The legend of Les Murray has it that he is the large-spirited, innocent, canny and merely well-intentioned (and prodigiously gifted) figure - bigger than his critics - whose simplicity, goodness and vision have attracted attack in direct proportion to the virtue they represent. (If this is PR it happens also that a similar trope or pattern is figured within the poems themselves. Both the life and the poems offer it as a truism - quasi-Biblical, hence the authority that accrues.)
Oversophistication, bad faith, the self-hatred that finds in his natural goodness a reproach, these things are the source of criticism of Murray: ordinary folk, goes the rest of this equation, accept and understand the Bard from Bunyah.
It is the triumph of this PR job that the cover of Murray's Collected Poems is designed to invoke - as a joke on and taunt to his critics. It's a masterfully wicked joke and you have to applaud it. The guy has a sense of humour - or, alternatively, a self-pitying paranoia. For the other side of the story is of Murray as victim, first in the schoolyard, as in later life, where he battles courageously against the power of left, citified and lesbian-feminist dominated institutions: peer group committees who approve and fund their own; publishing houses similarly dominated by ism-driven urbanites and so on. And yet Murray edited Poetry Australia for some time - if he wanted a magazine - and controlled Angus & Robertson's poetry list for many years, publishing many of the names associated with him and very few of those conspicuously opposed, and he did well - as did many allies - from the Literature Board. Finally, he's gained prominence in and access to the media. This is a persecution complex that suggests that - along the lines of Chuck Berry's "Too much fun, that news to me" - you can never get enough? Or perhaps it is a strategy. Perhaps both. In sports commentator parlance, Murray has 'stayed hungry'. (The cover illustration to The Collected Poems shows The Strife of Lent with Shrove-Tide by Breugel - cropped to head-shots three: a vastly plump monk being bitten on the cheek by two starvling emaciates, who look distinctly less clerical and more feral. The friar accepts the bite more or less stoically.)
[[ ILLUSTRATION here: reproduction of Les Murray Collected Poems Heinman ]]
Typically, I used experience a series of jolts from the first few lines of a Murray work, the unaccustomed encounters with an abundance of "the signs of poetry" - 'vivid' imagery, the stance and tone of moral-drawing ("And they will be drawn, oh yes, they will be drawn!" - as the heroes of Wayne's World might say), the annointed outsider's point of view: and the pithy lesson unfurls, moderately quizzical, in its querying of the urban and obsessed; or uplifting - in its celebration of the ordinary and the ability to see the divine just there. And it's in a kind of colloquial patois - though whose? - that offers itself as natural, yours, or better than your own but whose special authority is its tie with the past and the nation's moral (i.e., rural) centre.
It is an experience I find reminiscent of school days - as when reading something not yet archaic, yet still distinctly different in time from one's own: there is a call for tolerance and allowances: after all, the old poet might really mean something. As a student you tried to catch the focus intended beneath the now fusty manner. But Murray's poems quickly come alive. And this seeming pastness, really, is their cover.