‘I only dance on bits of paper’
by Andrew Mullins | May 02, 2019
The Guardian / Adam Hollingworth
Les Murray (17 October 1938 – 29 April 2019), Australian poet
The ‘gentle titan of Australian letters’, Les Murray, left us on Monday.
We all believed the Nobel Prize to be rightfully his. The New Yorker wrote that for a decade he was the ‘short odds favourite’. The Atlantic described him as ‘the greatest poet alive’. Laureates regarded him as their equal. Derek Walcott, the poet from St Lucia who won a Nobel in 1992, wrote ‘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.’
Yet when another awardee’s name was published each year, we were far more disappointed than Les himself. It was a measure of the man.
‘You know I only dance on bits of paper… ‘
And how he could dance! Without doubt he changed the face of Australian poetry, judging by the poets now published who now echo his tone and cadences.
In 1998 he described to a BBC interviewer what it was like when his mind was on song:
‘It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you're getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there's a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form.’
Returning time and again to the great themes of place, nature, family and truth he wrote with exuberant language and visual imagination. His boundless wonder at nature and creation is known to all who marvel at his work. He savoured the art of surprise:
‘Where two or three
are gathered together, that
is about enough.’
He was the master of visual puns, of undreamt associations.
‘the dead trees in the dam
flower each morning with birds.’
His word play danced from botany to geography, from vernacular to German, from ‘coruscating’ to ‘mattressphere’, onomatopoeic and visual in one, and all with a naturalness shy of pretension. Compression with clarity, truth with humour, teeming with allusions. ‘In the days before Google, Murray was its human equivalent. He seemed to know at least something about everything,’ wrote Geoff Page, a fellow Australian poet.
He dedicated each of his more than 30 books of poetry ‘to the glory of God’. He had become a Catholic on his marriage in 1962 and his work and faith were inseparable. Infrequently he touched directly on religion.
‘Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?’
Usually however the integration was more subtle.
‘Sorry, Dad, but like
Have you forgiven your enemies?
Your father and all of them?
All his lifetime of hurt.
I must have (grin). I don’t
think about that now.
In ‘The New Moreton Bay’, he reflects on the conversion to Catholicism of a friend who discovers in the ‘innocent wood’ of the cross, ‘its leaves and libraries’, while others ‘step aside, detained by the Happiness Police or despair’s boutiques.’
Apologising for his inability to meet with an eminent visiting churchman, he wrote,
‘… a pity, I for one could have done with some fortifying.’
He was factual without bitterness at the failings of men. In a poem composed for his daughter’s wedding he wrote,
‘Few poems I’ve made mention of our children.
That I write at all got you dork names.
More might have brought worse. Our jealous nation…’
Often he wrote on injustice. In the poem ‘Dog Fox Field’ his understated pity for simple-minded children gassed by the Nazis for their failure to construct a sentence using the words dog fox and field, transmutes to a reflection on our own brazen selection of those we deem unworthy of dignity and life.
He often touched allegorically on our own failings. The Roman legions, he writes in ‘The Drugs of War’, ‘took to sugared wines and failed to hold the lands of hash’. One overseas post praised him simply as ‘The great Australian poet who shined (sic) light on the Armenian genocide.’
The greatest of men are the humblest and most self-effacing. He was perhaps the one poet whom nearly every Australian had heard of. If they didn’t remember a line of verse, they remembered the tall, fat, bald bloke dressed in a beanie and an oversize jumper. His poems often referred to his struggles with depression and obesity.
Is it possible that hyper-
ventilating up Parnassus
I have neglected to pay tribute
to the Stone Age aristocracy?
I refer to the fat.
While his own skill was unrivalled, he claimed:
‘Most men keep their best creativity for their family.’
There was no room for posturing.... in life or in language.
‘Sheer vanity this card… but I’m fond if it.’
That’s what he wrote to me on a postcard featuring a child hugging a sedentary elephant, the cover-photo of one of his books. No airs. No pretensions. Extraordinary talents and insight masked by his beanie and self-deprecation.
‘I received the least distinguished degree Sydney (University) ever issued. I don’t think anyone’s ever matched it.’
He wrote of his later work on a University Council,
‘I have no patience for meetings. I have to keep repressing the giggles. A chap has to know his limitations, as Clint Eastwood so rightly says, and I’m not called to rule over or administer things’
His humility was evident always in the courtesy extended by his wife Valerie and himself to all comers. Once I arrived with a minibus of my students and they fed us all. One tribute posts: ‘I won’t forget the kind insightful letter he wrote me. How generous he was in supporting the work of new poets.’
He was never happier than with Valerie at the dairy farm in Bunyah where he grew up. ‘When I was a child, my father was ashamed of this shabby house,’ but he bought back the farm. When he returned there from Sydney (‘the city of visible air… I now dodge Sydney if I can’) he sent me his thoughts on the back of a postcard of ‘Spring Frost’ by the Australian artist Elioth Gruner. Cows, of course.
The meek shall inherit the earth.
Andrew Mullins was headmaster of Redfield College in Dural, NSW, (1996 – 2010), and Wollemi College (2011 – 2014). Currently he is on the board of the first Parents for Education school in Victoria, Harkaway Hills College. He is the author of Parenting for Character (Finch).