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Angry poets society

  • 16 July 2020
Plato reckoned that poetry ‘is nearer to vital truth than history’. As someone who has attempted to write in both fields, I think the Greek was on the money.

Back in 2004, I had the pleasure of writing a feature on the late great Australian critic, and prodigious poet, Les Murray. Les was a physical and literary giant who ruled the Antipodean roost for four decades, publishing at great lengths and speed; we lost him on 29 April last year. In four months’ time, if Les were still here with us, our poet laureate would be 81.

After the piece was published I sent him copies, thanked him again, and did a foolhardy thing. Encouraged by his candour, prompted by curiosity, and fuelled by ego and temerity, I sent him some of my early attempts at poetry and asked him what he thought. (Be careful what you wish for.)

Unprofessional on my part? Definitely. Cheeky to the point of presumption? Yes again. Correspondence answered? In spades.

Les was an honest man, and his wake-up call to me (below and pictured) showed me I had a long way to go:

‘Dear Barry,

Reluctance to cause unhappiness can make a coward of anyone — that’s my excuse for being so slow about returning these to you. I don’t know: you’re all around the poetry target but you never hit it. Too much generalization, & current affairs, are possibly your own worst enemies.

‘Poetry when you achieve it distracts you from argufying & philosophizing, towards making things emerge in their true nature, their horror or charm.

‘There has to be a bit of “ah!” in every line or stanza. Good luck. — Les’

That gentle honesty encouraged me to look at what I wanted to do and say as a writer, in prose and poetry. Les’ call for a sharper focus certainly made sense to anyone trying to trawl through my copy back then, in whatever form it took. Pity my poor editors!

Identifying the true nature of things, and capturing their horror or charm? Let’s give it a crack.

I recognised and recognise still that there are few humans who will ever approach Les’ heights of linguistic mastery and vision of life. But one thing I felt I had in common with Les, apart from our shared rustic heritage, was anger. As Dan Chiasson has observed, ‘the key to Murray... is not landscape but rage’.

In The Angry Genius of Les