Cultural Cohesion, p.18Clive James
The best known internationally among his generation of Australian poets, Les Murray would count as a nationalist if there were such a thing as a purely political view. Up to and including the prospect of severing all monarchist ties with Britain he believes politically in the Australia he gave a name to: the Vernacular Republic. But as his collections of densely wrought essays prove, when it comes to culture he also believes that such a thing as purely political belief can’t be had. The secret of his pre-eminence as a writer of critical prose in Australia today is his capacity not to simplify what he would like to change. Blessed with a sense of history and the gifts to articulate it, he would be an important man of letters even if he never wrote a poem, and he would be a vital shaping influence of Australia’s emergent poetic tradition if only by dint of his anthologies. Murray favours what Ezra Pound used to call the active anthology: one whose poems are chosen because they are all inventions, and not just representative of their authors’ reputations. Wide-ranging and generous in his choices, adept—sometimes too adept—at leaving himself out of the picture, he chooses from the creole heritage to bring out the full complexity of the relationship between the Australian poets of previous generations and the old Empire that was always on their minds even when they tried to repudiate it.
Murray’s anthologies could easily have been more tendentiously selective. In his New Oxford Book of Australian Verse he includes a striking proportion of Aboriginal poetry: any Mexican anthology that included so much Indian poetry would be accused of pushing the mestizo ideal to the point of nationalist fervour. But not even his Oxford book tries to pretend that the imperial past was a state of false consciousness from which Australia had to awake before it could breathe free air. Because he has played so straight with the complexities of history, Murray has established impeccable credentials for himself as an interpreter of his country’s present. As a consequence, everything he does as a man of letters takes on a growing burden of responsibility. His poetry can look after itself: none better. But he finds his merest book review being scrutinized for political resonance, and an anthology like his new, quirkily named Fivefathers acquires a significance beyond the literary. Speaking as a devout cultural reactionary, my own first reaction to Murray’s latest survey of his literary forefathers (Fivefathers equals forefathers plus one: I just got it) is that if all the other nationalists were as judicious as he, the prospect of a republic would be a lot less daunting. To borrow Thomas Mann’s classic formulation about Goethe, Murray is radical enough to understand the good.
Murray’s Fivefathers were all active in what he tellingly calls the pre-Academic era, when Australian poets had to make their way without any support from the as yet undeveloped academic industry, and were not necessarily the worse off for it. First-time readers of Australian poetry in Britain, at whom this Carcanet publication must principally be aimed, should be warned that another criterion for inclusion is death. None of these five fathers is among the living or even the recently departed, which means that there are some comparable contemporary figures who are not present and should be sought elsewhere. There are fathers like A. D. Hope, mothers like Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood, and sisters, cousins and aunts who should ideally be here too. But Murray’s anthologizing activities always lead you in that direction: each of them feels like the beginning of the ideal inclusive book, the one that, nothing but art, contains all the art. What we need to remember is that such a book can no longer be compiled: Australian poetry has become too big a subject—has become a field, to which we need a guide, and eventually quite a few more of those academic help-words of which Murray is so rightly suspicious, believing as he does that they threaten the death of personality. Like all true humanist critics an implacable enemy of literary theory, he wants us to experience his five fathers as living men, and it is permissible to suspect that he wants this with particular urgency in the case of the first father in the queue, Kenneth Slessor, from whose work Murray’s selection is particularly lavish and—dare one say it?—loving. Of this father, Murray speaks as a true son.
At Sydney University in the late 1950s, most of the young poets were men but would haunt the cafeteria of the Women’s Union, Manning House. The reason was simple: in Manning House you could linger over a single coffee cup for hours without getting thrown out, whereas from the Men’s Union ejection followed precipitately upon the first gurgling of the dregs. With the conspicuous exception of Murray—even in those days, he stood out like Sydney Greenstreet miscast as Ginger Meggs—few of the Manning House poets had the heritage of Australian poetry much on their minds. My own Stammtisch would be decorated with slim Faber volumes in their original glamorous wrappers, all purchased from Tyrrel’s second-hand bookshop at the Quay end of George Street: Auden, MacNeice, T. S. Eliot and the occasional impressively fat black-bound fascicle of Pound’s Cantos, which inchoate effusion I held at the time to be omniscience distilled into a crucible of obsidian. Robert Hughes wouldn’t even be reading in English: if he hadn’t already memorized it, he would be carrying Mon coeur mis à nu, muttering lines from it while he drew caricatures in the margin. Home-grown literary magazines like Meanjin and Westerly were for old lecturers in gowns who cared about Vance Palmer and were sincerely, absurdly, bent on setting up a Department of Australian Literature. For them, and for Murray.
