Today he is back at the small, unmanned station to meet the North Coast train that has wound its way through the smooth hills after Dungog, part of central New South Wales that the poet Robert Gray has called «the kingdom of God on Earth».
Murray cuts an unmistakable figure on the platform. Ample of girth, he has on bushman’s boots, grey tracksuit trousers, a capacious and strangely stylish grey jumper that dispels one myth about Murray — that he wears only vibrantly striped pullovers — and a brand new navy blue Yankees fisherman’s hat.
He is chuffed about the hat, the legacy of his trip to New York in June that included his first visit to a baseball game with his friend, the American writer and critic Paul Kane.
«I’ve been wearing Yankees caps for years, so I thought I really ought to go and see them play,» says Murray. «Paul explained it all, but what struck me most were a whole lot of plastic bags, ghostly pale plastic bags that floated in the night across the stadium.»
Murray unleashes one of his voluminous, cascading chuckles and you get the impression that the image of the ghostly bags will appear in some future poem. He guffaws a lot, at stray thoughts, at images, at jokes, at himself, at people he thinks ridiculous. And sometimes it seems to deflate the tension of a moment, when he realises he’s said something that might provoke or antagonise.
Murray has long been something of a controversial figure. People tread carefully around him. He has angered many people over the years. He has lambasted the grants system of the Australia Council’s Literature Board, despite having received $500,000 over the years. (He will never take money from it again, he says.)
He was part of a group that resisted a new leftish direction for Quadrant magazine and forced the resignation of the then editor, Robert Manne; and he is a bogeyman for many of the so-called Generation of ’68 and ’79 poets, such as John Tranter, Alan
Wearne and the late John Forbes. («At least Forbes would speak to me,» Murray says later. «He used to ring me up and give me marks out of 10 for my poems.» More laughter.)
He has been the subject of a biography, publication of which was delayed for a year because of legal problems, and he dipped his toe into the murky waters of constitutional politics by writing a new oath of allegiance for the Keating government and a preamble to the constitution for John Howard’s referendum on a republic.
But today there is no controversy. He eases himself into the driver’s seat of his dusty Holden and points it in the direction of Bunyah: Murray country, where he feels most at ease. It is gentle countryside, weather-softened hills. The road «wriggles its hips» high through Gangat Gorge, where below you can sometimes see eagles.
This is where Murray grew up and, although he spent 30 years living elsewhere, always returned to and always thought of as home. When he is away he feels «displaced».
He knows the area; he knows the people; he knows the words; and he knows the stories. He tells me about a place called Bundook: «It sounds Aboriginal but it’s a Hindi word for a musket.»
Then there was the son of Captain Hardy (the man from whom the dying Nelson asked for a kiss) who came to live near Bunyah and whose life spanned three centuries. And the disgraced school teacher who devoted himself to looking after an old lady and then vanished when she was put in a home (Murray wrote about him in Australian Love Poem).
There are also all the Murray cousins and relatives, some of the 2000 direct descendants of Murray’s great-great-grandfather, Hugh, who bought land in Bunyah soon after he and nine siblings migrated from Scotland in the 1840s and ’50s.
Murray turns off the dirt road, past the milk-churn postbox and through the bright yellow gate posts, over the cattle grids, past the huge bonfire ready for lighting on his wife Valerie’s birthday, to park under the open sheds. Murray lives with Valerie, and two of their five children, Peter and Alexander, in what he describes as a kit home on land he bought from a cousin in 1975.
«I wish I hadn’t gone for the eight-foot ceilings. I should have paid the extra few hundred to go up a bit more.» He didn’t make the same mistake with the adjacent second structure where he and Valerie have their bedroom, he has his study and a sitting room that is dominated by a fireplace and chimney breast clad with a patchwork of tiles.
They chatter to each other all the time; language and words seem to dominate, the more obscure the better. They wonder about the origin of «curmudgeon». Murray doesn’t know what a mudgeon is. Valerie says there is an archaic word, cornmudgeon. Murray muses on «aplace», an archaic antonym of «away» and one peculiarly appropriate to him and his rejection of the path beaten by so many Australian artists for overseas success.
