Angry poets society

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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.

Letter from Les Murray. Photo supplied Barry GittinsBack 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 Murray, J.M. Coetzee wrote that ‘Murray was hostile to Modernism in most of its manifestations... Modernists, in his dismissive diagnosis, wrote out of a “pathological state [of] depression.” “Modernism’s not modern: its true name’s Despair”’. 

Rage. It can be an eminently sensible, humane response to what we are facing, especially if we are silly enough to want to go about uncovering the true nature of things. (Not sure about Les’ quest for charm in COVID-19 days, but we have horrors aplenty.)

In The Atlantic, Jesse Lichenstein had praised acidic poetic works that tap ‘intimate veins, and responds to the headlines with impatience, nuance, compassion, and sometimes fury; with historical breadth and sharp critique; with unapologetic stabs at beauty; with ambition; and — above all — with the expectation of an audience.

‘This is poetry that firmly believes it is necessary.’

Inspired by Les, like any good fanboy, I persevered and got good and grumpy at injustice or life’s wobblier challenges. Not sure I’d meet his approval yet (I am inordinately fond of current affairs and arguing) but I’ve had more than 30 pieces published by Eureka Street since 2009 to the present day, much of it political.

I’ve grouched about presidents, dictators, goosekillers and corporations. I’ve railed against governments, discrimination, homophobiaracism, and our ongoing cruelty to refugees and people seeking asylum. (Several times actually.)

I’ve spacked it about papal corruption, nationalism, dogma, poverty, hidebound theology and sexism to name but a few windmills I’ve tilted at, Les style. (Albeit without the skills and doughty ripostes.)

Les had reminded me that a clergyman cousin of his had once pointed out to him that the biblical writer Saint Paul, in the original Greek, had described humans as ‘God’s poems’ (‘creations’ are ‘poemata’, from the Greek word ‘poein’, also translated as ‘creation’).

 

'While it’s often derided as a dying or dead artform, or a song lacking a melody, I reckon poetry is in again.'

 

I asked him if we lived up to that description. It was the wrong question.

‘If you’re a poem you’re a poem, you can’t escape it,’ Les explained. ‘If we are God’s creation, I think we can only deform it. We can’t cease to be it. Mind you, don’t forget the word [poem] in Greek means “something made”… poetry is only a small example of, but also a model for, human creativity in general.

‘Most people’s poetry in their life doesn’t come through reading poems by me or by anybody else. It comes through their marriage or their favourite car, their hobbies or children, the thing they are passionate about. Maybe a fellow loves breeding and racing good horses… maybe it comes through their politics.

‘Whatever engages their heart and their full creative side is their poem; the poem of their life.’

While it’s often derided as a dying or dead artform, or a song lacking a melody, I reckon poetry is in again. Last year the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Dina Gusejnova (an Assistant Professor in International History at LSE) wrote that ‘Throughout history, readers have been drawn to poetry in the context of political crises which fragment and challenge society’.

‘… In each time of crisis,’ she suggests, poets ‘are expected to speak truthfully and across boundaries to people living in societies which are split along competing lines of allegiance’.

Black lives matter. Trump is up for re-election. A plague stalks rich and poor alike. In Oz we have a national government some believe is still intent on punishing the poor.

I think this is just the time for poetry to meet politics. And if we’re all poems, then a multitude of voices are called for.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Letter from Les Murray. Photo supplied Barry Gittins

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Les Murray, poetry, anger

 

 

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I would guess there isn't a week goes by without me reaching for Les Murray's poetry. His/my rage (A Deployment of Fashion) is there frequently in his verse, but so is tenderness (The Wedding at Berrico) and everyday theology (An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow). Les's formidable skills were always humane. Poetry has the capacity to transcend politics: no mean feat. Barry, your writing did benefit from your approaching the great poet and submitting your work to him. Keep writing, we need you desperately!
Pam | 16 July 2020


