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Interview with Les Murray
Observer Interview with Les Murray by Andrew Billen 22 June 1997
When Les won a poetry prize the press spluttered (Aussie moron!). He
splutters, too (it's rage and talking with his mouth full). But don't
scoff: the sad fat man's made it big in English literature...
There is a joke in publishing, which is not really a joke, that more people
in Britain write poetry than read it. The British tend to regard
versifying as a private vice rather than a public virtue. They are certain
it is not a profession. Ours is probably the only language in the
world that pemits the word 'poet' to be thrown as a jocular insult. Mind
you, we are funny that way. We tend to use 'Australian' as a
shorthand punchline, too.
Imagine then, if you do not remember it, the fun we all had earlier this
year when the words 'Australian' and 'poet' started to appear in
the same newspaper headlines. 'Aussie poet waltzes off with the Eliot
prize,' exclaimed the Telegraph. 'Sweet fines from a "subhuman
redneck" win top poetry prize,' gasped the Independent. 'Surprise winner of
Eliot Award,' sniffed the Guardian. Murray, who, we were told,
lived on a 40-acre farm in New South Wales, and who looked in his pictures
like an extra from an episode of Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo, had
beaten Adrian Mitchell and Seamus Heaney to the £5,000 TS Eliot prize for
poetry. He was a huge man, with great artisan hands, the son of an
Australian farmer who discovered one day that he had literally forgotten how
to read. He wheezed when he walked, and spluttered food when
he talked. Then, the two poems of his that kept being quoted were The Dream
of Wearing Shorts Forever and Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfyl ('Fair
play, it was frightful'). This did not seem to speak to what Eliot would
have recognised as High Seriousness. What next? I thought. Les
Patterson gets shortlisted for the Pulitzer?
Stupid, blinkered, closed-minded, ill-read me. Once I got down to Murray's
Collected Poems and two later volumes Translations from the
Natural World and Subhuman Redneck Poems, I grasped that here was a poet of
fantastic power and range. Murray can describe anything, from
cell DNA to a bath shower - as in a bath shower: 'From the metal poppy/ this
good blast of trance/ arriving as shock, private cloudburst
blazing down'. But he is not only perception alteringly descriptive, he is
moody and many-mooded: philosophical, melancholic, devout,
autobiographical and - a warning - very angry. All human life is bound
within Murray's poetry, with an exception I shall want to ask him
about, which is romantic love. He seems to disapprove. 'Sex,' he writes in a
recent poem, 'is Nazi.'
So I find myself thinking of Les the literary genius as a stowaway in the
hulking hull of the sheep farmer who, the morning I am to meet
him, has run aground at a conference on the teaching of poetry overseas
being held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is way off course:
Murray hates teachers, multi-culturalism, academics and hates even, and most
of all, the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, he'll tell you,
was a historic mistake.
But Murray isn't there when I turn up at the porter's lodge at the agreed
time. The professors and British Councillors emerging from their
Shakespeare lecture joke that Murray must have gone 'walkabout', but that
given his lumbering gait, he won't exactly be a songline distant.
He was last seen being buttonholed by an earnest Scandinavian student of his
work. I have a feeling that if he has gone awol it is because
the next event is a 'workshop session' on Murray himself, just the sort of
thing to upset someone who believes there's a conspiracy to
replace poetry with critical theory.
Murray makes the biggest claims for poetry, arguing it fuses waking thought
with the commentary of the unconscious. 'Poetry,' he writes,
'models the way we really think... Any true poem is greater than the whole
Enlightenment, more important and more sustaining of human life.'
Fair play. Murray, now that he hoves into the quad, looks frightful. He
doesn't look like a farmer and nor is he, although, of course, as a
boy he helped out. He now lives on a farm close to where he was born, but
says he is 'too lazy' to be a fanner. He is a poet. The elements
must have bit him with their entire armoury during his 58 years. Beneath a
cheap baseball cap that protects his baldness, he has a cruder,
scaled-up version of Clive James's face (worryingly, he says he has
inherited it from his mother), with a scar that runs sideways from his
left nostril, presumably from where a hospital piped a tube a year ago, when
he nearly died from a relation of the e-coli virus that struck
down Scottish meat pie fans last summer.
