Pigeon English: a 'lost' Les Murray interview



In 2013 the Australian poet Les Murray, who died 29 April 2019 aged 80, was guest at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park, Vic. He gave talks, readings and workshops, and participated in an interview conducted by me and recorded by the journalist and filmmaker Peter Thomas. What follows is an edited transcript. The full interview can be heard here.


Philip Harvey: Where does poetry come from?

Les Murray: From the impulse of delight. You fall in love with it and start thinking I can do that, and you spend the next 50 years or so discovering whether you can or not. It's gone on accumulating for me, although there are things that I grow out of, that I think 'I've left that one behind, I wouldn't do it that way now.'

Do you ever find yourself in a place where you wonder where the next poem is going to come from?

Yeah I'm there now. I've always been there.

Where is poetry going?

Nowhere in particular. Just on to more poetry. It's been doing that for as long as we know. Occasionally a new audience comes up or a new way of disseminating it comes up but it's fundamentally the same experience down the centuries.

People familiar with poetry know this is counter-intuitive to the famous Auden line ['poetry makes nothing happen', W. H. Auden, 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats'] but what does poetry make happen?

Not much. It tests the soul of some people who make it. I don't know whether on a wide public policy level it makes much happen. But it causes a reflective moment in this, that and the other person.

You talk about the soul of the poet being tested but presumably when poetry makes something happen it's also happening for those other souls.

Yeah it is. It may change them, it may confuse them. It may usefully confuse them, they can see that something isn't quite as simple as they imagined.

So poetry is the possibility of connection?

I've heard of connection, but I'm a solitary from the bush, I'm a lonely child from the bush, so what do I know about connection?

What would you say to a young poet, a child or teenager, about the craft of making poetry?

Les Murray with Philip Harvey at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park, Vic. in 2013. Photo by Peter ThomasRead poetry and soak yourself in it. I knew when I fell in love with poetry that to get serious about it and do it, I needed a big background in it. It hadn't been taught in school, it was politely ignored. Some people liked Shakespeare, but I think they were more dramatically than poetically inclined.

I went to Sydney University at about that point and started reading all the poetry in Fisher Library. I went right out beyond the usual limits. I read poetry from other languages, other traditions. I wanted to get as wide a viewpoint as I could.

That's even advice for the general reader, isn't it?

In a slightly lesser way it probably is. If you love a thing you'll do it anyway.

Generalisations are a feature of your poetry, a mechanism, like mini summations that build a conversation.

In an uncontrollable world you try to impose order.

Would you say a lot of your work leaves the conclusions open?

More and more. As I've become more civilised an adult — which took a long time, it takes until you're 50 to do that — I've generalised less and been particularising more and more. Poetry will often tell you that most things are both black and white at the same time. They point in opposite directions.

I think the French philosopher Simone Weil said that the problem with the universe for humans is that we know about contradiction.

And gradually we realise how much of it we are living at any given point, and trying to handle.

In your own work you write on politics, on social history, you write polemic; but the overwhelming drive seems to be one of praise.

Thank God for that, because it's one way out of all those other things, all of which can be traps. You gradually grow out of them: 'That was an over-simplification, I was not mature enough yet to restrain myself from doing that.' More and more, praise takes over from whatever else you've been doing.

I for example was part of some of the Australian Republic [movement] and I realised I was wasting my time; 'This will come or not as the whole community decides. It probably won't happen in my lifetime.' So I stopped caring about it. I cared for the people who were involved on both sides.

This is the thing that keeps coming back in your work, this thing of, whatever else is going on, we've still got to give praise and thanks. 

Give delight. Let people learn the habit of delight in what exists and what has existed. Harder to give delight in things that will exist, because they often don't turn up, or they turn up in another guise.

How do you go about writing the sacred?

Hardest thing in the world.

What do you think is the future of the English language?

It will go on being the world lingua franca for a while yet, maybe a few more centuries. It will draw from different sources and that's one of the great strengths of English, it's a mongrel creation ... It became the best pigeon in the world, it picked up stuff from everywhere.

How do you see Australian English going?

A mini version of the same thing.

Do you think there's going to come a time when people are no longer going to be able to comprehend Australian English? You go to some parts of the world and the English is very hard to penetrate.

You've been to South Africa? [Laughs] I think South Africa is fascinating because it's an English that's got such a strong underpinning of Dutch, it's a compounded language. People speak and think in both languages at the same time.

Australian English will mutate as all languages do, and they do it very fast. A lot of stuff I value and love about old-fashioned Australian idiom is now regarded as incomprehensible by youth. They regard it almost as a badge of honour not to understand it.



Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the poetry editor of Eureka Street. He maintains a word study site, a poetry readings site and a workplace blogspot.

Main image: Les Murray with Philip Harvey at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park, Vic. in 2013. Photo by Peter Thomas

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, Les Murray



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Existing comments

Of course, I love him. Lovely to hear his voice. And yours, Philip.
Pam | 06 May 2019

Thank you for this. He was truly a great writer and poet.
Barry Gittins | 06 May 2019

The wisdom of the poet. Thank you.
Patricia Taylor | 07 May 2019

Isn’t it usually spelt “pidgin”? As spoken we get 2 meanings in one. Poetic!
OldG | 07 May 2019

Thanks ever so much for keeping these nuggets of wisdom for us Philip... 'praise' and 'the habit of delight', not to mention Les' humour. He reached a lot of people. Macca of RN Australia All Over on Sunday morning ran an interview with Les done years ago on Mildura. And up at the Clunes Booktown festival later in the day, two young poets started their readings by paying tribute to Les, one of them saying he resisted Les for years but finally succumbed to his genius.
Pat Walsh | 07 May 2019

THANK YOU Philip! I once heard a programme on RN about Dylan Thomas, who, asked what advice he would give an aspiring poet, replied: "Love the words!" Les Murray truly loved the words.
Jena Woodhouse | 07 May 2019

Thank you Philip, a beautiful interview. Would you please print Eureka Street online in a darker, readable print. It is increasingly difficult to read, so disappointing.
CAroline Jones | 07 May 2019

Is that like stool pidgin?
Peter Goers | 07 May 2019

Carrier pigeon, I'd say. Loved the wisdom and thanks for the article. "In an uncontrollable world you try to impose order." Indeed.
Anne P | 13 May 2019

Les was a superb craftsman. The test of an artist is whether they can create something or not. He could. His poetry lived. In your interview with him he was like a Zen master, gently disabusing us of any pompous certainties we might have about language and poetry.
Edward Fido | 13 May 2019


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