Thursday, April 05, 2007

Medievalism in Australian Poetry

Lovely to see Melanie Duckworth's essay on the medievalism of Les Murray in yesterday's Australian. I heard Melanie give this paper at ANZAMEMS in Adelaide, and it's great to see an academic paper make such an easy transition to the national newspaper. It's also good to see someone else writing about the topic of our current grant application!

Melanie works from Murray's defence of the Boeotian sensibility (rural, natural, creative) as opposed to an Athenian one (urban, artificial, rationalist and colonialist) and shows how he associates this with the vernacular, with the first phase of European settlement in Australia, with the medieval, and even with Aboriginal art. Murray's vision is counter-intuitive, provocative, sweeping, but in the end, not all that convincing. He writes:

"Within our civilisation we repeatedly see a pattern of autonomous, distinctive art at the beginning of each people's cultural history ... Each New World people gets, as it were, a short period of anarchic, makeshift cultural independence in which to produce its Chaucers and Langlands and its literary and artistic gothic cathedrals, or at least the foundations for them."

There's something about such sweeping statements that makes me very nervous. All I can really see here is Murray's desire to make his own genealogy, to find a distant analogue for his own tradition of "anarchic, makeshift cultural independence". The identification of this vernacular as a medieval is problematic, as Melanie's article shows. Murray's self-marginalisation (even though he is perhaps Australia's best-known poet) draws on a set of associations between the medieval, the vernacular, and the underdog. This last, in many forms of Australian culture, is a sure fire way of attracting support; but Melanie comments further: "If Murray medievalises himself, he is also medievalised by others, positively and negatively."

And ... what can it mean to describe Aboriginal culture as "a Boeotian resource of immeasurable value for us all." I don't think Murray means to speak in the voice of the coloniser here — just the opposite — but it's very difficult to agree that there is any easy kind of alignment between the medieval and the Aboriginal. All the same, Melanie's essay pulls out this neat thread: "If the Middle Ages are vernacular, they are living, present and local."

2 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ooohh I dunno, I wouldn't call Murray's marginalisation entirely self-inflicted -- while it was actually happening, I saw it as much more complicated than that. For a long time there during the late 80s and all through the 90s he was almost universally denigrated, at least in academic Aust Lit circles, for what his politics were perceived to be as well as for what they actually were (by no means always the same thing). In academic circles, if not so much outside of them, there was the same revisionist assessment of his writing, downwards in terms of its value, as happened with Helen Garner after The First Stone, as in 'I hate their politics, therefore they must be making bad art'.

Having said that, I agree entirely that what you've quoted is a bit batty. I think Murray is a genuinely great poet, but I also think he ought to stick to poetry.

Henry Lawson said...

I like Murray's work but agree that poetry is where his focus should be.