And they are both still taken by a TV program about the Great Fire of London that they watched the previous night; intrigued by what happened to a 28-pound (12 kilogram) parmesan cheese that Samuel Pepys buried as he fled his home. Valerie says she would grab photographs were she forced to flee a burning home; Murray, not surprisingly, would grab his new manuscripts book.
Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment./ For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike/ down your writing arm at the accumulated moment. The Instrument
Lighting the fire in the other house, Murray talks poetry, describing «the trance» he goes into as he writes it — «intense, concentrated thinking and intense, concentrated daydreaming going on at once». He gradually realised that the body had a part to play «supplying the breath and the kind of ghostly movement of the poem, the rhythms».
Murray says that he prefers not to write from an idea but from a rhythm or an image. The 19th-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold once wrote about the likes of the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope that «their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits, genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul». Murray likes that.
«The worst thing is to have an idea, because that will tend to bring the poem up into the forebrain, into the conscious, reasoning mind,» he says. «The soul knows whether it’s being fed or not and if it’s not, the poem doesn’t live very long.»
The chances are that much of Murray’s poetry will live for a very long time. He is highly regarded here and overseas and many people suggest that he will be the next Australian to win the Nobel Prize.
The St Lucian poet Derek Walcott, who won it in 1992, said of Murray: «There is no poetry in the English language so rooted in its sacredness, so broad-leafed in its pleasures, and yet so intimate and conversational.»
Reviewing Murray’s selected poems under their American title of Learning Human, the critic and novelist Al Alvarez wrote in The New York Review of Books that «Murray never wanted to imitate the modernist masters; he wanted to transform Australian vernacular and Australian back-country life into his own unique form of modernism . . . He has a Whitmanesque ambition to pin down the commonplace reality of his country in verse, to include everything, especially the everything that more finicky poets turn away from — the deprived and depriving world he was born to».
Murray published his first book in 1965. His most recent collection of new poems, Poems the Size of Photographs, his first for three years, came out in March. This month sees a blockbuster new Collected, complete with a CD of him reading 55 poems. He has published collections of prose, and verse narratives, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral and in 1998 Fredy Neptune, the story of Fredy Boettcher, the German-Australian boy traumatised by violence and making his way through a bewildering world that many consider his masterpiece.
Murray has always been a voracious reader and, as a child, read his mother’s eight-volume encyclopaedia. He grew up in poverty and didn’t go to school until he was nine but was always obsessed by words and knowledge.
«Poetry is really the only way of using everything, all types of knowledge that I have ever discovered,» he says.
From just on puberty, I lived in funeral:/ mother dead of miscarriage, father trying to be dead,/ we’d boil sweat-brown cloth; cows repossessed the garden./Lovemaking brought death, was the unuttered principle. Burning Want
His mother died when he was 12 and a pall of gloom and depression descended over the family home. She had had a miscarriage but Murray’s father, Cecil, felt unable to spell it out to the doctor and so an ambulance was delayed, critically as it turned out. Peter Alexander’s biography, Les Murray: A Life in Progress, confirmed this for Murray.
«Valerie worked out that the old man wasn’t just crushed by grief but by guilt as well. She had actually twigged that he had probably made a mess of it,» he says.
Murray was working on a long poem called The Steel about his mother’s death and told his cousin, who teaches Aboriginal history at Newcastle University, that he was going to give up on it.
«She said you mustn’t. Aboriginal people die like that all the time; they don’t know how to address the white authority figure and get what they need,» he says. «She reckons that a lot ofAustralians are part Aboriginal, if not in genetics then in culture and, in a way, it was a classic Aboriginal situation. Not being able to talk (the doctor’s) language,» he says. «Dad was a man who believed deeply in privacy. He never talked about women’s secret matters, the gynaecological business. The code was she’s had a bad turn, that’s what he told the doctor. The doctor was too stupid to realise that meant a real anguish, that something dreadful was going on and he wouldn’t send the ambulance on just that.»
