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Les Murray, Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, passed away yesterday at the age of 80. A Catholic convert, his poems deal with religion, death, family, and art through the lens of rural Australia. Here is a piece we ran on Murray in 2013 in Kairos, Volume 24, Issue 6, written by Edwina Hall.
You can’t pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can’t poe one either.
Poetry and Religion
Les Murray AO is one of Australia’s finest poets. Often referred to as our bush bard, Les has written some of the most beautiful poetry in the land. A courageous survivor of all the challenges that life has thrown at him, Les has a deep understanding of nature and humanity in all its facets, and a passion for language that make his words come alive. Les’s wonderful use of the Australian vernacular throughout his work grabs you, draws you in and, to borrow a line from the poet himself, ‘tells the soul things the soul didn’t know’.
I was fortunate enough to meet Les Murray on two occasions: the first in person when he gave a superb poetry reading at the Carmelite Centre in Melbourne; and the second over the phone where he spoke to me from his home in Bunyah, northern New South Wales. I learned so much about life, poetry and the English language, in the couple of hours I had in the presence of this great man, so wide-ranging is his intelligence and so moving his work.
He was half way through his next book of poetry when we spoke.
Les’s story began on 17 October 1938 in Nabiac, near the dairy farm he would grow up on in Bunyah, NSW, alongside his father Cecil and mother Miriam. He reflects on a happy childhood up until the age of eight, when he first became aware of a ‘kind of tragedy’ his parents were living due to the poverty inflicted on them by his grandfather.
‘My grandfather was a man of low self-esteem who tried to buy the stuff,’ Les said. ‘There was a certain tree that needed felling, according to Grandfather; Dad said it was too dangerous and full of white ants, so worthless anyway.
‘Grandfather, who was a stubborn old alcoholic, insisted it should be cut down and Dad wouldn’t cut it, so Grandfather got Dad’s younger brother Archie to fell it. It crashed into his head and killed him. They fought a bitter battle over this for the next 20 years until Grandfather died.’
Les and his father were dealt another tragic blow in 1951, when Les’s mother died from complications after a miscarriage. After her death, her 12-year-old son and husband ‘lived in funeral’, as Les’s poem Burning Want
so poignantly describes.
It has often been said that the most terrible of life experiences can be made into art. Les Murray is living proof of this. He once said in an interview with Clive James that poetry comes from a ‘wound’.
‘It is a Greek inspiration,’ Les said. ‘They used to say that it grows on a tree that’s been wounded and I think [my poetry grew from] my parents’ unhappiness, which culminated in Mum’s death, and the fact that I was badly bullied at school because I had no back up.
‘I was lucky in that I had one and a half teachers who actually liked poetry, and could make sense of it. If you don’t like poetry, for God’s sake, don’t teach it. You’ll immunise them against poetry forever.
‘I was turned onto poetry in school; most are turned off it. I wish [the youth of today] got it much more commonly in society. They used to, in the 19th
century. Soak them in it. It should be a relevant form of their entertainment.’
Les’s reason for writing poetry is best summed up in his poem The Instrument
For working always beyond
your own intelligence. For not needing to rise
and betray the poor to do it. For a non-devouring fame.
‘A poet should try to make discoveries and try and find things he never thought he knew.
‘I started writing poetry tentatively and slowly at the end of my university days and I have been at it ever since. It’s a slow art to learn, Chaucer said. You’re in your fifties before you hit your straps.’.
‘One of the things I like about poetry is that it’s not a celebrity game so much, it approaches it occasionally, but it hasn’t lately and you’re not in that terrible position of a rock star or a footballer, under heavy adulation the whole time, you can have your privacy.
‘I’m a quasi-autistic child off a farm, I don’t know how to deal with crowds, the only way I know how to deal with a crowd is to stand in front of one.’
The dedication in most of Les Murray’s books reads ‘To the glory of God’. When I asked him why, he responded that he thought ‘it was the polite thing to do from one creator to another’.
Killing the Black Dog
is one book missing this usual dedication. It details Les’s battle with depression over the past 20 years The dedication in this book reads ‘To the need of God’. There was much more desperation there, Les said.
Growing up in the Free Presbyterian Church, Les is quite sure that God called him into the Catholic Church. ‘It was highly unlikely that I would ever have entered the Church; my parents detested it.
‘I went to Sydney University not thinking about the Church. I knew I didn’t like the one I had been born into, partly because of the fact that my grandfather and dad couldn’t forgive each other, and the way they used to say dreadful things such as “there’s no such thing as accidents, just carelessness”’.
‘When I heard of the Catholic Church I got curiously interested in it, and thought obscurely, yeah, I’m going to join that one day. I held off getting baptised for almost five years and the story went round that I only joined it because my wife was Catholic, but it’s rather the reverse; I was heading that way for a good four years before I met her and I’ve stayed with it ever since.’
Les was drawn to Catholicism for three main reasons:‘The fact that they could forgive, that they could laugh at some of the sacred things in the Church, which was unknown in Calvinism, and the theology of the Eucharist had me fascinated; the idea of a physical bond between heaven and earth. Protestantism was entirely abstract.’
Les said that his favourite poem was often the latest one he had written. ‘There are some favourites but it is more a sense of getting better at it. I gradually got more refined and funnier, more subtle, less youthfully unwitty and so on. I can still write a bad poem along with the best of them.
‘I never get tired of It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen
’, which details his son Alexander’s life as an ‘autie’, an autistic child.
‘I’m fond of Church,
that one steps out of theology and makes better sense; the one for our daughter Christina’s wedding, called The Wedding at Berrico
and I just finished one half an hour ago, called Last World Before the Stars,
about being separated from your better half. It’s an utterly lonely environment to be in and you go there in an instant because thought can travel anywhere in no time, but you often stay there a long time.’
Les, who has been decorated in literary accolades, says it is the epithet ‘Cecil’s boy from Bunyah’ that he most values in life.
Les has been married to his wife Valerie for 50 years, they have five children who he says have been “both a joy and a test at times” and six grandchildren who he describes as “good people”.
Aside from his poetry, Les is literary editor of Quadrant
magazine and contributes words to the Macquarie Dictionary.
‘I give a list of words occasionally,’ he said. ‘Holodomor
was one I wanted to get in there. It’s a Ukrainian word. It means the 7 million Ukrainians who were starved to death by Stalin. It’s a word that ought to be as well-known as holocaust. Sometimes they name these dreadful genocides and sometimes they don’t. It seemed a matter of justice that it got in.’
Language has been around in the Murray family a lot. ‘The bloke who wrote the Oxford English Dictionary was a cousin of ours called Sir James Murray, a Murray language freak comes up every century or so.
‘I used to want to be a master of languages but I ended up being a master of one, I think.’
Last World Before the Stars
These days that we’re apart
are like standing on Pluto
there in the no-time of thought,
bijou world the area of West Australia
contra-rotating farthest out
with its three moons and little mountains,
looking off the short horizon,
the Sun a white daystar of squinch
glazing the ground like frozen twilight,
no life, no company, no nearness,
never a memory or a joke
no pinned packet of dearness
just months gone in afternoon sleep
and cripple-hikes with beeping monitors.
Pictures by James Croucher NewsPix