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.
But if grief, or grievance, is his poetry’s fury, rapture is its angel. Murray converted to Catholicism in his 20s—this new book, like most of his more than three dozen others, is dedicated “To the glory of God”—and good art is good theology, the fearless embrace of creation. It’s everywhere in his work; it’s what stirs his word-centers. Look for examples and you’re instantly overwhelmed, jammed with a glut of rejoicings. How about the clownish, unpunctuated rush of “Downhill on Borrowed Skis”—fell straight down a hill / fell standing up by clenched will / very fast on toe-point swords—from 1999’s Conscious and Verbal? Or almost anything from his Dolittle-on-acid animal-ventriloquism act, 1992’s Translations From the Natural World (but especially, and most belovedly, “Two Dogs”: Her eyes go binocular … Bark tractor, / white bitterhead grub and pull scarecrow. Me! assents his urine)? Pick any page in 2012’s New Selected Poems and there’s Murray performing, with solemn hilarity, the religious office of the poet: God, at the end of prose, / Somehow be our poem— / When forebrainy consciousness goes.
It’s been easy, as his name has steadily acquired its reputational ballast, to caricature Les Murray as an antimodern stodge. There have been “poetry wars” and skirmishes with the media, and in the late ’90s he even helped the conservative prime minister at the time, John Howard, draft a new preamble to the Australian Constitution. But real poetry admits no stodginess, and the truth is that in his customized, snapshot, polyglot flexi-language, crusty old Les has invented a paradoxically perfect instrument for recording, and admiring, the phenomena—what he has called the “feral poetry”—of modernity. Check out the new poem “Money and the Flying Horses,” an in-flight report, bang up-to-date, on some luxury four-legged cargo: bloodstock as global bullion. Intriguing, the oaten seethe / of thoroughbred horses in single stalls / across a twilit cabin … They’re settling down, Hank: / easy to tell, with stallions; / they must be the nudest creatures alive. Nude is the term, you’ll note. Not naked. Of course horses are naked. But these ones—in the rippling, shining, high-dollar aristocracy of their sensitivity, not unlike the sensitivity of the poet himself—are nude.
Les Murray is 77, and he’s not stopping. Poke around in Waiting for the Past and poem by poem, you risk minor versions of the enlightenment described by the Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki as being “like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground.” When you’d slept a short tilt / of the Galaxy, there’d be chanting / of intersex timbre, off somewhere. This, from “Clan-Sized Night Chanting,” is young Les on walkabout, lying in the bush under the stars and hearing nearby Aborigines do their thing. A short tilt of the galaxy—his sleep is measured by stellar clockwork, the machinery of heaven rotating around him while the mysterious song-pulse of his “clan-sized” Australian elders sustains him in the human family. It’s that just-before-sleep, child-of-the-universe feeling, like a hobo remix of Auden’s “A Summer Night” (Out on the lawn I lie in bed / Vega conspicuous overhead). Or perhaps, if a cradling cosmos is not your cup of tea, you’d prefer the microscopic technical slapstick of “Grooming With Nail Clippers”: The oblique rudder lever mis-thumbed / against its chisel opposite / crimps awry, gets re-occluded / biting corners off middle dabs. This is basic Les-speak, the idiomatic and the specialized in deliriously arcane combination.
He has written long, rolling verses and book-length epics, like 1998’s Fredy Neptune, but I tend to treasure the smaller, stubbier Murray poem, between whose short lines you can sense, or hear, a huge, slow throb of Australian space. (His countryman Malcolm Young, riff architect for AC/DC, could produce a similar effect with his guitar.) It is very nice, and very important, to have Les Murray’s company at this moment. Life at the day-to-day level is mostly discontinuities and thwarted omens, and it helps to know that the poets, the makers of higher (or lower) sense, are out there. It helps to know that they’re operating, so that when you crash into a city afternoon from a subway stairwell, say, with a stranger’s shout in your ears and an oracular flock of pigeons scrolling madly overhead, you can think to yourself: Yup. Les Murray would know what to do with this.