What can I say but that it was wonderful to be in the presence of the man who is arguably Australia’s greatest living poet, Les Murray. Poetry at the Gods is a monthly event which has been run for many years by local poet Geoff Page*. (The Gods is a cafe-bar attached to the Australian National University’s Arts Centre.) I have only managed to get to a few readings over the years but, having had to miss Murray in the past, I was darned sure I was going to make it this time. Not only did I get there, but I got my copy of his Selected poems (Black Inc, 2007) signed. Woo hoo!
Before continuing, I should briefly explain Murray for non-Australians who may not have heard of him. His career has spanned over forty years. He has won multiple awards, has published many volumes of poetry (not to mention verse novels and prose works), is on the National Trust of Australia’s 100 Living Treasures, and is often spoken of, here at least, as a Nobel Laureate contender. I must admit that I don’t always get his poetry – but I enjoy the challenge. That’s poetry isn’t it?
Now to the evening. Murray read in two “sets” both lasting around 30 minutes. The first set comprised unpublished (I believe he said) poems written in recent years, while the second came from The best 100 poems of Les Murray published by Black Inc in 2012. (I am currently reading their Best 100 poems of Dorothy Porter).
I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about the reading. As much as I love attending poetry readings, because it is special to hear poets read their own poems, I find it hard to report on them. No sooner is one poem read, than the next one starts. It’s impossible – for me anyhow – to process the poems and say something meaningful about them as a whole. I will however make a few scattered observations.
I’m not sure how much Murray, now 75 years old, had planned in advance what he was going to read, but it looked pretty impromptu. In both “sets” he simply (simply?) flicked through the book he was reading from and chose poems he seemed to feel like reading. Sometimes he provided a few words of introduction to the poem, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he gave a little chuckle before or after, and sometimes he didn’t! In the first half, the poems ranged across such diverse subjects as an apartment block in Beijing, English as a second language, and the challenge of writing haiku. I wish I had them before me. The variety spoke to an active, curious mind, to the poet’s ability to draw something beautiful, meaningful, from pretty well anything, which is what we want our poets to do, isn’t it? Oh, for such a mind.
In his second set, he read some poems that I do have before me, poems such as “The future”, “Postcard”, Lyrebird” and “Dead trees in the dam”. One that has stuck in my memory is the poem about his son who has autism. Titled “It allows a portrait in line scan at fifteen”, it was written when his son was fifteen, and perfectly conveys what I understand to be the experience of living with autism:
Giggling, he climbs all over the dim Freudian
psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted
from refrigerator parents
The poem conveys the split between the person and “it”, the condition. There’s humour, frustration and anger, as much the son’s as the parents’. Murray conveys the fascination with facts and rules, the focus on objectivity, the prodigious memory, that can be typical of autism. The final lines are heart-rending:
He surfs, bowls, walks for miles. For many years
he hasn’t trailed his left arm while
I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the
years. I gotta get smart.
Religion is important to Murray. In fact, the two books of his that I have are dedicated “To the glory of God”. However, his poems are not, overall, self-consciously religious, are not dogmatic but many are informed by a faith in and an understanding of religion. In this context and as one who likes thinking about words and truths, I enjoyed poem “Poetry and Religion”. Here are the opening lines:
Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing’s said until it’s dreamed out in words
and nothing’s true that figures in words only.
And that, I think, is as good a place as any to end on, don’t you think?
*I’ve reviewed his verse novel The scarring.