Among the truly great poets, the handful of absolute masters, the most neglected is Horace. This was not always so, but when the study of Latin fell away so too did Horace’s influence and reputation. He does not yield readily to translation: his poetry combines colloquial ease and extreme concision in a way almost impossible to imitate in other tongues. (David Ferry’s marvelous versions don’t even try to be concise, but they capture much of Horace’s distinctive and inimitable charm.) In the last hundred years, two major poets in English have understood themselves as heirs to the Horatian tradition. One of them is W. H. Auden, and the other is Les Murray.
Michael O’Loughlin has named this tradition “retired leisure,” a retreat from the vortex of social and political life not simply to repudiate it, but to save yourself from being torn apart by it, to see it more clearly, to bear vivid witness to its absurdities—and perhaps to exemplify better ways to live. Horace’s friend and patron Maecenas bought him a farm near modern Licenza—the poet called it his “Sabine farm”—and from there he watched with tolerant wisdom the follies of Rome, and wrote his beautiful poems. Les Murray’s place in little Bunyah, up the North Coast of New South Wales, is his Sabine farm.
Because there’s plenty of room in the countryside, the view from the farm is a sprawling one, and Murray is an advocate of sprawl. To sprawl is to ease past boundaries, cheerfully, without aggression. “Sprawl gets up the noses of many kinds of people / (every kind that comes in kinds),” but sprawl doesn’t worry too much about this.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.
The poem I’ve been quoting from, “The Quality of Sprawl,” is one of Murray’s most famous ones, and widely cited in Australia. It does not appear in the New Selected Poems. (Neither does the marvelous Centurion poem.) Murray offers no explanation for this, indeed offers nothing here but poems: the collection bears no preface or introduction or acknowledgments, not even dates, so it’s impossible to tell what order the poems have, if any. Such insouciance is itself a kind of sprawl.