Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles haircut
raises an alert periscope and stares out
For anyone who has ever seen one, these lines so perfectly conjure an emu, that bizarre and slightly comical bird, that they could picture nothing else. This is the opening sentence of Les Murray’s poem ‘Second Essay on Interest: The Emu’ from The People’s Otherworld (1983). In its humour, descriptive precision, wide ranging metaphors (from the natural to the mechanical world through pop music) and easy rhythms, this is quintessential Murray, the bush poet. So are the following lines from ‘The Steel’ in the same collection:
At length a neighbour nurse
produced the jargon: haemorrhage,
miscarriage, and the ambulance
was swiftly on its way.
Here the cool objectivity, staccato rhythms and abrupt movement through time convey another side of Murray: the impotent child of dairy-farm poverty whose excruciating agony following his mother’s death at 35 when he was only 12 years old found no release. ‘Thirty-five years on earth; / That’s short. That’s short, mother.’
At the 2005 Sydney Writers’ Festival Les Murray spoke to a packed room with his German translator, Thomas Eichhorn, about the translation into German of his verse novel Fredy Neptune (1998). As Eichhorn described the challenges Murray’s 10,000 line poem posed for its translator, Murray chuckled with delight. Fredy Neptune covers the first half of the 20th century from the First World War to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Its narrator, German-Australian Fredy Boettcher, is an international adventurer, strongman and sailor who, after witnessing a mass murder, becomes completely numbed to all feeling, including fire, knife wounds and orgasm. Murray wrote the poem in English with a German idiom, and included fragments of deliberately awkward German, and somehow Eichhorn had to convey these linguistic complexities in German.
Despite his impoverished rural upbringing and interrupted education, Les Murray has brought to fruition his prodigious intellect, extraordinary memory and gift for languages (he told me he knew ‘ten or eleven’ but his biographer Peter Alexander calculates at least 20) which manifests in his poetry as a preternatural ability to seize the world in words. Before coming to his poetry, I’d thought of Murray as the ‘larrikin’ he’s often described as being. This is a common misapprehension about Murray. As critic Peter Porter put it, Australians continue to be baffled ‘that someone who espouses country rituals’ should be ‘the most sophisticated and accomplished poet Australia has yet produced’.
Murray’s poetry is deeply rooted in Australia and the Bunyah Valley, his sacred land in central New South Wales. He’s described his connection to it as ‘Aboriginal’. He was an only child and didn’t go to school until he was nine, so his friends were animals. He roamed free through his natal valley, across his parents’ and neighbouring Murray dairy farms, and knows the creatures of his childhood intimately:
his polished horse is stepping nervously,
printing neat omegas in the gravel
He also loved machines and conjures them as unerringly as he conjures animals: ‘The bulldozer stands short as a boot on its high-heel ripple soles’ (‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spacemen’).
Murray taught himself to read at four and read compulsively: newspapers, his mother’s encyclopaedia (most of which he had memorised by the time he went to school), the Bible, anything he could get his hands on, including Bugs Bunny comics. Accounting for his obsessive nature, Murray describes himself as ‘half-autie’ (autistic), which he explores in ‘Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver’. He has also written about his son Alexander, diagnosed with autism as a child, in poems like ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen’. The Murrays, he told me when I interviewed him for Good Reading magazine in 2005, produce someone obsessed with words, a gifted linguist, once a century or so, such as the remarkable Scottish lexicographer Sir James Augustus Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. And like Murray himself.
Following his mother’s tragic death, Murray’s childhood came to an abrupt end. His father collapsed into grief – ‘For a long time, my father / himself became a baby’ – and Murray’s boyhood obsession with war took on a dark new life. He planned to leave school to train as an army officer, but his father, who had promised his wife that he’d make sure their only child received an education, kept Murray at school. Murray’s last two years of school were spent at Taree High, where he suffered dreadfully the torments of other children, especially the girls. In ‘Burning Want’ Murray describes this experience as ‘erocide’ – ‘Between classes kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale’ – and it determined his lifelong abhorrence of mobs, which is why he’s sided with individuals picked on by a majority, often controversially, as with his support of writer Helen Demidenko and politician Pauline Hanson, whom he considered victims of bullying.
It was at Taree High that Murray discovered poetry, especially that of Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot (although he only likes early Eliot, particularly ‘The Waste Land’). Murray is mistrustful of Eliot’s need to abandon America for the intellectual literary scene of London, which he believes was prompted by Eliot’s high-culture snobbery, another thing Murray abhors. I asked him why he didn’t like reading Shakespeare at school and he said that somehow every Shakespeare play they did featured the notoriously rotund Falstaff. The children teased him for his own great size by calling him Falstaff. To save him from Shakespeare and Falstaff, his teacher gave him Australian poetry to read. ‘I never knew there was any,’ he said. Reading John Shaw Neilson, David Campbell, Kenneth Slessor, Bruce Dawe and Mary Gilmore was a revelation and taught him that Australians could write poetry about their own country.
