. The notions of “clan” and “identity” and consequently a personal sense of authenticity are vital to his project. This tradition and inheritance are the means by which he fights the imperialism of urbanism, the product of an industrial revolution that has systematically alienated both the land and the people who seek to maintain their relationship with it.
At the core of the national identity is the Australian language, which he sees as unique in character. The independence of an idiomatic Australian dialect distances the fringe from its English centre. One of the landmarks in Australian literature was the publication in 1976 of Les Murray’s selected poems, The Vernacular Republic. It marked one of those occasions when a personal literature became a public statement. The process of publication was a political act, and also an historical one, in the sense that it made concrete the long-term conflicts in Australian literature regarding urban and rural tensions. Lawrence Bourke says,
Murray writes of The Macquarie Dictionary (1981), in his review-essay “Centering the Language”, that it shows “how much larger and richer our dialect is than many had thought, in part by gently but firmly shifting our linguistic perception, so that our entire language is henceforth centred for us, not thousands of miles away, but here where we live.” … This comment can be usefully applied to his own poetry. It too reveals the breadth and richness of the Australian idiom, and it too shifts our perceptions to show life centred “here where we live”. MurrayÕs title for his “novel” – the “vernacular republic” – encapsulates the point: a community becomes culturally independent in its use of a local language dialect, or a “vernacular”. (23)
Murray has spoken of his love of language as being “a family inheritance to some extent”. To have control over language is to be free, and Murray is all too aware of how the Athenian centre seeks to use language to oppress and control. His understanding of the derivation of words is astounding. Apart from the European languages he studied at university, Murray has a knowledge of Gaelic and an interest in the common ancestry of languages. Murray has said of his poem “Walking to the Cattle Place”, “It’s really an etymological sequence as much as anything else. It was sparked off by realising from linguistics studies that the oldest root we can trace in Indo-European languages is cow.” (Bourke, 140).
An inherent shamanism has Murray acting directly for and with the land and the people whose gestures he conveys. There is a symbiosis between them, and as a bard it is not only his right but his responsibility to speak. Be it the myths of masculine strength and heroism from earlier cultures, or the stuff of Australia’s own national pride (such as the military courage and pride attached to the ANZAC myth), or the Gaelic resistance to the English colonisation of their language (and territory), Murray frames his poetry around the conflict between the old values and the new – the dehumanising and indifferent forces of technology and change, against the forces of ancestral purity.
What attracts me as a poet to Murray’s work is its organicism – the way a poem grows towards an “awareness”. Much the same can be said of Murray’s oeuvre as a whole. There is a sense of moving through time and space, towards some metaphysical consciousness. I’ve often said that to enjoy a Murray poem one needs to run through all phases of human life – from childhood to old age; that his poems register the full scale of senses and responses from the life cycle. Murray’s delight in the intricacy of nature, the endless variety of creation, is also of great appeal, especially in a book like Translations from The Natural World.
The poem that for me captures not only the Murray voice but that of the Australian psyche is from his most recent book Subhuman Redneck Poems, “Water-Gardening in an Old Farm Dam”. The pragmatism and sensitivity, the duality of that psyche (or character) are wonderfully caught in the lines: “And the reeds I hate, // mint sheaves, human-high palisades / that would close in round the water, / I could fire floating petrol among them / again, and savage but not beat them, / or I could declare them beautiful.”
This new volume is a much more personal book, and in many ways a cathartic one. Murray’s influence on a generation of Australian poets has been incalculable. Few fail to recognise his linguistic brilliance, his intricate metaphysics, his ability to craft a poem and create a sense of place. Murray knows the value of naming – and he has named the points within his and his peopleÕs territory.