Remembering Les Murray

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
of legend.

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


Photos: Warrick

On Ted Hughes

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I finished the monolithic biography of Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate this morning and thought I’d reflect on some of that. At 672 pages it’s an effort, but mostly worth it, except for some of the more arcane analysis, particularly close examinations of notebooks and notebook poems and some tenuous links between life and art.

It’s a bit of a defence of Hughes against the ‘Libbers’ and, despite the fierce instance of the value of Hughes’s work in its own right, he remains a figure connected always with his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Plath, a connection that’s evident in both the writing and the life lived forever after.

Bate argues that the release of Birthday Letters, late in Hughes’s career, marks a freeing up moment but Hughes didn’t live long enough after that to benefit from that clarity.

As a writer I was very interested in Hughes’s own working mode, his self-scrutiny and reliance on detailed notebooks, and observations of people and nature, many of which seem like poems themselves. This is an unauthorised biography, and it seems the estate did not give Bate permission to use poems in the text, behind the notebooks quoted a lot.

Most importantly, it’s drawn me back to a poet I thought very highly of when those first books came to my attention in the 1980s, and I pulled these two down from the shelf and re-read them both.

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My Books of the Year for 2015

My Books of the Year are unashamedly personal lists. They aren’t based on any votes or reviews and don’t generally cohere much with mainstream lists. That’s not entirely a bad thing. My book of the year is H is for Hawk, which won my non-fiction award this year.

Non-Fiction

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Winner: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

This book divides readers; it divided me as a reader, but like very good books when you read them, they startle and surprise and send your reading spinning off into new directions. I’m not sure I like the idea of trying to tame a hawk, nor am I sure I liked the persona here and her strange studied ignorance at times, but it’s beautifully written, and justly won the Samuel Johnson Prize, among others.

Highly recommended:

The Goshawk by T.E. White, an earlier hawking book that is directly and repeatedly references in H is for Hawk, and arguably a better book.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane is one of my favourite writers in the genre my daughter derides as ‘landscape memoir’, and this again takes up his love of the landscape and the names that frame it, in a deliberate act of restoration and recovery.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Finnegan’s surf memoir is anything but as limiting as that sounds. It’s a gorgeous, evocative, intimate account of growing up as a surfer and writer. It contains some of the most detailed descriptions of big wave surfing I’ve ever read and, more impressively, some of the most beautiful evocations of the power and terror of waves themselves. I listened to Finnegan read this as an audio book and I enjoyed that closeness and sense of intimacy with the writer.

Fiction

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Winner: Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Mason and Dixon was by far the most startling, difficult and interesting fiction I’d read for years. It’s not new, is nearly twenty years old, in fact, but seems fresh (though I did have some strange recall moments of Peter Carey’s fabulist tomes like Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.

Highly recommended:

Let me be Frank with You by Richard Ford, new stories of middle America.

Poetry

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Winner: The Moon before Rising by W.S. Merwin

This is a lovely slim volume in the tradition of slim American volumes. Merwin is 86, former Poet Laureate of the USA, and an old master. But, though he reflects on ageing and mortality, it is with a precision and sharpness and loveliness too that is as sure as ever: as in:

All at once he is no longer

young with his handful of flowers

in the bright morning their fragrance

rising from them as though they were

still on the stalk where they opened

only this morning to the light

in which somewhere unseen the thrush

goes on singing its perfect song

into the day of the flowers

and while he stands there holding them

the cool dew runs from them onto

his hand at this hour of their lives

is it the hand of the young man

who found them only this morning

 

There’s a good review from the Guardian HERE

Highly Recommended: On Bunyah by Less Murray.

Nice to come back to old man Murray again! With some of Les Murray’s marvellous work rebundled here in a slightly more autobiographical format, coupled with some evocative photos of his family and local sites, the book stands as a nice reworking of Murray in a slightly more personal context.

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This list (C) Warrick Wynne 2015

 

Poetry of the Thirties

What so often happens to me in reading is thar one thing leads to another. As it should.

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I recently picked up a copy of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James at Readings and enjoyed most of the essays on poets that he’d felt were important to him over the years; Frost, Edgar, Eliot, Les Murray, Auden. James has a bit of fetish about form and all that, which is repeated a bit, but he always has something interesting to say. At one point, he waxes lyrical over a Louis MacNeice poem, Meeting Point and recommends the Penguin Classic anthology, Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.

