The Consecrated Heretic, Down Under

Originally published here

1

The story of the great Australian poet Les Murray is one of oblique angles, of seeing things slant, of being not-quite-right. In a country that, like most other countries, takes its cultural bearings from its cities, he is a poet from and of the countryside. (He titled one of his collections Subhuman Redneck Poems.) In one of the least religious nations in the world, he is a Catholic Christian who dedicates books “To the Glory of God.” (“Snobs mind us off religion / nowadays, if they can.”) He has frequently been labeled a conservative, even a reactionary, in his cultural and political views. (“The conservative and formalist charges are just that, charges — not criticism or scholarship, but Marxist policing of a dissident writer.”) Until he was nearly 60 years old he suffered from disabling bouts of depression, and came to believe that his personality ranged him on the autism spectrum; these experiences, plus struggles with weight that drew constant mockery when he was young, isolated him from others. (“I had a very special relationship with Shakespeare. I acknowledged him as a master craftsman; but I couldn’t forgive his writing three whole plays against one fat man. Fifteen acts about me at Taree High!”) When he wrote a short poem that no one understood — “Critics didn’t like it, / said it was obscure” — he followed it up with another that purported to explain it but was actually even more impenetrable.

So it is with reason that Murray has said, “I’m only marginally part of any set-up in Australia, I’m more or less a pariah there.” And yet it is equally true that he is one of the most famous and celebrated living Australians. Some years ago a television commercial from the national tourist agency featured him reciting one of his poems. When, in 1996, he collapsed and fell into a coma, national anxiety ensued, and when he emerged from the coma three weeks later — his lifelong depression, by the way, having somehow lifted — an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) newsreader announced that “the poet Les Murray is once more conscious and verbal.” Murray enjoyed this moment so much that he titled his next collection of poems Conscious and Verbal.

An explanation of these contradictions may come from the other end of the world. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued that France produces, from time to time, a peculiar kind of figure whom he calls the “consecrated heretic.” Voltaire is one example; Rousseau another; Sartre a third. The consecrated heretic is an artist or intellectual who plants his feet firmly in the riverbed and faces the social current upstream, refusing to be carried along by it. He mocks conventional wisdom; he scandalizes ordinary people by what he believes, what he says, how he acts. Of course, many people do this, but only a tiny handful are celebrated for it, are seen as indispensable threads in the social fabric. The passionate earnestness of these few is acknowledged; they are clearly dedicated in their own perverse way to the common good. Eventually the nation’s major institutions seek to bestow high honors on such heretics, who of course turn aside disdainfully, which makes them treasured all the more. Les Murray is the chief consecrated heretic of Australia.

2

This off-kilter quality, this plain oddity, is intrinsic to Murray’s verse as well. Had it been written in the 17th century we would call it “metaphysical”: it is full of knotted syntax and inscrutable metaphors. Even when he seems to be saying something utterly straightforward, the context can turn it into a puzzle, as when in “The Say-But-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary” — a biblical poem, rare for Murray, and one of his very finest — he stops dead in the middle of his exposition and states, “But there never was a bad baby.” (Wasn’t there? And what do you mean by “bad”?) In Murray, the blunt often appears evasive, and one suspects the most evasive formulations of bearing a secret bluntness.

Murray’s word for what others might call “worldview” or “philosophical outlook” is “poetics.” In “At the Aquatic Carnival” he describes seeing a pelican with a deformed beak: “It cannot pincer prey, or lid its lower scoop, / and so lives on guts” — scavenging around the waterfront, staying even when the other pelicans go elsewhere:

For it to leave would be death.
Its trouble looks like a birth defect, not an injury,
and raises questions.
There are poetics would require it to be pecked
to death by fellow pelicans, or kids to smash it with a stick,
preserving a hard cosmos.

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.”

3

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.”

That phrase comes from what I believe to be Murray’s finest poem, and one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever.” (An abridgment of this long lyric serves as the text for the Australian tourism ad I mentioned earlier, which, by the way, should be sought on YouTube, because it’s probably the most beautiful television commercial ever filmed.) The poem’s titular dream is one of homecoming, nostos: it begins, “To go home and wear shorts forever….”

But how do we understand shorts? Comically and brilliantly, Murray maps “the cardinal points of costume”: Robes, Tat, Rig, and Scunge. Shorts “are never Robes”; can be Tat (“Land-Rovering bush-environmental tat” or “track-and-field shorts worn to parties”); often serve as Rig (whether “farmers’ rig, leathery with salt and bonemeal” or a “crisp golfing style”); but for Murray they are best and most importantly seen as Scunge, “the entropy of costume.” Scunge “is holiday, is freedom from ambition. / Scunge makes you invisible / to the world and yourself.”

Auden writes, in a Horatian poem of his own, “the blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, / Having nothing to hide”; the liberation of Scunge is this. So

shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!

In the tourism commercial we see Murray saying these lines with a big goofy grin on his face, and they are funny, but they are also deeply wise. To become invisible to yourself and others is indeed a form of spirituality, a smiling but resolute refusal to compete according to the world’s standards; a refusal which also opens interior vistas. Thus shorts are “also ideal for going home, into space, / into time, to farm the mind’s Sabine acres / for product and subsistence.”

This is a message to all of us, but especially to Murray’s Australians, whom he sees huddling in their coastal cities, their backs turned to the great continent, eyes upon the American and European cultures they would mimic. Enough of that, the heretic says; it is time “to go home and wear shorts forever” — forever, which is not just an image of renouncing national ambition but also a vision of the New Creation, a world permanently renewed by its Maker. This is a hope to be glimpsed while “walking meditatively / among green timber, through the grassy forest / towards a calm sea.” What is required of us is to live in peace, firmly emplaced, but with an ever-searching mind, “looking across to more of that great island / and the further topics.”