Charterhouse

Time and eternity met in Les Murray’s sacramental poetry

God, at the end of prose,
Somehow be our poem –
When forebrainy consciousness goes.

– Les Murray, “You Find You Can Leave It All”, in Conscious & Verbal (1999)

The great poet is dead. Les Murray died on April 29, aged 80. His life and work of poetry is best described as a body of sacramental work, a rare relief from the reductionist ideologies of our desperate age. It is the Catholic legacy of a complex and brilliant man.

Leslie Allan Murray was born in Australia in 1938. A descendant of Scottish settlers, he grew up in poverty “on a dairy farm at Bunyah on the north coast of New South Wales”, according to the introduction to most of his almost 30 volumes of writing. Most of them are dedicated “To the glory of God”. This juxtaposition of a rugged, rustic image and a public declaration of faith is but one of several tensions in the life – and public perception – of the poet and his body of work.

On the one hand, there is the bald and barrel-chested “Bard of Bunyah” who overcame bullying at school and a family history of rural poverty to become a “wonderful bush contrarian” (Thomas Keneally) and “custodian of Australia’s soul” (Peter Porter), writing from his own farm to eventually join the National Trust’s list of Australia’s “100 living treasures” in 2012.

On the other hand there is the polyglot and fêted genius, the “greatest poet alive” (James Parker in the Atlantic in 2016), a distinguished man of letters – literary editor of Quadrant for many years – and ultimately a global giant of literature, who received the TS Eliot and Petrarch Prizes as well as the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, among an array of other awards. (Many thought the Nobel Prize for Literature should have gone to him, too.)

Then there is the figure of public controversy, and not just because of his refusal to pander to postmodern proclivities in poetry. As a staunch republican and anti-authoritarian whom many saw as belonging to the Right, Murray was asked by the then-prime minister John Howard, a conservative monarchist, to draft a preamble for the constitution.

At the same time, there is not just a contrarian or anti-authoritarian streak, expressed in exuberant eloquence, that shines through the lines of Murray’s work. There is also, at times, a sense of deep depression, and at others of festive occasion, or of celebrating egalitarian freedom. Verses of deep, inclusive humanism can take humorous and irreverent shape, such as in “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”, published in 2007: “To go home and wear shorts forever / In the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate.”

Les Murray’s expansive poetry goes further: his work reaches for – and extends to – that which is beyond the material and physical expression of words. “The things I write about are mainly religious or metaphysical,” the poet explains in a letter published by his biographer Peter Alexander. Written in 1961 – around the time he converted to Catholicism – it shows how the young poet reflects on the nature of language and religion in poetry: “I’m concerned with relations between human time and eternity at the odd points where they meet and illuminate each other, eg where matter becomes immortal, or spirit enters time ‘for a season’. (It happens.)”

It is here that the complexities and tensions embodied by Murray the poet and his creative corpus are resolved. This is what renders it immune to ideological temptation and totalitarian tendencies. As Stephen McInerney describes in his book The Enclosure of an Open Mystery: Sacrament and Incarnation in the Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, David Jones and Les Murray, the poet’s approach is in fact embodied in the Eucharist.

Murray explained that he “identified with the Eucharist” in an interview with Commonweal magazine in 1992. “I thought, yes, yes, the absolute transformation of ordinary elements into the divine. I know about that. It didn’t strike me as unlikely, and it opened such illimitable prospects of life. Most secular mythologies seem to be anxious to close the possibilities of life down and delimit them. This one opened out.”

While secular ideologies lead to “the sacrifice of man”, as Murray asserted in an interview with Melbourne newspaper The Age in 2002, it was the “Catholic poem” that people could live inside without such a cost, thanks to the sacrifice of Christ.

In A Working Forest, a collection of selected prose published in 1997, Murray concluded: “A poem which stays within the realm of literature completes the trinity of forebrain consciousness, dream wisdom and bodily sympathy – of reason, dream and the dance, really – without needing to embody itself in actual suffering or action, and without the need to demand blood sacrifice from us. It is thus like Christ’s Crucifixion, both effectual and vicarious.”

Anian Christoph Wimmer is a German-Australian broadcaster, writer and journalist. He is editor-in-chief of CNAdeutsch.de