Les Murray

June 5, 2007 at 7:08 am 8 comments

Okay, in response to popular demand – the marvelous, magical Les. Maybe writing a bit about him here will spur me on to my worthy task of finishing my chapter. What I like about Les (and you can’t help but call him this) is the brilliance of his language, and the way he builds and layers images, charging them with emotion and hope. He is Australia’s most internationally acclaimed poet, and I think this has something to do with the huge volume of his output, as well as its quality, and the way he often consciously writes about Australia, especially country Australia, thus appealing to international markets who want to think about Australia in this way. And he’s won lots of prizes. Above all this, however, is his poetry’s utter brilliance. Not all of it – not all the time. But reading his work, you often come across a poem, a stanza or a phrase which makes you gasp, or flips you inside out, or makes something inside you sing, or just astounds you, and you know – here is no ordinary poet. This is something special.

His early poems are perhaps the most accessible. ‘Spring Hail’, ‘Noonday Axeman‘, and ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow‘ are often taught in High School and are all incredible. Going on from there, must-reads include ‘Equanimity’, ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’, ‘Shower‘, and ‘The Quality of Sprawl‘ from The People’s Otherworld, and the heartbreaking ‘The Last Hellos‘ from Subhuman Redneck Poems. He has also written verse novels, and his recent Fredy Neptune is well worth a read. A special favourite of mine (because I grew up there) is ‘Cave Divers Near Mt Gambier‘, where ‘chenille-skinned people’ descend into sinkholes:

Here in the first paddocks, where winter comes ashore,
mild duckweed ponds are skylights of a filled kingdom. . .

. . . Crystalline polyps

of their breathing blossom for a while, as they disturb
algal screens, extinct kangaroos, eels of liquorice colour

then, with the portable greening stars they carry under,
these vanish. . .

I love the way he describes the sink-holes as ‘skylights of a filled kingdom’ – that’s just what they’re like – these vast underwater caverns with such harmless looking entrances.

But I could go on forever. My chapter is already 16,000 words, and that’s just on Les Murray and medievalism. For a concise introduction for my thoughts on this matter, you can look at Bard’s Venerable Vernacular, an article based on a conference paper I gave in February, that was (to my great excitement) published in the Australian. My absolute favourite Les Murray poems, however, are in Translations From the Natural World. That’s just what they are – voices of animals and plants, speaking. Such as Pigs: ‘Us all on sore cement was we.’ And ‘Migratory’:

I am the nest that comes and goes,
I am the egg that isn’t now
I am the beach, the food in sand,
the shade with shells and the shade with sticks.

In this collection Murray does really amazing things with language, tense, grammar and perspective. The ‘Cockspur Bush’ says: ‘I am lived. I am died.’ Murray records the voices of bats in Bats’ Ultrasound:

ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row, wry – aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

When I discovered this stanza I nearly died of amazement. And I really love ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’, which describes the possum’s exciting nocturnal adventures, then ends:

but then, despite foliage,
my cool nickel daytime bleaches into light
and loses me the forest genes’ infinite air of sprung holds.
My eyes all hurt branchings
I curl up in my charcoal trunk of night
and dream a welling pictureless encouragment
that tides from far but is in arrival me
and my world, since nothing is apart enough for language.


Entry filed under: Les Murray, poetry.

New Books Why I read what I read

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pavlov's Cat  |  June 5, 2007 at 9:27 am

    My first experience of Translations From the Natural World — my favourite, also — was hearing him read some of those poems in manuscript, very newly written, at a writers’ festival in Canberra. He is a fabulous reader, in his own inimitable way, and it gave those poems an extra tweak, hearing him read them as he’d heard them in his head.

    I’m also floored by ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, every time I read it. I’ve typed out the whole poem with the page in landscape orientation so that the lines don’t run on, which I’m sure was the way it was supposed to be read/looked at but which no existing book of Australian poetry is the correct shape (or font) to accommodate. Someone should publish a special edition in a special-shaped book, like a children’s book.

  • 2. acquisitionist  |  June 5, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Wow, thanks for sharing – the links are great too. I’m such a procrastinatrix but post-essays I’m coming back for a more thorough exploration. Your writing is such a delight to read! ‘Batss’ Ultrasound’ is amazing stuff indeed.

  • 3. meli  |  June 5, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Oh, that must have been amazing, PC, I am very envious! And yes I love ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ too. That’s dedication to type it out. Glad you liked it Acquisitionist – go Les!

  • 4. Siew Cooper  |  June 5, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Murray.

    It’s sad, but many, if not most Australian publishers don’t accept poetry submissions for publication anymore; it’s only really in journals like Meanjin, and less established magazines. So I wonder if we’ll ever have another Les Murray…

  • 5. Penni  |  June 6, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    This is a great post. I have favourite Australian poets but I’m afraid I’ve never given Les a good go. Fredy Neptune is on my list of next reads (I am exploring verse poems) but my local library doesn’t have it. I love Bats’ Ultrasound. It’s beautiful and surprising and everything I want poetry to be. I held my breath when I was reading it.

  • 6. fifi  |  June 6, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Thanks, meli: you always add something special to my day.
    AND Happy Birthday!!

    Les Murray is so wonderful. I often think of that epiphanic moment, at High School, when the whole entire world disappeared, except the beautiful one unfurling in my own head as I read Spring hail and Broad Bean Sermon. The sense of wonder that someone would articulate that synaesthetic experience of the world….
    I still tend to wrap his words around his actual character, his person: they are indivisible: I would love to hear him read.

    The horizontal book idea is genius!

    have a lovely day meli!

  • 7. Imani  |  June 7, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    I’d never heard of Les Murray before, until I read a 2005 issue of Paris Review which had an interview with him. Couldn’t get enough after that. If you’re interested the New Yorker has a substantial review of his work up.

  • 8. meli  |  June 12, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks for the link Imani – it’s an interesting take on his work, though I can’t say I agree with all of it. Esp: ‘No poet who was “kept poor,” as Murray believes he and his parents were, sees “nature”—droughts and floods, the relentless summer heat on an uninsulated iron roof—in celebratory terms.’ I think Murray celebrates nature a great deal. And Chaisson’s view that the animals in ‘Translations from the Natural World’ are all masks for Murray himself is quite odd too. For a start many of the poems are about plants. And they are so finely tuned to each creature’s voice and actual existence, that I think it’s strange to see them as representing something else.

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