Murray gets some flak — «only from scholars, never from Aboriginals» — for talking in terms of Aboriginal culture. But he has always felt that where he grew up was part Aboriginal, that, obscurely, he had some claim on that culture.
«I just feel that culture tends to repeat itself in the places where it was. I’m enough generations in Australia now not to be European and to be part Aboriginal in culture, if not genetics. I know a lot of my relatives are part Aboriginal in genetics, too. The old man always denied that, but he looked Aboriginal,» Murray says.
A year after his mother’s death, Murray returned to Taree High School for two years of misery. He was bullied and picked on because of his size and social awkwardness. It distressed him greatly.
«Taree was bad because that’s where I ran into the teenager,» he says. «I got it wrong socially and really was a nerd or geek, but in those days there was no word for it. Nerds are having a better and better time now because the world has gradually opened to us, but in the ’50s . . . kids weren’t socialised to betolerant.»
He believes that people are much more aware of bullying in schools now but reckons the amount that goes on in adult life is a scandal. «That’s why I wrote the preamble (to the constitution) theway I did: that no one should be oppressed on the basis of fashion or ideology or prejudice,» Murray says.
«There was a time when Aborigines were unfashionable, and look what it did to them. Now they’re fashionable, which is good because whatever nonsense is being talked, at least they’re not being crushed. Now white country people are unfashionable.»
My politics are like crop circles/ that appear in angry wheat . . ./ I never know their outlines in advance;/ all I know is no group makes them. The Dog’s Bad Name
Murray hasn’t endeared himself by speaking up for Pauline Hanson and Helen Darville but resents being tarred with the brush of the right, claiming it is not accurate and meant to discredit.
«I do know people `of the right’ except I don’t like that terminology. `Left’ and `right’ are probably oppressive categories no matter who they touch — even those who claim them,» Murray says. «I know what’s meant every time I hear it . . . it’s not taxonomy, it’s oppressive rhetoric.»
He describes his position as literary editor of Quadrant as strange. Murray’s confrontation with Manne began in 1995 over issues raised by Darville’s novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, but grew into a wider dispute over the realignment of the magazine. Now he says he doesn’t like the politics of the magazine and doesn’t «like any political articles. I’m sickened by them all». His ideal would be an Australian New Yorker-style magazine with no politics.
Today Murray says his passion is for pluralism. «The lie told was that I had it in mind (when he was poetry reader at Angus & Robertson) to exclude and silence the writers of the left. Not so. I didn’t mean to exclude anyone. I just meant to give everyone a chance.» There is no group in Australian poetry that fails to have decent writers in it.
«You’re obliged, I think, to publish everything good. If it comes your way and it’s in your power to publish,» he says.
I wonder if his commitment to pluralism comes from the bullying he experienced at school, the names, the hurt when girls would pretend to be interested in him and then give him a calculated cold shoulder. He reckons it is because of how he learnt to read poetry, from anthologies.
«I have a very wide taste and I don’t figure that any particular period should be dominated by any particular period of poetry. `Let a thousand flowers bloom.’ Mao didn’t mean that when he said it,» Murray says.
If, as he claims, our universities are tendentious and unscientific in their approach to Australian poetry, what is the answer?
«Every poetry book of whatever school or tendency that is out of print should be restored to print,» he says.
He recognises the inherent difficulties and sees the Internet as the solution. There should be a way that could see collections posted in cyberspace with poets earning royalties through readings and downloadings.
It is a nice suggestion and possibly one that Murray’s old foe John Tranter would have sympathies with, given that he publishes his own Internet poetry magazine, Jacket.
Murray makes his living from poetry, book sales and readings. He does well overseas where his work «is accepted; here it’s fraught». After the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he went to New York, not only for a baseball game. There were readings and a performance of some of his work put to music at the Guggenheim. Then he was off to London for a reading at Australia House, before he drove to Hay-on-Wye for a festival there and then up to Glasgow, across to Dublin, up to Sligo, across to Cardiff, back to Glasgow, to the Isle of Skye then «trickle, trickle, trickle all the way down from Skye to Cornwall by way of York and Liverpool. I did 16 or 17 readings».
