The Meaning of Existence – Les Murray

Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a reading by Les Murray in Canberra. The following poem was read from a wide selection …

The Meaning of Existence

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, 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.

Les Murray (1939 – 2019) from Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002

In the light of the above poem … the ignorant freedom of my talking mind … I asked him whether he had made the right choice in life … an emphatic yes …words are what he had do … if ignored they would have digested him … he was doing what he had to do.

In Europe he was once asked what a poem was … a poem is a song without music … searching for the words behind the music.

He died at the age of 80 on 29 April. He will be remembered for his clever manipulation of words, great repartee, quick witted and a prodigious producer of poetry. A great example is his fast flowing verse novel character Fredy Neptune, 1998 where LM comes to terms with life and his own spiritual understanding of existence. And, of course, he will be remembered for his vernacular love of the Australian rural country. Today there is a memorial service for him at the NSW State Library in Sydney.

From the Memorial Service … https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/the-poems-are-the-thing-tribute-to-the-great-les-murray-20190612-p51wvh.html

Les Murray on Wikipedia

 

Nurse no longer grief – Mary Gilmore

Nurse no long grief

Oh, could we weep,
And weeping bring relief!
But life asks more than tears
And falling leaf.

Though year by year
Tears fall and leaves are shed,
Spring bids new sap arise,
And blood run red.

Nurse no long grief
Lest the heart flower no more;
Grief builds no barns; its plough
Rusts at the door.

Dame Mary Gilmore (1865 – 1962)

This is a simple poem with a strong message. Grief is necessary but long grief not. The life events that cause grief can never be removed and how we internalise and deal with them is an individual matter. In the last two lines Mary Gilmore alludes to action as a way of escape – go build your barn and use your plough.

Mary Gilmore is the great-great aunt of the current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. On the 50th anniversary of her death in 2012 he delivered a tribute to her in federal parliament.

Scott Morrison was elected as Prime Minister of Australia for a further 3 years on 18 May 2019 to the great surprise of the Labour Party who had been strongly favoured to win. How that Party deals with such grief is being worked out.

Mary Gilmore had to survive life when nursing many radical political views.

Mary Gilmore on Wikipedia … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Gilmore

Les Murray: A Tribute

Two days ago Les Murray died at the age of 80. He was a poet of immense stature and regarded as Australia’s Poet Laureate.

I was actually planting broad bean seeds and when I came in and heard the news my mind immediately went to his ‘Broad Bean Sermon’ poem.

He did experience Canberra at certain stages in his life and had that wry sense of humour … roundabouts being in proliferation at the time …

The interstate driver soon discerns
That twelve identical statues of Burns
Are unlikely even in this braw town
And that there are Circles, interwound
To test, by his cunning and his mettle,
Whether he shall go home, or settle

And the following are details from Peter Alexander’s book – ‘Les Murray – A Life in Progress’ …

In July 1996 an ambulance drove Les Murray into John Hunter hospital Newcastle (NSW) with a very serious liver complaint. He was wheeled into casualty and prepared for immediate surgery. Convinced he was dying he felt neither fear not regret at the prospect. Wheeled rapidly down wide corridors, he stared unblinking at lights passing rhythmically above him:

Ribbed glass glare-panels flow
over you down urgent corridors,
dismissing midday outside. Slow,

they’d resemble wet spade-widths in a pit;
you’ve left grief behind you, for others;
your funeral: who’ll know you’d re-planned it?

God, at the end of prose,
somehow be our poem-
where forebrainy consciousness goes

I can not help thinking of the these thought provoking words too –

Just two hours after
Eternal Life pills came out
Someone took thirty.

(ref: page 146, of the same book)

A tribute from poet John Kinsella.

And Les Murray on Wikipedia.

His words will live on especially his vernacular representation of the Australian bush landscape he loved.

May he be at peace; perhaps with a new poem to play and ponder.

 The Company of Lovers – Judith Wright – ANZAC Day

 The Company of Lovers

We meet and part now over all the world;
we, the lost company,
take hands together in the night, forget
the night in our brief happiness, silently.
We, who sought many things, throw all away
for this one thing, one only,
remembering that in the narrow grave
we shall be lonely.

Death marshals up his armies round us now.
Their footsteps crowd too near.
Lock your warm hand above the chilling heart
and for a time I live without my fear.
Grope in the night to find me and embrace,
for the dark preludes of the drums begin,
and round us round the company of lovers,
death draws his cordons in.

Judith Wright (1915 -2000)

This poem was written during World War II which brought much separation especially for those travelling from Australia to the various battlefields.

A precious pre-leaving meet between lovers … with no thought of tomorrow … forget the night … for some the long unending night … and those that never returned leave the grave narrow and lonely for any surviving lovers. Today we remember.

There is that foreboding and anticipation of the worst … death draws his cordons in

Another of my favourite Judith Wright poems, again with a cerrtain sense of foreboding, is … ‘Trains’  – Judith Wright

 

Being Optimistic – Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

From Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: IV, cxxix

Hues which have words, and speak to ye of heaven,
Floats o’er this vast and wondrous monument,
And shadows forth its glory. There is given
Unto the things of earth, which Time hath bent,
A spirit’s feeling, and where he hath leant
His hand, but broke his scythe, there is a power
And magic in the ruin’d battlement,
For which the palace of the present hour
Must yield its pomp, and wait till ages are its dower.

