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
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