Monday, September 22, 2008

Peter F. Alexander on Les Murray's religious work

With my mind still full of a new show of contemporary religious art that opened yesterday in St. Louis, I finally got around to checking out an interview about religion in poetry that was sent to me recently by Peter F. Alexander.

Peter Alexander is an Australian writer, critic and professor who wrote the definitive biography of the great Australian poet Les Murray. We are scoring Les' poem The Sydney Highrise Variations for 2009, and I have successfully tabbed Peter to help write some liner notes.

It's rather grand and romantic for me to say this, but I met Peter at The British Library in London. My little family was on vacation in Europe, and I happened to catch Peter gallivanting from library to library, tracking down rare documents. (As I recall, he was hunting for caches of letters by the South African writer Alan Paton, author of Cry, The Beloved Country.)

Peter seemed taken by the odd independence of what we do - set long poems to music without any institutional support whatsoever. His wife is an independent publisher of juvenile literature - that is, literature by juveniles, including literature by juveniles who went on to become famous writers as adults - so he understands something about unlikely and somewhat lonesome pursuits.

I have a feeling that Peter and I will always remember that first meeting, long after our Les Murray project is behind us. While we were talking at The British Library, he took a call. His adult son, who has a health condition, had taken ill in a remote location in Papua, New Guinea and was being helicoptered to safety.

Peter received this remarkable news by cell phone, just as we were speaking. It lent a different dimension to our conversation about oddball artistic puruits. It also brought an unexpected intimacy between strangers.

Back in the U.S., we learned his son was rescued and returned to health and civilization.

At any rate, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview with Peter about Les Murray's religious poetry is available online as audio and transcript. It appeared on The Spirit of Things, hosted by Rachael Kohn.

The whole interview is worthwhile, but this bit by Peter seems especially true of the religious dimension of Les Murray's work:

"He has a whole series of poems in which he doesn't argue, but just asserts, or shows that religious belief is something ordinary and everyday and maybe omnipresent, and it's that element of religion which unites human beings and makes us see our common humanity. One of the best elements of course, of religions is one of the things he's stressing. So what he's focusing on is the kind of casual, demotic quality of religious belief and religious expression in Australia, and he does so in a slangy, often jokey way, which makes it seem very ordinary, but also very extraordinary, and that's one of the best things he does for it, I think."


Snapshot is of Les Murray browsing my library in The Skuntry Museum in its original Long Island location, looking for a book to read on the flight back to Australia. (He picked out a detective trilogy set in Nazi Berlin, but then decided not to borrow it after all.)

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