He once wrote a poem called The Quality of Sprawl, which isn't about girth
at all but generosity of spirit, yet his own embonpoint does make
flesh his sprawling good nature. Today, he is colourfully marqueed in a
knitted jumper which hecalls 'the spreading hydrangea' - in
defiance, perhaps, of Australia's Tall Poppy syndrome which he believes
would cut him down to size. While the only words the English need to
rubbish Murray with were 'Aussie poet', in Australia he attracts a range of
detailed criticism. For one thing, he believes in God, which
modernists argue is not much use to a poet writing in a godless age. (His
response is that his Roman Catholicism makes a better poem of the
world than their atheism.) For another, he annoys the city liberals who
espouse Aborigine land rights, by claiming that coming from poor
white farming stock he has more in common with the Aborigines than they do.
For a third, he hates the intellectuals who think they own the
canon and are at liberty to bus in whichever writers from whichever
'minorities' they choose.
'Ultimately,' he says of his enemies, as we take seats on a bench that
donnishly overlooks a walled garden, 'they demand that you be as
mediocre as they are. It's a disguised jealousy.'
What do they object to in him? That he dares as a white man to write about
the Aboriginal experience? That he still believes in God? That,
where necessary, he rhymes and scans? Or that elsewhere he cuts up his
verses into segments so that some pages of his books look like aerial
shots of prison blocks? Is he simply too various for what he calls 'the
RLS', the Received Literary Sensibility?
'Yes, not predictable, not obedient, but, ultimately, not small enough,
because they're not really asking for political conformity, they're
asking for high conformity of performance. There's a school in Australia
that tends not to like me very much, and they use left-wing
rhetoric, but I don't think they're left-wing people at all. I don't see
them being on the side of anybody who's genuinely oppressed,' he
One of the questionable things about this superleaguer is that he declares
himself not merely on the side of the oppressed but one of them.
He draws this conclusion partly from his family history, which goes as
At the invitation of her cousin, the Overseer of Free Men in Stroud,
Isabella Scott, Murray's great-great-greatgrandmother, sent her
children to Australia in the middle of the last century and followed them
out a few years later. A widow, she left, one gathers, because she
could not make a living in the Scottish borders. In his poem My Ancestress
and the Secret Ballot, however, Murray makes a political martyr
of her, describing her husband being kicked to death by rioters for the way
he had voted. The bitterness, the 'black rage' he talks of in
his verse, cascades down the generations until it reaches his father, a
eucalyptus tree feller and farmer in Bunyan, New South Wales, who
raged at having to pay his own father rent for the land.
'My father felt humiliated by being poor, which was a gift to him of his
father's. He didn't need to be poor, his father kept him poor,'
Murray says, still aggrieved on his behalf. His family struggled during the
war years and then, in 1951, as they began to make headway, his
mother, who had suffered two miscarriages after having Les, dies of labour
complications at the age of 35. Her death kindled the Murray rage
in the 12-year-old. He claims the doctor refused to send an ambulance for
her when she collapsed because he regarded his father as 'an
'He could have sent an ambulance, the swine, yes, but he thought country
people were using the ambulance as a taxi service,' Murray tells
me, his eyes turning to lava. 'He just didn't think she was important
enough. Class is a frightful thing. It's one of the great Australian
Australia's smallholder farmers are among the lost causes he supports -
'They have the National Party and they have me, and what do I amount
to?' - but his allegiances switch. In a newish poem, The Rollover, he
sympathises with a fired bank manager. 'No land rights for bankers,'
he concludes, politically incorrectly and not entirely ironically. In The
Demo, he promises never to join a street protest. 'If a cause is
fashionable,' he explains to me, 'it doesn't need you.'
