A Draft Preamble: Les Murray and the Politics of Poetry
Lambert, Helen, Journal of Australian Studies
Can anyone truly claim that politics and poetry are absolutely separate, that a poem is not also political? This article argues that the work of Les Murray demonstrates a political will as sharp as Plato's. Once Murray imbues poetry with the power of what he calls wholespeak, it becomes more powerful than any other mode of writing. Murray's aim is to reclaim poetry from its maligned position, not by returning it to the domain of the political but by fashioning a poetic republic of his own. Yet the question remains: can poets or their work ever escape the political? To explore the problematic relationship between poetry and prose, I will turn, first, to Murray's draft preamble to the Australian constitution, as well as his draft Oath of Allegiance for the then federal government. I will then examine Murray's poetry, to see whether his politics can be kept separate from his poetry. Finally, I argue that poetry cannot be explicated from the political, and that Murray's work only furthers this claim.
The Problem of Murray's Doublespeak
Murray has long made a concerted effort to separate his poetry, which he calls 'wholespeak', from 'narrowspeak', which includes journalism, politics, economics and statistics, as well as poetry of a lesser kind, which he calls 'poemes'. (1) Wholespeak refers to the ongoing dialogue of serious poetry (and religion), in which the subject communicates wholly, through the engagement of the dreaming mind and body. By contrast, narrowspeak is a dialogue of expediency and fashion. The speech of the narrow does not come from the whole body and dreaming mind but is partitioned. This divide is an essential one: it explains the particularity of poetry and its essential difference from other modes of speaking, and it permits Murray to argue for a transcendental or romantic poetic. As Michael Sharkey argues, Murray is essentially a romantic poet who accords 'unacknowledged legislator' status to himself, in the manner of Shelley, (2) although Murray is perhaps more a transcendental legislator than an administrative one. Murray himself writes: 'Like prayer [poetry] pulls all the motions of our life and being into a concentrated true attentiveness to which God might speak'. (3) Poetry, then, is Murray's way of preparing the ear and mind for the possibility of God. Even if God never speaks, or never comes, Murray's poem is always present, and waiting.
The religiosity of Murray's poetics, however, effectively removes his argument from critical scrutiny. Whether speaking of heaven and hell or wholespeak and narrowspeak, the effect of the polarity is to reduce complex ideas to a two-fold structure, thus excluding the possibility of a third or uncertain middle ground. As United States President George W Bush demanded of the United Nations in the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the war on Iraq: Are you with us or with the terrorists? Or as the unequivocal question appears in the court of law: Do you plead guilty or not guilty? Or as any question, asking only: yes or no? Murray's use of a dividing line also acts as a defence mechanism, protecting him from secular attack. We cannot rigorously critique Murray's prose because his prose is a form of narrowspeak, and thus less meaningful than wholespeak. Yet we cannot critique Murray's poetry either, because our own critique would be constrained by the structure of narrowspeak and would therefore be unable to speak wholly of, or about, the poetic 'whole'. As Murray famously said of the failure of criticism: 'Only a poem can combat a poem'. (4)
What, then, constitutes the difference between wholespeak and narrowspeak? For Murray, the gulf between poetry and politics, like that between poetry and prose, is not only based on how they appear to the eye but on how they speak. Presumably poetry would be recognisable as poetry, by its form, metre, line, rhythm, sound, or way of making sense; though, of course, it can contain argument, it would not proceed by argument or thesis but by strings of metaphor and affect. …