High Priest of Poetry

Taller When Prone by Les Murray

Books Literature

W. H. Auden, when asked what he did for a living, would reply: “I’m a medieval historian.” He was typical among modern poets in being embarrassed by his job. While accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, Wislawa Szymborska said she had met only one poet — Joseph Brodsky — who liked calling himself one, and that was because it had got him locked up by the Soviet Union. One of the unusual things about Les Murray is his certainty that being a poet is a hugely important calling. Normally, when professors or scientists or celebrities are accused of being a “secular priesthood”, it is to disparage them. But when Murray refers to poets as a priesthood, he means it as praise.

Some priests, however, ought to be challenged. In “Visiting Geneva”, from his 14th collection Taller When Prone, Murray addresses John Calvin with terse familiarity:

…when you were God
sermons went on all day
without numen or presence.
Children were denied play. 

In his poems, Murray has made it his task to open the way to the sacred. Poetry comprehends so much of our experience that, in Murray’s own words: “Any true poem is greater than the whole Enlightenment, more important and sustaining of human life.” That kind of claim might look absurd, but Murray’s work has a feeling of monumentality. This is why he is tipped to follow Brodsky and Szymborska and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is why Murray’s admirers make dramatic claims for him, as when Clive James called the Collected Poems “one of the great books of the modern world”. 

Murray’s poetry gives a sense of immense concentrated force. He is sometimes aphoristic, but he also produces lines that are even more compressed than an aphorism. Here he describes a bushfire:

Poxes of the Sun or of the mind
bring the force-ten firestorms.
After come same-surname funerals,
junked theory, praise of mateship.

Each phrase needs a moment of thought before it reveals its meaning. You could go through and expand the lines into a paragraph of prose — pointing out, for instance, that a pox of the mind conjures up the possibility of a simple human mistake causing terrible disaster — but you would lose the power of expression. There are other moments of bleakness in Taller When Prone. However, Murray’s work comes back to a delight in rediscovery and redescription. A crocodile becomes “This police car with a checkered seam/of blue and white teeth along its side.” Dew is “The unfocussed wet hover of dawn.” Belly-dancers are “unaccusingly bizarre”. A military parade: “arm-geometry/in the shouting-yards”. Individual instances are amusing; but the instances add up to a significant project based on the conviction that nothing is too small to make a poem. 

Murray is increasingly worried by the barriers between the individual and the world — there are two poems about blindness — and by those we ourselves put up. Beside a motorway, “plastic shrub-guards grow bushes/to screen the real bush,/to hide the old towns/behind sound-walls and green”. Green what? No, just green, the awful blankness of motorway design. Again, there is the distraction of “a mirrorball that spins celebrities/in patter and tiny music”. The word-choices open up several implications: the hint of political deception in “spins”, the word “patter” uniting the idea of a sales pitch with that of meaningless talk. “Tiny music” suggests the cuteness and inconsequentiality of pop, but also prepares the image of “earplugged sitters”, who “wear the look of deserted towns”. 

Taller When Prone ranges widely over family history, nature poetry both urban and rural, technology, and the possible renaming of Heathrow Airport (you will have to buy the book to discover Murray’s advice to “the jarl of London,/white-polled Boris”). Inevitably, this slim village stands in the shadow of the 600-page Collected, but the virtues of Murray’s work, its linguistic intricacy, originality of thought, and sheer entertainment value, are all here. He is less trenchantly opinionated than before, though by the standards of most poetry collections this one is pretty combative. One weakness of Taller When Prone is its over-fondness for the merely anecdotal. Since Murray draws to great effect on the language and rhythms of ordinary speech, it is natural that he likes spinning a yarn about, say, being mistaken for a celebrity chef. Once you have heard the anecdote, you don’t need it again. But the strength of Murray’s poems is that, for many readings after the first, you can carry on finding new things to enjoy.