A life in writing: Les Murray

‘That’s when poetry seems to work best, when it takes in your dreaming mind, your intellect and the physical body’

For the last few decades all of Les Murray's books of poetry have opened with the same two statements. A brief biographical note tells the reader that he was "born in 1938, and grew up on a dairy farm at Bunyah on the north coast of New South Wales". The poems themselves are then dedicated to "The glory of God." And there you pretty much have it. Murray is the poet of Australian rural life and work, and the natural world in which they are conducted. He invests the rituals, grandeur, wonder and hardships of both spheres with a powerful sense of the sacred.

But read between the lines of this truncated character sketch and you also get a glimpse of what has been a sometimes fractious career. Murray has been garlanded with prizes – TS Eliot (1996), Queen's gold medal for poetry (1999) – and tipped for the Nobel, but he has often been cast, as much by himself as anyone else, as an outsider. His poetry, and more so his politics, have married a reverence for bush wisdom with an instinctive distrust of metropolitan life in general, and what he sees as the received opinions of liberal elites about such issues as modernism and secularism in particular. It was long before the most recent wave of popular disgust against bankers that Murray began a poem: "Some of us primary producers, us farmers and authors / are going round to watch them evict a banker".

To complicate things further, while Murray today continues to live on, at least a part of, the farm where he was brought up, he is far from a straightforward peasant poet. For much of his adult life he has lived and worked in cities and held senior posts in academia, publishing and politics. Clive James, who has known Murray for over 50 years and is a long-term admirer, once noted that Murray's poetry is "truly agrarian, in the sense that the whole array of its perceptions had the rural existence for a departure point rather than a destination". But James also added that there is "a possibility that he later arranged his personal history to support this priority, but the same could be said of Robert Frost".

Murray and James met on their first day at university. "He was drunk and I told him all about medieval mystery plays. But the things I've written about were always just the things I had. They were what was right there in front of me." The late Peter Porter called his fellow countryman "the custodian of Australia's soul". Joseph Brodsky widened the scope of his importance by claiming "it would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives."

Reading his work earlier this month at a conference at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Murray cuts a formidable figure – "the fattest major English-language poet since the 20-stone Ben Jonson", as a critic once bluntly put it – sporting a voluminous pullover and alternately perching a scruffy baseball cap and his spectacles on his domed head. But there is also a lightness of touch to his wheezily conversational delivery, which is punctuated by small shrieks of laughter.

The conference title, "Landscape", allowed for a tour d'horizon of some of his best-known older poems as well as new work from his latest book, Taller When Prone (Carcanet), his 12th collection which is published this week. The audience learned that "Blue Roan" – "As usual up the Giro mountain / dozers were shifting the road about / but the big blue ranges looked permanent / and the stinging-trees held no hint of drought" – is about the mountains just to the west of his home, and he gave the poem to his son when he was travelling abroad "in case he got homesick". He explains how "paddock" is probably Australia's favourite word – "certainly lots of poets have used it" – and he gives us an animal's eye view of "The Cows on Killing Day", part of a set of poems written in the early 1990s, "when I was suffering a bout of depression and decided to get out of my own head and be an animal for a while. It worked for a time."

There is plenty of humour and joy in his work, but they are nearly always set against some harshness of the rural economy: "Lank poverty, dank poverty, / its pants wear through at fork and knee. / It warms its hands over burning shames, / refers to its fate as Them and He" ("The Tin Wash Dish"). His own family story is tinged by an almost mythological level of tragedy.

Murray's father was employed by Murray's grandfather – "for no pay, just the promise that he'd get a farm" – as a woodcutter. A month before Les was born his father refused to cut down some trees which he said were full of white ants and were therefore worthless. Les's grandfather asked another of his sons to do the work. He was inexperienced, made a mistake and was killed. "And an unforgiving kind of blame stayed between dad and his father for the rest of their lives. Dad was given a farm, but my grandfather made sure he kept hold of the purse strings so he kept my parents poor. After I was born my mother had no more live children and had several miscarriages. The two things together were pretty crushing for my parents and they were depressed a lot of the time because of it."

For all that, Murray says "aside from my parents' miseries, a lot of my upbringing was quite good fun. The animals and birds and countryside were all fine. I was a happy enough child until the age of 12 when everything fell in." His mother died after haemorrhaging from another miscarriage. "Dad hung on to the farm as a place to survive. I became like Huck Finn. Didn't wear shoes for a long time. But while my father wasn't an alcoholic, he was a grief-aholic. He'd always worked 16 hour days. In the first part of his life it was for pure pride. In the second part it was to anaesthetise himself. Finally my grandfather died and it turned out the will had not given the farm to my father after all, so he just walked away and went back to cutting trees again. We didn't give up the farm, it gave us up."

Murray anatomised the difficulties of his later childhood in the poem "Burning Want": "Just on from puberty / I lived in a funeral" – which focused on girls' sexual mocking of him and also took in his size – "All my names were fat-names, at my new town school" – a complaint he has periodically returned to, although he might have protested too much with his "Quintets for Robert Morley" in which he advised "Never trust a lean meritocracy".

He was an obviously bright child who had "read every book in the district, including the Stanley Gibbons Stamp catalogue for want of anything else at one stage". Before she died his mother "had ordered" that he be given a decent education and her wishes were fulfilled when he won a place at Sydney university. While he was there, the editor of the university magazine, Clive James, published an early poem, but mostly Murray "lazed around and read the library. I knew there was some sort of system of exams that meant you could be a success in the world, but what I wanted was to shelter from employment."

