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‘In our heads is poetry’: An interview with Les Murray

Capp - Les Murray (Adam Hollingworth)
Les Murray - 'The gentle itan of Australian letters' (Adam Hollingworth)

| Australian Book Review

For the April 1985 issue of Australian Book Review, the 22-year old Fiona Capp, then a cadet journalist, interviewed one of Australia’s most eminent poets, Les Murray (1938-2019)  Fiona wrote a gentle and insightful piece on Murray, the self-styled ‘Poet Lorikeet’ of Australian poetry and regarded by his peers as the leading poet of his generation. I hope poets will see some fragments of their own thinking in her profile of a man known as 'the gentle titan of Australian letters'. More on Fiona Capp at the end of this essay - KJ

Capp - LesMELBOURNE - Les Murray describes his poetry as “a celebration of life; a contemplation of life in ways that interest and delight people and make them reflective”. Poetry, he says, is “primarily not to be studied, it is to be read”.

Few people could disagree with Murray that the most desirable response to poetry is for it to be read out of love rather than out of a sense of obligation.

But inspiring this distinction between the ‘analytical’ and the ‘instinctive’ approach to poetry are Murray’s ‘deeply ambivalent’ feelings about the motives behind much literary criticism.

Murray is not totally convinced that it functions in promoting literature, and like a number of his contemporaries such as Judith Wright and Patrick White, he is also wary of academics.

Ironically, while poet in residence at La Trobe University in July 1984, he expressed this concern frankly.

“While there are certain kinds of criticism I trust, there are times that it looks like an attempt to trump authors and treat us the way that anthropologists treat their subject peoples.

“We are the primitives and they are the enlightened, descending to study us. Right now there’s a big push on to tum criticism into a super intellectual discipline.

“There’s a fearsome amount of concealed jealousy in writers and there’s a lot of secret failed writers in universities too.

“So you are walking into a radioactive zone when you walk into an English Department.”

It is curious that Murray is so antagonistic in his response to academics because the relationship is a symbiotic one where he is greatly dependent on their analysis and promotion of his work as ‘syllabus material’, just as their scholarship is enriched by the contribution of his art to the ever-growing volume of ‘Australian literature’.

Perhaps his attitude can in part be traced to his undergraduate days at Sydney University, in the late 1950s. Murray jokingly recalls that he received:

“…. probably the least distinguished degree in English that the university ever conferred on anybody.

“I was busy educating myself in the library and film society and occasionally attending to my course. I didn’t learn a lot from the English Department. There is fault on either side.

“I learnt a lot more about literature from the German Department. The German Department was less narrow. It would consider questions of philosophy and history of culture and all these sorts of things along with literature.

“The English Department’s approach was far more narrow.”

This approach, Murray feels, is also reflected in most English anthologies of poetry. He is currently editing the forthcoming Oxford Anthology of Australian Verse [The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, 1986] and intends it to be more eclectic than past anthologies.

“An English language anthology will tend to have one kind of poetry – high literary art poetry. A German anthology will quite often contain hymns and other kinds of folk poems.”

Capp - Les Murray with the Queen at Buckingham Palace  London  1999. Les had been presented with the gold medal for poetry (Fiona Hanson  PA)
Les Murray with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace,  London,  1999. Les had been presented with the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (Fiona Hanson, Press Association )

This sentiment is echoed in Murray’s poem from The People’s Otherworld, called ‘Satis Passio’, where he says, ‘God bless the feral poetries’.

Without venturing to offer analysis of his latest collection of poems, it is interesting to observe that the diversity of tone and style in this book also reflects this eclectic approach.

There is the laconic, humorous narrative about ‘Bill Tuckett Telegraph Operator’, the surprisingly lyrical, witty yet poignant ‘Homage to the Launching Place’ about “the pleasure-craft of sprung rhythms, bed”, alongside poems of a more serious tone such as ‘Three Poems in Memory of My Mother, Miriam Murray née Arnall’ and ‘Equanimity’.

In this last poem, Murray’s feelings about a kind of impartial core that exists at the heart of ‘human order’ are indicative of his attitudes to poetry as well as people.

Equanimity is a state where the churchman, loser, farmer, and artist “are, in short, off the high comparative horse of their identity”.

Preoccupations with literary convention and criteria for ‘high’ and ‘low’ poetry which interfere with the reception of a poem are like preconceptions about identity – they stratify society and art.

But the overview that Murray establishes in this poem “where nothing is diminished by perspective” is ultimately not limited by social or artistic egalitarian ideology. It is concerned with recognition of the equality of the spirit.

Thus Murray is wary of theoretical criticism or terminology that seeks to categorise his expressions in poetry, as Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann do in the biographical blurb that precedes his poems in their Younger Australian Poets anthology.

They describe Murray as ‘anti-élitist’. Murray’s reaction to this description was one of exasperation:

“Those sorts of politico-sociological essays on the poetry and the poet confirm the idea that anthologies shouldn’t have that kind of material at all. It distracts people.

“It tends to make the simpler reader read through a screen of somebody else’s pre-conceptions. It’s what I call ‘Police Dossier’ criticism.”

