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A Play on Words: The Intersection of Poetry and Liturgy in the Works of Les Murray

Catholic, sacramental poet, Les Murray (1938-2019)

“April is the cruelest month,” says T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, invoking through poetry the violent springtime transition from death to life—and, in Christ’s paschal mystery, the equally violent transition from life to death to life again. This past April has been particularly cruel to poetry with the passing of Australian poet Les Murray, one of the great voices of modern verse.

Leslie Allan Murray was born in 1938 into poverty on his grandparents’ farm in Bunyah, New South Wales in southeastern Australia (the same farm to which he returned in 1985 to live and work out his days). Well-read as a child, and bullied for it in school, Murray transformed what he read and what he experienced into world-renowned verse. Nicknamed the “Bush-bard,” Murray produced nine volumes of poetry—many of them award-winning, including his 1996 collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, which received the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Murray died on April 29, but for lovers of poetry and lovers of liturgy, Murray leaves behind a body of work that deserves study—and demonstrates the close relationship that human verse and holy rites share. Murray’s writings—which included several volumes of lyric poems, verse novels, memoirs, and critical essays—transcended time and place even as Murray remained faithful to a vision that sprang in equal parts from the lush yet rugged Australian landscape and a fertile Catholic imagination cultivated by the poet’s love for Christ, especially as he encountered him in the Mass.

 

Religion and the Poet

Critics have noticed an affinity between Murray’s poetry and that of Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and Anglican poets T.S. Eliot and Geoffrey Hill, all of whom focused their considerable poetic talents within a religious and liturgical context. Raised a Protestant, at age 26, Murray converted to Catholicism around the time that his poetic talents were burgeoning. Of particular interest to Catholic readers is the relationship Murray sees between poetry and religion. Critics often cite his poem “Religion and Poetry” as Murray’s manifesto for this relationship. Even in the opening lines of the poem, Murray sees religion and poetry finding common ground in that which defines both—words.

 

Religions are poems. They concert

Our daylight and dreaming mind, our

Emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

 

Into the only whole thinking: poetry.

Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words

And nothing’s true that figures in words only.

 

For Murray, the words of a poem and the words of prayer—verse and liturgy—share an important trait: they express the inexpressible and bring those who speak them closer to the truth of things as they appear in the world. In either case, poetry or religion, though, a word by itself has no life, and no poem or religion can exist without words to express it. Indeed, Murray recognizes that any attempt to embrace the mystery of being itself must include words—words only given life through expression. For the poet, this amounts to a sort of personal set of sacraments (communicated through metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech) that truly present and represent that mystery to the world. On the other hand, religion—and the Catholic Church in particular—expresses this mystery through the sacramental patrimony bestowed by Christ.

In fact, it was this same liturgical power to see the world as a reflection of and participation in the divine which first drew Murray to the faith both poetically and personally: “I was wowed and fascinated by the sacramental bridge between earth and heaven that Catholicism offered,” he says in an interview with Image Journal, “by the doctrine of the real presence, by that total defiance of austerity and meanness of spirit.”

In his own poetry, Murray adapts and adopts this “sacramental bridge.” Religion, we can understand Murray to mean, contains the mystery of being—and so does poetry, however imperfectly:

 

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;

Like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete

With terms where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

 

The power to draw men to this mystery and recite it “in loving repetition” is the domain of poetry and liturgy at once, and “like any poem,” religion must be diverse in meaning yet wholly contained. God and the poem and the reader are one—and so too God and the believer and liturgy are one. At least that’s the goal of each, and in either case, we perceive a great gift: in Murray’s poetry, it involves our natural ability to see the mystery of being through the imperfection of language; in the sacred liturgy, it involves the supernatural grace that allows the limitless God to be enclosed within the tabernacle of a prayer or submissive to the efficacious words of consecration, while remaining free to work on drawing us closer to him. Indeed, later in the poem Murray proclaims, “God is the poetry caught in any religion, caught, not imprisoned.”

 

Poetry at Play

This same mixture of the earthly and heavenly that set fire to Murray’s poetic imagination also helped him find his poetic voice. Deeply indebted to another well-known Catholic poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Murray honed his ability to find in the simplest things of creation the deep swell and flow of divine mystery.

“He taught me how to do baroque diction, how to melt language and model tableaux in it,” Murray tells Image. “I taught myself later on how to do this under cover. You gave your work a factual plain surface and worked the baroque and the rococo underneath, so that you and your readers were free of the tyranny of modern ‘no nonsense’ pretensions.”

Murray’s explanation is as good a description of his style as we will find. In all of his poems, the “no nonsense” and practical serve as a foil for the playfulness of words. In this way, Murray very much subscribes to a notion of art that Romano Guardini describes in The Spirit of the Liturgy. “The work of art has no purpose, but it has meaning—‘ut sint’—that it should exist, and that it should clothe in clear and genuine form the essence of things and the inner life of the human artist” (translated by Ada Lane [New York: Herder, 1998], 64).