Yet if he blamed the Australian class system for his mother's death, he
blamed himself more. He believed that the rough way in which he had
been induced had ruined his mother's gynaecology. By the time he was 16 and
at high school, he was corroded by both fratricidal and
matricidal guilt. He was bullied, the subject, he says, of the first 'demo'
he had ever witnessed. Targeted because he was fat?
'That's what they called it, but it wasn't that. That was their code for
whatever it was. I suspect what was wrong was that somehow they'd
got wind of the fact that I had a sexual neurosis. In my head it was lodged
that if you kill your mother, you must be very careful to avoid
killing any other female human being. I tended to be frightened of girls and
it was largely a kind of compunction: I thought that sex leads
to death. It was perfecdy unconscious but somwhere in my head there was a
programme that said:"Don't go chasing girls because you'll cause
their death." '
And probably the girls could sense that?
'The people I got the bad time from were the girls. The boys usually don't
quite have the patience to keep it up. They get bored with it,
but the girls never, never... They never broke ranks. There were only two
permissible attitudes: really cool or freezing.
'I didn't understand just how much it was hurting. I covered it over and
pretended nothing was happening, tried turning the other cheek,
which does work, except it can't be combined with anger, and what I was also
feeling was furious anger, although I hid it in my unconscious.
All that bad stuff eventually made me have a mild - well, not all that mild,
but a not very painful - nervous breakdown, in my twenties' and
another big, bad, savage one in the year 1988, when I was 50, and that
lasted me until 1996, and it's now gone.'
Yet rather than blame his tormentors at Taree High, Murray berates the
education system itself, which he calls a 'humitiation machine'
designed to rank you by degrees of failure. He enrolled at Sydney University
to study English and almost immediately rejected its reading
list and steered off into uncharted literary backwaters, cutting the pages
of never-opened Victorian tomes. As a result, he did not graduate
until his early thirties, by which time some of his own poems had actually
made it on to the loathed canon - and he even wrangled over that.
Murray, as you may have gathered, is extraordinarily contrary. He never
apologises for his weight - and why should be? - but in Quintets for
Robert Morley he swerves crazily in the other direction, making it a
qualification for membership of a superior race. The fat, he argues,
were the Stone Age aristocracy, 'probably the earliest, and civilising,
humans', permitted to stay behind in the village and think while the
lean hunted. You think he is joking, but in a poem, Rock Music, he suggests
the harassment he suffered at school arose from a
counter-evolutionary instinct to 'castrate the aberrant, the original, the
wounded/ who might change our species'. Like all of his
won't-join-the-dance poetry, this comes very close to saying different, his
different, is also better.
Biographically speaking, however, Murray's life is not so very dissimilar
from many people's. While completing his degree, he tooks a job
translating technical papers from a variety of western European languages
into English. He married a Swiss schoolteacher called Valerie,
with whom he has had five children, two girls and three boys, one of whom is
'He's a funny fellow,' he says of Alexander. 'It's a bit like living with an
angel, you know, he doesn't tell lies and he can't bear anger,
you know, near him. That makes him terribly frightened and worried, and he's
a very, very keen observer. He doesn't venture opinions, but
he'll know things that other people haven't noticed, and he's a living
record book. You know: "When did we do such and such?" "Oh, that was
in October 1992, Dad. Thursday, the second of October."
How old is he now?
'Eighteen. And he's a bit worried about the future, you know, what will he
do in the big wide world of the complex people, you know, the
people who are differently complex from him, and will he ever work, will he
ever, I suppose, have a girlfriend.'
(How a family's neuroses re-present themselves!)
In 1986, the Murrays left the city for Bunyan to live on a 40-acre farm a
few miles from where Les was born. 'I think I went back there in
order to go mad,' he says. 'I think if anybody goes home, that's what
they're looking for. They're looking to go mad so as to kill
themselves... Externally I had all these things, it's just that the past was
there and the past, if it's not dealt with, comes back and
insists on being dealt with.'
