Mercurial Wonder
Essays Culture Poetry

Mercurial Wonder

Toby Ratcliffe

On Les Murray and his Poetry

The late Les Murray’s poetry at first seems indecipherable. Where would we start with a phrase like “the timber duchess, the strapped port”? These references are closed to all but those who have lived in the Australian state of Queensland, for whom a duchess is a wooden piece of furniture and a port is a suitcase or school bag. Generally, the longer we stay with Murray’s poetry, the more we see that it is not the result of randomness, as first thought, but intense purpose. Every little detail, however opaque it seems, turns out to signify something important, that we readers simply could not decipher in the earlier stages of acquaintance. As Clive James said of Murray’s poetry: he is always one step ahead of us.

We only become frustrated with Murray because we can’t keep up with him, not because he is willfully obscure. He might be a shade of that, but only in the desire to give full expression to his naturally bowerbird-like instincts, his inner cryptic crossword, his mental agility. In truth, though, there are other reasons why we could be frustrated with Murray: his lack of elegance, his love of paradox, his mixing of the highest diction with the lowest, and the seeming lack of purpose in the formal aspects of his writing, or his stanzas, line endings and inattention to the sound of words. Take an example from “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”:

Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels,
jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages, peaty cupfuls, soft pots overflowing,
setting out along the great curve, migrating mouse-quivering water.

Here Murray stretches metaphors to their limits, such that we have the sense that they are about to snap. The piling on of adjectives is so relentless that we feel we might be drowning in the ice-cold Tasmanian water. Perhaps the list-like nature of this poem is an attempt to capture the unceasing flow of water, but the effect is undeniably grating. What kind of a madman would see jazz and whisky in a humble stream? How can water be described as “bent”? For all the lack of harmony of these lines, they reveal a poet who surprises through the unusual and is not fixated on limiting what can enter a poem. He is a poet who cannot be contained.

Murray’s poetry has an indeterminate, mercurial nature that is perhaps a matter of taste (I, for one, appreciate it). It also means that his poetry is better absorbed as a totality than on the level of the individual poem. An individual poem is less likely to show us at once the varied terrains on which he travels. Examples of this mercurialness abound. On the one hand, in “Memories of the Height to Weight Ratio,” he attacks the modern ethos, sharply undermining its pretensions while poking fun at himself:

Modernism’s not modern: it’s police and despair.
I wear it as fat, and it gnawed off my hair

On the other hand, he praises the modern style, or reconciles us to it, through his very mode of writing. In the poem “Mollusc” he describes a snail with the clinical, unfailing accuracy of a modern scientist. There is no hint of a traditional, despair-free way of seeing things here:

. . . by the crystalline
pimplings of its skirts, by the sucked-on
lifelong kiss of its toppling motion,
by the viscose optics now extruded
now wizened instantaneously

We see above in the first passage an opposition to the modern attitude but—particularly in the second passage—no opposition to the formal features of modern poetry. Murray’s conception of modernism is about pushing the past back rather than welcoming it into the present, and it is perhaps this bullying attitude to the past and the accompanying blind confidence in the future that Murray cannot abide, even if his poetic style appears unmoored from the past. Murray’s mercurial nature, his ability to outsmart and escape the grasp of the opinion mongers, the people with views ready to subsume the world within them, is surely one of his best traits. It is something that places him in the tradition of the great poets of the English language.

It even sets him apart from other Australian poets. A wide zone separates Murray, whose poetry is sometimes painfully difficult but essentially purposeful and determined, and the poetry that can look similar on the surface but lacks the same kind of depth. No friend of the romantic sensibility, Murray is perhaps the clearest example of the negative capability that John Keats retrospectively identified in Shakespeare. To use Emily Dickinson’s formulation: he tells the truth but tells it slant. But for what reason? How can it be other than a mechanism to guard himself from being pigeonholed or from ossifying? Instead, he remains liquid and infinitely malleable.

Even when we are sure of what we can pin Murray to or accuse him of, we soon find the reality to be more complicated. Parochial resident of Bunyah, New South Wales? Murray was a frequent traveller, giving readings at literature festivals the world over, and he corresponded with others as far as India. Conservative firebrand? Murray was allergic to both political partisanship and the relegation to second-class status of the less fortunate, the underdogs of the world. Elitist? Before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University in 1969, 12 years after starting, he was homeless for a period, sleeping in public spaces around Sydney and hitchhiking his way around Australia with little to fall back on.

