When I typed that title I almost changed it. Remembering Les? I didn’t know him and I didn’t want this title to be a misleading invitation to some reader, eager for memories and anecdotes (there’s just one) but when I heard of Les Murray’s death this week I took a bit of time to remember what he meant to me as a poet over the years and also as an editor who supported my work.
When I discovered that poetry was still alive and real, and began reading and exploring poetry seriously for the first time, undertaking an MA at Monash University I soon discovered Les Murray. I wrote a minor thesis on the development of the long poem in Australia, from 1960 to 1980. It was an age of national re-evaluation and the study began with work like Captain Quiros by James McAuley and ended with Les Murray’s rollicking narrative of sonnets, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. I read a lot, including all of Murray, and grew to love his breath-verse, his gorgeous verve with words with favourites like the early Driving through Sawmill Towns andThe Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle and one of my very favourites: The Broad-Bean Sermon.
Murray is often described as the ‘bard of the bush’ kind of writer but more precisely I think he’s a fine poet of place, and was a big influence on me opening my eyes to ways of seeing the very particular. His sense of locale, of the landscape and history of the place, a strange conservative environmentalist (like another distinctive Australian voice: Eric Rolls?) I loved his inventiveness, his wit and his way of turning the familiar into this wonderful surprising thing (almost) trapped in language.
From the late 1980s as I was working hard towards the publication of my first book of poetry, I was writing furiously and sending poems out to all corners, lot of times without success. Murray had begun as poetry editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant in 1991 and was receptive to my work, as I was hugely admiring of his. I copped a little flak from publishing in that journal from some quarters, but Murray’s endorsement as poetry editor trumped any concerns I might have had about the politics of that journal. Murray published seventeen poems of mine over the next few years and I was always grateful for that support and endorsement. One of the poems of mine he published was this one:
NORTHERLY IN EARLY SPRING
Outside, the wind in the trees
sounds like the sea,
but warm; a northerly
uncomfortable among the grey
still bare brooms of poplars
that line the rim of this paddock.
The wind is a warm liquid,
unsettling, visible in waves
along the yellow-green grass, flattening
like a helicopter does or a flipper
of a diver brushing away the fine silt
Some crows, ink spots
in the high light,
are swimming like exotic fish,
suspended in it, sliding.
Their black fins, ragged,
torn along the edges,
as if something has been eating at them.
The one small anecdote? I was lucky enough to see Murray read his work several times over the years, at book launches and festivals. Once, while I was doing my Masters at Monash University, Murray did a reading for staff and students. Of course I went along and Les signed my copy of The Vernacular Republic (Poems 1961-1891) Afterwards, my supervisor suggested I join a few of the English Department teachers for a Chinese meal at a restaurant nearby: Les was coming along.
It was winter, dark, cold and I wanted to get home. I was tired, teaching full-time and trying to study and write. It was going to be a slow 45 minute drive home. So I didn’t go. I’ve always regretted it. Dinner with Les Murray. But, oddly enough, I really I didn’t, even then, feel a compelling need to meet the person because I knew so much through the poetry.
Luckily we’ll always have that.
Top: River Red Gums
Above: My copy of The Vernacular Republic, from the A&R Modern Poets series with the famously brittlely blued spines!, signed by Les Murray
Below: The broad, majestic Murray, near Mildura