Bringing the body into poetry

Charles Ferrell interviews Les Murray

CF: On the back cover of your latest book, Subhuman Redneck Poems, you invite the reader to guess which of its poems led you out of your recent bout of depression. Will you tell us?

LM: “Burning Want”. It just talked about what lay at the roots of my depression, or some of the stuff that did. And it had a cathartic effect, it broke the back of the depression, and I began to get better after that …. I was fighting with two demons, which were really one: an external and internal depression. You know, I was depressed about a lot of things going on in Australia, and the world in general, but particularly in Australia, and I was depressed very much by the depression inside myself. The book is full of a certain amount, well, marked here and there by a certain amount, of strain and fury.

CF: There’s a lot of provocative stuff in there, deliberately provocative. The poem about your father dying, which is very personal, finishes: “Snobs mind us off / religion nowadays, if they can. / Fuck thém. I wish you God.”

LM: Fuck thém!! It’s got an accent on it!!

CF: Sorry!! Coming after such a personal and very moving poem, it has an affirmative quality. Does that lend of provocation have its own kind of vitality?

LM: It was a bit of a cracker. The poem was written entirely in the kind of language Dad and I talked to each other. I don’t know what he would have thought of it; he probably would have been horrified at that last line being read by outside people. It’s the sort of thing we would have said to each other, rather than shown to outside people in print, you know. Working people a lot of the time live in a kind of hypocrisy; they tell each other the truth within their world but they never broadcast it outwards. The old man would have been terrified I’d be giving away the secret, but the secret was “Fuck ’em!” Yeah, I suppose provocation comes gradually to me, I’m not a very combative soul, I don’t really believe in it, I never got much out of conflict, but I think in Australia there’s been a slow-moving disaster, you know, in the universities and in the media, a kind of terrible standardisation of views, and a kind of what somebody called “soft gelatinisation”. I have been most irritated by it on occasion, less irritated now because part of my irritation was, you know, coming out of the depression. Part of it came out of just indignation that such bullshit went on.

CF: You’re talking about “political correctness”?

LM: Yes. If they are in power anywhere they’ll bleed you remorselessly. If you are a student at an Australian university and you don’t suit your essay to the requirements of the lecturer you’ll be failed. They don’t argue, they fail you. You’ve got to put Marxism in the first and last paragraphs of your essay, which is exactly the technique that used to be used at the state university in Moscow. I don’t know whether your university is cursed with this nonsense, but there are a lot of them in Australia and they run the universities and largely the media, too. I mean a book is going to be praised according to its political content. If it hasn’t got political content it will be assigned some.

CF: When did this kind of thing start?

LM: It started in the 60s with Vietnam; Vietnam opened the door to it, and the people who lost the Vietnam War were us, you know. We lost pluralism, we lost civilisation, and got a kind of political correctness instead. And that’s what annoyed me. But I realised that I was probably more upset about it than it deserved, because I was not in my full, did not have my full, mental balance. But I thought I’d be as provocative as possible, even with the title of the book, Subhuman Redneck Poems. One class of people in Australia that is absolutely unfashionable is country-folk. So being one of them, coming from small farmers, I thought, “Oh, yes, I’ll call it red-neck poems”, then I thought, “Nah, they mightn’t get that, they’re pretty stupid, I’ll put a line under it, I’ll call it Subhuman Redneck Poems….”

CF: You use the term “ecocide” in “Burning Want” and in a few other poems there’s quite a bit about sexual humiliation during adolescence. Did you cop a lot?

LM: Oh, I got it good and hard, but a lot of people do. I mean, my case is only typical; it’s not unique.

CF: Although you’ve been outspoken and critical about certain lands of feminism, you must have some sympathy with what some feminists say about sexual humiliation.

