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Blog // Thoughts
March 17, 2010

Poetry And Australian Culture

Les Murray is perhaps Australia’s best known and most internationally acclaimed poet. Yesterday he spoke to a small, sell-out audience as part of the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival, on Defining Australian Culture. When the question of what Australian culture might be was posed directly to Murray (by Karen Koh, as the event’s interlocutor), he […]

Les Murray is perhaps Australia’s best known and most internationally acclaimed poet. Yesterday he spoke to a small, sell-out audience as part of the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival, on Defining Australian Culture.

When the question of what Australian culture might be was posed directly to Murray (by Karen Koh, as the event’s interlocutor), he partially evaded it, though in an hour of readings and discussion Murray reveals a great deal about Australian culture; in some ways because his voice and verse are so typically Australian and his themes so often drawn from the realities of life in the bush. But, also, because Murray is an atypical Australian both in his life and vocation and some of the subjects his poetry encompasses.

Murray started by talking about his childhood, around the time of WWII and the scars that men who been in that war carried with them. It was a theme he returned to a number of times (as he often does in his poetry); people broken by war. Murray’s poetic universe is a counterweight to the populist triumphalism evident in some parts of contemporary Australian culture.

Murray’s world is arid, rough and always slowly dying; marked by characters who are often broken and damaged and who through their wounds reveal their humanity.

It reminded me that Australians don’t often talk about how devastated the country’s landscape and culture was, only a few generations ago. As a child my train journeys into the city of Sydney took me from the leafy suburbs not through a shining realm of fashionable inner city neighbourhoods, but a vast wasteland of post-industrial decay where the few signs of late afternoon activity tended to be gathered around withering old pubs. That those pubs were so soon boarded up and replaced by cafes as the factories gave way to malls and new developments is an astonishing transformation. But a culture’s heart heals far more slowly than its skin.

And, when it comes to the country’s heart, Murray felt that Australia did not value the rural life and culture the way it once did. For him the answer to what Australian culture might be starts with the nature of the Australian bush – low, undulating, flat, harsh and mostly uninhabitable. It’s a reality that shapes people, first the aboriginals, then the settlers, then more recent immigrants. It limits the size to which the country can grow and forces people to adapt and by implication limits the potential for growth and expansion.

It’s also something that, as Murray points out, is often misunderstood because whatever “Australian-ness” is, it is a gist, an inclination or insight and not a principle or a mission. What I head Murray suggesting was that at the heart of this identity might be something we could call “humility.”

Where Murray sees a mission gone wrong in Australian culture is influence of Marxist thought in Australian academia (and later journalism) in the late 60s. Although few Australians talk about this, the trend Murray highlighted was still playing itself out in the culture wars of the Howard government.

I always found it alarming when some Australian friends would proclaim the apparent “neutrality” of the Australian press. Certainly the country’s papers do not carry ideological flags as in other countries – but the biases are strong and destructive.

One such bias Murray highlighted was the way the press would systematically attack women who were in the public eye, often relentlessly (especially in the 80s and 90s). One of the ironies of many western cultures is the way fashion and even “femininity” is used as a weapon against women. Murray read a poem he wrote in response to this trend – one of his few polemical poems.

The other bias against positive affirmations of faith Murray was raised a Calvinist, but found a “natural” home in the Catholic church. He sees this as an important part of his struggle to live with depression. For me, some of Murray’s poems about faith and religion in the rural life are amongst his most moving work.

That Murray so freely speaks and writes about his faith is unusual for a public Australian figure. For most of my early adulthood press stories about the church were almost always negative (especially in the Sydney Morning Herald and on the national broadcaster, the ABC). This has changed recently, Tim Costello, brother of former national treasurer Peter Costello has become something of a public theologian and the current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is prone to quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer (though he is the first PM in my memory to willingly discuss ethics in public, let alone theology).

One of the most engaging things about hearing Murray in person is the humour he spreads through his comments and answers. A few of the quotes I captured were,

“People are are always saying poetry is dying out, but it never does.”
“At first, I tried poetry, but it was harder than it looked.”
“Electronics is the language of adolescence.”
“Poetry is at the edge of music but holding back from a tune. Poetry is at the edge of prose but holding back from explanation.”
“I had the misery of being hard to fool.”

When asked how he managed to remain so prolific as an older writer, Murray replied “It’s a habit; I’m too old to retrain.”

What this all too brief encounter gave us was a glimpse in the work and mind of a poet who is still at the height of his powers, working hard, reading, editing, thinking, writing and reflecting on his place in this world.

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