No. 4 & 5


Les Murray  

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 me. 

– 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 20th. 

– 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 exaggeration.

– 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 win’. 

– 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 in English?

– 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 language. 

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!

– Why?

– 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 of all.

– 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 same?

– 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 

   by Les Murray



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