LM: Sure, they copped it. I am on the side of anybody who cops sexual humiliation. The term “erocide” can be applied to either sex …. The ones who really cop it, I think, are the loners, people like me who are not very good at reading social situations and haven’t got very many backers, people who aren’t popular, abut too weird maybe, weird in one way or another, intelligent, or too odd to attract much fashion. Fashion is used as a weapon. The great weapon of political correctness is fashion. And that starts in the schoolyard, you know; so and so is not popular, so and so is popular. I think fashion should be regarded as a form of assault.

CF: Hence the term “fashion victims”.

LM: Well, the world’s full of them, I’m not unique, just a bit outspoken about it.

CF: In terms of what you were just saying about depression, one of the poems from your most recent book which most moved me is “Corniche”.

LM: That is an exact account of how depression works, including the technique I learnt of sitting under my depression, sort of saying you’re an illusion, you’re just a storm of chemicals in my brain, and I am going to sit you out.

I was going into kind of a foetal position with my head boiling with this black horror and I would just say to it, “You’re an illusion”. It would eventually abate, it would die down.

CF: There is a phrase in “Corniche”, “fear is intransitive”, which seems to capture it.

LM: Yes, exactly. When you have really reached the depths, you’re not afraid of any particular thing, you are just flooded with fear. People would say, “What are you afraid of?” and I would say, “Nothing! [laughs] I’m just full of fear!”

CF: Do you remember Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade”?

LM: Yeah, it’s an answer to “Aubade”….

CF: You’ve been using rhyme a lot lately although it’s been unfashionable since the modernists. Why did we lose rhyme?

LM: I suppose when we began to think that intellect was the main thing and poetry was essays, and we wanted to explore the other resources of poetry. Rhyme is another kind of reason, and we didn’t want to have two kinds of reason working in the same poem a lot of the time. Rhyme is a system exactly like reason, and it is completely unlike reason since it gives a world order that is wildly different from logic. Knitting the two logics together got to be a bit out of fashion for a while. But I’ve always liked rhyme; I like the step and the kind of dance of it. It brings the body into poetry. For a while we wanted to make poetry entirely out of our heads, so we got all these disembodied head poems.

CF: So are you more interested in the sound of the poem rather than how it looks on the page? What about poets like e e cummings?

LM: He made some good stuff but a lot of his followers haven’t. It is a dangerous model. It can be done by genius but it is a bit too loose for the average poet ….

CF: You’ve recently claimed that a wider audience for poetry existed in Australia before modernism.

LM: It existed up until the death of C J Dennis and has tailed off since …. Most of those poets weren’t very good but at least it kept poetry before the eyes of the people as a normal form of reading.

CF: Is there anyone in the English-speaking world like that now?

LM: Probably one or two but with the self-absorption of most poets, I don’t know.

CF: What about Seamus Heaney or is he someone who can’t get too involved in public debates because of the political situation in Ireland?

LM: He has to walk with a very soft foot over a terrible chasm. It makes him a bit pussy-footed at times but I don’t blame him because of the dreadful ground he has to pussyfoot over. In Russia the poets used to be very widely read, Yevtushenko and Brodsky and all sorts of people, enormous audiences for them. They reckon that’s dropped away since the end of Communism. It did seem to be something that genuinely happened under Communism, not because they were being tame toadies of Communism and serving it up to the people, but because being real poets the people trusted them and read them in large numbers ….

CF: You don’t have much very kind to say about the 60s but there was an attempt then to bring popular song back into poetry.

LM: Dylan now disclaims it and says he never wrote a political song in his life. I think he is pretending that all that stuff never happened because it failed. If you look closely at those poems, their logic falls apart. But they must have appealed to the people on some level other than the mind. I think the poem has to be responsible for the dream mind, the daylight logical mind and the body. All three. If one’s missing, then the poem is probably barbarous in one way or another. The poem of modernism was a poem of the head which neglected the body. The poem of the 60s was a poem of the feet, of the genitals, of the lungs, it was a body poem with a high dream content, but it wasn’t very responsible to the intellect. They were defective from opposite ends. A lot of it is actually fake poetry: you look at it and you say this is trying to get the sort of sound of intellectual poetry but without having any of the rigour. That’s deceptive.

