WHEN Les Murray came over to visit Glasgow University in 2002 and 2003 he stayed with us in Alloway (yes, there have been other poets in Alloway). We put him in the study in the foldout bed with a metal frame. When he left, the frame had become a U-curve.

I introduced him to a colleague and friend, an American literature specialist, strongly feminist, and he immediately fell into a conversation with her about American poetry, but then the talk swerved to matters of pregnancy and when I returned with a round of drinks I could tell things were getting wobbly. I sat down, handed round the drinks, and saw the look on my colleague’s face as Les started talking about the male seed as a homunculus and the female womb as a nurturing receptacle. No malice intended, nor even mischief, but time to get going.

The readings were simple, unaffected, straight out. He read his poems: title, poem, then another, and so on, and then stopped. No rambling anecdotes or playing to any galleries. Afterwards, books were sold, he signed copies, and the words were still sinking in. I was walking back to my office with Alasdair Gray, who was reading one of the books as we were crossing University Avenue, outside the Main Gate. Alasdair stopped in the middle of the road, clearly absorbed in the work. I waited for him. He looked up at me: “Alan! These poems are really very good!”

“They are,” I said, “but Alasdair, let’s get to the pavement.”

Cars were stopped all down the hill.

The National: Alan RIach with Les Murray

When we were driving home from Glasgow, Les seemed to be nodding off behind the wheel, then he’d pull himself back up, refocus his attention on the road, wouldn’t stop or slow down. “Les, are you all right? There’s a layby coming up, why don’t you pull in and I can drive?”

“No, I’m fine. I know what it is. I just haven’t taken my insulin for the diabetes. I’ll be okay till we get to your house.”

“Les, pull over there and take the insulin.”

He sniffed, nodded, slowed down, stopped the car, reached over for his bag and pulled out a hypodermic, turned it towards his belly and struck the needle straight in through his dark blue woolly jumper, pressed the plunger, pulled it out and replaced it in the bag. We waited in silence for a minute, then he drove on.

He sat down to dinner on a New Zealand rimu wooden chair and cracked it. We got him another one. Rae had cooked a classic New Zealand roast lamb with everything that goes with it. He cleared the plate, had a second, mopped up the gravy, smacked his lips and told her: “You know, Rae, you’re the sort of a woman a man could eat out of house and home!”

She still recalls him dearly.

Every time he gave a public reading and Rae was at home and couldn’t be there because she’d be cooking dinner, he was always appreciative, and with a gentle prompt after the meal, would give us a reading of his poems at home, for her. Never too many, never too few: exactly what we’d wished for.

“Gentlemanly, to do that,” she recollected.

READ MORE: In praise of Les Murray: Alan Riach examines his work and poetry

I drove him out to the Electric Brae, a sloping stretch of road on the Ayrshire coast, where you turn the car key, switch the engine off, and your car rolls uphill. They call it “an optical illusion” but that doesn’t explain anything, it just means it isn’t what it looks like. Les couldn’t believe it. “Stop. Stop the car. Stop it moving. I have to get out.” He walked up and down on the road, looking around him. Puzzlement. Curiosity. Wonder. Magic.

The National:

Magic is what you can’t explain. It’s how poetry works.

He talked poetry with me, my poems, the craft, line-breaks, vocabulary, angles of approach, tones, how to select specific subjects in a range of concerns, and sometimes he helped me improve things.

In “The Instrument” he writes:

Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals;
they want to control it. Not lovers, not the combative
not examinees. They too skim it for bouquets
and magic trump cards. Not poor schoolkids
furtively farting as they get immunized against it.
Poetry is read by lovers of poetry
and heard by some more they coax to the café
or the district library for a bifocal reading.
Lovers of poetry may total a million people
On the whole planet. Fewer than players of skat.

And he goes on:

Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.
For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike
down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.
Before the trance leaves you.
…for working always beyond
Your own intelligence. For not needing to rise
and betray the poor to do it. For a non-devouring fame.

When he was 54 he gave a reading in what he called “Australia’s horsiest pub”, the Royal at Scone. He sent me a postcard: “The audience’d been primed that it was my birthday so I was sung to, at the end of my section, & in my reply I told them I was born in the same year as Superman, & the same year the very last transported convict died, and that I was born on the same day as Evel Knievel.”

In 1998, he wrote to me asking to send him some poems for the magazine Quadrant, for which he was literary editor. He complained: “We’ve got an election over here on 3 Oct. that clashes with the Canberra Poetry festival. Barbarous! No sense of the precedence of things at all.”

Les Murray was a master of putting into words things both material and immaterial. He called it “wholespeak”: the idea that every form of life can be transformed into poetry, and he seemed to be doing this all the time. I once pointed out to him a favourite field of mine, which I would frequently drive past and slow down to take it in through the edge of my vision. I always enjoyed seeing it for its large, gentle, curving amplitude, its distance and scale, its scope, its tidiness of large balance. He immediately started suggesting words and phrases that might be apt to bring it on to the page accurately, but respectfully. That balance of reverence and honesty was a key to him.

The massively corporeal “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil” does not contradict but complements, validates and approves the beautifully poised “Poetry and Religion”. In the former, dinner at the Bengal turns frightful:

…I spooned the chicken of Hell
in a sauce of rich yellow brimstone. The valley boys with me
tasting it, croaked to white Jesus. And only pride drove me,
forkful by forkful, observed by hot mangosteen eyes,
by all the carnivorous castes and gurus from Cardiff
my brilliant tears washing the unbelief of the Welsh.
Oh it was a ride on Watneys plunging red barrel
through all the burning ghats of most carnal ambition
and never again will I want such illumination
for three days on end concerning my own mortal coil
but I signed my plate in the end with a licked knife and fork
and green-and-gold spotted, I sang for my pains like the free
before I passed out among all the stars of Cilfynydd.

But eating the hottest of curries makes more possible, more credible, more reliable, the same poet’s understanding of the spirit at work in “Poetry and Religion”:

…It is the same mirror:
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,
fixed centrally, we call it a religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror
that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry
or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds – crested pigeon, Rosella parrot –
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

Awareness of his own “mortal coil” and of the flight of those named birds, that constant reminder that there is the earth we go back into, the sky that’s always up there, is visible in a wonderful photograph of him accepting the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry at Buckingham Palace in 1999. He’s in a voluminous dark three piece suit, chairman of the vernacular republic of poetry, standing high, looking down diagonally upon the Queen, who is wearing her eagerly-polite-face smile. In one hand he holds what looks like a book, of the hand closest to the camera, his forefinger is pointing straight down. As if to say, politely, indeed, there are greater heights, and, indeed, far greater depths, all the way to down under.

The National:

I first read his poetry when I was in Australia in 1981, six years before I met him, a selected poems entitled The Vernacular Republic, bought from Rice’s Bookshop, 699 Hunter Street, Newcastle West. I read more and more of his work over the years, always to my gain. If you haven’t done so yet, my best advice is, start. If you have, take some time and do it again. Since his death I’ve been returning to him, and as before, but differently, again, always to my gain. He was as so few seem to be now, always turning things into poems, always seeing and always giving.

His 2001 selected poems is entitled Learning Human, as if “Human” is a language that not everyone knows. Maybe it is. On the first page of my copy of his selected prose essays entitled Persistance in Folly, he signed his name and then above it, under the title, he scribbled: “ – advice faithfully followed!”

What an example. What a precedent.