Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Conversation with Les Murray

Les Murray
Poster by T.A.

A Conversation with Les Murray
by J. Mark Smith
Winter 2009-10

In 2007, Dan Chiasson wrote in the New Yorker that Australian poet Les Murray is "now routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets." His awards include the Grace Leven Prize, the Kenneth Slessor Prize, the Petrarch Prize, and the prestigious T.S. Eliot Award. In 1999 he was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes. He is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry, including Lunch and Counter Lunch (Angus & Robertson), The People's Otherworld(HarperCollins), The Daylight Moon (Angus & Robertson; Carcanet; Persea), Subhuman Redneck Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux),Poems the Size of Photographs (Duffy & Snellgrove; Carcanet), and The Biplane Houses (Macmillan; Carcanet). He has also written two verse novels, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (Angus & Robertson) and Fredy Neptune (Carcanet). Other books include the essay collection A Working Forest (Duffy & Snellgrove) and Killing the Black Dog (Black Inc.) an essay and poems on his struggle with depression. He has served as editor of Poetry Australia and Quadrant, and has edited several poetry anthologies. His work has been published in numerous languages. A new book of poems, Taller When Prone (Penguin Australia) is forthcoming in 2010. He lives in his family's home valley of Bunyah, New South Wales, and was interviewed by J. Mark Smith at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta.

Image: Is there a distinction for you between old-fashioned poetry and poetry that's of the moment?
Les Murray: I've written on both sides of that line. There are certain effects you can only get in old-fashioned poetry and verse. It's part of the instrument. You play a bit of this, and you play a bit of that. It depends how old-fashioned you mean. One of my favorite poets is Hesiod of Boeotia. And various Latin poets: Catullus, and Virgil, and some others.
Image: Is there a need for something in your poetry to respond to the social conditions and the reality of this moment, as opposed to, say, 1980, or 1972?
LM: "Now" is what's obsolete in twenty years. You've got to watch that. You look for timeliness if you can reach it, but only occasionally do you reach it. I look back at my work now and sometimes think: That one is going to look dated for a while, but if it survives us all, eventually it'll be okay. Other poems you think are probably free of datedness, but you can never completely see that in advance.
Image: What about a poem that mentions Arnold Schwarzenegger, or a cyborg?
LM: Our autistic son Alexander loved Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think because he first thought that Schwarzenegger really was a cyborg, a machine-man, and Alexander had the feeling that he was a machine-man too. So this giant was one of his stripe. It took him a while to realize that somebody as mechanical-sounding as that was in fact one of what he called "the regulars," the ordinary people. He thought Arnold was a great machine-man who might defend him. It was quite interesting to see that transference. Alexander, I think, almost never shows loneliness. That might have been one place where he felt a bit lonely, and he thought that there was another member of his species. Of course, he lost it. Arnie is not of that tribe.
Image: Autism seems to have been of interest to you even before Alexander was born. A collection of yours from 1974 includes a poem called "Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver."
LM: I probably dimly intuited that it was coming. I never looked into it much until Alexander came along, but the word hung in the air somehow.
      And I am a little bit that way. I mean, no father of an autistic child fails to be a bit of an autie himself. I'm what you might call a high-performing Asperger. I'm not very good at human relations, and it took me a terribly long time to deal easily with people. Even now I use expressions like "the humans." I used that when I was a kid to distinguish between myself and other people. Very diagnostic, that one. So even if I didn't quite know how to apply the word autistic, the intuition was there.

Image: Do you think that the condition of autism has some bearing on or is emblematic in some way of modern art or its problems?
LM: I haven't thought that one through. It's probably true. A lot of modern art is very autistic. There is this arbitrary law that you're not supposed to be sentimental or have any feelings. What the bloody hell is that but autism, pretending to be some kind of automaton? I came across a wonderful phrase recently. Some fellow writing against the Conservative Party of Canada, parodying their attitudes, described the conservative image of Harvard as "the great ice-palace of the modern elite"—where it's all intellect and no feelings allowed.

