Thursday, 2 May 2019

REMEMBERING LES MURRAY

I can't remember when I first encountered the poetry of Australian writer, Les Murray, but it must have been before 1994, when I included his work in a course I taught called 'Countries of the Mind'.

I had read the early Collected Poems (Minerva 1992) and was exhilirated by the poet's wide-ranging intelligence, endlessly inventive metaphors and variety of poetic forms.  He wrote with compassion and humour.  His choice of subject matter was omniverous ('I am only interested in everything').

Blake Morrison's often-quoted description of Murray as 'One of the finest poets writing in English, one of a superleague that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky' was printed on the back cover.  The other three members of the 'superleague' went on to win the Nobel Prize, but sadly not Les Murray though he surely deserved it.  But he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1999.  There's a lovely photograph of him in a huge baggy suit (he usually dressed as if he was going out to do a day's farm work) grinning at the Queen who grins back.

That early Collected included the long lyrical poems 'Noonday Axeman' and 'Spring Hail'.  The first ('two miles from here, it is the twentieth century') has its repeated phrase 'Axe-fall, echo and silence' - a solitary labourer felling a tree the centuries old (hard) way with an axe.  The second poem begins

This is for spring and hail, that you may remember:
for a boy long ago, and a pony that could fly.

and these words again become a chorus that recurs in the poem.  It emphasises the close relationship of the boy and his pony.

Les Murray was born in 1938 and grew up on a dairy farm at Bunyah in New South Wales and he returned to live at Bunyah in later life.  The compilation of poems and family photographs On Bunyah is a good introduction to his life and writing.

 In 1971 he made literature his full-time work ('The trouble with writing poetry,' he once said, 'is that everyone wants you to do anything but write poetry').  Each of his books is prefaced with the dedication 'To the glory of God'.

I heard Murray read on four occasions: Cockermouth in 1996, Carlisle 1997, Grasmere 2005 and Dumfries 2008.  I quickly learned that it was important to get to a reading early and sit near the front - for such a big man he had a surprisingly quiet voice and read his poems in a throwaway style (no hint of performance or drama).  I was always attracted by his sincerity and honesty, and his mischievous sense of humour.

Someone has said that he was 'profoundly uninterested in compliance' - hence a poem like 'The Quality of Sprawl' which begins

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls Royce
into a farm utility truck

It's impossible to convey in a short post the wide variety of Les Murray's work.  Here are three picked at random:
'It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen' about his autistic son,
the popular 'Morse' about Bill Tuckett who carried out a life-saving operation following instructions in morse code, and the beautifully succinct 'Home Suite' which ends

First home as last
is a rounded way to live
but to tell another You're my home
speaks of greater love. 


You can read an obituary of Les Murray here:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/01/les-murray-obituary




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