Vale Les Murray, the bard of Bunyah Valley

Following the death of poet Les Murray on Monday I’ve been recalling an afternoon I spent with him sitting on the edge of the pier at Walsh Bay talking about poetry and life, his obsession with words, his bouts of depression, his experience of ‘erocide’ and abhorrence of mobs. We met up after a session at the 2005 Sydney Writers’ Festival so I could interview him for Good Reading magazine, but our conversation ranged far and wide until the sun was low in the sky, well beyond the assigned hour. He was on song, ebullient, overflowing with words. Here’s the story I wrote for Good Reading, August 2005.

Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles haircut
raises an alert periscope and stares out
over scrub.

For anyone who’s seen one, these lines so perfectly conjure an emu, that bizarre and slightly comical bird, that they could picture nothing else. This is the opening sentence of Les Murray’s poem ‘Second Essay on Interest: The Emu’ from his volume The People’s Otherworld (1983). In its humour, descriptive precision, wide ranging metaphors (from the natural to the mechanical world through pop music) and easy rhythms, this is quintessential Murray, the bush poet.

So are the following lines from ‘The Steel’ in the same collection: ‘At length a neighbour nurse / produced the jargon: haemorrhage, / miscarriage, and the ambulance / was swiftly on its way.’ Here the cool objectivity, staccato rhythms and abrupt movement through time convey another side of Murray: the impotent child of dairy-farming poverty whose excruciating agony following his mother’s death aged 35 when he was only 12 years old found no release. ‘Thirty-five years on earth: / That’s short. That’s short, mother’.

‘I’ll be the big man in a hat. I’ll be wearing some kind of hat,’ Murray tells me over the phone from his home in the Bunyah Valley (on the mid north coast of NSW) when we’re arranging to meet at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. But there’s no way I won’t recognise him - not only because he’s such a prominent part of the Australian landscape, but because his image was fixed indelibly in my mind in 2002 when novelist Elizabeth Knox pointed him out to me at the SWF.

‘There’s Les Murray,’ she sighed. ‘He’s my hero.’ I’ve never forgotten Murray’s vibrant figure, which is as impressive and unexpectedly grace-filled as the poetry to which it gives birth.

On the afternoon we’re to meet, Murray is speaking to a packed room at the SWF with his German translator Thomas Eichhorn on the translation into German of his verse novel Fredy Neptune (1988). As Eichhorn describes the challenges Murray’s 10,000-line poem posed for its translator, Murray, looking dashing in a brown sweater and red shirt, chuckles with delight. Fredy Neptune covers the first half of the 20th century from the First World War to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Its narrator, German-Australian Fredy Boettcher, is an international adventurer, strongman and sailor who, after witnessing a mass murder, becomes numbed to all feeling, including fire, knife-wounds and orgasm. Murray wrote the poem in English with a German idiom, and included fragments of deliberately awkward German, and somehow Eichhorn had to convey these linguistic complexities in German.

Following this mind-bending session, Murray (now in his trademark baseball cap) and I wander along the wharf and at his suggestion we settle on a wooden slab by the water in the radiant autumn sunshine. During the translation session I was struck by Murray’s profound, effortless intelligence, which I found unexpected in one so often described as a larrikin. This is a common misapprehension about Murray. As critic Peter Porter put it, Australians continue to be baffled ‘that someone who espouses country rituals’ should be ‘the most sophisticated and accomplished poet Australia has yet produced.’ Murray tells me he’s never called himself a larrikin and that he’s only used the word once in his poetry. Despite his interrupted education, Murray has managed to bring to fruition his prodigious intellect, extraordinary memory and natural gift for languages (he tells me he knows ‘ten or eleven’ but his biographer Peter Alexander calculates at least 20).

