Murray & Modernity

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"As the Enlightenment canto we call Bohemia evolved into modernism, the universities became its principal home and support. Early modernism was enormously liberating, because it brought poets a new, superrefined readership and freedom from stilted older styles which a wide readership had long enjoyed and rather imprisoned us in. Modernism made the subject matter of poetry practically infinite, and gave approval to registers and vocabularies previously stratified in a rigid class hierarchy that considered Kipling ‘low’ and Tennyson ‘elevated’. But alas! If modernism gave us a sophisticated new readership, it also blew away all our older readerships and made us dependent on itself.
And it had agendas and class purposes of its own. For some, writers and critics, it was principally an aesthetic, for others it was a political programme. And, one bright day or another, each of us realised or were told that we were owned, and that certain conscript service would be expected, certain themes handled in an approved way or left alone. In default of which we would be undermined, dismissed from serious consideration as artists, and sent where there was no longer any public for us. Because for bad music and bad painting and bad movies there are free markets, but the market for bad poetry is itself within the bounds of radical modernism. The real breakthroughs of literary modernism are, I suspect, all far behind us, and only the fetish of breakthrough itself, plus recyclings of old innovation, trivial variations, remain in our time. The next genuine change in art will come when a new patronage arises."
--Les Murray, "Defense of Poetry" (1998)

Discussion Question: What does this quote reveal about Murray's attitude towards modern poetry and towards modernity in general?

Poetic Responses to Modernity

Republics are for those who dream of rising socially; monarchies are for the self-relegated.
The kangaroo has never heard of Australia.
Class is triage.
In practice, equality is shapely, youthful, neatly dressed people before they open their mouths.
--aphorisms by Murray in the Independent

The following poems reflect on the modern world in varying ways. Some of these point to a world of fascist possibilities in the treatment of the poor, the disabled, the sacred, even the fat. Some look at the ironies of the modern world in our relationship to the land, to beauty, and to work. And some suggest that the modern world is finally a place of emptiness.

"Politics and Art," "An Era," & "The Beneficiaries"

  1. What does each of these poems reveal about modernity and art?

  2. What does each suggest about politics and poetry?

"Dog Fox Field" & "It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen"

  1. How does the second poem, which is about Murray's own autistic son (Alexander), put the issues in the first one in perspective?

  2. How does Murray contrast the inhumanity of political systems and the humanity of those with challenging disabilities?

"The Rollover" & "On Home Beaches"

  1. How would you describe the tone of each poem?

  2. What is the central irony (cruelty) in each?

  3. How does each poem represent a particular kind of misuse of power and a resulting helplessness in the modern world?

"Mirror-glass Skyscrapers," "Water-Gardening in an Old Farm Dam," & "Inside Ayers Rock"

  1. What is the relationship between the towers' beauty and the work that goes on inside?

  2. What is the irony of the way the narrator regards modern ways of caring for the land?

  3. Likewise, what is the irony between one's expectations of Ayers Rock and the commercialism surrounding the experience?


  1. Why is the continent the "[m]ost modern" of lands?

  2. Why and how does Murray associate it with the biblical flood?

Under God, from this time forward
I am part of the Australian people.
I share their democracy and their freedom
I obey their laws
And I expect Australia to be loyal to me.

--Murray's proposed pledge of allegiance for Australia


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding