Rereadings VIII: Les A. Murray, Poems Against Economics

Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972, 70pp.

Half a century, as I’ve noted elsewhere, can be a very long time in poetic history: it’s the time between the death of Dr Johnson, for example, and the publication of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”. It’s now fifty years (more and less) since the publication of Les Murray’s Poems Against Economics. It’s his third book if one counts his contribution to The Ilex Tree (made up of sections by himself and Geoffrey Lehmann) as a single book but perhaps it would be more realistic to describe it, ala Fellini, as Murray’s second and a half. Poems Against Economics was the first complete book of Murray’s poems which I read and I remember, even today, how impressed I was by the long sequence “Walking to the Cattle-Place” which makes up almost half the book. Fifty years on seems a good time to revisit it to see how much it has changed.

The first response is to feel that it does not seem at all dated. It’s true that there are features in our culture which have changed radically in that half-century and that these would have affected someone with Murray’s view of the world and its history. The rise of the digital era, for example, has meant that notions of community have changed considerably, even in the rural world. It would also have been interesting to see how Murray – a card-carrying non-joiner – positioned himself in the now pointed conflict between left and right over the possession of Australia’s history and culture. But, if Poems Against Economics appeared this year, I think most readers would hail a brilliant individual voice with its own achieved self-mythology and an often narky relationship with the sub-culture to which most of his readers belong – something unusual in poetic history. I try not to make too many speculative comments about literary history in these posts, but one does feel that poetic history in the last forty-odd years lacks a clear outline. There are no revolutions that a new poet simply must take into consideration – adopting or rejecting – as there were at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries as well as in the immediate post-war period. Largely because the internet makes almost all texts available, poetic models, modes and fashions are a smorgasbord of possibilities for anyone setting out on a poetic career and have been for quite a while. Murray’s beginnings as a poet occurred during the last years when Australian poetic history had a clear shape and clear faultlines: the “conflict” between the poets collected in The New Australian Poetry and an imaginary coalition made up of Murray, Lehmann, Robert Gray and followers. Time and rational consideration show this to be a fairly crude categorising of poets, certainly in terms of their poetic modes, even though it might have been an accurate description of their social groupings.

My aim in this particular rereading is to look at Murray’s early work from a poetic perspective. This was difficult at the time because the ideas in the poetry – it’s content – tended to overwhelm initial responses: there was a lot to engage with, and probably be outraged by, at that level. Fifty years on, Murray’s early self-myth is completely familiar and it’s good to be able to put it aside for a moment and think about those early poems as poems. And my conclusion is that they are a lot more unsure of themselves at this level than seemed to be the case at the time. The special locus of this uncertainty, it sems to me, is how Murray deploys himself as a poet: how he enters his own poems. I now see Poems Against Economics as a book experimenting with a possible solution.

Murray’s thirty pages in The Ilex Tree are particularly interesting from the point of view of searching for a way the poet responsible for the analysis and ideas that drive the poems can present himself. Its final poem, “Driving Through Sawmill Towns”, is still a brilliant poem, a mature work perfect of its kind. And “Noonday Axeman” is also a poem that would be kept in any brief selection of Murray’s work though it wears its ideology more openly and is full of problems when it comes to how Murray is using himself in the work. But many of the other poems don’t seem like Murray poems at all. There are dramatic monologues like “The Widower in the Country” where Murray’s father’s experience can be displaced into a third-person monologue, and “Manoeuvres” and “Deck-Chair Story” take the Murray theme of young country men who joined to serve in the First World War and deal with it in terms of monologue. “The Burning Truck” uses a technique which has more promise in the long run, using an allegorical scenario to conceal (or convey) a fragment of Murray’s worldview. A truck, set alight in a wartime strafing, trundles remorselessly through a country town. It attracts some of the young men and they follow it to the end of the poem where the allegory is sealed by the last word which describes them as “disciples”. Murray’s idea, expressed elsewhere in various forms, is that causes, ideologies, attract those young who are not firmly anchored, and become false religions. There’s nothing new in this reading of the poem but it’s interesting to ask the question of where Murray is in this scenario. He can be found, not in propria persona but as a character, in the lines, “And all of us who knew our place and prayers / Clutched our verandah rails and window-sills . . .”. In other words, conventional faith and belief in a structured community will prevent an exodus following the false gods of fashionable ideologies.

Another interesting early venture is to use a faux-ballad mode. “A New England Farm, August 1914” imagines news of the outbreak of war arriving among rural communities. This happens in the refrain, “But who is this rider on the road / With urgent spurs of burning silver?” The poem itself, a little like “The Fire Autumn” from The Weatherboard Cathedral, comes dangerously close to saying that the First World War is old Europe burning the trash of its own civilisation in the same way that Australian farmers burn cornstalks: when the farmers watch “birds come dodging through the smoke / To feast on beetles” the poem makes at least a visual connection between burning off rubbish and a wartime battle scene. It is not so much a morally outrageous thing to say as an embarrassing one: the kind of thing an adolescent boy might believe before he discovers that human beings are not symbols or ciphers. But poetically the ballad mode is interesting because it suppresses the poet’s individual point of view in favour of a sense of an entire community speaking. This is a specific kind of inflation which I’ll have something to say about later. Another ballad, this time from The Weatherboard Cathedral, is the brilliant “The Princes’ Land”. Instead of being in the Border Ballad mode, this is imagined as being heraldic, high-culture medieval though its quatrain form is very much in ballad style.

Leaves from the ancient forest gleam
in the meadow brook, and dip, and pass.
Six maidens dance on the level green,
a seventh toys with an hourglass,

letting fine hours sink away,
turning to sift them back again.
An idle prince, with a cembalo,
sings to the golden afternoon.

Two silver knights, met in a wood,
tilt at each other, clash and bow.
Upon a field semé of birds
Tom Bread-and-Cheese sleeps by his plough. . .

The poem goes on to imagine the revolutions which destroyed this aristocratic medieval world. Tom Bread-and-Cheese becomes a murderous activist who “walks in his sleep in pools of blood” and, in a final revisiting of the scene, the knights jousting have become gentlemen fencing and the prince and Tom have become princes of the plough and bread (something the royal families of Scandinavia could be said to have adopted but not the royal family of Great Britain). It’s a complex poem and its content isn’t really relevant in this brief overview, but it’s interesting to see how Murray appears in it. He begins by distancing himself from others and their way of reading the book of history – “Some will not hear, some run away, / some go to write books of their own, / some few, as the tale grows cruel, sing Hey”. In contrast, “we who have no other book / spell out the gloomy, blazing text, / page by slow page, wild year by year, / our hope refined to what comes next.” My reading of this, though I could be wrong, is that it is designed to speak for ordinary citizens who don’t have ideologies to make sense of what is happening or the power to create an interpretation of their own. They have to simply suffer, like the people who watch the burning truck run through their town but don’t follow it, or the mothers of the end of “A New England Farm” who grieve at the announcement of war because it is their sons who will run to enlist. There is a definite sleight of hand in locating oneself, poetically, with the non-poetic and I don’t think it’s a sustainable position. If you keep locating yourself as spokesman, eventually there are going to be tensions with the community you claim to be espousing and you may turn out, in its eyes, to be no more than one of the truck’s disciples.

“Driving Through Sawmill Towns”, the last poem of Murray’s section of The Ilex Tree, describes the experience of encountering these townships on the border between forest and cleared rural land. The speaker has driven his car down from the uplands – “having come from the clouds” – and gives a description of a place where people pay due deferences:

. . . . . 
when you stop your car and ask them for directions,
tall youths look away - 
it is the older men who
come out in blue singlets and talk to you . . . 

It’s an entry into the Murray sacred and all the details seem surrounded by haloes – demotic haloes, admittedly. It works, at least this once, because it is ambiguous about the positioning of the “I”, the driver of the car. If Murray had positioned himself as one of the townsfolk, this would have been nothing more than an assertion that the life I live is better than yours. But the driver has an ambiguous position as part the poet himself and part an innocent outsider stumbling on this sacred site. It touches on a crucial issue in these early poems where Murray clearly worries about the fact that he spends a good deal of time in the city despite the moral superiority of a simple rural life. “Noonday Axeman” is very much about this issue,

. . . . . 
Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills,
for the talk and the dazzle of cities, for the sake of belonging
for months and years at a time to the twentieth century,

the city will never quite hold me . . .

But it isn’t an issue I want to pursue here since I’m mainly concerned with the poetic issue of how Murray experiments with placing himself within his poems. The fact that it’s a poet who oscillates between city and bush though, isn’t entirely irrelevant.

In The Weatherboard Cathedral, “Recourse to the Wilderness” and “A Walk with O’Connor” are fairly straight pieces of autobiography, generally free of the burden of dealing with Murray’s attitude to the conflict between city and bush. This gives them a measure of success as poems but means that they aren’t a vehicle in Murray’s development with any great future as models. “Evening Alone at Bunyah” is also autobiographical but reduces any potential charge of egotism by bracketing the poem with stories of Murray’s widowed father. “The Abomination” is an interesting poem from the point of view of the poet’s stake. I read it as a dramatic monologue – with the “I” figure distanced from the poet himself – and as a kind of extension of “The Burning Truck”. Killing trapped rabbits, the narrator is attracted by a fire deep in the roots of trees, an example of the fires which will “suck your breath away / if you kneel before them too long”. In a sense, the fire demands to be worshipped and that is why it is an abomination. Whether it represents a specific ideology or something chthonic and primitive, or is just a temptation to the young, doesn’t really matter. Finally, there is “The Fire Autumn” where, I think, Murray hopes that his analysis of the relationship of the northern hemisphere to the south will be complex enough to sustain the poem. Unlike “A New England Farm”, which deals with the same material in a ballad-like structure, “The Fire Autumn” speaks in Murray’s own voice but nothing really protects it from the charge of a sententious tone and a pompous set of propositions – “The cesspools of maturity are heaving with those who leap short. / Some are citing as Europe’s last knowledge (Oh burning Israel) / that nothing not founded upon the irrational can stand . . .”. It’s always seemed to me to be a failure of a poem, a problem that Murray is going to try to solve in his next book.

And so, after this overlong introduction, to Poems Against Economics. It’s made up of three parts: two long sequences – “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” and “Walking to the Cattle-Place” – with a brief set of squibs – “Juggernaut’s Little Scrapbook” – in between them. This central group, easily passed over, does have some relevance here because it contains statement poems which almost omit the author all together, and the result is a problem that lasts throughout Murray’s career: the tighter and more epigrammatic the poem, the less comprehensible it is, even for readers really well acquainted with Murray’s ideas. “Sunday, Having Read My Sheets” has puzzled me since I first read it and I’m no closer to making sense of it now:

Face-brick in please and thank you streets,
Tower blocks squinted at bottom to top
Like immensely steep accounts, impend
More. And a strange soil haloes them.

To think how many died for a wheel
That was to stay on till Moscow but
Not make Kazan. Then somehow it did.
A sad and complex win for steel.

Now the Aryans rub at caste again,
O stateless state of the brahmin lords!
O gnostic heaven, with just my peers!

The New World must have frightened some
Badly, to fight three ducks on a wall.
Hide in the open and last it out.

It’s part, of course, of the book’s attempted assault on the mechanisms of capital which is foreshadowed in the title (the idea of “poems against economics” has a grim humour that most readers of poetry probably miss: it is a very unequal battle, a little like a sparrow solemnly taking on an elephant which barely registers its existence). The second stanza refers to the Wehrmacht’s assault on Russia in the Second World War and I think the third stanza makes fun of Eurocentric intellectuals who think that their analyses entitle them to be redeemed from history and to live in a heaven which will only include their own kind. The final stanza obviously refers to refugees from Europe who have arrived in Australia and recalls parts of “The Fire Autumn” as well as poems about Murray’s father-in-law in later books. But the mode is a kind of compression of authorial ideas, satisfying to the author but frustrating to the reader. The author only exists in them as a generator of ideas which are then shaken kaleidoscopically to produce a dense and resistant text which might make its creator smile but are unlikely to have that effect on readers.