Murray has described himself as "an only child, with all the virtues and vices that brings. There is maybe a little bit of Asperger's as well. So it was always easy to avoid the trap of wanting to be in fashion." But receiving a lot of "only half good-natured raillery about being from the bush", allied to a period of depression, contributed to his leaving university in 1960 without completing his degree, to hitchhike round Australia. At the same time he also embarked on a fundamental change to his spiritual life. His parents had been Free Presbyterians, but he had become attracted to Catholicism at university.

"My parents hated Catholics. My mother, who was brought up Catholic, had had a big row with the mother superior of some school. I would have loved to watch that. It would have been a knockdown, drag-out fight to remember. Two tough women having it out. But Catholicism answered a few things that I hadn't understood. I knew that my grandfather and father had done each other no end of harm by being unable to forgive. No one I knew was much good at forgiving. Suddenly here was a world in which you could forgive, and it looked like a wonderful relief."

Murray converted, and in 1962 married teacher Valerie Morelli. They have five children. He has written a few what he calls "doctrinal" poems, which he distinguishes from "religious" poems "which are much stranger and weirder things. But it's there under everything I write; it's in the mix. I can put my finger on exactly where in most individual cases, but not always."

In 1963 he returned to conventional employment as a translator at the Australian National University in Canberra at the same time that his poetry career began in earnest. His debut collection, The llex Tree (written with Geoffrey Lehmann) was published in 1965. He won prizes and awards which allowed him to travel to Europe. A stay in Wales provoked the memorable "Vindaloo in Merthyr". Unlike Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and others of his generation, he never seriously considered emigration. "I liked coming to the UK, but I never thought I really belonged."

Instead he returned home, where he worked in the office of prime minister John Gorton – "a good man who got the boot from his own treacherous party" – and published his first solo volume, The Weatherboard Cathedral. Murray's own political views became more apparent as he involved himself in public debate.

His republican and nationalist ideas embraced an Australia that was proud of its indigenous culture, and it was no coincidence that his 1976 Selected Poems was subtitled The Vernacular Republic. He successfully campaigned for direct government support for artists and promoted a society that addressed the problems of under-privileged aboriginals and whites. "Australia will be a great nation, and a power for good when her head of state is part-Aboriginal and her prime minister a poor man. Or vice versa," he once wrote.

By 1971 he was a freelance writer. "Some years my wife kept me, and some years I kept her, and we somehow survived." His poetry was well reviewed and he became a poetry reader at a leading Australian publisher as well as taking editorial roles on magazines, including the cold-war warrior Quadrant. He managed to buy some land back home in Bunyah. "And then the poetry wars began . . ." He says the poetry ideas that came out of 1968 "looked like fun for a moment, but eventually things seemed to harden into politics and it was sort of decided that Australian poetry should be progressive and like the New York school and the rest of us should be relegated to the outer darkness. It's faded now, but for a long time I did have a pretty bad time with all that."

He was out of step politically and artistically, and says the public rows were "an awful strain and probably contributed to my depression. I was brought up in a culture that shied away from argument because wherever there is quarrelling there will sooner or later be murder. The Scots do not have the history they have without a certain reason. And the criticism was always couched in political terms. You were a reactionary and a plotter against the revolution. Thank God for the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. America wasn't too bad either. I did have another audience which didn't go in for the same horseshit."

In the late 1980s his low-level depression intensified, and he made a definitive return to Bunyah where his admiration for the farming life remains undimmed. He praises the ingenuity of farmers recently emerging from a 10-year long drought. "They did amazing things to keep themselves going. The alternative was a lonely walk out with a rifle to blow your brains out. And a lot did that, too. They didn't feel anyone was supporting them." While he says the Labour party's work "is essentially done", he does see a role for the Greens. But he is unimpressed by the media's excitement about climate change. "I've been watching this all my life. When I was a kid there was a blue water lily about 200 miles north of us. By the time I came back from Sydney it had reached our place. Now it is much further south. No one has noticed apart from me. These changes are not just the last few years. And I am wary that the Greens don't much like farmers or cattle. They only like local food if it is grown on less than an acre. If they get what they want then life will not be easy for what is called regional Australia. We'll have a pretty thin time."

His 1996 collection Subhuman Redneck Poems won the TS Eliot prize, but, shortly after, Murray was struck down by a liver disease that saw him close to death in a coma for three weeks. When he eventually recovered, his balance was impaired, but his crushing depression had largely lifted.

"It is still there in a minor way, but it is only a shadow of what it used to be. I hope it stays that way. It lasted 30 years. I went on writing throughout it, but it mucked up the happiness of a lot of my life."

He emerged from illness to write the 10,000-line verse novel Fredy Neptune. And despite some previous scepticism as to the notion of poetry as therapy, he now concedes there is something to it. "You do seem to explain to yourself what life has done, because you don't always understand what is going on. Fredy Neptune appeared and said 'write me'. I only discovered the ending when I got to the last page. It wasn't like making it up, it was as if I was discovering it out of a deep place in my head. When I got to the ending he just walked away and never bothered me again, so I thought it must have been right. And that's when poetry seems to work best, when it takes in your dreaming mind, your intellect and the physical body. The best work in any field of art seems to work on that basis because it is a model of how humans truly think."


Nicholas Wroe

The GuardianTramp

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