So, I dug out my old copy of that anthology and re-read the introduction and that poem and dippped into those poems from a decade haunted by the rise of fascism and the coming of another war. They are familiar names: Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Spender, but as Skelton says in the introduction, Auden ‘dominates (this period) from first to last’, and he certainly has more poems in this anthology than any other poet.

My favourite, Lay Your Sleeping Head, later published as Lullaby.

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Coincedentally, picking up my copy of The Monthly today, I read Late Styles, a review by Justin Clemens of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past and Clive James’s Sentenced to Life.

The review labours to make the unsurprising point that Murray is a better poet than James, and takes James to task, describing his work in this collection as ‘sentimental’, ‘self-pitying’, ‘pretentious’, ‘platitudinous’, ‘narrow’ and ‘almost infantile’. My guess is that Clemens see himself as not shirking the truth of the review but really …?

I’d rather not end my thinking about poetry this week with the mean-spirited superficialities of the review of a dying man’s book, but go back to Auden again, and this poem, from 1937, which seems beyond politics, personal or otherwise.

Lullaby

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreadful cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless.

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness see you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden

My Books of the Year for 2014

I was reading a lot about landscape again this year, and walking. And landscape and walking, preparing to walk in the Lake District and in Scotland, especially in Skye. I wasn’t disappointed.

Non-Fiction

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Winner – Four Fields by Tim Dee

Four Fields is an exploration four different landscapes, from the fens of England to the wind-swept aridity of the African veldt. It’s what my daughter would disparingly call ‘landscape memoir’ or I might call topographical writing. It’s beautifully written, more like poetry than prose often, and in touch with the human and the natural and with a recurring them of birds (Dee is a birder after all) My favourite landscape of the four explored was the fens, mainly because I finally got to see that landscape earlier this year, but it is all beautifully handled.

You can read a review from the Guardian HERE They called it ‘enthralling and unexpected and one from The Independent HERE

Highly Recommended

Swimming to heaven: the lost rivers of London by Iain Sinclair

This began as a monologue delivered as a speech, a pocketbook about the rivers that used to run through London, where they are now, and why they matter still. Sinclair is a poet and walker, I read London Orbital, a while ago, which describes his circular walking journey of London tracing the M1?, and loved it. This is lesser, but any lover of river literature: I’m calling them river

Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city by Russell Shorto

Travelling to Amsterdam for the first time I’m glad I read this. It’s a kind of sweeping social history of Amsterdam from its earliest founding to modern times, always with an emphasis on what it was that made this city somehow different from everywhere else in Europe, sometimes radically so.

And, I can’t leave the list-making without mentioning Walking with Wordsworth by Norman Buckley, our trusty guide to the Lake District and the only physical book I took on that trip. The walks featured all follow the Wordsworth trails and travels, and are all easily done in a day.

Fiction

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Winner – A Million Windows by Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane is difficult. Or I find him so. A beautiful purist who pretends to be exploring the writing of fiction while he’s really exploring his old themes: love, landscape, our place, that place just at the edge of the fields with the road and the sun flashing off the windscreen of a car driving somewhere. However, whereas I found his most recent A History of Books almost unreadable, I found this also strangely moving as perhaps one of our best writers, struggles to capture the uncapturable past.

Highly Recommended

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

I would never have picked this up to read: ‘Meet Balram Halwal, the ‘White Tiger’: servant, philosopher, entrepeneur, murderer … See. I read it because I was writing something about it for a publisher as it is coming on the Year 12 English course next year. And it was better than I thought. A first person narrative that is part thriller but mostly expose of the modern India; a place in the fulcrum of a great change: or this is what the novel says. I’ve never been to India. And there are places described here that I definitely dont’ want to visit. But, after reading this book I also feel that there’s something happening across the Indian Ocean that’s pretty interesting

Poetry

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Winner – Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick

I like Mark’s Tredinnic’s poetry, an Australian poet based in NSW. He won my poetry award two years ago with Fire Diary, and this is just as good, a lovely looking and sounding collection of poems roughly connected with the ideas of birds. There’s a bit of a theme emerging here perhaps.

Highly Recommended

Swamp by Nadi Chinna

Topographical poetry is the NBT (next big thing) says I. Or is it pyschogeography? Hopefully. This series of poems is based on an imagine walking of the old, built over lakes and swamps of Fremantle, WA.