New Selected Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
336 pp., $16.00
The Consecrated Heretic, Down Under
Yet the pelican does all right, largely because people feed it. Such people "are sentimental, perhaps—but what to say / of humans who refused to feed a lame bird?" Here, in this peculiar circumstance, we operate by a different poetics. That we do not do so consistently is the unspoken sermon of the poem.
In a key document, a poem called "Poetry and Religion," Murray writes,
Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
into the only whole thinking: poetry.
"It is the same mirror," he continues:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned.
Thus every theology is a poetics: an account of what is and what is not, of what we must do and what we must not. "There'll always be religion around while there is poetry," says Murray, and then continues, in a deeply characteristic moment, "or a lack of it." Boccaccio wrote that the Bible is "the poetry of God," but Murray would give that title to the whole of Creation—including us. Like Shakespeare, this God is a master craftsman, but of a more difficult art, and his purposes and stratagems arise from an unknown poetics. To be a poet, for Murray, is to be a close reader of that Art, to reverse-engineer Creation in order to discover the dark principles by which it was made—and then to live accordingly. As his Centurion says, in response to rumors of the Resurrection, "It seems we are to be the poem / and live the impossible."
Among the truly great poets, the handful of absolute masters, the most neglected is Horace. This was not always so, but when the study of Latin fell away so too did Horace's influence and reputation. He does not yield readily to translation: his poetry combines colloquial ease and extreme concision in a way almost impossible to imitate in other tongues. (David Ferry's marvelous versions don't even try to be concise, but they capture much of Horace's distinctive and inimitable charm.) In the last hundred years, two major poets in English have understood themselves as heirs to the Horatian tradition. One of them is W. H. Auden, and the other is Les Murray.
Michael O'Loughlin has named this tradition "retired leisure," a retreat from the vortex of social and political life not simply to repudiate it, but to save yourself from being torn apart by it, to see it more clearly, to bear vivid witness to its absurdities—and perhaps to exemplify better ways to live. Horace's friend and patron Maecenas bought him a farm near modern Licenza—the poet called it his "Sabine farm"—and from there he watched with tolerant wisdom the follies of Rome, and wrote his beautiful poems. Les Murray's place in little Bunyah, up the North Coast of New South Wales, is his Sabine farm.
Because there's plenty of room in the countryside, the view from the farm is a sprawling one, and Murray is an advocate of sprawl. To sprawl is to ease past boundaries, cheerfully, without aggression. "Sprawl gets up the noses of many kinds of people / (every kind that comes in kinds)," but sprawl doesn't worry too much about this.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.
The poem I've been quoting from, "The Quality of Sprawl," is one of Murray's most famous ones, and widely cited in Australia. It does not appear in the New Selected Poems. (Neither does the marvelous Centurion poem.) Murray offers no explanation for this, indeed offers nothing here but poems: the collection bears no preface or introduction or acknowledgments, not even dates, so it's impossible to tell what order the poems have, if any. Such insouciance is itself a kind of sprawl.
The poet on his farm sprawls, grins, scratches the other cheek, and thinks; he speaks truth to power, or to whoever bothers to listen. He seeks a language adequate not to the approval of the kinds of people who come in kinds, but to the shape of the place where he's planted. (Murray once wrote of a dictionary of Australian English that it serves 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.") In Bunyah, Murray, regardless of the opinions of élites, seeks always "to farm the mind's Sabine acres / for product and subsistence."