Image: In your poem "It Allows a Portrait in Line-scan at Fifteen" you describe a subjective and an objective language. You indicate that the experience of the autistic person is that they are in an objective world.
LM: They live in a world where it is very hard to speak in the first person. They often talk in facts. Getting through to "I" is damn hard. Earlier in life, like all autistic kids, Alexander used to refer to himself as "they," or "she," any pronoun but "I." The more frightening a thing was, the further the pronoun was from "I." If he was really scared, it was "they." "If they're bad, the police will put them in hospital." Not "If I'm bad, the police will put me in hospital." That would be too terrifying a thing to say. It's what you might call pronomial deflection. You get it in ordinary speech too. A person will say "one" or "a man." "A man would be a bloody fool to do that." The queen does it. Dear old "One."
Image: If you find there's some quality of autism in you, how does that play out in lyric poetry, which is traditionally understood as the form that uses "I" and "you"?
LM: Lyric poetry is so thoroughly understood as being subjective that you can use any pronoun you like. Readers can take for granted that whoever or whatever a lyric poem is about, it's also about the writer.
      That's why people don't read modern poetry. It's so often emotionally cold and inept. It can't reach out to them. It talks in a deflected world of abstraction, and they don't want that. They don't understand that that's really personal and has got feeling in it. The feeling is so thoroughly hidden that they think it's not there.
      People often think this in advance of poetry, before they read it, that it's going to be difficult, impersonal, superior, and cold. When they get there, sometimes they find it's not quite as bad as they think.

Image: My students sometimes complain that poetry makes them feel stupid.
LM: Better to feed them first than give them nothing. I hate the sense that I've given them nothing. The opposite is to give them a feast.
Image: How would you distinguish between what's sentimental and what isn't?
LM: I think it's probably in not telling lies. There's always something false about the sentimental. When it's feeling without lies, it's terribly scary, but it's not sentimental. I think some of the time students might not so much be made to feel stupid, as be made to feel. Which is pretty hard for post-puritan victims of the Reformation.
Image: You have a poem called "The Doorman." Any poet is something like a doorman for his own poetry, in that he keeps some words and expressions and idioms away, and others he welcomes. Could you comment on that?
LM: That poem was written a long time ago. When you're young, and not from a very privileged background, you expect a lot of rejection. It always hurts, but you expect it. And you often lead with your chin, so of course you get the rejection you expected. That's very much the experience of facing a bloke like the doorman. Later on, you either don't care enough, or you're experienced enough to know how to handle him, and he's no particular threat. So, it's a youthful poem.
      I know people whose entire conversation is based on the expectation of being rejected. They say things two or three times, because they aren't convinced they are being listened to. They have no authority to impose their speech, their presence, their anything, on their listener. So they use the speech of obsequiousness, rather than the speech of confidence. It's a fairly desolating day when you realize those two things are different. Somebody is begging to be heard, and somebody is showing signs of interest or noninterest exactly as it pleases them. My father was one example. He had his confidence shattered by being treated badly by his own father, and by a series of dreadful bloody misfortunes, so he was tentative. He was assertive and tentative at the same time. But then so many people in the world are that way. And if there's anything a doorman can smell, it's that. Who do I have to let in? Who's got the confidence? Who can I treat exactly as I like?

Image: Is the doorman figure that of the bully?
LM: He doesn't bully you; he doesn't have to. He can't be bothered. He leaves you to feel like shit yourself.
      The bully makes sure that you feel it, because he's a bit tentative too. He wants to do it to you a few more times to make sure he got it right. The bully operates by turning everybody round him into a moral coward, so that people do not dare to defend the victim. Moral cowards are harder to put up with than bullies.
      Australians are given to moral cowardice, too, because they're a collective people. They're like the Irish, because they are so often Irish, ancestrally. They desperately rely on acceptance, and they punish dominance. My immigrant wife, Valerie, said she learned fairly quickly in Australia that you never shine in school. If you do too many things right, you'll start getting nicknames like "Shakespeare" and "genius," and they're not meant kindly. It's a terrible impediment to Australian achievement, a terrible drag on the whole culture. Very few Australians have got the social confidence to escape it.

Image: I get the sense from your work that you have always thought of yourself as defending the honor of working people. Is that the most important aspect of your poetry?
LM: No, though there is a sort of ideal audience in my head, and mine is fairly egalitarian, without being suppressive, without being a mob. There are more important things, like getting the poem right and working something out. But I would like to use the poem not to snub people, unless it was to punish some dreadful bugger. But even then, if I snub someone, he might not have a name; he might just be a figure, like the doorman.

