Example poetry

Les Murray said her autism shaped her poetry – her final poems offer insight into her creative process

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an autistic author tweeted recently:

I filled out an autism quotient questionnaire for my next assessment and one of the questions was if I’m fascinated with dates and I said no BUT now I want to go to the supermarket and buy some dates and see at how fascinating they really are.

Reading this, I decided that a personal re-evaluation of dates was definitely in order, despite our previous incompatibilities.

For me, the first obstacle to even tolerating any food is the physical experience of eating it – its initial combination of textures and how they change during the eating process. Like Les Murray’s son Alexander, I hated “orange juice with bits in it” throughout my childhood. I still don’t like the chunks, but I’ve learned to put up with them for the taste, which is my process for at least half of what I eat.

My memory of how dates tasted when I tried them as a kid is sweet dirt, so they were never worth their gooey jelly. But maybe they, or I, would be different now. Intrigued by the idea, I sent the “date” tweet to my partner, who describes himself as “having more than a hint of neuroatypicality.” He replied that he had always thought that question referred to a romantic dinner.

Of course, the non-autistic designers of the Autism Quotient test wanted the “dates” to refer only to the day, month, and year of an event.

Autism and detail

These differences in word association are one of the reasons Les Murray identified autism as “the part of my brain […] which is mainly the part where my poetry comes from”.

They also emphasize the role of context in interpretation. Although being autistic enabled the intimate relationship with detail and uncommon connection with the world that is characteristic of Murray’s poetry, her autism often went unnoticed when her poetry was performed.

Having explored the influences of autism in Murray’s poetry for a number of years, I was intrigued that autism and recontextualization were of particular interest to him in his latest collection. Continuous Creationwhere they often intertwine.

While Murray explicitly highlights his autism, some of his intentions regarding context are unclear. An example of this uncertainty is the poem Cherry Soldiers, which appears halfway through the book. Here it is, in its entirety on two lines:

Chokecherry, chokecherry, take a stand:
I ate your little pokeberry out of my hand.

Caroline Overton calls this poem “amusing”, which may well be the experience Murray wanted it to convey as a singular poem in this collection. For me, however, it evokes the unease I feel every time I read it in Fredy Neptune.

Fredy Neptune was Murray’s second verse novel, published in 1998. It is the self-narrated story of a German-Australian man with autism named Fredy Boettcher.

Near the start of the novel, Fredy witnesses a mass murder that is part of the Armenian Genocide, after which he acquires a deficiency that includes the absence of physical sensation. Over the course of the novel, he develops an understanding of his deficiencies and negotiates the prejudices of others against him, amid some key events of the first half of the 20th century.

The two lines of the poem Cherry Soldiers appear ten pages from the end of the novel. Fredy moved to Australia with his wife, their adult son and Hans, also autistic, whom Fredy adopted as a brother. In what I consider a cue for anyone who has recorded Fredy and Hans’ autism, they are at a train station, relieving their stress by watching the trains arrive and depart.

They are separated by a group of American soldiers, one of whom drags Fredy into a conversation about names, while the others begin to teach Hans how to play poker. The reader does not know what will happen next, until the troop captain returns and calls them to order. The soldiers chant “Chokecherry, chokecherry, makin’ a stand: / I got your little pokeberry eatin’ from my hand” as they leave.

Fredy ends this story by noting his mixed emotions regarding this song: “Lord knows what it meant; but I still sing it sometimes.



Read more: The Poem as Pantechnicon, the Poet as Polymath: The Limitless Creativity of John Kinsella


The importance of context

The role of context is also significant and mysterious for the poems School Bus Home and The Invention of Pigs. In his critique of continuous creation, David McCooey cites these poems as new material and presents them as examples of Murray’s “inconsequential writing” and “love of the sonic nature of poetry”.

Although I agree with McCooey on these enduring qualities of Murray’s writing, the two poems are not new writing, if you take “new” to mean that they did not exist before. If you take new to mean not before in this formthen they might be evidence of Murray’s skill at rearranging, as earlier versions of them appear in his book About Bunyah (2015).

The three School Bus stanzas that appear in On Bunyah have been reordered, transposed from past to present, and supplemented with two additional stanzas to become School Bus Home in Continuous Creation.

