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.