Image: Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by "getting it right" and "working something out."
LM: What does some phenomenon in the world mean? What does it lead to, what does it point to, what deeper dimension can you find in it? I do a lot of that, and I think of it as contiguous to what science does: working a thing out. Seeing its less obvious connections. Surprising yourself. But I wouldn't always want to be forensic like that. Sometimes you just want to play around and find musical, surprising stuff to say.
Image: There's a famous passage in Wordsworth's Preface where he speaks about poetry following where science goes.
LM: I think science has followed where poetry went. Science has got into a kind of cannibalism, where it eats itself, and it eats its practitioners. Literature had already succumbed to the same thing, to some extent: within a few years, things are seen as obsolete; something else is eating them alive. People themselves feel obsolete before they die. And science, with its fierce resolve to be antireligious, has to re-create the world all the time. It can't take anything as a given. And each time it re-creates it, it devours the older version and its proponents. There'll come a day when they'll eat Darwin.
      This pattern of relegation—things being made obsolete and sentenced to death because something else more wondrous turns up—has been a feature of the modern era for four hundred years.

Image: In the third book of Fredy Neptune, as Fred rides the rails across the American west (at the moment in fact that he sees the angel Moroni "blowing a long thin trumpet" on the top of a tall church in Salt Lake City), a spirit or daemon named Iowa tells him about the "promise" of Christianity:

Buy it, and nobody's a failure. No one's book is closed. 
Refuse it, and there's high mucks and drudges forever, even dead. 
And the death gets shared round just as much, or more ....
Do you understand religion in general—and Christianity in particular—as having a socially leveling function? Does it—or should it—shield people from hierarchy and social exclusion? I'm struck by what a this-worldly promise it offers, in Iowa's words.
LM: I did visit Salt Lake City once and saw the angel statue on top of the Mormon Tabernacle blowing its long trumpet, so it wasn't hard to transpose that experience into the vision Fred is having. I do have hopes of Christianity as a leveling force, a shield against unjust ranking and grading. Justifiable praise remains possible, but in just measure only, the sort of measure of adulation the saints will accept. I put hope in the rescues from social relegation Christians can do, and sometimes remember to do. And yes, all of the promises are as much this-worldly as otherworldly. The Kingdom was intended to be here as well as beyond, surely, even though resistance to it was possible and overwhelming on this side.
Image: You identify yourself as Catholic, I believe. I'm interested, given your Scottish and German ancestry, in what you understand yourself to have inherited from the Protestant tradition. Non-conformism, and a distrust of the law, I would venture. But not imaginative austerity.
LM: I am a Catholic, yes. A convert in my late teens, but not a fanatic as in the stereotype about converts. My wife says I still have a lot of Calvin in my soul, especially the unforgiveness. Probably true. I did get a thorough grounding in the Bible, having read all of it by ten or twelve. I'm told Catholic kids didn't get anything like this until Vatican II.
      As a kid, I grew repelled by the Calvinist atmosphere, the competitive personal holiness, the mean advantage often taken of the poorest in our community, the superiority to them and other unfortunates. And that doctrine, dying even then, of predestination, how you were what you had got—more or less money, more sexiness, more attention—and this was somehow what youdeserved. We were the poorest family in our district, the wind came in through the gaps between the boards of our house, and my parents seethed in humiliation about this, because it was contrived for us by Dad's father. Most of our neighbors were nice about it all, and never treated us as badly as my parents continually expected them to—but they never objected to the setup either. I did revere our minister, a truly saintly old fellow, but I noticed superiorities from some of the laity, and those came to rankle when I grew to understand them. They didn't escalate into true bullying till I met with the town middle class and its teenage children. Religion didn't help or matter one jot there.
     "Sprawl" was my Dad's term for a kind of shirtsleeve nobility of gesture. Not pinched-arse Puritan at all.
      Much more importantly, I was wowed and fascinated by the sacramental bridge between earth and heaven that Catholicism offered, by the doctrine of the real presence, by that total defiance of austerity and meanness of spirit. It still lies ahead of me, though, to do a lot more forgiving of things that oppressed me and my sort of people when I was young. Not so much persons: I haven't got a long list of individuals to forgive, only about three or four standouts, but I do have to be more merciful to climates of opinion.
     "Unforgiveness" has a forward projection too, which I call moral snobbery. One reason many of the Murrays avoided sin was that we felt it beneath us. Some of us were impious and despairing because we felt beneath God's help or mercy. Some Calvinists were kind to Aborigines out of superiority, while others dished out to them what they seemed predestined to endure.

