Tribute

In Praise of Les Murray

Quadrant‘s Literary Editor editor is stepping down after 28 years. As Clive James puts it, ‘One of the several reasons for admiring Les Murray so greatly was his range of tolerance for other poets who were not like him.’ But that is Les — one of a kind

Les Murray (left) has retired as Quadrant’s Literary Editor. He held the position from March 1990 until this issue.

We asked some of our writers if they would like to contribute their thoughts on Les’s tenure. Such is the esteem in which he is held that we were overwhelmed with responses. We printed eight of them in the January-February issue. Here they all are, in alphabetical order.

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Joe Dolce

I can think of no poet in the world with Les Murray’s range of sensibilities. He values language-based work (“Muse-wrestling”), ballads, religious writing, classical poetic structures and free verse. He is a language wizard. He cherishes the sound of poems, reading submissions out loud. He is fond of humour, an affinity he shares with Billy Collins.

I started playing music professionally in the early 1970s. Artistically, music will always be my first language. In 2017 I published On Murray’s Run, containing the 112 poems and twenty-nine song lyrics of mine that Les has published since 2008. This material has since grown by an additional twenty-eight poems and lyrics, requiring a revised edition. With his retirement, it now appears this particular “run” is complete.

I’ll focus on the songs he has selected, as this is the unique aspect of our literary friendship. Les has never heard the music to any of the lyrics he has picked. Not a single one. He has selected them solely by what he has seen on the page—as poetry. If there is such a thing as a blind submission, than, as far as these songs go, for a decade, I have been sending him deaf submissions.

He advised:

A poem that draws on country/blues/jazz/folk etc needs to be partly in those grooves and partly distant. In loving conflict with their habits of heart and mind. When you do that well, you are Zowie!

One difficulty I’ve had, as songwriter: once a lyric is written, to a catchy tune, it is near-impossible to be objective as to whether it stands autonomously, as a piece of literary writing, without music to buttress it. This is a problem for many songwriters.

There are mystical views of songcraft, writers often saying of their lyrics, “I don’t know where they came from” or “They came through me”. No one likes wrestling with the Muse. Part of that is, of course, true. But another important part of writing involves hard practical craft, discipline and workaday application. The bucking bronco may be wild, but staying on it is achievable by learnable skills.

Music creates ethereal cocoons around lyrics, infusing emotion and performance art into the fabric—each reinforcing the other. These kinds of poetic aids disappear once words are sitting there all alone on a piece of paper. Then, they either work, in solitude and silence, or they don’t. Les commented to me once, “I know how music can play hell with words, drown them …”

He has been extremely forthcoming with both compliments and sharp criticism, at an intense and a playfully confrontational level, more than most other editors and poets would be comfortable with. His letters and cards (he loves postcards!) are peppered with short, succulent commentary such as: “made me all misty with early childhood”, on a good one, or “too short, where you usually offend with over-length”, on a not-so-good one.

One of the great rejections of a haiku I sent him was:

Starts very well.

Dies away.

Clunk!

He could give lavish praise, but then sometimes I would receive, on a submission of two poems: “goodish in parts, but ends up trivial and exaggerated. And the [other one] is worse, oh so WORSE. Have a rest awhile, I beg.” Once, he jotted down: “Alas, you had better untie your Muse from that chair leg—she doesn’t like it, or you, temporarily.”

Even on poems Les felt unsuitable for Quadrant, he could still give encouragement. On a particularly risque limerick I sent him once, he commented that he couldn’t publish that kind of thing, but that it was “a classic and deserves to be in the relevant books”.

His turn-around time between receiving a submission and replying was an uncanny three weeks. Other editors in Australia give a three-month response time and, in the US, often six months or more.

Hearing Les was retiring, and having health challenges, was one of the reasons that I finally bit the bullet and made a demo recording of the songs he has published of mine, but has never heard. Years ago I told him I would do this, but kept procrastinating. I think I was afraid I might jinx the unique communications I had developed with him which had borne so much fruit. (See what I mean? That infernal mystical hokum keeps weaseling its way into the mind!)

By the time you read this, he and Valerie should have received a CD demo of the songs. Better later than never, because, as my dear departed old musical mentor, Dr Lou Gottlieb, once said, Tempus fidgit. 

Joe Dolce lives in Melbourne.

 

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Suzanne Edgar 

Recently the Weekend Australian magazine ran an article extolling Les, his life and work; what they forgot was his long service as literary editor of Quadrant. My subsequent letter pointed this out. Upon his retirement at eighty, I’d like to expand on that.

Vivian Smith had the job when I began writing for Quadrant in the early 1980s. He set the tone and the style: welcoming contributors, both the famous and the newcomers. Smith corresponded with his contributors! Very rare then and more so now. He would send a note (no e-mail then!) praising work he’d published and encouraging further submissions. Like Les, he is a fine poet himself.

When Les took over that role, working from home (with no computer other than his brilliant brain) in Bunyah, he took a similar approach, of nurture and appreciation. This has built many pen-friendships. He has also been extraordinarily patient, providing valuable and erudite advice where a submitted piece was not quite publishable. I know poets who have tried many times with a poem, persisting until Les agreed they had got the thing right. Once you were in his “stable” he was tolerant and loyal.

He has also been generous in praising good work. Many of us keep a treasured file containing responses from Les, often succinctly worded on a postcard. He worked fast and wasted no time. I once heard him say that he knew from the feel of the first lines if a poem would work and he relied on that sharp perception to get through the huge wads of paper thumping onto his desk. “I’ve taken four of these for printing” were the golden words of acceptance on one’s lucky days. Furthermore, also unheard of in Australia, these responses were prompt, often arriving about two weeks from submission!

Of course we all loved him for these qualities: whenever Les descended to Canberra to read at one of the venues (they would be packed out) run by Geoff Page, those of us who were fond of the man from Bunyah would gather for lunch.

I have many fine poetry anthologies but one I love perhaps the most, for the pure refreshment it offers, is one compiled when this polymath we’ve come to praise had finished a longish period of novel-writing. It is Les Murray’s A Return to Poetry: Ten Australians Choose Ten Favourite Poems (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998). Those who responded to Les’s eclectic invitation were: John Bell, Gay Bilson, Helen Garner, Robert Gray, Kate Jennings, Christopher Koch, Mary Kostakidis, Les himself, John Olsen, Peter Ryan. They indicate their editor’s range of reading and cultural awareness. He is no rural eremite.

The book opens with Kostakidis: “Poetry is the most exquisite form we use to record human thought, feeling and experience …” Within is a range of verse spanning many centuries. Les’s preface notes “an almost complete absence of several famous poets and one complete century, which might be an interesting indication of contemporary poetic tastes”. (No one chose poems by Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams!) Murray wanted to draw readers to poetry with “an original and accessible collection”. I suspect it has succeeded. There are eighteen poems in the book that I’ve triple-ticked. This is a collection I never tire of. Its editor is catholic in more than one sense! So go whinge to the publishers for a reprint and search every second-hand bookshop you know; like its editor, it’s invaluable. 

Suzanne Edgar lives in Canberra.

 

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Russell Erwin

Ah Les! Was there ever such a champion of the little voices? I recognise that my desire to have my poems published outweighed their literary merit but still Les took them and me seriously.

Was there ever an editor who wrote so considerately to his contributors; who recognised them as toilers, if not in the same furrow, then certainly in the same field; who would have work returned in record time and who by their active editorship encouraged and fostered them? Even his rejections were never dismissive—his pen might cut deeply but it was always instructive—“The poem begins here …” He would accept resubmissions. He would delight in a word or image or swing of rhythm and tell you so.

His generosity towards me I treasure, as I do his postcards. I owe him much. 

Russell Erwin lives in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. 

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Derek Fenton

A Fair Go 

There’s no need for a TMO 

when you send a poem to Les! 

Never a below the belt blow. 

There’s no need for a TMO 

for a postcard’s all he’ll show, 

no red or yellow from our Les. 

There’s no need for a TMO, 

just scrupulous fairness from Les!

When I first submitted a triolet to Les, he said that he was resistant to them, but eventually I produced one which was good enough and I ended up having a few published. I wonder how this one would have fared. Of course, I know that Les would never have taken anything about himself, but I would have loved to see the postcard he might have sent in reply! 

I wrote this rondeau about Les a number of years ago. It won a competition on the Eratosphere Poetry site in the States, but I never sent it to him. I sent it to Judith Beveridge at Meanjin. She said she enjoyed it, but added, “I also feel I probably shouldn’t publish it, I think best to avoid publishing poems about fellow poets—unless they are elegies.” 

 

Les Murray Reading at the Midland City Hall 

In Midland, he is on the prowl. 

A grizzly bear without the growl: 

wandering through a field of verse. 

Jolly shaman without a curse. 

Unflappable and kindly owl, 

 

he’s planting poems with a trowel, 

for us to peck at like a fowl, 

their sonorous seeds to disperse. 

In Midland. 

 

Scattering consonant and vowel; 

friendly face and jocular jowl, 

plucking wisdom out of a purse 

while questioning a universe 

that is, at once, both fair and foul. 

In Midland. 

There were a number of comments about Les and my poem including one by the judge Bruce Bennet (distinguished poet and reviewer in the New York Times and Harvard Review) who said, “In the interests of full disclosure, I will add at once that I am not very familiar with Les Murray or his poetry, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this little portrait. However, I can say why I like it, leaving it to others who know Les Murray and his work much better than I do to comment further.” 

Our own John Whitworth, whose book Writing Poetry helped me most with my writing, as did Les’s kind advice, obliged by saying, “Yeah, Les Murray is like that, or I think so. And dig those poems Mr Bennet.”

