LES Murray was Australia’s greatest ambassador, the most massive opposition to all the accepted cliches and caricatures, one of the finest writers of the last 100 years, and a man so distinctly of his territory and era that I feel as if I knew him not only as a friend but as a neighbouring continent.

How to introduce him?

In his own words, first.

His outback farm world childhood, there, in “the land of cows-to-milk”, a “stock whip culture”, a haven from bullying schools, supplied him with nourishment for the imagination and a fondness of tone. The world of human cultivation in the cradle of nature meant that a sympathy for the vulnerable, young and old, and a robustness in adulthood, was understood early. Childhood first: here’s a sample of “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”:

To go home and wear shorts forever

in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,

adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,

to camp out along the river bends

for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,

a fishing line and matches,

or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,

to sit around in shorts at evening

on the plank verandah –

In Murray’s world, the young are truly tender, and the old render us, and become, vulnerable. So here he is confronting old age and death, in his elegy for his father, “The Last Hellos”. It begins like this: “Don’t die, Dad – / but they die.” And it comes to an end like this:

On your day there was a good crowd,

family, and people from far away.

But of course a lot had gone

to their own funerals first.

Snobs mind us off religion

nowadays, if they can.

Fuck them. I wish you God.

And as for the robustness of adulthood, consider this: his gift of a marriage poem, “The Wedding at Berico” from 1992. It spells out what good gifts might be:

Landscape. Unfraught love. Some poetry.

Risk too, with his star rigger Freedom,

but here’s poise, for whatever may come.

What’s life wish you? Sound genetics, delight,

long resilience against gravity, the sight

of great-grandchildren, a joint sense of home.

Hey, all these wishes in smart boxes! Fun,

challenges, meaning, work-satisfaction –

this must be the secular human lot: health

till high old age, children of character,

dear friendships. And the testing one: wealth.

Quietly we add ours: may you

always have each other, and want to.

In the human way of things, a happy marriage is to be wished for, but it takes place in a world where time is always running its course, so with humility, and in a quiet way, the poem ends like this:

But now you join hands, exchanging

the vows that cost joyfully dear.

They move you to the centre of life

and us gently to the rear

The tenderness of that reminds me of what I feel when I listen to the kind of love expressed in the third piano concerto in E major by Bela Bartok (Sz.119, BB127), especially in the central slow movement, one of the loveliest pieces of music ever composed. And if you fancy doing some more homework like that, let me also recommend Shostakovich’s second piano concerto (op.102), especially the second movement, the Andante. And while we’re on the subject, why not go on and try the piano concerto in G major of Maurice Ravel, particularly the Adagio assai. If you listen to these pieces of music I think it helps to understand a poem like “The Wedding at Berico”. So now come back to Les Murray.

We haven’t really drifted far. This is the poet who praised “The Quality of Sprawl”, or you might say, effective intervention of a wayward kind, digressions that are to the purpose – well, some purpose or other: like “the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce / into a farm utility truck” and not like the company when it made repeated efforts “to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.” Sprawl is “driving a hitch hiker that extra hundred miles home” but is never “lighting cigars with ten-dollar notes: / that’s idiot ostentation and murder of starving people.” No. Sprawl is maybe “the thirteenth banana in a dozen / or anyway the fourteenth.” It “leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.” You get the idea? “Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek / and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.”

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To know Les at all, you got to know sprawl.

He had come to the Writers’ Festival in Wellington, New Zealand, and a pal of mine, a poet and journalist named Iain Sharp, had interviewed him for the NZ literary journal Landfall, back in March 1988. I joined them afterwards for a drink in a glass-walled bar on the waterfront, fully filled with sunshine, and Iain handed Les the gift of a bottle of Glenfiddich,

part-payment for giving the interview. When we got up from our seats the bottle was empty. Those few hours had started with immediate recognition of respect, regard and appetite, then escalated quickly into realms of laughter and delight as the conversation flowed, stories were told, reminiscences of Australia and Scotland swapped, matched and trumped each other, poems quoted and mutual friends and antipathies noted and confirmed.

Seated neatly around our table, we sprawled, happily. When I put my last glass, empty, back on the table, I remembered something my grandfather used to say when he’d finished a drink and I pronounced with all due pomposity: “Well, that’s one they won’t get!”

Les threw back his head and laughed at that and quoted it back to me over many years.

When he visited New Zealand later, he stayed with us in Hamilton, gave a reading, came with me to a part of the town where the streets are all named after particular poets. I wanted a photograph, and got one of him standing smiling, leaning against a pole with the sign above his head, “MacDiarmid Rd”.

I invited him to write an introduction to the books by Hugh MacDiarmid I was editing for Carcanet Press. He replied: “Thanks for inviting me to write an intro. or Foreword to Scottish Eccentrics. I have brooded over the idea, tried to resist it & discovered that it’s irresistible!” He read the book, commented: “It’s stiffly pukka prose he writes, isn’t it? Like (precisely like) a Swiss writing German. They’re stilted and overcorrect too, often.” Then he thought of producing an introduction to MacDiarmid’s autobiography, Lucky Poet, and wrote to me: “I’ll probably spend a good bit of my 5-10 thousand word allowance on MacD. as the inventor of a language, sthg. he shared in some ways with eg Dante Alighieri. But 5-10 thou is roomy, & I could cover lots of things.”

I’m not sure anyone ever compared MacDiarmid to Dante in quite that manner. Alas, depression dogged him and he had to decline. It’s an essay we’ll always wish could have happened.

He was literary editor of the periodical Quadrant, and asked me for poems and essays. I sent him contributions, essays about Scottish poets, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, and others. He was generous, gave me space, was eager for his readers to encounter the Scots, to know where they came from, who they were, exactly what their achievements, in poetry, were.

When Iain Crichton Smith died in 1998, he wrote to me: “Such a pity we’ve lost Iain Crichton Smith, and a pity his death was overwhelmed by that of Ted Hughes; I got on fine with both men, but I like Iain’s work better. In the upshot of Ted’s death, I got put on a shortlist for the Laureateship (!!) but took myself off it because I didn’t see QEII as my head of state. In fact, I don’t accept Heads of State at all. The Oz papers mainly reported the story with derision (a Bush Laureate!) & made up their own quotes. None reported that I’d said a new Laureate shd. at long last be a woman: I suggested Eliz. Jennings.”

HE invited me to write an appreciation of Iain Crichton Smith, noting that he’d been the first Scottish-Australian Writers Exchange fellow to come to Oz. I sent it in, and as our friendship carried on, I became increasingly aware not only of his interest in and affection for the Scottish poets we’d talked about, but also of his deeper sense of an affinity of purpose, a sense of relation, between himself, his own work and self-realisation, and those of Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, and others.

It places him in a broader company, a company of sprawl that includes Robert Frost and Robinson Jeffers in America, for example. He distanced himself from the “high modernists” TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, partly because he figured that their rejection of American vernacular culture in favour of the hierarchies of European society were a betrayal of the people all poets have a responsibility to speak for. It’s not entirely a sound argument, though there’s a truth in it.

Freshening the language, renewing perception, helping us to see, is what all great writers do. It’s there, to quote from Marshall Walker’s book Scottish Literature Since 1707, in “the kennings and half-line tensions of Beowulf; the speed, wit and fullness of Chaucer; the colloquial flow of Henryson; the plain-speaking of the Geneva Bible and the orotundities of the Authorized Version; the demotic of Burns and the snap of Pope”. It’s there in the stand taken against stilted poetic diction “by Wordsworth in one generation, Pound, Eliot and MacDiarmid in another.”

The point is, Les Murray is of their company.