1996 - Killing the Black Dog
Poet: Les Murray
Introduced and edited by Christine Alexander
Killing the Black Dog is based on a lecture delivered at New College, University of New South Wales, 1996.
THE NEW COLLEGE Lectureship Trust is most grateful to Les Murray and to Duffy and Snellgrove for permission to publish ‘The Black Dog Poems’.
The poems in this volume first appeared in the following publications: The People's Otherworld (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1983): ‘Midsummer Ice’ from ‘Three Poems in Memory of My Mother, Miriam Murray, née Arnall (1915–1951)’; The Weatherboard Cathedral (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1969): ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’;Dog Fox Field (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1990): ‘A Torturer's Apprenticeship’, ‘An Era’, ‘The Past Ever Present’;Adelaide Review, 1996: ‘Travels with John Hunter’; The Sydney Morning Herald, 1996, and theTimes Literary Supplement, 1997: ‘One Kneeling, One Looking Down’; and Subhuman Redneck Poems (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1996): ‘A Stage in Gentrification’, ‘Burning Want’, ‘Corniche’, ‘Demo’, ‘Memories of the Height-to-Weight Ratio’, ‘On Home Beaches’, ‘Performance’, ‘Rock Music’, ‘The Beneficiaries’, ‘The Head-Spider’, ‘Where Humans Can't Leave and Mustn't Complain’.
Christine Alexander - New College Lectureship Trust
THE ANNUAL New College Lectures seek to make a useful and significant contribution to Christian debate in Australian society. Since 1987, a series of distinguished lecturers from all walks of life have discussed their field of expertise in the light of their Christian beliefs and values. This is by no means the first time that Les Murray has entered such an arena. He has already made a remarkable contribution to poetry and to literary and artistic debate in general. His poetry has won numerous Australian awards, and the recent additions of the German-based Petrarch Prize (1995), and the prestigious British T.S. Eliot Prize (1996) are indicative of his growing international reputation.
Several of Les Murray's books are dedicated ‘To the glory of God’. His poems are a celebration of the diversity of nature and of human existence. He sees his writing as helping to define, in cultural and spiritual terms, what it means to be Australian. In an early autobiographical poem, ‘Evening Alone At Bunyah’, he evokes the rich context of his ‘spirit country’: the intersection of geographical place, vernacular language, literature, legend and religion that he explores in his poetry. ‘This country is my mind’, he says. It is a ‘country’ that helps to define our human identity.
As a nationalist and a republican, Murray has used what he calls ‘the instruments of poetry’ to wage war for the soul of Australia. This war can be seen as part of his crusade to support the voice of ordinary people against the cultural ‘mandarins’, the fictive and ideological constructions that would force the vernacular and the individual into a politically correct straitjacket manufactured by ‘this metropolitan century’. In ‘Killing the Black Dog’ and in the following poems, he both describes and demonstrates the struggle to identify and preserve his own soul against personal and public intimidation, the internal and external demons that he sees as having helped to mould his personality.
Leslie Allen Murray was an only child, born in 1938 at Nabiac, a village in the Manning River district on the north coast of New South Wales. He led a solitary rural childhood on his grandfather's dairy farm in the nearby Bunyah area until the death of his mother, Miriam (née Arnall), when he was twelve years old. The terrible memory of the circumstances of her death and the scars it left on the mind of the child and later adult are revealed in the following pages.
In 1957 Murray began an arts degree at Sydney University but he left in 1963 when, on the strength of his studies in modern languages, he became a translator of foreign scholarly material at the Australian National University. The year before this, he had married a fellow-student Valerie Morelli; and about this time, having long abandoned the Free Kirk Presbyterianism of his parents, he was converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1965 he published his first volume of poems, The Ilex Tree (written with Geoffrey Lehmann). When the volume won the Grace Leven Prize for poetry the same year, he made the first of his many overseas visits, travelling to the British Commonwealth Arts Festival at Cardiff. In 1967, he resigned his translator's job and lived with his wife and two small children in Europe for over a year.
On his return to Australia he resumed his studies and completed his degree in 1969. Since 1971 he has made his career as a full-time writer, aided by several editorial positions, book reviewing, prizes, literary grants and university writer-in-residencies. It is not an easy life: he and his family now live frugally in a fibro cottage on an old selector's block at Bunyah. His two eldest children live in Sydney, but his younger sons Alexander and Peter and his daughter Clare (whose evocative artwork graces the cover of this volume) are still at home. His rural life is far from retired: intense writing periods are punctuated by hectic lecture tours in Australia and abroad.
Murray's contribution to Australian writing is large. Apart from numerous book reviews and literary articles, he has been responsible for two anthologies,The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986) and the Collins-Dove Anthology of Australian Religious Verse(1986). He has published four selections of his prose pieces:The Peasant Mandarin (1978),Persistence in Folly (1984),Blocks and Tackles (1990), andThe Paperbark Tree (1992). It is chiefly on his volumes of poetry, however, that his enormous reputation rests. In addition toThe Ilex Tree (1965), these include The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969), Poems Against Economics (1972),Lunch & Counter Lunch (1974),Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (1976; repeatedly reprinted with new additions),Ethnic Radio (1977), The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980),Equanimities (1982), The People's Otherworld (1983), The Daylight Moon (1987), The Idyll Wheel (1989), Dog Fox Field(1990), Translations from the Natural World (1993), andSubhuman Redneck Poems(1996).
The diversity of Murray's poetry is astonishing. His themes range from the distrust of elites and the vicissitudes of literary fashion to a reverence for the Bush, a kinship with the dispossession of the Aboriginal, and ‘translations’ of animal ‘speech’. Yet his preference for rural life and values in no way negates the sophistication of his technique and literary allusion. He is equally at home with sonnet sequences and with free verse; he displays a sparkling array of ‘footwork and firework’. And such dexterity is never simply for show: all is harnessed to an urgent poetic vision of the worth of traditional Christian values.
Despite all the suffering articulated in ‘Killing the Black Dog’, these same values seep through Les Murray's poignant story to reaffirm his quiet faith in the value of human life, in the value of work and of family in the face of personal adversity. This essay marks the first occasion on which he has written so frankly in prose about his persistent depression and its relationship to his writing. It is both a courageous personal statement and a fascinating biographical insight into the workings of a poet's mind.