The poet as reflected in his own mirror
The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray
Selected by Les Murray Black Inc, 120pp, $24.99 (HB)
LES Murray is described in this collection as ‘‘ Australia’s leading poet’’, an endorsement that is as deliberate as it is undeniable. In a near 50-year career, Murray has published at least 32 collections of poetry, including seven other collected or selecteds, won an Order of Australia, been named a National Living Treasure and been touted as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Murray certainly is Australia’s best-known poet, as strange an honour as that may be, and this book at its core is about Murray as an icon: the cover image encapsulates this, depicting his distinctive floppy hat floating above a figure absent, but strongly implied.
The 100 poems that make up this collection have been chosen by Murray, and do include some of his most famous and best loved poems. The everyday grace of The Broad Bean Sermon is here, alongside the almost macabre rhyming couplets of The Tin Wash Dish. So too the cheeky The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever.
Murray, of course, is a widely anthologised poet, and so it’s interesting to note which of his most frequently selected poems are missing. Four of Murray’s poems are included in the Norton Anthology of Poetry — very few Australian poets grace its pages — and the poet himself has chosen none of these. Other notable absences include The Quality of Sprawl (included in the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, Australian Poetry since 1788 and the Norton) and Equanimity (included in the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry and Australian Poetry since 1788).
And there are poems here too that are more idiosyncratic selections. Some seem slight, such as the single-image poems Dreambabwe, or Cattle-Hoof Hardpan. Slightness itself is no criticism but it does make Murray’s inclusion of the poems an interesting choice. Included too are some poems, such as Cherries from Young, which seem flat and platitudinous beside Murray’s more vibrant works, and the occasional poem that feels almost indulgent, such as The Wedding at Berrico, written for the marriage of Murray’s daughter and somewhat out of context in this book.
These questions of selection are almost inevitable, however, given the volume and variety of Murray’s poetry. And it also makes obvious the very different uses to which other anthologies have put his work. The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray, then, may be important because it allows for a selection underscored by no political or literary agenda other than the poet’s own. This is Murray as he sees himself: the icon in the mirror, not on the stage. Even if it’s just in time for Christmas.
There is a surprising variety within this book, with many poems playing with language and sound. Murray is a great inventor of words; some of the more delightful offerings include ‘‘ fruit-roofed’’ ( Ripe in the Arbour of the Nose), ‘‘ window-struck’’ ( High-Speed Bird) and ‘‘ infra-dog’’ from The Nostril Songs.
Indeed, one of the final poems in the collection, Infinite Anthology, offers a dictionary-like listing of the creations of ‘‘ single-word poets’’, a cheeky, partly satirical collection of old-fashioned slang, an honouring of the punning it relies on.
Other animal poems experiment more with sound and subjectivities, often containing eerie strings of onomatopoeia, such as the whole stanza of Bats’ Ultrasound given over to sounds such as ‘‘ ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?/ O’er our ur-area (our era aye/ ere your raw row) we air our array’’. The Cows on Killing Day opens with the lines ‘‘ All of me are standing on feed. The sky is shining // All of me have just been milked’’ and imagines an internal, animal voice. Murray’s deft turns of unusual language and disjunctive rhythms make this less anthropomorphic than estranging: these are not attempts to humanise animals but to render them unknowable and strange.
Somewhat surprising too is the presence