The first of the sequences, “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star”, is Murray’s first attempt at a large sequence where a tight imposed structure fights interestingly against the fact that individual poems are often in quite different modes. It’s a manner which will be repeated in “Walking to the Cattle-Place” and “The Police: Seven Voices” from the next book, Lunch & Counterlunch, where the title of the sequence, probably taken from Dickens’s “He do the police in different voices”, suggests the possibility of approaching a subject in a variety of modes. I think the attempt behind these sequences is to solve the problem I’ve been describing. It isn’t only a matter of a unified variety of modes, it’s also a way of dealing with a variety of ways the poet can position himself in his poems.

The structure of “Seven Points” is built around the idea of the number seven – there are seven poems and the first is made up of seven parts – the number of points on the stars of the Australian Flag, something that may suggest that Murray sees these sequences as confederations or commonwealths: different but united. Seven-pointed stars have also a wider heraldic significance which often exploits the fact that it is a star which can be drawn without the pen or pencil leaving the page: that is, it has a kind of unity despite its seven apices. “Points” is also, of course, a pun so that the title could be read as “Seven comments for a country in danger”. In the first poem – or sequence – “Towards the Imminent Days”, we meet Murray in a domestic mode, celebrating the marriage of Geoffrey and Sally Lehmann. But the image of the poet in the poem is one of incipient inflation which is balanced by some self-mocking. The inflation either derives from, or is a mimicking of, a Celtic mode. Murray’s love of Gaelic culture is well known and “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil”, a later poem in the sequence which has no apparent relation to any dangers Australia may be suffering, is a comic piece that deliberately echoes Dylan Thomas – “I sang for my pains like the free”. Welsh rather than Irish, of course, but still Celtic. At any rate, we meet the inflated self:

. . . . . 
Singing All living are wild in the imminent days
I walk into furrows end-on and they rise through my flesh
Burying worlds of me.
. . . . . 
But now I am deep in butter-thick native broom
Wading, sky-happy, a cotton-bright drover of bees. . . 

The context here is hieratic: marriages are, when inflated mythologically at least, sacred rites and the poem is conceived as happening during Advent, the “imminent days”. But this first poem is also a congeries of modes and poet-positions: the sixth section is a comic story of the problems father and son, father especially, have with a rampant bull anxious to find other cows where he can make “herd-improvements”. And so, in a sense, “Towards the Imminent Days” re-enacts the structure of the sequence which contains it. Other poems use the self differently. “Lament for the Country Soldiers” is a fine poem perhaps because of the fact that the poet removes himself to a large degree and simply offers a lamentation for the fates of the boys from the country who enlisted because of an appeal to loyalty even though that loyalty was to the “king of honour” rather than the king of England. “The Conquest” does something similar though there may be something ironically satisfying about treating a man of the age of reason – “Phillip was a kindly, rational man” – in a fairly reasonable way. At the end, Murray positions himself as a representative, guilty voice of the present thinking about the fate of the indigenous populations:

. . . . . 
A few still hunt way out beyond philosophy
Where nothing is sacred till it is your flesh
And the leaves, the creeks shine through their poverty

Or so we hope. We make our conquests, too.
The ruins at our feet are hard to see,
For all the generous Governor tried to do

The planet he had touched began to melt
Though he used much Reason, and foreshadowed more
Before he recoiled into his century.

“Walking to the Cattle-Place” has a similar conception behind it to “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” in that a unifying subject – the way a farmer in the present day partakes of a cattle world that goes back millenia – allows for a variety of modes and a variety of ways a poet can be in the text. Rereading it, I’m not sure that the force of disunity is overcome by this thematic unity though I had no such problems fifty years ago when the excitement of the content was enough to dispel doubts. At the time it was thought to be a dazzling display of erudition, amongst other things, and thus a defensive bulwark against hostile critics who saw only rural quackery in Murray’s analysis of things. Again, nowadays this erudition doesn’t seem quite as striking, again, perhaps, because with the internet anybody with a few hours to spare can get up subjects like the role of the bull in Vedic and later Hindu beliefs, or in the Irish Tain.