There is a triteness to the focus on Murray’s often tragic formative experiences. One sees this in articles and anywhere it is hoped he might be made to appeal to an audience of infrequent poetry readers on the basis of his humanity, his down to earth Aussie-ness, his history of battling. It is for this reason that we will avoid mentioning here his childhood, adolescence, and bouts with illness. Undoubtedly, though, to decipher Murray’s poetry, an understanding of the poet’s life story is essential. A feeling for the Australian ‘“she’ll be right, mate” attitude would also be of service.

A younger contemporary of Murray, Australian poet John Forbes wrote in a way not dissimilar to the older poet whose work he admired. In Forbes’s work we see the same tendency to indiscriminately absorb everything immediate and distant, and then to regurgitate it in a novel manner. But Forbes’s outlook is adversarial to Murray’s in his ungenerous deflation of life to something bare, barren, and amoral, with lurid, vaguely amusing flashing lights. We see this in the first lines of his “On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra”:

Any frayed waiting room copy of Who
could catch this scene: flash Euro-
trash surveys a sulky round faced

Even better is it to compare the opening lines of poems by each poet set in the city of Melbourne:


The incessant trams are the colour of the skin
after a course of suntan pills


Uphill in Melbourne on a beautiful day
a woman was walking ahead of her hair.

Yes, both are trying to be clever in the uniqueness of their observations, in the wry smile they hope to arouse, but Murray’s lines evince a genuine wonder and Forbes displays a private self-satisfaction. Above all, even in the depths of depression, Murray is on the side of life. He is against satire and mockery, the reductive, the fashionable, the sophisticated, the easy path. Murray is for wonder. If his poems can be said to have a spine, it is this.

One can find in Murray’s poetry a deeper humanity than the kind that defines his biography in the media. A number of his poems offer a direct confrontation with the brutality of death in much the same manner as Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series. An inhuman lack of sentimentality is harnessed to question the equally inhuman belief in endless progress and a purely material conception of the world. Take the first few lines of “Suspended Vessels,” about a real life hot air balloon crash seen by the poet, and compare them with later lines:

Here is too narrow and brief:
equality and justice, to be real,
require the timeless. It argues
afterlife even to name them


I suppress in my mind
the long rag unravelling, the mixed
high voice of its spinning fall,
the dust-blast crash, the privacies
and hideous equalities without justice

Here the poet pits abstract ideas of human invention, equality and justice, against the harsh realities outside human control— namely, death. He wants us to question why we believe in these abstract ideas when we are only too willing to dispense with any idea of the divine. Equality and justice both require a leap of faith. Implicitly, Murray asks: Aren’t equality and justice God-given? Isn’t death made all the more unbearable and grotesque without a religious framework?

This uncompromising confrontation with death is balanced by Murray’s gratitude for love. In “The International Terminal,” a rhyming poem that seems to pace on at the speed of a jumbo jet, Murray sees love as a “common joint thump” pulsing through all of our hearts. His Catholic faith no doubt informs the angle of universality with which he approaches love. But, in his typically multifaceted way, Murray doesn’t lose the opportunity to explore the individual experience of love for his wife Valerie in light of the universal:

I gloom, missing you from the cornering outset—
and hearts beat mostly as if they weren’t there,
rocking horse to rocking chair

In “The Say-But-The-Word-Centurion Attempts A Summary,” a poem about the crucifixion and resurrection, Murray personifies love as Jesus Christ:

Love, too, his new universal, so far ahead of you it has died
for you before you meet it

Other poems show Murray’s unabashed love for his father, mother, and children. If Murray’s religion has taught him something, it is that one should articulate one’s love as well as enact it. These tender expressions make him unfashionable and are the chink in the armour of his harsh modern poetic style.

Love is a feeling Murray commonly feels in connection to place. His poems encompass Australia as a whole, even its lesser-known towns; think “Cave Divers Near Mount Gambier” or “The Transposition of Clermont.” In the latter poem, he contemplates how a town can be relocated, and what this means for its inhabitants. Does life go on just as it did before or is there a fundamental shift? He so artfully encapsulates the emotion of leaving a beloved place behind forever through imagery of the flood-prone Queensland town of Clermont being moved away by engines:

Certain houses burst, and vanished.
One wept its windows, one trailed mementoes up the street.

By the end of the poem, he is inconclusive on whether the town and its residents have lost something vital. All we have is the sense that life must go on as usual. Even if Australia is home to Murray and he is fascinated by its every contour, the totality of the outside world also occupies a place in his heart. Wales, Scotland, France, Zimbabwe, Germany, India, Japan, USA, and China—all are loci for other poems. He takes countries as presents, as objects created solely for his curiosity and wonder.