For the rest of les jeunes, the very concept of an Australian literature seemed far away, yet even those of us already committed in advance to a breakaway existence knew about Slessor. Everyone owned a copy of One Hundred Poems. In those days books of poetry published in Australia looked and smelled like books published in the Soviet Union throughout its benighted career: i.e., they looked like tat and smelled like glue. Cherishably well-presented volumes like the Edwards and Shaw edition of A. D. Hope’s The Wandering Islands were the very rare exceptions. Slessor’s One Hundred Poems was an Angus and Robertson booklet bound in an uneasy combination of paper and stiff cardboard. It was pitiably unimpressive to look at. But we all knew that the stuff inside it was the best Australian poetry anybody had yet seen. Shamefully, at least one Manning House habitué for too long employed this awareness as an excuse to dismiss everyone else, and even in Slessor’s case I had been away from Australia for twenty years before I took his full measure as an artist, memorized everything, and began the long job, which his example necessitated, of getting the national literature into perspective within my own mind.
The main point to make about Murray’s relationship with Slessor is that Murray saw Slessor’s pivotal importance straight away, and with a thoroughness that helped determine his own attitude to his privileges and duties as a poet in Australia, as opposed to the poets from Australia that most of the rest of us vaguely dreamed of ourselves as being, if not yet then some day soon. At his own table in Manning House, Murray always looked as if he was dug in to stay. A boy from the country for whom Sydney was exotic enough, he approached Slessor personally, made his admiration clear, presented his own work for criticism, and was eventually rewarded with Slessor’s acknowledgement that he, Murray, had been determined by fate to pick up and carry on the torch that Slessor had dropped. In private life, when the company is suitable, Murray has been known to recount the details of this apostolic succession. His pride is justifiable, and a nice example of the anecdotal human scale that still vestigially applies to the Australian literary life even in this later age of arts-section hype, globe-girdling travel, and the isolation that forms unbidden around famous names. I got that story out of him over a glass of white wine at Australia House the last time he read in London, and it was only a few weeks ago, in Bloomsbury, at a publisher’s jamboree for booksellers, that David Malouf easily secured my agreement to the proposition that Murray’s critical prose was by far the best thing of its kind being written in Australia now. The idea of an Australian international literary mafia is not a very good one (principally because it is not a very good metaphor) but if there is something to the notion of an extended family of those devo
Just why Slessor has to be thought of as dropping the torch, rather than merely setting it into an iron ring against a stone wall to burn by itself once his arm was tired, is a subject Murray is ideally equipped to treat one day, in an essay that should be a pleasure to read, even if tragic. The foundations have been laid by Geoffrey Dutton’s excellent biography, but we need an analysis that traces the line of destruction from the personality into the poetry. Alcohol had something to do with it; and alcoholism in turn had something to do with Slessor’s disappointment in the culture that had grown up, or failed to grow up, around him: a disappointment which had somehow been prepared for, within his estimation of himself, by his comparative failure as a war correspondent vis-à-vis such stars as Alan Moorehead; and so on. But there can be no doubt about the intensity with which the torch burned while he could still run with it. In his “Five Visions of Captain Cook,” when he wanted to evoke the confidence that the junior officers of the Endeavour had in their captain’s powers of navigation, he did it like this.
Men who ride broomsticks with a mesmerist
Mock the typhoon.
Just try forgetting that. Slessor favoured the extended, multi-part poem, but he was always epigrammatic even at his most thematically expansive. After returning to it many times over thirty or more years, I can now see his twelve-part poem “The Old Play” as a masterly set of varied tones and dictions, but his sheer power of compressed evocation is still at the heart of it.
In the old play-house, in the watery flare
Of gilt and candlesticks, in a dim pit
Furred with a powder of corroded plush,
Paint fallen from angels floating in mid-air,
The gods in languor sit.
Otherwise an admirer of Sickert, I have always found his theatre paintings disappointingly dark: his muddy palette is meant to call up faded glory, but only the fading shows. In Slessor’s lines you can see the glory. Furred with a powder of corroded plush is something better than an image: it is an attitude, regret distilled into an elixir. In his most famous multi-part poem, “Five Bells,” such stellar moments gravitate together and join up: the whole effort is alive with sayability, assembled from a kit whose parts are quotations.
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs . . .
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid—
The tide goes over you, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair . . .
