I have dealt by mail with Les Murray on a number of occasions, mostly in connection with the issues of The Chimaera which featured Stephen Edgar (http://www.the-chimaera.com/Feb2009/) and Alan Gould (http://www.the-chimaera.com/March2010/). Les Murray is an agreeable correspondent, not least because his responses may manifest themselves on the back of delightfully unusual post cards, or in conventional letters written in a clear and elegant hand, or (in the case of his poems) on typewritten sheets where the type-face letters (m and h particularly) have an endearing slightly blurred effect that reminds me of my own typescript efforts of the 1960s. And Les Murray’s unfailing generosity, kindness and courtesy make him a pleasure to work with. Les Murray the man possesses, as does his rich body of work, a unique and enriching quality that rubs off on those who come in contact with it.
Les Murray: I’m never tempted to write prose narrative. Too easy, in part, especially for one brought up on it and immersed in a culture awash in novels, TV and film. Poetry is rarer, more special and in its higher reaches it fights against narrative, making it more of a challenge. On the other hand, my training, of 40 years plus, is in poetry and its techniques, and I enjoy bending the methodologies of poetry to any purpose I may have, including narrative. There’s more in poetry — you can achieve more effects with it. I like to compete with the ancients of classical and tribal times, rather than with trendy moderns.
The Chimaera: You have more than once pointed to the importance poetry seems to hold historically for Australian readers. Do you think that estimation is still true? Why is it that Australians more than other cultures seem to value poetry rather highly?
Les Murray: I’m not sure whether this is still true, in the estimation of our cultural elites. What’s reviewed and ballyhooed is always novel, or film, or theatre, or pop music — anything but poetry. The public, though, does attend readings, and in large numbers. They buy books and CDs at those, too, rather than from shops, where poetry sections have often disappeared. Serious adults in Australia very often seem still to value poetry more than the serious hype of their culture would expect, though they’d be guarded about admitting it. A core of poets and poems are still highly respected: “Slessor, McAuley, Wright, Dawe, poems such as “Five Bells”, “Because”, “Ku-ring-gai Rock Carvings”, “South of My Days”, “My Country”, and more. You could nearly say that certain poems stand to the rest of the trashy jigging half-Americanised culture of Australia as the bush stands to urban consumerism.
The Chimaera: What influences on your own work do you see as flowing from Australian Aboriginal vision and poetic practice?
Les Murray: On Aboriginal influences on my work I have learned not to be drawn. All that is taboo to non-trendies such as I.
The Chimaera: Your experiences with the Sydney Push, including periods of homelessness and living rough, interest me. Tell us about some of these experiences, and especially how they might have shaped your writing.
Les Murray: Really I had only a short exposure to the Push, from going to a Push house for shelter towards the end of a two-year depressive breakdown (1960-62). I went there at the invitation of a poetical friend, Brian Jenkins, who was rent-collector and public fool of the establishment: I was then probably near death from self-neglect. While at that house I had a preview of the mores and habits of the sixties revolution, still five or six years away in the future. It may be relevant for me to add that this breakdown, my first, came on me only gradually and without pain, so that I sank out of ordinary life, abandoning my few possessions — typewriter, books, spare clothes — and the habit of living in furnished rooms. The best account of my depressive illness is Killing the Black Dog, second and expanded edition with illustrative poems, published by Black Inc. In Melbourne. Many in the Push were spiritually or philosophically in much the same straits as depressives typically are, only more demonstratively in active revolt than I.
The Chimaera: You have long and staunchly advocated Australia becoming a republic and flying its own national flag rather than a defaced British ensign with its colonial resonances. Yet to the dismay of Republicans, and those who think we should show some national pride independent of Britain, Australian public opinion seems to resist such a change: increasingly so, the head-counters tell us. Are you still optimistic that we will eventually move away from our colonial cringe towards the British and U.S. empires and achieve a formally distinct Australian identity?
Les Murray: I’m now pretty much in despair of any republic that might arise in Australia. It’d likely be anti-Australian, for a start.
The Chimaera: If you had to pick a group of poets for a sequel to Fivefathers, (but mixed-sex — let’s say Six-Siblings) who are some of the poets you might consider picking, and why?
Les Murray: Philip Hodgins, Bruce Dawe, John Forbes, and Lesbia Hartford from my other British-market anthology Hell and After q.v. (published by Carcanet). Most of my anthologies concentrate on poems rather than poets.
The Chimaera: How do you feel about the very strong movement away from paper publication of books and journals, towards electronic publication, and especially in relation to poetry?
Les Murray: Alas, I know nothing about electronic publication.
The Chimaera: As an editor of poetry magazines, I have been criticised for sometimes publishing poems by authors whom some groups regard as offensive in their personal and political beliefs. Some argue that it is impossible to separate a writer’s work from his life as a whole, and that if that writer’s life is deemed to be in some way evil or unacceptable, then the poems (however innocent) ought not be published. As an editor of long standing yourself, how do you feel about this issue?
Les Murray: I’m with you, Paul! Why suppress the only better angels a “bad” soul may evince? What you tell me about the deliberate silencing of disfavoured authors confirms what I’ve long suspected. A variant of it is to misprint any poem by such an author, poems being so totally reliant on accurate reproduction. I had four successive contributions to The Age misprinted, once, when I kept submitting to test whether my suspicion was true! They must have been amazed at how slow my penny was to drop. Congratulations, though, on your good venture.
The Chimaera: “Political correctness” is a slippery term that can be used to cover or damn a great many sanctions on authors’ freedom of expression. What effect do you see political correctness having on literature and on society in general?
Les Murray: Ruinous.
