INTERVIEW / A natural talent: The Australian poet Les Murray can't talk to the animals, but he tries to let them talk to us. Kevin Jackson met him

Kevin Jackson
Wednesday 28 April 1993 23:02

NATURE POETRY: all fairly predictable stuff, really. There are the daffodils, and the nightingales, and the skylarks (blithe little chaps) and the rosebuds (gather while ye may) and the wee cowering timorous rodents north of Hadrian's Wall and, bar the odd landscape of the Lake District and a few aberrations by D H Lawrence about snakes and such, that just about sews it up, doesn't it?

Well, no. But it would be reasonable enough to say that, even allowing for a handful of frequently anthologised pieces about the pike and the skunk and the moose (by, respectively, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop), there are certainly many species of fauna and flora which have not been given their fair hearing by poets. Not, at any rate, until quite recently. Consider an unlovely, unpoetic creature such as, say, the mollusc:

By its nobship sailing upside down,

by its inner sexes, by the crystalline

pimplings of its skirts, by the sucked-on

lifelong kiss of its toppling motion . . .

Or perhaps the humble cuttlefish:

Spacefarers past living planetfall

on our ever-dive in bloom crystal:

when about our self kin selves appear,

slowing, rubber to pulp, we slack from spear, . . .

Or, humbler still, the shellback tick:

Match-head of groins

nailhead in fur

blank itch of blank

the blood thereof

is the strength thereof is

the jellied life-breath. . .

All these varmints and others, from the bull elephant, via leaves of grass down to cell DNA (see right), finally have their long- awaited day in 'Presence', a long sequence from Translations from the Natural World, the latest collection by Australia's most distinguished poet, Les Murray. As the term 'translations' may suggest, Murray's poems are not so much depictions of animals as attempts to render various imagined non-human kinds of experience in human terms.

In response to the infinite variety of creation, each of these 40 poems has a different form - 'you can't write a poem until you have a form, it's like, I don't know, trying to play an untuned instrument' - in a different metre and even in a different grammar. (Take the way Murray's pigs soliloquise: 'Us all on sore cement was we . . .') Wittgenstein once suggested that if a lion could speak, we would not understand it; 'Presence' offers the haunting possibility, or illusion, that this might not be the case.

Some of Murray's concern for the natural world can be attributed to his background. Born in 1938, he grew up on a 40-acre farm in Bunyah, New South Wales and, after a few years away at university and at desk work as a translator, returned there in his thirties, when he set up as a full-time poet. 'Being a farmer is good training for being a writer,' he maintains. 'You learn how to scrape by on bits and pieces, and to sell what you can when you can.' Indeed, while he no longer tries to make a living from farming - '40 acres is just not enough to farm these days, you'd need 10 times that much to survive' - he is still persuaded that there are strong links between culture and agriculture.

'There are two main schools of Western poetry: one comes from Homer, and it's the aristocratic, warrior kind, which has done us all a lot of harm. And then there's the other kind which comes from Hesiod and is all about farming and the arts of peace.' For Murray, who became a Catholic convert in his late teens, Christianity can be seen as 'the Iliad of peace'; he says that his principal ambition as a poet is to replace the Homeric tradition of narrative conflict with Hesiodic and Christian notions of peace and 'presence' - an important term in his verse, encompassing everything from the physical integrity of animals to the Real Presence of the Mass.

Murray also believes that there are economic reasons for thinking that versifiers and cultivators of the soil share common ground. 'Farmers and writers are both primary producers. Writers may not earn that much themselves, but they're responsible for billions of dollars worth of employment down the line, when you think of all the people employed in universities, and in publishing and printing and bookshops and in the mass media . . .' Hence the bitter joke of one of his recent, uncollected poems, 'Rollover', in which a crowd of writers and farmers gather to watch a banker being evicted.

Social themes are as frequent as natural or sacred perspectives in Murray's own 'primary product', which has been both varied and prolific. His new volume alone contains narrative poems, poems about travel and about Australian history, a prothalamion for his daughter and a translation - of the regular kind - from the German poet Friedrich Georg Junger. A browse through his other volumes of the last 30 years will swiftly yield many more forms: a verse novel, verse letters and diaries, meditations, elegies (he has written three piercing poems in memory of his mother, who died when he was a boy) and so on. Not all of this is as solemn as it may sound. Murray has also written one of Western literature's most spirited defences of those who, like himself, are generously upholstered ('Quintets for Robert Morley'), and what must surely be its funniest poem about eating a curry of near-lethal spiciness ('Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil').

It is an imposing range, and has won Murray an international reputation, carrying him safely beyond reach of the post-colonial condescension he used to meet from certain British critics - those whose regard for Australian poets was much the same as Samuel Johnson's for female preachers. (And Murray's New Oxford Book of Australian Verse showed the world that poetry had been thriving Down Under for decades, indeed centuries, before he first read Hopkins and found an unexpected career: 'My father wanted me to be something like a bank manager. . . ') The Nobel laureate Derek Walcott has said of his work that 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 so conversational.'

In Australia, it has also made him a public figure, well-known even in unliterary circles. Recently, for example, he was called in to re- draft his country's Oath of Allegiance, which immigrants must swear in order to become citizens. 'There were a lot of objections to the final phrase I added to the oath, which said '. . . and I expect Australia to be loyal to me'. People were horrified, and said 'What? Here you've got someone who's been an Australian for two seconds and already he's making demands]' But that's how it should be in a democracy - the people, the individual citizens, should be sovereign.'

Democratic sentiments of this kind have not, however, saved him from the wrath of Australian academics and other fellow-travellers of Political Correctness, which he characterises as 'a kind of panic-stricken impulse to prevent the future. It pretends to be radical, but in fact it's profoundly conservative - now that these people have established the changes they want, they're desperate to keep things from changing any more.' In fact, it is partly his distaste for what is now happening in the academic world, with its exaltation of theory and its contempt for the traditional disciplines and pleasures of writing and reading, which sends him out on the road every year to meet his audience directly. 'The poetry reading and the arts centre and so on are what rescue us from the university, and we desperately need them, because the university wants to manage the show these days - it doesn't only want to hold the dance, it wants to tell you how to dance.'

'Translations from the Natural World' is published by Carcanet at pounds 6.95. Les Murray's reading tour continues until 9 May, in Edinburgh, Durham, Leeds, Manchester and Cheltenham.

Cell DNA

I am the singular

in free fall.

I and my doubles

carry it all:

life's slim volume

spirally bound.

It's what I'm about,

it's what I'm around.

Presence and hungers

imbue a sap mote

with the world as they spin it.

I teach it by rote

but its every command

was once a miscue

that something rose to,

Presence and freedom

re-wording, re-beading

strains on a strand

making I and I more different

than we could stand.

(Photograph omitted)

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