I have never written or even spoken about Slessor without quoting those last two lines. Precisely registering what the surfer sees on the sand beneath him when he ducks under an incoming dumper, they were with me when I left Sydney; they were my way back to him when I later sat down to read everything he ever wrote; and perhaps, eventually, they were my way home. But Murray’s extensive selection proves that such clean, clear, shapely, and striking simplicity—the speakable directness that many of us would like to feel is, or should be, the defining characteristic of Australian poetry—was hard won from a deep complexity of mind and spirit, and from an inherently tortuous connection with the whole heritage of European culture. Slessor was a learned man who knew just where and when to place his epigraphs from Heine. Natural utterance did not come naturally: it was a quiet triumph of sustained artifice. Finally our realization of the full impact of his poetry depends on his realization that the search for a personal voice would have to be self-conscious, if only because the demand for a national voice had taken on a political dimension. In this regard it is a pity that Murray did not have room to include more of Slessor’s light verse (the term was never more of a misnomer: the merest lyric drips with melancholy) from the two collections Darlinghurst Nights and Backless Betty from Bondi, because it was those two books that most clearly pointed up the source of the discipline that sharpened his sense of form and loaded his line without blurring it—Tin Pan Alley. The impact of the American forces during World War II, both as comrades in arms and as what amounted to an occupying power, decisively shifted Australia’s position in the old Empire, and Slessor not only presaged the whole event during the Depression years, he set the linguistic limits for it, outlining the tonal range in which an Australian poet, as an agent instead of a patient, could write about a wider world.
The other four of the Fivefathers wrote about the world before it widened. As a result they seem further back in time than Slessor does, even when their period of flowering was more recent. Murray puts a high value on Roland Robinson, who spent a lifetime trying to incorporate the totemic properties of traditional Aboriginal poetry into his own. The same urge, less subtly realized, inspired the Jindyworobak movement. Robinson had a wider range of tones than the Jindyworobaks, but he was still, and thus still is, limited by the assumption that a proper name from an Aboriginal language has automatic resonance. Nobody would expect to get away with this when quoting from any other foreign language: it is always a plea by a would-be anthropologist with a political programme, and it always stops a poem dead in its tracks.
Now that the fig lets fall her single stars
of flowers on these green waters I would be
withdrawn as Gul-ar-dar-ark the peaceful dove . . .
Later on in the same poem, Geek-keek the honeyeater shows up, demanding the same good faith that his name is not a misprint, or a harassed black-tracker’s short way of saying “Take a hike, honky” to an importunate enquirer. As was bound to happen, the subsequent recovery of actual Aboriginal poetry by specialists in the original languages—a process amply drawn upon in Murray’s Oxford anthology, and which continues—pointed up the essential wilfulness of this whole premature attempt to lend native art dignity by misappropriating its detachable tokens. Even at the time, the general impression was of petty larceny masquerading as ethnology, like André Malraux swiping statuettes from pagodas. Later on, in retrospect, the sad spectacle of wasted time spread like a dry lake through a generation. Robinson was an especially poignant example because he had the talent to compose thoroughly in English without having to doll up flat language in borrowed trinkets: the Australian love poem has a sumptuous heritage, and Robinson’s “The Creek” is one of the loveliest poems in it.
I make my camp beside you, a dove-grey
deep pool fretting its fronds and tangled
flowers. Waratahs burn above you. You
give me billyfuls of rainwater wine, a
bright wing-case, a boronia petal, a white
rose tinted tea-tree star.
All of this bush detail is easily recognizable and appreciated by any Australian and none of it would be made more poetic if it were to be substituted for by an Aboriginal word: indeed the opposite effect would be achieved, to the detriment not only of English but of the Aboriginal language as well, which would be made to sound as the Jindyworobaks invariably made it sound—like a formula for boredom. But there was nothing shameful about their doomed fight. It was part of an impulse to make a new nation conscious of the awkward fact that it had existed as a country long before its colonial history began: a fact which it was in the interests of its bourgeoisie to overlook, and of its powerful squattocracy to deny.
For all practical purposes, “squatter” was the Australian word for the creole or the sabra in his most self-confident form: the squatters inherited the earth and it would have been no surprise if whole generations of the landed families had grown up thinking of nothing except their own interests. Australia has yet another reason to bless its luck that so many of its landed gentry cultivated the arts and sciences as well as the soil. However close their connection with “home,” meaning England, they did a disproportionate amount to form the character of the country they were born in—endowing its art galleries, enriching
Here’s to Sydney by the summer!
Body-surfing down a comber
Where the girls are three a gallon
To a beach of yellow pollen . . .
For daring young men like Campbell, the arts they practised with such confident grace seemed just another part of noblesse oblige, and all the more daunting for their seeming ease. Like the black bullock’s horns mounted on the grille of the returned Mosquito pilot Kym Bonython’s white Bristol sports saloon, Campbell’s poems were the bagatelles of a dandy. But the successful throwaway gesture is fated to live, and Campbell’s perfect little poem “Mothers and Daughters” is remembered today by men who, when they were young, got no closer to the incandescent women it describes than the social pages of Pix and Women’s Weekly, leafed through at the barber’s in sullen envy.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes