Les Murray in conversation with Valentina Polukhina
– Your are regarded as an eccentric Australian voice, a rural poet
speaking for an urban culture, a Roman Catholic speaking for a largely
secular people (1). Are you comfortable with such perceptions?
– I don’t speak for anyone, I speak to the poetry public. They can be
Catholic, they can be Jewish, they can be whatever they like. I just speak
as I am. I am a Catholic and I don’t believe that other people are necessarily
secular. I think that intellectuals are mostly secular or are required
to pretend to they are. But broader people are very varied; a lot of them
are religious, lots of them Catholic. I speak to those who want to read
– What tradition do you follow in your writing?
– My own. It is based on certain Australian predecessors, particularly
a poet called Kenneth Slessor, and also Roland Robinson, James McAuley
and others, which is a bit different from European poetry.
– At what age did you discover them?
– At school I was pointed to them by my sports master: he knew I wouldn’t
play football, so he introduced me to poetry.
– Are they well known outside Australia?
– They are getting a bit better known now, partly because I’ve been
trying to get them known. The British Empire believed that only in England
was poetry produced. We existed to produce soldiers and wool.
– You compiled the anthology “Fivefathers: Five Australian poets
of the pre-academic era”. Was the selection of the works of these five
poets personal or did you present the leading Australian poets?
– Those were the leading Australian male poets of the era 1930-1965:
Kenneth Slessor, Roland Robinson, David Campbell, James McAuley and Francis
Webb. They were the great generation just before my time. I think it is
quite a good book. I have just done another one on earlier Australian poets,
one of them was an early 19th century convict. It’s called Hell and After;
and it is coming out next February. The convict poet is McNamara. Our popular
ballad tradition largely descends from him. And the book contains works
by three other poets born in the 19th century who lived through to the
– Your poems often tell a story. Is this a deliberate device?
– Yes. I come from an oral storytelling tradition. I grew up on stories;
stories were everywhere. My father was a really fine storyteller. He was
barely literate; he was interested in ballroom dancing, gossip and storytelling.
Gossip and storytelling are the same thing, of course.
– You have a lot of regularly metrical poems. Do you enjoy rhymes?
– Yes. So does everybody, really, except John Ashbery. Because I am
not writing just for intellectuals or scholars I feel free to rhyme. I
don’t use it all the time. I play jazz with rhyme too. Poetry has got to
appeal to the body as well as the soul. Too much poetry these days makes
Aristotle’s mistake of seeing only the intellect as the divine in Man.
– Joseph said it is too narrow to call you an Australian poet; it
is like calling Yeats an Irish poet. You are a poet, thanks to whom the
language lives. (2) Would you agree with this definition?
– I agree with the first bit but the second bit, I think, is a wild
– You are very modest. Besides it is a quotation from W.H. Auden:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everybody by whom it lives…
– Joseph also said this about somebody else.
– Joseph knew your poetry while still in the USSR. Who introduced
you to Brodsky’s poetry and when?
– It was in the middle of the 80s in New York. The first poem that impressed
me deeply was, I believe in Russian ’Snigir’.
– Brodsky doesn’t have a poem with such a title. Maybe you mean ‘On
the death of Zhukov’ which is modelled on the 18th century Russian poet
Derzhavin’s ‘Snigir’ (Bullfinch).
– Yes, it is about general Zhukov. I thought it a marvellous poem. I
like the translation. I remember, Joseph once said: ‘We are fighting to
– Please tell us about this first meeting. Was it during Poetry International
in London or in New York?
– It was in New York, about 1983, at Mark Strand’s home. And I met Derek
Walcott the same day. We all had lunch together. They are all good poets;
Strand wasn’t as good a poet as those two. Brodsky and I had a long talk;
we talked all afternoon. I had a talk with Walcott as well; he was always
a bit blustering with me, calling me Bwana and the like.
– In 1988 four poets, you yourself, Derek, Seamus, and Joseph, took
part in a Round-Table discussion chaired by Michael Schmidt in Dun Laoghaire
(3). What do you remember of the Dublin Conference and that discussion?
