Interview: Les Murray’s Adventures in Lexiconia

Les Murray gave the Poetry Society’s Annual Lecture in 2010, taking the exquisite delights of word-collecting as his theme. Ahead of the Lecture, he spoke to Poetry Society Director Judith Palmer for Poetry News – an interview we publish here as the sad news of his death on 29 April 2019, aged 80, was announced
Les Murray. Photo: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.
Les Murray. Photo: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

“I’ve always been a word-finder, a word-catcher,” Les Murray says, rifling through the notebook he reserves for jotting down new words. “Do you know what a ‘ranga’ is? Everyone under about 30 in Australia knows that word. It’s a red head: comes from orang-utan. Let’s give you another one. A ‘puck’? That’s a semi-solid disk of used coffee-grounds in the filter basket of a coffee machine. A ‘pobbledonk’? That’s a scarlet-sided, large, robust frog from the swamps of New South Wales.”

His life-long fascination with word-collecting is the topic Murray will explore in this year’s Poetry Society Annual Lecture, ‘Infinite Anthology: Adventures in Lexiconia’, on Tuesday 11 May, at the University of London’s Beveridge Hall, Senate House. When it comes to derivations, Murray’s genetic origins lie in Scotland. His forebears settled in Australia in 1848, fleeing the poverty caused by the clearances, and Les takes delight in sharing a name with Sir James Murray (1837-1915), the Scottish lexicographer and philologist responsible for editing much of the first Oxford English Dictionary (at least, the sections A-D, H-K, O-P and T). The son of a tenant farmer, Les Murray was born in 1938 on the remote north coast of New South Wales, growing up an only child on the family dairy farm in the isolated Bunyah valley. His mother died haemorrhaging of a miscarriage when Les was twelve. With no school nearby, he educated himself bookwormishly at home while helping out fitfully on the farm: locking up the fowls, husking corn and turning the cream separator.

“We were right out in the country, all farmers, and the nearest middle class were forty miles away,” Murray tells me. “Scottish speech hung around here for four to five generations. We were isolated so there was no particular reason to change. I’d hear lots of words from the chippies – the carpenters – and other fellas, like “I’m feeling a bit ‘rippy’ today” (feeling a bit dangerous). But that language, when we went to town, we knew not to use it. If we did, it would be a puzzle for them. The middle classes would never hear those words.”

School, when it eventually came, was a place where both his body and his brain were immediately too sizeable to be overlooked, and Murray found himself attracting a daily barrage of new words. “That was the first place I learned the nicknames that are used to punish obesity, and the peculiar cultural rituals of townspeople vis-à-vis countryfolk,” Murray has said of his years of abusive schoolyard name-calling. The bullying was savage and scarring, and it left him in no doubt about the potency of language. In poetry, he discovered “there was somewhere to put these words, there was something you could do with them, they had an immense power and force that could be directed”.

In recent years Murray has found a new repository for his word hoard, and acts as a consultant to Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary. “A dictionary shouldn’t be based on written sources alone, but should include oral sources” he says. “The language my father spoke is all but out of sight.”

Murray’s word revelry is matched by his unquenchable delight in encyclopaedism. The title poem of his forthcoming collection, Taller When Prone (“because people are always taller when they lie down”), calls a fact “a small compact faith”, and gathers up such treats as the news that Donald Duck was once banned in Finland because he didn’t wear trousers.

A dazzling new poem ‘High-speed Bird’ describes a concussed kingfisher, which had flown full-tilt into a window-pane, scooped up in the poet’s palm, as “Slowly, a tincture / of whatever consciousness is / infused its tremor.” Raised Presbyterian, then converted to Roman Catholicism, Murray dedicates all his books “to the glory of God”. Indeed, no poet since Gerald Manley Hopkins has gloried in the natural world with such energetic inventiveness.

Murray admits that the impulse for writing a poem is often to get a neglected word into print; gems like “belly leggings”, “free-traders”, “jail tats”… Does it feel like scooping up that dazed kingfisher and watching it gain strength, I ask. He considers a moment, then says, “You can let them see that this bird exists and admire its feathers.”

Les Murray gave the Poetry Society Annual Lecture, Infinite Anthology: Adventures in Lexiconia, on 11 May 2010.

This article was first published in Poetry News, Spring 2010. © The Poetry Society.