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Learning Human: Selected Poems

Learning Human: Selected Poems

by Les Murray

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A bighearted selection from the inimitable Australian poet's diverse ten-book body of work

Les Murray is one of the great poets of the English language, past, present, and future. Learning Human contains the poems he considers his best: 137 poems written since 1965, presented here in roughly chronological order, and including a dozen poems published


A bighearted selection from the inimitable Australian poet's diverse ten-book body of work

Les Murray is one of the great poets of the English language, past, present, and future. Learning Human contains the poems he considers his best: 137 poems written since 1965, presented here in roughly chronological order, and including a dozen poems published for the first time in this book.

Murray has distinguished between what he calls the "Narrowspeak" of ordinary affairs, of money and social position, of interest and calculation, and the "Wholespeak" of life in its fullness, of real religion, and of poetry.

Poetry, he proposes, is the most human of activities, partaking of reason, the dream, and the dance all at once -- "the whole simultaneous gamut of reasoning, envisioning, feeling, and vibrating we go through when we are really taken up with some matter, and out of which we may act on it. We are not just thinking about whatever it may be, but savouring it and experiencing it and wrestling with it in the ghostly sympathy of our muscles. We are alive at full stretch towards it." He explains: "Poetry models the fullness of life, and also gives its objects presence. Like prayer, it pulls all the motions of our life and being into a concentrated true attentiveness to which God might speak."

The poems gathered here give us a poet who is altogether alive and at full stretch toward experience. Learning Human, an ideal introduction to Les Murray's poetry, suggests the variety, the intensity, and the generosity of this great poet's work so far.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“When, with Whitmanesque verve, he sings out the rifts and pockets of the Australian landscape or gives voice to its indigenous chants, he shows himself to be a necessary poetic intelligence, one that has ventured far on the prow of his continent and made its language his own.” —Albert Mobilio, The New York Times Book Review

“[Murray] maps the frontier where suburban rage for community meets emptiness, then gives way to nature...He sees individual wonder as a crucial attitude always gratefully gaines and miserably lost...American readers will recognize the forces that disinherit us, and should embrace a poet who makes his fight against them so enjoyable.” —Allan M. Jalon, San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle


There is a select group of writers scattered around the globe about whom it is always whispered, "He was on the short list for the Nobel Prize last fall. He'll win it one of these years." Sixty-two-year-old Australian poet Les Murray belongs to this group. Comparatively little known until recently, he began to attract attention in 1997 with the publication of Subhuman Redneck Poems, which won a T. S. Eliot Prize. Then last year he published the tour de force Fredy Neptune, a novel in verse about a wandering German-Australian who loses his sense of touch after witnessing the burning of Armenian women in Turkey in World War I. Susan Sontag, among others, took up his cause, and now, to capitalize on a growing interest in his past work, Murray offers Learning Human, a selection of poetry from 1965 to the present day. This collection demonstrates the surprising depth and skillful craftsmanship of a writer only just beginning to be given his due.

Selected by Murray himself, the 137 poems in Learning Human speak with a direct voice that recalls the best work of Seamus Heaney. But they also display an unfettered inventiveness reminiscent of Wallace Stevens or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Despite these echoes of past masters, Murray is a true original, not traceable to this or that poetic lineage. Murray's writing is often called "non-literary," almost as a mark of honor, but this label only suggests an elitism on the part of astonished critics, who have trouble believing somebody could produce such moving and well-wrought work without appearing on their radar -- for Murray has been writing for 35 years.

Murray has a nuanced, sensual mastery of language. He calls the future "that sheer fall/where everything will be that we have ever sent there, compacted, spinning -- except perhaps us, to see it," and the experience of a hot plate of Indian food a journey "through all the burning gnats of most carnal ambition/and never again will I want such illumination...." There's a hint of T. S. Eliot's "Preludes" in the wise detachment of "An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow," which, like Eliot's "vision of the street as the street hardly understands," recasts existence for a whole town in the symbolic figure of a weeping man -- but, in a perfect example of Murray's range, it also recalls John Lennon's "A Day in the Life."

Murray writes astoundingly clever tributes to bare realities of life. "Homage to the Launching Place" begins, "Pleasure-craft of the sprung rhythms, bed,/kindest of quadrupeds,/you are also the unrocking boat/that moves on silence." He warns us to be wary of rhythm as "tainted by the rallies, as marching with the snare drum," even as he displays a rhythmic command rarely seen in this era of free verse. Often it's the casual, digressive lines that are the most affecting, such as "boulders like ice under whiskey,/tree pools mirrory as the eyes of horses."