– I don’t remember much of the discussion. A point I made to Seamus
was that he writes in an English that is more familiar to me than the English
of England. The first poem of Seamus I ever saw ended with the words ’I’ll
dig with it’ (emphasis on ‘it’) and I read that and said ‘Yeah, and I bet
they can’t read that in England; there it would sound like ‘I’ll dig with
it’ (emphasis on ‘dig’), and it ruined the line completely. Although we
weren’t speaking with an Irish accent, we remembered what it sounded like
and ‘I’ll dig with it’ (emphasis on ‘it’) is perfectly good Australian
English. Seamus was very pleased by that. English is not just one language.
– Do you recall any interesting statements made by Joseph about the
English language? He was in love with the English language.
– Yes, I recall his regret that the British missed their chance to colonize
Russia in 1918, and that his writing in English could be seen as an attempt
to repair the mistake. Of course English for him was not so much associated
with colonization as with civilization; he was talking about the English
of George Herbert, Marvell, Donne, and Shakespeare.
– Could the fact that you, Derek, Seamus and Joseph are not British
poets be taken as evidence that England is no longer the centre of poetry
– That centre hasn’t always been in England; sometimes it’s been in
America, sometimes in Ireland or in Scotland, and to some extent, in Australia.
Scotland was the centre in the 70s to 90s, but all the best Scottish
poets, in both languages, Gaelic and English, died in 1990-95: Norman MacCaig
died and Sorley MacLean also died. A little later, the marvellous Welsh
poet R.S. Thomas died too. I think they are better than the Irish ones,
but the Irish ones are more famous because the Irish had a war, and war
always makes poets more popular. England hasn’t been the centre for ages
– but it’s still very powerful in publishing and criticism. Not so much
in America, because in America poetry disappeared into the universities.
There are very few real American poets – Sharon Olds is one, Ron Rash is
another – the rest are nearly all academics who write poetry.
– How does Brodsky fit into the English poetic scene?
– He doesn’t really, if you mean England. If you mean English language,
he’s a respected visitor. A roc among native birds…
– Are you aware of the gap that exists between the original and even
the best English translations whether done by Brodsky himself, or by Derek
Walcott, Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, or by any of the professional translators?
– I’d have to know Russian.
– Your great grandfather’s first cousin wrote the Oxford English
Dictionary. Did this fact influence your attitude to language?
– I had the attitude, a habit of mind, before I learned of James Murray.
I was a natural born word-freak. I always loved language. I wanted to be
a painter but I couldn’t paint, so I chose to paint with language. I am
a linguistic primitive.
– Brodsky’s complex and idiosyncratic view of language is central
to an understanding of his poetic world. Is this clear from his essays
or from his poetry?
– Both, I think. The breadth of language I think was always natural
with me, but unlike Brodsky, I made a philosophy out of poetry rather than
– In your view, poetry is a universal making and is not confined
to language. How would you explain Brodsky’s obsession with language?
– Poetry isn’t all language. It comes through language, but it also
includes music and painting.
– Here Brodsky would agree with you. He once said that he learned
composition from music. And there are plenty of paintings in his poetry.
He admired the Renaissance artists.
– The same with me. I know lots of artists; I go to all the galleries.
– Brodsky intensely disliked Western leftwing intellectuals. What
does attract them to the leftist ideology?
– It offers them all the keys to the world. It says, ‘You are going
to be the leaders; you are going to be the top people, the new aristocracy.
Even if only in the new republic of letters.’
– 75 year of existence of the Soviet Union taught them nothing.
– It taught them bloody nothing. Australian poetry has been ruined in
this generation: about 75% of Australian poets are on the left. People
will read Leftist prose but not Leftist poetry. It’s all the same poem.
– And they always find the way to promote themselves, to take over
magazines, to publish each other.
– Most Australian magazines and all the newspapers are left wing.
– Let’s return to Brodsky. Finding himself outside his own culture,
Brodsky continued to serve it by introducing an entirely different sensibility
into that culture. In trying to get rid of its sentimentality and provincialism,
however, he encountered all manner of criticism, both in Russian and in
the West: coldness, bookishness, rationalism to name but a few accusations
levelled at him. Do you understand the reason for such criticism?
– I remember once in Amsterdam just after he got the Nobel Prize, he
was given a reception. There was a German woman with a beautiful leather
bag and he said: “Ah, madam, it’s a handsome hand bag; human skin, I imagine?”
– We all have a problem with the Germans; it took me 25 years to
be ready to visit Germany.
– As for coldness, don’t you have the word “dusha”?
