Poetry – whatever else it might be – is a pledge of truth in concentrate. And modern poetry especially has thrown in its lot with precise statement, briefly set down: gnomic, imagistic, short. That a poem should prolong itself, spooling out its dazzlements to book-length, seems to us a kind of gaffe, as if it outstays its welcome by running to more than twenty lines. The long poem - unless explicitly parodic, like Clive James's Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage, say; or an adaptation like Derek Walcott's Omeros – has a hard time justifying itself to readers accustomed to pithy brevity. What can it offer, that prose fiction itself can't?
Literary historians hold that, at some point in the nineteenth century, the epic finally ceded to the novel. (György Lukács elaborates this view in Theory of the Novel.) Prose proved more serviceable to the temper of the times; it became almost a species of journalism. Poetry retreated into the Tennysonian mist of Idylls of the King; or, later, the tired pastoralism of the Georgians. The bulky straightforwardness of a realist novel was more open to the emergencies of modern urban society. In the poem, the literary voice was privatized. It turned to inwardness and an almost solipsistic indifference to the social world. The novel's promiscuity – its sheer busyness, its mimicry of the voices of the agora – forced poetry to withdraw into a place insulated by silence.
When Matthew Arnold complained to his friend Arthur Hugh Clough that the times were 'unpoetical', Clough sat himself down and wrote Amours de Voyage, one of the finest narrative poems of the Victorian era. Clough's trick was to ironize the high style, and give free rein to the prosiness of prose in his verse. It was a clever response – using classical hexameters to 'get down' the contemporary moment – in this case, the Revolutions of 1848. But Clough is largely forgotten today.
What can the verse novel achieve by its stubborn irredentism, its bid to reclaim lost ground from prose fiction? Didn't Pushkin pretty emphatically made any later efforts in the form de trop? Eugene Onegin settles the hash of any writer who wants to expand poetry's scope to take in character and plot... The application, by the novelist, of the sedimentary layers of detail, patiently hoarding up life's little tschotchkes – trifles making up the sum of novelistic life - is a process sharply at odds with the deep excavation of language the poet undertakes, the poet's job as verbal mosaicist. (Craig Raine, Martian and miniaturist, threw caution to the wind in his History: the Home Movie, cheekily ignoring the problem altogether and assembling his verse narrative of the Raine-Pasternak families in a chaptered sequence of triplets – successfully, I think, whatever its critics might say. Although the risk was considerable: that of the story grinding to a halt beneath the weight of poetic finickiness.)
The Australian poet Les Murray chews over all this in his note to the novel sequence The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: “I wanted to reclaim the narrative for poetry, to recapture ground which the senior literary form had begun losing to the novel as early as the end of the seventeenth century, and which it had decidedly lost to film and TV in the twentieth. But how to do it?..”
Murray discusses the technical problem of finding a formal template for his long poem. One able to manipulate language at the cellular level – as the lyric poet will do – yet able also to take the broad narrative sweep. As a poem tends to slow the reader down, each syllable potentially charged with meaning, each image soliciting our close attention; so story must barrel unstoppably along.. The stanza of Fredy Neptune – unruly, ill-crafted – discourages the reader from squinting too much at the prosody: Murray is being artfully artless.
Friedrich Boettcher (a.k.a. Fred Butcher, Fredy Neptune), merchant seaman and Australian of German extraction, on shore leave in the port of Trabzon, witnesses the death by fire of a group of Armenian women:
They were huddled, terrified, crying,
crossing themselves, in the middle of men all yelling.
Their big loose dresses were sopping. Kerosene, you could smell it.
The men were prancing, feeling them, poking at them to dance -
then pouf! they were alight, the women, dark wicks to great orange flames,
whopping and shrieking. If we'd had rifles there
we'd have massacred those bastards. We had only fists and boots.
One woman did cuddle a man: he went up screaming too.
Fredy is thus swept up, Zelig-like, in the vortex of history. The spectacle of the women has a physiological effect on him – he's left bodily numb (he attributes it, mistakenly, to psychosomatic leprosy), trapped in a Nothing, an asbestos shell. Fredy's gentleness and innate decency are stunned into this unresponsive blank. Transformed into a kind of Strine Golem, he must 'relearn human', as Murray put it in another context. How we're meant to understand this symbolically, isn't quite clear. Fredy remains inwardly the man he was – shell-shocked, he certainly isn't. “I just curled up in my hammock, like a burnt thing myself,/and turned my back...” Fredy must exert himself to conceal his condition from other folk; and moves through the world as a pariah, his body bearing the stain of what he saw, perhaps almost in reflexive disgust at our creaturely fragility. Indeed, in due course, he comes to realize that he's endowed with both enormous strength and physical invulnerability. Les Murray seems to be saying that – exposed to the nightmare of history – Fredy's mind and body have been traumatically dissevered, the latter brought up hard against the fact of its coarse materiality. Bodies break and burn and are otherwise wrecked. How can their complex of nerve, blood and bone really be us? To accept our physical limitations is necessarily to accept that we're bondslaves to matter. Murray, in his prose writings, makes the distinction between the 'wholespeak' of poetry and the 'narrowspeak' of .. everything else. Fredy succumbs to the narrowspeak of a body that is solely a machine. Wholespeak would encompass body and spirit in an unbroken circuit. (“Wholespeak is the soul's language, and it can only be spoken about effective in that integral language.”)
Fredy Neptune froths and foams with plot and incident – one damn thing after another! Fredy finds himself an accidental tourist among the ruins of the twentieth century. He meets a stellar array of historical figures, from T.E. Lawrence to Banjo Paterson. Marlene Dietrich attempts, unsuccessfully, to woo him with a recital of Rilke. From the Ottoman Empire to Hollywood, via Shanghai, the Holy Land, Depression America, Berlin and the Outback – picaresque on the grand scale. Les Murray invents in this book a poetics of yarning. Fredy's tale swoops, yaws, stumbles, stravaigs this way and that; as does the teller. There are a fair few 'with one bound he was free!' moments. It does have the decided air of a shaggy dog story, with all the rambling inconsequentiality and fidgety aimlessness of that genre. Fredy's voice, however, is an extraordinary, sustained creation. Of unlettered bushman stock, he conjures from his life an idiom quite unheard of in the Western literary canon. (Fredy, in the Murray lexicon, is a 'groover'.) The tricks of singularity in this voice – its ornery pungency, its random brilliancies, its pathos – are quite, quite unique:
One time, it dreamed my body was made of fire,
not hurting me, but no flesh human could come near.
It was tough flowing orange, glaring hard gold
out through its buttonholes and gaps; the clothes weren't affected.
Another time, the Army handed it over to Pilate
but he knocked it straight back
because it didn't eat grass or divide the hoof.
In the fire dream, I could reach inside it, touch its innards
even trace inside the null bulbs it wasn't worthwhile playing
lonely-games with, awake. Even they were alive from inside,
only from inside. I got the weeks, that last war-year,
on work, branding, cutting, feeding, watering, training.
I wasn't heavy, but not weightless either, in the day.
I could hear my boots, stamp dust, see things resist and bend,
balance, and talk, and pass for white.
At night I was dark and fell with the dark through the world.
The book is riddled with Wordsworth's 'visionary dreariness'. What you might call a vernacular Sublime. Fredy responds to the deployment of the Atom Bomb - “..and then the screen bulged white/with scrolls spreading wide from the bottom as it hoisted/like as if a billion beings were charged outwards, and it/towering straight above them under the boiling top cloud..” - as to a belated revelation of human oneness: “I brooded on the white because I was a scar spirit.” And it's the lesson of Murray's poem, if I can put it this way, that humanity must salvage what it can from its wounded state, that war, political violence and the like only confirm, in the end, the indefeasibility of the human.
“If there was any sort of meta-artistic concern in the book,” Murray wrote about The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, “it is probably for the despised and relegated country poor, the people I come from and belong to, and to whom I dedicate everything I may achieve. And I guess that, here, I don't finally mean only Australian country people, but all who have to put up with this world's Pilates and Pharisees.” The enemy, in any of its multitudinous manifestations, is what Murray calls interest - “..narrowspeak risen socially, full of judgment and scorn, terrified of death..”:
It subordinates, and will not be subordinated. It seeks ravishment, but will resist fiercely even as it affects to surrender, and so knows nothing of attentive, truly receptive silence. The bearer of interest is typically a consumer, not celebrating objects and honouring their life, but absorbing them and discarding them, often only partly digested. Where poetry seeks fusion, interest avoids it and substitutes excitement for poetic experience. The linkage with dream is often absent, and where it is present we feel the underlying dream is not in harmony with the surface utterance. When interest turns away from something, it believes that thing has utterly vanished and no longer counts.
“Interest is a human mode which has no soul of its own. And thus perhaps no soul at all.” Murray obsesses, throughout his work, with the deficits of Enlightenment, on what was lost by the valorization of Reason. (In his more unbuttoned moments, he claims that we are inmates of an inner police state.) Fredy Neptune elaborates further, a poem against Interest; it is a Missa Solemnis, booming out against hatred, the bloodless utilitarianism that'd reduce us to mere automata, against tyranny and the Star Chambers of the world. In the end, Fredy himself takes his bow, hungrily alive to the going-on of things: “But there's too much in life: you can't describe it.”