Late in the collection is a poem entitled "The Instrument" that opens with this question: "Who reads poetry?" Murray issues a challenge to all future poets to match his own intuitive brilliance, proclaiming, "What gives them delight is a never-murderous skim/distilled, to verse mainly, and suspended in rapt/calm on the surface of paper." He goes on to define "feral poetry," loved by "lovers, schoolkids, debaters, generals, crime lords," and which "demand your flesh to embody themselves." He never makes it clear where his own verse falls between these two poles. The final, rhymed couplet of this poem might be the most honest and moving tribute to the craft since Yeats's "Adam's Curse":

      Breathing in dream-rhythm awake and far from bed
      evinces the gift. Being tragic with a book on your head.

—Jake Kreilkamp

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Murray's 35 years of work have made him certainly Australia's most famous poet and one of its best; only in the past 10 years, however, has he found an American audience. Murray follows his superb 1999 novel in verse, Fredy Neptune (a PW Best Book) with an ample cull of short poems, the first issuing from his 1965 debut, the last 12 from a new volume (Conscious and Verbal) not available in the U.S. Murray's range is startlingly wide: among his best poems are stories from memory, comic verse, discursive speculation ("First Essay on Interest"), pure landscape ("Nests of golden porridge shattered in the silky-oak trees"), modernized folk-balladry (The Chimes of Neverwhere), among other kinds. He's especially good when describing animals and rural life; his syncopations and mouthfuls of phrases follow the lines of his sight and touch. At night on a dairy farm, Murray views "the strainers sleeping in their fractions,/ vats/ and the mixing plunger, that dwarf ski-stock, hung." Murray's aims are always (if sometimes obliquely) political and religious. Arguing against Enlightenment secularism, urban domination of rural life and restrictive political correctness in favor of Catholic belief and agrarian populism, he can either sound mean and one-sided or friendly and welcoming--or both--depending on with whom readers identify: a recent satire begins "Some of us primary producers, us farmers and authors/ are going round to watch them evict a banker." Among the new poems are polemical epigrams, an onomatopoetic tour-de-force about motorcycles, a moving epithalamion, and a rather forced ode to libraries. Even at his shrill worst, Murray conveys a welcome belief that poetry can change our minds, and his language could never be taken for anyone else's; at his best, in all his kinds of poems, Murray gives us a broad, attentive, deeply felt, morally-charged view of his world, which often looks a lot like our own. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This hefty volume collects poems from Murray's ten previous books (from The Ilex Tree to Subhuman Redneck Poems). Unfortunately, there is no indication of which poems came from which books and no chronology. Murray, an Australian poet who views writing as telling stories, records a poetry of the common folk, farmers, and laborers of the vast Australian bush; he uses rhyme traditionally, not innovatively, and occasionally writes in a dialect that will be completely foreign to American ears. But even without these interferences, these pages feel extremely dated--Murray would be at home among American poets of the early 1950s (like John Ciardi and John Frederick Nims). Despite a few excellent pieces ("Weights," "The Last Hellos"), these poems are not memorable. Difficult to criticize and equally difficult to enjoy, this book is for comprehensive collections only.--Rochelle Ratner, formerly with "Soho Weekly News," New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Prodigious and frustrating, welcoming and cantankerous, Les Murray's body of work has made him both Australia's best-known poet and its most powerful.
London Review of Books
Paul Muldoon
A terrific introduction to the terrific Australian poet.
Times Literary Supplement
Albert Mobilio
[W]hen, with Whitmanesque verve, Murray sings out the rifts and pockets of the Australian landscape or gives voice to its indigenous chants, he shows himself to be a necessary poetic intelligence, one that has ventured far on the prow of his continent and made its language his own.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)

Read an Excerpt


    The Burning Truck

for Mrs. Margaret Welton

It began at dawn with fighter planes:
they came in off the sea and didn't rise,
they leaped the sandbar one and one and one
coming so fast the crockery they shook down
off my kitchen shelves was spinning in the air
when they were gone.

They came in off the sea and drew a wave
of lagging cannon-shells across our roofs.
Windows spat glass, a truck took sudden fire,
out leaped the driver, but the truck ran on,
growing enormous, shambling by our street-doors,
coming and coming ...

By every right in town, by every average
we knew of in the world, it had to stop,
fetch up against a building, fall to rubble
from pure force of burning, for its whole
body and substance were consumed with heat
but it would not stop.

And all of us who knew our place and prayers
clutched our verandah-rails and window-sills,
begging that truck between our teeth to halt,
keep going, vanish, strike ... but set us free.
And then we saw the wild boys of the street
go running after it.

And as they followed, cheering, on it crept,
windshield melting now, canopy-frame a cage
torn by gorillas of flame, and it kept on
over the tramlines, past the church, on past
the last lit windows, and then out of the world
with its disciples.

