Going down but not under

Books: For National Poetry Day on Thursday: Les Murray goads, Christopher Reid goes from Martian to mobile, and a new anthology; SUBHUMAN REDNECK POEMS by Les Murray, Carcanet pounds 7.95
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The Independent Culture
If you like your politics in black and white, or Left and Right, Les Murray might be filed away, in his latest incarnation, as a reactionary mystic nationalist - an Australian Solzhenitsyn, perhaps - who babbles about God while sniping at the multicultural facts of modern life and smearing liberals with responsibility for half the horrors of the 20th century. One particularly barbed little verse in the new collection suggests that "western intellectuals" ought logically to praise Auschwitz since it has "won them their centuries- / long war against God". Another says the true curriculum of schools is "erocide", to bully and terrify children out of their innocence. A third finds "self-abasement studies" and "racism / practised against ourselves" all around.

There are difficulties in writing off Murray as a rhyming Enoch Powell, however, beginning with the sardonic acknowledgement of his title. For one thing he is a staunch republican, part-author of the new Oath of Allegiance. For another he has written better, funnier, truer and kinder poems about the poor, the oddball, the marginalised and overlooked (eg "The Tin Wash Dish", "Letters to the Winner", "Morse", "Dog Fox Field") than most of the progressives who moralise in free verse and look askance at his increasingly sceptical view of Leftish politics.

I suspect that his caustic and radical conservatism (with a small "c") has some affinities with that of Eliot and T E Hulme. Compassion is a function of individuals, not of an abstract or collective benevolence. Pious ejaculations about universal brotherhood are no substitute for good government. Divinity is not about feeling good, or purple patches in works of art. Life is a bitch. Only a scoundrel compounds the hurt by disenfranchising people from justice and their natural rights.

All this has parallels in his generous, cranky and abundant poetic technique, which adopted formalism some years ago, after an early period of sprawl, but modified it to allow for the large breath and irrepressible stride which he calls "the vernacular sublime". "Art can be qood and at the same time fraternal in spirit, not elitist." "Modernism is the consolation prize for not having conquered the world." Europe has been "humanised to despair", whereas Australia is primordial, subject to "torrents of birth", and only just finding its literary voice - though he pays homage to, and tries to learn from, Aboriginal modes of expression.

He has spoken frankly, in a recent interview, about the seven-year depression that hit him in his forties, and which he has linked to wider social and religious ills. "Depression is the key to modern thought, and politics ... It's what you get when you're not religious. I had to take the sharp point of the pen and keep probing at what was making me sick." One might argue that the depression (if that's the right word) of a Kafka or a Beckett is far from being irreligious, that it is on the contrary a protracted conversation with those fragments of divinity that are still with us. Murray dedicates every book "To the glory of God". He's also proud of his part in overturning "the Empire mind-set, both in Australia and Britain. There was a time when we were supposed to supply the wool and the wine and not do the culture."

The title of this often vehement and angry new book makes clear his disenchantment with the sort of "altruism" that is as "Passionate as ever inquisition was". It all "smells of gas theory" to someone who hates collectives, hazards that "Sex is a Nazi", and sees his own kind, the small farmers and primary producers, as being "gang-raped by satire". He returns the compliment, with interest, not always to the benefit of his verse. The best poems here tend to go with the flow rather than wag a Mosaic finger. He writes about natural forces with as much power as anyone since Hughes (see "The Warm Rain", "The Water Column", "Dead Trees in a Dam", "Like Wheeling Stacked Water"). There are also good poems about history ("My Ancestors and the Secret Ballot", "The Trances"), an autistic son, schoolchildren ("Below Bronte House"), the mock eviction of a banker, popular song before the onset of pop, and his difficulties with bureaucracy when he was an official translator - "Any job is a comedown, where I was bred" - which recalls an earlier witticism: "In the midst of life we are in employment."

The more polemical ones rest on the dubious statement that "Only art can contain an idea". "Imprisoning the actual in commentary" is more like it, and tendentious commentary at that, since the Left has no monopoly on double-think. Let's hope his depression - "compere of the pre-dawn show" - has lifted, and that he is on the way to recovery from a recent liver infection that threatened his life. Point-scoring, redneck Murray is less compelling than the celebratory one who has helped turn down-under into one of imagination's essential resources, as vivid, in its own way, as Heaney's door into the dark.