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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Conscious and Verbal

Les Murray

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To purchase Conscious and Verbal

Title: Conscious and Verbal
Author: Les Murray
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1999
Length: 94 pages
Availability: Conscious and Verbal - US
Conscious and Verbal - UK

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Our Assessment:

B : fine selection, with a few very impressive pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 16/3/2000 Stephen Burt
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/1/2002 Emily Nussbaum
The New Yorker . 29/10/2001 .
TLS A 25/8/2000 Steven Matthews

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like all of Murray's poetry, these verses are resolutely class-conscious, shaped by his firebrand Australian republicanism, love of the spiritualized power of the bush and rage on behalf of the dispossessed. (...) Yet what is most effective is Murray's insistence on language as a transcendent lever of worldly change." - Emily Nussbaum, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a survivor's poetry commissioned not by trauma but by the confidence of being alive and able." - The New Yorker

  • "(H)is pointed final sentences again and again throw us out and away from contexts in which both poet and reader might have become too settled. (...) This collection captures more forcefully than before the shame enforced by casual class exclusions on the rural poor among whom Murray was raised." - Steven Matthews, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       In 1996 Les Murray suffered a near-fatal health crisis that left him comatose for some three weeks. The title of this collection comes from the press-reports announcing his coming out of the coma: that he was once again "conscious and verbal". Verbal he remains, and, as this collection shows, he has lost none of his poetic vigour.
       The story behind the title, and then especially the dedication (Murray's standard: "To the glory of God") may worry some readers, suggesting a mellower, god-grateful poet happy just to be alive. But fortunately it is the same old Murray at work here.
       The collection begins with Amanda's Painting, the poet part of the picture, "seated in a shield". He writes: "I'm propelling the little craft with speech." Words are Murray's motor, and his weapon and defense. After his brief incapacity he sees himself again able to return to them, to use them once again to move forward.
       His illness figures in a few of the poems in the collection, but it does not dominate it completely. In Travels with John Hunter -- one of the longer poems (though only just over two pages) -- Murray describes what happened, neatly compressing and relating the before and after -- and that lost in-between time of nearly three weeks:

Twenty days or to the heat-death
of the Universe have the same duration:
vaguely half an hour.
       Poetry is always something for him to aspire to:
God, at the end of prose,
somehow be our poem
       There are familiar preoccupations in these poems: nature, issues of class and race. There is a certain anti-intellectualism: "Intellectuals invented race" he accuses (attacking two birds with one stone), for example. Or, in the marvelous The Instrument (previously published in Learning Human (see our review)), he insists that intellectuals do not read poetry, they merely "want to control it".

       Some of the poems are very simple and direct, like Drought Dust on the Crockery, reading in its entirety:
Things were not better
when I was young:
things were poorer and harsher,
drought dust on crockery,
and I was young.
       Others poems are elaborate, such as the sharp The Engineer Formerly Known as Strangelove (cleverly taking on the Kubrick-film-character). There is A Dog's Elegy, a dark poem of revolutionary Nanjing (At the Swamping of Categories), some Sound Bites, and an earthquake apologia of sorts (Ernest Hemingway and the Latest Quake). The New Hieroglyphics offers a clever take on the rise of what he calls "sunflower talk, i.e. / metaphor" -- language reduced to symbols and pictograms.

       There is a great deal of variety to these poems. Most are fairly accessible, with Murray getting carried away in language less frequently than in some of his collections. But it does seem more an accumulation of poetry, something of an unfocussed mix. It is certainly worthy, but does not add up to more than its parts.
       Still, much of it is fairly impressive stuff.

       "Too much / of poetry is criticism now", Murray complains. And he is also concerned about the lack of poetic sense in the modern world:
       Celebrity times
resemble Red Guard times
museums purged of past
dead poets not reprinted
       It is a lament we certainly empathize with. Fortunately, not all is entirely bleak, and a few authors -- such as Murray -- do remain, at least to some extent, in print -- and offer poetry that is much more than merely critical.

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Conscious and Verbal: 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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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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