    Driving Through Sawmill Towns


In the high cool country,
having come from the clouds,
down a tilting road
into a distant valley,
you drive without haste. Your windscreen parts the forest,
swaying and glancing, and jammed midday brilliance
crouches in clearings ...
then you come across them,
the sawmill towns, bare hamlets built of boards
with perhaps a store,
perhaps a bridge beyond
and a little sidelong creek alive with pebbles.


The mills are roofed with iron, have no walls:
you look straight in as you pass, see lithe men working,

the swerve of a winch,
dim dazzling blades advancing
through a trolley-borne trunk
till it sags apart
in a manifold sprawl of weatherboards and battens.

The men watch you pass:
when you stop your car and ask them for directions,
tall youths look away—
it is the older men who
come out in blue singlets and talk softly to you.

Beside each mill, smoke trickles out of mounds
of ash and sawdust.


You glide on through town,
your mudguards damp with cloud.
The houses there wear verandahs out of shyness,
all day in calendared kitchens, women listen
for cars on the road,
lost children in the bush,
a cry from the mill, a footstep—
nothing happens.

The half-heard radio sings
its song of sidewalks.

Sometimes a woman, sweeping her front step,
or a plain young wife at a tankstand fetching water
in a metal bucket will turn round and gaze
at the mountains in wonderment,
looking for a city.


Evenings are very quiet. All around
the forest is there.
As night comes down, the houses watch each other:
a light going out in a window here has meaning.

You speed away through the upland,
glare through towns
and are gone in the forest, glowing on far hills.

On summer nights
ground-crickets sing and pause.
In the dark of winter, tin roofs sough with rain,
downpipes chafe in the wind, agog with water.
Men sit after tea
by the stove while their wives talk, rolling a dead match
between their fingers,
thinking of the future.

    An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There's a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can't stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There's a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit—
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

    Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil

The first night of my second voyage to Wales,
tired as rag from ascending the left cheek of Earth,
I nevertheless went to Merthyr in good company
and warm in neckclothing and speech in the Butcher's Arms
till Time struck us pintless, and Eddie Rees steamed in brick lanes
and under the dark of the White Tip we repaired shouting

to I think the Bengal. I called for curry, the hottest,
vain of my nation, proud of my hard mouth from childhood,
the kindly brown waiter wringing the hands of dissuasion
O vindaloo, sir! You sure you want vindaloo, sir?
But I cried Yes please, being too far in to go back,
the bright bells of Rhymney moreover sang in my brains.

Fair play, it was frightful. I spooned the chicken of Hell
in a sauce of rich yellow brimstone. The valley boys with me
tasting it, croaked to white Jesus. And only pride drove me,
forkful by forkful, observed by hot mangosteen eyes,
by all the carnivorous castes and gurus from Cardiff
my brilliant tears washing the unbelief of the Welsh.

Oh it was a ride on Watneys plunging red barrel
through all the burning ghats of most carnal ambition
and never again will I want such illumination
for three days on end concerning my own mortal coil
but I signed my plate in the end with a licked knife and fork
and green-and-gold spotted, I sang for my pains like the free
before I passed out among all the stars of Cilfynydd.

    Incorrigible Grace

Saint Vincent de Paul, old friend,
my sometime tailor,
I daresay by now you are feeding
the rich in Heaven.


(from "Walking to the Cattle Place")

Coming out of reflections
I find myself in the earth.
                           My cow going on
into the creek from this paspalum-thatched tunnel-track
divides her hoofs among the water's impediments,
clastic and ungulate stones.
                            She is just deep
enough to be suckling the stream when she drinks from it.

Wetted hooves, like hers,
incised in the alluvium
this grave's-width ramp up through the shoulder of the bank
but cattle paunches with their tongue-mapped girths also
brushed in glazes,
easements and ample places
at the far side of things from subtractive plating of spades
or the vertical slivers a coffin will score, sinking.

North, the heaped districts, and south
there'd be at least a Pharaoh's destruction of water
suspended above me in this chthonic section.
Seeds fall in here from the poise
of ploughland, grass land.
                           I could be easily
foreclosed to a motionless size in the ruins of gloss.

The old dead, though, are absorbed, becoming strata.
The crystals, too, of glaze or matt, who have
not much say in a slump
seem coolly balanced toward me.
                                At this depth among roots
I thank God's own sacrifice
that I am not here with seeds and a weighty request
from the upper fields,
my own words constrained with a cord.

Not being that way, if I met the lady of summer,
the beautiful cow-eyed one, I would be saying:

Madam, the children of the overworld
cannot lay down their instruments at will.
Babel in orbit maps the hasty parks,
missile and daisy scorn the steady husbands
and my countrymen mix green with foreign fruit.

Meet the Author

Les Murray lives in rural Bunyah, New South Wales, where he was born in 1938. His books include Dog Fox Field (1992), Translations from the Natural World (1994), Subhuman Redneck Poems (1997), for which he was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize, and Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (1999).

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