The release of a new book of poetry by the man regarded as Australia’s greatest living poet was Roger Marmion’s opportunity to finally have a chat with Les Murray about poetry, his life in the Manning area and his view of the world at his family home ‘on Bunyah’.
The ancestral Murrays first settled on the Upper Manning River, but the clan has since spread as far as Krambach and Bunyah, where Les and soulmate Val live on a 40 acre slice of his grandfather’s former property, which Les bought back for his father.
Their modest, peaceful home (with recently installed solar panels) is at the end of a winding drive through cow paddocks over cattlegrids and around a dam. A diverse congregation of birds frequent their garden, despite the presence of the Russian grey cat, Boris.
“He can’t meow,” says Les, “so he has to find other ways to attract our attention.” Boris is the subject of the poem ‘Observing the Mute Cat’ from the newest slim volume ‘Taller When Prone’.
As we eat an orange from the tree, yapping cattle dogs from over the creek elicit the observation that their owner is a horse whisperer. “Pity he can’t whisper dogs!” Les chuckles.
Les and Vals’ love of Bunyah is evident. “We used to have a post office and school, but the government took it away. We have a hall and a tennis court and three streetlights. Bunyah missed out on being a village. We did have a shop in the ‘20s.”
Over a cup of tea I mentioned I’d first met Les in the early 1970s on one of his first national tours as a full-time poet reading to school students. “I was probably saying the same thing then as I’m saying now. Poetry should not be taught. Students hate it, partly because they’ll be examined on it. You don’t put a statue or a painting in a building and then test people when they enter. Poetry should be treated like sport – not competitive sport. They should just be exposed to it!”
Les the wordsmith was invited by former PM John Howard to help draft a preamble to the Constitution after the Constitutional Convention called for “a poetic vision rather than a legal/traditional approach.”
“I had a direct line to the PM. He’d call me and say, ’I can’t get this word past the Cabinet.’ Later they cobbled together one of their own. They soon took it outside and shot it!”
While many of his contemporaries went overseas to build their careers, Les chose to stay in Australia and spends his time writing, editing (Quadrant & Macquarie Dictionary), touring nationally and overseas reading his poetry and lecturing. As a former translator, he now sees his own work translated into many other languages. Is a poem still the same in another language? “If it’s done well, it can be.”
In 1999 Les received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. “I’m not a royalist and not loudly republican. She doesn’t read poetry. She has a dry sense of humour, which fits well with the Scot’s sense of humour I grew up on.”
“It was an opportunity to wear the suit,” offers Val.
“I had to wear the flaming thing or they wouldn’t have let me in! I don’t believe in suits!
“When my son Peter was to be married, there was a fire in the drycleaners in Taree and my suit was in there. I think the family thought I was responsible!
“In the Athenaeum Club there’s a wonderful room lined from ceiling to floor with books. I could have happily lay on a couch in that room and read for years, but I would have had to wear a suit and tie,” he chuckles.
“I grew up in shorts then khaki trousers when I got fatter. I’ve always dressed the same – casual, open at the neck. I mainly wear stretch pants now,” he admits.
There’s an old photo of Les in uniform.
“I was in the cadets and Navy Reserve for a while. I liked playing around with ships. But the voyages always came up at the same time as exams, so I never got anywhere much. This was in the days before Vietnam, when there was nothing unfashionable about armed forces.
“Boys of my age were of the last generation who believed that they would be soldiers. The third World War would come along. We didn’t really plan for a future which went beyond about our twentieth year.
“Then the Sixties came along, and Vietnam and everything changed. The military generation passed. Suddenly the world wasn’t soldiers any more; it was students. That was one of the great cultural watersheds in my life.”
Val’s classical music is playing.
“The Murrays were all musical, given to dancing and music. I was the odd man out, who never learned an instrument. Why is there no music in this kid?” says Les. “Huh! But my music is in my writing!
“I liked to paint! It’s just I couldn’t do it, but I knew a good painting when I saw one. So I’ve been painting in words. Same effect.”
Les still writes in pen and types up the result on his typewriter. ”I couldn’t be bothered with a computer. I don’t trust computers, basically.”
“Things do subtly change, even in nature … All through my life things have been moving further south. When my dad was a kid, a puddle in the road would freeze and stay frozen all day. It’s not as cold in winter and summers are getting hotter.
“Even though I’ve written about the bush, I’m not a bush poet! If you look at my last book, only half the poems are about the bush!” he protests. “The first poem is about the Taj Mahal.”
“He hates to be called the Bard of Bunyah!” says Val.
“It’s a put-down,” explains Les. ”Country folk have always been looked down on. That’s been true all my life. You were expected to be uncultured, ignorant, stupid and slow, and I thought, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong!’ I’m a great social embarrassment in that regard!” he chuckles.
Later this year he will be touring again and launching ‘Taller When Prone’ overseas.
While Les Murray may spurn the title of Australia’s unofficial Poet Laureate, supporters will agree that:
“With characteristic grace and dexterity, these poems combine a mastery of form with a matchless ear for the Australian vernacular. Many evoke rural life here and abroad – its rhythms and rituals, the natural world, the landscape and the people who have shaped it. There are traveller’s tales, elegies, meditative fragments and satirical sketches. Above all there is Murray’s astonishing versatility, on display here at its exhilarating best.
“There is no poetry in the English language now so rooted in its sacredness, so broad-leafed in its pleasures and yet so intimate and conversational.”
Story by Roger Marmian