While Michael Cantor said, “My introduction to Les Murray was his wonderfully joyous biker poem, The Harleys, which somebody on the sphere steered me to when I posted my own biker poem, and it roared by and left mine in pieces by the side of the road. So, when I read a poem about Les Murray I think of The Harleys, and damned if the same thing doesn’t happen again. He’s a tough act to follow—or to write about.” 

Which one of us hasn’t felt the same!

When I sent my first poems to Les I said that submitting to him was rather like showing Ricky Ponting one of my cover drives. Above it, he just wrote, “Hah!” and suggested I try again and the best of luck. After polishing them up, some were accepted and it was one of the happiest days in my life. Learning that I can no longer submit to him in Bunyah was one of the saddest!

Derek Fenton lives in Perth.

 

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 Diana Figgis

What is the best metaphor to describe the duties of a literary editor? J.F. Archibald, editor of the Bulletin from 1880 to 1902, styled himself a literary cobbler, a patcher of pars, “a soler and heeler of paragraphs, making an occasional dab at the pot of paint”. Stephen Spender wrote that Cyril Connolly, founding editor of Horizon (1940 to 1950) “was like a cook, producing with each new number a new dish with a new flavour”.

A literary editor is a magpie; a prospecting miner on the lookout for a good “lode”; a fisherman wading through gallons of poetry and prose, patient but also expectant, since the bite can happen at any time. When reviewing books, Evelyn Waugh took a cautious approach to the excitement which that moment of discovery could engender: “Professional reviewers read so many bad books in the course of duty that they get an unhealthy craving for arresting phrases.” And Les Murray wrote a funny poem about that moment when “the magic word stands off the page”.

But sometimes that immediate burst of enthusiasm is fully justified. Henry Lawson’s “The Song of the Republic” so fired up J.F. Archibald that “he dashed up to the composing-room and submitted it for criticism”. The poem was published in the Bulletin in 1887, when Lawson was twenty. For the discovery of new, ground-breaking talent, Cyril Connolly wrote in the first issue of Horizon in February 1940: “all we can do is bait the trap, to provide a medium where the future Rimbaud will find payment, good company and a sympathetic public”.

What are the attributes of a good literary editor? In the early issues of Horizon, Connolly set down what he hoped to achieve with the new magazine. Quality in writing was not governed by subject matter or agenda. He made a commitment to publish all perspectives, provided the writing was good, and he wanted to spur authors to write on the subjects about which their feelings were deepest. “If literature is an art,” he wrote, “then a literary magazine should encourage the artists, whether they are Left or Right, known or unknown, old or young … Names mean nothing. Horizon is not to be judged by its names but by the quality of its contents …”

Archibald saw himself in a nurturing, parental role, “The Shadow on the Blind” of Will Ogilvie’s poem. He backed his writers, allowing them to work out their own special abilities, and he had a sure instinct for unearthing talent. These attributes drew admiration from those who worked with him and those whose work he published. In Bohemians of the Bulletin Norman Lindsay wrote: “A capacity to love the created works of others is a virtue given to few, and Archie had it in a supreme degree. All work of quality was treasure-trove to him.”

By the time Archibald brought A.G. Stephens on board as literary editor in 1896, the magazine was a going concern. But Stephens was a true disciple of Archibald, and when he died, Mary Gilmore wrote in her tribute that he was among those who were “a flame or a star in his own firmament”. Hugh Macrae wrote of him: “Stephens helped me up the difficult ladder by giving me chances I was unable to find anywhere else.”

Thus far, the literary editor in the judgment role, but what of their relationship with those by whom their selection will be judged, the readers? Connolly wrote: “We address Horizon to those who generously enjoy quality in writing, and ask them to help make us known.” Towards the end of his life, Archibald said: “You get what you give. Print pearls and they’ll shower you with jewels. Print tripe and you’ll get an avalanche of it!”

Archibald was at the Bulletin for twenty-two years, and Stephens for ten. They gave Australian writers a sense of belonging and a home-base; they helped to create a fellowship of the pen. Both men shared a tremendous capacity for hard work. Their skills were necessarily of a type involving the critical rather than the creative faculty.

For twenty-nine years, writers and readers of Quadrant have had the benefit of a literary editor who has successfully combined the grind that the work entails and its demands on the critical faculty, with a splendid and prolific creative output. How lucky we are that he has been so staunch. Like Archibald and Stephens before him, Les Murray has freed up the souls of other poets and writers, has given them the chance to bring their work before the community and to feel that they are making a contribution. For the encouragement I have been given by his endorsement of my work through publication, I am very thankful indeed. 

Diana Figgis lives in Sydney.

 

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Paul Greguric

When I first began submitting work to Les Murray the salutation on my cover letter was “Dear Mr Murray”. The rejection slip arrived, a customary three months later, with the salutation “Dear Mr Greguric”. After that I addressed the master as Les and I was quietly pleased that the great man addressed me as Paul. Very few magazine editors bother with more than a pro forma rejection slip, not to mention online submissions. I understand that literary editors are assiduous, and their desks piled high with manuscript. Hard-copy rejections are a slip of paper with the journal’s masthead and beneath in a font, “Dear”, followed by one’s handwritten name, then a return to pro forma, “unfortunately we have to decline the opportunity to publish your story”.

With Les there were two modes of existence for a submitted story. The first was, if one had worked diligently at the craft, below the Quadrant masthead was Les’s distinctive handwriting. If a story failed to work, he would tell you why. Now and then one would see the cherished, “a well written piece”. Though that would be followed by his reason for not taking the story. The second, happier, existence was an acceptance from Les that read as though you had sent him a living, breathing character inside the manila envelope. Les could respond, “Your main character is alive. I’ll take this one.” I learnt how the verisimilitude of fictive lives became integral to short fiction. I also learnt about readership. Les chose those short stories that were evocations and celebrations of characters in flux or at bursting point. And this when the fiction pages of the other journals seemed preoccupied elsewhere. I had long jaded of epiphanies and politically correct resolutions. For Les, a story indeed needed a good ending, especially a sting in tail. In these respects, much could be learned from him.

I had never met him but wanted to. I had been won over by his poetry. Over a decade ago I seized an opportunity. I went to hear him speak at the launch of his Collected Poems. For me it was a pilgrimage. At a dais in a room above a bookshop he faced what I describe as an ostensibly hostile audience. I ascertained this from the quasi ideological questions put to him and the guarded answers he gave. He seemed used to it. I had known that each year Les is earmarked for the Nobel Prize in literature. I wanted him to win it. It became one of the questions. He paused and steadied his gaze at the grand inquisitor. His response was a rhetorical, “Do you want to cover me in concrete?” At that time, I was naive to the literary presumption that winners of the prize rarely, if ever, produce a subsequent ne plus ultra. Is that what the audience wanted? Now I am glad that he has been passed over for the prize, for the time being that is.

Months ago, I was forced to put full-time writing aside to find more reliable paid work. My postman’s beat, street after street of housing commission terraces, left me exhausted. Later in the morning the two bookshops, in postie speak, one at number fifty-one, and one at number forty-nine (where I had first seen Les in person that evening years before), filled me with longing for a previous existence. One afternoon, as the rain pelted, I recalled that Les had written an essay on those destined to a writing life that by necessity was sustained by onerous non-literary work. I needed to read it again. At the State Library of NSW I requested what I thought was the book which contained the essay, On Bunyah, but on retrieving it from the shelf I realised my error. On Bunyah is of course Murray’s more recent poetry. To return it and order the correct book, A Working Forest, would take another day for the volume to be retrieved from storage. I found a quiet corner of the library and sat down. I was in no mood for poetry. I dipped into the pages at random. I read the evocative “When Two Percent Were Students” and continued, absorbed, poem after poem. That afternoon when the librarian announced that the library was closing in half an hour, a postman returned a book to the shelf and was reminded that life cannot exist, life as it is, people as they are, without poetry. 

Paul Greguric lives in Sydney.

 

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Dan Guenther

I first met Les Murray back in 1975 when he was living in Chatswood and I was teaching at Woolooware High School in Sutherland Shire. It happened that my headmaster at Woolooware High School, George Twogood, read Poetry Australia magazine and knew Les, who was the poetry editor.

George Twogood, a veteran and former prisoner of war in Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison, had been mentoring me in ancient history (I still have the copy of Ancient History, Book II, Romans, that he gave me). He also was intrigued that I had worked with a couple of SAS advisers serving with the Australian Training Team out of Da Nang, and, after reading several poems from my Vietnam journal, suggested that I contact Les. That initial contact with Les has led to forty-four years of shared letters and poems.

In 1976, when our first daughter, Ingrid, was born in Caringbah, I cooked up a big Texas barbecue, a Mexican-style meal where Les had his first taste of tacos. At that dinner Les suggested that I might find Wingham Brush, up along the Manning River, of interest, given my desire to learn about such remnant groves. I drew upon that first trip when describing Wingham Brush in detail in my novel Glossy Black Cockatoos (2009). In 2012, thirty-six years after that great barbecue, Les, Ingrid (now thirty-six) and I toured Wingham Brush once more to find there were still giant bats hiding in the upper canopy of those huge Moreton Bay Figs. 

Dan Guenther lives in Colorado, USA.

 

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 Dennis Haskell

Les Murray’s stepping down from the poetry editorship of Quadrant is a signal moment not only for the magazine but for Australian editing generally. Editors are amongst the unsung heroes of literature in every country, and Les Murray’s poetry editorship puts him amongst our great editors, such as Beatrice Davis at Angus & Robertson and, in poetry, Wendy Jenkins at Fremantle Press. It is a role he has performed for most of his literary life.

When I was a young poet, in the 1970s, I sent poems to various magazines, including the now defunct Poetry Australia. This fellow, Les A. Murray, was the Poetry Editor there, doing the job for Dr Grace Perry, who owned the magazine. It is an experience he has written about, thoughtfully and amusingly, in his essay, “Locum at Lyons Road: My Years at Poetry Australia”, first published in Quadrant in April 1983 and later collected in Persistence in Folly. One of the characteristics he claimed for Poetry Australia was “a refusal to be totally solemn”; it sounds like an autobiographical comment to me!

