Les Murray, Prone to be Tall

Les Murray, Taller When Prone (Black Inc 2010)

A new book by Les Murray is an event, and I didn’t hesitate to use my birthday voucher to buy this. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book has already been reviewed well by people more articulate and perceptive than I am. Clive James in The Monthly, for instance, may be a little OTT in suggesting the Nobel for Literature and characterising the intemperate and possibly libellous ‘The 41st Year of 1968’ as ‘a sharp rebuke to ageing hippies who imagine themselves to be in sympathy with Gaia’, but he generally does a nice job of illuminating the poetry.

I was struck many years ago by something Francis Webb – who like Les Murray experienced severe depression – wrote about poetry:

I do value in poetry that heightening or ameliorating sense of companionship in human experience. What do we seek of the trusted companion? His honesty, and that half-loaf of comfort. Poetry, as in Dante, can teach; but that is not its primary function. And pure, honest companionship may implicitly carry  comfort within itself, neutralising the often frightening sense of solitude in our affairs.

Much as I admire and enjoy Murray’s poetry, I don’t get much sense of companionship from it.  I don’t have anything against the man – after all he published a poem of mine in Quadrant. And I’m a fan – I’ve been buying his books for decades. I’ve just seen a copy of The Weatherboard Cathedral going for more than $500 at Biblioz.com, but I’m not even slightly tempted to part with mine. But I do have a creeping sense that his poetry doesn’t much like me. I don’t mean just the splenetic outbursts like ‘The 41st Year’ (which, though its explicit targets are amalgamated Hippies and Greenies and New-Classies, none of which I quite am, I manage to take personally). Nor do I mean only the obscure pieces – Robert Gray says in The Australian that about a third of this book leaves him not having the faintest idea what it is about, and not ‘cajoled by the expression into wanting to find out’. I have a sense that the poetry generally doesn’t seem to want to communicate, to expect a relationship with the reader: it’s as if it’s reporting brilliantly on the world sharply seen and heard and thought about, on understandings (and positions and judgements) reached, even on emotions felt, and all it expects of me is that I look on,  admiring its brilliance. To vary the metaphor, the poems are like grenades lobbed over a wall – they may explode in verbal fireworks, release lyrical aromas, or scatter the shrapnel of opinion, but the wall stays there, solid and opaque between us and the thrower.

Or maybe that’s all rubbish. One of the many poems I liked here is ‘The Filo Soles’:

When tar roads came
in the barefoot age
crossing them was hell
with the sun at full rage.
Kids learned to dip
their feet in the black
and quench with dust,
dip again, and back
in the dust, to form
a dark layered crust
and carry quick soles
over the worst
annealing their leather
though many splash scornfully
across, to flayed ground.

When I wrote just now that I liked this poem, I thought of writing instead that the poem ‘spoke to me’, but actually it didn’t, even though I lived in the barefoot age in the tropics, and know about crossing a bitumen road in the summer heat. The poem doesn’t work on me by reminding me of that experience. What I like about it is the way the title adds a clever visual element, the way the disintegration of the rhyme and metre towards the end  mimics the desperate, unprotected run as opposed to the methodical application of protection, and the way ‘flayed’ unexpectedly describes the ground rather than the young feet in the last line. There’s a lot to like. Maybe my grumbling about lack of communication is just lack of sleep. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

What do you think?

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