So when he suffered his second breakdown three years after he returned, it
was an exhumation of his teenage sexual neurosis?
'It had been travelling along all those years under the surface and, because
it hadn't been dealt with and understood and brought to light,
it was still working, and although it wasn't preventing reproduction [he
laughs] it was making me ill.'
'Oh yes. Oh God, yes, you get terrifically physically ill with depression.
If you get it badly enough, you start having what feel like heart
attacks. Some people have smothering attacks; they can't get their breath
and they feel they're drowning in the air. It's frightful to
watch. Others, like me, would curl up on the sofa with tears leaking out of
their eyes and head. You feel that your head is boiling with
black kelp or something, you know. And it's just all misery and horror.'
Drugs failed him and, not believing in psychoanalysis, he dug for the
'truth' with his pen nib. As he completed his Subhuman Redneck Poems,
he thought he had finally got to it, although he'd still have one bad day a
week, when he would ask his family to excuse him while he went
off to 'have the horrors'. Then in July last year, Murray was in the garden
wheeling a barrow when he was seized by a terrible pain across
his belly. He thought it was a heart attack but, in fact, he had actually
bust a gut. He was suffering from a liver abscess precipitated by
the e-coli bacteria. The last words he heard as he was wheeled into hospital
were: 'We may not save this one'. He spent three weeks under
anaesthetic, missed the Olympics and awoke to find:
'No more black dog.'
Replaced by the joy of surviving?
'Not only that, but a new sort of enjoyment of the whole damn thing, of life
and family and normality and sanity and energy.'
So some lighter poetry in the next volume?
'A lot more fight-and air.'
And less anger?
'Anger's gone. I feel better for having got rid of it. It's an awful thing
to carry around.'
What he also discovered when he awoke was a pile of mail and phone messages
wishing him well: 'I thought: "Hey, I'm not hated, I'm not the
pariah of Australian literature' as depression and a few people had inclined
me to think. I'd always said that the reader was our defence
against the academy and the critic and the managers of the culture, and so
it's proved in my case. And not even all of the managers of
culture were enemies.'
But I could have told him that. Academics paid for him to fly to Oxford -
and where, in any case, did he deliver his most savage attack on
literary criticism, the one where he declared that: 'Criticism has a seeming
authority to which weak and inexperienced readers succumb'? At
the University of New South Wales.
I wonder how much of Murray's anger has been directed at phantoms. Take his
war against atheism. He reasons that there must be an afterlife
because only that will deliver parents some justice. You will look forever
for the logic in that, but I have yet to see anyone describe his
Catholicism as a 'fictive ideological construct', which is how he dismisses
atheism and feminism. He ends The Last Hellos, his poem about
his father's death two years ago:
But who are these snobs? In his religious poems, the intolerance is all his.
Corniche, for example, was written as a riposte to Aubade,
Philip Larkin's magnificent howl at the fear of death. Corniche is a good
poem, but it denies the English atheist his subject, redefining
Aubade as a poem about depression, the terror of mortality merely its
What puzzles me equally is why Murray, as a poet, has felt beleaguered by
what he calls 'Cl 9-20'. He seems to entwine many strands of this
century's poetry: the Catholicism of Eliot, the argument-picking of Auden,
the Pantheism of Ted Hughes. The only thing he has apparently
eschewed is its sexual candour. Examining his ruddy, relaxed face with its
intelligent porthole eyes - the face of a happy man - I venture
the old taunt, that he is no one's image of a poet, the Byronic adventurer.
'You don't get to be a sexual adventurer with my kind of neurosis,' he says,
chortling. 'No, we're all very varied, poets. We don't fit that
stereotype very much and mostly the people who do are very inferior poets.'
He's a great one for qualitative judgements, Les Murray, which is rather
unfashionable. Other than that, although he is undoubtedly out of
shape, I dispute he is very much out of time. If Murray is different from
most other poets, he is different in the old, hierarchical sense
that he is much better than they are.
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