Earlier this month, he was at the Mildura Writers’ weekend; this week he did readings and talks at Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar, having driven down with his son Peter; next week Murray returns for The Age Melbourne Writers’ Festival.
«It’s like dairy farming. Poetry is a trade in which you make a living by bits and pieces and hope to God it adds up to an income,» Murray says.
And apart from making money, readings rescue poetry from the universities. He says: «The safest patron of all is the public.»
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? Poetry and Religion
Murray dedicates all his books «to the glory of God». He confesses that he is not really sure what it means but it is something along the lines of giving your best to God and, in turn, seeing it as evidence of God. He gave up the Free Presbyterian church in which he was brought up — «a narrow church, it had an atmosphere of competitive holiness: if you’re not doing well it’s obviously your fault and God has some reason not to like you» — and converted to Catholicism.
He liked the way the Catholics never reckoned that if you hadn’t got something you didn’t deserve it and fell in love with the idea of the sacrament, «the idea that a thing can be God and nature at the same time».
He explains his theory that people live inside large poems — «we’re not rational humans, we’re poetic and we take on our ideas like poems» — and have to be careful about which one they are in. «I found in the Catholic one there was a chap who sacrificed himself rather than demanding human sacrifice,» he says.
And is he comfortable in his poem? «As comfortable as any Catholics are these days. The church is many things in different places. It’s getting a real hammering from its great foe at the moment and probably partly deserves it. There were some awful things done by clergy that were condoned for too long. But that’s a passing phase and it will be dealt with and disappear into the past.»
Murray is a much happier man since he shrugged off the «black dog» of depression. That happened in 1996 when he nearly died from an abscess on the liver and was in a coma for three weeks. («I thought it was half an hour.») He had two bouts of depression: one in his 20s, which manifested itself as a complete loss of volition, and for eight years after he turned 50.
It was hard on the family — «Valerie’s still got a certain amount of shellshock from my depression» — when Murray would wallow on a sofa for several hours each afternoon with his head «full ofboiling junk, a mixture of tears, anger and rage». And he would wake each morning at about four for a second helping.
He is still wary. «I thought the black dog had vanished altogether but it hadn’t. It never does. But it’s so greatly reduced that it doesn’t matter much. You can smell the fur but it’s not chewing on you anymore,» he says.
The funny thing is that it didn’t seem to affect his writing. He had been working on Fredy Neptune and carried on much the same way after the depression lifted. «Fred was autonomous. He went right on as if nothing had happened. He had a separate existence from mine, and when he was finished he was finished.»
Murray’s tummy is rumbling — «my stomach says it’s tea time and as usual it’s spot on» — so we adjourn to the other house for steak and wine, chat and laughter. In the quiet of the evening, Murray digs out a bottle of Irish whiskey. «The good Doctor Jameson.»
The next morning there’s a hint of rain. Murray examines the creek in the garden. «Sometimes it’s a mirror, then it’s prickling,» he says. A group of fire-tailed finches descends on the grass for a feed and just as quickly they disappear «as if vacuumed up».
We walk in the garden and Murray tells me all his planting has been «in search of shade». Valerie’s influence is in the deciduous trees, «part of her European heritage». He grabs a bagful ofgrapefruit from a tree and presses them on me to take home. He shows me the new Collected poems — he is delighted by the cover image of an elephant and a little girl — and searches his scrapbook for a copy of his preamble but can’t find it. The battered book does, however, contain a picture of the other Les Murray, the soccer commentator.
Murray has a letter to write to a 14-year-old girl who sends him her poems for comment, and work is on his mind. He has been commissioned to write a poem for a neighbour who was about to turn 80; the problem is that the old boy died a couple of days ago — before his birthday. «I’ll rework it into a poem about writing a poem,» Murray says. Nothing goes to waste.
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald