Les Murray and Australian Poetry

The following cover notes and extract are taken from Les Murray and Australian Poetry, the new collection of essays from the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies of Kings College, London (ed. Angela Smith).

The book was published in June 2002 (ISBN 1-85507-118-5). Copies can be obtained from the Menzies Centre directly for only £6, by contacting Kirsten McIntyre on menzies.centre@kcl.ac.uk; alternatively, Tel. +44 20 7862 8854.



Cover Notes

In this collection of essays edited and introduced by Angela Smith five critics and the poet himself discuss the 'intense and sprawling' poetry of Les Murray. John Lucas offers a meditation on Australian poetry and Murray's place within it; Stephen Matthews addresses the critical response to Murray's poetry; Martin Leer explores the idea of home and the myth of the return to the centre in Murray's work, with particular reference to Murray's Fredy Neptune; Les Murray reveals how he wrote Fredy Neptune and Bruce Clunies-Ross examines Fredy Neptune and the verse novel in English.

In 1999 Les Murray was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry at Buckingham Palace. The essays in this volume are based on papers presented at a conference organised by the British Australian Studies Association and the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies to coincide with this auspicious event.

Contents:
- Introduction (Angela Smith)
- How it Strikes an Outsider (John Lucas)
- Murray and the Music of Indirection (Steven Matthews)
- 'Only the Centre Holds': the Meditative Landscapes of Les Murray (Martin Leer)
- How Fred and I Wrote Fredy Neptune (Les Murray)
- Fredy Neptune: The Art of 'Cracking Normal' (Bruce Clunies-Ross)

 

How Fred and I Wrote Fredy Neptune

At times, I have jokingly called Fredy Neptune my secret autobiography. This is an exaggeration of course but there are slivers of truth in it that feel poignant to me. Any narrative in extenso is liable to be something of an alternative personality for its author, with elements of a different life story. And that is really as close as Fredy comes to being me. It isn't wholly fanciful to say that this book doesn't like being talked about in the lofty class-terminology of literary studies. It feels far more defiantly proletarian (now that word is becoming safe to use) than I do, and more vulnerable to the control which jargon seeks to impose. It doesn't quite trust me for knowing some of that jargon, or believe I know enough to protect it if need be. Both doubts are probably justified. I'm scrupulous about anything that looks like directive authorial comment, not least because of the flak and resistance it attracts; I want only to tell how the book got written, without instructing people how to read it or interpret it.

The trigger for writing Fredy was the Armenian poem quoted in translation as its epigraph, but it was a trigger that didn't fire for several years after I first saw it. I found the poem in an otherwise unimpressive rag-bag anthology titled The Angus and Robertson Book of Oriental Verse, edited by Keith Bosley and published in Sydney in 1979. The cocking-hammer which made that trigger fire was probably Derek Walcott's Omeros, which Farrar Straus sent to me in the early 1990s. I admired the wealth of beautiful writing in that long poem, but I remember thinking 'No, you don't just transpose an existing myth into modern dress', not at this major-poem length anyway. The decent thing for an epic-sized composition is to invent your own brand-new myth! A few critics have been at pains to link, or hogtie, Fredy to other mythic stories, especially that of the Ancient Mariner, a tale whose moral-mystical trajectory has never convinced me. Others allude to the Odyssey, on the slender grounds that Fredy is a sailor and spends a lot of time trying to get home. He also spends repeated long periods at home, which rather complicates that analogy. Not being Germanisten, they've so far missed Adalbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl, the young man who sold his shadow. But all this is really just lit-crit reflex. There is quite simply no other story that could be called The Man Who Lost His Sense of Touch. Or The Man Who Gave Up His Body Out of Shame ...

 


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