Portrait of a poet

A WORD PERSON Australian poet Les Murray

A WORD PERSON Australian poet Les Murray  

Poetry is a minority art, says Les Murray, winner of the T.S. Eliot Award and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, in a chat with Kausalya Santhanam

In there for miles, shade track and ironbark slope,
depth casually beginning all around, at a little distance.
Sky sifting, and always a hint of smoke in the light;
you can never reach the heart of the gum forest.
From Les Murray's "The Gum Forest"When Les Murray read his poem, facing the eucalyptus trees at the Gymkhana Club, the words seemed to have a special resonance. "I love gum trees. I grew up near the gum forest," said Murray in his Australian drawl. It was a fine setting for listening to one of the finest poetic voices of Australia, and the English-speaking world. The poet read his work which crackled with brilliant imagery and represented his vast interests - poetry and religion, poverty and the meaning of existence, family events and farm life, just slaughtered cows and men who weep. "My home is rural Australia. I like it that in India, unlike in my country, animals are not all raised to be killed; many will die of old age. India has changed vastly since I visited in 1987," says Murray. He does not fit the typical image of a poet. When he talks, you are not drowned in a flood of words. He stops when you think he is going to say more, lights up his words with a sudden laugh and makes pithy statements. When you ask him how his poetry reconciles the tensions of "a white settler in Australia", he counters: "How would you like to be called an Indo-Aryan invader?" How did he, having grown up on a farm, take to writing poetry?"I started reading it at school," he says. "English poetry didn't refer to our (Australian) world. I wanted to be a painter but had no talent for it. I was a word person."

Many awards

Murray has written more than a dozen volumes of poetry and has a won a number of literary awards, including the T.S. Eliot Award and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. So, does recognition matter? "Matters a bit," he admits. "Helps sell your books and gives you a sense of reality - you feel you are getting somewhere. Recognition is people reading your poems." Poetry, he says, has always been a minority art. "I don't want to be a majority art person like a pop star or a movie star. I'd be eaten alive. I'm too reclusive for that... If you can't change your style you are finished with poetry. You have to keep it alive, keep it different and going." He likes medieval English poetry. "It has a certain purity. I like Chaucer."He hasn't seen enough of Indian Writing in English. "In Australia, we don't get Indian books. International publishers do not distribute the poetry."What about his reported stance on feminism and multi-culturalism? "Did you get it out of The Guardian article?" he queries. "It was written by a man who hated me. He wanted to make sure I didn't get the Nobel Prize." (His voice shows no rancour).Does his family figure in his work? "Occasionally the family gets reflected. Like my son (one of five children) who is autistic."Whether his wife (of 45 years), who has accompanied him, has any role in his writing, he smiles, "She gives good ideas for my poems. She is a musical person. Hires me to write poems for her." (He chuckles).As for influences of other writers... Plath, Heaney?"No, not Heaney. Sylvia's last poems were good. I've read everything - Elizabeth Bishop, many anthologies... You learn something from somewhere. Writers wonder, `What can we pick up from here? We read to steal'," he laughs.When asked where he situates himself in the culture of Commonwealth poetry, he says, "Anywhere." Then adds, "There are roles of victim and oppressor. Walcott is considered a victim. I am sometimes considered a victim and sometimes an oppressor. I don't take it seriously, it's only a rhetorical game."The visit of the poet, essayist and critic to India was organised by the Australia-India Council, and the event at the Gymkhana, which had Murray in conversation with poet Vasantha Surya, by the Indo-Australian Association. The next day, at the University of Madras, a reading was held by the Department of English.

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