A LIFE’S WORK

Les Mur­ray has marked his 80th birth­day with a new col­lec­tion that cel­e­brates an en­dur­ing de­vo­tion to po­etry, writes Bron­wyn Lea

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Sprawl, as de­fined in the clas­sic Les Mur­ray poem, is “the qual­ity of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce / into a farm util­ity truck”. Sprawl is also “do­ing your farm­ing by aero­plane” or “driv­ing a hitch­hiker that ex­tra hun­dred miles home”.

Mur­ray says he learned the term from his father, who used it to de­scribe “a kind of shirt­sleeve no­bil­ity of ges­ture. Not pinched-arse Pu­ri­tan at all”. Rather, sprawl is “loose-limbed in its mind”. It as­sumes an easy sur­plus — “the fif­teenth to twenty-first / lines in a son­net” — and runs no tabs. Never os­ten­ta­tious, it has no truck with “light­ing cigars with ten-dol­lar notes” or “run­ning shoes worn / with mink and a nose ring”. Sprawl, broadly speak­ing, is ru­ral largesse: “an im­age of my coun­try”, he says, “and would that it were more so”.

The Qual­ity of Sprawl moon­lights as a praise poem to ru­ral Aus­tralia’s yawn­ing land­scapes and its in­hab­i­tants with a ge­nius for mak­ing-do. But its real job is to throw shade at the ur­ban elite who, men­tally cramped from years of ver­ti­cal liv­ing, would see sprawl ex­pelled from the Earth. Sprawl grins with “one boot up on the rail / of pos­si­bil­ity” and thinks that un­likely.

But Mur­ray — a self-taught poly­glot who fa­mously plays at sub­hu­man red­neck — is not so sure. Sprawl is an­ti­thet­i­cal to po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, and Mur­ray has the bat­tle scars to prove it. The poem ends: “Peo­ple have been shot for sprawl.”

Mur­ray was born in the small town of Nabiac, north­west of Forster and south of Ta­ree on the NSW mid-north coast, on Oc­to­ber 17, 1938. The pub­li­ca­tion of his lat­est Col­lected Po­ems, a Col­lected Po­ems By Les Mur­ray Black Inc, 736pp, $59.99 (HB) hand­some and weighty hard­back bear­ing Mur­ray’s trade­mark vis­age on the cover, is timed to com­mem­o­rate the 80th birth­day of Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous liv­ing poet.

I say “lat­est” be­cause, in good sprawl spirit, Mur­ray has been rolling out stock­piles of “all the po­ems he wants to pre­serve” since 1991. Nev­er­the­less, Les Mur­ray: Col­lected Po­ems soars above ear­lier re­mits. In com­pil­ing 15 books across a re­mark­able 50-year span — four from this cen­tury and 11 from the 20th — it is his clos­est ap­prox­i­ma­tion yet to a life­time of po­etry.

But Col­lected Po­ems is more a sprawl­ing se­lected — and, yes, he’s had six of those — than a gen­uine col­lected. Rather than re­pro­duc­ing each book as it ap­peared in print, Mur­ray takes the axe most bru­tally to his early books but hacks small holes in the later ones as well.

Some­times it’s not clear why a poem has been dis­owned. Self and Dream Self from Wait­ing for the Past (2015) seems to me, as it must have to the edi­tors at Po­etry mag­a­zine who first pub­lished it, a per­fectly good poem.

Other ex­clu­sions, un­der scru­tiny, are for­giv­able and, in the rare in­stance, com­mend­able: The Abor­tion Scene; or The Mas­sacre, which em­pathises with the gun­men, not the vic­tims, of an Amer­i­can high school shoot­ing. Both po­ems, how­ever, sur­vive on­line.

The irony of choos­ing the book as his pre­ferred tech­nol­ogy for the preser­va­tion of his po­ems is likely lost on Mur­ray. In The Pri­vacy of Type­writ­ers he de­scribes him­self as “an old book / troglodyte” who “com­poses on pa­per” and “types up the re­sult” on a type­writer — or did un­til it be­came im­pos­si­ble to buy new type­writer rib­bons. Com­put­ers scare him, he says in the poem, not just for their “crashes and codes” and “text that looks pre-pub­lished” but also for that one “bale­ful mis­struck key” that could land him on a child pornog­ra­phy site and soon af­ter in hand­cuffs.

Yet Mur­ray’s dig­i­tal pres­ence is large. The Aus­tralian Po­etry Li­brary houses all the po­ems from his books up to 2006, and his epony­mous

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