My Latest Feature at Poets United – The Living Dead: Les Murray

Poets United is an international community of blogging poets for whom I write weekly features on various topics.

An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There's a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit—
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
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.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

– Les Murray (1938-2019)
from The Weatherboard Cathedral, 1969

I think this was the first poem of Les Murray's I ever read. It's one of his most famous. I like to try and share things here which you are less likely to have come across already, but this is such an iconic piece I feel I can't go past it. 

Also, although Murray's work is well-known outside Australia too, he is nevertheless a very Australian poet, using references and a vernacular which I find has not always been well understood when I've shared poems by other Australians here. The language of this poem is more universal than some of his others.

Murray was also an anthologist and critic. Wikipedia tells us:

'His career spanned over 40 years and he published nearly 30 volumes of poetry as well as two verse novels and collections of his prose writings. His poetry won many awards and he is regarded as "the leading Australian poet of his generation". He was rated by the National Trust of Australia as one of the 100 Australian Living Treasures.'

As well as the many prestigious literary awards, he also received the Order of Australia for his achievements. It was widely expected, before his death, that he might become a Nobel Prize winner for Literature.

(Despite such acclaim, the general public was inclined to confuse him with a popular sports journalist and broadcaster of the same name!)

He died a few days ago, at the age of 80. The obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald does a good job of summarising his life and career. It includes a link to an archival interview which is interesting too. (And I've saved you the trouble by also including the link here.)

Murray was controversial because of his outspoken conservative opinions, but as the obituary says, no-one doubted his poetic genius. 

At one time, back in the eighties, he was reluctant to join the performance poetry movement to take poetry 'off the page'. He explained that when poetry is read on the page, the mind hears it in particular ways, with particular nuances that don't happen when it's heard read aloud – and he was writing for that kind of reader, the one who reads the poem on the page. He felt that an audience hearing the poem read aloud might miss a lot of subtleties. (Or something like that; it's a long time ago and I don't recall the exact words.) 

I think (and thought then) it was a valid point. Particularly as, when looking through his poetry now, I found that I went back and read every one twice. Not that they were inaccessible or hard to understand, but that I wanted to go deeper and let things sink in more. I had the sense that I could benefit from this, and also that it would be possible. Right on both counts.

However, at the time, some of us who were into performance tried to explain and demonstrate to Les the rich possibilities of that way of conveying poetry, and he listened. I don't know if we persuaded him, or if he just decided he'd better not neglect another, increasingly popular way of reaching an audience, but he did thereafter read his work aloud. In fact he did so all over the country, and the world. He was that rare thing, a poet who supported himself by his poetry – and without living in poverty.

I just bought the Kindle edition of his Collected Poems (published in 2018). It's the last of several 'Collected' published at different stages of his career. Though he wrote over 40 books – of poetry alone; more if one includes the prose volumes – this is one of only two of his books available from Amazon Australia, which seems scandalous. I don't know whether to blame Amazon, his publishers, or the buying public.

However, you can read all his published poems at Australian Poetry Library. You really should bookmark the site to return to for a browse now and then. He was far too prolific for you to be able to read them all in one sitting. You may well want to read them all!

'The Living Dead' I call this column. There is no doubt whatsoever that Les Murray's work will live.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). This photograph of Les Murray is by Brian Jenkins in 2004, made available through Creative Commons CC BY 3.0.