Murray’s poetry, deeply rooted in Australia and the Bunyah Valley, his sacred land, is acclaimed the world over. He won the prestigious German Petrarch Prize in 1995, the TS Eliot Award in 1996 (for Subhuman Redneck Poems) and, on the recommendation of poet Ted Hughes, was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1999. He has been ranked alongside Irish poet Seamus Heaney and West Indian poet Derek Walcott as one of the world’s greatest living poets - and rightly so. Murray’s achievement ranges over 12 collections and two verse novels, and his muscular language, which resonates on myriad levels of meaning, is capable of the alchemical magic that is achieved only in great poetry. Murray’s poetic ear is so true that his metaphors become the thing itself. One example of this is his transformation of a line of holiday traffic up the Pacific Highway into a serpent in ‘The Buledelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’: ‘It is the season of the Long Narrow City; it has crossed the Myall, it has entered the North Coast, / that big stunning snake; it is looped through the hills, burning all night there.’

I ask him about growing up in the country, which has powerfully shaped his autobiographical poetry. ‘Well I was an only child and I didn’t go to school until I was nine, so my friends were animals.’ Murray roamed free through his natal valley, across his parents’ and neighbouring dairy farms, and knows the creatures of his childhood intimately: ‘his polished horse is stepping nervously, / printing neat omegas in the gravel’.

Murray taught himself to read at four and read compulsively, newspapers, his mother’s encyclopaedia (most of which he had memorised by the time he went to school), the Bible, ‘anything I could get my hands on, even Bugs Bunny comics. I didn’t care.’ Another of Murray’s childhood passions is his love of machines, and he conjures them as unerringly as he conjures animals: ‘The bulldozer stands short as a boot on its heel-high ripple soles’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spacemen’).

Accounting for his obsessive nature, Murray describes himself as ‘half-autie’ (semi-autistic), which he explores in his ‘Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver’. He’s also written about his son Alexander, diagnosed with autism as a child, in poems like ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’. The Murrays, he tells me, produce someone obsessed with words, a gifted linguist, once a century or so, like the Scottish lexicographer Sir James Augustus Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. And like Murray himself.

Following his mother’s tragic death, Murray’s childhood came to an abrupt end. His father collapsed into grief - ‘For a long time, my father / himself became a baby’ - and Murray’s boyhood obsession with war took on a dark new life. He planned to leave school to train as an army officer, but his father, who’d promised his wife that he’d make sure their only child received an education, kept Murray at school.

Murray’s last two years of school were spent at Taree High, where he suffered excruciatingly the torments of other children, especially the girls. In ‘Burning Want’ Murray describes this experience as ‘erocide’ - ‘Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale’ - and it determined his lifelong abhorrence of mobs.

It was at Taree High that Murray discovered poetry, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot (although he only likes early Eliot, particularly ‘The Waste Land’). Murray is mistrustful of Eliot’s need to abandon America for the intellectual literary scene of London, which he believes was prompted by Eliot’s high-culture snobbery, another thing he abhors. When I ask Murray why he didn’t (apparently) like reading Shakespeare at school, he explains that somehow every Shakespeare play they did featured the notoriously plump Falstaff. The children teased him for his own great size by calling him Falstaff. To save him from Shakespeare and Falstaff, his teacher gave him Australian poetry to read. ‘I never knew there was any,’ he remarks. Reading poets like John Shaw Neilson, David Campbell, Kenneth Slessor, Bruce Dawe and Mary Gilmore was a revelation to him and taught him that Australians could write poetry about their own country.

He then realised he could do in words, in a poem, what he’d longed to do in paint (he’d always dreamt of being a painter, but knew he didn’t have ‘the gift of painting’). After leaving school he wrote his first ten poems on Christmas Day, aged 18, and the following year he went to Sydney University on a Commonwealth Scholarship. Here, at last, he found himself among kindred spirits, including his friend Bob Ellis and fellow poet Geoffrey Lehmann. But despite finding a haven at university, Murray became increasingly unsettled and began to sleep on the streets. In July 1961 he went walkabout: ‘A month from home, barely, / and I’d even made a beginning // in the more advanced, more fruitful subjects: / jettisoning weight, non-planning, avoidance of thought / in favour of landscape, stones and the travelling sky.’ (‘Recourse to the Wilderness’). The same year his first poem was published in the Bulletin, ‘The Burning Truck’, which he’d revised in a truckies’ cafe near Gundagai on his way to Melbourne.