Image: Do you feel more affinity for John Donne (to whom you have been on occasion compared, at least in your capacity for grand poetic conceits) or George Herbert? Or are there other Christian poets who have been more important for you?
LM: I admire Donne for the mathematical, almost tile-making exactitude of his patternings and reversals. He is like a Muslim wall decorator. George Herbert moves me much more. Various Scottish and Irish medieval poets too, Dunbar and the poet of that mighty anonymous hymn from Ireland, "Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart," hymn 31 in John de Luca's Australian Parish Hymn Book. And though I'm no fan of the Reformation, I do love some of its hymns: Martin Rinkart's "Now Thank We All Our God," for instance. I guess most of the Christian poetry I've read, by far, would be in hymns. I've sung it as well as read it. James McAuley, the tough, anti-modernist Australian poet of last generation, was a super hymnodist. Probably the only greater Australian Christian poet is Andrew Lansdown, of Perth, a Baptist. He writes too much but is great at his best. Judith Wright hit a very pure miraculous note a few times, and so did the earlier Lesbia Harford, the Catholic socialist who was supreme at reasoning in verse.
      Big John Milton wasn't an influence on me. I read his collected poems over a long weekend when I was sixteen and never went back to him. The only one of his myth-stories I liked was Samson Agonistes. Lucifer sounded like a businessman caught out and defiant in a scam. A grand scam, perhaps, but still rather like alienating a third of General Motors. I preferred Alexander Pope. Much more my sort of fellow was Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. He taught me how to do baroque diction, how to melt language and model tableaux in it. I taught myself later on how to do this under cover. You gave your work a factual plain surface and worked the baroque and the rococo underneath, so that you and your readers were free of the tyranny of modern "no nonsense" pretensions.

Image: When I mull over what you've written about the relation between poetry and religion (as in the poem with this title), I sometimes wonder why there should be any genuine human need for the "mobile, glancing," small thing called poetry at all. That is, if "arrayed religion" is the larger, more humanly necessary form of poetry—"the large poem in loving repetition"—shouldn't we all give up the writing and reading of the merely literary as something secondary and distracting?
LM: Of course most folk have given poetry up altogether, even more absolutely than they've abandoned church. In my home valley when I was a kid, only two men were known to consume poetry while sober, a Scots hermit who was steeped in the whole Scottish tradition and could set all the drinkers right on Burns Night, and an English-born grazier who knew all of Pope by heart and spent fifty years reciting him to the rumps of his cattle while droving them.
      My point would be that poetry is lighter and quicker than church, more portable, vastly more open to heterodoxy and pointing in all directions, the mode of the spirit talking back, if you will. Arrayed, ceremonial religion is stately and slow, meant to be more impressive and to bed things more deeply in the spirit, distilling what is most likely to feed it, console it, encourage it. But it's typically further away, more of a drive to get to, a rarer thing in busy modern times. We also need architecture we can fold into a book or a back pocket. I guess I'd add that arrayed, big religion typically claims your allegiance, your soul, while poetry generally only borrows these for a short while, and most often lets you merely audit the performance and draw from it that way. And there's that test poetry resembles and sometimes outdoes religion in applying to subject and author alike: is it true? Does it cause meditation, even if only for a while?

Image: Would you concur with Blake's remark that "all deities reside in the human breast"? You've written that "God is the poetry caught in any religion." Does this formulation owe something to Blake?
LM: I'm no great Blake expert, but I would say that true deity, whether seen as a unity or fractioned, doesn't just reside in the human breast, though of course it is reflected there. I wish it did so more strongly, in some cases, including the breasts of kiddy-fiddling clergy. But I also don't forget the guiltless clergy who go at their job with tireless effort. "Caught in any religion" is just my way of saying that many traditions have something of God in them, which is his response to their seeking and imagining.
Image: How do you think the lyrical and the satiric modes are related in your poetry? Is lyric a mode that is closer to the devotional impulses of faith? Do you think that satire aligns in a different way from lyric with our deep attraction to that which is both "complete" and "inexhaustible"?
LM: I'm not a big follower of even classical satire, and I'm revolted by much of the modern article, especially that pumped out in the press and on TV. That junk is apt to be propaganda, and never for a salubrious cause—especially not since 1968. I do strike the odd satirical poem that makes me smile, though. The great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, whom I read in translation, can be as sensuous as Wordsworth while writing satire. If I do anything like satire, it's apt to be counter to someone else's, and very much I hope in the voice of honest indignation. There are at least four such poems in Killing the Black Dog: "A Deployment of Fashion," "A Stage in Gentrification," "Demo," and "Rock Music."
     All this being said, I do think much of the rest of poetry, including the lyric mode, is better fitted for the spirit's explorations. Though discovery can start anywhere. One feature of much modern poetry which gives me the pip is that defensive reflex of slight ridicule with which many overlay their verses so as not to be thought naIve. Grad-school writing-class verse seems especially prone to this.

