Les Murray's Defence of Poetry
A Defence of Poetry
The following lecture was given by Les Murray in 1998 for the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. (Lectures by other poets in this series are available from the Poetry International site.)
All of us here today presumably believe in poetry, so let start this talk with some. I wrote this poem titled 'The Trances' in 1996.
We came from the Ice Age,
we work for the trances.
The hunter, the Mother,
seers’ inside-out glances
come from the Ice Age,
all things in two sexes
the priest man, the beast man,
I flatten to run
I rise to be human.
We came from the Ice Age
with the walk of the Mothers
with the walk of the powers
we walked where sea now is
we made the dry land
we told it in our trances
we burnt it with our sexes
but the tongue it is sand
see it, all dry taste buds
lapping each foot that crosses
every word is more sand.
Dup dup hey duhn duhn
the rhythm of the Mothers.
We come from the Ice Ages
with the tribes and the trances
the drum’s a tapped drone
dup dup hey duhn duhn.
We come from the Ice Age,
poem makers, homemakers,
how you know we are sacred:
it’s unlucky to pay us.
Kings are later, farmers later.
After the Ice Age, they
made landscape, made neuter,
they made prose and pay.
Things are bodied by the trances,
we must be paid slant,
loved, analysed and scorned,
the priest’s loved in scorn,
how you know he is sacred.
We’re gifted and pensioned.
Some paid ones were us:
when they got their wages
ice formed in their mouths
chink chink, the Ice Age.
A prose world is the Ice Age
it is all the one sex
and theory, that floats land
we came over that floe land
we came from the Ice Age
we left it by the trances
worlds warm from the trances
duhn duhn hey dup dup
it goes on, we don’t stop
we walk on from the Ice Age.
[Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996]
Our art is very ancient. That won’t necessarily save it, if it’s endangered, but it does give it a certain weight, and a linkage to times beyond our own.
The continent on which I live was ruled by poetry for tens of thousands of years, and I mean it was ruled openly and overtly by poetry. Only since European settlement in 1788 has it been substantially ruled by prose. The sacred law which still governs the lives of traditional Aborigines is carried by a vast map of song-poetry attached to innumerable mythic sites. Each group ‘sings’ the tract of country it occupies, just as each initiated person sings the ceremonial songs of the holy places for which he or she is responsible within that territory. A person may unselfconsciously say ‘That mountain is my mother: it is her ancestor and mine; it is the body of our ancestor, and the story we sing and enact there is her body. We are her body, too, and the songs are her body, and the ceremonies are her body. That is the Aboriginal Law.’
No human sacrifice happens in Aboriginal religion, and no animal sacrifice either so far as I know, but where such sacrifice does happen in other traditions and, most horrendously, in the modern ‘secular’ world, it still has these primeval functions. We shed blood to make poems come true.
Aborigines resent the use of the term ‘mythology’ for their traditions, preferring to speak of Creation-songs and Dreamings and the Law. In its richness, its psychological depth and the dream-like shockingness of its stories, the Law is a match for the mythologies of Greece or Rome or any other ancient culture. And it is interesting as a particularly pure example of rule by poetry alone, before any secondary constructs are allowed to rise and obscure it. No archaeological evidence exists in Australia for ancient cities, or kings, or differently-based systems of philosophy, or competing ways of life. In the stories, we sometimes hear echoes of innovation and change, but in every case these were faired smoothly into the great singable unity of the Law.
By contrast very little of the deliberately drab and rational-sounding prose of the modern Australian nation is ever sung or danced. Just as little as its equivalent, I imagine, is chanted or danced in blood and feathers in the Hague or Brussels. A stringent yet wordy prose surface disguises the poetries by which we are truly governed.
Every undamaged human being has two minds and a body. One mind is that of waking consciousness, the other is the occult mind of dreams, which we live in fully during sleep but which is also present as reverie when we’re awake. Neither mind is superior to the other outright; each rules in its own mode of consciousness. It is an echo of the European imperial era to think we have to translate the terms of our dream-life into the ‘rational’ terms of daylight thinking, with its two aspects of language and non-verbal design that are said to reflect the two hemispheres of the forebrain. All other mental faculties, imagination, conscience, intuition, the unconscious mind, are theoretical and inferred, and may be differently divided up in different cultures, but all can agree that we dream, and wake, and have a body. We can sense the body’s needs, its weight, its strength and balance, its health and rhythms and pain; most would agree, too, that our emotions at least start from there. All will agree that each of the three major states of our life can exist or seem to exist pretty independently. Sunbathing on the beach in a pure languor, we can be nearly oblivious of anything beyond the body’s pleasure; dreaming deeply, we can be lost to any memory of daylight consciousness; ever since Plato, we can ascribe an overweening superiority to our cerebration, and despise our dreams and our bodily limitations. None of these extremes is bad in itself, though pure thought is apt to be over-praised in some circles and awarded a primacy we are coming to see as illusory. None of our separated states is very creative, nor can a healthy human live too exclusively in any one of them. To try is illusion anyway: the others are working, perhaps only in a dimmed way, even when we leave them out of account. And they may be working quite powerfully. The sportsman soaring over a high bar may be quite inarticulate then and afterwards, but he isn’t pure body: thought and dream are there, planning, helping him to concentrate, helping his limbs to be elastic, to volatilise his belief in gravity and dream himself up and over his body’s experience of limits.
Looking inside myself, I detect that when I write a poem, I do so in a kind of trance which integrates my two minds with each other and with their master-servant my body. The impulse to write the poem may come from any of the three, and each makes its contribution to the trance of composing. Waking consciousness supplies words, most ideas and probably much of the poem’s design. Dream lends it its aspect of timelessness, and its aura of mystery and the supernal; I suspect that many of the more daring flights and connections of any poem, the ones the mind might resist were it not charmed to silence, are carried on the flying carpet of our dream-life! The body, in turn, supplies feeling and rhythm, the free-and-bound dance of the words and images and it also supplies the laws of breath which shall obtain in the work. A man with a deep barrel chest will, at least sometimes, write very long lines because he has the puff for it. All of these contributions fuse in a dazzling simultaneity, if one has come to the poem at the proper moment in its growth within oneself. Start writing it too early in its gestation, and it is liable to be a mess, confused and uncooked; too late and it may emerge overly cut-and-dried, like a programme.
The trance of integration in which a poem is written lasts for a while in me, a few hours or days, and may take several more days to fade away. During this time, I can polish the poem, modify it as may be necessary, and partly judge its quality. Only when the trance is fully past and gone can I finally judge it, though sometimes the personal experience of integration may prove to have been better than its fruits. Carl Jung and many before him would call the integrative experience my soul, but not wanting to claim too much or depend on a word worn smooth with use, I prefer to call it my poem-self. The fusion of my three ordinary states of being heightens each one of them, and produces an excitement frequently so intense that I can’t bear it for too long at a stretch, but must get up and run outside for rests from it, then come back for some more. The poem I write during this experience will contain the experience, the more strongly the better the poem is, and will continue to contain it after the trance has left me. What I create, really, is a new body made of words and the potent arrangement of words, in which my soul as it was at a particular moment will go on existing. Others attuned to the poetic or we may prefer to call it the artistic experience will resonate with its reality in my poem, and if I’ve written particularly well, they and others after them may do the same for as long as my language survives or can be translated. For my part, I can go back to the poem, even years later, and re-experience its integrative trance in some measure, but never again with the same intensity. To have that again, that level of aesthetic fusion inside me, I must write a new poem. Or I must encounter someone else’s work of art that completely transports me. I have often told the story of how, when I first went upstairs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and faced his paintings at what must have been precisely the right stage in my life, I sat down on one of the padded benches and went to sleep for a while, as if to dissipate the initial dazzling overload. I still love his work, but I never had to do that again. There seems to be a law inherent in this life, this stage of our evolution, that we can experience wholeness, the fully-present sense of all that we are and can be, but that we can’t endure it as a steady, permanent state. The fusion persists in the product, but not in us. This, I suggest, is the essential model and structure of all human creation, and the reason we never stop creating, however lame the soul-bodies we make may be. We’ve called this process poetry (poiesis: making) for millennia longer than any other name, and we’ve almost certainly expressed it in words, music and dance for longer than in any other terms, though cave-painters might cavil a bit at that, in the intervals of limning and singing their snakes and bison on to the limestone walls.