Although Murray had always dreamt of being a painter, he knew he didn’t have ‘the gift of painting’. After discovering Australian poetry, he realised he could do in words, in a poem, what he’d longed to do in paint. After leaving school he wrote his first ten poems on Christmas day, aged 18, and the following year he went to Sydney University on a Commonwealth Scholarship. There, at last, he found himself among kindred spirits, including his friend Bob Ellis and fellow poet Geoffrey Lehmann. But despite finding a haven at university, Murray became increasingly unsettled and began to sleep on the streets. In July 1961 he went walkabout:
A month from home, barely,
and I’d even made a beginning
in the more advanced, more fruitful major subjects:
jettisoning weight, non-planning, avoidance of thought
in favour of landscape, stones and the travelling sky.
(‘Recourse to the Wilderness’)
The same year, his first poem was published in the Bulletin, ‘The Burning Truck’, which he’d revised in a truckies’ cafe near Gundegai, on his way to Melbourne.
When he returned to university he met Valerie Morelli, a devout Catholic of Hungarian/Swiss-German background. They married in 1962 and have five children. Murray converted to Catholicism in 1964, finding in it a sense of liberation and imaginative richness he’d not found in the deterministic, dour Calvinist Church of his childhood. For Murray religion and poetry are inextricably entwined, almost synonymous, and he dedicates his poetry ‘To the glory of God’.
Murray, who always struggled to find work that suited him (he was an early and vocal advocate of state funding for artists), eventually found a perfect job, as a translator at the Australian National University, and in 1963 he and Valerie moved to Canberra. His first book of poems, The Ilex Tree, co-authored with Lehmann, was published in 1965 to wide acclaim. In 1968 they moved to Sydney, where Murray became friends with the poet Kenneth Slessor, his ‘model and master’. Two years after the publication of his second collection, The Weatherboard Cathedral in 1969, Murray left his job, determined never to have another one. In 1974 he was able to buy ‘The Forty Acres’, part of the farm on which he grew up and where he has lived since 1986.
Soon after his return to the Bunyah Valley Murray fell into a depression he calls ‘the Black Dog’. He had struggled through regular bouts of depression all his life, surviving with the help of poetry and his remarkable wife until he hit 50. ‘That’s a big one,’ he said. Having smoked all his life, suddenly something in him decided to stop smoking – and he had his first full-blown panic attack and thought he was dying. Valerie rushed him to hospital where he was immediately put into the cardiac ward. Tests showed nothing wrong with Murray’s heart, but a brain-scan showed his brain had been flooded with adrenalin and he was diagnosed with clinical depression. Murray, who believes the condition runs in his family, said it’s very common among artists, and is central to poetry and the creative process.
Murray is fascinated by the unconscious wisdom of his mind, the part of him that knew he needed a massive breakdown in his life, and stopped him smoking one day. He draws on this at the conclusion of Fredy Neptune, which he completed after finally coming out of his eight-year depression following an almost fatal abscess on his liver in 1996. Having been unconscious for 20 days, Murray regained consciousness to discover he’d left the Black Dog behind. In Fredy Neptune, Fredy finds the key to freeing himself from his numbing past in a dialogue with his unconscious: ‘You have to pray with a whole heart, says my inner man to me’. For Murray, poetry comes from these two minds, the conscious and the unconscious, in concert with the body.
Each day Murray sits down and writes all morning, letters and other correspondence, ‘waiting to see if something will come, a poem’. If a poem does come, he works and reworks it in longhand until it reaches the stage when it’s ready to be typed. ‘That’s a big moment,’ he said, because ‘you can tell a lot about a poem when you’ve typed it’ – whether it’s working or not, whether it will be a poem. Many of Murray’s poems come to him while he’s walking around his farm. Given his love for his farm, I asked him why he travels so much (he’d just returned from Milan). He said he doesn’t particularly like travelling, but it’s how he makes his living, he must ‘sing for his supper’, as he put it.
Murray is full of paradox and seems to delight in it. He is fiercely, defiantly Australian, yet reads 20 European languages and married a European. His life has been plagued by depression and the aching loss of his mother when he was a small boy, yet he is filled with mirth and laughs at every opportunity. He is a massive man with a quicksilver presence. He is apparently tone deaf, yet he makes music in poetry. No one has put the paradox of Murray more succinctly than Murray himself, when he called himself ‘the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems’.