Image: You spoke a moment ago about the modern phenomenon of "relegation." How do you see this process affecting language?
LM: When I was a little kid, we had a bloke around Bunyah who still referred to girls as "flappers." 1942, and he was still talking about flappers. When he died in the 1990s, he was still saying it. He just got frozen in that era. You can find where people are and where they've been by the words they use. It's rather charming, in fact. It means that they're not hyper-modern all the time. They slip up. You can see the trail that they've made through the world.
Image: You've spoken about the way your "novel in verse," Fredy Neptune, is organized around a single central image. Is the poem otherwise organized by narrative?
LM: Yes, though only because I discovered the narrative by writing it. I had no idea what was going to happen. I had a couple of ideas of things that were going to happen early on, but then I had to follow on from them and find what happened next. Until I got to the last page I didn't know how it was going to finish. I discovered it when I got there. Fred walked off the stage, as it were. He never came back to me again. The story was told. They say if you don't get a character right it hangs around and bothers you. Fred never bothered me at all. He knew that his tale was told. People have asked me, what did Fred do next? I've no idea. He walked off.
     Fredy Neptune is about human propensity for terrible wrong, for terrible injustice and cruelty. The sight of extreme suffering and evil has affected Fred in a curious way which is very deep but also invisible. And he has to keep it invisible, or he thinks he has. Occasionally somebody sniffs him out. Some realize that there's something strange about Fred, but they've got to be very savvy to work out what it is. He never lets on. Or when he mentions it, people reject it or don't believe it. One time he tries to tell his mother, and she will not have it. She says, "Don't speak of these things." So he finds himself talking to the wall after she's gone to sleep. Finally, Marlene Dietrich speaks to him. Because she's an actress and can tell what's going on in a person, when they're acting and when they're on the square, she's got a strong intimation of the truth, and she draws it out of him.

Image: A certain number of your earlier poems seem to come out of, or be at least partly motivated by, anger and frustration.

LM: That's true particularly of poems I wrote when I was trying to cure myself of depression. It's not always true of the earliest poems, but it's true of a particular period from late in the eighties to early into the two thousands, when a whole lot of old, bad anger was being worked out. Before and after that, I'm not so sure. I've not been out of it for very long.
Image: Do you think the poetry worked it out?
LM: I think it did. I used to say, "I don't believe in using poetry as therapy." But I tell you, if you get sick enough you'll use anything you've got as therapy. I used poetry as a kind of plunger to dip up old bad stuff and examine it.
Image: You gave a lecture in Rotterdam about ten years ago called "A Defense of Poetry," in which you talked about poems and "poemes." Has that been published anywhere?
LM: It's in a book of essays called A Working Forest. My idea was that in any human creation there's going to be a participation of the dream mind as well as the logical, daylight waking mind. And there's probably also going to be some kind of participation of the body. They're all going to be enacted in some way. And the more vigorously and simultaneously they're enacted, the closer the approach to the condition of poetry.
      Everybody's got a few magical things in their lives. They can talk about them as if they were rational and logical, but in fact their heart is poetry. What's the poem of your life? Well, one of them is your marriage, quite often. One of them is your favorite hobby, or hobbies. And a few other things. Your political affiliation and dreams in that direction. There usually won't be too many. There'll be a few small ones, and a couple big ones. That's the standard equipment of a human soul. I call them poemes. It's a word derived from the same sort of language as "morpheme" and "grapheme" and "phoneme" and so on.

