Once upon a time I was sipping a latte on the main street of Mildura when the TV personality Clive James walked past and I thought, ‘That’s odd.’
A minute or two later, the poet Les Murray followed in James’s footsteps up the main street, heading in the direction of his namesake river like an amphibious landing craft, and I thought, ‘That’s amazing.’
Seeing Clive was something. Seeing Les was everything.
This memory from more than a decade ago resurfaced recently.
I’d read James’s latest poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, and … nothing much happened. There were a few nice lines. There was at least one lovely poem, ‘Japanese Maple’. But it’s not going to be one of those poetry collections I have on heavy rotation and read and read and read again.
It’s not that I dislike James. Or his polymath ways. It’s just that there’s not enough music in his poetry for me. The ideas and imagery, generally, feel tepid. The lines heartfelt, but rote. Much of his poetry just does not feel original.
I haven’t yet bought Murray’s latest poetry collection, Waiting for the Past, but will soon. When I do, I’m expecting a far more extreme experience. Knowing Murray, the pages will be packed to the gunwales and the poems will make me hot or leave me cold. There’ll be no middle ground and nowhere to hide.
Justin Clemens put it best when he was comparing the poetry of James and Murray: ‘James is pretentious and platitudinous; Murray is a dragon of inflammatory contradictions.’
Back in Mildura that day, I asked around to find out what brought Clive and Les to regional Victoria. Apparently, Clive was in town to be awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.
Hodgins, like Murray, was the real thing. A poetic dragon. Clive James is not.