Later I became an editor myself, of Westerly, one of Australia’s oldest literary magazines, but I began there as Poetry Editor, working together with Hilary Fraser. Remembering my own experience—of knowing no one in the literary world and sending poems off into the void—I tried to write suggestions and encouraging comments on poems that came in and had merits but weren’t quite ready to be published. Peter Cowan, who edited the short stories and was a much more experienced editor, told me I was mad. “Just send the rejection slip,” he advised. I soon came to see why. The thanks were few, and when they came, usually came many years later when I met someone who was now established as a writer and remembered comments I had long forgotten. More often came bitter notes after poems were rejected saying, “A year ago you told me these would be published if I just made the changes”—a statement I resolutely never made.

It was a noble editorial practice but given the volume of poems received and the occasional bitter response, I eventually gave it up. In attempting it I was conscious of a model: the locum at Lyons Road. This was the only period in my life when I was more pleased to have poems rejected than accepted—because when rejected they invariably came back with neatly written comments down the margins. Les’s comments were always fascinating and I learned a lot from thinking about them. When he accepted poems they just went into the magazine and you got no comments!

I didn’t always agree with the comments but they always made me consider ideas and poetic techniques I hadn’t thought about enough. On one memorable occasion I sent a poem titled “Visiting Friends at Henley”, about visiting friends of my wife’s just after the man of the house had died. His presence was hauntingly everywhere, and it was an awkward experience. The poem includes the lines, “Something asks to be said / and we cannot say it”. Les suggested omitting these lines since, “If you can’t say it, you can’t say it”. (I can’t remember his exact words.) I replied that I did have something to say, namely that I couldn’t say it. Les immediately accepted the poem.

I mention this to show that there was nothing arrogant or self-aggrandising in Les Murray’s editorship; it was genuinely encouraging and you knew that here was an editor who had thought deeply about your work and really cared about the art form.

I later met Les in person—I can’t remember where or when—and we became friends. It didn’t change his reading of my poems; when I’ve sent them to Quadrant I’ve still received the same direct and honest response, whether critical or favourable. He has sometimes surprised me with the poems accepted and the poems rejected—but I do know that he likes poems with a dash of humour!

Les’s editing career began when he was a student at Sydney University and has continued, almost without a break, until now. He was Poetry Editor at Angus & Robertson when I first sent in a book-length manuscript. He had frankness and wisdom to offer then too, which led me to work on the manuscript for another year, and it then became my first book, Listening at Night. I remember his saying that he read through a manuscript, then closed it and asked himself what had stayed in his head. If there were insufficient memorable images, insufficient memorable lines or whole poems, he rejected it. This is as good a test as I’ve ever known.

I will be forever grateful for the sharp diagnoses I received from the locum at Lyons Road and the steering that his quadrant has enabled. 

Dennis Haskell lives in Perth. 

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Graham Hetherington

In my knock-about, somewhat dislocated life, the arrival of a Quadrant containing poetry of mine in England, Greece, Czech Republic or Malta, and now again in Tasmania, has been of the utmost importance in confirming my often shaky sense of identity as a poet, not an easy thing for a male to admit to in backwards, Van Diemen’s Land-shadowed Tasmania in the last century. Quadrant provided a much-needed sanction for such an activity in my particular case, and I well remember just after taking the risk of resigning from academia in Hobart to devote myself full-time to poetry receiving in early 1990 a note from Les Murray accepting some poems and saying he’d taken over the blue pencil from Vivian Smith. It seemed a good omen and helped me to get off to a productive start in my new role.

But my relationship with this hardest yet fairest of all the poetry editors I’ve experienced began earlier than that. In 1971 James McAuley had got me off the mark with a poem published in Quadrant, in which issue Les Murray also had one. As someone coming to grips with the problem of low self-esteem arising out of my bottom-of-the-heap West Coast of Tasmania convict-based origins, which a socially up-market boarding school secondary education had done everything to complicate and little to diminish, I felt honoured and grew in confidence to be in such company.

Not that I have ever met Les Murray in the flesh, a fact which I believe has been of incalculable value in my development as a poet. The inter-personal has hardly, if ever, intruded in this relationship of poet to editor, has not clouded and muddied an objective assessment. Merit was all to Les Murray. Poetry was above all other considerations.

In the twenty-eight years that I’ve been the recipient of them, returned poems have always been accompanied by a succinct, blow-softening note justifying the refusal. One read “Alas! Congested, all of these”, as though in imitation of my octo-syllabic line. I should also say that seven times out of ten, after the initial hurt had subsided, I came to agree with the reason given and would successfully revise in the light of it, converting rejection into a positive.

Even so, a poet still needs to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his sacred outpouring from the purest part of his aspirational self gains the nod of approval, or not, for the purest possible reason: its achievement of transcendental, aesthetic worth in the first case, and its demonstrable failure of falling short in the second. The sensing of this guarantee in the unwritten contract between poet and editor is reinforced if there is no personalised connection. Hence the value I have placed on the remote, abstract, bordering-on-the-anonymous nature of the relationship I’ve had with Les Murray. Insofar as it’s possible, corruption in the filtering process of assessment has been guarded against. I feel that he too, as guardian of the sacred flame of poetry, is aware of this, that he has understood that whereas all else is to a greater or lesser degree corrupt, poetry is a sacrosanct activity calling on the better aspects of our flawed, limited human natures. In an age when corruption seems to have taken hold everywhere, poetry as a bastion of the pure impulse to create and give order to chaos has never been more important, the ideal more in need of protection.

Les Murray did though, in one major and revealing way, step down from the heights of Parnassus in his rejection notes, and this was in his famed use of the word “alas!” It struck a note of sorrow that on this occasion the poems had been found wanting. I heard it as a priestly tone of solemnity, of high seriousness, and as its recipient often enough for it to have mattered, I will conclude this tribute with my poem honouring and complimenting him on his disinterested editing of my poetry submissions:

 

Alas!

A self-obsessed poet, the worst

By far I’m called upon to bear

Is editors refusing work,

And having waited weeks to hear

 

I test the ssae for

A telling thickness, lose control

And tear it open to confirm.

Not only fingers tremble as

 

The formally polite “no” leaps

To eyes clouding as next they search

The pages, their white freshness gone

From handling, for a sign of care

 

Such as “Alas! I find these lack—”

Until perhaps agreeing, I

Revise, send out, risk once more what

Feels like a slap across the face.

 

Graham Hetherington lives in Hobart.

 

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 Clive James

One of the several reasons for admiring Les Murray so greatly was his range of tolerance for other poets who were not like him. If only Yeats, for example, had had the same virtue, Wlifred Owen and all the other First World War poets would not have been left out of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. As things were, Yeats’s eccentric editing managed to distort modern literary history almost as much as his poetry enhanced it. 

As an editor, Les Murray had no such baleful effect. His standards were high but comprehensive, and therefore comprehending. Future literary historians will look back with amazement at a time when some other Australian periodicals were rewarded with large grants while proclaiming their intolerance of poets who might disagree with their cherished political line; or, even more reprehensible, had already disagreed with it. Meanwhile Quadrant was deliberately starved of such funds, a political initiative perhaps partly aimed at reducing its poetry editor to the condition of Count Ugolino in his punishment cell.

A million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I was there to watch when Les Murray erupted into the Australian literary scene. There were no excuses for failing to see straight away that he was a creative prodigy. But that he was also a curative genius took time to emerge, and it will probably take even more time for a consensus to be reached on quite how he did it. One of the reasons was that he loved poetry almost as much as it loved him. 

Clive James lives in Cambridge, UK.

 

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Christoph Keller

I met Les in 1999 in Frauenfeld, Switzerland, when he was reading at a poetry festival. Here he was, the most dignified, compassionate, sharpest and funniest poet of the other (but shouldn’t all poets be poets of the other?)—the most human of them all—the sayer of what’s right in this unjust world where you get sacked for being different (or, more likely, not hired to begin with)—who had just written the novel-in-verse Fredy Neptune about a twentieth-century working-class-hero Ulysses. Shocked into disability by the sight of kerosene-drenched, set-afire-alive Armenian women forced into dancing by laughing Turks (“These eyes of mine— / How shall I dig the eyes out, how shall I, how?” from Siamanto’s epigraph to Fredy Neptune), Fredy develops superpowers that are questionable as superpowers are: he stops feeling pain (his “numb talent”) and develops superhuman strength, bending iron and lifting freight cars. So there I was, drinking a glass of milk with Fredy’s creator (Les later denied that was all he was drinking). Then, just as weight-defying as his creation, he carried me on his back up the heavy stairs to where he was giving his reading. And what a reading he gave, impersonating his poems, a little breathless, I thought, because of me, having just carried me up a flight of disabling stairs.

Ever since, when he’s in New York, we eat sweetbread together (he did, I had pork chops), go for (very short) city walks, pee in robber baron mansions (I used the bathroom). Les travels a lot, I not so much any more. Les is the bravest of men, with so many ailments, health problems, disabilities that he writes about—just for me, I imagine, when I’m reading you, dear faraway friend.  

Christoph Keller lives in New York, USA.

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Philippa Martyr

At the end of 2007, I was at one of my lowest ebbs. I wish I could say it was my lowest ebb, but I can’t for sure, although it seemed pretty bad at the time. I was homeless, jobless, sick, exhausted, broke and barely surviving. Unable to work and on welfare, I was—for the first time in my life—also largely unable to write. For someone who had earned a living by writing, and who had always been certain of the written word when all else failed, this was a strange new universe.

