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

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.

skelton

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

Australian Poetry Library

I’ve had a long held dream to promote some means for teachers to get hold of contemporary Australian poetry, for classroom use, and this week I learned that the Australian Poetry Library was attempting to do just that.

Funded by the Australian Copyright Agency, there’s none of my poetry there, but there is a pretty good range of poets with extensive range of poems: 1600 from Les Murray, over 700 from Peter Porter, nearly 500 p oems from Diane Fahey. Downloading is a little clunky (PDF by PayPal) and maybe they might have been better going for a broader spread of poets (they’ve closed the site to new poems I see) and spent a little more time on better searching, but it’s a pretty impressive start.

A Pod of Poets

I knew about the Radio National poetry progam Poetica of course, a long running poetry program hosted by Mike Ladd; they’ve even broadcast a couple of my poems in their ‘First Hearing’ series aeons ago. But I didn’t know about the ‘Pod of Poets‘ project, which is an audio archive of a group of important Australian poets.

They describe it this way:

A Pod of Poets is a series of eleven, 40-minute podcasts of Australian poetry, read by the authors. The poets come from all over Australia; some are emerging talents and some are established; several of them are on the school syllabus.

The audio is available to download here and you’ll also find transcripts, photographs, interviews, and more. We hope that this website will be an ongoing resource for researchers, schools, universities and the general podcast audience.

The poets are: Robert Adamson, Les Murray, Joanne Burns, John Kinsella, Josephine Rowe, Craig Billingham, L.K. Holt, Aidan Coleman, Jayne Fenton Keane, Martin Harrison, Sam Wagan Watson, Kathryn Lomer, Esther Ottaway, John Clarke and Jordie Albiston.

Definitely worth a listen!

the death of poetry

I can’t find the article online but the Review section of the Weekend Australian today featured a very poetic and forlorn looking Alan Wearne on the cover with the dramatic headline, ‘As this man accepted a premier’s award for poetry his publisher was planning to dump him’

Turns out that this was referring to Wearne’s verse-novel The Lovemakers and an incident in 2002, but that’s okay; things haven’t improved much. The two page feature by Rosemary Neill is a bit depressing in its thesis that big publishers are not interested in publishing poetry but does offer some rays of light in small press and (surprise) the internet.

Other poets pictured include Miles Merrill, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, Steven Herrick, David Malouf, Bronwyn Lea and John Tranter but my favourite is the Wearne portrait of the poet as a disillusioned man: darkly lit, hair ruffled, bearded, jumper and long scarf placed alongside a mirror of self-reflection or regret? Hand cupped pensively under his chin it’s either a masterful portrait of the archetypal angst-ridden poet, or he’s got tooth-ache! If this is how mainstream media delineates the ‘poetic’ then no wonder it’s marginalised.

Bioregionalism

I was interested in an article by Paul Cliff in the most recent THYLAZINE, about Les Murray’s relationship with the land, and introducing (for me) the concept of Bioregionalism, a term I found connected with some of my own thinking about art and landscape and earlier reading I’d done such as WALDEN and NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE. Bioregionalism is defined as:

The bioregional perspective has political, economic and social dimensions which value: regional and communal scale; conservation, self — sufficiency and cooperation; decentralisation and complementarity; and symbiosis and organic evolution. A bioregional approach can be viewed under four heads: Scale (endorsing life at the level of region and community — as opposed to the ‘Industrial Scientific’ paradigm of state and nation/world); Economy (valuing conservation, stability, self-sufficiency, and cooperation — as opposed to exploitation, change/progress, the world economy and competition); Polity (favouring decentralisation, complementarity and diversity — as opposed to centralisation, hierarchy and uniformity); and Society (working via symbiosis, evolution, division — as opposed to polarisation, growth/violence and monoculture) 3.

Another, simpler definition of the bioregionalist approach comes from a current American web site 4. This defines bioregionalism as:

a fancy name for living a rooted life. Sometimes called ‘living in place’, bioregionalism means you are aware of the ecology, economy and culture of the place where you live, and are committed to making choices that enhance them.

There’s more in the article HERE

Or go the Great River Earth Institute which Paul quotes from.