They Pretend Not to Notice

On 29 April this year Les Murray (b. 1938) died. He was the nearest Australia had to a poet Laureate. He was not from a privileged background, though neither was he raised amidst abject poverty. He was born and grew up on the rural north coast of New South Wales, not too far from Taree, in a district with the delightful Australian name of Bunyah. He was a countryman and never an urban sophisticate. His characteristic physical bulk emerged while he was at school, making this time not wholly happy for him. The death of his mother after a miscarriage when he was 12 was no doubt a trauma that marked him. He was a republican, but no one is perfect; he was not obnoxious about it, and apparently delighted the Queen when he received from her hand the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1999. He was an idealist not an ideologue. He promoted the rights of the indigenous population in Australia before it was chic, or “woke,” to do so. Having been prone to depression, the black dog left him after he endured a coma of three weeks resulting from a tumour on his liver.

What you will find it difficult to discover in the obituaries of the secular press, both in Australia and in Britain, is that Les Murray was a committed and practising Catholic. He converted in 1962 to marry his Hungarian fiancée. It was no mere formality; he was a committed Catholic, and while he did not champion any particular strand in body ecclesiastic, he seems to have cleaved to the orthodox side of the Church. At the University of Sydney (Les’ own alma mater from which he claimed to have taken the least distinguished degree ever), where my sub-major was English, Les Murray was noted rather than esteemed. While it is hardly devotional or pious, his poetry has clear thread and currents that emerge from and express his faith. In late 20th century Australian academia this was something that was not valued in any way. Since Les was such an important poet he had to be acknowledged; but his faith was ignored.

My reverend nephew has found, and my brother his father has forwarded on to me, a volume of Les Murray’s collected poetry, a handsome hardcover tome that reflects the volume and importance of his work. I am no expert on Murray at all, but I find some of his poems possess such theological insight packed into such few words that he can make for excellent spiritual reading. One such is from his collection The Biplane Houses (2006), entitled “Church— I[n].M[emoriam]. Joseph Brodsky.” It is densely theological and linguistically spare. It is wonderful. I share it with you below.

May Les rest in peace. He did not hide his faith, though the establishment pretended not to notice it.

CHURCH
I. M. Joseph Brodsky

The wish to be right
has decamped in great numbers
but some come to God
in hopes of being wrong.

High on the end wall hangs
the Gospel, from before he was books.
All judging ends in his fix,
all, including his own.

He rose out of Jewish,
not English evolution
and he said the lamp he held
aloft to all nations was Jewish.

Freedom still eats freedom,
justice eats justice, love –
even love. One retarded man said
church makes me want to be naughty.

but naked in a muddy trench
with many thousands, someone’s saying
the true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.

Les Murray, “The Biplane Houses” (2006)

POSTCRIPT
In the 2004 interview “Les Murray in Conversation with Valentina Polukhina”, which coincided with the first publication of this poem, you can get a flavour of Les Murray outside his poetry.

(VP) You are regarded as an eccentric Australian voice, a rural poet speaking for an urban culture, a Roman Catholic speaking for a largely secular people. Are you comfortable with such perceptions? 

(LM) I don’t speak for anyone, I speak to the poetry public. They can be Catholic, they can be Jewish, they can be whatever they like. I just speak as I am. I am a Catholic and I don’t believe that other people are necessarily secular. I think that intellectuals are mostly secular or are required to pretend to they are. But broader people are very varied; a lot of them are religious, lots of them Catholic. I speak to those who want to read me.

(VP) Like Mandelstam and Pasternak, Brodsky in his poetry bridged Christian and Jewish culture. Almost every year Brodsky wrote a Christmas poem. Yet, many Russian Orthodox people don’t accept him as a Christian poet. How do you see him in this respect?

(LM) We all do it. From Abraham to Jesus is what I call Jewish evolution, a moral and spiritual evolution. The difference is whether you accept Jesus or not. As for Russia, it is an anti-Semitic culture, I gather.

(VP) Maybe you are not aware that in 1963 Brodsky wrote a long poem “Isaac and Abraham” from a point of view of a son rather than a father.

(LM) Human sacrifice is a constant in this world. You know, I always ask about a work of art, how much human sacrifice does it require? That is what that tradition and that evolution is about: sacrifice, absorbing it and making it bearable for humans. In the end, God takes it on Himself and so removes the legitimacy of all further literal human sacrifice. I quite like the Jewish evolution!

(VP) Why?

(LM) Salvation comes through the Jews, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman. English evolution, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, and all that, tends to reduce humans to interchangeable units. They sacrifice us all, they turn us into money; whereas Jewish evolution turns us into persons. Persons die and come back; they will not be lost. That is the most important evolution of all.

“Les Murray in conversation with Valentina Polukhina”, in Ars Interpres, #4-5, 9 Nov 2004.

 

17 thoughts on “They Pretend Not to Notice

  1. I hit “sent” to soon. The quote “… and his life was marked by poverty and bouts of depression, but he found joy in poetry, nature’s splendor and Roman Catholicism, to which he converted in his mid-20s.“ not bad for the NYT.

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  2. This is wonderful stuff. Thank you so much this. I think I might work the last stanza into my homily for Corpus Christi, and the observation about human sacrifice is so astute, it could find a way in too!

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    1. I think Les would be chuffed to know that he is making it into homilies. I wove this same poem into a weekday homilette soon after he died, using the gospel-before-he-was-a-book image. So succinctly Catholic! Pax.

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  3. This is wonderful stuff. Thank you so much for bringing out the great force behind this great poet. In the picture, he’s of Chestertonian dimensions and shares his great gifts too. The last verse of the poem and the reflection on human sacrifice as a perennial are great material for Sunday’s Corpus Christi homily. Thank you again!

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      1. I take your point Father. In this era when ‘spirituality’ is so ‘in the vogue’, it’s time that a person’s faith was acceptable to the establishment and to all of us

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      2. I agree. But spirituality is acceptable because it is contrasted (falsely) with organised/institutional religion—only a fool could have faith in that! Crystals and Enneagrams on the other hand…

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  4. A belated thought; what a loss it was that the powers that be did not involve Murray in liturgical translation. He understood Latin and, notwithstanding the countryman image (and reality -it was no sham) was highly literate in theology. The 2011 translation is a 1,000% improvement on the banal pelagian paraphrase of the 1970s, but still a little clunky and inelegant. It could do with a poet’s touch.

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