In the beginning was the Song. I had sung a lot in preceding years, and songs and music still made sense to me. The next stage down into language from song is poetry. So I dug out my old poetry, which I’d been writing since I was a child, and began to rework it. I also found that I was capable of writing new poems, so it was with a sense of having nothing to lose that I sent some of them to Quadrant, based on a few successes years earlier.

Les Murray replied, and while he rejected most of them, he gave me good feedback and encouraged me to write more. He accepted and published “Witch Hunt” and “Spirit Level” (April 2008)—and I got paid for them, which was nectar to someone barely holding it together. I bought a cheap electric keyboard with the money, and while I didn’t end up keeping it, for the time that I had it I knew it was there, and I could and did make music if I wanted to.

In all, while I was finding my written voice again, Les published fifteen of my poems in Quadrant between April 2008 and September 2012. I dedicated one of them, “Sea Shanty”, to him, because he was captaining a rickety ship that was piloting me into better times. Every time I sent him poems, I got a lovely letter with good feedback and plain human kindness, both of which meant more to me than I can express.

I got my health back, got a job, bought a house, and pulled myself up back to solvency and normality with a lot of help from people who still don’t realise just how much they helped me, including Les. I still write poetry, but not as much, and mostly religious. But I still send Les Murray Christmas cards, especially if I can find one with a suitably religious picture and glitter on it.  

Philippa Martyr lives in Perth.

 

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David Mason

I came late to Les Murray as editor, but am glad I came. Like most people, I knew him first as a marvellous poet. Emphasis on marvel. A poet for whom creation and diction resonate together. His “Infinite Anthology” toys with definitions, lauding “Single-Word poets” who “hope to be published and credited in the Great Book of Anon, the dictionary”. A provincial American with a crooked career path, I was always drawn to writers who worked in the local and hewed fresh verbal shapes from it, yet were able by some alchemy to be read internationally. Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney meant the world to me for making the remoteness of their origins seem intimately human, and Les became a figure of like importance—refashioning English with rigour and abandon. His idiom is like a fingerprint, utterly his own. You can see the antecedents—from Bush Poets to highfalutin figures as varied as Auden and Joyce—and critics often want to make him a representative Australian. But Les is sui generis. It was the experience of reading him that made me want to write for him as well.

Many disastrous fates can befall a writer. One of them is to be thought representative of a group—any kind of group—pegged to an identity one always seeks to escape into the free fields of language. That may partly explain the restlessness of Les Murray’s poetry—its range of forms and tones, polish and roughness, high and low culture. The only consistencies I see are devotions—to creation and to words: “Individual words, with their trains of definition loosening around them, allow us to visit the oracular and sense its renewing dance.” That’s from “Infinite Anthology” again, a poem that borrows its form from the dictionary. Attention to the oracular nature of words, their mysteries and metaphorical associations, may be the very trait that drives a poet. It’s certainly not political opinions, since great poets have come from nearly every political persuasion, but something that animates the whole person and recalls us to life.

Writing for Les, or trying to write for him, requires the repair and maintenance of my own bullshit detector, which is frankly not always operational. It’s like a chainsaw, requiring frequent sharpening, constant lubrication and practised usage. One wants first of all to be writing about something significant. So I wrote prose on figures of global importance—all of whom were vital lovers of words. These have included Michel de Montaigne, Pablo Neruda, Richard Wilbur and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Among them, only Wilbur had a conventional academic career, but his experience of war, mental illness and the drama of theatre people made him an atypical academic. Les Murray’s position outside the academy has saved him from a lot of group-think. It keeps a writer focused on that broader sense of readership and audience. It’s not populism, unless populism can be reattached to rigour and honesty. It honours readers. I always knew Les would tell me if he thought I wasn’t writing my best, which meant expecting a reader as rigorous as he.

When sending him poems, the same rules applied, and I knew I could expect the same honest responses if he thought I was slacking off. While the essay-review must acknowledge a world outside the academy, the poem must likewise apprehend what it fails to express. “Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words,” Les reminds us in “Poetry and Religion”, “and nothing’s true that figures in words only.” If poetry could be a pure verbal game, it wouldn’t interest Les Murray any more than a poem of mere sincerity. Whether the poem is small or large, one’s entire sense of reality is at stake every time one writes. And reality means people other than oneself. Les Murray’s poetry is populated with voices and characters and stories, and is one of the inspirations for my own efforts to explore a like variety. Putting a poem in the mail to Les meant wanting to engage him, to entertain him, and exalt the world—by which I mean creation, not “society”.

His poem “The Meaning of Existence” puts all human claims in a useful perspective:

Everything except language

knows the meaning of existence.

trees, plants, rivers, time

know nothing else. They express it

moment by moment as the universe.

 

Even this fool of a body

lives it in part, and would

have full dignity within it

but for the ignorant freedom

of my talking mind.

It’s minor Murray—more discursive than embodied—but it gets at the heart of his poetic, a mature metaphysics that is also a physics, the sort of thing we mean by words like nature. The poem teaches me about my own reasons for writing, much like a reader’s nearly-helpless desire to know the world, to touch reality in some way before the final curtain is drawn. 

David Mason lives near Hobart.

 

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J.R. McRae

Les Murray’s impact on Australian literature has had a reach wide as the horizon—our most acknowledged poet internationally, essayist, anthologist, critic and a presence to be reckoned with. However, on a personal level, his impact on me, and on my continuing to write, has been incalculable!

The wonderful thing about Les was his communication. Not just as a landmark literary figure but as one human being to another. Most poetry editors (well, editors of any sort really) either don’t bother to get back to you at all, or send you a rejection slip—very impersonal. Not Les—he did not accept all my submissions but he responded to every single one. If rejected, a note and comments accompanied the returned material. No one else has ever given that very personal touch. It meant a great deal to a fledgling poet.

It was when I saw the documentary The Daylight Moon that I realised my right-brain mode of writing was not something at best odd, at worst peculiar, but something I shared with my literary hero. I felt my penchant for writing was validated! That documentary on Les opened up previously unimagined vistas for me. I was no longer just some strange aberration in a sports-mad family. Les had blazed a trail I could follow, and I did.

In 2007, I posted a poem to Quadrant. Finally, I had plucked up the courage to submit a poem to Les himself. Les actually wrote back to me! I still have his reply. He wanted some edits done, all reasoned, and we corresponded till the poem, “Alang—The Graveyard of Ships” was in printable shape. Les also included that first accepted poem in his magnificent anthology, The Quadrant Book of Poetry, 2001–2010.

Since then, I have garnered international awards for my poetry and prose, including, most recently, in India and the USA. Four of my poems have been included in its collection by the National War Memorial. My own poetry collection, Blood and Other Essentials, comes out soon.

Someone of the literary stature of Les Murray could have sat squarely on his laurels and looked askance at a younger poet struggling with issues of self-confidence. The fact that he took the time to be bothered, to communicate and, by doing so, greatly encourage another is a measure of the greatness of the man.

J.R. McRae lives in Brisbane.

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Patrick Morgan

No other contemporary Australian magazine had a literary editor of Les Murray’s calibre. I enjoyed most of the poetry he selected, there in clear view in each issue. Its lack of obscurity did not imply lack of profundity, on the contrary. He encouraged the careers of aspiring poets not favoured by cultural gatekeepers.

But my dealings with Les were not on poetry, but on literary articles and book reviews. In March 1992, a year or two after becoming literary editor, Les Murray explained in a letter his guiding philosophy:

I share your preference for cultural articles over lit. crit, I won’t have books of criticism reviewed at all, in fact: that’s a tedious, infinite regress to get into. I do get good poetry reviewed by good people, so far as good people can be induced to write criticism at all, but most Oz novels, especially, simply aren’t worth reviewing. They’re just hyped rubbish written for the approval of Left theorists.

From then on he corresponded exclusively by postcard, never by letter, phone or e-mail. Postcards enabled him to conduct business with concision and despatch. Many finished with a brief personal reflection not related to the matter at hand, such as: “May you be spared fire and snow alike!” Almost all the postcards depicted scenes from overseas places he must have visited, but all were posted from Bunyah. In 1998 he wrote of his recent trip to Europe: “I read in beautiful Maastricht and I saw Charlemagne in Aachen. Or his gold coffin anyway.” I have, fortunately, retained these postcards because I used them as bookmarks in volumes of his poetry. 

When I sent him a book on regional history, he replied he hoped the reviewer would be “someone who doesn’t despise the rural poor in the fashionable way”. Of one book by a soldier I reviewed in Quadrant he wrote, revealing his bower-bird scavenging habits: “I got a stanza in a poem out of his story.” On an article on Lawson he responded with a query favourable to Lawson: “Has the declarative proved much superior to the laconic, these past 40 or 50 years?” His wide-ranging knowledge was evident in his response to an article on Bogong Jack, whose name was John Paynter: “Warren Fahey reckons ‘Jack the Painter’ was [in Australia folklore] a tea-drinker who made beards and teeth brown!” On bushrangers he noted “the total transmogrification which once-famous villains often undergo”. Of a famous overseas poet and editor he commented: “I’ll give him this, he lies finely, not coarsely like so many in his camp. My friend by mouth, my enemy by writ.”

In 2005 he readily agreed to read and talk at a monthly discussion group Ray Evans and I ran at Melbourne’s Savage Club, where (he added): “I once read on a day so hot that gentlemen had been permitted to remove their jackets at the pudding stage of luncheon.” On a book of Australian poetry he noted that Quadrant “might find it a tough call to get a reviewer: we have few enough reviewers, given the likely cost to the careers of appearing in Q”. Of Czeslaw Milocz he wrote: “A gloomy bird, snobbish in the cultured European way … he concedes too much to modernist thought, which is so often little more than fashion enforced by the threat of social relegation.” In 2002 he wrote inter alia: “Ted Watt is a find, isn’t he? He sent me his piece to me all unsolicited. I love it when they do that and the piece is such a beauty. Write me something!” His wife Valerie, a literary figure in her own right, produced occasional essays for Quadrant, which he mentioned in one postcard.

