Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Les Murray and Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Philip Harvey 
In April the Spiritual Reading Group, which meets on the third Tuesday of each month in the Carmelite Library, read poems by Les Murray. The presenter is given 15 minutes. As it was my turn as presenter, I decided to list (without reference to anything outside myself) the first 15 things that came into my mind about Les Murray. This became the presentation itself.

1.    “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes,” was an expression made by Andy Warhol in 1968, in New York, which is the centre of the world. Les Murray is Australia’s most famous living poet, and Bunyah is the centre of the world. Les Murray’s relationship to fame is measured, he rejects celebrity so is in that way anti-Warhol.
2.    A poem is fifteen minutes of fame, fifteen minutes of concentrated thought and emotion. Many Les Murray poems are like this. But of course the opposite is also true: poems are never just fifteen minutes of fame, they go on into the future and live with us time and again. They defy the ephemerality of immediate gratification, name dropping and instant answers.
3.    Les Murray lives in the centre of the world, Bunyah. I know more about Bunyah from the poems than pictures, but the poems tell me about the bush world of Australia all the time. Not just Bunyah, but everywhere.
4.    Les Murray is Australia’s greatest living poet, just like the Murray is Australia’s greatest river. Personally, I am against these classifications of greatest. The Murray is the greatest because of all the other great rivers that flow into it, and then what about the other river that helps make the Murray so big, the Murrumbidgee? What is greatest? Les Murray is great, but there have been poets in Australia before the European era that were great or indeed greater probably, we just don’t know. It’s not important what is great, it’s a distraction from enjoyment. It appeals to the competitive thing in human beings, while poetry questions and breaks down competitiveness.
5.    Les Murray is the greatest in size. He’s big. Hence his celebration of sprawl: the desert, the suburbs, the bays, the coastlines, everything sprawls in Australia. Likewise, sometimes his poems seem not to know when to halt. ‘Les is more and more is Les’, as the name of this session would have it. Or as John Olsen, the Australian painter, put it Zen-like in one of his graphics books, this time in regard to paint application: “Less is more, more or less.”
6.    Les Murray has a terrible dress sense. This was commented on by the same John Olsen after a launch once, who could not reconcile the highly gifted craftsman with the sloppy joe dresser. But does he have a bad dress sense? Or is dress just getting in the way, not the way he wants to send the main message? His poems contain a vast knowledge about clothing from every era.
7.    Les Murray dedicates every one of his books of poetry To the Greater Glory of God. A theologian would say it is impossible to be more inclusive than that. Some people think it an affront that an Australian poet would dedicate his books in this way. So what?
8.    Les Murray was raised strict Presbyterian and is a Catholic convert. He found Presbyterianism abstract. Catholicism is about substance, tactile, what you can eat, what you can grab hold of. This sensual religion was something he connected with straight away.
9.    Les Murray has a kind of mind of binary opposites, which helps in the construction of his works and sayings but is not always good at the shades of meaning in between. Bush vs. City, Learning vs. University &c. It is the cause of misunderstanding and even hostility amongst some of his readers.
10.                       Les Murray is a difficult person who alienates people. Increasingly I think a lot of this anti-social stuff has to do with him being on the spectrum. He now talks about the spectrum as a fact, an explanation, a nice place to be, but of course the spectrum has its down side.
11.                       Les Murray gets the black dog. Certainly this is the cue and cause of much poetry, even if he never writes a poem directly about the black dog itself. Winston Churchill had the black dog, but my view is that the expression was first used by James Boswell, for whom the black dog was a form of gentleman’s melancholy. Les Murray would not share Boswell’s clubland view of the black dog. Boswell was exploring what we now call psychology. There is certainly a lot of that sort of exploration going on in Les Murray.
12.                       Les Murray lives in a house where the writing desk is the central object in the main room. I saw it once on a TV documentary.
13.                       Les Murray is an Australian. This is a useful thing to keep in mind when comparing him to poets from other cultures and other countries that use English. It makes you see how incredible his poetry really is, because no one anywhere else writes English poetry like Les Murray, or a number of other Australians.
14.                       Les Murray does an awful lot of reading and does an awful lot of travel for someone who lives on a dairy farm. It is a mistake, I think, to regard Les Murray as just your typical bushie. There is not only no one else like him in Bunyah, there’s no one else like him anywhere anyway full-stop.
15.                       Les Murray almost died of a heart attack.

Poems studied by the Group:
Accordion Music
Church i.m. Joseph Brodsky
The Conversations
Easter 1984
Forty Acre Ethno (August)
The Future 
The Instrument
Poetry and Religion

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