John Murphy, editor of The Lake, asked me to write a tribute to Les Murray which appeared in the July issue. http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/poetry-archive/les-murray/
A poem is the product of the dreaming mind, the rational mind and the dancing mind according to Les Murray whose poetry, controversial philosophies and life values spring from his massive intellect and curiosity, his love of the Australian bush and his early experience of penury and emotional violence. By ‘bush’ I mean countryside, landscape, the place of his formative years in Bunyah, New South Wales.
From a line of Scottish farmer settlers Murray’s attachment to the land and feelings of being an outsider infuse his work. His own story he likens to Greek tragedy. The loss of his mother when he was twelve after complications following an ectopic pregnancy forced him to live with the paralysing grief of his father and to assume the role of carer. There was a lifetime of brawling between his father and grandfather after the death of his uncle when felling a tree. As a bright boy of large stature and reportedly gauche he was ridiculed in school. Murray speaks openly of his torment but it didn’t stop him engaging forcefully with the world. He celebrated life, railed against the avant-garde, social injustice and the exclusion of the vulnerable and non-conformist.
I first heard Murray reading his poetry at an event in Melbourne in 2010. He was supporting Poetry Idol, the stirrings of performance and slam poetry in Australia. By then his poetry was on book lists in schools and he was deemed a ‘National Treasure’ though I’m sure he must have laughed or winced about that. He was certainly a superhero in contemporary Australian literature and recognised internationally as one of the best contemporary poets writing in English.
Ted Hughes put him forward for the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry which he won in 1998. At the presentation ceremony he cut a fine figure in a sharp suit looking a bit like Alfred Hitchcock, smiling at the queen, she smiling back.
His work has been translated into several languages and has also won The Petrarch Prize (2005), the TS Eliot Award (1997) and a swag of Australian awards. He published thirty collections of poetry, two verse novels, essays and collections of prose and has edited several poetry anthologies and performed the role of poetry editor for Quadrant from 1989-2018.
That night in Melbourne I remembered thinking he had the soft moon face of my grandfather and the cosy home-knit that made him look like the old man up the road. He didn’t seem to bother much about performing or slamming that night. He read quietly and quickly. I remember feeling disappointed, wishing he would slow down and speak out. I wanted to relish his hawk eye for detail, the profane and pedestrian mashed together in a fresh patterning often harking back to Hopkins as in the poem ‘Performance’.
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 fouettés, 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.
from Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996
In an interview with Robert Haas, at the 2011 Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam he begins the session with a reading. It’s hard to know where the poems begin and end. His reading is rushed and mumbled but after a lively Q and A he reads again and the difference in execution is palpable. It seems that in telling only a small part of his life story he gains the confidence to speak with marked animation and commitment.
He was reading his animal poems from Translations from the Natural World which came out of his depression and debilitating panic attacks. He ‘ventriloquises’ some of the creatures admitting to a form of catharsis in the writing of these poems. His sense of humour and the unexpected is shot through his work.
Us all on sore cement was we.
Not warmed then with glares. Not glutting mush
Under that pole the lightning’s tied to.
No farrow-shit in milk to make us randy.
Us back in cool god-shit.
Murray’s candid disclosures in interviews are compelling and disarming. In the middle of what seems to be a regular anecdote he becomes lyrical and fanciful, alluding to a Greek god or German philosopher. His responses frequently punctuated by that laugh, bordering on a giggle and a sharp intake of breath. Some of his comments leave the interviewer speechless. He is never predictable and while he felt that Australian poetry should eschew the post-modern his own poetry is often experimental and veers into the mythical and wickedly outlandish.
In the sixties and seventies Murray upset many people in the literary world with his conservative politics and scorn for the intellectual cliques that cluster around universities. His critiques of academia and what he perceived as political bias in the distribution of literary funds he expressed with clarity and élan, a chip perhaps resting lightly and sometimes not so lightly on his broad shoulder.
It seems as though he was treated with suspicion by peers when he was invited by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard to help rewrite part of the constitution. At the same time his early political movement is said to have been a forerunner of the Greens and Democrats.
Murray was a nuanced, complex character as well as a wonderful raconteur and critic, frequently possessed by anxiety when, after receiving harsh criticism of his own work, which has been referred to by some as patchy and even doggerel, was then reluctant to critique others.
Since his death several young poets have spoken of the encouragement and mentoring that Murray gave them if he felt their work showed promise. He was generous in his time in fostering new talent.
I have heard him speak highly of certain fellow poets and more recently of his friend and fellow recipient of The TS Eliot Award, Pascale Petit. He became her mentor saying, ‘ ‘No other British poet I am aware of can match the powerful mythic imagination of Pascale Petit.’ And Pascale, writing on hearing of his death said of Murray, ‘…a great, great poet. A world treasure. A gift to the earth and to his readers…His quality of sprawl and trance unmatched.’
In 1989 he returned to his beloved Bunyah with his wife, writer and musician Valerie Morelli, and remained there until his last months in a nursing home in Tarree, NSW in 2019. He is survived by Valerie and their five children.
At one stage in his discussion with Haas he says that Australia is now bereft of eccentrics. He posits that this country is ignored because its heartbreaks are trivial compared to those of the rest of the world. We lack rivers of blood, he says, in so many words. Les Murray – ‘contrarian bastard’ laments Thomas Keneally, ‘You’ve reduced us to your poetry.’
Image from the Western Suburbs Weekly