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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Learning Human

Les Murray

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To purchase Learning Human

Title: Learning Human
Author: Les Murray
Genre: Poetry
Written: to 1999
Length: 224 pages
Availability: Learning Human - US
Learning Human - UK
Largely also in: Collected Poems - UK
  • Selected Poems
  • Contains poems from all of Murray's previous collections, and a dozen new poems.

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Our Assessment:

A- : big, varied selection, much of it very good

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Antioch Review A- Summer/2001 John Taylor
The Georgia Review . Winter/2000 Judith Kitchen
The New Republic A- 12/6/2000 Adam Kirsch
The NY Rev. of Books B+ 12/4/2001 A. Alvarez
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 12/3/2000 Albert Mobilio
Poetry . 1/2001 Bruce F. Murphy
San Francisco Chronicle A- 27/2/2000 Allan M. Jalon
World Lit. Today . Summer/2000 J.T. Hospital

  From the Reviews:
  • "Probably at his best when sympathizing with the toils and turmoil of the common man, Murray nonetheless displays an Elizabethan versatility, turning his gaze here to a national concern, there to the minutiae of existence. (...) If a few baroquely exuberant poems seem overwritten, as if language had stunningly smothered its object, his energetic, ever-roaming, self-forgetting curiosity about the world is admirable." - John Taylor, The Antioch Review

  • "At their extremes, Murray's praise and condemnation can sour into piety and resentment; but in the broad median of his art, he is a poet of great linguistic power and moral energy." - Adam Kirsch, The New Republic

  • "At times his ambition gets the better of him and his sheer technical proficiency becomes a burden. (...) Casual is what Murray does best." - A.Alvarez, The New York Review of Books

  • "Murray's versatility -- perhaps the unofficial job of national poet requires it -- sometimes stretches his gifts too far. But 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

  • "The Australian poet Les Murray certainly isn't worrying about which tropes he can use. He uses all of them. (...) It is interesting to realize that Murray displays the qualities for which rap artists are often praised. From this large selection of poems, a partial autobiography emerges" - Bruce F. Murphy, Poetry

  • "Murray's small sins are occasional excess and a vinegary political crankiness. (...) The worship of technological progress, business profit and political power draws a satirical current of suspicion from Murray. Still, he sees individual wonder as a crucial attitude always gratefully gained and miserably lost." - Allan M. Jalon, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "And what a vibrant and various package the honed-down Murriad is. One is awed by formal and verbal acrobatics, by metrical virtuosity (...), by the fusion of idea and form, of the profound and the playful, and by the sheer shining density of the lines." - Janette Turner Hospital, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Learning Human includes selections from all of Murray's previous collections, ranging from The Ilex Tree (1965) to Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996), as well as including a few new poems. We are not great fans of "selected" editions of poets, rarely trusting those who cull the poems (even when that is done by the poets themselves). Murray is also among those poets whose work is less amenable to being torn apart and stuck back together again, as there is generally a design and coherence to the individual collections that gets lost when it is re-presented piecemeal: obvious examples in this selection include the missing months of "The Idyll Wheel" and many of the "Translations from a Natural World", reduced to a few here.
       Still, Learning Human can stand as an introduction and overview of much of Murray's work. (There is, understandably, nothing here from the two verse novel-sequences, The Boys who Stole the Funeral and Fredy Neptune.) There is a good deal here that is striking and impresses, and one gets a good sense of Murray's many talents.
       The variety of poems is surprising: Murray handles a number of styles, subjects, and approaches equally well. There are poems that delight in language and sound, from simple descriptions as in "Wagtail":

Busy daylong
eating small species
makes little faeces
and a great wealth of song
       to more ambitious lines, such as: "Liar made of leaf-litter, quivering ribby in shim," (from "Lyre Bird").
       Sound is always significant, though not always pushed to the fore. The poems range from the abstruse (with long-lined, involuted complexity) to the straightforward. The breadth of Australia also breathes in many of them, an expanse Murray draws from. God, too, is a concern for the fundamentally religious writer, but Murray does not simply display and use religion's symbols, managing to convey spiritual grandeur more subtly. The poems also touch on the political, and there is a social awareness to many of them.
       There is a certain anti-intellectualism, as in the controversial short poem, "The Beneficiaries":
Higamus hogamus
Western intellectuals
never praise Auschwitz
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
When they claim it's what finally
won them their centuries
long war against God.
       There are autobiographical pieces as well. Murray worked as a translator in an Institute, nicely recounted in two of the poems. In "Employment for the Castes in Abeyance" he describes it as "a bowerbird's delight", explaining that:
It was a job like Australia: peace and cover,
a recourse for exiles, poets, decent spies,
for plotters who meant to rise from the dead with their circle.
       In one of the last pieces, "The Instrument", Murray asks "Who reads poetry ?" and "Why write poetry ?"
Who reads poetry ? Not our intellectuals
they want to control it.
       is the too-simple first claim. More convincing, because it is from the heart and not the mind, is the beginning of his answer to why write it: "For the weird unemployment."
       Murray is both poet and poetry lover, and he has a great command of his craft. His poetry is almost always worth the sometimes great effort it requires. Technically accomplished, elegant, direct, Murray manages to convey much of his personal universe in his verse. Many of the poems are very demanding, though there are also pieces that are disarmingly simple.
       A large collection such as this is a great deal of verse to deal with, but it is certainly recommended.

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Learning Human: Reviews: Les Murray: Other works by Les Murray under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry at the complete review
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian poet Les Murray was born in 1938. He has written numerous poetry collections, as well as two novels in verse.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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