The same might be said for several of the poems in the selection from the last of the Fivefathers, Francis Webb, whose fitting task is not to fit into this book or any other except those entirely his. Even at the time, Webb was a one-off, an El Greco-style stylistic maverick: making an entirely unexpected appearance in a tradition, he could be seen to have emerged from it, but he distorted the whole thing. Webb was a clinical case, a schizophrenic who spent a lot of time in hospital and eventually disintegrated, but Murray, with typical penetration, has never fallen for the easy notion that Webb's poetry is psycho in itself. The answer to the biologist's trick question of whether there was something wrong with El Greco's eyes is no, because if there had been he would have compensated for it. Similarly Webb's poetry is the way it is because of his inner vision, not because of scrambled perceptions. If his cognitive apparatus had been muddled he would have attempted simplicities. As things were and are, his synaesthetic effects have to be compared with Baudelaire, Rimbaud and the hallucinatory extravaganzas that the British Apocalyptic poets of the forties aimed for without achieving. The guarantee of Webb's urge to transcendental integration was the purity of his fragments. Wherever two or three of his admirers are gathered together, you will hear these particles flying. (My own favourite hemistitch, from a poem omitted here, is 'Sunset hails a rising': one day I'm going to call a book that and lay the beautiful ghost of an idea that must have come to him in one of his fevers, like a cooling drop of sweat.) In the enforced retreats of his hospitals and the injected lucidities of his drugs, there might well have been something prophetic about Webb. Certainly he guessed that the Australian poets would become a success story, and feared the consequences.
Murray's five fathers were all active in what he tellingly calls the pre-Academic era, when Australian poets had to make their way without any support from the as yet undeveloped academic industry, and were not necessarily the worse off for it. First-time readers of Australian poetry in Britain, at whom this Carcanet publication must principally be aimed, should be warned that another criterion for inclusion is death. None of these five fathers is among the living or even the recently departed, which means that there are some comparable contemporary figures who are not present and should be sought elsewhere. There are fathers like A. D. Hope, mothers like Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood, and sisters, cousins and aunts who should ideally be here too. But Murray's anthologizing activities always lead you in that direction: each of them feels like the beginning of the ideal inclusive book, the one that, nothing but art, contains the art. What we need to remember is that such a book can no longer be compiled: Australian poetry has become too big a subject - has become a to which we need a and eventually quite a few more of those academic help-words of which Murray is so rightly suspicious, believing as he does that they threaten the death of personality. Like all true humanist critics an implacable enemy of literary theory, he wants us to experience his five fathers as living men, and it is permissible to suspect that he wants this with particular urgency in the case of the first father in the queue, Kenneth Slessor, from whose work Murray's selection is particularly lavish and - dare one say it? - loving. Of this father, Murray speaks as a true son.
Les Murray Broadcaster Guestroom Les Murray Abc Darwin Australian
The main point to make about Murray's relationship with Slessor is that Murray saw Slessor's pivotal importance straight away, and with a thoroughness that helped determine his own attitude to his privileges and duties as a poet in Australia, as opposed to the poets Australia that most of the rest of us vaguely dreamed of ourselves as being, if not yet then some day soon. At his own table in Manning House, Murray always looked as if he was dug in to stay. A boy from the country for whom Sydney was exotic enough, he approached Slessor personally, made his admiration clear, presented his own work for criticism, and was eventually rewarded with Slessor's acknowledgment that he, Murray, had been determined by fate to pick up and carryon the torch that Slessor had dropped. In private life, when the company is suitable, Murray has been known to recount the details of this apostolic succession. His pride is justifiable, and a nice example of the anecdotal human scale that still vestigially applies to the Australian literary life even in this later age of arts-section hype, globe-girdling travel, and the isolation that forms unbidden around famous names. I got that story out of him over a glass of white wine at Australia House the last time he read in London, and it was only a few weeks ago, in Bloomsbury, at a publisher's jamboree for booksellers, that David Malouf easily secured my agreement to the proposition that Murray's critical prose was by far the best thing of its kind being written in Australia now. The idea of an Australian international literary mafia is not a very good one (principally because it is not a very good metaphor) but if there is something to the notion of an extended family of those devoted to literature, then in a large part it goes back to Slessor, a godfather in the best, most benign sense, even when - perhaps especially when - he was no longer creative.