The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The riches of rural life

Posted on: April 28, 2007

INTERVIEWER

What aspects of your life were most crucial to your development as a poet?

MURRAY

I was a freak, but happily my freakishness was in language — not, say, in classifying antique crankshafts. We seem to get a word-freak once or twice in the Murray family. Sir James Murray of the Oxford English Dictionary was my cousin, for example. When I’d argue points in the OED with my Russian fellow-translator at the National University in Canberra, I’d tell him we Murrays owned the damn language! Being some other kind of freak has its attractions, mind you. I envy painting its impasto and sheer colour-play, how it’s not held in by that stubborn insuspendable lexicality that words have. I get out into nonsense as far as I can, Lord knows, though never for nihilist ends…There’s also the wonderful advantage of music and painting and sculpture, that they don’t have to be translated.

INTERVIEWER

It was said — in a review of your work — that to be a farmer’s son is the equivalent for a poet of being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Can you tell me what is silver, gold, and tin for a writer from a farming background?

MURRAY

Gold, I guess, would be the brotherhood with fellow creatures and nonhuman entities, with the weather and the elements — a godsend if you’re an only child deficient in people skills. Poetry beckoned to me from the start by its not putting humans above other subject matter. You could work on the basis that whatever subjects you wrote about, your readers would relate them to the human for you, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate! Another gold bit might have been the sheer contradiction farming represents in relation to the majority of the world. Farming’s a world where having outside employment is a curse and a thing of shame, something you resort to if the farm’s a failure. It’s where stark poverty can be a thing of pride, when it’s caused by hanging on to your land and your independence beyond mere reason. I was happily crippled for being an employee by where I came from.

INTERVIEWER

Silver?

MURRAY

Silver might be the strong oral culture I grew up in, just before radio and TV, and the intricacies of pride and lies that went into family and ancestor worship. Probably half of longer-established Australian rural families have some Aboriginal admixture, and yet most are still in denial about it, dead scared of it, even as educated town folk start gingerly to yearn after that connection. An immense common property of black and white rural folk is what we’ve been learning to call “country”, an intense connection with one’s home region as a resource not just of survival but of the spirit. That has probably saved my life, more than once.

INTERVIEWER

Tin?

MURRAY

Tin is probably mainly the taste of being relegated and scorned, as a country bumpkin, an uncultured yahoo, all that sanctified anti-rural prejudice that goes right back to classical times and which no antidiscrimination law or postcolonial rhetoric ever protects you from — so to hell with those. It’s fair to say that anti-rural bias became steadily more vicious in Australia during my lifetime. It only relaxed and returned to a frail new sanity about five or six years ago. I don’t trust that respite to last. Tin is a funny word in Australian idiom: tinny means both cheap and lucky, among other meanings. Won the lottery? You tinny bugger!

From the “Art of Poetry” No. 89 interview with Les Murray, Paris Review, Spring 2005

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