Friday, 27 December 2013

Les Murray and 'The Privacy of Typewriters'

Philip Harvey
Les Murray is not a Luddite. He drives a tractor, watches television, and relies on Rolls-Royce engines to take him in jets to conferences in antique lands. From time to time he writes wistfully of outmoded technology or design, a riding implication being his hostility toward the things that have replaced them. I think here especially of his poem about library card catalogues and the cabinets that carry them. When he visited the Carmelite Library earlier this year, Les made several unequivocal statements about computers that some would construe as harsh. A recent example of this kind of Murray poem was sent to me via email, after the sender cut-and-pasted it from a poetry website in the United States. It has been published in paper print, but in a journal (‘Little Star’) that is also a weekly mobile mini-magazine with app, only lending to the irony of the poem’s own existence on your screen:

The Privacy of Typewriters

I am an old book troglodyte
one who composes on paper
and types up the result
as many times as need be.
The computer scares me,
its crashes and codes,
its links with spies and gunshot,
its text that looks pre-published
and perhaps has been.
I don’t know who is reading
what I write on a carriage
that doesn’t move or ding.
I trust the spoor of botch,
whiteouts where thought deepened,
wise freedom from Spell Check,
sheets to sell the National Library.
I fear the lore
of that baleful misstruck key
that fills a whiskered screen
with a writhe of child pornography
and the doors smashing in
and the cops handcuffing me
to a gristlier video culture
coralline in an ever colder sea. 
Les Murray knows that poetry is means to escaping the traps of life, of saying words to free us from the bindedness of the world. Yet in that process, poetry often succeeds just precisely in admitting that we are trapped. The poem is expression of the need for freedom, while being an admission that we are bound by dilemma. It’s a bind, wherein the poem still must be written.

Les Murray articulates the state of mind of many modern readers. He is always good at exploiting binary opposites in his writing and here he presents graphically the distinctions between print and digital, typewriter and computer console, book and e-carrier. Though tongue-in-cheek, Murray nevertheless touches on certain aspects of modern media delivery that are cause for concern and not just the paranoid complaints of conservatives: the worrying awareness that anything we do online could be being tracked and recorded; the sense of the text on a computer as just endless words without a human creator; the fear that our society is captive to a media entertainment nightmare. Murray’s belief in writing comes from a lifetime of intrinsic acceptance of the rightful connection between the poet's written (or typed) page and the printed page.   


‘The Privacy of Typewriters’ first appeared in Little Star #5, 2014

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