Philip Harvey records some conversations with Les Murray during his two-day visit to the Carmelite Library in late February 2013
Les said that we have to learn to write our poem, whatever that poem might be. Hitler, he said, couldn’t write his poem so he did something very different instead. This prompted a question from the floor (Wednesday night) about, if it were not possible for a tyrannical killer to write a poem what did Les make of the Serbians close to Radovan Karadžic who were producing epic poetry. Les thought it couldn’t be a good poem and he’s be interested to see such a work. This prompted me to mention Mao Tse-Tung. There was agreement that Mao issued poetry because in Chinese society it is sign of a cultivated leader to compose verse. But Les then talked about an Australian friend of his who is responsible for the English version of Mao’s famous saying “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land,” though his colleague was the one who translated it into the more famous: “Let a thousand flowers bloom …” This was, for Les, a marvellous sentiment, it was only a pity that Mao didn’t mean a word of it. If someone stood up and said something creative Mao then knew who to cut down.
Les has been working for the Macquarie Dictionary, roving through old dictionaries and testing terms. His latest adventure is to study some of the dictionaries of American usage to see how many of the words have moved into Australian English. His conclusion is that it was almost steady until after the Second World War, when it levelled somewhat. He thinks Australian English owes more to Indian English, what he calls chutney vocabulary, than to American English. I raised the matter of the internet as a force for increased American usage, but he seemed more to think that online is simply spreading and broadening the language from all over the place.
When Carol O’Connor read ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ by W.B. Yeats (Thursday morning) she asked Les, where is the place you go to when you write? “Different places, anywhere,” was his first response. But then he thought about it some more. “Home, that’s the place I go wherever I am, I go to that place ‘home’ and write from there.”
Michelle Trebilcock read the poem ‘Wisdom’ by the mystical writer Sebastian Moore, which Les felt was not a poem, but rather a series of steps in an argument. This, for Les, was not really a poem in the sense of making something happen, or come alive. He finished this reaction to the writing by saying, “What he needs is a good bout of depression.” Depression has been for some years now a leading factor in the shape of his life. He names it as a disease and even demarcates the years where the biggest depression began and ended. It didn’t actually stop him writing, but it made it hard to get from one day to the next. Even though depression still hits, it doesn’t have the same overriding effect as at midlife. Another time he talked about drugs, and how he once smoked eight cigars a day, but when the black dog hit (was it 1988?) the taste of cigars was horrible and he couldn’t smoke them anymore. It was like a chemical change or something had happened in his body. It was a telling reaction to the Sebastian Moore poem , which uses a poetic form to detail an important thesis about reaching Wisdom. But for Les, real poetry is working at another level, is breaking through into something more than the detail of an argument.
Elsewhere he said that it is good to lay fallow for a while, when writing. When you write again it can be a very different kind of writing. He thinks the writing he does now is different again and he cannot quite make out what is happening.
After I read Vincent Buckley’s ‘What the Taxi Driver Said’, Les said that I had done more than Vin had ever done, I had made him listen to Vin. This was some kind of quip, I guess, because he then reminisced about how whenever he and Vin got together they would just get drunk and roll on the floor. Often there wasn’t much talk because the drink inhibited conversation. He said that Vin was argumentative, there was always likely to be a clash around the corner. Irish whiskey was the stuff, though at meals Les remembers the preference being for white wine. I observed that both beverages feature well in Buckley’s poetry, but it is the red wine that is good for you, not the white wine. Yes, said Les, it’s full of iron. I refrained from adding, and histamines.
When asked if there is anything that isn’t sacred, Les said instantly, “Yes, computers.” The new technology is not to his liking. He even read a new poem that takes the computer to task, especially the controls it now exerts over our lives. Some might think this the attitude of a technophobe or paranoid Luddite, but seen from his angle it is formed by independent common sense. He seems to rely on others for help with computers, but maybe it will be like TV, which he once complained about, only later to write about in an adaptive fashion.
The Greek term hapax legomenon kept coming up in conversation when talking to me, he couldn’t find it in his dictionaries. The name of the Melbourne literary society Haplax seems to be inspired by the term; he keeps being asked by members to talk to them. I said these are the single appearance of a word in a literature or author’s work, the most crucial and significant Greek hapax legomenon today still being in Homer and the New Testament. Discussions about what a word might mean when there are so few instances of its use can become quite prolonged, over generations in fact. A word that in Homer might have been common as mud has taken on the mystery of a rare diamond, simply because of its sole appearance in the surviving literature. We joked about how many ordinary words in his own Works may become hapaxes for future readers. Later Les came back to this, saying he used the word iliast, which may become a hapax. Or not, if it took on. An iliast uses iliasms. His autistic son, for example, is an iliast because he transposes pronouns so that they govern different parts of the sentence than in normal grammar, something Les finds delightful. He seemed chuffed when I observed that iliast in this context seemed to be not so much a grammatical term as a term of endearment.
“Why don’t your poems rhyme?” is a question he gets enough during question times, such that he foils the question by asking it himself. Les Murray pointed out that the Romans did not rhyme. He said Shakespeare is not in the regular practice of rhyming, he rhymes when he wants to indicate a scene is closing, and to make a point, but it is not common. Rhyme is an expectation more than it is the standard of English poetry. His own work has various factors in play at any one time, one of which may (or may not) be rhyme. He likened the way he composed to jazz, saying that he draws in all sorts of expression and ideas that work with the basic tune. When I asked if he thought this a form of improvisation, he was not so happy, saying that it was never simply improvisation, that first all the other factors had to work together. My interpretation of this remark was that, according to Les, poetry is not pure improvisation.
My first magazine question (Thursday morning) was this classic opener, for which there are many answers: “Where does poetry come from?” I reminded Les of his answer to Clive James on TV years ago: “It comes from a wound.” He nodded his head at the memory, “Yes, it’s the Greek trauma.” He also liked my quote from Pablo Neruda’s ‘Poetry’, where the Chilean says
And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
The idea that poetry came in search of the poet was appealing to Les. His answers this time ought to show up on the Eureka Street interview.
One of the women read an original poem at the Thursday session which Les felt was good, but still a series of unconnected lines. Another woman in the group related to the poem and thought that she had written something that spoke to her own experience. Les then conceded that there are poems that women relate to more than, or even exclusive of men, and vice versa. He drew a gender difference between male and female when it came to the reading of a lot of poetry.
He was asked about his conversion to Catholicism. He thought this was an appropriate question in the context. His parents were both strict Presbyterians of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia. He was brought up in this tradition, but at a certain age discovered other traditions and in particular Roman Catholicism, which seemed to speak to him straight away. He was interested in its language of symbols, but also by its teaching about forgiveness. Presbyterians, he asserted, had little time for forgiveness. People, including his own parents, would not speak to other people for years if some wrong had been committed, and seemed stuck with this attitude of not seeking reconciliation. He was glad his mother had not seen him convert, as she was strongly anti-Catholic, the result of going to a Catholic girls’ school. She used to have arguments with one of the sisters who was a teacher, and wished he had been there to see the “knock down, drag out” fights that went on between them. For over forty years his father never talked about Les’s conversion, made no mention of it to Les himself. But one day Les was talking to an interviewer, and when Les said that his father didn’t talk to him about his conversion to Catholicism, the interviewer said that he talked to him about little else.