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Killing the Black Dog

Les Murray

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Killing the Black Dog

Title: Killing the Black Dog
Author: Les Murray
Genre: various
Written: (2009)
Length: 86 pages
Availability: Killing the Black Dog - US
Killing the Black Dog - UK
Killing the Black Dog - Canada
  • A Memoir of Depression
  • Includes the title-piece, an Afterword (2009), and a selection poems
  • Originally published 1997, revised and updated 2009

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Our Assessment:

B+ : forthright depression-confessional, plus related poems

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Australian Literary Review . 12/2009 Peter Goldsworthy
The NY Rev. of Books . 29/9/2011 J.M.Coetzee
The NY Times . 9/3/2011 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/4/2011 Meghan O’Rourke
The Washington Times . 22/5/2011 E. Colette Wilkinson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Killing the Black Dog is rowdy and plainspoken. The details of what he went through, the weeping, the rage, the incoherence, are harrowing. It’s typical of Mr. Murray to give his late-night turmoil a jaunty name. He calls it "the 4 a.m. Show." Mr. Murray’s brand of pirate radio, broadcasting at any hour, is worth turning the dials to find." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "It’s a pungent, forthright primer in what depression can look like -- and surely will make many suffering from the disease feel less alone with it. It also lifts the curtain on the stagecraft of poetry and offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour, elucidating just what the special abilities of poetry are. (...) One affecting aspect of Killing the Black Dog is witnessing how eager Murray is for an explanation, a narrative. (...) Killing the Black Dog lingers in the mind. You might even feel that its oversimplifications are its most articulate moments, when we understand just how hard it is to translate pain into something ordered and meaningful." - Meghan O’Rourke, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Killing the Black Dog is in some ways a transcript of this self-examination. And true to Lecter’s insistence on absolute, unsparing honesty, Mr. Murray exhumes his friendless, grief-riddled childhood and untangles the skeins of rage and alienation that have bound him since his earliest days." - Emily Colette Wilkinson, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Killing the Black Dog contains both Les Murray's 1997 lecture of the same title (along with, in the revised and updated 2009 edition, an Afterword to it), and then twenty-five related poems, 'The Black Dog Poems'.
       In the lecture Murray describes the course of the deep depression that hit him when he reached fifty, its causes, and how he came to terms with it all. With little self-pitying, Murray lays out how it affected him and how he reacted, revealing a deep vulnerability. The immediate trigger to this midlife depressive phase was a woman who: "cheerfully recalled to me one of the nicknames she had bestowed on me thirty-odd years previously", bringing the weight of his adolescent outsider status crashing down on him again, but among the other causes was also the guilt over his mother's death (and father's distance).
       Confronting this past, and working his way through it, ultimately did the trick, more or less, and made the 'Black Dog' manageable, and Murray sketches out the most significant parts here. While the tone of the account is hardly detached, Murray tries hard to present the facts straightforwardly and not to get emotional about it; his hurt shows through, but he strikes a good tone, avoiding (publicly) wallowing in his pain.
       Of interest is also the effect his 'Black Dog'-phase had on his writing, and he describes some of that as well -- including that:

I cut down on my writing prose pieces because they were more liable than poetry to be infiltrated with the colours of confusion and obsession. Poetry does not only require discipline, it is a discipline, and resists imbalance and turgidity by evaporating when they clamour to get in.
       Some of Murray's issues with the political and literary establishments in Australia are also addressed -- notably the differences he had (has ?) with the "so-called Generation '68" and everything of that time ("I have tried to grow away from even the memory of that horrible era"), and his lingering bitterness (or rather outright loathing) are evident both here and in some of the poems.
       Meanwhile, it is also amusing to find him note that fictional psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (of The Silence of the Lambs) also served him well:
He impressed upon me that for self-examination to work, you must tell the exact truth, suppressing nothing.
       From the weeping man of 'An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow' to the opening claim of 'Rock Music' -- "Sex is a Nazi" -- 'The Black Dog Poems' included here offer a variety of glimpses into that period when: "the black dog was my brain". The anger -- of which there is more than despair -- can seem a little self-righteous and occasionally petty ("Most Culture has been an East German plastic bag", or "Modernism's not modern: it's police and despair"), but it still makes for a decent, small collection, and an obviously interesting counterpart to the lecture.
       Certainly of considerable interest to anyone interested in Murray and his poetry, Killing the Black Dog is a revealing if very succinct presentation of one man's personal demons and depressions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 December 2010

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Killing the Black Dog: Reviews: Les Murray: Other works by Les Murray under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry at the complete review
  • See Index of Biographical works under review
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian poet Les Murray was born in 1938. He has written numerous poetry collections, as well as two novels in verse.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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