Les Murray, who died at age 80 on April 29, has been called Australia’s greatest poet, but such an encomium meant little to him.
Murray grew up in dire poverty on a farm with no electricity or running water, and always felt exiled from the privileged classes. Largely self-educated, at university he was so poor he ate the scraps he found on plates in the cafeteria. Profoundly asocial, he once called himself “a bit of a stranger to the human race.” He also suffered at times from debilitating depression, and was bullied in school for being bookish and fat. Yet he transformed his sense of personal injury to a poetic voice of rigor and flexibility, humor and empathy, and enormous formal range. He was a generous anthologist and editor as well as an essayist, poet, and verse novelist. “It was a very great epiphany for me,” he once said, “to realize that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its reserves.”
A Catholic convert, Murray was a religious poet devoted to creation, but skeptical of all orthodoxies and authorities. Most of his many books bear the dedication “to the glory of God,” as clear a statement of his poetics as anything. If the Word was in the beginning, Murray understood the importance of language while maintaining a healthy modesty about its efficacy.
His poem “Poetry and Religion” asserts, “Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words / and nothing’s true that figures in words only.” He added, “Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition.” Murray deserves to be ranked among the best devotional poets—from Donne and Herbert to Eliot and Auden—but his work has an earthiness and irreverence of its own, a tragic sense of human life and a Whitmanesque sympathy for the lives of animals. His wordscapes and landscapes were local, Australian, with everything that distinction signifies—including the transported convict’s sense of justice and the nation’s thoroughly multicultural heritage. His art wasn't bound by pieties, political or otherwise, because he understood the position of poetry—and of language itself—in relation to reality.
Faced with the theological question “Why does God not spare the innocent?,” Murray replied in a quatrain:
The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.
This poem, called “The Knockdown Question,” is a minor epigram in the Murray oeuvre, but it partakes of the same theological experience as Eliot’s Four Quartets. Murray was not always so blunt. His early poem “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” is a powerful rendering of inexplicable grief, and explores the delusions of human beliefs. The same is true of “The Burning Truck,” in which human beings cannot fully register or comprehend the phenomena before them. The poem opens with “It began at dawn with fighter planes,” surely one of the most cinematic openings in contemporary poetry. The Japanese bombing of an Australian city, perhaps Darwin, leaves a burning truck rolling like a primordial monster down the street. What is this image, and how does it figure in a world human beings do not fully comprehend?
And then we saw the wild boys of the street
go running after it.
And as they followed, cheering, on it crept,
windshield melting now, canopy-frame a cage
torn by gorillas of flame, and it kept on
over the tramlines, past the church, on past
the last lit windows, and then out of the world
with its disciples.
The image, including those marvelous “gorillas of flame,” is wholly apocalyptic, as every moment must be, in a religious sense, about ultimate things.
The poetry world is rife with simplistic pieties, unable to fathom or celebrate complexity. Often, everything gets boiled down to an easy sense of justice. Murray's poetry, however, defies simplistic conclusions. In Australia, poets often distance themselves from Murray’s perceived conservative politics. But most politicized readings of him are simply wrong, for Murray’s work is larger than the political objections raised to it. He is actually far more charitable, far more democratic in his vision, than many of his detractors. As he said in an interview with The Paris Review: “The only politics I believe in is unconditional polite welfare. Anybody who needs should have their needs supplied—and politely. I’m a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”
In the end, Murray's dissident, nonconformist work helped raise his nation's poetry to a level of global importance. We are lucky he lived and left us his great example.
David Mason is an American writer living in Australia.