When he returned to university he met Valerie Morelli, a devout Catholic of Hungarian/Swiss-German background. They married in 1962 and had five children. Murray converted to Catholicism in 1964, finding in it a sense of liberation and imaginative richness he’d not found in the deterministic, dour Calvinist Church of his childhood. For Murray, religion and poetry are inextricably entwined, almost synonymous, and he dedicates his poetry ‘To the glory of God’.

Murray, who always struggled to find work that suited him (he was an early and vocal advocate of state funding for artists), eventually found a perfect job, as a translator at the Australian National University, and in 1963 he and Valerie moved to Canberra. His first book of poems, The Ilex Tree, co-authored with Geoffrey Lehmann, was published in 1965 to wide acclaim. Soon after Murray spent a year travelling with his family through Britain and Europe. In 1968 they moved to Sydney, where Murray became friends with Kenneth Slessor, his ‘model and master’. Two years after the publication of his second collection of poetry, The Weatherboard Cathedral, in 1969, Murray left his job, determined never to have another one. In 1974 he was able to buy ‘The Forty Acres’, part of the farm on which he’d grown up and where he’s lived since 1986.

Soon after his return to the Bunyah Valley, Murray fell into a depression he calls the ‘Black Dog’. Murray had struggled through regular bouts of depression all his life, surviving with the help of poetry and his remarkable wife Valerie, until he hit 50. ‘That’s a big one,’ he says. Having smoked all his life, suddenly something in him decided to stop smoking - and he had his first full-blown panic attack and thought he was dying. Valerie rushed him to hospital where he was immediately put into the cardiac ward. Tests showed nothing wrong with his heart, but a brain-scan showed his brain had been flooded with adrenaline and he was diagnosed with clinical depression. Murray, who believes the condition runs in his family, tells me it’s very common among artists, and is central to poetry and the creative process.

Murray is fascinated by the unconscious wisdom of his mind, the part of him that knew he needed a massive breakdown in his life and stopped him smoking one day. He draws on this at the conclusion of Fredy Neptune, which he completed after finally coming out of his 8-year depression following an almost fatal abscess on his liver in 1996. Having been unconscious for 20 days, Murray regained consciousness to discover he’d left the ‘Black Dog’ behind. In Fredy Neptune, Fredy finds the key to freeing himself from his numbing past in a dialogue with his unconscious: ‘You have to pray with a whole heart, says my inner man to me’. For Murray, poetry comes from these two minds, the conscious and the unconscious, in concert with the body.

Each day Murray sits down and writes all morning, letters and other correspondence, ‘waiting to see if something will come, a poem’. If a poem does come, he works and reworks it in longhand until it reaches the stage when it’s ready to be typed. ‘That’s a big moment,’ he tells me, because ‘You can tell a lot about a poem when you’ve typed it’ - whether it’s working or not, whether it will be a poem. Many of Murray’s poems come to him while he’s walking around his farm. Given his love for his farm, I wonder that Murray travels so much (he’s just back from Milan). He tells me he doesn’t particularly like travelling, but he must ‘sing for his supper’.

Murray is full of paradox and delights in it. He’s fiercely, defiantly Australian yet reads 20 European languages and married a European. His life has been plagued by depression and the aching loss of his mother when he was a boy, but he’s filled with mirth and laughs often. He’s a massive man with a quicksilver presence. He’s apparently tone deaf but makes rhythmic music in poetry. No one has put the paradox of Murray more succinctly than Murray himself, when he called himself ‘the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems’.

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