Fifty years ago the Australian Les Murray’s first book of poems was published – The Ilex Tree. It contains two of my favourite poems, “Noonday Axeman” and “Spring Hail”. Since then he has produced a wonderful body of work, full of invention, wit and compassion. Blake Morrison’s description of him as “one of the finest poets writing in English, one of a superleague that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky” has often been repeated. Les Murray is the only one of the quartet who has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour he surely deserves.
Now, half a century and several collections later, he has published Waiting for the Past (Carcanet 2015). I bought it as soon as it came out and I was not disappointed. Whatever Les Murray writes about, from international race horses to typewriters, from bereavement to vertigo, he always surprises and makes you think – hard. At 76 he does not funk the subjects of old age and mortality as well as crime and capitalism. But do not think Les Murray is dismal. His poem on the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton is titled “Under the lube oil” and travels by way of the Tudors and Macbeth to its brilliant last line, “Ah, William, you marvel of spin”. Animals are always in Les Murray’s collections. Here there are cattle dogs, “loose tongued and smiling” (“Dog Skills”) who only need a “murmured vowel” to leap back onto the tractor tray, and a set of haiku (“Bird Signatures”) which perfectly capture the character of each bird (“Tiny spinnakers/of blue wrens”).
On Saturday night I listened to Radio 4’s Saturday Review which included a few minutes on Les Murray’s new collection. The novelist Tracy Chevalier loved it. She spoke about the importance of re-reading. First she had dipped into the book, then she had read it through thoroughly, then she had gone back over poems she particularly liked. “We don’t review enough poetry, we don’t read enough poetry. We need to read more.”
Just as my cheers were dying down I was suddenly appalled by what I heard from the other two reviewers, both Oxbridge educated. “I didn’t know what I was doing” (it’s a book of poetry for goodness’ sake), “I hoped the language would wash over me” (I blame Dylan Thomas for that). One of the reviewers confessed to never reading poetry and never having heard of Les Murray. OK, so some people don’t read poetry and there are millions who have never heard of Les Murray – that’s fine, but I wouldn’t expect them to review poetry on the BBC. Can you imagine a journalist doing a theatre review and starting “I never watch plays and I’ve never heard of Arthur Miller”?
But such is the power of Les Murray’s poetry that both reviewers, once they had actually read the book, were really enthusiastic – “I am speechless. He is so full of great words”; “I realised this was something absolutely extraordinary.”
Then on Sunday afternoon the teatime poetry slot on Radio 4 avoided the soft option and broadcast a programme entitled Poems from Syria. About half the inhabitants of Syria are displaced from their homes by the “permawar” (a word I have borrowed from Mohsin Hamid) that has taken over their country.
Contemporary Syrian poetry belies Auden’s much quoted words, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In Syria, I learnt, writing a poem can be as dangerous as carrying a gun. So many have disappeared – writers, journalists, poets.
Here are some of the words and ideas I wrote down as I listened to the programme:
“For me poetry is a cure – a balance between destruction and construction”;
A child in the snow in a refugee camp imagining a sunny sky and butterflies;
A poem from the viewpoint of the mother of an architecture student killed on his exam day when the University at Aleppo was bombarded by Assad regime soldiers;
“I need a new language, existing language cannot convey what is happening – it is outside humanity, outside the imagination”;
“Longing has become my religion, Syria is my homeland, Syria is my mother and father”;
“My soul will fly over the ruins of my house, but I will rebuild the house”;
“Syrians still know how to dream.”
At times the programme was searingly unbearable, but bravo to Mike Embley for this incredible broadcast. It needs to be heard.
LISTEN AGAIN: Both Saturday Review and Poems from Syria can be heard on BBC iplayer.