Thursday, 26 September 2019

Les Murray and his poetry

This will be a different sort of blog – we all read some Les Murray but not the same material. Also it is not possible to differentiate Les Murray from his poetry. He wrote it all his life and the subjects are his life and his environment.

We began the discussion with his obituaries. He died on 29 April 2019 and there were numerous obituaries in the press. The Economist obituary called him the ‘bard for the left-out’. 

This is a well-written obit and we felt the writer was trying to emulate the poetry of the subject.

Les Murray was a child of very impoverished parents who had settled ‘on’ Bunyah as dairy farmers. The district is inland from Taree, on the mid north coast of New South Wales. His parents were always poor. So his early childhood was hard but the death of his mother when he was 10 made it even harder. His father was not equipped to bring up a child who had different aspirations and ideas from the folk around him. Murray was bullied from a young age due to his physical characteristics and his intelligence. Cecil Murray his father, was a very hard man who had had a difficult childhood himself.

Some years ago a number of members heard Murray read at ANU when he was accompanied by our local poet Geoff Page and were surprised by how ordinary and low key he presented himself. However there was an intensity in his elocution which comes through in many of his poems.

 His religiosity was something that was important to discuss as it affected his life from the time of his marriage to his Catholic wife, Valerie. He had met her at Sydney University and she was ‘saintly’ and kept him for much of his life. She was a teacher and she allowed him to devote himself to his ‘calling’.

According to ‘On Bunyah’ (a small non-fiction collection of his poems) the area he lived in was largely Protestant but in the strictest sense of the Uniting Church (Methodism?) So becoming a Catholic at a fairly young age was a radical step in the 1960s. As an older man he became interested in ‘transcendence in doctrine’ in his search for meaning?

At University, Murray was friendly with the famous intellectuals – Clive James, Germaine Greer and Bob Ellis - although he was only on the edge of that grouping. Murray was not a ‘joiner’ and didn’t want to be part of any group or elite as he always felt on the outer. Girls were attracted to him as he was brainy and had a great presence. But Valerie was different as she was European. She was also very long-suffering we believe.

Murray was rewarded with many prizes for his poetry during his lifetime but was not successful in winning the Nobel in 1994. Murray won a T S Eliot prize and we felt that there were some similarities in their approach to Christianity as they became older and wiser – looking for a similar pathway and a clear doctrine. Murray was not looking at rituals or god though. He was influenced by the English religious poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins. They both had a passion for the natural world and hated the establishment and the elites. Curiously, Murray hated the Australia Council even though he had received grants from them.

Three members had read a very sympathetic biography of Murray entitled Les Murray by Peter Alexander. There were differing opinions on whether this biography was authorized or not.  In this book there is mention of the ongoing guilt Murray felt (for most of his life) because his mother died due to a lack of treatment for a miscarriage. 

This guilt and the lack of love and attention from his father could have ground down a young person but Murray was exceptionally talented. He did however, suffer severe depression sporadically through his life, partially attributable to his early years. These mental problems showed in his treatment of his own children. He and Valerie had 5 children. He also did not relate to other people well and that was partly due to his severely restricted childhood and his school experiences. Possibly also due to autism?

Murray was always a vulnerable person but had amazing survival skills. He was exceptionally talented but also fraught.

He also had a fear of sex due to his mother’s tragic death and his internalising of the reasons for her passing. This wound could never really heal. Many of these vulnerabilities are written about in an article called : Killing the black dog. There is more information about this publication at Black Inc.

We were all impressed to hear that he spoke numerous European languages and actually worked as a translator at ANU for a period after having taught himself these skills. Quite an astonishing talent. (Murray didn’t like Canberra, he found it a boring place.)

One member was reticent to read Murray although she had had the exceptional luck to meet him and have a meal with him. They were both children of dairy farmers so had something in common to talk about. This member found him unpretentious. One other member has a very good friend whose mother had taught Les Murray at school and recognized his talents. She had promoted the radical idea of Murray attending university.

Les Murray has been considered one of Australia’s greatest poets for many years and this shows not only in the number of awards he received but also in the number of poems printed in Australian anthologies. Judith Wright is the only other poet who comes near in quantity of publication.

We read and discussed some of his poems, for example:

She gave me her factual tone,her facial bones, her will,
not her beautiful voice …  (From ‘Weights’ which was written as a memorial to his mother – Miriam Murray 1915-1951)
Archie was a gun to shoot at biplanes
and an uncle I missed meeting …(From 'The blame')
Poor Auntie Mary was dying and frail ……Lived ten more years…From ‘The Iron Kitchens’

(These poems and many more can be found in On Bunyah (Collingwood, Black Inc, 2017).

Another notable poem is ‘Dog, fox, field’. These words were devised to assist teachers in assessing children for school, that is, if they could make a sentence out of them or not.

One member thought a poem called ‘A torturer’s apprentice’ went to the core of what he was trying to say with his poetry. And, unusually this poem has rhyme unlike many of the others we read.

We realised that Murray had many styles and many ways of writing poetry -- from the set stanza to lines with gaps in the middle eg in ‘Layers of Pregnancy’ so it is hard to know if you are reading it correctly. He also used Gaelic at times such as in ‘The Iron Kitchens’ and he also wrote as a cow in one memorable and poignant poem – ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ – ‘All me are standing on feed
All me have just been milked…’

Murray himself felt poets should not be slavish to the norms of poetry. So he wasn’t.

His poetry was the opposite of platitudes – too complex and covering difficult subjects such as dealing with the underdog, the personality most like Murray himself ?

Murray worked as an editor for Quadrant for a time and performed his works overseas. He always had a strong political voice and spoke about the situation of Australia’s First Nation people. He was probably appreciated more overseas than he has been in Australia. We still have some cultural cringe.

This inspired night has encouraged members to research Les Murray and find out about this well known but not well read poet. Everyone had done considerable work to add to our enjoyment and knowledge of Murray. One member even went to the NLA to do her research. It was a learning curve for all of us but well worth the education.

For more information about Les Murray’s life see Manning Community News.

Present : 8 members