Image: What are your dreams in the direction of politics?
LM: Haven't got any, that's the trouble. I don't believe in politics. I don't think it ever does much good. Even at the best of times, you don't get much out of politicians. Ideology and Hollywood have superseded them, reduced them to obedience.
Image: Can I ask you about your experience of working on the draft of a proposed preamble for the Australian Constitution?
LM: I thought it was a chance to go behind the prime minister's back and put a knife into the media, and secure people from their persecution. The media had no doubt that this was what I intended, and they tore into me. They went ape, because it would have made them a lot less able to attack individuals and groups. They would have had to be fair, instead of using all sorts of innuendo and vicious rhetorical tactics. I would have taken away a lot of their power. I used to say, if you're going to be ruled by media, then the journalists are the elite; they're an unelected parallel government. I didn't succeed in my attempt.
Image: I read the text of the preamble last week. The thing that looked to me like your fingerprint on it was the word "mateship." Was that you?
LM: No. The prime minister, John Howard, wanted that one. I told him that was the wrong register, but he wouldn't let me step away from it. "Mateship" made the whole damn thing very easy to attack, easy to parody. What I was after was to put it in terms of protecting the individual, from government and from the collective, but I realized even as I was doing it that it was a fake. Howard was having the preamble written and put forward to the voters as a distraction that he was going to use to sink the republican referendum.
      But I thought, maybe if the ploy gets out, and the people can vote on it, then enough of them will vote to make it more than a ploy. He will have shot himself in the foot. But the version I worked on didn't get to the people. It was stopped by four members of a party called the Australian Democrats, who then cobbled together another preamble and took that to the people, and the people took it out and shot it.
      No, I don't trust politics, or politicians. Much more than politics, I do trust the power of a good idea. A good idea is fairly hard to resist when it comes up, and politics has to reassemble itself around the idea or get left behind.

Image: Would you make a distinction between politics and culture?
LM: Yes. Politics is maintenance, keeping things cool and steady. It's administration, trying to keep things within bounds and privilege those that get closest to the trough. Whereas culture can throw up all sorts of ideas that politics never wanted.
Image: Does a poet have to keep up with cultural change?

LM: You'll often be punished if you don't. It's dangerous stuff to be around because it lashes out. It's unpredictable, electric. You never know who it's going to hit, who it's going to persecute, and who it's going to approve of, take up and then drop. It's very labile and very quick. I was writing the other day about this, and about my father. The poem has still got ink all over it where I've been reewriting and getting it right.
      In the sixties there was a kind of bohemian revolution which was about one molecule thick lying on top of an ancient ocean of force. It changes all the time because of impulses from below. It's glittering too. It's pulling people toward it. Dangerous. Absolutely untrustworthy.
      Well, from that, you can deduce that I've never been handsome. People who are handsome and socially successful never notice these things, because they're riding on them.

Image: Do you think of poetry as a kind of counter-force to that?
LM: Mostly it's as obedient as any other force. Most poetry's horribly obedient.
      I try to be a disobedient poet. One of the best things you can do in poetry is always to be at loggerheads with what most of them are doing. Because if they're all going along with the current values, they're not doing their job. They're writing a poetry-surrogate.
      Being disobedient makes it harder, but it makes it more interesting. Maybe I shouldn't whinge about being able to write. That opposition is against the current of culture itself.

Image: I wanted to ask you about Translations from the Natural World.
LM: That was when I was really badly off my head. Sick of myself. I didn't want to hang around with myself. So I'd imagine myself out of my head, into the lives of other creatures. I did it for several months. It was good.
      The world of a cat is not the world of a human. We don't even know what these worlds are. We get an idea of some of them. I've got a certain awe of cats, because they're such strange and serious creatures. They consent to live with us. They're not subject to us. They can occasionally come up with exactly the right gesture, though. Valerie says that while I've been away she's been feeling a bit down sometimes, lonely. And Min, our elder cat, will come along and pat her on the cheek with her paw. Which is to say, Be of good cheer. Be comfortable. A curious cat. A funny, mad little thing, but she always gets the emotions right. Why do they bother to do that for us?

Image: In any other book—other than Translations from the Natural World—have you thought of yourself as a poet who was a translator as well?
LM: I suppose in a superficial way I was translating in Fredy Neptune, because I was thinking in both German and English. German was the only other language I knew well enough to pretend to be a speaker. Maybe I could make a poem that was in both languages. John Kinsella, who is a madman in some ways but was onto something here, asked me, "What language is Fredy written in?" I said I thought it was written in Australian, but with English and German disguises.
      But that doesn't go as deep as what I was after with Translations from the Natural World. It was a dimension, though, that Fred could cross over: he could cross between his two worlds, the German world and the Anglo world. And somehow he steps from one into the other to hide himself. Sometimes he is forced to be in one or t'other. And he sees various things that he wouldn't be able to see without that. When he hears about the brotherhood of all mankind, he says, "What language would it be held in?"