Candid but not overly analytical or self-referential, Murray the man is hard to distinguish from the work. In the end, it is vain to criticise his poetry’s lack of elegance, because we are really criticising Les Murray’s lack of elegance, as if saying to him: you need to speak nicely. And should we not respect the diversity of poets provided they enrich our lives? Another aspect of Murray’s work that attests to its greatness is its lack of mediation by external factors. You return to his work with the feeling that you are not being gifted the second hand. Murray describes his writing process as a trance. It is clear that in writing he puts no barriers, no defenses, between himself and the world around him. He uses no self-help or guide books. His hero worship is moderate. He defers to no coercive or institutional power. In his 1992 book of poems “Translations from the Natural World,” he becomes the animals he writes of. The trances require humility and loss of control at the very moment the poem is birthed into existence.

And it is with a non-judgemental humility that Murray describes the material world, natural and man-made: he does not like ranking one thing better than the other. He will write of skyscrapers as “diurnal float-glass apparitions” but will hesitate to say outright that they are monstrous, even when as readers we want him to (at times—in line with his mercurial nature—he breaks this pattern). However, when Murray strays from the material world, daily existence, and dwells on politics and sex, he becomes incensed and explosive: “what is a Nazi but sex pitched for crowds?” Just when we think Murray is at peace with the world around him, turning to another poem produces an alien and dispossessed feeling.

The excitement of reading a collection of Murray’s poems is to see these diverse feelings jostle with one another in a chaotic mix. There is a humor in his mingling of high and low, jokey and tragic, profound and trivial. Reflecting on his time at Sydney University in the 1950s and 60s in the light-hearted poem “Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato,” the university’s motto, Murray writes:

The day you gave up fornication
we took your WetChex and, by insufflation,
made fat balloons of them to glisten aloft in the sun
above the Quad, the Great Hall, the Carillon

Deeply suspicious of and alienated by sex, Murray is nonetheless nonchalant in writing of his friend’s exploits. This passage is a microcosm of that mad jostling of things that do not seem to belong together. Here we have Latinate verbs, a brand of condoms, and a tongue-in-cheek use of poetic diction. This is typical Murray: nearly everything is appropriate for laughter. Take a scene of goths (playing with both meanings of the word) pouring into Leipzig in modern Germany. Note how the laughter he seeks to generate is not mockery but a delight in incongruities and historical parallels:

Black was pouring out
of the Kaiser’s mighty station,
kohl mingling with floral:
it was the Goths, dressed not prole
but precarian

On injuries in old age, Murray writes:

When, any time after sixty,
or any time before, you stumble
over two stairs and club your forehead
among rake or hoe, brick or fuel-tin,
that’s time to call the purveyor
of steel pipe and indoor railings

It appears that in old age Murray became even more fond of writing poetry at once serious and uproariously funny. The above passages are from poems in his collection “Waiting for the Past,” written four years before his death in 2019.

We find that Murray is unafraid to mix brutality into his humour. In his unromantic, country sensibility, he does not centre his feelings. Instead of the pithy aphorism, Murray’s chosen way to get to the truth is to make his readers laugh. This, after all, is an affirmation of life. Murray’s work outclasses the aphorism in its ability to pester the intelligence of the reader and give it a lingering but never consummated pleasure. Aphorisms can be repeated often but do not last very long, while a resonant line of Murray lingers on and builds in significance.

If Murray’s poetry is intensely purposeful, what is his purpose? What is he getting at? Murray is essentially subversive. But subversive of what? Murray writes in a hyper-modern style, with the aloofness and fragmentary language and imagery one would expect of a poet in a liberal, industrialised society occupied with putting the past behind it to move to the next new thing. His poetry implicitly says: absolutely anything can be written about—it is all the same, anyhow. Within limitations on authenticity, individual experience and a sense of the divine, Murray manages to smuggle these things into the modern world, through modern language, compromising the surface aspects of his work in order to stay absolutely true to his mission. Murray is a meaning maker playfully inserting meaning into a hegemonic meaninglessness. For this playful sleight of hand we should be eternally grateful to him.

Featured image: Main Street of Clermont, Australia in photo (1907) via Aussie~mobs, Flickr.

Toby Ratcliffe is a writer and teacher based in Hobart, Tasmania. He is a graduate of the University of Sydney.