The only other dealings I had with Les in his capacity as a Quadrant editor were when the magazine’s editorial policy was allegedly diverting from its stated raison d’être. Les was one of those, including Ray Evans, Hal Colebatch, Peter Coleman, Heinz Arndt and Chris Koch, who after some fraught proceedings were able to finally bring the matter to a successful resolution, with Padraig McGuinness as the new editor who revived and enhanced the magazine. Paddy shared with Les an encyclopaedic grasp of things, and a generous, outgoing spirit. Both were initially outsiders whose talents propelled them into the mainstream: persistence in folly often brings wisdom. As editors both were able to pursue an organising process through disparate areas of interest (like a magnet lining up iron filings), and as a result were able to produce distilled commentary with an enviable fluidity. Both were focused libertarians, a rare and pleasing combination. 

Patrick Morgan lives in Gippsland.

 

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Penelope Nelson

A couple of stories, a poem or two, a few reviews … I was not a major contributor.

Happily for me, Les Murray accepted nearly all my contributions. I do remember one rejected short story. It featured a recently separated single father who was slapping Polyfilla on a wall. This self-absorbed amateur handyman did not appeal to Les, who accused me of liking the guy less than I thought I did. I’ll be the judge of that, I felt.

Postcards with acceptances far outnumbered that rejection. Oh, the delight of a slim cheery postcard instead of a thick self-addressed envelope. To quote from a few:

Dear Penny,
Perfect! The review you’ve done of Geoff [Page]’s 1953 is exemplary. I had to smile: I’m an only child & poor at human relations, as the world may know, so I saw Page’s book as a series of individuals, while you, as a social being not in the least autistic, went for & clearly comprehended the interpersonal realms it contained … 

Dear Penny,
I can’t recall our ever publishing a villanelle in Qdt—not in my times anyhow. Thanks for Double Rainbow … 

Dear Penny,
Welcome to you after your longish silence! I’ll take Foreclosure Creek, not least because I take joy in the title, one of the best we’ve received …

When he accepted something, he didn’t change a word.

That makes Les Murray a dream editor.                                                                                 

Penelope Nelson lives in Sydney.

 

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Sean O’Leary

I sent my first submission to Quadrant in 2013 and somehow, as luck would have it, it got accepted. I had posted my story inside a white A4 envelope along with a stamped self-addressed envelope attached with a paperclip to my submission and cover letter. The SSAE came back with my cover letter and at the bottom was scrawled in black pen. I’ll take this for Quadrant, Thank you, Les Murray. I was thrilled to be accepted and then I thought, this is bloody cool, Les Murray has just sent me a note. And then I thought but when are they going to publish it. Usually with these things they let you know what issue and when. Quadrant and Les Murray did things differently it seemed.

I waited. I waited some more. Then I got an e-mail from George Thomas, asking me to send him a copy of the story by e-mail, and he let me know when it was going to be published. And when I got my copy, along with my cheque, I saw that I was published alongside Alan Gould, a Miles Franklin winner. And after that Quadrant was always first on my list. I always sent my best work to Quadrant, still do, and I was to learn that a Les Murray rejection could teach you just as much as an acceptance.

I had a bit of a golden run with submissions to Quadrant after that. Several of my stories got published. Then I got a story titled “Somebody” published but there was a warning from Les Murray at the bottom of the acceptance. You’ve done it again! & smuggled one of your frontier drifters into Quadrant as a short story. Cheers, but differentiate your hero soon, Les M. I did as I was told and I sent a sci-fi story into Quadrant and it was accepted and he wrote, it’s a fresh approach on your part, showing a nice versatility. Never mentioning that he was the one who had told me to change it up.

I had a few more successes and some failures and he wrote, a formula is starting to show in your work, alas. LM. I have to say that the comment hit me quite hard and that was its purpose. I knew that I had to change again, to start writing different kinds of stories. I had a couple more rejections and in one I got a note saying, No Peripeteia, to use the Greek term. What the hell is that, I thought? I looked it up. Peripeteia is the turning point. The term is primarily used with reference to literature. Again, I learned something and I write a lot of crime fiction these days, not necessarily sent to Quadrant, and I find that I’m always asking myself, what is the turning point?

I had a succession of other failures but Les Murray always managed to say something positive before giving me a slap. For instance, The Journalist was very well written and convincing, but too little happened in it. Because I was writing so many short stories for Quadrant I managed to cobble together a short story collection called Walking. A lot of the stories first appeared in Quadrant and I’m sure it gave the collection some cachet when it was being considered by the publisher.

Just recently I had breakfast with another writer who had recently had his first short story published in Quadrant and I had to laugh because he had gone through the same thing that I had. A scrawled note from Les saying, I’ll take this for Q. But this writer hadn’t left his e-mail address and was left in a state of unknowing until he asked me what usually happened. He e-mailed George Thomas and all was solved. I told him about all the notes that Les Murray had left at the bottom of my submissions. One of the more recent notes was about a crime fiction short story and he wrote in that familiar scrawl, not bad, but the effect is TV in the end—nothing new. Les. Ouch. But my friend said, “That’s great, you should keep it.” And, of course, I did. I kept all the notes that he wrote to me.

As a struggling writer, Les’s guidance has meant the world to me. 

Sean O’Leary lives in Melbourne.

 

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Nana Ollerenshaw

I “knew” Les Murray from his reputation as Australia’s renowned national poet. I “knew” him from a brief encounter at a Brisbane Poetry Festival. I “knew” him from two readings of Peter Alexander’s biography A Life in Progress. I “knew” him from a few of his poems I savoured. But I knew Les eventually, and most of all, from his postcards, his signature of acceptance into Quadrant.

Here was a congenial, seemingly ordinary man, prepared to comment on the daily ups and downs of life. And whatever the downs, he was cheerful and light-hearted. And aware of you.

His main interest, however, lay in helping achieve the best from you. He read your work carefully, pointing out weakness. Ready to give up on “Snapshot”, my character portrait, he persuaded me to revise it one more time. And afterwards, I could see the difference.

Les never let outside factors like class, connections or past success interfere with his judgment. Apolitical and unpretentious, he respected the individual.

He wrote in one of my articles dealing with a slightly frowned-upon author, “I’d love to publish it in Quadrant and to Hell with snob mutterings about [his] being ‘light weight’.” And he did—using merit as his yardstick.

Les was a catalyst for me. He helped me sharpen, reconsider my words. Almost as important, he gave me an opportunity and a platform to display my poems. So they could find a reader. As he did for so many other writers.

I am privileged and lucky to have “known” him. 

Nana Ollerenshaw lives in south-east Queensland.

 

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Jan Owen 

There are many good poetry editors but far fewer inspired and inspiring ones, and Les Murray heads my list.

I met Les first when he was the poetry reader for Angus & Robertson. I still remember the heartening comments from his report on my first manuscript; I read and reread them for days. So once Les became poetry editor for Quadrant I started sending in. What a welcoming response, not just a yes or no, but detailed reactions and canny suggestions. I’ve learnt so much from Les as editor, critic, mentor and friend—from advice on specific poems and lines of mine, from his own extraordinary poetry, and also from reading the poems he chose for each issue of Quadrant. His selections have drawn from all points of the compass: established poets and new voices meeting, and all verse forms mingling democratically. The range of topics and viewpoints over these thirty years has been invigorating: work that is edgy, hard-hitting, fresh and apparently spontaneous, finely crafted, engaging, surprising, often downright funny. Being accessible even when complex or difficult, I believe his choices have widened the audience for poetry. Les wrote in one of his essays that poetry moves as a dance, and the poems interlaced through the journal on any given month do seem to be in step, dancing the patterns of mind whether gracefully or idiosyncratically.

Les has been as generous in his editing as in his writing, taking the time to consider a poem at length, or sometimes, perhaps, sensing a strength or finding a flaw straight off. I wonder how many Quadrant poems have benefited from his attentive reading; certainly many of mine did. You learnt a lot from his clear explanation of why a certain poem was not taken, so you didn’t feel rejected even when it was “Sorry, not this time.” With those that passed muster, Les might point out a blurred patch, query an imprecise word, correct a rare misspelling (Oh mortification!) or compliment an accurate run of windswept Hungarian accents (Oh joy!). When suggesting a cut or demurring at an evasion, he could combine tact with firmness. He felt when a line was out of true. “You can’t po a lie.” With positive criticism like this, you became more aware of pace and optimum length, of the need for concision and clarity and of how assurance and tone then pick up. The desire to write a poem should not show in the poem, as someone said, and Les was a fine exemplar and monitor of this.

Les took a genuine interest in the person behind the poem. Like many others, I have a hoard of conversational postcards from him—the sum total of his amusingly eclectic cards round Australia and the world would make a bizarre and beautiful postcard library. What a friendly and disarming way to announce an editorial decision! He once sent me a stegosaurus to stamp out an errant comma, and another time, a poem was returned with an annotation, a plea in Italian from Gino’s shopping trolley: fammelo brillare. What a nice way to suggest a poem is a little dull. Once polished, the trolley was accepted. Les believed in the potential of the second chance.

I wish I had a record of our phone conversations, quick queries that somehow expanded into unpredictable yarns rife with curious facts, esoteric words and useful tips. And his support was often unexpected and opportune: how many editors would make your work known to international journal editors or send you a list of overseas contacts for a reading tour, or recommend you to an English publisher, as Les did for me? Once, he took the trouble to go over a whole manuscript with me, swiftly and unerringly, as we sat in a Forster pub with closing time looming. It was another boost to my confidence when he began accepting my Baudelaire translations for Quadrant, and then later gave me an enthusiastic comment for promotion to a publisher.

