The Operating System

POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 17:: Jim Lounsbury on Les Murray

About ten years ago, I stumbled into a heated debate with a filmmaker friend about whether words or imagery was a more effective way to convey emotion. I argued the case for words, and he took the side of imagery. As the disagreement escalated to a passionate squabble and then to a stamp your feet and beat on your chest free-for-all, I began to wonder what gave me such a strong opinion on the issue. We were both filmmakers. We were both avid photographers. We were both working in the visual arts. What then, was my problem with accepting the visual medium as the superior art form? At the end of the night, we agreed to disagree, and I left, still confused about why I was so confident in the power of words.
Of course, my affinity for words could be biological. My internal chemistry set might not react to imagery as powerfully as it does to a well placed noun, but I wasn’t going to let myself off the hook that easily. Over the course of many months, my thoughts often returned to this argument until a plausible explanation finally struck me a few weeks later. Imagery was powerful at evoking emotion, but words have the ability to surgically cut to the bone and identify a precise emotion. I realized, in that moment, that I was a poet. That I saw life experience as the paint, and words as the brush with which an observation can be made, and I valued poets who could create the vivid imagery of dreams, while making a precise observation. One such writer I discovered in my late twenties, was Les Murray, a well loved and collected Australian poet who has a way of capturing an exact feeling, while still swimming in the dreamland of visual imagination. The same way a watercolor captures a blurry lined image that requires an emotional response to connect the dots, emphasizing feeling and impression as much as the accuracy of the observation. I think this is why I like Murray’s poetry so much. He intoxicates my visual side and activates my dream world, while feeding my hunger for observations, the ‘that’s so true’ that comes with an emotionally precise poem.
In his poetry, Les paints with the colors of the Australian psyche, landscape and the century old tenants of Aboriginal wisdom. In a lecture he gave in 1998 at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, Les makes the following observation about his own process:
Every undamaged human being has two minds and a body. One mind is that of waking consciousness, the other is the occult mind of dreams, which we live in fully during sleep but which is also present as reverie when we’re awake…
Looking inside myself, I detect that when I write a poem, I do so in a kind of trance, which integrates my two minds with each other and with their master-servant my body. The impulse to write the poem may come from any of the three, and each makes its contribution to the trance of composing. Waking consciousness supplies words, most ideas and probably much of the poem’s design. Dream lends it its aspect of timelessness, and its aura of mystery and the supernal; I suspect that many of the more daring flights and connections of any poem, the ones the mind might resist were it not charmed to silence, are carried on the flying carpet of our dream-life! The body, in turn, supplies feeling and rhythm, the free-and-bound dance of the words and images and it also supplies the laws of breath, which shall obtain in the work.
One of my favorite poems, and a wonderful introduction to Les Murray, is Performance, by no means the most significant of his works, but one that resonates with me. His website, offers numerous other examples of his work, including links to his compilations and contributions to poetry, and the full lecture he gave at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival, entitled In Defense of Poetry.
I starred that night, I shone:
I was footwork and firework in one,
a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with a parasol of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit;
I was busters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouéttes, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!
As usual after any triumph, I was
of course, inconsolable.

Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996
I leave you with an offering of my own work in celebration of poetry month – a poem borne of a different place and time to the work of Les Murray, but nevertheless, words still reaching to connect reality with the dream. Still reaching.
my heart is a river
in flood
a meandering
glacier valley
borne in sunlight sent
to sea
to see
an endless horizon
where you swim
in the deepest part
of me
jim lounsbury
Jim Lounsbury moved to Australia for love, and makes films to support a poetry habit. You can follow him on twitter at @poetreefalling or view some of his visual work at:
[Editor’s Note: Hip! Hip! Three Cheers for the power of Social Media. Here we have a fine example of the real life connections you can make if you understand how to make these tools work for you – if you understand them as extensions of human life, instead of its opposite or enemy. Check this out:
Only a few days after I’d launched our twitter account, I tweeted the call for Poetry Month participants into what tweeps (that’s “twitter peeps”) like to call the “twittersphere”…. and received a direct message from @poetreefalling (that is to say, Jim Lounsbury) a filmmaker and poet living in AUSTRALIA. We talked more over email and I quickly surmised that he was a wonderful addition to the series and our community, and a real connection was made. That’s the thing, hmm? Treat everyone out there like a human, and suddenly you’ve made several billion (potential) friends. Pretty cool, huh?]

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