A broken scythe – an implement with a long handle and a long curved single-edged blade, used to cut grass – well time has bent – due to the work at hand broken, with broken tools (broken by humanity)

But, but, but – there is power and magic in the ruin’d battlement … well thank goodness for that – we must have faith

The palace of the present hour … the present hour is a palace despite being a ruin’d battlement

Ages as a dower – a gift that will be given by time – perhaps an evolving gift, from one who is an optimist … perhaps inherent in the creation of time is an inevitability of positive evolution

So have faith and time will be the saviour … and enjoy the palace of the present hour!

From Wikipedia

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is a lengthy narrative poem in four parts written by Lord Byron. It was published between 1812 and 1818 and is dedicated to “Ianthe”. The poem describes the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry, looks for distraction in foreign lands. In a wider sense, it is an expression of the melancholyand disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. The title comes from the term childe, a medieval title for a young man who was a candidate for knighthood.

 

My Shadow – Robert Louis Stevenson – Comments

My Shadow

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)

We all remember ‘Treasure Island’, and ‘Kidnapped’ but few think of Robert Louis Stevenson in terms of poetry. I came across this poem as a child at primary school. A great example for children on personification. A very simple poem that is easy to memorise.

It made the children take an interest in their shadow if they had not already done so. And the fact that a shadow is always part of person and is a bit of a coward being unwilling to be independent – I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me! ‘Nursie’ speaks of the period when privileged children often had a nurse to care for them at home.

Looking back I think one appeal was because the shadow was allowed to be naughty. It was acceptable for the shadow to stay in bed and not be at school; what else could it do on a cloudy day. And the children in class were frequently told to behave so they liked the shadow and they liked the fact that it was a little lazy and stayed at home in bed.

Robert Louis Stevenson on Wikipedia

Why I Wake Early – Mary Oliver – A tribute

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)

Mary Oliver died on 17 January. She was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. The New York Times described her as ‘far and away, America’s best-selling poet’.

This short poem is a tribute to her wonderful sun-life philosophy. She was, like Emily Dickenson, not one for the limelight. It is not easy to start each day with the sun in your eyes and to say thank you, thank and treat each day anew in such a disciplined positive way. But the dear star defines life and recognition is quite appropriate even if there is a cloud in the sky.

Here is a fitting link to a tribute from Alan Storey (Methodist Minister of Cape Town, South Africa) …
https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2019-01-22-finally-comes-the-poet-a-tribute-to-mary-oliver/

Mary Oliver on Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Oliver

Old Botany Bay – Mary Gilmore

Today is Australia Day, the 26th of January, the day that the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. Botany Bay was the designated settlement for the first fleet when it arrived in 1788. It was a settlement intended for the transport of convicts but Govenor Phillip deemed it unsuitable and moved to Port Jackson, Sydney Cove. James Cook had previously landed on the southern banks of Botany Bay, on Sunday 29 April 1770.

Old Botany Bay

“I’m old
Botany Bay;
stiff in the joints,
little to say.

I am he
who paved the way,
that you might walk
at your ease to-day;

I was the conscript
sent to hell
to make in the desert
the living well;

I bore the heat,
I blazed the track-
furrowed and bloody
upon my back.

I split the rock;
I felled the tree:
The nation was-
Because of me!

Old Botany Bay
Taking the sun
from day to day…
shame on the mouth
that would deny
the knotted hands
that set us high!

Mary Gilmore (1865 – 1962)

And this poem clearly celebrates the convicts that made Australia through their hard work. And if it had not been for convicts there would not have been a developed Australia in the first place; at least not by the British.

The key words in this poem are ‘knotted hands’ – their hands made to work but hands that were not free. A day to remember the convict heritage that began the journey in the development of Australia.

Botany Bay became associated in England as the place where convicts were destined even though it was not used as a penal settlement. And that well known song ‘Botany Bay’ was oftten sung in relation to those unfortunates bound for Australia …

Farewell to old England for ever,
Farewell to my rum coes as well,
Farewell to the well-known Old Bailey

Singing too-ral-li, oo-ral-li, addity,
Singing too-ral-li, oo-ral-li, ay,
Singing too-ral-li, oo-ral-li, addity,
And we’re bound for Botany Bay.

See … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botany_Bay_(song)

And some more words from Mary Gilmore (from ‘The Passionate Heart’ 15 February 1919) celebrating those that developed Australia who are now at rest with God … or working with God under more favourable conditions!

Even the old, long roads will remember and say,
“Hither came they!”
And the rain shall run in the ruts like tears;
And the sun shine on them all the years,
Saying, “These are the roads they trod” —
They who are away with God.

Mary Gilmore had a long and very interesting life … a great thinker far beyond her times. She remains current when you use an Australian $10 note.

A link to Mary Gilmore on Wikipedia.

The history behind Botany Bay.