CF: In some of your essays you talk about the “reptilian” or dream part of the mind. It also produced fascism, didn’t it?

LM: Of course it did. Fascism is a poem that leans too heavily on the body and the dream world, exactly like rock music. Fascism is a kind of earlier rock.

CF: Heavy metal presumably.

LM: Uh yeah, heavy metal all right! There was one crazy book which I thought was marvellous, published in Sweden, oh, ten years ago which argued that fascism was an exaggerated form of art deco! The sort of style of the 20s and 30s, the kind of modernism that went into architecture and into the design of certain cars and your Messerschmidt 109 fighter a perfect piece of art deco. Another example would be buildings with very tall ornamental metal decorations which scroll over at the top.

CF: That is your idea of the nightmare of modernity?

LM: No, I like ’em, they’re beautiful buildings. But that book was saying that when it was translated into politics and into human relations it became fascism. It works better in architecture. I’d leave it there. Does any of that make sense to you?

CF: Sure, Walter Benjamin also argued that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics – hence the rallies and political spectacles.

LM: My politics are mostly made of a benign kind of distrust of any kind of organisation of humans whatsoever! Certainly anybody who would want to organise it. It’s some kind of way of gently restraining or deflecting their more terrible impulses. I think the keystone of my politics would probably be geniality, if anything. Friendliness, ease, and cooperative kindness. And I don’t see any many or philosophy around the place that inevitably delivers it. Yeah ….

CF: It seems odd to me that although Australia and New Zealand are getting closer and closer economically, they are drifting further apart culturally. Why’s that do you think?

LM: What’s going on is the continuation of the old British Empire, where everybody looked to London – then eventually to New York. They look to the sort of High Table of the publishing industry but they done look sideways at each other. It is a terrible pity ….

The other factor is rivalry. Australia and New Zealand are a bit jealous of each other, you know, for silly reasons, silly identity reasons …. My dream would be to have Jamaican poetry available freely in Australia, and New Zealand poetry freely available in Canada, and a complete indifference to the country from which the product comes ….

CF: Are you sick of the Les Murray/John Tranter debate?

LM: Utterly, utterly. I think that this will also apply to other people. Some lads in the 70s worked out that the techniques used in politics for seizing power could also be used in cultural politics. And they were a gang and they wedded that they would take over Australian literature and they would allow no other kind but their own to flourish. And I’ve been probably the most major of their impediments, you know, the major stumbling-block in their path. I never sought it but they’ve prosecuted the war and I’ve kind of gone on being a nuisance. These people do not love me or my work. A kind of solidarity in the literary world was completely destroyed in the 70s, and it has not been regained.

I’ll tell you a little illustrative story. In 1964 a fellow came up to me at the Australian National University when I was sitting with Alec Hope and Bob Grisendon and David Campbell. He had a petition, and they all tamely signed it. I looked down and I said, “Nah, I don’t quite agree with it”, and he became very contemptuous, you know, and made it clear that I was not going to be received in that kind of company if I wasn’t prepared to sign that petition. And this is not the way you deal with me. I just get very stubborn. I said, “No, I’ll never sign the petition.” And I thought, “Fuck ’em. You know this is a kind of a contract, a kind of a bargain which says that although we are not interested at all in poetry, we will indulge this wanker on our part in return for his signature when we require it. Later on, further down the track, we will look at the poetry and the content of it and we will judge it on political grounds to see whether it is acceptable to us. Because for us, poetry and literature are forms of propaganda.” And I realised in a flash this was going to be the pattern of the future. And I would not, I did not enter upon it that day, nor have I ever entered upon it. I think what’s wrong with Australian literature is precisely that bloody everybody else signed the fucking contract. They accepted the denigration of poetry to a form of propaganda. They got obedient. I’ve never been obedient. I’ll never be obedient.

Australian poet Les Murray toured New Zealand in May at the invitation of the New Zealand Poetry Society and Creative New Zealand. Charles Ferrall teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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