Has Australia's burly bard written the great narrative poem of our age? Les Murray's verse-novel is greeted with amazement - and some shock - by Peter Porter
The long poem is the Everest, or at least the K2, of contemporary poetry. So far nobody has got to the top, and most have been content to linger some way up. Size and quality matter in this endeavour, but so does genre. Eliot's The Waste Land and Four Quartets rival Pound's Cantos and Olson's Maximus in seriousness, but are a tenth as long. Many modern masters have avoided the epic while working at length, preferring to compile their poems from shorter sections: Auden, Lowell, John Berryman, D J Enright and Ted Hughes - it is an extensive and honourable list.

However, one form of long poem has had few devotees - the narrative. Perhaps there hasn't been a successful narrative poem since Byron's Don Juan. Glancing respectfully at Vikram Seth's Golden Gate, Derek Walcott's Omeros and Craig Raine's History, we can say that Les Murray's new Fredy Neptune (Carcanet, pounds 18.95) is - mirabile dictu - a true verse novel, not just a tour de force but a sustained piece of storytelling in poetry.

Born in 1938, Murray is the laureate of Australian country life and the nation's premier poet. A writer of great sophistication, he still insists on loyalty to an older Australian pastoral tradition.

His publishers tell us to look out for Byronic overtones. This is bad advice. Byron's progress is lax and elegant, his best effects reserved for atmosphere, aphorism and social comment. Murray's is a breathtaking narrative in which, despite much brilliant scene-setting, all is subordinated to a story presented at cartoon speed.

Compare the two poets' treatment of the disasters and cruelties of war. Byron is far from facetious while describing the Russian and Turkish armies at the Siege of Ismail, but he spares us the nastiest details. Fredy Neptune, over its 250 pages, catalogues violence in a bewildering array of situations.

Murray's hero Fredy encounters all the terrors of war, disease, injustice and natural calamity the 20th century can provide. Nor can these be felt as balletic exaggerations, the equivalent of the "splats" and "pows" in comic books. They are purveyed in an awesomely accomplished mimetic poetry which does nothing to soften the realism.

Murray might argue that he is doing what Homer did. After all, The Odyssey (and Fredy's progress is a form of the long voyage home) pulls no punches. But Homer kept to the rules of ritualised image-making. Murray is a true son of his century; he strives for the most unswervingly brutal effects.

Fredy survives every form of mutilation and mayhem known to man, and inflicts equal carnage on opponents. This offers a clue to the poetic convention Murray's narrative belongs to. Fredy is Superman, a comic-strip, rather than a Nietzschean hero.

Fredy's story is magical, the equivalent of Renaissance epics such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso or Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata. Tasso's account of the combat between Tancredi and Clorinda rejoices in its realism. Yet these epics are almost light - socially controlled and ethically centred, although everything is subordinated to adventure.

Murray, as readers of his Subhuman Redneck Poems will know, makes every picture tell an exemplary story and embody an overt moral. We can question if such adventures as killing an opium-addicted bear, flinging lions about in a circus, strafing retreating Turks in a biplane, together with thousands of other action-breaks, make a good background for the Christian nexus about which Murray is profoundly serious. I found that the welter of violence blunted my appreciation of the often subtle and original points Murray wants to make.

Fredy begins as the merchant-seaman son of a German farming family in New South Wales, caught in the Mediterranean during the First World War. His surname is usually recounted as Boetcher; and his German/ Australian antinomy lasts throughout the novel. Neptune is the name he is given when he joins a circus. The reader had better have pretty fair German, though Murray usually translates bits of the harder dialogue.

The key to Fredy's life is witnessing the incineration of some American women by having lighted petrol poured over them. This brings on a magical transformation, making him invulnerable at the cost of his inability to feel pain and pleasure. It bestows on him superhuman strength. Yet he prays to be as other men and have it lifted from him - which does not happen until the poem's end.

His escape through Germany, after assisting the Australian Light Horse in 1918, brings him back to Australia and the disturbed world of returned soldiers. Then comes marriage and criminal entrapment. He finds himself, for the weirdest of reasons, in the US during Prohibition. There follows time in Hollywood, crewing on a Zeppelin, escape again from Germany and finally from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. If this brief summary seems headlong, it barely touches on the myriad actions which make up the five sections of Murray's novel.

In the course of Fredy's prolonged wanderings, he encounters celebrities such as Australian prime minister Billie Hughes, the Nazis' banker Hjalmar Schacht, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, Johnny Weissmuller and Adolf Hitler. He is kebabed on just about every major world event of the middle years of the 20th century. Murray's mustering of the whole deplorable cavalcade is impressive. Only once did I question a fact: I doubt that Jim Cavill's Surfers' Paradise Hotel had been built by the 1920s.

Murray employs an eight-line stanza of unequal line length with assonance and occasional rhymes and a conversational metre. He layers his verse with many obiter dicta and much strenuous assertion. Of religious faith, he states: "Buy it and nobody's a failure.../ Refuse it and there's high mucks and drudges forever, even dead."

Murray can be gentle, as in his words about Aborigines, "They were losing their world through their eyes." Some of his lines are beautifully coiled: "So the ship rode the Bosphorous like an iron on shined blue cloth", and "He looked like a scabbard and walked like dividers on a map."

There can never have been a verse novel quite like this. It seems to me as impressive as it is often repulsive. Anyone not wanting to join Fredy in his Amfortas-like vindication can retreat to Les Murray's Collected Poems from Carcanet (pounds 12.95). This handsome volume brings together his ten books of verse published until now. There is no more formidable storehouse of poetry in the English-speaking world. All the greats are here, such as "Vindaloo at Merthyr Tydfil", "Rainwater Tank", "The Future", "The Quality of Sprawl", "The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever", "The Cows on Killing Day".

Language fights itself in and out of every tight corner. And if Murray's religion insists on his being a biased referee, he retains enough of the Old Adam to stick up for humanity and exuberance most of the time.