on 30 November 2009
An absolute treasure trove of Murray's finest work from 1965 to 2002. If you've already read Murray, then of course his work needs no introduction. If you haven't yet experienced the sheer pleasure of just reading his poems aloud, then for just a few bucks, here is your opportunity. Even if you have no interest in bucolic Australia (although by no means are all these jewels to do with that country), even if you find these poems very difficult to understand, you can still appreciate the wonderful use of language. Better still, if you find their meanings hard to grasp, you can read them time and time again as you gradually grasp his moments of epiphany gleaned from his "trance".
Asked why he writes, he answered: "It's wonderful, there's nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you've written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can't have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It's an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they're all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you're fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you're getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there's a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form."
The only blemish to this work is the actual book itself. Carcanet have not done Murray's work justice with a very poorly bound publication. The 578-page book has been bound too tight and after a few readings the binding will crack and come loose in parts while remaining too tight in others. Shame on you, Carcanet!
On page 182 of this book of 550 pages of poems by the garrulous Australian, we find one intriguingly titled The Quality of Sprawl. It is a poem extolling the virtues of "...the thirteenth banana in a dozen/or anyway the fourteenth" as well as "The fifteenth to twenty-first/lines in a sonnet..." not to mention "full-gloss murals on a council-house wall" - in other words, what Les Murray calls Sprawl. He elaborates:
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.
This poem could almost act as a poetic credo, for Murray`s prolific, relentless oeuvre now consists of more poems than you could shake a stick at, a multi-book sprawl of variegated verse, on any subject that takes his delighted fancy - he`s good at delight, though there`s finger-wagging a-plenty here too.
I sometimes wonder what his polar opposites, such as Larkin or Ian Hamilton, thought of him. Nobel laureates Brodsky, Heaney & Walcott (what a team of solicitors!) have all spoken highly of him, and one imagines Ted Hughes having been a slightly bamboozled admirer. (Even, in another lifetime, D.H. Lawrence too, possibly?)
Murray is a roly-poly man, with a high voice, jittery-nervous laugh, and the informality of so many of his countrymen. His poetry is lit by an Antipodean light, but his concerns are universal. He`s capable of heartbreaking compassion and worrying dogmatism (for which he has been criticised). He`s a Catholic convert, and some of his poetry is either blatantly `religious` or, at the very least, of a `spiritual` nature. He sees the numinous in the everyday, the elevated in the earthbound. His poems about animals are humanely un-anthropomorphic, compassionate, and characteristically observant.
He makes words do the most amazing things. Rarely has a poet used language in such unexpected ways. His poems often appear to turn somersaults, certain words performing functions they were never meant for. Of course, many poets do this - it is one of the particular joys of poetry - but Murray does it more so, and more often.
He has said in the past that he is `against relegation`, which could either imply that for him nothing is too unimportant or too small to write about or consider, or it might be a more political statement, or both.
Some of the hundreds of poems in this fat book - of varying lengths, some several pages long, some a mere two lines - take one`s breath away. Some, though a minority, seem a touch arbitrary for comfort: Murray seems to write about everything. I imagine him writing on the hoof, reeling off a dozen poems before bedtime, waking up with another batch on the boil. He should be so lucky!
This anthology of a unique, somewhat eccentric poet can only be recommended. If (for what it`s worth) I have given it less than the full five stars, this is because I would never claim him to be a favourite poet, or a poet I love. He has moments of slapdash vulgarity, and he can at times hector the reader (another criticism that has been levelled at him). However, this is poetry so vibrant, of such protean, multi-coloured vivacity, you`d be mad not to read him at some point in your life.