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Clive James and Les Murray

Tribute by Philip Harvey

Obituarists sharpened their quills in 2014 when word had it the death of Clive James was imminent. Since then we have witnessed a late flowering of poetry, reviews and articles tinged with mortality that revealed to the last his Twainian flair for journalistic self-promotion, albeit in the internet age. Now the quills are out in earnest.

Les Murray’s death this year was also anticipated in advance, though Les showed himself much more accepting of his temporal departure.  The deaths of these two poets draw attention to their contrasts in style, outlook, and temperament. Clive James and Les Murray demonstrated two very different modes of existence that modern Australians readily recognise and appreciate. Both poets, ambitious for success, kept a close eye and ear on Australia and how it talks. We are the beneficiaries.

Clive became the celebrated expatriate, Sydney a beacon in the mental map of a Londoner. He was an Antipodean Augustan, the Boswell of the BBC, an Alexander Pope of the caressing or crushing quatrain, the Rochester of bruising rationalism. He reminded us of how much London has been an Australian city for the past century. Les stayed at home, in fact stayed on the farm. He represents that generation who remained on the land rather than leave for the Big Smoke. He was the Buddha from Bunyah. While Kogarah was, for Clive, a childhood reference, a postcode of his cosmopolitan performance, Bunyah was literal paradise or purgatory for Les, depending on the day of the week.

Both poets went to the University of Sydney, but that is not why they wrote poetry. They went to the University of Sydney because they were already writing poetry. Their self-confidence was big as Sydney. Clive can be described as the more conventional in terms of form. Like others of his generation, Clive was inspired and haunted by W.H. Auden, the great promoter of knowing every poetic form. Clive’s profusion of satire was entrée to the society he made light of, much as he did in his TV shows. But, as the poetry of memento mori since the diagnosis shows, he was also fascinated by Elizabethan high style, copying it to perfect effect. Les possessed a prodigious gift, a near-
miraculous ability to conjoin the senses in words and make you feel it. His knowledge of English poetry was widespread, while his acclimatisation to Australian poetry, and Indigenous song form in particular, grew with time, delivering unforeseen and immense productions, many of them unique in scope. Clive went to Cambridge, Les stayed around out the back of Bulahdelah.

In a TV interview with Les, Clive muttered under his breath after one Murray expansive effusion, “I’m out of my depth” – a rare admission. When Clive asked Les where poetry comes from, Les answered matter-of-factly, “poetry comes from the wound.”

 The Auden influence is everywhere in Clive’s collected poetry: the desire to test many forms; the epistolary inclination where he opens conversation with confreres, only to hold the lion’s share of the talk; the perfect grasp of aphorism and end line; the sparkling knowledge of the world and that which we owe to Caesar. Unlike Auden, he was less concerned about what we owe to God, though I for one still doubt if he was altogether an atheist. Clive was always going to leave the options open. His poems of praise are rich with thanksgiving and in the last year he was talking of how we understand Christianity, or rather how he understands it. Perhaps more of that anon.

Les left us some of the most remarkable poetic arguments about faith imaginable. In a country where the last census offered the population the choice of a statistical nonsense (No Religion) its leading poet dedicated all of his books ‘To the Greater Glory of God’. Les grew up Presbyterian, then converted to Catholicism. In both mind and body his work is solid with this move, when it isn’t fluid. When Les visited the Carmelite Library (where I work) a few years ago he shared a story about his father. Les was talking to a friend about how his father never talked to him about his conversion or his religion, to which his friend replied, that Les’s father talked to him about nothing else.

Clive’s  life work is not an argument for watching more television, but reading more poetry. In a world where the screen has bumped conversation into the corner, his millions of well-chosen words testify to why real appreciation of our daily graphic overload deepens with knowledge of how language operates. Delivery is only the final finesse of all that work making words click. Les directs us into the beauty and wonder of English, a language free of academic restraint, the sort of freedom inherited from the aforementioned 18th century Augustans, Samuel Johnson supreme amongst them, giving English license to say what it likes and borrow as it sees fit for everyone’s better understanding and enjoyment. Both poets’ work will survive the criticism.

An edited version of this tribute was published at Eureka Street on the 29th of November:


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