Murray Alfredson, Short Introduction

Murray Alfredson BA (Melb.) MLib (Wales) has worked as a librarian, a lecturer in librarianship, and in Buddhist chaplaincy at Flinders University. He has published essays on poetry, meditation and interfaith matters, poems, and poetry translations in eight countries; and two poetry collections: ‘Nectar and light’, in Friendly Street new poets, 12, Adelaide: Friendly Street Poets and Wakefield Press, 2007; and The gleaming clouds, Brisbane: Interactive Press, 2013. (Available through IP at, and through Amazon).

He has won several poetry prizes and commendations, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009 and again in 2012..
He was born in Mildura, by the River Murray, and he lives now on the Fleurieu Peninsula by Gulf St Vincent in South Australia.



The Interview With Murray Alfredson by Alok Mishra



Alok Mishra: What is the difference between poem and novel? Both come from inside; both are the translation of imagination; both are creative! 

Murray Alfredson: Believe it or not, I have never reflected on that one.  I fear you are pushing me to spout nonsense.  Length is not necessarily an issue, as in a way it between a short story or novella and a novel, although it often is so.  There are great poems that are very long, Spenser’s unfinished The faerie Queene, Dante’s Ðivina commedia, for example, or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  So if length is not the issue, what is?  I am inclined to think there might be no issue, apart from the fact that poetry is usually written in verse (and I consider the so-called ‘prose poem’, whatever virtues it might have, is an oxymoron.)

Perhaps we should stop thinking too rigidly about the various forms and modes of creative writing.  If only had a more general word in English that would neatly fill the role of the German, Dichtung, to encompass the whole of the field of aesthetic output in writing.  Because it has been truly said that the novel has taken over in large part the role of epic poetry.  But even so, there are more recent developments of the so-called verse novel, some of which have in fact stepped away from direct narrative writing (I think of the Australians, Dorothy Porter and Valerie Volk, whose verse novels haven taken the form of sequences lyric poems, in the voices of the various characters, poems whose sentiments imply rather than tell the story); the story is thus internalized into the characters.

Alok Mishra: You are a well-known poet, but why do you write poetry? For people to read them or for some kind of solace, or poetic relief?

Murray Alfredson: I think I can remember back to the time when I started writing poetry.  I certainly had the sense from contact with the work of really great poets like Goethe, Hölderlin, Rilke and Berthold Brecht, and with others who might not have been quite so great, who wrote poetry of enormous beauty, such as Eichendorff and Mörike, I did succumb to the notion that there something sacred in poetry and poetry writing.  Such a sentiment has found among the Germans at least, expression in the idea of a poet through his or her insights and special sensitivity as somehow a teacher, a prophet or a priest, a person with some sort of role enriching the world.  So the poet has some sort of special task in the world, a task meant to evoke greater depth in the people who read his work.  But, of course, the complexities of writing poetry, the challenges of the craft, are enormous.  And it often feels at the outset in writing any given poem, one feels daunted anew.  That is how it is for me.  If I try just coldly to sit down and write, the results can be very disappointing, very flat.  The thing is to find that delicate something, that magic, if one likes, to lift one’s creation into something special.

Looking back, I suppose I have found some sort of emotional relief, in particular in the elegiac sequence into which I wrote my grieving at the death of my twin, ‘In memoriam geminimei’, that was written over the course of a year.  I kept coming to the point where I thought it was complete, and then some weeks later I would find I was wrong, that the process was going further..

But I don’t think relief of personal suffering has been the only factor.  I have written poems on a deep form of difficulty I have had, my own and others’ mental illness.  There, I have felt it incumbent on me to somehow get inside the experiences of various mental illnesses.  One can experience such sickness in others, and that is partly from the outside looking in and looking on; and one can try to present those states from within them.  There can indeed be moments of humour.  But beneath all, I think, is the motive to bring these states to mind (and they are largely biological states, to do with the physiology of the brain, so others can understand.

And there is the whole world of the animals and plants, each individual with its own struggle to remain alive, and its own agenda, as it were, to which our human concerns are often largely irrelevant.  And yet an animal by dint of that fact can provide a comment and perspective on our human self-importance.  One day I saw a blond black duck, for example; those black ducks drew no distinctions.  She was simply one of them, with a partner.  And really, those ducks could teach many humans a thing or two about acceptance of each other regardless of colour or ethnicity.

Poets and other imaginative writers can bring such things alive, and speak a challenge to humanity, sometimes in miniature, as in haiku, sometimes at length, as in a long novel like Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia with funny and tragic satire.

As with research, however, the cycle remains incomplete until publication,

Alok Mishra: Is it true that poets are prejudiced while reading poetry written by others? 

