The Vernacular Republic by Les Murray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I started reading Les Murray almost by accident five years ago. I was in my adjunct peregrinations asked to teach a poetry-writing class at the last minute—though fiction is my preferred form—and self-consciously started to read more verse. Murray, meanwhile, was a favorite for the Nobel Prize that autumn (he never received it, as Thomas Keneally writes in his memorial: “I salute you, Les! You should have got, for what it’s worth, Dylan’s wasted Nobel”), so I picked up his collection Dog Fox Field.
Murray’s dense but sprawling verbal abundance impressed me most, a profligacy with coinages I think of as a generous line in English-language poetry including Shakespeare and Whitman, an attempt to amass linguistic wealth to pass on, to found a national literature. But also, though I am not Australian nor expert in Australian letters, Murray’s odd political sensibility, while not mine exactly, chimed with some of my own odder thoughts. Murray’s politics are local, as C. K. Stead, writing in 1988, explains:
Murray claims always to speak for rural Australia against the cities; for Pacific-centred rather than Eurocentric Australia; for the people against literary and academic élites; for the Celtic against the Anglo-Saxon tradition; and for republican against royalist Australia. It is a peculiar and peppery mix.
But these matters shouldn’t be considered in strictly national terms. In a well-known essay Rita Felski defines the lower middle class (“the traditional petite bourgeoisie of shop owners, small businesspeople, and farmers and the ‘new’ lower middle classes of salaried employees, such as clerical workers, technicians, and secretaries”) as the antipodes of high culture’s aesthetic experimentalism and political radicalism:
Lacking the ironic and self-critical dimensions of high culture and any connections to an organic tradition of working-class community, the culture of the lower middle class is viewed as singularly inauthentic and conservative.
In fact, most writers on class have roundly endorsed Marx and Engels’s claim that the petits bourgeois “are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history” (59).
Petit bourgeois subjects have nothing to declare: their class origins cannot be assimilated into a discourse of progressive identity politics.
Yet some of the greatest modern and contemporary writers have come from this class from Dickens to Joyce to Murray, and they seem to me to have produced a high literature with a sensibility all its own. I have toyed with phrases to describe this sensibility at times, though I doubt I’ve applied them exclusively to writers of lower-middle-class origin (as Felski argues, however, late-20th-century economic changes expanded the boundaries of this class considerably in both income and cultural terms to include upwardly-mobile workers and downwardly-mobile intellectuals). I have tried the old label “Tory Anarchism” and my own neologism “anarcho-moderation,” but neither quite captures it.
Such literature tends to steer with “equanimity” (a Murray word) between the Scylla of rationalized and routinized academic ideology, including academic revolutionism, and the Charybdis of a phony populism that refuses art and intellect in the name of authenticity or, what’s worse, mere entertainment or didacticism.
Likewise in politics such authors avoid both the technocrat radicalism of the professoriate and the resentful reactionism of the neighborhoods. Yet they stand not for “moderation” in the debased contemporary sense of “Third Way” imperial/managerial liberalism, but rather for forms of spontaneous and unruled order. Watch one academic lately deride, not overtly but solely through superior tone, another academic who better understands what I’ve written above:
Of course, when one uses a middle-class Dubliner to understand “what it is to be human” and a canonical novel in English to define “democratic” subject matter, one undervalues how different it would be to understand these things through texts from drastically different cultures. […] The challenges of reading Ulysses, the very difficulty that makes it elitist, are sometimes read as a consciousness-raising method of political and class subversion. Declan Kiberd writes that the “more snobbish modernists . . . sought difficult techniques in order to protect their ideas against appropriation by the newly literate masses” but that “Joyce foresaw that the real struggle would be to defend his book and those masses against the newly illiterate specialists and technocratic elites.”
I apologize for this twisting path to Les Murray, the ostensible topic of today’s discourse, which I now rejoin. He also rejected the “more snobbish modernists” (Eliot, Pound), and yet, like Joyce our contemporary—and like a few of his own more literal contemporaries: Heaney and Walcott, for instance—produced a modernism of his own in postmodern times.
A few months ago in a used bookstore I bought Murray’s The Vernacular Republic, a Selected Poems from 1982, with the intention of getting around to it on the occasion of Les’s inevitable Nobel. I read it instead over the last week in memoriam, as Murray has gone to the great Salon des Refusés in the sky, to chat with Tolstoy and Borges.
