Expressions of a Sly Hope

“Higimus, hogamus
Western Intellectuals never praise Auschwitz.
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-long war against God”.

THOSE LINES FROM Les Murray’s latest collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, give a good indication of the character of both the man and his verse – sarcastic, unwilling to be pushed around by people who think they know what is best, equipped with both a keen eye for the failings of his opponents and a genuine religious faith.

As you read the poem, note how effective are the short five- or six-beat lines and the heavy, equal stresses on the last line that, as one critic has observed, create a devastating and venomous impact. They are typical of Murray.

Les Murray has just received Britain’s prestigious T.S. Eliot prize for poetry. He is widely known as someone ready to take on the bureaucrats and the bleeding-heart liberals, to defend the values of rural Australians and to defy conventional secular authority.

Murray’s Catholic faith is clearly a deep inspiration to him. His new book is dedicated quite simply to “The Glory of God”. For a long time Murray suffered from depression. This lifted only last year when he was afflicted by a serious illness of the liver that is still not completely cured. The prize-winning poems were written before this recent illness struck.

Traditionalist Anglicans who are weary of being battered and bullied by the high priests (and bishops!) of political correctness can draw inspiration and strength from Murray. Here is an individualist who is not going to swim with the tide, no matter what pressures or inducement are brought to bear to make him fall into line.

The excesses of multi-culturalism and the attempt by politicians like Paul Keating to swing Australia in a new direction are a special target of Murray’s contempt:

“All of people’s Australia, its churches and lore

are gang-raped by satire self-righteous as war

and, from trawling fresh victims to set on the poor.

our mandarins now, in one more evasion

of love and themselves, declare us Asian.”

(from “A Brief History” in Subhuman Redneck Poems).

So much for Keating’s attempt to persuade Australians they are part of Asia!

Yet Murray is no narrow bigot. He is notable for the way he has tried to learn from Aboriginal culture and incorporate Aboriginal imagery in his poetry while at the same time showing sympathy for the farmer threatened by land claims.

Although he is a defender of the values of the bush, Murray has a clear perception of the spiritual limitations of many Australians. This has been given ironical expression in his fine poem “The Barranong Angel Case” that describes reactions when Christ visited a small, outback town:

“Besides, what he told us had to do with love

And people here,

They don’t think that’s quite – manly.”

As Murray sees it, “the religious tendency of what may be called majority Australia may be best described as Residual Christian, with side-servings of such themes as stoicism, luck, heroism in the strict sense of survival through the memory of one’s supreme achievement in approved fields, plus pieties of various kinds, for example towards the extended family, among country people especially, or towards dead comrades, among ex-servicemen.”

Les Murray has edited a collection of Australian religious verse. In his preface to this volume, he comments on the fact that most of the best religious poetry produced in Australia has appeared since the Second World War. This highlights a fascinating fact about Australia: in a country where people are not known for an interest in spirituality, there are nonetheless a lot of people writing religious poetry. Why should this be so?

I will hazard a guess. Australians have a keen ear for cant and humbug, whether it comes from the left or the right. They are not fond of what is termed “wowserism” or the attempt to censor others and interfere with their pleasures.

Churches seem to be irresistibly attracted both to cant and to wowserism. Some preachers denounce drink and gambling; others concentrate on stamping out views that contradict the latest enlightened creed. Ordinary Australians dislike such self-righteous interference, no matter where it comes from, and they resent those who think they have a right to tell others how to live their lives or form their opinions.

Poetry is essentially a private, not a public activity. Poets write from their own personal experience. They try to avoid using the well-worn language of conventional piety or repeating the platitude of the mass media. Unlike the theologians, their writings often have a freshness and a power that comes from a readiness to challenge received wisdom and to explore religious themes without any anxiety to let the secular world set the agenda.

The historian Manning Clark once suggested that from many Australians faith has “dropped to a whisper in the mind, a sly hope in the heart”. People in this state are more ready to listen to poets like Les Murray than to secular-minded clerics or theologians unable to speak except in jargon.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangarratta in the Province of Victoria.