Poems the Size of Photographs

Les Murray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

128 Pages



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In Poems the Size of Photographs, internationally renowned poet Les Murray deftly maneuvers through rich and familiar terrain—the Australian people, politics, and landscape—as well as terrain that is much harder to render tangible: history, myth, and symbol. As if trying to locate the fissure through which to crack open his subject matter, Murray has sharpened his form to an ideogrammatic brevity. Each snapshot-like poem in this volume thus develops before the reader's eyes, as the initially observed object or moment in time changes meaning and grows in complexity and resonance line by line.


Praise for Poems the Size of Photographs

"The great bulk of Murray's poetry [is] unlike anything else in the world of modern writing. It is above controversy about modernism and traditionalism, and remains a challenge to whatever is left of contemporary commitment to verse."—Peter Porter, The Guardian (London)

"Murray's nimble voice manages to be simultaneously down-to-earth and ephemeral . . . In just two lines, he can conjure an emotion with surreal precision."—Time Out New York

"A fad-averse contrarian, Murray has made his career writing poems about the poor, rural backwaters in New South Wales, where he was born and where he still lives. His usual fixations—with aboriginal culture, with farms, with his painful childhood (he was mercilessly teased for being fat; his mother died unexpectedly)—here give way to a more philosophical exploration of the illustrative power of words, producing poetry concerned with 'international sign-code,' 'pictographs,' and 'speech balloons.' These poems are brief enough to suggest that a word is worth a thousand photographs, and yield some of Murray's most lasting pastoral images: 'Sheep are like legal wigs / the colour of fissured cement.' At Iguassu Falls, 'a bolt of live tan water / is continuously tugged / off miles of table / by thunderous white claws.' Murray's punchy polemical side is in evidence, too. 'I feel no need to interpret it / as if it were art,' he writes of an empty but beautiful landscape. 'Too much / of poetry is criticism now.' 'In a Time of Cuisine' is a mere four lines long: 'A fact the gourmet / euphemism can't silence: / vegetarians eat sex, / carnivores eat violence.'"—The New Yorker

"A varied collection of mainly short pieces, ranging from close-ups of fruit bats and jellyfish to wide-angle shots of Australia and panoramas of the universe . . . Murray's penchant for the provocative sweeping statement, coupled with his politics—most notably his questioning of multiculturalism—have made him Australia's most controversial poet as well as her best known. Nevertheless, however much one may, at times, disagree with him, the Murray of Poems the Size of Photographs is seldom disagreeable. Indeed, this is Murray's most likeable collection since 0Translations from the Natural World (1992), and once again it is Murray's reverence for that natural world as well as his ability to mythologize scientific discovery and observation that provide many of the book's strongest moments . . . Murray successfully writes both weighty and light verse and handles the urban as well as the pastoral . . . Amid many topics and styles, repeated motifs and preoccupations give a satisfying, though largely unplanned, wholeness to a book [that offers] an impressive display of Murray's versatility."—William Wootten, The Times Literary Supplement

"Murray's poems [have always] been formed by applying intense pressure to the language . . . The poems in this excellent collection seem as inevitable, and as beyond interpretation, as any natural landscape; yet they are finely crafted, human things. Exploiting the tension between the world we inherit and the world we make, Murray's modern pastorals and portraits are classical in emphasizing our smallness, which we fight against, not always unheroically. The poems partake of that smallness, but their modest proportions belie the fact that these snapshots in few words are worth hundreds of thousands of pictures, clear speech amid the clutter."—Andrew DuBois, The Harvard Review

"In his eleventh book, renowned Australian poet Murray concentrates his muscular style, passion for landscape, and satirical humor into short and pithy poems. Tightly framed, most can be taken in at a glance, and yet, like developing photographs, they fully disclose their finer details and nuances more slowly. Murray begins with a mischievous tribute to the 'new hieroglyphics,' the international symbols of airports and restaurants, pictographs of the forbidden and the required. The contrasts between words and images intrigue Murray and inform his sly, sometimes startling, always colorful and animated lyrics, yarns, and epigrams. Murray relishes the Australian vernacular and displays a fondness for shade and shadows, a delight in lightning, a love for trees, and a mix of admiration for and fear of sheer rocky cliffs and the boiling sea. Irony surfaces in brief glimpses into colonialism, politics, and war, while complex memories of life before electricity, let alone electronics, are conveyed in remarkably expressive poetic shorthand. In sum, Murray's antipodal voice is droll, foxy, and delectable."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Poems the Size of Photographs, [Murray's] 12th collection since he started out in the mid-1960s, has 94 poems, most of which are snapshot-size: 70 of them are fewer than 15 lines, and 10 are longish, more than a page. In most instances, the shorter length does not mean the poems are lightweight or easy. On the contrary, they are usually dense and are occasionally abstruse. Murray's poems usually explore challenging themes—politics, religion, mythology, and even the nature of consciousness—with the conversational, ironic, and off-the-cuff tone of an unsentimental realist."—Andrew Frisardi, Los Angeles Times

"Murray has gathered fans (and opponents) since the 1970s, when he began to depict pastures, forests, and suburbs—along with a strenuously contrarian politics—in lanky, confident free verse, giving a sound to the 'sprawl' that for him defines Australia. Murray made waves worldwide with the book-length Fredy Neptune (1999) and the selection Learning Human (2000) . . . His new volume returns to the short descriptive poems linking his eco-friendly Catholic worldview to the sights and sounds of Australian locales: 'That hawk, clinging to / the eaves of the wind, beating / its third wing, its tail // isn't mine to sell.' Murray's tones range from bluff declaration to saddened retrospection—sometimes combining the two, as in a memory of a 'live Christmas tree' 'when it shed its brittle bells / and the drought sun bore down like dementia.' Pointed quips against globalization ('the flag of the West is now a gourmet tablecloth') sit easily by native Australian legends in Murray's retellings, which try to celebrate 'every vernacular and variant // the world reach of English would present' . . . Murray works best when his poems resemble snapshots not just in size but in aim, giving us not only his unmistakably assertive personality, but something to see—a ramshackle house, an emblematic tree, or the shrubbery at the end of the volume, its growth 'like flowers still partying / when their dress has gone home.'"—Publishers Weekly

"The short poems in Murray's latest collection are more accessible to American readers than Murray's longer, Australian-focused works . . . More than 'the size of photographs,' Murray here seems to take his cue from the photographer's need to show rather than say. His best poems are examples of how 'spare literal pictures render most nouns and verbs / and computers can draw faster than Pharaoh's scribes,' as he says in the opening poem. Many memorable poems, some as short as two or three lines, fit perfectly into Pound's definitions of Imagism. Landscape lends itself especially well to the methodology here."—Library Journal

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Les Murray is the author of nine books, including Conscious and Verbal (FSG, 2001). He has received the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He lives in New South Wales, Australia.
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  • Les Murray

  • The acclaimed Australian poet Les Murray (born 1938) lives and writes on a farm on the north coast of New South Wales, where he was born in 1938. His books include Dog Fox Field, Translations from the Natural World, Subhuman Redneck Poems, Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, Learning Human: Selected Poems, Conscious and Verbal, and Poems the Size of Photographs. In 1998, Murray was awarded the Gold Medal for Poetry presented by Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Les Murray Copyright Peter Solness
    Les Murray