Les Murray, I owe you such a debt of gratitude! You have shone as an editor for a whole generation of Quadrant readers and writers; you have served us all well by serving poetry so devotedly and so brilliantly. 

Jan Owen lives in Adelaide.

 

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Geoff Page

Les Murray, from quite early in his career, has been a controversial figure in Australian poetry—mainly without seeking to be. His extreme talent was recognised early and resented in some quarters simply for that reason. As poetry editor successively for Poetry Australia and Quadrant and as poetry adviser for Angus & Robertson and Heinemann in the 1980s and 1990s, he no doubt supported a relatively conservative aesthetic while remaining open to “experiment”. Unlike quite a few other editors, he did not dismiss names to which no reputation had yet attached itself. A number of younger or emerging poets owe him quite a debt in this regard—as do hundreds of others who have long since “emerged”.

His long tenure as literary editor at Quadrant has, of course, identified Murray with the political “Right” but his public statements (very few these days) and his editorial tastes have shown no particular bias (other than a refusal, in principle, to publish poems favouring things he’s opposed to, such as abortion).

Unfortunately, the bulk of poetry submitted to him has probably been less various and accomplished than might have been the case had not many mainstream poets, understandably but sadly, been reluctant to be associated, as if by dangerous osmosis, with the disagreeably conservative articles that would inevitably appear beside their poems. To some extent this was offset by Murray’s ability to attract work from substantial poets overseas, but it has still been a pity.

It’s important also to remember that Murray’s politics, both within poetry and more generally, haven’t always aligned with those of his sponsors. He’s been no great fan of the monarchy, for instance (despite his Queen’s Medal for Poetry) nor of the imperial aspect of our participation in the First World War. He must also well remember being singed by John Howard’s heavy-handed interference with the constitutional preamble he was invited to write. His attitude towards Aboriginal people and their long history has also been much more positive than many Quadrant essayists over time.

Murray was the last poetry editor in Australia who would accept submissions only by post and reply via the stamped addressed envelope you had enclosed. His generous, though sometimes biting, handwritten comments beside poems he’d rejected were often very useful. It was certainly a more enjoyable, if slightly more expensive, process than the wrestle with Submittable is these days.

And, finally, it’s worth noting that Murray’s new Collected Poems has been published by Black Inc, a left-of-centre publisher which also produces The Saturday Paper, the only print newspaper contesting the duopoly of Murdoch and Fairfax. Murray’s association with Black Inc happily reminds us that as both a poet and an editor he is not to be easily categorised.

It’s to be hoped that the presence of poetry and short stories in Quadrant, initiated many decades ago by James McAuley and continued honourably for almost three more by Les Murray, will survive and flourish into the future. 

Geoff Page lives in Canberra.

 

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Robyn Rowland

It was in the days of that iconic journal Poetry Australia; days when young poets could access the best of editorial response, and knew our own limits and that we were serving an apprenticeship. So we were willing to listen. In those days there was more time for editing and responding, fewer poets, and everything moved more slowly, by post! Great days! Les, you gave me a great deal from the first note you sent to me from that journal to the last with Quadrant. I kept your note to me in 1979 (it had been Grace Perry for me until then), a hand-written acceptance of my poem “Lament for Ethel Governor”, as you said you were “impressed” with it, but not so with its “less successful” “Ballad for Jimmy Governor”. As often happened, there’d be personal note too, and in this case: “I hope you don’t suspect me of possessiveness regarding ballads for Jimmy! I just didn’t think yours came alive in its nest of words.”

So here were the lessons. I could write a good poem. And I could write one that was not-so-good and I had to look at the difference between them and learn. But also, the humour with which you always delivered messages stayed with me over the years. Accepting poems for Quadrant you couldn’t resist “Puffing Smoke” on burial because you loved the possibility of turning the dead into diamonds! Taking “This Moon” for Best Australian Poems 2004 you wrote: “And I’ll think with sorrowful envy about the image ‘belly-flat’. Forsooth!”

Sometimes your comments were hard to stomach! Of my book Shadows at the Gate (2004) you wrote: “Alas, I can’t find any poem in the book which I like enough for Best Poems—this was also my unhappy experience when I read the book months ago. But there’s a bit of time yet. If you’ve got something recent, something you’re really proud of, I’d be delighted if you’d fax it to me as soon as possible. Then we may still have a result.” And we did.

The comments were always useful, leastwise in blocking hubris! You made me drop the last line of my poem “Silence” for another Best Australian Poems, and you were right. So I learned that sometimes even a good line has to be let go, if it’s just too many words or trying to drive home the point.

I’ve respected your commitment to the art in your judgments on publishable work. I’ve trusted it because you do know better, and you listen to what the poet is trying to achieve. This is not something all editors have now, as the less experienced sometimes won’t open themselves into the particular individuality of the writing, preferring to judge how they would write it instead. Always polite to me, I treasure the few postcards you sent from Ireland, from where I write this now. You really enjoyed your visits here and were well received and reviewed.

The world in general has known you, an acknowledgment rightly deserved. I read in many countries, and so often after a reading someone says, “Do you know Les Murray?” and I say, “I know his work,” as I feel I don’t know you personally in any way but as a valued editor and poet over the years. Your poetry has always awed me and I repeatedly use “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” with students in workshops. Such excellence in craft and feeling, even though written so long ago. Yes, the ordinary life, and often its mystical element, that’s where most of us live our days. That’s what engages me too.

You’ve been with me a long time as editor, poet, occasional correspondent. I’ve never been in the literary academic world, always an outsider, and so I’ve valued these connections all the more, I think. Now I grow sentimental, an underrated emotion after all! Thank you Les. Stay well.

Robyn Rowland lives near Geelong. 

 

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Karl Schmude 

Like so many of his friends, I have relished receiving postcards over the years from Les Murray. They highlight the unexpected places he has visited, such as Palermo and Dresden, as well as familiar centres like London and New York. But all the cards have been postmarked “Bunyah NSW”!

Reviewing them recently, I’ve been struck by how faithfully they capture many of Les’s qualities—his extraordinary power of packed expression (the mark of the natural poet), his simple honesty and rollicking sense of self-deprecation, and his generous interest in another person’s writing (mine most often, but also others whose contributions to Quadrant I’ve at times recommended).

As a literary editor, Les displayed a special blend of these personal qualities and professional judgments. In response to the book reviews and articles I submitted to Quadrant, he showed an abiding spirit of adventurousness—a readiness to back lesser-known writers like myself, not just the widely recognised. He would vouch for a work according to his assessment of its literary and intellectual value, not in obedience to an author’s reputation.

I came to see that this spirit of editorial hospitality was part of his profound affinity with the ordinary author—and, by extension, the ordinary Australian—whom he instinctively saw as a citizen, in his memorable idiom, of “the vernacular republic”. This land is “part imaginary and part historical … the Australia of our deepest values and identifications”.

I have benefited in other ways from Les’s editorial courage and conviction. In the early 1990s, I was searching for a publisher of a manuscript I’d written on the Australian Catholic identity. The work explored the momentous cultural and religious changes that had disrupted this native identity, and pondered the kind of traditions and virtues it might be regrouped around, as a new millennium beckoned, to form the basis of a new popular identity. Despite Les’s conscientious efforts—as well as those of Christopher Koch—in recommending the work to prospective publishers, the manuscript did not see the light of day. No doubt the advisers whom the publishers approached tended to be ideologically unfavourable. When asked, in a newspaper interview several years later, about his hopes for the future, Les responded, simply though obliquely, that he wanted an end “to such things as progressives blocking publication of conservative books—but I have seen this done”.

At times the postcards from Bunyah gave elegant expression to Les’s deepest sentiments. Always more at home in the province of poetry than of prose, he lamented in one postcard that “the mind is refusing to move in prose lines, and demanding to dance in verse”. When awarded an honorary D.Litt. from the University of New England in my home town of Armidale—he had earlier served as Writer-in-Residence there in the 1970s—he began his acceptance speech by conceding that he only spoke in prose when the occasion would not allow him to speak in verse.

I continue to be indebted to Les for many things, but two in particular. One is the privilege of being part of some of the richest conversations in my life—on subjects as diverse as literature, history, education, politics and humour—in the company of Les and his wife Valerie; and at times with fellow authors as well, such as Christopher Koch, Tony Morphett (a supreme scriptwriter who only passed away last June) and Piers Paul Read (the English novelist whom Les and Valerie hosted at their farm in Bunyah during his visit from the UK in 1999). On another occasion, my wife Virginia and I were able to reciprocate the hospitality when Les was passing through Armidale with Christopher Koch, and they stayed overnight in our home. We felt we were eavesdropping on a conversation between Dr Johnson and Boswell.

A second cause of gratitude is Les’s unwavering interest in the founding of Campion College, Australia’s first liberal arts college. He supplied an endorsement for an early issue of our newsletter, Campion’s Brag—that “[Campion] students will have the chance to study even the humanities under scholars who believe there is such a thing as truth.” When I asked him if he would compose a poem for our official opening in 2006, he courteously declined, saying that Campion “isn’t my creation … My proper role is to sit still and be quietly happy it has come about—and to congratulate you all maybe in a future ode.”

In 2015, I drove Les to Campion for a campus visit, where he took the occasion, characteristically, to “say a few words and read a few poems” to the students and staff. There he unveiled a portrait of himself by Bob Baird that the College placed on display in a seminar room.

Come to think of it, I need to tell Les that his portrait now hangs in an even more prominent position at Campion. I’ll drop him a postcard I recently bought in Canada.

Karl Schmude lives in Sydney.

 

***********************

Vivian Smith

Les has always been a phenomenon. His formidable oeuvre has earned worldwide recognition but it his work as a poetry editor and anthologist that I want to comment on here.