Thanks Barry. What a timely piece. I’ve been read Les Murray’s poetry al No with those of Clive James, Peter Pierce and many others.
Patricia Gates | 16 July 2020


Les Murray himself lived with depression a lot and it was the source of much of his poetry, though the subject was almost never depression. He would have known quite well what it is he owed to Modernism. He's a modernist himself, really, as witness through his forcing of language and form into new things. Modernism is the reality that gave Les and others the license to do some of the weirder things they did with language. It's just possible, Barry, that it wasn't politics he disapproved of in poetry but your politics, which may not have coincided with his. I find Les's political poetry about the least memorable of his works, not least because they offend my own political mind. It's inevitable that politics gets into poetry, but something essential is lost if the political message is an end in itself: it becomes propaganda or polemic. The 'ah!' advice is the best. It's about how the poet makes language do something, so instead of hearing Les, or Barry, we hear something new in what's being said. It's his advanced understanding of how English works that permits him to do a hundred different things and make it look easy. As for his anger, it is a caustic fact in his own life and caused harm, to himself and others. At his best, he seemed to find a way of thinking through that anger, its root causes, and turn it into something that included poetry.
Philip Harvey | 16 July 2020


Try Peter Steele, SJ
Connie | 16 July 2020


I too once showed Les a poem. I was 17 and at Sydney University, where Les used to hang out in the Union cafeteria. He gave it his attention, bless him, and returned it, saying, “Never let head and heart be so far apart again.” It was good advice, for life as well as art. I went on to be a successful writer, but only of prose! Thank you, Barry, for the reminder.
Joan Dugdale | 16 July 2020


Les Murrey was the most extraordinary and outstanding poet of the 20th century. Depression is a period of gestation during which time the soul rebirths itself. It is as valuable a tool to an artist or spiritual person as is a tabula rasa, a white stone, a white sheet of paper, or a new white canvas. Tools to exhibit thereon the soul's fruit of victory: It's rebirth, the journey of awe and joy. Remove such tools from the artist. And you remove his genius.
ao | 17 July 2020


What you address here, Barry, it seems to me , is the difference between constructed rhythmical rhyme and inspired creative expression of human understanding.
john frawley | 17 July 2020


I have had a fascination about Les Murray's poetic style having found him later in my life, I was very excited when I turned on the ABC one evening and Les was being interviewed by a less than clever interviewer. During the conversation the interviewer said something like this: Les you recently became a Roman Catholic, to which Les replied, Yes I did. The interviewer said to him; That's the religion where you eat your Jesus isn't it? Les replied so gently; Yes but only at His invitation. The interview ended very shortly after. I can't ut a date on this interview but have rejoiced at Les's succinct and gentle response.
Paul Rummery | 17 July 2020


Paul Rummery's recollection reminds me of an interview conducted by the literary critic Howard Felperin with Evelyn Waugh that was displayed prominently near the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square, in the late 1980s. In it, when asked by his interrogator about Waugh's "misanthropy" in the context of the author's conversion to the Catholic faith and frequent reception of Holy Communion, Waugh responded: "Well, imagine what I might be like without it."
John RD | 19 July 2020


"Yes but only at His invitation". Yes, very kind and gentle.
ao | 23 July 2020


What a relief it is to read this article, Barry. To be able to express anger at what is and in some ways be able to push against the things that cause it. For me, it's this sense of obligation almost to pull apart or slowly pull back the words that seek to cushion from the hard realities of how we are. And I think a lot of the damage comes from the purposeful and careful words we use and how we frame them; to cause less offence and keep it all nice and digestible? To euphemise or euthanise? I don't know. But I do feel that these constraints put upon language, can rob us of something in us that is vital and wholesome. I've become very interested in the etymology of words because it offers the meaning of the origins and truths of words. But also, a new thrill at discovering portmanteaux and creating unique combinations of words where you can perhaps arrive at a reality you want to express, nearing an accuracy one seeks to find in our contexts.
Clotilde Lopez | 03 August 2020


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