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Going to “Church” with Les Murray

November 3, 2010

The first time Les Murray’s poem, “Church,” was published, in 2005, it was accompanied by an interview with the poet. Valentina Polukhina asked: “You are regarded as an eccentric Australian voice, a rural poet speaking for an urban culture, a Roman Catholic speaking for a largely secular people. Are you comfortable with such perceptions?”.

In his down-to-earth style, Murray responded:

I don’t speak for anyone. I speak to the poetry public. They can be Catholic, they can be Jewish, they can be whatever they like. I just speak as I am. I am a Catholic and I don’t believe that other people are necessarily secular. I think that intellectuals are mostly secular or are required to pretend that they are. But broader people are very varied; a lot of them are religious, lots of the Catholic. I speak to those who want to read me.

Les Murray traveled from his home in northern New South Wales to give a poetry reading in St Andrews last week, and “Church” was one of the poems read. It was a rare treat to hear a poet I’ve been reading for at least 15 years read their own poetry, but to hear the images of my childhood (not too far removed from Murray’s own, in terms of geography or background) be voiced in metaphor was something quite eztraordinary. In this case, I think his true blue Australian accent, which was music to my own anxiously expatriotic ears, imbued his poetry with additional depth. Two poems particularly struck me, a newly written unpublished poem about the significance of the canonization of Mother Mary MacKillop, and this one, “Church.”

Church

In memoriam Joseph Brodsky

The wish to be right
Has decamped in great numbers
But some come to God
In hopes of being wrong.

Goodbye to gentrifical force,
To being than under that horse
As the poor climbed its every leg.
The building is an angular egg:

High on the end wall hangs
The Gospel, from before he was books.
All judging ends in his fix,
all, including his own.

Freedom still eats freedom,
Justice eats justice, love –
Even love. But the retarded man says
Church makes me want to be naughty.

In English evolution, we’re money,
genes to spend in the Darwin shops
on more genes, till personhood stops.
Church rose from the original, Jewish evolution.

Naked in a muddy trench
With many thousands, one is saying
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.

I’ve been pondering on this poem a great deal over the last 10 days and I wanted to share it with you, and get your thoughts on it: on Murray’s statement about what kind of poet he is, and finally on what it might mean to be a “religious poet.” This article by Alan Wilson on Murray as a religious poet provided food for thought, particularly his exploration of Murray’s poem, “Poetry and Religion.”

So, what do you think? What are the images this poem evokes for you? Does it sit well? Or does it grate? Are you challenged? Humbled? Incensed?

The Les Murray reading I attended last week was sponsored by StAnza – Scotland’s International poetry festival, held in St Andrews each March, along with the English Department of the University of St Andrews. Last year, the festival was headlined by Seamus Heaney. The 2011 festival will be held 16-21 March. Headliners and festival themes were recently announced and include Ciaran Carson, Selima Hill, Douglas Dunn, Paul Farley, Julia Donaldson, Fiona Sampson, and Yang Lian.

Image: Taken in Australia by the Author.

Reference: Polukhina, Valentina. “Les Murray in Conversation with Valentina Polukhina.” Two Lives. Ed. Deriev, Alexander. Vol. 4-5: Ars Interpres Publications, 2005. 297-300. Print.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Leif permalink
    November 3, 2010 2:08 pm

    I must say I’m a bit confused, even taken aback, by the use of the term “retarded man” in the poem. No doubt he wants us to view that phrase as someone who is regressing or has regressed, but I think to many readers it could very easily reinforce the use of a term (“retarded”) that is woefully out of date and very offensive to those with intellectual (and physical) disabilities.

    • November 3, 2010 2:18 pm

      Leif, thanks for your comment. There are two possible readings for this line, as i see it.
      1) retarded as a reference to someone who doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand the mystery or beauty and instead uses it as a prompt to see that which is sinful as desirious.
      2) on the other hand, i’m not sure if it could be a reference to his autistic son who features in many of his poems and who often speaks wisdom in his simple observations of human behaviour and the world around him. In some ways using having the reader be taken aback is part of the point.

      I understand your concern for the use of the word and its potentially offensive connotations, but Murray is very particular about his linguistic choices, as the use of words such as gentrification demonstrate.

      what do you think?

  2. November 4, 2010 4:42 am

    I am an ardent reader of Murray. I am pleased to see that in his old ‘wars against literary modernism’ (or what we’all here in the states call ‘language poetry’ Murray has, as so many others, acceded some tropic ground. “Accessibility” was never much more than turning corn into whiskey without the benefit of charred oak. Bless him and I hope for many more great poems like “church.”

  3. November 9, 2010 4:18 am

    I resonate strongly with Murray’s view on “secular intellectuals.” One of Australia’s most interesting academics and intellectuals, Dr.David Tacey, has been forced by his university to cancel his highly successful course on contemporary spirituality because “it is not appropriate for a secular university to be promoting faith.” The populist academic, Richard Dawkins, is making anti-theism seem intellectually defensible, and theism seem irrational; the latter a position that is, in my view, intellectually and rationally indefensible. The poem: I love the acerbic clarity of “High on the end wall/ Hangs the Gospel before he was books.” The West and the Enlightenment ossified The Christ and The Incarnation somewhat by making Christianity a matter of ‘the head’ only , and not of ‘the heart’ as well. Academia has relegated Christ to ‘books’ and contributed to his emasculation through the ‘paralysis of analysis’ ie. ‘left-brain’, bloodless, 2-dimensional, academic debate. Poetry: poetry liberates us from dry, desiccated debate. It is passionate, incarnational, musical, mystical, and has layers of meaning like life and the gospels and parables. Its metaphorical, affective means of communicating through imagery and emotional association frees the reader to engage with the subject matter in a multitude of ways that are not dictatorial or censorious. Poetry, like the Universe, is highly sacramental, pointing to a greater truth, grace and reality behind, within and beyond. To me, love, life and faith are all poetic by nature. I explore faith and religion throught my poetry, and as Makoto Fujimura has so aptly said, we poets ‘can get attentions of the “Kings” of this world because our songs are so popular’…The Church ‘began to believe in the late 18th century that we needed rational categories, to try to protect “faith” from “reason.” Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy. As a consequence, you began to suspect the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible…you began to exile artists whose existence, up to that point, helped to fuse the invisible reality with concrete reality. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world. But you wanted proof, instead of mystery; justification instead of beauty. Therefore you pushed artists to the margins of worship, while the secular world you helped to create championed us, and gave us, ironically, a priestly role.’ (Wish I’d said that….) Great site Anna!

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