Sunday, June 11, 2006

A conservative laureate?

If Australia has a poet laureate it is Les Murray. I bought his newly released Collected Poems today and was interested to find how openly conservative some of his work is.

For instance, there is a poem titled "A Brief History" from the volume he published in 1996, Subhuman Redneck Poems. In it Murray actually defends the maligned majority population of Australia against the attacks launched against it by the political class.

For instance, the fourth stanza sums up the state of the nation in which Aboriginal culture, with its dreamings, is treated favourably as "our one culture", whilst the white majority is blamed for whatever goes wrong, with another group, the "Ethnics", being excused from the blame.

Our one culture paints Dreamings, each a beautiful claim.
Far more numerous are the unspeakable Whites,
the only cause of all earthly plights,
immigrant natives without immigrant rights.
Unmixed with these are Ethnics, absolved of all blame.

(Think about the fourth line. It catches the strange, no-win position the Anglo majority is placed in by the political class.)

In the next stanza, Murray writes of the failure of the political class to take its own tradition seriously, even to the point of declaring Australia to be an Asian nation.

All of people's Australia, its churches and lore
are gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war
and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor,
our mandarins now, in one more evasion
of love and themselves
, declare us Asian.

The lines "in one more evasion/of love and themselves" get to the heart of what's wrong with a political class which is willing to declare null their own nation's historic identity.

Finally, Murray sympathises with Australians turning away from high culture, given that it has already turned against them in the name of empty ideology.

Australians are like most who won't read this poem
or any, since literature turned on them
and bodiless jargons without reverie
scorn their loves as illusion and biology
compared with bloody History, the opposite of home.

I like especially the part of the stanza I've highlighted. Murray perhaps is identifying the tendency for a liberal politics, as a "bodiless jargon," to consider illegitimate the real, embodied forms of identity and connectedness felt by most people.

What does the last line mean? I think it's a reference to the political class also running down the things valued by most Australians because they are "ordinary" - they aren't associated with the glamour of the great conflicts of history, with "bloody History", which Australians might shy away from as "the opposite of home".

Murray has been a prolific writer, so it will take me a while to read through the entire volume of his work. When I've done so, I'll write another item and try to provide more of an overview of his poetry.

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