In the Western world, we are millennia downstream of the world of the hunter-gatherers, and a great deal has happened on the way. Pop music is a billion-dollar industry, other music with words mixed in it is hardly less so, but verse poetry is marginal, listened to by modest numbers of people at readings, read on the page perhaps by fewer still. Yet poetry retains a curious prestige, not always mitigated by rolled eyes or macho semi-ridicule. There is still an atavistic reluctance to pay poets anything like an ordinary wage, but few realise that this comes from an ancient sense that we, like priests and mothers, are sacred folk not to be polluted with money. ‘There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either,’ as Robert Graves said – yet it’s notable how many national currencies bear portraits of poets. I call the language that arises from poetic integration Wholespeak – when I make up jargon of my own, at least it’s funky! – while I term the greyer, flatter speech of functional prose and rational dominance Narrowspeak. Wholespeak is or should be at its peak in poetry, even paradoxically when the poetry isn’t declamatory or intense; Wholespeak can be a quiet presence, and still alert people in an instant that it’s there. Patches and flourishes of it are frequent in ordinary colloquial talk, but apt to be much rarer in intellectual or journalistic writing. It is by no means confined to verse, of course; even without the marvellous armature of line-ending and enjambment, prose can be infused with the breath-altering tension of Wholespeak. I know an Australian novel (Snake, by Kate Jennings) in which the pathos of a tragic story is made all but unbearable by condensing the chapters to the paragraph-length of prose poems. On the other hand, the even drone of practical Narrowspeak should not be despised. It administers the reality which a myriad acts of poetic and quasi-poetic integration have given us, and serves as a necessary rest from intensities of life which Nature doesn’t yet permit us to inhabit full-time, and perhaps never will.
Although everyone is open to the alert of Wholespeak, when it’s the genuine article, the poetry in the lives of most modern people is supplied by their loves, their marriages, their work if they’re very lucky, by their hobbies, by sport, by their religion – I once said that any real religion is a big slow poem, while a poem is a small fast religion – by their politics, by alcohol or other drugs, though these can equally be used to tune out the soul, like television. For creators, the poetry in their lives may come from book designs they develop, or games they invent, or ideologies they think up, or equations they solve. Isambard Kingdom Brunel wrote his poems in black iron of the Industrial Revolution, a whole new scale of bridges and railways and huge steamships. Henri Dunant’s poem was the Red Cross, and that of Emmeline Pankhurst was a pursuit of a simple, blindingly just vision of votes for the other half of humankind. Harry Houdini’s lifelong poem, in its many stanzas, arose from a skeptic’s impassioned argument against magic, a need to prove that all of its effects could be achieved rationally; this took every side of him to demonstrate, and a single case he could not analyse away began his undoing. Coco Chanel’s poems kept emerging as dresses and hats – but the examples could go on and on, and they do, in our own world as we speak. If poetry now needs to be defended, it is principally against those other creativities of which it was the primal forerunner, and whose vehicles aren’t primarily verbal, though clouds of talk may accompany them. These now threaten to overwhelm literal poetry and bury it. And it also needs to be defended against large poems (poemes) that would capture it and maybe give it a privileged position if only it would serve their ends. Many of its other defenders come from that sort of direction; I hope I don’t.
