Robert Gray was born in Coffs Harbour, a small town on the north coast of New South Wales. In the 1970s, he settled in Sydney, where he still lives. His love of the countryside of his native region, his interest in poetry, Zen-Buddhism and painting formed early on a counterweight to his precarious family situation, about which he writes for the first time – frankly and with much humour – in his autobiographical prose work A Light in the Porch (due to appear later in 2008). His father, an alcoholic and a disillusioned intellectual, was banished from Sydney by his well-to-do family to a small banana plantation in ‘the distant north’, a plantation which, after he had laboriously farmed it for a few years, he lost in a wager when Robert Gray was about ten years old. His mother, on the other hand, a farmer’s daughter from the area, was an enthusiastic member of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This sums up much of what Gray is not, and his poetry is characterised, among other things, precisely by a kind of sobriety, lucidity and reverence for sensory perception, in which – as an autodidact – he refers to such sources as Aristotle, modern science and Buddhism.
Gray also draws and paints, though purely as an amateur, and sees this occupation as a natural complement to the writing of poetry: "Writing becomes inward. Drawing is like going out into the world again. It's like going outdoors. I return to words freshened with a determination to relate them closer to things, not to be caught up in opaque and self-absorbed language."
About his first experiencing the phenomenon of 'poetry' Gray says, "It was the image that led me to poetry (the image in the form of analogy). When I was twelve, I experienced an epiphany, as the teacher was reading to us from that wonderfully Keatsian book The Wind in the Willows. He read a description of the Mole and the Water Rat at breakfast. Mole was eating hot toast, through which the butter was described as dripping 'like honey out of the honeycomb'." Suddenly, Gray noticed, he saw something razor-sharp in his mind's eye that he actually must have looked at often – without ever really having seen it. "I saw that we can perceive more fully in a work of art, when we are lifted out of the 'buzzing, blooming confusion of life', than we can ordinarily, and so I decided to write poems."
With his poetry debut Creekwater Journal (1973) Robert Gray at once established his name as a highly skilful and original 'imagist'. Even Les Murray, who had until then staunchly refused to review the work of a fellow-Australian, was moved to write: "Mr Gray has an eye, and the verbal felicity which must accompany such an eye. He can use an epithet and image to perfection and catch a whole world of sensory understanding in a word or a phrase." In illustration, he quoted one of Gray's haiku-like three-liners: "4 a.m. the Milky Way is blown along / high over the forest. / A truck changes down." Murray, however, also wondered if Gray's talent for impressions of such hallucinatory clarity would not hamper his further development as a poet and keep him from taking on more complex themes. Murray's fears turned out to be unfounded. Apart from pure nature poetry – the play of water and light in Sydney Harbour is a recurrent theme – there are discursive and narrative poems to be found in all his collections, such as the famous 'Flames and Dangling Wire' – about a visit to a garbage dump – or 'Diptych', which paints a moving portrait of his parents.
"Things as they are are what is mystical," says Gray in 'A Testimony' (in Lineations, 1996), "Those who search deepest are returned to life . . . What is most needed is that we become more modest. And the work of art that can return us to our senses." This modesty feeds a poetic craftsmanship of rare integrity. As Les Murray later noted, "Robert Gray is one of the contemporary masters of poetry in English."
[Robert Gray took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam in 1999 and 2008. This article is based on texts written on those occasions.]
Robert Gray on Lyrikline