Les Murray: In My Country, Poetry Ruled For 60,000 Years Before Prose Came In


I don’t know much about the Australian language; a little bit of Cricket commentary and the Fosters ad (Australian for Beeeer) kind of sums up all I know of their parole. So when at Les Murray’s poetry reading, the lady did “bum chairs” instead of a “head count”, I had to hear her say that again. She whispered it to me. Ever thought of doing a body count that way? It is much more interesting! I fell in love with the language instantly.

I got to meet Les, the Poet of the Outback considered as Australia’s National poet, the voice of Australia, and he is definitely a fun poet. As a student he had the gall to say balls to Keats and the rest of the English Poets who were taught in the Universities. A thing of beauty …and all that stuff. “English poetry is irrelevant to us. We are another nation and we have our own poetry. In fact one of the finest Australian Poets was Frank McNamara—a convict. And he is not being taught in the schools or the universities.” He said waving his mehendied hands. It was obvious that he was touched by India. His take on intellectuals is interesting: “It is a new aristocracy of Marxism.” And then he held forth on poetry, “In poetry, our human consciousness, body and dreams are fused. If we accept the notion that human beings are fundamentally poetic, rather than rational or irrational, it has some interesting consequences.”

A civilization run on poetry

Les is much influenced by Aboriginal ideas. “In my country poetry ruled for over sixty thousand years before prose came with the settlers in 1788. I like the penetrating Aboriginal ideas about dreaming and their idea of running a civilization on poetry. For them poetry is religion. And they don’t like to call their stories mythology, they just refer to them as dreams-which they believe to be true. And the sacred laws, which govern the lives of the traditional Aborigines are in poetry.”


One of Les’s poems is titled Yregami and I wanted to know the meaning of it, wondering aloud if it was the language of the Aborigines. With a twinkle in his eyes he told me that it is English. What a silly question! But of course. Les definitely knows how to have fun. So figure this—Yregami—out for yourself—it is the language of poets.

He said “Nature understands itself and gets on by being itself. Whenever we try to understand it we get it wrong.” His poem, The Meaning of Existence, evocatively expresses his thoughts:

The Meaning Of Existence

Everything except language
Knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
Know nothing else. They express it.
Moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
Lives it in a part, and would
Have full dignity within it
But for the ignorant freedom
Of my talking mind.

Les Murray, 80, passed away after prolonged illness in New South Wales, Australia. Les, who’s one of Australia’s finest poets, critic and essayist had visited Kochi in 2006 and the following year his poems were translated into Malayalam. This writer had interacted with Les Murray and had written this piece in 2006 for her blog.

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