Murray Alfredson: One way or another, we all fall into the trap of prejudice.  For a long time I sought to avoid any formal editing role, because I saw too much of editors, who are the effective gatekeepers between private and public art, as scholarly referees are gatekeepers between private and public knowledge.  Both are positions of responsibility.  I have only recently taken on editing.  I think that is because I feel more confident that I can assess a poem in particular on its own terms.  But we all have our tastes, and I cannot ignore my tastes.  I like to hope, however, that my tastes have more to do with the clarity of a poem or story, with the writing presenting a clear rather than muddied picture, and with the economy of the writing.

Some poets, even poets I admire, such as Robert Graves, have shown a high degree of prejudice in what they have said of certain other poets.  Graves was almost scurrilously prejudiced against Auden, Yeats and Eliot, for example, but I much doubt whether he damaged those poets that way.  I suspect that Wordsworth did damage Keats, and that Goethe damaged Hölderlin.  It happens that I fond it hard to relate to Pound and Eliot, and of that circle, particularly to D.H. Lawrence.  But I have gone to the bother of reading those poets, and I do think they each wrote some fine poems.  I would hope my assessment of these poets is based on knowledge and some level of judgment, rather than on prejudice.  And of course, as I have gotten older, it becomes increasingly unlikely that I shall try to make a deep study of these men, simply because I feel the pressures of a shortening life expectancy.

Alok Mishra: Who is your most revered poet? Which poets have influenced you?

Murray Alfredson: These feel like separate questions.  I might revere a poet, yet because he is very different from me and my temperament, his influence on my own writing will be slight.  I have enormous admiration for Chaucer, for example, but there is no way right now that he would be an influence on my writing.  I regard Chaucer as one of the very greatest among political poets, and yes, I have directed a poem or perhaps two at the Church.  But of course no church is so powerful a force today as was the Catholic Church in Chaucer’s day, even if still infested with evil.  I revere Shakespeare highly also, and I have sometimes alluded to him in my writing, quite shamelessly without acknowledgement, as I assume the acknowledgement is in the allusion.

In subtler ways I think Goethe has been an influence, particularly through his wonderful mastery over short lines.  Rilke has been, and to some extent also George.  I much admire their symbolism (and Yeats also in this) their ability to lift an image into a symbol. I admire symbolism as raising images to possibly their highest possible levels of significance.

Rilke’s middle poems, known as Dinggedichte (thing poems), so much turn the thing that he starts out with into a symbol, in the last line of ‘Flamingos’, for example, where the birds in their sheer beauty step off into the imaginary, or his ‘Swan’, where it is an open question whether the swan is like death, or death like the swan.  That two way symbolism is magnificently subtle.  I did once write a poem on a tooth extraction, where the tooth is missed.  I compare that to widowhood, but the likeness goes two ways.  Is the poem about a tooth, or about widowhood.  I am not saying that Rilke’s poem influenced mine there, but that is a sort of symbolism that cuts both ways, each symbolizes the other.  And in his late poetry, Rilke was so involved in his symbolism, that he created whole worlds of symbol that he wrote from within.

The poet I feel greatest identity with is Friedrich Hölderlin.  Sometimes I have felt so identified with him that translating a poem of his has been suited to a time of personal pain.  Poetry as therapy does not only happen through writing one’s own poem.

Alok Mishra: The usual question that I ask every poet I talk to, do you think poetry has lost the readership and is now limited to a certain group of readers who are all in fact poets themselves? 

Murray Alfredson: Has poetry lost readership?  Any answer to this will be necessarily opinion rather than science.  It is the sort of question that can be answered only over time by some sort of longitudinal study.  But whatever we might learn some sort of answer by doing a study right now, it will only be a base against which future studies can be prepared  And in terms of gross numbers, despite the impression of writers and publishers that readership has declined, in absolute terms it might have held steady or even increased, simply by dint of population growth.

But I do suspect that readership of poetry has declined, though not of all classes of poetry.  In my country, ballads remain popular, and though I don’t write them, I honour balladeers for their contact and touch with their audiences.  I suppose some academics might look down their noses at our bush ballads; the people who read them, listen to them and set them into song, have no such scorn.

Much modern poetry has taken a direction that alienates readers, however.  I think the attitude I have occasionally encountered that it is up to the reader to spend a lot of time in order even to begin to glimpse what one’s poem is about reflects a certain arrogance by the poet.  Storywriters would never subscribe to such a view. They even call the opening sentences of their stories as a ‘hook’.  I really do think the more way out poets need to take a leaf from every story writer’s book.  Poets who do not take pains to interest their readers do deserve to be ignored.  What bothers me is that they tar the rest of us with their own brush, and damage the repute of poets who do wish to reach readers.  Some challenge is one thing; downright obscurity is quite another.

