If you’re a certain kind of reader, with a certain kind of brain, you’re always on the lookout for the poem that will save your life. Existence heaps itself upon you; your tongue thickens and your thoughts get cluttered. But you keep a muddy eye trained on the world’s poetry portals, the places where the poems come flapping through, because you know that a line, a rhyme, a verb can reboot your internal chitchat and zap you out of all your encrustations. You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.
Not every poet can do it, of course. Even the champs manage it only intermittently. But there’s one, Les Murray—an almost hairless, shorts-wearing, rustic giant-genius from the back end of Australia, prone to vast grumps and vaster generosities—who pulls it off with miraculous regularity. (Miraculous regularity … Oxymoron? Not with this guy.) I say he’s our greatest living English-language poet. Do you know Hodor, the huge, loyal vassal from Game of Thrones who can say only his own name? Imagine now a Hodor who opens his mouth and—instead of grunting “Hodor …” or “Hodor?” or “Hodor!”—every time out pops a poem so fresh that, simultaneous with hearing the poem itself, you’re also hearing the twanging sound made by the universe as it shifts to accommodate it. Primal astonishment: that, or something like it, is the Les Murray effect. Take this, from “The Instrument”:
Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.
For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike
down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.
For the adjustments after, aligning facets in a verb
before the trance leaves you.
If you keep up with poetry—the prizes, the names people sling around—you know about Les Murray. If you don’t, here he is. Leslie Allan Murray (who, to quote his biographer, Peter Alexander, can “read more than twenty languages, and lift the back of a motorcar by hand”) was born into rural squalor in New South Wales, Australia, in 1938. Holes in the walls, cooking over the fire, no running water, no electricity. His father tended cows and hacked timber, and young Les was often barefoot. The Bunyah valley, where the family farm was, had its own lingo: If you castrated an animal, you “picked his haggots.” Misery disfigured the boy’s adolescence. His mother died when he was 12, leaving him alone with his stricken father; in high school, where he presented as a large and awkward yokel-brainiac, he was skillfully and pitilessly victimized (read “A Torturer’s Apprenticeship”: He blusters shyly—poverty can’t afford instincts. / Nothing protects him, and no one).
Decamping to Sydney for university, he consorted with aesthetes and protohippies—not for very long, but for long enough to leave him with a Chestertonian horror of selfish bohemians, moral chaos, ideologies that look like lifestyles, and the like. Sex is a Nazi, he would write, in “Rock Music.” In “A Stage in Gentrification,” he’d add: Most Culture has been an East German plastic bag / pulled over our heads, stifling and wet. This is the blunted, chewed-off language Murray uses when he’s writing about bullies, or the bullied. The legacy of his school days was a lifelong, hackles-up loathing of the in crowd, along with the enduring “pentagram of sorrow” inside which he would suffer successive breakdowns. Your primary Murray text here is the extraordinary Killing the Black Dog, first published in 1997: part prose depression memoir, part anthology of his most painful (and in some cases, least enjoyable) poems. It all persists, as this stuff will. Tucked in among the joys of his new book, Waiting for the Past, we find a brutally bad school-shooting poem called “The Massacre.” As the cops arrive … a celibate / victim of years ago divines / We’re shooting back now.