The Invention of Pigs, which describes a bushfire running through Bunyah, bears the same title in both books, but there are edits in all four stanzas that change the scope of the poem. For example, in On Bunyah, the third stanza reads:

too fast to set the houses on fire.
A horse cooks in a tin shed.
Afterwards, a few pigs lay dead from smoke
but where the flames had bent over

Whereas, in Création continue, the pigs, even if they are mentioned as the subject of the poem in the title, are removed in favor of the chickens:

too fast to set the houses on fire.
A horse cooks in a tin shed,
naked poultry lay dead
to have been plucked in mid-flight

These are two of the three rearrangements of previous poems that I am aware of in Continuing Creation. The third has similar alterations to The Invention of Pigs and, like the school bus house, is told from a different point of view. The Scores, 20th Century was first published as The Scores in 2002. It is the only one of these four poems highlighting context that is listed in the acknowledgements.

Obviously Murray was not trying to present these poems as originals, as they all have titles that refer to their original context. Beyond that, the future he envisioned for them is unclear.

Perhaps he wanted Cherry Soldiers to be viewed separately from its context in Fredy Neptune? Perhaps he had determined that the modified versions of School Bus Home and The Invention of Pigs should replace their earlier versions? Perhaps he assumed that those involved in the organization and publication of Continuing Creation would be familiar enough with his work to understand the joke and exclude one or all of these poems?

The Murrays in Munich, 2014.
Wikimedia commons, CC BY


Read more: Gwen Harwood was one of Australia’s finest poets – she was also one of the most subversive


Creation as continuous

If Murray intended to publish these poems, it represents a striking change in the presentation of his writing. Throughout most of his six-decade career, he has continually adjusted his body of work to represent his current position on and in the world. In this process, there was a bond between Murray of the past and Murray of the present that was stretched but not broken. When a rift occurred, Murray removed commas, lines, stanzas, and entire poems to restore alignment between his poetry as a whole and himself.

But I’m not aware of a rearrangement to that degree in his previous books. This could imply an interest in moving from a conception of the process of creation as continuous to a conception of each individual creation as continuous.

There is further evidence of this in Waiting for the Past, which also emerged in 2015 as a line in a poem. Murray used the line to headline his other collection of that year. In Continuing Creation, Waiting for the Past is the title of a poem, and it developed into a refrain on the subject of memory.

Waiting for the Past describes how the many details of Murray’s “great memory”, which he noted when publicly declaring his autism in the poem The Tune on Your Mind (2006), have faded. Yet “the flesh tells what the spirit forgets”.

In other words, perhaps in response to critics who have suggested that Murray should abandon arguments from long ago, this poem responds that with an autistic memory it is not so easy.

Another property of autistic minds is mentioned in Polo Solved. Murray suggests that the Great Wall’s absence from Marco Polo’s long lists of what he observed during his 17 years in China was because:

if you are autistic

things you missed
seem not to exist.

This is a well-documented difference between nonautistic and autistic perception. Autistic author Star Ford calls them “forest first” and “tree first,” to value both approaches. People without autism start with an undifferentiated scene and then become aware of certain details. Autistic people start with one detail, then add another and another, until they become aware of a scene.

This is one reason autistic people may miss details that seem obvious to non-autistic people, and vice versa. It’s also why Murray has become the “delicately detailed descriptor of the land” that, as Lyn McCredden notes, “even Murray skeptics admire”.

Polo Solved recalls that Murray was autistic and asserts that, until the end, autism was one of his strongest poetic themes. He first wrote explicitly about autism in Portrait of the Autist as a New World Driver in 1974. He went on to write poems about his own autism, such as Self-Portrait from a Photograph, The Shield-Scales of Heraldry and The Tune on Your Mind. . In Fredy Neptune, he explores the experience of being autistic before this way of being in the world was medicalized.

He also wrote poems about his son’s autism, including It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen, Like the Joy at his First Lie, and To One Outside the Culture.

As part of its latest collection, Polo Solved is a note on the role of context in “everything that will survive us”. For autistic writers, it’s a reminder that Murray created, not just a path, but a field for us. It’s a reminder for everyone to stay curious and keep considering what you think is there, as well as what might be missing.



Read more: In his final poems, Les Murray offers a sweet, gracious farewell greeting, and just a few beards



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