Les Murray died yesterday. On the ABC News last night, David Malouf said,
He could be very funny. He could be very harsh. But we all listened to him, and we all needed to hear what he had to say.
Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog has posted an excellent summary of his life and career, and I expect that over the next couple of days there will be many learned accounts of his vast contribution to the culture of Australia and the world.
I was going to write a brief personal piece, but then I found in my old blog, Family Life, a 2006 review of the collection of his poetry intended to introduce him to US readers, and realised it said everything I’d want to say now, except how crushingly sad it is that he has died, and that as literary editor of Quadrant he first rejected a poem I submitted with generous marginal comments, and then, also in 2006, accepted a revised version, informing me of the acceptance in a handwritten note on a postcard of a bush shack.
Here’s a slightly altered version of what I wrote in 2006 about Learning Human, beginning with a reference to a review in the New York Times.
The review sees him as aspiring to be the poetic voice of Australia. In so far as he seeks to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s any nation, but a class, the rural poor, and perhaps another constituency – the non-human world.
Some of Les’s descriptions of the natural world are extraordinary: it’s like walking beneath the trees, sitting and watching the birds, strolling among the cattle. But he’s an incredibly uncomfortable read. You never know when he’s going to lash out at some aspect of the modern world, and I for one often feel I’m being unfairly attacked. I found this time – I’d read most of these poems before – that it helped to take him at his word and think of him as writing from the point of view of someone on the autism spectrum. There’s an odd sense of alienation from other people, of not quite being part of the human race, that underlies his conservative contrarianism: ‘Demo’ comes close to identifying its disdain for political rallies as a neurotic consequence of having been bullied at school; in what can be read as an acknowledgement of his own lack of empathy, the narrator of ‘Suspended Vessels’ turns away from a hot-air-balloon accident where 13 people had a ‘hideous’ death to mutter what seems to be a big-abstract-word equivalent of ‘Serves them right, the spoiled rich kids.’
That is to say, even though I suspect Les Murray, at least when in his poet state, wouldn’t be sorry to see me and my kind wiped from the face of the earth, I am still grateful for what he gives me in his poems. I do feel a personal affection for him. I met him at a Sydney Push party in the 1970s. He was a big man then, and wore a badge, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it.’ We were talking about Taoism, and he said to me, words I should have taken to heart, ‘There is no tao for stumbling in the dark. If you had the tao you’d walk.’
I’ve just remembered another part of that conversation. It was early days of the Women’s Liberation movement. Les said, ‘Mine is the only profession where men and women are truly equal.’ Obtuse as ever, I said, ‘You mean translators?’ (He was working as a translator in Canberra at the time.) ‘I mean poets,’ he said and that was prabably the end of the conversation.
This is lovely…
You know, I only became aware of Quadrant as an extreme right wing voice of the HR Nicholls society and its ilk, but there was a time (under Robert Manne?) when it was a more open-minded magazine for intellectuals and a place for new Australian writing.
I think that’s true, Lisa, and the board got rid of Robert Manne when he strayed too far into advocacy for people seeking asylum. But – confession time – my poem was accepted when Paddy Maguinness was editor, he who promoted the massacre denialist Keith Windschuttle. Les Murray, though conservative, was a shining light of reason and taste as literary editor.
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I was an education officer in Sydney – early 1983 I wrote to Les (we were very distant kinsmen – but in the way of the Scots – the clan is family) – I had just written my first serious paper arguing for the use of Australian writing – touching on our cultural and other diversity – in the teaching of English – to secondary “ESL” students – newly and relatively-recently arrived. I gave it the title “The Deep End of the Schoolyard” taken from one of his poems reflecting on wife Valerie’s own post-war DP arrival. He wrote back – and send me an essay he had written: “The Bonnie Disproportion” – a reflection on the percentage of poets then published in Australia of Scots background. It was an interesting read. Over the years I would occasionally send a communication – and back would come a postcard. During my time in Japan I determined to meet up – and driving down from having landed in Brisbane – to Lake Macquarie and my wife – I called in at the farmhouse at Bunyah – out from Taree. It was a pretty drive – and I was made welcome. Valerie had prepared a luncheon – we chatted – my life teaching – and teaching in Japan – and then, suddenly Les was up – and driving away – an appearance in Wollongong that evening I think. I took some photographs of the garden, ponds with water lilies/hyacinths in bloom – and farewelled Valerie. One or two postcards/letters since. Had hoped to see him the year before last at an appearance by him at the Newcastle Writers Festival but suddenly cancelled – he was indisposed – and when he did re-appear – my wife and I were away.
He was nearly 81 – a not indecent age at which to depart – but for those of us who found meaning in his poetry – referencing our lives as Australians AND citizens of this world – far too soon. When I first read him – little aware of our kinship connection – out of The Scottish Borders – I think he was included as among the last of the Jindyworobaks – a movement I had recently come across – Rex Ingamells a founder whose work was leading me into other perspectives rooted in and out from this land of Australia. Vale, Les – you certainly did it all for the Glory of God – and your country (local, national, cosmopolitan)!
I love the way you make connections, Jim. At least that’s how I see it. You tend to describe it as finding them! I’m glad the Murrays received you with such warmth – I’ve heard many stories of his generosity.
Thanks for this Jonathan. I hadn’t read Demo or Suspended vessels but both are in Selected poems which suggests he liked them. I must say I have some sympathy with the line in Demo “Nothing a mob does is clean”. Mobs scare me, I have to say, because no matter how much you may agree with an idea, you never know how people will behave en masse. Suspended vessels is powerful – there’s compassion their but also that sense of wealth/entitlement too.
I’d love to find more time to read his poetry but, my, it takes real time commitment to read even a short poem by him.
Yes, maybe my reading of both those poems was lopsided, Sue. There’s no doubting their power, though, however you read them
I’d like to argue that no reading of a poem is lopsided! Poetry is so personal, isn’t it.
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