Portrait

Find a comfortable chair and a glass of single malt whisky to savour the life and poetry of Les Murray. By Peter Goldsworthy.

Vale poet Les Murray

A proper tribute to Les Murray would be to read (and listen to) his primary produce, not talk about it, and then raise a glass of something – a shot of single malt perhaps, more of which later – to chase down the magical aftertaste of the words.

Some recommendations, then – for poems, if not whisky. For anyone still wondering what the widespread public eulogising over the past few days was about, a good place to start would be “The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”. Why not jump straight into the Deep End, or at least into a fast-flowing reach of the big river also called Murray? The cycle is a headlong, teeming celebration of life which borrows heavily from Indigenous song traditions. “Australia was ruled by poetry for tens of thousands of years,” Les once wrote, “prose only became its ruling principle after settlement in 1788.” He was fond of the notion that he had Indigenous DNA himself, as was not uncommon in his neck of the woods.

Les, his wife, Valerie, and their children returned to that neck of the woods – a small farmhouse near Bunyah – in the 1980s after many years living in Sydney. His father, Cecil – subject of the moving elegy “The Last Hellos” – was still alive then, and whenever I visited I would take a bottle of single malt, and the poet and his dad would drink me under the table, although not before I heard any number of wild and sometimes hair-raising stories from the clan elder. As Les put it in “The Last Hellos”:

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.

No surprise Les inherited a gift for story. The early loss of his mother was less life-changing than life-shattering. His grief was later poured into the magnificent “Three Poems in Memory of My Mother” from the pivotal 1983 volume The People’s Otherworld – which also contains the beautiful steady-state vision of the celebrated “Equanimity” – but its effect on him reached its clearest statement in “Burning Want”, from his darkest and most autobiographical collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, some years later:

From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:
mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead …

But all my names were fat-names, at my new town school.
Between classes, kids did erocide: destruction of sexual morale.

Despite the consolations of reading, exhaustively, life became feral. Clothes were worn for a month, then tossed into a boiling copper. Until he arrived in Sydney years later, he wasn’t even aware of the existence of underpants. His university years were punctuated by depression – “compere of the pre-dawn show” – and periods of living rough, and although he made good friends such as Bob Ellis and Geoff Lehmann, I hate to think what his life would have been without Valerie. She was his rock both as a young man, and through his months of coma and slow recovery decades later, of which he would write extensively in prose and poetry.

He was, in some senses, Australia’s Walt Whitman, engaged in a naming project, a vast Show and Tell. We see more things for the first time, and see more familiar things renewed, in his poetry than in the work of any other poet or painter or writer I can think of. Poetry is a special kind of thinking, or a bridge across the tiny gap between think and say; it inserts its connections into that small space between the thought and the word. It makes us realise: I knew that, or I didn’t know I knew that, or I knew that, but hadn’t yet got around to putting it into words myself.

The Big Bloke contained multitudes, but he was an infinitely more diverse stylist than Whitman. He could write sprawling celebrations like the aforementioned song-cycle, or he could write skinny less-is-more laconicisms such as “The Mitchells”, a poem that made my hair stand on end when I first read it.

Coming from a farm background and parented as much by the Black Dog as by his dad, he was never one to turn his gaze from the dark side. “The Cows on Killing Day” is one of the greatest, most original poems in the English language; other slaughterhouse poems such as “Death Words” and “The Artery” are not far behind. Les disliked cant art-promotion terms such as “edgy” or “gritty”, but he was the cutting edge of Australian poetry for his entire writing life, and if these poems are not among the grittiest written, the word really doesn’t have any useful meaning.

As with the work of most poets these days, “The Cows” can be read immediately, today, via Google – although you might need that stiff drink afterwards. His collected works make a better permanent companion: a coffee table (or whisky cabinet) book that can be dipped into, or shared aloud with friends over meals. TV evangelists are fond of a technique called bibliomancy: a Bible is opened at random, and God guides the dropped finger to a text for the day. Les’s Collected Poems will do for atheist me. It is, as Clive James has said, “one of the great books of the modern world”.

Others agree. He won more prizes than you could throw a crumpled poem at, although it’s a disgrace he was never awarded the Nobel. He knew his own powers, but remained laconically ironic about the accumulating laurels. Andrew Motion, Britain’s poet laureate at the time, and therefore present at the ceremony, told my wife and me a wonderful story about the presentation of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry to Les by, well, the Queen. Her Majesty seemed a bit startled as the winner approached at speed, a bit like a bowling ball lining up an ageing skittle, and managed to drop the medal on the floor. A frozen moment of protocol: who picks it up? Les, of course, retrieved his medal and handed it back – “Here ya are, Ya Majesty” – and the ceremony proceeded.

That was Les – always himself. A natural, a maverick, a rare fluke in a baggy wool jumper who was as original in his life as in his work. Two last suggestions: “The Quality of Sprawl” and “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”. Pour out a few fingers of malt and Google them, or self-propel your magic finger to their hardcopy page, right now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "The Big Bloke". Subscribe here.

Peter Goldsworthy
is an award-winning writer. His new novel, Minotaur, will be published in July.