In The Vernacular Republic there is a poem actually titled “Employment for the Castes in Abeyance,” about Murray’s time as a translator for the Australian National University; whether the titular castes are Murray’s own class conscripted into the professions or humanists and artists employed in quasi-scientific labors is not clear. “[T]hey were translating the universe into science / believing that otherwise it had no meaning”: both the small farmer and the imaginative writer are equally subject to the metropolis’s imperial technocracy. Luckily, Murray announces that mere humanity has the upper hand over science because meaning will not be converted to number: “I heard that machine translation never happened: / language defeated it. We are a language species.”
But not just any language: vernacular language, the language of the people, whose free utterance alone secures a republic against the royalists of progressive empire. Murray’s most energetic effort in this direction is “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle,” a long poem “derived from translations of the great aboriginal song-cycles of Northern Australia,” as the “Notes” at the back of the book instruct. Cultural appropriation is a topic for another day, but suffice to say for now that all cultures scheduled for upgrade or demolition by the rich and the intelligentsia are for Murray on the same side, whether colonial or colonized. He defines the enemy as exhausted beehive in a poem aptly called “The Swarm”:
Poor monarchists, clumped round their queen,
they look like a furry, half-risen
loaf of gingerbread dough, with transparent
mica scales crusted on it: worn wings.
The poem ends by invoking counter-words: “springtime or freedom.” Elsewhere, he names his enemy “the Action,” “the believer in death, maker of tests and failures,” also identified with “Napoleon and Stalin,” which is to say that part of the Enlightenment that destroys old order and liberates new energy with the force of reason. In this poem, Murray reveals his ambivalence about post-1960s multiculturalism, as it may on the one hand reestablish the value of cultures superannuated from imperialism’s progressive perspective, but which is also the province of academic radicalism and so perhaps merely just imperialism’s new guise:
Now talk is around of a loosening in republics,
retrievals of subtle water: all the peoples
who call themselves The People,
all the unnoticed cultures…
The time has come round for republics of the cultures
and for rituals, with sound: the painful washings-clean
of smallpox blankets.
It may save the world,
or be the new Action.
In “The Sydney Highrise Variations” (imagine a jauntier Ballard) Murray surveys the glittering new city (“they took eighty years to fly here from Manhattan / these variant towers. By then, they were arriving everywhere”) erected on “England’s buried Gulag” and reflects on progressive historical self-consciousness as an artifact of the last two century’s ambiguous transformations:
The Nineteenth Century. The Twentieth Century.
There never were any others. No centuries before these.
Dante was not hailed in his time as an Authentic
Fourteenth Century Voice. Nor did Cromwell thunder After all.
in the bowels of Christ, this is the Seventeenth Century.
The two are one aircraft in the end, the C19-20,
capacious with cargo. Some of it can save your life,
some can prevent it.
The cantilevered behemoth
is fitted up with hospitals and electric Gatling guns
to deal with recalcitrant and archaic spirits.
And in the sonnet sequence “Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato,” he writes one of the greatest works I’ve read about the experience of being educated out of one’s class in the era of what Felski above calls “progressive identity politics.” The poem’s title comes from the University of Sydney’s motto: “the stars are different, but the mind remains the same,” not so much a promise of universalism as an insistence that even in the antipodes proper education will make an English gentleman. Predictably, then, the university both “freed words in us” and “cut our homes away.” As for campus radicalism:
When the decorous towers were shaken by screams and bare hands
they deserved to be shaken. They had sought to classify humans.
The kids were constructing a poem of feathers and pain,
a prayer, a list, a shriek, it reached no resolution
except to stay crucial. Their prophets said different things:
Pour wax on the earth. Beat spirals into rings.
But thought they shamed Magog their father and crippled his war
their own gnawed at them. They colonized one another.
With the cameras running, somehow the beat had to go on
(in times of trend, death comes by relegation)
but selfhood kept claiming the best people hand over fist
in a few months a third of mankind had been called fascist—
as the music slowed, the big track turned out to be
“Fantasia of the World as a Softened University.”
Note that Murray plays fair: the ’60s radicals were authentically aggrieved and right to protest “Magog their father.” Murray is no mere conservative nostalgist; the old order “deserved to be shaken” because of the classificatory class system it reproduced. But what replaced it was only another—if this time softer—scheme of colonization.
