Saturday, August 14, 2010

The education of an autistic poet

I've been weeding and dusting among my collection of old and secondhand books, and I've found a quote from an old interview with the famous Australian autistic poet Les Murray which I think illuminates some important aspects of the relationship between many autists and learning.

"The only person who could educate me was me. I did it by reading - I read everything - I learnt to read out of an encyclopaedia, so I wanted to know everything. I still try to know everything. I've realised there are two things I'm not going to master - The only music I can do is the music of words, and the only mathematics I can do is count my fingers if the lights are on."

We have here a description of an autistic autodidact, and a learner who's pathway into learning appears to have been the printed word, more than objects or people or spoken language. I'm sure there are many other autists who's pathway into learning about the world was things: objects, parts of objects, machines, devices or the natural world in general. I guess "hyperlexic" is a label that one could attach to Murray. I like the way this quote smashes the stereotype of the autist as a natural mathematician.

Another thing that I find interesting about this quote is Murray's ambition of omniscience, an eccentrically extreme drive to know about the world. I believe this know-it-all ambition is an autistic trait, and I believe it is all about trying to control and master the world by understanding it and memorizing all of the information that might come in handy while taking on the world. Well, that's my theory.

The quote was taken from page 74 of this book:

Olle, Andrew & Pullan, Robert (1992) On interviewing. ABC Enterprises, 1992.

Other documents about Les Murray:

Alexander, Peter F. (2000) Les Murray: a life in progress. Oxford University Press.
[Les Murray’s autism mentioned on page 25, his heterochromia mentioned on page 27, his son’s autism described in chapter 18]

Baird, Julia (2006) Les Murray: the poet who helped save the Snowy. Sunday Profile. ABC Local Radio. June 4, 2006.

Clark, Sue (presenter) & Koval, Ramona (interviewer) (2009) The Biplane Houses - Les Murray. Life & Times. ABC Radio National. August 29th 2009.
[a repeat of a 2006 interview from The Book Show in which Murray discussed Asperger syndrome, poetry and reading postcode books, and he read two of his poems that are about AS/autism]

Gray, Robert (2010) The omnivorous writer. Weekend Australian. April 10-11 2010 review p.18-19.
[autism mentioned briefly in this review of Taller when prone]

Mares, Peter (2009) Les Murray and the black dog. The Book Show. ABC Radio National, October 8th 2009.
[Interview with Murray to promote the republication of his essay Killing the black dog, in which Murray discusses the impact of depression on his writing, and autism briefly mentioned]

Mitchell, Paul (2006) Paul Mitchell reviews Les Murray. Cordite Poetry Review. Number 24, 1st July 2006.
[A review of the book The biplane houses in which Mitchell discusses the influence that he believes Murray's AS has had on Murray's poetry and personality]

Moran, Rod (2007) Murray’s troubled waters run deep. The West Australian. Weekend Extra, page 4, February 10, 2007.

Murray, Les, with introd. by Potts, Robert (2009) It allows a portrait in line scan at fifteen. Times Literary Supplement. TimesOnline. March 30th 2009.
[The TLS Poem of the Week, which is about the autistic characteristics of Murray's autistic son]

Murray, Les (2009) Killing the black dog. (revised edition) Black Inc, 2009.
[Murray makes reference to his own and his son's autism on pages 22, 32 and 36. The poems Demo and The Averted appear to be about the experience of being autistic.]

Murray, Les (1997) Killing the black dog: essay and poems. The Federation Press.
[Murray claims to be “very mildly autistic” on page 17]

Neill, Rosemary (2006) Songs of experience. Australian. April 8 2006.

Phillips, Juanita (2007) Lunch with Les Murray. Bulletin. March 20 2007.

Potts, Robert (2004) The voice of the outback. Guardian. May 15, 2004.,12084,1216273,00.html

Thompson, Peter (2010) Les Murray. Talking Heads. ABCTV. broadcast June 21st 2010.
[transcript available, autism mentioned a couple of times]

Wootten, William (2006) Salt, land and tears. Guardian. October 21, 2006.,,1927616,00.html

This list of documents is excerpted from the references section of my MONSTER list:

A referenced list of 173 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum


Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Oh, I love that quote! I am self-taught about nearly everything. I even taught myself to read as a child, and the printed word has always been my anchor. I have that same thirst to know and to understand.

My first husband used to say that my whole approach to life could be summed up as a series of questions: "What's that over there? And there? And there? And why is it like that? And why did he do that? And why do they say that? And where's the book that explains that? Or do I have to write that?" He didn't always understand me, but he definitely got that part right.

Lili Marlene said...

Glad you liked it Rachel.