The smaller or more borrowed quasi-poems in which people embody their souls rarely have much room for actual verse, and if they do it tends to be the sort which endorses the thing they love. In gentrifying times, poetry is a drab consumer good, hard to display on walls or coffee tables, and a heavily Literary lifestyle tends to indicate a short circuit in which poetic energy isn’t going into the Works. Larger poemes often aspire to explain or modify the whole world, and to do this may need to recruit all poetry to themselves, and maybe relegate unrecruitable kinds to outer darkness. A worthwhile question to ask of any actual poem is: Do you belong to any larger poem and serve it? And if so, does this damage you as a poem, or damage the larger one you’re in? Do you bottle its demon or propagate it?
If on the other hand the poem is properly independent, not meekly obedient to its time or to overbearing sensibilities other poems have established, it is as important a thing as the largest historic poeme, the full equal of, say, Revolution or Florence, and may last longer than they. They have elaborators and polluters: it is complete and needs nothing more. At the heart of any poem an act of composition is likely to be still in progress, drawing available energies in to itself more or less greedily. Thousands or even millions of people may be working on it, and perhaps getting ground up in it.
The larger the poeme, we may say, the more likely that it has not yet found complete embodiment. The true god gives you his body: false gods demand yours from you. It is thus always wise to ask any larger poeme, and some of the smaller ones too: Do you want me as a body for yourself? Or we may ask the question the Australian poet Robert Gray made into a short poem: ‘You have shown me the palace/ of your ideals./ Now show me the dungeons.’
As the Enlightenment canto we call Bohemia evolved into modernism, the universities became its principal home and support. Early modernism was enormously liberating, because it brought poets a new, superrefined readership and freedom from stilted older styles which a wide readership had long enjoyed and rather imprisoned us in. Modernism made the subject matter of poetry practically infinite, and gave approval to registers and vocabularies previously stratified in a rigid class hierarchy that considered Kipling ‘low’ and Tennyson ‘elevated’. But alas! If modernism gave us a sophisticated new readership, it also blew away all our older readerships and made us dependent on itself. And it had agendas and class purposes of its own. For some, writers and critics, it was principally an aesthetic, for others it was a political programme. And, one bright day or another, each of us realised or were told that we were owned, and that certain conscript service would be expected, certain themes handled in an approved way or left alone. In default of which we would be undermined, dismissed from serious consideration as artists, and sent where there was no longer any public for us. Because for bad music and bad painting and bad movies there are free markets, but the market for bad poetry is itself within the bounds of radical modernism. The real breakthroughs of literary modernism are, I suspect, all far behind us, and only the fetish of breakthrough itself, plus recyclings of old innovation, trivial variations, remain in our time. The next genuine change in art will come when a new patronage arises.
The blandishments of the recruiter don’t come only from modernism, it must be added. They can come with fatal suddenness from quarters that have a real claim on our loyalty. On a train from Dublin to Belfast in 1979, members of Seamus Heaney’s own community in Northern Ireland demanded of him:
‘When for fuck’s sake are you going to write
Something for us?’ ‘If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’
Impeccably, his loyalty to himself and to poetry were one and the same. Less damaging to the soul of our art but arguably more of a threat to its reception in the world is the bossy, over-curating domain of education and its offshoot the Culture industry. Just as paintings and museum exhibits are now vanishing into swaddlings of explication and hectoring, often politically directive prose, poetry has long been crowded almost to death by commentary and criticism.
If the era of excessive critical surveillance has had poets living like a vivid primitive tribe cosseted and explained by a horde of anthropologists, the recent ascendancy of literary theory has often sounded like the noise of bulldozers coming to flatten our rainforests and replace us altogether. It was inevitable, given the mechanism I’ve been describing, that criticism itself would become a poem of its own and drink our blood to give itself power. Reaction against its takeover has however, helped to create a network partly outside its jurisdiction, with the growth of public readings in libraries, schools, art centres, even pubs and town halls. There is also still some room for poetry at literary festivals, where we are apt to be wheeled in like trolleys of dim sum between portentous slabs of prose conference. I’ve been disapproved of at some such gatherings, for the crime of preferring to sing rather than drone for my supper, but I’m making up for it today!