Typifying the sort of local “nonsense” found in the Bush-bard’s verse, Murray’s poem “The Broad Bean Sermon” presents a poem bereft of purpose as the world knows purpose, but bulging with meaning. Ostensibly, “Sermon” is a poem about a gardener’s stroll through his bean rows; but it also captures the essence of the sacramental, recalling Eden, the fall, and heaven in less than 30 lines:

“Beanstalks, in any breeze, are a slack church parade/ without belief,” he begins the poem. He is less than hopeful that the crop, left literally blowing in the wind, will fulfill its promise. But the longer the bean-picker lingers in his garden, attends Adam-like to stewarding creation, the more he sees the beans in a new light—that is, in the changing yet nurturing light of day. In fact, the flaccid congregation on the vine become

 

beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers

in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice

that the noon glare or cloud-light of afternoon slants will uncover

 

till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many, or

do they form in an hour? Unfolding into reality

like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions

 

like edible meanings, each sealed around with a string

and affixed to its moment, an unceasing colloquial assembly,

the portly, the stiff, and those lolling in pointed green slippers….

 

In the end, we realize, not the poet but the beans are providing the “Sermon.” Look at the world, they seem to say, and see that it is perhaps a world full of beans—but if you are willing to cooperate with God and nature, you can see that these are beans very much alive with being.

 

Meaning and Purpose

Cooperating with the meaning of things—beans, crickets, cows, the entire catalog of nature—was very much to Murray’s purpose as a poet. As David Mason notes, such cooperation stood as a foundation for Murray’s métier. He was, Mason writes, “a religious poet devoted to creation,” but it was a devotion, Mason notes, which was colored by the concrete and individual. “His wordscapes and landscapes were local, Australian, with everything that distinction signifies—including the transported convict’s sense of justice and the nation’s thoroughly multicultural heritage,” Mason writes. “His art wasn’t bound by pieties, political or otherwise, because he understood the position of poetry—and of language itself—in relation to reality.”

To find this relation, poetry must drill down to the particulars: to the fleshy beans waggling in a breeze. In so doing, the poet finds the essence of things—because that’s what makes poetry work in the first place. “No ideas but in things,” says another Catholic poet, William Carlos Williams—although Murray would no doubt add a lemma to this proposition: Things are never inert but spring with life from the font of all being—the incarnational Christ. Murray, says Karl Schmude, “had a profound responsiveness to images and the sacredness of words, which paved the way, in his germinating Catholic imagination, for a sense of sacramental reality—of the visible embodying the invisible; of the material being fulfilled in the spiritual; of the Word made Flesh, so that language itself became a channel of divine communion, not just an instrument of human communication.”

The first Word was the last word for Murray, when it came to his own poetic sensibilities—and Murray found that same “wowing” (a favorite nonsense word for the seriously playful Murray) that brought him into the Church most intensely and most concretely through his love for the Eucharist: “I was fascinated by the idea of the Eucharist,” Murray says, quoted by Schmude. “It absolutely wowed me. Anybody who’s interested in imagery has to be interested in that type of fusion, metaphor taken all the way to identity.”

Many critics rightly see Murray’s poem “Religion and Poetry” as a sort of manifesto for this sacramental vision. But if “Religion and Poetry” observes the affinities of composition and belief, it is another Murray poem, “The Say-but-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary,” which places us front and center before the reality of that relationship as it unfolds in the penultimate moment of human history—the crucifixion which serves as prelude to Christ’s resurrection. T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi,” reimagines the first epiphany of Christ’s birth, from the perspective of the Three Wise Men fumbling their way to the crib in Bethlehem after a long, arduous journey from the East; and so too, serving as another unsuspecting witness, Murray’s centurion—asking Christ to enter under his roof (and recalling for the reader that other centurion who also recognized Christ’s healing power at the foot of the cross) attests to a final earthly epiphany at Christ’s death.

 

That numinous healer who preached Saturnalia and paradox

has died a slave’s death. We were maneuvered into it by priests

and by the man himself. To complete his poem.

 

He was certainly dead. The pilum guaranteed it. His message

unwritten except on his body, like anyone’s, was wrapped

like a scroll and dispatched to our liberated selves, the gods.

 

This poem, we can imagine, is Murray participating in Mass—understanding the paradox of death-in-life and life-in-death, both re-presented on the altar (Recall that the “Domine, non sum dignus” which we recite immediately before receiving communion is derived from the centurion’s words to Christ). But within the poem at hand, that same event is presented as if for the first time, fresh and alive as the beans in his “Sermon”—and like the beans, the crucifixion event spills out beyond the particular moment, as the day once again progresses toward the noon hour—and the three hours of angry clouds that follow:

 

Death came through the sight of law. His people’s oldest wisdom.

If death is now the birth-gate into things unsayable

 

in language of death’s era, there will be wars about religion

as there never were about the death-ignoring Olympians.

Love, too, his new universal, so far ahead of you it has died

 

for you before you meet it, may seem colder than the favor of gods,

who are our poems, good and bad. But there never was a bad baby.

 

The altars to our own “gods,” as Murray suggests, have been constructed from original sin and installed with our own personal sins, and will remain as long as humans resist grace; but through Murray’s sublime genius, the centurion sees—and helps us see—on the cross not only the horror of our sins but the innocence of that child who was born to abolish these old gods of sinfulness.

Here as elsewhere in his writings, Les Murray’s poetic genius worked with and within a liturgical context. “The Centurion” places us as readers in the same way that the liturgy places us as believers: at the intersection where words encounter the Word—the same Word which darkness could not comprehend, but which we can understand even as the dumbfounded centurion understood Christ suddenly and forever.

 

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.