Thursday, April 7, 2011

Australian Nobel Prize Candidates: Les Murray

In the late 1980s, Les Murray was often spoken of as a member of a 'superleague' of four current poets of international acclaim, the others: Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott. All four were writers in English who had come to the language thorough unorthodox means, Brodsky through exile and emigration, the others from the periphery or subaltern spaces form the Anglophone world to the center. All were in their own way traditionalists and innovators, comfortable with meter and traditional forms but also improvisatory and open in their sense of poetic structure. of the four, Murray is the only one to so far not have won the Nobel.

When interviewed last year with respect to Murnane's Nobel chances. Murray gallantly stepped aside in favor of his fellow Australian, born a year later, with whom he shares some interests (Hungary and the uncommon intellectual experiences of ordinary people) but who in other respects he diverged from (most notably in his religious trajectory.) Murray seemed to think his window was closed, yet his current book, Taller When Prone, has garnered considerably, if not always seamlessly insightful, coverage in the US and Europe, and he has become something of a household name in the UK and even on the Continent where his readings draw huge numbers. (He has never been a 'mass' phenomenon in the US the way Heaney has, and certain important US critics, such as Helen Vendler and Sven Birkerts, took an initial stand against him). Murray has, for obvious reasons often been linked to the Nobel Prize.

Murray may seem light-hearted or satiric at times, but his is a fiercely ambitious poetry, open to every sinew of experience, fiery with advocacy of the downtrodden and marginalized, the "battlers," even, and especially, when thy are set back by liberal, elitist pieties. Indeed Murray is often seen as a figure of the political Right, and this has no doubt hurt his contention, especially given Australia's position with respect to the Iraq War. The leftward bias of the Prize can be overrated. Had the Nobel committee been as insistently leftist as they are said to be, wouldn't they have given it to Margaret Atwood for Canada's not being directly involved in Iraq? On the other hand, writers associated with anti-leftist positions such as Vargas Llosa or V. S. Naipaul have won in recent years. But, unlike these, Murray is a man of faith, a Roman Catholic, who repeatedly dedicates his book to the glory of God, and for whom (despite his critics; tendency to play this down) Christian belief is central to his practice of poetry, though not at all in a dogmatic or constraining way. He is also a nature poet who addresses what might be called 'ecological' themes. This should make him a good candidate in theory. But actually the Prize has not particularly honored those who have made trees, plants, and animals a major concern. Murray's translations from the natural world within and outside his book of that name, are a major part of his poetic self. He also addressed the Indigenous issue early and concertedly in "The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle." 

Murray may or may not win. In a sense he does not have to, as his work has already achieved the position of international attention that a prize would admittedly accentuate. His is an extraordinary gift, one of the great talents in English, someone who could write a poem called "Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil"  and turned it into a rueful, visionary, playful performance.

So. of the four major reputed candidates--Carey, Malouf, Murnane, Murray--all deserve it and have a serious chance. There are no inflated or mysteriously un-scrutinized reputations here. Those cheering (barracking?) for an Australian to win have good basis for hope. In the next item, though, we will survey some structural factors, aside from those mentioned in the opening post, which may stand in the way of this happening in the near future.

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