Apart from that, in some ways education has taken turns that make it hard for poetry to make headway.  Some say these things about the teaching of mathematics, and at least in the west, mathematics and the physical sciences have dropped in popularity.  Rightly, we question the teachers on this.  Similarly, I suspect that many teachers by now have not really learned to appreciate poetry, as many teachers did back in the 1950s.  So they avoid poetry in the curriculum, or downplay it.

Then there is the market.  I suppose poetry has never been the highest selling segment of the book market.  But with decisions by the major booksellers and publishers to ignore poetry altogether (perhaps not quite ignore everything before Wordsworth) it is very hard for poetry to be even noticed at all as a social and cultural phenomenon.  And this has largely occurred as a result of the devotion these days to that dreary god, Mammon.

But don’t take my word for this.  These are just a few thoughts of mine.

Alok Mishra: What message do you want to give to the poets who have recently taken up their pens to render their feelings into words?

Murray Alfredson: I have seen quite a bit among younger people who would write poetry that the thing it just to express one’s feelings.  I sometimes wonder whether the continues predominance of fee verse has something to do with this, an impatience with the craft aspects of poetry, with the so-called ‘rules’ and with a wish for ‘freedom’ of expression.  This might be said to be an old thing.

About 250 years ago young poets in Germany staged a revolt against the French dominated acceptable forms of poetry that prevailed in the German culture of their day.  But the result was very different from the futile poetry wars that have seen editors these days declaring forcefully against rhymed verse, for example.  The result in Germany unlike the 150 years later revolt by the young Turks of the early twentieth century in England and North America was not one of attempting to impose a new orthodoxy that tried o squash other modes, but and one that tried to throw away the methods that went before, but an opening up of the field to many forms of poetry writing, some of it being free verse.  So, folk poetry, including ballad writing, became a range of models.  As did the adaptation of ancient Greek and Latin metric forms to a modern, accentuated language.  Poets like Klopstock lead the way here, but also others somewhat younger such as Goethe, Hölty, and Schiller took up the newer experimentation.  This ‘revolt’, however, was not vituperative, and it gave rise to a more catholic tradition, where any one poet might write in many and varied modes.  The free verse remained to this day, but so did the use of many other verse forms.

So, what lessons here are there for the young poets today?

First, try to avoid dogmatism.  Some accuse me of dogmatism, that I am prejudiced against free verse.  Yet I do write free verse, and as an editor accept good free verse for publication.  I do, however, argue that there are certain poetic principles across all modes of poetry, and that these need to inform our writing.  I am not saying that these principles are rules, as sometimes they can be dropped in a fine poem.  For example, the imagists rightly stressed the importance of images in writing, and in writing through the use of images.  Yet in the poetry of several hundred years ago imagery images were at times used very sparsely; and ‘argument’ predominated.  Words can have emotive power without image.  Consider this short poem by Hölderlin in my translation, a poet often very lush and colourful in his images.  An issue is put, as though it were an image, but the poem as a whole is simply argument arranged in a perfectly executed German Asclepiad stanza form.

The Unforgivable

When your friends you forget, when you the artist scorn
and the deepest of souls hold to be mean and small,
God forgives it; just never
spoil the peace of a loving pair.

This leads to the second principle, to be brief and succinct in expression, to waste neither words nor syllables.  That is one of Hölderlin’s strengths, and a strength of all great poetry, to be compressed in one’s language, but in a way that gives every appearance of being relaxed and comfortable, of being unforced.  Examine the wording of poets who make an impact, and you will find that same quality of unforced compression.  And of course, much of the secret in such compression is to rely most on the words of placement of an object (nouns) and of action (verbs).  Adjectives and adverbs so frequently leach away the impact of our writing.  Think of a walking stick or an umbrella as a defensive weapon.  The impact from a thrust with the small end is so much greater than from a swing with the length.

Despite my point about poetry not having to use imagery, learn to use images effectively, and appeal through all the senses, and just through the visual.  When Shakespeare in his sonnet on his mistresses lack of conventional appeal (no. 130), compares her hair to wires, ‘black wires grow on her head’ the appeal is strongly through the sense of touch, or to smell in this couplet:

And in some perfumes is there more delight
than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

And this example brings us to my third point, to use the most apt words, those that make a powerful impact.  How much force is concentrated into that one word, ‘reeks’.

So do not eschew the craft aspects of poetry, even something these days often considered so trivial rhyme is a strong part of that.  Consider the unexpected rhyme that clinches a good Limerick.  Or, at a more lofty level, consider the ‘easy’ virtuosity of Byron’s rhyming.


Alok Mishra: It was nice talking to you sir. Many thanks for your time sir, wish you good health and peace fused with lots of creativity!