If we accept the notion that humans are fundamentally poetic, rather than rational or irrational, it has some interesting consequences. A host of tired old dichotomies which have haunted many civilizations, dichotomies such as that between Classical and Romantic, or Classical and Gothic the previous time around, or Confucian versus Taoist, are at once seen to be unreal, mere alternating emphases within a larger unity based on our very nature. The platonist dominance of rationality becomes unreal and untenable, but is not replaced by any dominance on the part of the irrational. Realising that a poeme seeking embodiment and closure will sometimes exact human sacrifice, and that human sacrifice is in essence murder designed to make a poeme come true, may make us wary of all manner of propositions that come our way in life. Realising that all subject matter is coloured by the poem or poems through which it is seen, and that perhaps nothing is ever seen except through some poem or other, may increase our general wariness too. To check that one, by the way, just think: if you were educated twenty or thirty years ago, how much of what you were taught is still taught and held to be true? If we have a line on the essential creative mechanism which humans use, it makes possible a style and vocabulary of criticism we had lacked before. Facing another Hitler, we might be able to say Yes, there’s a poeme deficient in the forebrain components of logic, but deeply affective, strong in its dream component and its affirmation of the body. It won’t be of much use to scorn its intellectal weakness, because that will endear it to the intellectually weak, in defiance. Concentrate on its great and patent blood-thirst and its contempt for all but the strong and the sexy. Show the physically ungifted how little their stake in such an order would be: they’re a majority, if you can get them to admit it! And above all, create a better poem, because only a poem can defeat a poem.
Public visibility of the primal creative mechanism, continual modelling of it by putting good poetry before people in newspapers, in magazines, on TV and presenting it as something at once special and normal, rather as we now present fashion models, might help people to be more aware of how the fashions and imperatives which govern them are never more than the outgrowths of a single initiating mind, a private moment of ensoulment that yearns to be complete. All ideologies are at base the same size. Two other consequences that occur to me, out of many more which others may discern, are that an integrative model of human thought would undermine all hierarchic poemes, and that poetry rather than intellect as the key to culture would abolish any future threats from artificial or machine intelligence, which simply lacks the full range of dimensions in which we live and think. That, I guess, was what the human officers of starship Enterprise were trying to tell Mr Spock for all those years. Let’s finish, as we began, with a poem:
Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals:
they want to control it. Not lovers, not the combative,
nor examinees. They too skim it for bouquets
and magic trump cards. Not poor schoolkids
furtively farting as they get immunized against it.
Poetry is read by the lovers of poetry
and heard by some more they coax to the cafe
or the district library for a bifocal reading.
Lovers of poetry may total a million people
on the whole planet. Fewer than the players of skat.
What gives them delight is a never-murderous skim
distilled, to verse mainly, and suspended in rapt
calm on the surface of paper. The rest of poetry
to which this was once integral still rules
the continents, as it always did. But on condition now
that its true name is never spoken. This, feral poetry,
the opposite but also the secret of the rational,
who reads that? Ah, the lovers, the schoolkids,
debaters, generals, crime-lords, everybody reads it:
Porsche, lift-off, Gaia, Cool, patriarchy.
Among the feral stanzas are many that demand your flesh
to embody themselves. Only completed art
free of obedience to its time can pirouette you
through and athwart the larger poems you are in.
Being outside all poetry is an unreachable void.
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. For working always beyond
your own intelligence. For not needing to rise
and betray the poor to do it. For a non-devouring fame.
Little in politics resembles it: perhaps
the Australian colonists’ re-inventing of the snide
far-adopted secret ballot, in which deflation could hide
and, as a welfare bringer, shame the mass-grave Revolutions,
so axe-edged, so lictor-y.
Was that moral cowardice’s one shining world victory?
Breathing in dream-rhythm when awake and far from bed
evinces the gift. Being tragic with a book on your head.
[Conscious and Verbal, 1999]