The first thing to say is that as a literary editor Les has always been remarkable for the speed with which he deals with material. Acknowledgements and replies arrive within a week or so. At a time when most journal editors use panels or committees of readers and advisers to sort through submissions, Les has always maintained his own authority and done the work of selection himself. He replies with a handwritten individually chosen postcard rather than the conventional, time-saving acceptance or rejection slip. No minimum three months waiting period before a decision is made.

Quadrant being a monthly has always had more space for poems than any other cultural journal and I guess that from this point of view, there has been nothing quite like it in Australia since the heyday of the Bulletin under the editorship of Douglas Stewart.

Years ago, I asked James McAuley about opening Quadrant’s pages to overseas poets; he replied that funds and resources were too limited and that space and advantage should always be given to our own poets and writers. Over time things have changed, and Les has been able to do both. He has published a wide range of Australian poets as well as many others from the Anglophone world—and he has featured poetry in translation as well as the work of many newcomers. Young poets still at school, as well as late starters, have found their first publication in Quadrant. In a literary world where, as Yeats famously said, “We are too many”, Quadrant has given many writers the chance to see their work in print for the first time. Many contributors have found Les a challenging and cheering friend.

Les has edited a number of anthologies which have made a difference to the way we read and understand and discuss Australian poetry as a whole. The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse was first published in 1986. Literary historians have compared it with its various predecessors, volumes edited by Bertram Stevens, Walter Murdoch, H.M. Green and Judith Wright, for example, and it was widely welcomed at the time of its appearance for its catholic range and diversity. It included original selections of early colonial writers, some previously unknown work, convict songs and a wonderful selection of Aboriginal writing. It is one of the most stimulating anthologies we have. While it was also criticised at the time for “eccentricity”—no more than three poems per writer—it has worn better than its rivals which pursued a more exclusive canon: Les had anticipated the direction that future studies in Australian poetry would take.

Fivefathers: Five Australian Poets of the Pre-Academic Era (1994) and Hell and After: Four Early English-Language Poets of Australia (2005), both prepared for an English and European readership, are less well known here than they should be. Fivefathers features the work of Kenneth Slessor, Roland Robinson, David Campbell, James McAuley and Francis Webb; Hell and After Francis McNamara, Mary Gilmore, John Shaw Neilson and Lesbia Harford. Works of recuperation, both volumes offered the poets of earlier generations the English audience they did not enjoy during their lifetimes.

Les can be combative and polemical but as his anthologies show he has always been a champion for Australian poetry, and for the work of other poets.

There is a key passage in the foreword to the New Oxford Book which I think tells us a great deal about Les as an editor. It is well worth reflecting on:

In reading each poet I have followed a consistent method: I have looked for quality, for their “best” poems which are often those in which their chief themes reached a culminating, transforming expression, and I have simultaneously scanned for a quality, for their untypical poem or poems. I have sought what I have elsewhere called their Strange poem; most poets have one or more of those. The two meanings of the word “quality” very often coincide in such poems, and they will frequently yield glimpses into a wider, more timeless country of the spirit beyond the conditioning sensibility of any given period.

As his various anthologies and editions show, Les opted for a method of defamiliarisation, for shuffling and scattering the cards to let them form their own new patterns and find their own unpredictable juxtapositions.

James McAuley always maintained that there were other worlds beyond politics. Les too has always shown that there are artistic affinities that transcend ideological lines. 

Vivian Smith preceded Les Murray as Quadrant’s Literary Editor. He lives in Sydney.

 

***********************

Elizabeth Smither

“I’m keeping the spare coupon you sent,” Les Murray wrote on the bottom of my banal one-page covering letter. “And I’m taking three poems.” Sometimes it was four, or even five. They would appear in a little box, rather like a tallboy, each poem making a drawer. I could just see Les sneaking the second international reply coupon into his pocket like Wallace Stevens sneaking a poem under his blotter. After that I always sent extra coupons, like a pupil leaving an apple on a desk. I would have sent flowers, chocolates, anything.

“You must write to Lucy,” Gail Jones said to me when I met Lucy Dougan for the first time for lunch in Perth before flying home. Lucy was recovering from surgery when Gail ordered me to correspond. But how to begin? Would Lucy want a letter? Then I thought of Les Murray, who had been mentioned at lunch; he had commented on Lucy’s work or taken a poem and it had delighted her. Les Murray would never say anything he didn’t mean, I wrote in my first letter. She could absolutely count on that. Les had the quality of sprawl.

Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,

or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home.

It’s the rococo of being your own still centre.

Besides, I had seen Les at the bookshop at Auckland airport, during the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival. He was wearing his stunning bumblebee-striped jersey and outdoing all the hardbacks and paperbacks. We talked for a little while about Alan Loney and the festival and then I left him and his jersey among the flowers.

Over the years there were quite a few of these letters. I kept them in my letter file and at the end of each year, when poems were crossed out or typed up, they went with my archives to the Hocken Library. One half: Dear Les, I am enclosing four poems for you to look at. (Should it be “consider”?) Best wishes, Elizabeth and the codicil in the sprawling friendly hand, a greyhound could leap through. I’m taking four of these. Thanks for the coupons. Best wishes, Les. A perfect editor, a model of an editor.

I knew the demoralising word quite would never cross Les’s lips. Not quite what I am looking for. Almost there, not quite. Try again but wait quite a while. I am quite hard to please. Pleasing me once is not to be considered an entrée. Quite, quite, quite. Oh, buzz off.

Sprawl lengthens the legs; it trains greyhounds on liver and beer.

Sprawl almost never says Why not? with palms comically raised

nor can it be dressed up for, not even in running shoes worn

with mink and a nose ring.

(“The Quality of Sprawl”)

The decades of his wonderful poems, volume after volume, Selected, Collected, always with lines that shock with their way of seeing, as if you had never understood language before, never knew that quiet words carry weapons. Poems with sharp lines like verdicts, great acreages of backdrop, replete with the irreducible mystery of human behaviour.

Between Lucy and myself Les Murray became a motif, a guardian saint. I was telling my son, Joseph, a former altar boy, about St Joseph of Cupertino, whose brother friars had to tie him down with ropes to stop him levitating. I inserted something about Les into each letter—perhaps a quote I had read in the Paris Review—a line from a poem, an evaluation from an eminent critic. “I’m taking four”, the looping handwriting said at the bottom of the page. The one he had left out, seemed on re-reading a bit vulgar. It was about coloured tights—black with large pink pustule-like lumps—I had bought for a friend’s birthday. I imagined a dresser pulling them up over her thighs and the reaction of someone (the poem must have been set in plague times) catching sight of them and running away.

Now Les, like Joseph of Cupertino, has levitated from the editor’s desk. The friars have cut the ropes, the supplicating poets have gone home, the international coupons are obsolete and the letters are in the files. Ignore the top of the letter, I want to say to the archivist. Just concentrate on the reply. 

Elizabeth Smither lives in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

 

***********************

Libby Sommer 

The year is 2000. I’m slogging away at a Masters in Writing at UTS. I’d had two careers already, in film and television production at the ABC (an engine-room role) and as principal of my own PR agency, but my dream had always been to become a writer. My children were grown up and living their own lives. One day towards the end of that year the phone rang and someone left a message saying they were Les Murray. Ha ha, I thought. As if Australia’s most famous living poet would be ringing me. I had sent a story titled “Art and the Mermaid” to the address on the Quadrant website. Imagine my disbelief and indescribable joy when I found out it wasn’t a friend playing a trick on me, but was in fact the real Les Murray. He said he’d like to take “Art and the Mermaid” for Quadrant.

That phone call began an eighteen-year friendship and working relationship. It changed my life.

The thrill of seeing my work published regularly in Quadrant has given me credibility as a fiction writer and, more recently, as a poet. I’ve felt encouraged to continue to explore unique ways of expressing my thoughts and ideas.

Where would I be if it wasn’t for Les Murray? My writing career might never had started, or continued. To date, three books published, a fourth coming out soon—each book containing chapters that were first published in Quadrant.

Les’s inclusion of my work in the magazine has lifted my confidence, inspired me and made me proud of being a writer. Publication in Quadrant was public validation and acceptance into the literary world.

We communicated about my stories and poetry through notes and postcards over all these years: I’d post him a submission and a short letter and he’d respond with either a chatty postcard to say “Yes”, or a note saying “Alas …”

With the retirement of Les Murray as Literary Editor, it’s the poignant end of the era of Les at Quadrant. However, Les’s impact continues through the new and established writers he has fostered and who continue their careers. I am forever grateful that I was one of those writers.

To quote the ending of Les’s poem “Driving through Sawmill Towns”: 

On summer nights

ground-crickets sing and pause.

In the dead of winter, tin roofs sough with rain,

downpipes chafe in the wind, agog with water.

Men sit after tea

by the stove while their wives talk, rolling a dead match

between their fingers,

thinking of the future.  

Libby Sommer lives in Sydney.

 

***********************

Katherine Spadaro

My unforgettable relationship with Les as poetry editor began a few months ago. Well, a few years longer. Is it a relationship when a person rejects what you send? Looking back on some of the material I submitted earlier, there is no doubt that Les’s rejection was the act of true and austere friendship. So perhaps we go back quite a bit further.

But the message that he had finally accepted some of my poems—about a tropical storm, shortbread, a sunset—came fairly recently. It felt like having Leonardo look at my sketch and say, yeah, not bad; it was a sealed and be-ribboned visa, solemnly delivered by a coachman with stamping horses, to poetryland.

For a few days. And then the dreadful thought. What if Les had been told by some authority that he needed to put more women in the magazine?

What if? Visualise it: a hasty scramble through the pile of submissions that teeters between the empty coffee cups and bottles of port littering the Quadrant office. A quick, humming scan for female names—grab that one, that’ll do. Someone send off a missive and let her know. That should shut authority up.