– We do and we demand of and attribute a lot to our ‘dusha’! By the
way, Brodsky was the one who re-introduced the word ‘dusha’ into Russian
poetry after a 30-year ban by the Soviet authority.
– To answer your question, I think, the main reason for such criticism
is pure jealousy. I once asked him in Massachusetts, “Would you ever go
back to Russia?” He said, “No”. – “Don’t you miss the landscape and all
the natural parts of Russia?” He said, ‘No, it’s the same as here”. I,
like most Australians, miss Australia horribly if I stay away for long.
– It is hard to miss the country that treated you so badly. One tries
to forget it.
– Yes, of course.
– Like Mandelstam and Pasternak, Brodsky in his poetry bridged
Christian and Jewish culture. Almost every year Brodsky wrote a Christmas
poem. Yet, many Russian Orthodox people don’t accept him as a Christian
poet. How do you see him in this respect?
– We all do it. From Abraham to Jesus is what I call Jewish evolution,
a moral and spiritual evolution. The difference is whether you accept Jesus
or not. As for Russia, it is an anti-Semitic culture, I gather.
– Maybe you are not aware that in 1963 Brodsky wrote a long poem
“Isaac and Abraham” from a point of view of a son rather than a father.
– Human sacrifice is a constant in this world. You know, I always ask
about a work of art, how much human sacrifice does it require? That is
what that tradition and that evolution is about: sacrifice, absorbing it
and making it bearable for humans. In the end, God takes it on Himself
and so removes the legitimacy of all further literal human sacrifice. I
quite like the Jewish evolution!
– Salvation comes through the Jews, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman.
English evolution, Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, and all that, tends
to reduce humans to interchangeable units. They sacrifice us all, they
turn us into money; whereas Jewish evolution turns us into persons. Persons
die and come back; they will not be lost. That is the most important evolution
– Brodsky’s erudition was astonishing. Do you too believe that a
poet should be omniscient?
– I believe it, for myself. I was always interested in the whole world;
it was my ambition to know everything. I think a poet should know everything.
But many poets have lacked such breadth. I knew as much as Brodsky did,
so we got along fine.
– Sir Isaiah Berlin once said that in Brodsky’s company you got the
feeling that you were in the presence of genius. Did you ever feel the
– No, but that I was in the presence of a fiercely intelligent man.
I’m not sure what a genius is.
– You said that poetry prevents ‘things from happening, bad things’
(4). What, in your view, is the main task of poetry?
– It models how humans really think and create. And it discharges energy.
It helps to get rid of society’s or culture’s bad visions. Most poetry
is rubbish, but at least it has the effect of exposing worse rubbish. It
neutralizes political dreams; it discharges rather than promotes them.
People think they are promoting these visions but in effect they are exhausting
their energy. Real poetry should delight us! Otherwise it does harm.
– Do you have a poem, dedicated or addressed to Brodsky?
– No, I am afraid I don’t.
– What a pity, all my interviews with poets end up with a poem for
Joseph. Maybe you can write one when you return home?
– I’ll try.
On 29th December 2004 I received this poem by post from Australia,
sent by Les Murray on 19 December, with a note: “I’m far too late with
the above for your project, I fear, but I must offer it to you if only
because it partly arises from discussion I had with Joseph. He told me
he did entertain ideas of becoming a Christian, a Presbyterian in fact!
Please pardon the coinage “gentrifical force”. It is derived from “gentrification”.
I do suspect that’s very nearly the strongest social force of the lot.
And the churches have all too often got caught up in facilitating it. With
that, I leave the poem to your judgement.”
1. Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets, London,
Weidenfels & Nicolson, 1998, p. 894
2. Joseph Brodsky in Les Murray, The End of Symbol.
Zavershenie simvola. Bilingual selection, New York–Stockholm, Ars-Interpres,
2004, p. 5.
3. Poets’ Round Table. ‘A Common Language’, A Discussion
between Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky and Les Murray with
Michael Schmidt, P.N. Review, vol. 15, no. 4, 1989, pp. 39-47. Russian
translation of this discussion is included in the selection of Brodsky’s
interviews, ‘Bol’shaya kniga interv’iu’, Moscow, Zakharov, 2000, pp. 384-406.
4. Ibid, p. 40.
9 November 2004, Stockholm