Poetry at the Gods … with Les Murray

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?

Les Murray, Best 100 poems

Courtesy: Black Inc

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 The first set comprised unpublished (I believe he said) poems written in recent years, while the second came from The best 100 poems of Les Murray published by Black Inc in 2012.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.

22 thoughts on “Poetry at the Gods … with Les Murray

  1. Over 30 years ago – an earlier life in many respects – tracking family via a kinswoman – Betty MURRAY – who had written a significant biography of her grand-father – editor of the New English Dictionary (Based on Historical Principles) aka the OED – elicited a hand-drawn family tree – her grand-father a first cousin to my great x 2 grand-father – both born 1837, both named James MURRAY – and other connections sketched in – a little more distantly connected to us both – one the librarian at Newcastle Library – Joan MURRAY – the other – as he then was – Les A. MURRAY. I had a role in those days in supporting the implementation of policy – monies from the Federal Government – and writing papers as a part of strategy development. One of them addressed the role of using Australian Literature to make plain the cultural/historical dimension of our dominant Anglo-society – while using literature which reflected the cultural diversity of our land. And incidentally, pointing out the political. It was words from one of Les MURRAY’s poems which I chose for the title: “The Deep End of the Schoolyard”. A colleague knew Les’ wife Val – also involved in “ESL” teaching. I sent Les a copy of the paper – he sent back a lengthy piece of writing later published in one of his collections: “The Bonnie Disproportion” in which (back till around 1980) by his count – the number of poets out of Scottish backgrounds in Australia was far more than what might be expected in relation to other ethnic groupings! We didn’t meet until I was back from Japan on one of my mid-year “escape-Japanese-humid-summer breaks” – and I called in for lunch with Les and Val at their Bunyah home. Immediately after which he was off to Sydney to attend a poetry reading – more than a decade ago! In 1985 I did an Australian Lit. III subject at Sydney University. In the poetry with Peter KIRKPATRICK – some of Les’ work in his collection: The Vernacular Republic.

    • Thanks for sharing this Jim. “The deep end of the schoolyard”. Love it. Murray mentioned his wife’s ESL which inspired the new poem he read in the first set. I can’t wait to see those poems in print to digest them properly.

    • He is a very interesting man, Stefanie. Has been controversial, like many of our poets, and has had a lot to contend with (bullying as a child, long bouts with depression), but so great to read.

  2. This is the first I’ve heard of Les Murray – I will use simply being marooned in this little introspective island in the North Sea as my excuse – we Brits don’t get out much physically or metaphorically! But I liked the excerpts so will definitely have a look out for this.

    • Oh yes, I think you’ve mentioned that before, Tony. I have his 2007 Selected Poems in print but I bought the 100 for the Kindle. Interesting point re selected versus collections. I really enjoyed Dorothy Porter’s The bee hut but am struggling a little with her 100.

  3. Sounds like the reading was wonderful. Thanks for posting about it – I have that slim volume, the Best 100 Poems, under my bedside table and occasionally I pick a poem to read before bed. It is my very slow introduction to Les Murray – and now you’ve inspired me to make sure I read a little more of his work.

  4. Obviously a remarkable evening. I haven’t been to a poetry reading in years, but at least on BBC Radio we have a weekly half hour programme called Poetry Please in which listeners requests are read out by fine actors/actresses.

  5. Hi Sue, I really appreciated the honesty of this post. I’ve been to a number of Poetry at Gods events (and it’s previous versions in different venues). It’s a wonderful initiative and Geoff does an incredible job – he’s a legend (almost literally). Personally, however, I’m with you that often I prefer to experience poetry on the page rather than through events. If I do go to a poetry event, I either prefer performance poetry (as long as it’s bloody good!) or for the poet to talk about their process and where various poems came from – sort of a behind-the-scenes look at how they go about their work. In general, I’m a little like you: I’m not good at following the spoken word, and love it when there are copies of the poems for the audience to read while the poet is reading them. But maybe I’m just a bit of a simpleton. Having said all this, I feel the same about events where the ‘performers’ are writers of fiction. So perhaps I just like to enjoy my words at home, with a glass of wine, and a fire, and a snoring dog…

    • Thanks Nigel … yes, I am a textual person too so, like you, am a bit like that with prose readings too. I do prefer to hear the writer talk about rather than read their work. (I remember once going to hear Coetzee at the NLA. I gather he’s a shy man. All he did was read briefly from his work. No talk, no Q&A). But, it was just great to see and hear Les Murray because of who he is, and I did go home and fish out some of the poems to read!

      I haven’t seen much performance poetry but that is different as you say. Omar Musa is probably the one I’ve seen most recently.

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