Current events Discussion of poetry Discussion of writing style

“Don’t die, Dad – but they die.” Les Murray, The Bard of Bunyah, 17 October 1938 – 29 April 2019

Les Murray dead: Australian poet dies aged 80
Australian poet dies aged 80 – Les Murray, affectionately known as The Bard of Bunyah, was Australia’s most celebrated poet. (Picture: The Australian; Source: News Corp Australia; rtrvd. 2019-04-30)

The papers have been full with news of the death of Australia’s most world-famous poet, Les Murray. He died yesterday at the age of 80. Murray was famous in his lifetime, unusual if you think of the image of unknown poets who are starving, living in garrets and writing on pieces of scrap paper or in obscure blogs while their teeth chatter and hands shake from hunger and/or cold and/or passion. Murray didn’t even look like a poet – he was a large man who frequently wore wrinkled golf shirts and interesting sweaters, and had gappy teeth and was quite unglamorous, except when he met Queen Elizabeth II in 1999 when he collected the Queen’s Medal for Poetry at Buckingham Palace. That’s the thing with Murray – he might have looked like a large, jovial bag of laundry, but he wrote poetry like beams of pure, blinding creativity, as if he were a thunder cloud and his words streaks of lightning. Murray described himself as “…a freak, but happily my freakishness was in language.” (Source: Paris Review, rtrvd. 2019-04-30) 

This image of himself, and his other interesting thoughts, are revealed in the very good interview in Paris Review, which you can download here (pdf format): paris-review-les-murray-the-art-of-poetry-no.-89

Murray was a poet by profession. He had no other career after 1971, when “…while working in the Commonwealth Department of Education, [he] had resolved to forego secure employment and to seek his literary fortune; his subsequent earnings have come from his work as poet, essayist, reviewer, and editor.” He wrote poetry full-time and published 30 (!!) volumes of poetry and won many awards. They say the next award could have been the Nobel in Literature.

Superb language skills

When you read his poems, it’s like there is not a word, phrase, device, structure or image in English that he did not use, or could not weave into his poems. They demonstrate absolute technical mastery, but also a wicked sense of humour and acute perception. Below is a nutshell assessment I agree with:

“A skewer of polemic runs through his work. His brilliant manipulation of language, his ability to turn words into installations of reality, is often forced to hang on an embarrassing moral sharpness. The parts we love – the Donne-like baroque – live side by side with sentiments we don’t: his increasingly automatic opposition to liberalism and intellectuality.” (Peter Porter, review of The Enemy Within – New Collected Poems of Les Murray, in The Guardian, March 15, 2003)

Murray wrote about everything – grand themes, odd things, common and elevated subjects. Ever wondered what bats say to each other? He made up these musical-sounding syllables for the poem Bat’s Ultrasound. Or how pigs would think – seeing as pigs are not dumb but on the other hand, they are pigs. Have a read. (Links courtesy of LesMurray.org, a fan site)

He wrote poems that expressed, for some, the essence of Australia, and he wrote about poetry, about the business of poetry, and the work of writing it. Appropriate for this occasion, I think, is his poem, The Last Hellos, which contains the true line: “People can’t say goodbye / any more. They say last hellos.” (From his collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996)

The Last Hellos

By Les Murray

Don’t die, Dad –
but they die.

This last year he was wandery:
took off a new chainsaw blade
and cobbled a spare from bits.
Perhaps if I lay down
my head’ll come better again.
His left shoulder kept rising
higher in his cardigan.

He could see death in a face.
Family used to call him in
to look at sick ones and say.
At his own time, he was told.

The know found in his head
was duck-egg size. Never hurt.
Two to six months, Cecil.

I’ll be all right, he boomed
to his poor sister on the phone
I’ll do that when I finish dyin.

****

Don’t die, Cecil.
But they do.

Going for last drives
in the bush, odd massive
board-slotted stumps bony white
in whipstick second growth.
I could chop all day.

I could always cash
a cheque, in Sydney or anywhere.
Any of the shops.

Eating, still at the head
of the table, he now missed
food on his knife side.

Sorry, Dad, but like
have you forgiven your enemies?
Your father and all of them?
All his lifetime of hurt.

I must have (grin). I don’t
think about that now.

****

People can’t say goodbye
any more. They say last hellos.

Going fast, over Christmas,
he’d still stumble out
of his room, where his photos
hang over the other furniture,
and play host to his mourners.

The courage of his bluster
firm big voice of his confusion.

Two last days in the hospital:
his long forearms were still
red mahogany. His hands
gripped steel frame. I’m dyin.

On the second day:
You’re bustin to talk but
I’m too busy dyin.

****

Grief ended when he died,
the widower like soldiers who
won’t live life their mates missed.

Good boy Cecil! No more Bluey dog.
No more cowtime. No more stories.
We’re still using your imagination,
it was stronger than all ours.

Your grave’s got littler
somehow, in the three months.
More pointy as the clay’s shrivelled,
like a stuck zip in a coat.

Your cricket boots are in
the State museum! Odd letters
still come. Two more’s died since you:
Annie, and Stewart. Old Stewart.

On your day there was a good crowd,
family, and people from away.
But of course a lot had gone
to their own funerals first.

Snobs mind us off religion
nowadays, if they can.
Fuck thém. I wish you God.

Les Murray on writing poetry

Here is his explanation for what writing poetry is like – isn’t it lovely? Doesn’t it just make you feel like writing a poem right now?

Writing Poetry

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive.

It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form.”

(Transcript of an interview with Les Murray for the BBC Desert Island Disks programme, 1998, provided by Les Murray’s biographer Peter Alexander.)

Because his poetry was so often shared with schools and universities many of his poems are very well  known. Here is a pdf of a few of his more popular poems (pdf format): Les Murray_Selected Poems. But do yourself a favour and buy his books and immerse yourself in his writing. It will do wonderful things to your brain.


About the header:

The Meaning of Existence

by Les Murray

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

(From: Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002)

2 comments on ““Don’t die, Dad – but they die.” Les Murray, The Bard of Bunyah, 17 October 1938 – 29 April 2019

  1. Hoe verrykend! Mag ek asseblief hierdie artikel herblog?

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