He’s not one to call much attention to himself or his achievements, but Les Murray is unarguably one of Australia’s greatest poets. Here, he tells us about just one of his many works, a book of verse called “On Bunyah”. On Bunyah tells the history of Les’ beloved home through the eyes of its residents – human and non-human – in a way that shares the colour and charm of the area.
Hi Les. Where were you born – and how much of your life have you spent in Bunyah?
I was born in Nabiac – in what was called a “Lying-in hospital” in those days, where women went to have their babies.
I grew up in Bunyah, but left when I was 18 to attend university. I came back to visit many times, but I moved back permanently when I was just short of being 50 years old – that was the last day of 1985. I moved up from Sydney.
What do you most love about Bunyah?
I guess it’s the overwhelming, simple, rich ordinariness of it. It’s utterly familiar – although it’s slowly developing over time, the way things do. I’m getting older, scenes change, roads acquire asphalt, but it never progresses too fast.
Development may not have been occurring very quickly, but what are some of the changes you have noticed?
Gradually, farming has disappeared. When I was little, people grew their own vegetables, largely, and there were a number of different kinds of farming in the area. Gradually it’s come down to if you’re farming at all, you’re raising horses or cattle, and a lot of people are going to work in town.
This started in the ‘60s, with a lot of people going to work in Forster or Tuncurry, for the fishing, and work from there spread out into the reachable towns like Taree. It was kind of the end of the pioneering era, into something that was half-urban.
The other major industry in Bunyah has always been timber – around a quarter of Bunyah is bush, State Forest, and there still is an amount of timberwork that goes on to this day.
How many years of history does your book of verse, On Bunyah, encompass?
About twice my lifetime! It starts in 1870, when settlement occurred.
How did you come up with the collection of poems you’ve used in the book?
A lot of the poems are ones I wrote in the past, over the years, and I condensed them and put them back together and caused a kind of narrative – that moves along by generation.
You realise when you’re reading them you’re in the generation of the thirties, or of the fifties, or the war era … Being a little kid during the great period of fear – when it was thought Japanese invasion was imminent – in 1942 – yet that fear was already fading in 1943. In 1945 came the unimaginable fact of the atomic bomb.
There’s another history of Bunyah written in prose – quite a good one, actually, that was written by a lady who wasn’t from the area. It’s from an outside perspective; whereas, I thought if I wrote my history of the area, in would be from an insider’s perspective …
When many people think of poetry, they automatically think of rhyming text. But your style is very unique … How would you describe it?
Mixed! It varies – I can shift from person to person and keep taking on fresh shapes.
I guess you can tell the movement of time in this book by the people getting older. Some of them are carrying the attitudes of the past, while others have just moved in and have new attitudes, so there’s mixing and developing as you go along.
The subjects you’ve covered with your poetry in this book are very diverse. They cover everything from broad beans to milk lorries to kangaroos!
(Laughs.) Kangaroos do make an appearance, at the entrance and the end of the book. Humans don’t even enter those scenes at all – at times I write poems completely outside the human range. I taught myself to write about non-human creatures – even about domestic creatures. There are poems in the book all from the point of view of cattle, or horses – because they’re part of the community too, and they’re also making a living for us.
When did you first start writing poetry?
When I was about 18. I was fairly unhappy at Taree High School, and I knew I wanted to do something artistic. I tried various things – I couldn’t paint, I never had much skill with music, but I was talking to the Sports Master about poetry, and he asked if I’d read any Australian poets.
I thought he meant poets like Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, but he started mentioning names I’d never heard of – like Judith Wright and Kenneth Slessor. So, I started to read their poems – and they were just what I was looking for.
The English Master also introduced me to people like Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English poet, which led to me seeing things at much more than an Australian level – it was a universal way of describing the very particular …
You’ve sourced old photos for your book, done a lot of research … What’s something interesting you can tell us about Bunyah?
Something no one can tell me … Why do we, in Bunyah, say “on Bunyah”? In any other district, you’d say you’re “in the district” or “at the district” or possibly even “around the district”. I don’t know why this is – it’s just always been the way of things. Here, we say we’re “on Bunyah”.
The history of the book does centre heavily on the Murray family – my great grandfather was a first settler here in 1870, although people had come and gone prior to this, including the Aboriginal people …
Hence, the title of the book, because you live “On Bunyah”! How can people source a copy of your work?
There aren’t many book shops around anymore, so it’s probably best to contact the publisher, Black Inc. [www.blackincbooks.com.au]
Note: Les has had over 30 books published; his poetry has been translated into over ten different languages, and he’s won prestigious literary awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1996.
Visit www.lesmurray.org for further info.