John Tranter reviews
The Vernacular Republic, Selected Poems
by Les A.Murray. Angus & Robertson, $3.95.
A warrior poet living still at Anzac Cove [heading interpolated by sub-editor]
This review is 1,200 words or about 4 printed pages long. It was first published in the Weekend Australian, Saturday 29 January 1977
THIS book marks the emergence of Les A. Murray as one of the leading poets of his generation, and perhaps the most salient writer of well-made verse in Australia at the present time.
Les Murray recently published in Quadrant a lengthy review of current poetry on tape, and was soon after interviewed in the same magazine; the ABC devoted a major part of a Sunday Night Radio 2 program to an interview, review and reading of his work; his Literature Board grant has been enlarged and extended for a further three years, and now, at the age of 38, his Selected Poems appears in Angus & Robertson’s list in the company of Christopher Brennan, A.D. Hope, Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright.
His talent is clear and abundant. He has long been recognised as a master of the art of potent rhetoric and memorable images. Poems such as ‘The Burning Truck’ and ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’ are as fresh and accurate now as they were when they first appeared in 1965.
His gift is not of the type that goes through sudden changes and developments; his talents and concerns are essentially much as they were eleven years ago. Above all, the image that emerges is that of a steady poet, one who came to the craft of verse properly armed with skill and already rather set in his ways.
As a young man he found employment as translator in Western European languages at the Australian National University: his etymological ability is clearly an early gift, not a craft learned through drudgery. Similarly his attitudes appear to have been implanted almost at birth: a love of the peculiarly Antipodean bucolic; the ambiguous and, somewhat childlike reverence for the instrument of murder — warfare, if you like — and a sly pride in his humble origins in the bush, tempered with a contradictory fascination for his supposedly royal ancestry — he claims in a recent interview that he is descended from Lady Macbeth.
An odd mixture of a man, and he makes good poetry of it, on many occasions. He is at his most likeable when he is not treating himself too seriously, as in the poem ‘Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil’, where he is almost but, naturally, not quite defeated by a murderous Welsh curry; and in parts of ‘Cycling in the Lake Country’.
But this Selected Poems invites a heavy appraisal. He is no longer to be seen as a young poet who may develop in a fresh and unexpected direction, and this book asks to be taken as it stands, as a statement of aim and a summation of a point of view.
THEY HAD LOST THE GAELIC [heading interpolated by sub-editor]
And there are many things in this book that I feel uneasy about. Given that he is widely respected and to some degree influential, it is disconcerting to note the pontificating tone in much of what he has say, the utter certainty he puts into statements about how bush people think, how honor is properly measured, how Les A. Murray alone has the key to what really matters, and you city folk had better listen.
In ‘Lachlan Macquarie’s First Language’ he asks — rhetorically — ‘What like were Australians, then, in the time to come? They had lost the Gaelic in them.’ This undoubtedly matters to Les Murray, but matters little to most Australians who had no Gaelic to lose.
‘I walk back,’ he says in another poem, ‘…to the knife which pours deep blood, and frees sun, fence and hill, each to its holy place. Strong in my valleys, I may walk at ease.’ Leaving those of us who are repelled by the killing of pigs — the topic of the poem — feeling as though a white feather had been mailed to us in the jacket of the book.
And the tone of the rhetoric itself is often asked to do the job of convincing the reader, forcing a certainty out of what must surely be a doubt in the writer. ‘Those who would listen / Have always been the Republic.’ Always? And we listen, indeed, to the well-made images and the rolling phrases, but feel a little awkward in having to accept the pat judgments.
I think the basic problem here is that Les Murray is a little too self-satisfied, a little too inexperienced in the necessarily tortured metaphysics of our modern urban world, to be able to adopt convincingly the mantle of tribal elder. The philosophy of the Left is too important to dismiss without proper argument, as Murray tries to dismiss it; the legend of Anzac is too stained with the blood of Vietnamese to be celebrated as one-sidedly as Murray does, the intellectually stunted lives of those who dwell in our bush towns is not as veined with easily mined ore as he would have us believe.
In a sense be is riding on the back of a lot of superficially held assumptions, in an age when everything is open to the most terrible questioning. An example of the inadequacy of his Gaelic-Australian literary heritage to deal with really major issues is ‘The Fire Autumn’, a difficult poem with many important things to say about Australia, and not all of them kindly.
Yet, the central message — as obscure as Rimbaud, as much of his poetry is, though many would call him a plain speaker — is confused with the worst conventional Australian values: ‘perhaps it’s time some of you went to the rain-quiet graves / of that buried war… and said with hard purpose, my franchise will bleed in my hands / till all these rise with their houses and their years…’ A speech, ambiguous though it is, that would not be totally out of place at the Cenotaph on Anzac Day.
MYSTICAL WING [heading interpolated by sub-editor]
He has said in an interview (joking, I hope) that he belongs to the mystical wing of the Country Party. And when the reader ponders the evidence in many of the poems — avowed religious conservatism, belief in the native wisdom of the ‘people’ but not the ‘intellectuals,’ endorsement of the ritual elements in the killing of animals, praise of the warrior virtues, an obsession with ‘honor’ — it seems that this claim is not so much a joke as an understatement.
He is a child of child of Anzac and the Bush Ballads, an enemy of the intellectuals, as the title and contents of ‘Sonnet Against the Intellectuals’ amply demonstrates: a posturing sub-Dylan Thomas in much of his rhetoric, and would-be leader of a type of New Nationalism. We have had one muddled and ill-fated Jindyworobak movement. Let us not, under the aegis of Les A. Murray, have another.
Yet his good humor, abundant in many of his poems and especially so in ‘The Broad Bean Sermon’ — notable in its lack of human, social, or political targets — makes the book well worth reading. For all my disagreements, and many of them are profound, I found The Vernacular Republic full of rich and complex poetry.