“The Boeotian Count” is a comical list of cow’s names – “Maudie Maisie, Shit-in-the-bail . . .” – whose name derives from Murray’s essay distinguishing between the cultures of Athens (city-based, abstract, producer of dramas, modernising etc) with Boeotia (rural, producing poets, non-abstract etc). A ‘boeotian count’ is, in other words, a list. When the poet does enter this poem, it is a self-mockingly bathetic way though it retains enough abstruse knowledge to balance this:

. . . . .
          I give you thanks
                and Dopey                              old Cornucopie
        and Honeycomb                                        rainbeaded
                                                                               and warm
                                               I  pray  that  Hughie
                                                    will send you
                                                        safe home
                                        where ploughing is playing
                                where Karma is Lilā.

The conception of the entire sequence has an element of inflation about it because the farmer is imagined to be the inheritor of this long tradition of animal husbandry so that when the first poem ends “I will follow cattle” and the last poem ends “I have travelled one day”, the deliberately humble tone doesn’t disguise the degree of inflation: this is a poetic self moving through a single day but also through an immensely complex heritage that he is able to articulate thank to his erudition. This is established at the very beginning where we are introduced to the Sanskrit for various stages in a cow’s life something that is likely to be both impressive and daunting for a reader but which may have the justification that in the Rigveda, at least, cows are associated poetically (for difficult-to-grasp reasons) with dawn and Murray’s sequence wants to trace a single day which has to begin at dawn.

Amongst the variety of positions and modes in the sequence there are strangely conceived pieces like “Stockman Songs” and “Poley Bullock Couplets”, the latter imagined as being short statements by a bullock in a way that foreshadows Translations from the Natural World where the poet removes himself to allow an animal to speak in its own way. “Hall’s Cattle”, though not written as a ballad, is a narrative about Ben Hall and allows the poet to be no more than a sophisticated narrative voice and “Novilladas Democráticas” is also a narrative of a kind, though imbued with a distinct narratorial personality, which describes bull-riding, conceived as an Australian equivalent of the classic aristocratic bull-fight: the bull wins.

“Walking to the Cattle-Place” also contains one of the best-loved of Murray’s early poems, “Birds in Their Title Work Freeholds of Straw”, the second poem and thus one set in the early morning. Its subject is children, a subject where Murray has a deft and sympathetic touch. Because of this, although it contains the predictable attack on city-based capitalism – “as the dairy universe / Reels from a Wall Street tremor, a London red-shift / On the flesh-eating graphs . . .” – it concludes with the image of the small children, up since dawn herding cows, now “dead beat at their desks” in school instinctively translating the Latin for something like “Caesar arose and summoned his soldiers” as “Caesar got up and Milked then he Got his soldiers”. It’s a poem that also softens the usual opposition of town and country by including a side of country life which, if not bad, is at least highly eccentric:

. . . . . 
I can tell you sparetime childhoods force-fed this
Make solid cheese, but often strangely veined.
I’m thinking of aunts who had telescopes to spot
Pregnancies, inside wedlock or out
(There is no life more global than a village)
And my father’s uncles, monsters of hospitality . . .

That image of the strangely veined cheese that is produced by the milk recalls an image from “Evening Alone at Bunyah” where Murray contemplates a picked up stone looking at the veins in the quartz and reflecting that an individual stone like this – like the poet himself – “reflects the grain / and tendency of the mother-lode”.

Ultimately, this idea of a non-sequential sequence is not one that Murray continues or needs to continue. By the time of Lunch & Counterlunch we already have poems in the modes which Murray will use throughout the rest of his career. These include ultra-compressed riddling pieces like those in “Juggernaut’s Little Scrapbook” but also the more relaxed, complex expository and celebratory pieces like “The Broad Bean Sermon” and “First Essay on Interest”. When he does return to longer sequences, as in “Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato”, “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”, “Machine Portraits With Pendant Spaceman” and “The Idyll Wheel”, there is a clear unity in tone and mode.