Capp - Les 2This determination not to reduce the sublimer questions of life to sociological or material considerations is evident as Murray talks about his affinity with Catholicism.

He calls himself a “naturally Catholic soul” and alludes to the “depth of tradition” and “utter contrast” between some Catholic thought and that of other denominations, some of which he feels have lost their mystical depth.

“All they can do is try to turn themselves into some kind of social welfare organisation; gradually it is not a church anymore but a social welfare outfit, with a touch of apologetic religion.”

Murray’s judgement may seem harsh, but he is no less scrupulous in self-examination of his motives for turning to Catholicism, or, as he terms it, being ‘chosen’ by Catholicism.

“I sometimes ask myself to what extent was it an instinctive rejection of a lot of modern idiocies, that is to say, a negative reason, and to what extent was it a positive reason, a real attraction, a real relationship.

“I think the positive outweighs the negative. To some extent it helps me keep my balance against the shallowness and craziness of the world’s strange urgencies.”

This striving for balance is constantly evident in the dialectic nature of Murray’s poetry where he subtly debates or discusses aspects of existence, convincing the reader of his interpretation through metaphysical ingenuity:

Capp - Les Murray  1995 (David Naseby  detail)
Les Murray,  1995 (David Naseby - detail)

Art is what can’t be summarised:
it has joined creation from our side,
entered Nature, become a fact
and acquired presence …

Art’s best is a standing miracle
at an uncrossable slight distance,
an anomaly, finite but inexhaustible,
unaltered after analysis
as an ancient face …

Beauty lives easily with equities
more terrible than theory dares mean.
Of the workers set free to break stone
and the new-cracked stone, which is more luminous?
God bless the general poetries?
That is how it’s done

                                                            - from ‘Satis Passio’

This perception of equality reflects Murray’s conviction that “most knowledge / in our heads is poetry” and that in this poetic understanding of life is the active recognition of God.


Capp - Fiona Capp (Babelio)Fiona Capp was aged just 22 and training as a journalist with The Age newspaper in Melbourne when she interviewed Les Murray. Fiona already knew her career lay in literature and was toying with becoming a poet.

She quit journalism to become a freelance writer and university tutor, obtaining a PhD in 1992. Her thesis was published as Writers Defiled and has become a much quoted book even as Fiona has become a prominent novelist, essayist, short story writer, reviewer and critic.

Her books include That Oceanic Feeling, a memoir about her love of the sea and surfing, which became classic of surfing literature, and the novels Night Surfing, Last of the Sane Days and Musk & Byrne. More recently she has written My Blood's Country - part memoir, part journey through the landscapes that inspired Australian poet Judith Wright.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Poetry and literature is a curious thing Harry.

I've been working my way through the collected works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet. Of all his poetry there is only one that I really like, "As Kingfishers Catch Fire", and then only the first verse:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes its self; 'myself' it speaks and spells.
Crying 'What I do is me: for that I came'.

Same with William Blake, just a couple of good poems.

Funnily enough, listening to interviews and speeches by Les, especially when he reads his own poetry is magical.


Harry Topham

I think that poor old Les Murray struggled all his life with depression, when interviewed he would refer to the black dog constantly nipping at his heels,

Hence any criticism of the man should be taken within the confines of that context.

Barbara and Phil you are right in that Les’s form of poetry was probably a little too obscure and intellectual for the common person to comprehend but nevertheless it was, to me anyway, quite remarkable in the hidden messages within.

To each his own I guess.

A number of critiques of Murray's poetry linked to below & worth reading. Summary - Pros: Excellent ear for language. Prolific & and varied output. Sense of humour. Firm convictions (not to everyone's taste) forcefully expressed. Cons: Some poems lost in language & excess. Occasional bitterness - KJ

Philip Fitzpatrick

I agree with you Barbara, Les Murray's poetry doesn't do much for me either.

He seems to fit into that category beloved of the academics and literary hoi poloi that is occupied by people like Patrick White and Gerald Murnane - incomprehensibe to ordinary people.

Someone like Judith Wright leaves Les for dead.

Barbara Short

I often sat next to Les Murray in Fisher Library at Sydney University in the late 1950s. I deliberately chose to sit next to him as he never spoke to you and would not interrupt your train of thought.
I must say I was a bit amazed to find out later that he became a great poet.
I used to love reading poetry and own many poetry books but sadly I have never found his poetry easy to follow.

Harry Topham

One of my sisters attended Sydney University at the same time as Les Murray and knew him well.

My sister connections with Les probably have roots in the German connection mentioned by Les as my sister graduated with a Honours degree in German at that time.

Even back in those days, my sister recalled later in life, Les was a very solitary figure with an intellect so keen one could sharpen a razor upon his soul.

When confronted with a mortal who showed aspirations and vanities well above their station, Les would quickly use his acidic wit to demolish the poor soul’s ego.

Because he could not tolerate fools lightly, this human trait posed a hurdle for his future employment possibilities but Les, because of his ability to think laterally, quickly found that he was very good at languages and that being a interpreter or translator provide him with a paying career where his personality trait of being a non conformist was at best perhaps ignored.

I believe I read that that at the time of his demise he was fluent in 14 languages.

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