I shared this fear with a confidante who sternly dismissed it. “This is Quadrant, Mum!” she said. Yes, I think, if there’s one magazine with perfect indifference to any of my personal data, it’s Quadrant. Sigh of relief, back to breathing the air of poetryland. Quick furtive check of the visa on the wall in its curling golden frame.

Sometimes it’s good to read about the places on your itinerary. I did this a few days ago with a (highly respected) writers’ guide by a well-known author, who listed blunders to avoid—don’t mix metaphors, don’t write jargon. And never personalise natural things like trees and landscapes!

Crash! Did something just fall off that wall?

My tropical storm poem was based on the trees responding in various ways to the wind. Their different movements seemed to have a characteristic intentionality—weren’t they personalising themselves? Perhaps they’d like to be personalised by one of the humans. They might be remembering the Book of Psalms—“the trees of the fields shall clap their hands”.

The visa is stubbornly re-hung. Thanks again, Les.

Thank you most sincerely for all the visas you have dispensed over many years. Your own status entirely secure, you’ve generously bestowed access to so many others. We go to poetryland as a very varied company. 

Katherine Spadaro lives in Sydney.

 

***********************

Edith Speers

Thank you, Les.
A few years ago, in a follow-up letter after you had selected some of my poems for Quadrant, I said to you, “Long may you continue to be a beacon of what a poet and an editor/mentor should be.” The fact that the best poet in Australia liked some of my work has been my salvation in times of despair. Being a poet can be a miserable business, the utter hopelessness of sending one’s carefully crafted but potentially flawed and fragile work out onto stormy seas, to most probably founder on the rocks of opinion or fashion or languish in the doldrums of simple indifference. Ah, but sometimes there is a lighthouse!

In reviewing a list of my poems you have selected for publication, in Quadrant and in some anthologies, between 1984 and 2017, a startling fact was revealed: these are my bravest poems. These are the ones where I was doing something risky. Something out of synch with what usually appeared in literary journals and newspapers. And sometimes not just out of synch—sometimes sailing off in their own bizarre direction. Thank you for cheering me on. Thank you for, unbeknownst to me, encouraging me to be not cautious and not conventional—but always most particular about sea-worthiness! 

Edith Speers lives near Hobart. 

***********************

 

Jane Sutton 

Dear Jane, I can’t seem to raise you on the phone, but this is to thank you for your survey of long-form fiction. I’d love to print that in Quadrant … P.S. The postcard is from my translator in Macau—hope it doesn’t offend. L. Bunyah

The postcard was titled “Cheongsam Beauty. A Cigarette Ad”. It took a while to find the offensive material—tucked away in the lower right-hand corner was a tiny packet of cigarettes. He had had the card for some time—it was a bit crumpled on the top edge and yellowing at the margins. Within days of receiving it, I was in a “mother-of-the-groom” pink dress and rosy hat thinking I should start proceedings early with a nip of something. Les rang.

“You’re a hard person to catch …”

“Am I?”

“I want to publish your piece in Quadrant.”

“Oh goodness, I don’t think it is up to snuff.”

“A bit of editing and it’ll be right.”

And so it was—my first published article was in Quadrant, July 2015. I rummaged around for that drink.

Dear Jane, and we’ll publish your second draft. Glad the wedding was a boomer—cheers—Les. Bunyah

The second postcard, “Hand Bone 2014”, is an image of green hands with protruding forearm bones and nibbed pens for the third and fifth fingers. It too, was a bit dog-eared. Did he have a collection of postcards for specific occasions? Were they shoved in an unforgiving box?

Dear Jane, I hope to get to Melb for the Writer’s Fest and will be very glad to lunch with you, Cheers—Les M. Bunyah

“Lady Bug, Lady Bug”, the third postcard was by a Melbourne artist, Amy Devereux. The image is of fragmented details of fairytale illustrations of hummingbirds and bees.

Dear Jane, Your son and his mate have doubtless told you that they collected me and fetched me to Melb. Airport. Nice pair of men altogether. And I’m still ravished by the duck we had at lunch! Yours are a fine company of women. Thanks for all of it. Cheers, Les Murray. Bunyah

Elisabeth Wentworth, the poet, and I fed Les confit duck and red wine that merged in hue and pungency with his hand-knitted striped jumper. The postcard was “Radio City Music Hall”. It was clean and white with a serrated top edge.

Between, I had sent him a piece on Indian writing. Granta had published The Best of New Indian Writing, the Prime Minister, Modi, had been elected and I was entranced by Geoff Dyer’s two-part novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He must have upended the postcard box searching for an apt card. This time it was an image from Karnataka, with a running fence of saris, supposed to ward off wild animals from eating the crop.

Dear Jane, I like this saree trick, but I fear the wild creatures would cut the cloth, don’t you? Cheers, Les

But all did not go well with my writing and Les. I was brazen enough to imagine that I could write about Les in his halcyon days at Sydney University, along the lines of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s memoirs of Allen Ginsberg. The article was about Clive James, Robert Hughes, Bob Ellis and Les from the point of view of the onlookers, sidekicks and groupies of the day. Filling notebooks and reading Honi Soit, 1956–1963, it seemed to me that memories could become fluid and who wrote what to whom was like Antonioni’s film of the sixties, Blow-Up. Fuzzy. If Les was reticent—“It’s all in the poetry, look at that”—then so was Clive James—“We were just young kids.” Les was right, the essence is there in “When Two Percent Were Students”: “Gorgeous expansion of life / all day at university, / then home to be late for meals, / an impractical, unwanted boarder”.

Instead I wrote travelogues from north Queensland, Portugal and Sicily, which Les liked. But tough as it was eating pasta, Marettimo fish soup, Sicilian gelati with Portuguese “green wine”, the anniversary of the Endeavour leaving Plymouth approached. The attraction of Sir Joseph Banks was too great and I sought out the Florilegium volumes—engravings taken from Sydney Parkinson’s drawings of specimens collected by Banks and Solander. I wrote the following in April 2018:

“I live in a grove of Banksia integrifolia. In spring, rainbow lorikeets swoop down from Queensland for the nectar followed by flocks of dainty bossy birds. If the weather inland has been dry, yellow-tailed black cockatoos shriek through. In winter, the grey trunks sway and the fingers of Banksia men scratch on my window.”

And he answered:

Integrifolia to us all, Cheers Les.

Jane Sutton lives in Melbourne.

***********************

Gordon Adler

In late October 2010, while browsing at a hospital news-stand, I chanced to come across a publication I had not thought of as a literary magazine, namely Quadrant. Feeling at a loose end, I picked up a copy. On an impulse, I decided to submit a brief, light-hearted anecdote about a farcical incident in a hospital ward that resulted from mis-interpretation of a patient’s pathology report.

At that time, due to the convoluted twists and vicissitudes of literary ideology, I had managed to alienate both the doyens of the Left and the literary establishment. Friends joked that, whenever a magazine published a story of mine, it was not long before the publication passed into oblivion. After a brief flush of success some ten years previously, it now seemed that my time had passed.

Weeks elapsed, until the day came when I spotted the brown return envelope projecting from my letterbox. Another rejection. To my astonishment, when I opened it, my story was missing. In its place, scratched across my referring letter were the words:

I have taken this for Quadrant. Les.

As the months passed, I began to wonder if it might be worth trying again. This time I selected what I considered to be one of my best stories, one that I felt must arouse a sympathetic response if, by chance, the editor decided to read it.

This time the reply came as a shock. After conferring high praise for the substance of the story, his comment on its ending was caustic. Yet, in spite of this damning rejection, he made a suggestion about an ending that might be more acceptable. Piqued as I was by his bluntness, I pondered over his words. I decided to accept his suggestion and try again. A week later, my referring letter was returned, with the terse comment, “Well done!” The story was published, with an invitation to send in more of my work.

This I did, with little expectation of any further success. Considering the large number of submissions every editor receives, and the limited magazine space available, together with the need for variety, it would have been foolish to have thought otherwise. I found it difficult to guess which of my pieces, if any, would meet his approval. Nevertheless, I sent in several more, each being returned with dour comment, tempered by the urge not to give up. However sharp his criticism, it was never cruel. Always, his tone was one of gentle encouragement. I know of no other literary editor, in recent times, who would go to the trouble of offering a writer commentary and advice. Usually they didn’t even bother to tell the author they had received the manuscript, or to return it in the self-addressed envelope.

One day he selected a story I had considered least likely to have aroused his interest. Following this, he published several more, each differing widely in subject matter. I began to realise that his aim was to develop the greatest possible diversity in what he published, including a wide range of authors, subject-matter and style. Then, on one occasion, he wrote that he had decided to accept my submission “after much rumination”. This cryptic remark set me thinking hard about what I had written. Was it a code indicating that he was unimpressed by the ending? I read over the story again with a more critical eye, and began to wonder if what I had considered likely to create an element of pathos might actually have appeared a shade too sentimental. His terse comments had the effect of generating a self-critical attitude and a rigorous standard of sub-editing.

Les Murray has a keen ear for comedy, as exemplified by two of the best vignettes I have come across: short, witty pieces by Morris Lurie and Hal Colebatch that have remained in my mind long after reading them, anecdotes depending for their effect on a sharp, pithy finish, as in the case of the unidentified stranger amongst senior academics, revealing himself by the utterance of the simple statement, “I know!”

Altogether, my association with Quadrant over the past few years has been an enriching experience. Heartened by Les Murray’s support when the literary world had seemed barren, I enjoyed a period of renewal in writing that could not have occurred otherwise. It has been a privilege to have been included amongst his contributors.

1 comment
  • murray.walters

    Oh come on

    Les must win the Nobel Prize
    Sometime,
    Before he dies

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