The subsumption of both humanistic learning and political radicalism by the professional managerial class is the poem’s theme. Now that the number of mankind called fascist has risen from a third to a half by this class that unites office decorum with political radicalism, we can perhaps see that Murray’s sonnet encapsulates a genuine social phenomenon, even if we dissent from some of his more orthodox complaints elsewhere in the sequence, such as his later reference to feminism as “this new goddess for whom abortion is orgasm.” (Speaking of class, though, I have a hard time judging that quotation masculinist or even patriarchal, since it was also the fiercely-held conviction of so many of the lower-middle-class Catholic women who reared and educated me.)
What is the solution to all these problems of tyrannical modernity? For one thing, Australia itself, considered as “vernacular republic.” Not only its rural landscape, though that too is redemptive throughout the collection: “a light going out in a window here has meaning,” Murray writes in “Driving Through Sawmill Towns.” There is also a sweet poem about a rural boyhood experience of “Spring Hail”: “This is for spring and hail, that you may remember / a boy and a pony long ago who could fly” (this poem also includes an unimprovable description of a hailstorm as “beaded violence”).
Murray also designates Australia the promised land posited by the Celts in “For a Jacobite Lady”—in other words, the Zion of those anti-imperialist reactionaries menaced by expansive Anglo-Saxon liberalism:
That was monarchy. At its defeat
earth fell against heaven, and everyone
was exposed to glory in the street.
I write you this from the Land of Peace,
the Plain of Sports of the vision poems;
your wars drove us here; we possess it now.
But I am not only non-Australian, I am also an urbanite, if a walker in smaller cities rather than modern megalopolises, so I will not dwell on Murray’s ample nature imagery or his brand of nationalism. Consider instead the other forms of resistance he mounts to “the Action.” There is, again from “Sidere,” his Catholic faith:
The Church of Jesus and Newman
did keep some of us balanced concerning the meanings of “human”
that greased golden term (all the rage in the new demiurgy)
though each new Jerusalem tempts the weaker clergy.
But not all of us can share this confession, so I again search the poems for less Catholic and more catholic emblems. Take “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow,” in which the whole city seems to gather around a weeping men whose expression of anguished emotion is neither ostentation nor communication but simply a registration of what is, the “tears in things” of Virgil:
…but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body
not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.
Speaking of Murray’s vernacular, note the casual archaism of “writhen” amid the poem’s more conversational register, a verbal enactment of the paradox latent in “ordinary rainbow.” Finding holiness in the quotidian is one of his missions: so Murray also commends the flesh, particularly in excess, as in his poem in praise of corpulence, “Quintets for Robert Morley”:
We were probably the earliest
civilized, and civilizing, humans,
the first to win the leisure,
sweet boredom, life-enhancing sprawl
that require style.
Behind all is Murray’s endorsement of a certain poetic poise, the point at which selfhood refuses grasping selfishness in favor of receptive awareness: “human order has at heart / an equanimity,” he writes in a poem called “Equanimity,” which he also calls “a continuous, recovering moment” and notices that “all holiness speaks from it.”
His political polemics do not always exhibit this equanimity, but some poems bring it all together. The collection concludes with “The Steel,” a poem about Murray’s mother’s death at 35 due to medical malpractice likely exacerbated by the doctor’s class bias. The titular steel transforms over the course of the poem from the physician’s killing lancet to the moral and metaphysical substance of Murray’s class:
There is justice, there is death,
humanist: you can’t have both.
Activist, you can’t serve both.
You do not move in measured space.
The poor man’s anger is a prayer
for equities time cannot hold
and steel grows from our mother’s grace.
Justice is the people’s otherworld.
The last lines are a rebuke to the secular left and a comfort to the poor: if death is all, then there is no justice, certainly not on earth, but if there is another world then what was stolen will be restored. For those of us without sufficient faith in the otherworld, poetry will have to do.
Les Murray was not the only poet whose death I learned of a week ago. There is also Jacqueline Winter Thomas, well-known on Tumblr (where we followed each other since about 2012) as heteroglossia. She had aesthetic priorities at about the opposite pole from my own, and I valued her writing because she articulated them so well I could never dismiss them. Last year, she published an essay about the relation between poetry and philosophy. She declines to see the two disciplines as warring, but instead pictures them allied in the production of concepts:
A poet makes, creates, composes. So does the philosopher. But what is being made? Images, sounds, signs. Ultimately, concepts. Poets and philosophers make the immaterial.
A little too Protestant, I think, for Murray, who would insist that he made the immaterial material in artistic imitation of Incarnation. But a garland for poetry as ineradicable spirit all the same, and a fitting tribute for any poet we have lost.