Les Murray reading at the Carmelite Centre on Wednesday night
Les Murray took the plane from Sydney on Wednesday, arriving in a very humid Melbourne where rain and thunderstorms would take over the afternoon. Les was here as a guest of the Carmelite Centre, where he was scheduled to give two sessions as part of our series ‘Poetry for the Soul’. The title of these sessions was ‘The Only Whole Thinking’, taken from his poem ‘Poetry and Religion’:
Religions are poems. They concert
Our daylight and dreaming mind, our
Emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
Into the only whole thinking: poetry.
The first session was conducted to a large and receptive audience in the O’Connor-Pilkington Rooms of the old Carmelite Hall in Richardson Street, Middle Park. Les Murray read and talked about his poetry, his performance built around awareness of the sacred and the many different ways of getting words to say the sacred. Amongst poets he praised in this regard was Judith Wright, who according to Les has some poems that go straight through to an expression of the sacred, something that is actually a great test, very hard almost impossible to do well. In passing he also mentioned Lesbia Harford, saying that people are only now starting to see that she is one of Australia’s greatest poets.
Les had prepared a paper on the subject of religion and poetry. The eye told us that this paper had been written in longhand on a single side of A4, but the ears reported that what he actually said went very much longer than that, leading one to conclude that most of the paper was in his head. One hopes that Les will find time to write out all the things in his head that he actually said to us at Middle Park on Wednesday night. One way or another I guess this will happen in due course. It might be in an essay, or come out as poems.
Les Murray reading his prepared paper
On Thursday morning the 28th of February Les arrived back at the Carmelite Library early for breakfast of a bacon and egg roll and real coffee. At 8.30 cameras, cords, microphones and other paraphernalia had been set up by documentary maker Peter Thomas for a short film interview with Les Murray for Eureka Street. As Poetry Editor of Eureka Street it was my task to devise questions to spur Les into verbal action. Here is the running order of questions:
1. There are many answers to this question, so just a few please: Where does poetry come from?
2. Where is poetry going?
3. Poetry makes things happen, but what?
4. What advice would you give a teenage poet today?
On the Work
5. Generalisations are a feature through your poetry, i.e. mini-summations that build the conversation, but they seem to me to be a way of ticking off conclusions as you go along. Would you say a lot of your work leaves conclusions open, that things are going to be kept provisional?
6. The drive to praise overwhelms all other considerations in your work (e.g. satire, polemic, politics, history). Could you talk a little about praise.
7. The way words do what they say, i.e. imitate, repeat, reflect the subject-object-verb of their own meanings is something constantly on show in your poetry. Could you say some things on the vitality of English and your methods of getting that into the writing?
8. If we accept that all of a poet’s Work is autobiography, where does the divide occur between the personal revelation and the public utterance? Is every poet moving somewhere between the two at all times?
9. Is there anything that isn’t sacred?10. What is the future of the English language?
A first take with me asking the questions in conversational mode did not satisfy us, so after some rumination and further sips of his real coffee, Les said he would do it again straight by working from the printed questions. As he put it jocularly, “This is interview by Piece of Paper.” The film ran smoothly and will air online at Eureka Street in coming weeks.
Les Murray and Philip Harvey in the Carmelite Library
The second session of Poetry for the Soul was inspired by a creative suggestion from Les himself when he visited the Library last December. Why not have a Morning Tea where people come along with a favourite poem? They can read the poem aloud and then we can all talk about it. This is the kind of pastime that Les enjoys, and he is not alone in that way. So a comfortable number of interested individuals arrived at 10 o’clock, most with a poem to read. Some had only heard about the session on the grapevine or at the last moment, so did not have a poem to read. But here is the list of those who did:
Laura Hallsworth read her own poem, ‘Lady of the Night’.
Bronwyn Evans read her poem ‘Night Wash’.
Barbara Zimmerman read a quote of Peter Steele’s from his interview with Clive James on ABC Radio.
Carol O’Connor read ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ by W.B. Yeats, and later in the session ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Donna Ward read ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by T.S. Eliot.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, visiting from Ireland, read the second version of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem. entitled ‘In Memory of My Mother’, which is his favourite Kavanagh poem, then later recited his own poem ‘Dominic and Jenny’s Sex Life’.
Michelle Trebilcock read the poem ‘Wisdom’ by the Benedictine spiritual writer Sebastian Moore.
Marion Ryan, also of Ireland, recalled from memory the opening lines of Francis Ledwidge’s poem ‘Lament for Thomas MacDonagh’.
Janice Withers read her own poem called ‘Emperor’s Fate in the Hands of the Lepidopterist’.
I would have read Vincent Buckley’s ‘Triads’ or something dramatic like ‘Louisa Stewart is Foaling’, but in the end went for lightness instead: ‘What the Taxi Driver Said’.
Les Murray then read some of his new poems, typewritten on A4 in a big old-fashioned springback folder. When asked, he said he types all of his poems and doesn’t use a computer. When asked are ribbons freely available he said yeah, but you have to find them online. And how does he do that without a computer? He gets someone who knows about computers to do it for him.
Throughout the session there was a lively exchange of responses to the different poems, with Les being sensitive and enquiring of those who offered original poems. The two poems that temporarily silenced him into happy and knowing acceptance were those by Yeats and Hopkins. After the Hopkins he said, “It’s a beauty, isn’t it? Hopkins was the first poet I read at school that got me in. People would say he’s the first of the moderns, but that’s not right, he’s not a modern, it’s just poetry. When you hear it, you know, time frames are immaterial. It’s for real.”
The session could have gone on for hours, but a lunch appointment called and after formalities were over Les was back in Donna Ward’s car and off again. By mid-afternoon Les Murray was back in the air, flying to Sydney or Newcastle, and a return to the domestic round.
Les Murray and Donna Ward in the Carmelite Library
Images by Peter Thomas. Taxi service courtesy of Donna Ward.