About the Interviewer 


Center for Religious Humanism

Seattle, Washington 

Publisher & Editor: Gregory Wolfe

Managing Editor: Mary Kenagy Mitchell
Executive Editor: Suzanne M. Wolfe 


Friday, November 24, 2017

Roy Foster / Seamus Heaney remembered

Seamus Heaney, photographed at his home in Dublin in 2009: ‘Behind the unforced charm he was one of the most formidable critical intellects of his day.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Seamus Heaney remembered

Seamus Heaney, who has died at the age of 74, was a poet of immense power, a brilliant intellect, an inspiration to others – and the best of company

Roy Foster
Sunday 1 September 2013 00.07 BST

My first thought on hearing the immeasurably sad news of Seamus Heaney's death was a sensation of a great tree having fallen: that sense of empty space, desolation, uprooting. Heaney's place in Irish culture – not just in Irish poetry – was often compared to that of WB Yeats, particularly after he followed Yeats in winning the Nobel prize in 1995. He possessed what he himself ascribed to Yeats, "the gift of establishing authority within a culture". But whereas Yeats's shadow was seen, by some of his younger contemporaries at least, as blotting out the sun and stunting the growth of the surrounding forest, Heaney's great presence let in the light. Part of this was bound up in his own abundant personality. Generosity, amplitude and sympathy characterised his dealings with people at every level, and he was the stellar best of company. It was as if he had learned the lesson prescribed (though not really followed) by Yeats: that the creative soul, "all hatred driven hence", might recover "radical innocence" in being "self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting".

But behind the marvellous manner, unforced charm and wicked hoots of laughter he was one of the most formidable critical intellects of his day, a powerfully subtle analyst of political and social nuance, and the possessor of intellectual antennae that let nothing past them. Living in Ireland and being world-famous was not an unmixed blessing – he described the effects of winning the Nobel as "a mostly benign avalanche" – and he knew how to elegantly evade the occasional begrudgery of others and withdraw into his own resources, sustained by a beloved family life. The distinctiveness of his poetry was unmistakable: a Heaney poem carried its maker's mark on the blade. So was the immense labour that went into the deceptive simplicity of his early collections (throughout his writing career he drew terrific metaphors and images from an extraordinary range of physical work practices). And part of the impact of that early work lay in his use of violence.

That this was often done by implication made it no less shocking; the authentic lifting of the hairs on the back of the neck that I still remember when I opened North (1975), with its exploration of the archaeology of atrocity, was replicated in reading Station Island (1984), with its extraordinary title poem tracing a ghostly Dantean journey through the shades of Irish history, meeting with the dead. This culminates in a visionary encounter with Joyce ("His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers/ came back to me, though he did not speak yet,/ a voice like a prosecutor's or a singer's,/ cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite"), and Joyce spoke to Heaney in more ways than one. Listening to him on Desert Island Discs some years ago, I waited for him to choose Yeats's poems as his elected book, only to hear him demand Ulysses instead; on reflection I was not surprised. His own capaciousness was Joycean.
Like Joyce, Heaney's erudition was immense, and his lectures on literature at Oxford, Harvard and worldwide made wonderful reading and unparalleled listening. They illustrate his openness to world literature and classical history as well as his deep love of unexpected English poets such as Clare and Wordsworth – and his affinity with writers from eastern Europe, Osip Mandelstam above all. "There is an unsettled aspect to the different worlds they inhabit," he wrote in The Government of the Tongue (1988), "and one of the challenges they face is to survive amphibiously, in the realm of 'the times' and the realm of their moral and artistic self-respect." This carried – as he himself pointed out – a resonant echo for a poet afflicted by "the awful and demeaning facts of Northern Ireland's history". He lived in Dublin but never evaded those "facts" of his native territory. Indeed, part of Heaney's immense achievement was to use and expand that "awfulness" and its relation to the creative spirit and artistic commitment, using implication rather than assertion – whether in the haunting parallels and allegories of North, or in later poems like From the Frontier of Writing and From the Republic of Conscience.
The note is there also in his wonderful last collection, Human Chain (2010), where one is pulled – yet again – in the wake of a writer able to push out the boat into a limitless sea. But what struck me most in reading it, along with the almost daunting economy of line, was a whispering sense of elegy – not just because many of the poems were dedicated to the dead, but also because they looped back to his earliest images of pen nibs, farm routines, animal life, the rituals of neighbourhood, and love. This sense of an ending was perhaps a sign of poetic prescience.
At the time of his death, though, I come back to the image of the death of a tree. I remember now that he wrote about this himself – both in a marvellous 1985 essay on the work of Patrick Kavanagh, and then in a sonnet sequence, Clearances, in memory of his mother. The tree in question grew from a chestnut which his aunt planted in a jam jar in 1939, the year of Heaney's birth; it flourished, was transplanted to the garden, became a fully sized tree "that grew as I grew" and came to symbolise his own developing life – until, in his early teens, the family moved away from the house and the new owners cut it down. The absence of the tree then created in Heaney's mind "a kind of luminous emptiness". He now identified, he wrote, with "preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife". This is the thought that he put into Clearances (whose final sonnet is below), and I think of it now as I remember the marvellous spirit of a great poet who was also a great man.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Chris Isaak / Wicked Game

Chris Isaak

Chris Isaak

The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It's strange what desire will make foolish people do
I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you
And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you

No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you.
(This world is only gonna break your heart)

What a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way
What a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you
What a wicked thing to say, you never felt this way
What a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you and

No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
No, I don't want to fall in love. 
(This world is only gonna break your heart)
With you.

The world was on fire and no one could save me but you
It's strange what desire will make foolish people do
I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you
And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you

Nobody loves no one

Chris Isaak
"Wicked Game"
Heart Shaped World (1989)

The song is a cover (I guess) of Wicked Game by Chris Isaak, search it, it´s gold. And it was used on the trailer for the movie My Cousin Rachel.

Chris Isaak / Can´t Help Falling In Love With You

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq / Digested read

Unreconciled: Poems 1991-2013 by Michel Houellebecq – digested read

‘The first time I made love / Was on a Greek beach. At sunset / The girl ran off / Saying I was a useless shag’

John Crace
Sunday 22 January 2017 17.00 GMT


I went on holiday with my 10-year-old son
We stayed in a shitty hostel in the Alps.
It rained almost every day
And neither of us could think of anything much to say.
We stuck it out for a week and then
Decided to cut our losses and go home.
It was the best time we ever had together.

Love, Love

In a porn cinema, wheezing pensioners
Discrete, secrete, excrete.
This is as close to love
As any of us are likely to get.


I could hear stumps rubbing
The amputated man next door.
Upstairs the blood of disembowelled neighbours
Runs through runnels down the corridor.
The concierge grumbles and watches TV.
It would all have been different
If I had bought some furniture.
Maybe tomorrow. I add washing up liquid
To the list of things I’m not going to buy.
I know I’m human because I want to die.


My dad was a solitary and barbarous cunt
He always treated me like a rat you hunt.
The thought that I might outlive him
Caused him pain in his last days.
He bathed in his urine, incontinent
In both body and thought.
And then he died. Good riddance.

Absence of Limited Duration

If I write something down does it make it more real? If I write in what appears to be prose does it still count as poetry. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what I’m doing here. None of us is really. It’s all a bit of a waste of time. Filling in the long blanks before we die.
I pick up a book and wonder if I would have been able to solve Maxwell’s equations if I had been Maxwell. I suppose the answer must be yes because Maxwell was Maxwell and he did solve the equations. This ought to give me hope but somehow it makes me feel even more inadequate.

Variation 49: The Final Journey

The first time I made love
Was on a Greek beach. At sunset.
It sounds romantic but it wasn’t really.
My premature ejaculation rather spoiled things
And the girl, whose name I never knew,
Ran off, saying I was a useless shag.
When I got back to France I went to the hospital
Because I thought I had got a sexually transmitted disease.
I like hospitals. The stench, the terror, the tears.
It’s where life begins and ends.
On that occasion it turned out I didn’t have syphilis.
But sooner or later I will get a fatal disease.
Cancer probably. And then I won’t have to leave hospital. Good.

New Order

It was a starless night, the way I like it.
I had run out of butter so I went to the shops.
On my way I saw a Muslim standing alone on the pavement.
I asked him if he would blow me up in a suicide attack.
He stared blankly at me. There was no kindness in his eyes.
When I finally got to the Monoprix
I remembered it had shut down
Several months ago.

The Immaterials

The subtle, interstitial presence of God
Has long since disappeared.
With any luck, I will too.
And so will you.
We will be forgotten
At the bottom of a dark ocean
Our bodies gutted by fish.

The State of Me

My knees are crippled with arthritis
My stent is begging to fail
I feel a cancer growing inside my bowel
For I shit nothing but blood
Things are beginning to look up.
Digested read, digested: The end is in sight.