The Chimaera: In your poem ‘A Deployment of Fashion’ you draw attention to the way the media, which you seem to represent as a kind of enforcement vehicle for groupthink, singles out, represses and humiliates women (and beyond women, I guess, people in general whom the media sees as non-conformists and therefore targets). This topos of the pressure to conform exerted by socially powerful groups on individuals seems to occur quite frequently in your work. Why is this theme so important to you?
Les Murray: I’ve been bullied, first at school — by girls who are harder to fight; the boys just curried favour — then over 40 years in Australian Literature. I’m not only a pariah, but a naughty pariah, one who fights back. There is a cost, in depressive illness. To be fair, I have memories of gentle friendliness and play at my earlier schools, and university was OK before the sixties.
The Chimaera: In a poem about bullying, you write of the rituals of dominance and humiliation, saying “this is the true curriculum of schools”. Ironically your own poetry is set on school curricula, to be studied throughout the high school years, even for exams such as the New South Wales Year 12 Higher School Certificate. A couple of days ago I came across a group of year 8 students lying on the floor a school corridor, jointly analysing (and enjoying immensely) your poem ‘The Mitchells’. They loved it, and made me sit down and discuss it with them for a bit. I suppose this is a double-barrelled question: are schools really so problematic, and how do you feel about your own work becoming the subject of academic study?
Les Murray: God bless those children! By the time they’re in year 10 or 11, poetry will probably have been bashed or examined or scorned or mocked out of them, for life, and an ethos of pimple-faced rebellion instilled in its place. I detest schools and distrust them utterly. Of our children, only one of the five has a real appreciation of poetry. The eldest two were persecuted in school for having me as their father — and I don’t mean just by fellow students: teachers were snide too. Call me an Asperger, as I probably am, but almost all my real education came from private reading, films and one-to-one talks with individuals. There is hope though: the most sincere cheers I ever got from a class of adolescents was in London when I read to them a poem of mine that begins “Sex is a Nazi”. Wicked, man! They cried, and Yay!
The Chimaera: What are the mechanics of your poetry writing? Do you compose largely in your head, then write down the result? Do you take the poem through numerous drafts? Why do you use a typewriter rather than a computer word processor? And so forth...
Les Murray: I start off in my head, typically, and at a certain point start writing, in longhand, then re-writing if necessary, in either pen or type-script. Numbers of drafts vary according to the resistance the theme puts up. I never touch computers. They float on child porn and I’d be terrified of that accidentally erupting into my mental space. Also they make any rubbish look neat and final and published, rather than the mess it has to be until it’s perfected.
The Chimaera: Some of your poems have a metrical or other “form” even if not a glaringly obvious one, whereas others might be described as free verse, and still others elude such coarse classification — they have rhetorical form but not necessarily a consistent metrical or other pattern. Evidently you do appreciate and publish the work of poets like John Whitworth who write exclusively in form. In your own practice, when you start writing a new poem, how does its position along the formal-free spectrum establish itself? Is it mainly a question of whether the poem has a “metre-making argument”, in Emerson’s phrase?
Les Murray: I do use form a bit when a poem seems to want it. But more often I syncopate things, i.e. rhymes, rhythms, half-rhymes, echoes, to give a poem a more sophisticated dance of effects, on-off-off, on-in-un-onion-own-off etc. I like Emerson’s phrase, now that you have told it to me.
The Chimaera: Much of your imagery and language is exactly that of the speech of ordinary Australians: “like trying to farm the road” from ‘The Mitchells’ is a comparison one might hear down at the pub, or on the job at smoko. Yet another experience I have while reading your poetry is a sense of language actually coming into being, of new language shapes and clusters being formed before my eyes, freshly minted into creation. I had that experience with the word formation of “vertical black suburb / of glued-on prism cells” from ‘Nuclear Family Bees, Barrington River’, for example, but it seems to me to be a major characteristic of your work. Obviously poetry is a language art — yet I’d like to hear what you have to say about the relationship between your own poetry and language in general.
Les Murray: Ah, that’s all level and register. I can “do” Oz vernacular and all the way to high egghead. Remember — I invented that image of “farming the road”. No one else — but you experience it as genuine idiom. Remember Auden: “the greatest truth is most feigning.” Language is the paint I work in.
The Chimaera: In your poem The Meaning of Existence (which serendipitously fits this issue of The Chimaera’s “Life, the Universe and Everything” theme) you refer to “the ignorant freedom / of my talking mind”. It’s a paradox, isn’t it, that poetry uses language in an attempt to transcend language? Do you make a clear distinction between your talking mind and your poetic mind? How would you characterise the mind with which you write most of your poems?
Les Murray: I don’t think I want to transcend language, merely to project it to what it can be. The mind with which I write most of my poems is my right mind, by which I mean mostly calm, not sooty with depression, though I can make that sing too, when necessary.
The Chimaera: Were there any particular circumstances that prompted the writing of your poem ‘The House Left in English’ and does the reference to Swiss German have a special, sub rosa significance?
Les Murray: My parents-in-law were respectively Hungarian and Swiss. My Hungarian father-in-law wanted to be Swiss — it was the romance of their lives. I wrote the poem just after they’d left their Chatswood home of 50 years, to enter the nursing home.
The Chimaera: In Translations from the Natural World poems speak with the voices of animals and plants. If you were going to do more of these, what animal or plant would you translate next?
Les Murray: I wrote Translations from the Natural World way back when I was particularly ill with depression and needed above all to escape from my own mind and bad company. I hope I’ll never need that escape again. If I did it for fun, ventriloquising the creatures, it might now come out differently — and I have no notion what life-form(s) I’d tackle.
The Chimaera: Les Murray, thank you very much for talking to The Chimaera.