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Les Murray (b. 1938)

 

Prolific Australian poet and essayist, whose major theme has been the "Australianness", the landscape, colonial history, and redneck bravado of his country. In his verse Murray has combined rural intimateness and his personal references with the timeless elegance of classical poets. He has also borrowed Aboriginal lore for his work.

"A man of farm and fact
he stared to see
the facts of weather raised
to a mystery"

(from 'Once in a Lifetime, Snow', 1969)

Leslie Allan Murray was born in the Nabiac, New South Wales, and raised in the Bunyah district, where his parents labored on his grandfather's dairy farm. When Murray was twelve his mother, Miriam Arnall, died after suffering a miscarriage. Murray's father, Cecil Allan, never fully recovered from the loss, and left his son to fend for himself. At school he was taunted for being fat.

After attending Talee High School, Murray studied English and German at the University of Sydney. After failing examinations, he dropped out for a period, but eventually completed his degree. Murray began writing at the university, but as early as 1954 he had planned to become an artist. With the poet Geoffrey Lehmann he co-edited the magazines Hermes and Arna. In 1960 Murray abandoned his studies partly because his father was not able to support him further, and went walkabout. He hitchhiked across the Nullarbor plain to Western Australia and took odd jobs. Towards the end of 1961 he returned to Sydney.

In 1962 Murray married Valerie Morelli, a teacher; they had five children. Murray worked for four years as a translator of science and technical material at the Australian National University. His B.A. degree Murray gained eventually in 1969. From 1967 to 1968 he lived with his wife and children in Europe, and on return worked as a civil servant for prime minister's department in Canberra. In 1971 Murray devoted himself entirely to writing.

The unifying focus of Murray's poems has been the curiously isolated Bunyah, a sacred place. Farm work, which is observed without sentimentality, is associated with basic values, freedoms, and obligations. "Murray is not a poet of the inner life", wrote J.M. Coetzee in The New York Review of Books (September 29, 2011). "Instead he relies on an acute sensitivity to sensory impressions and an extraordinary capacity to articulate them." Murray contrast urban and pre-modern, rural ways of life; the latter is based on the natural order of the universe. Some of his poems show an interest in makers and interpreters of traditional Aboriginal poetry and song. In 'Walking to the Cattle-Place' from Poems against Economics (1972) an everyday task leads to an insight into another culture: "I found a whole world, a spacious, town-despising grassland where Celt and Zulu and Vedic Aryan were one in their concerns." One of Murray's best-known poems is 'The Quality of Sprawl' from The People's Otherworld (1983), an ode to the Australian national ethos, in which rugged individualism is transformed nearly to mythical proportions. Murray defines this spiritual quality as "doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly," or "driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles," but it is "never brutal / though it's often intransigent."

Murray repurchased in 1975 part of the family farm, which his father had lost, but settled in the Bunyah district permanently in the mid-1980s. He suffered from depression for a while, and later recalled his crisis in Killing the Black Dog (2011). Between 1973 and 1979 Murray was an editor for Poetry Australia magazine, during which time he campaigned against intellectual pretensions and postmodern nihilism and obscurity. In his essay 'Patronage in Australia', first published in Australian Quaterly (September 1972), he argued that writers are "anciently one and the same profession" as priests. "By estranging and, in extreme cases, seeking to destroy the archaic trades, as the mercantile system has unremittingly tried to do making priests into councellors, farmers into industrial entrepreneurs or dispossessed urban proletariat, artists into actors out of repressed orgiastic desires we rob ourselves of models on which future human work activity may need to be based, and destroy continuities from past which may be necessary."

From 1976 to 1991 Murray was Poetry Editor and consultant for the publishers Angus & Robertson. In 1986 he completed The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse and The Anthology of Australian Religious Verse. Murray had began to regard poetry as a religious vocation in the 1960s, and converted in 1964 to Catholicism, also the faith of his wife and several of his cousins. In 1991 Murray became Literary Editor of Quadrant.

On July 1996 Murray was rushed into hospital after a large liver abscess. After recovering Murray published Fredy Neptune (1998), a verse novel, in which the hero journeys through the first half of 20th century and some of its darkest events but cut off from the world with a complete loss of any feeling.

Murray has been writer-in-residence at several universities. Murray's numerous awards include the Grace Leven Prize for Best Book of Verse in 1965 and 1980, the National Book Council Award in 1975 and 1985, the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1984, the Christopher Brennan Medal of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1985, the Australian Poetry Award in 1988 for The Daylight Moon, the Petrarch Prize in 1995, T.S. Eliot Prize in 1996, and the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry in 1998. For many years, Murray has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Taller When Prone, Murray's first collection of poems since The Biplane Houses (2006), is due to appear in 2011.

For further reading: World Authors 1980-1985, ed. Vineta Colby (1991); A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry by Lawrence Bourke (1992); Counterbalancing Light: Essays on Les Murray, ed. by Carmel Gaffney (1992); Encyclopedia of the World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Les Murray: A Life in Progress by Peter Alexander (2000); Les Murray by Steven Matthews (2001); Poetry of Les Murray: Critical Essays, ed. Laurie Hergenham and Bruce Clunies Ross (2002); Les Murray and Australian Poetry, ed.  Angela Smith (2002); Les Murray Country: Development and Significance of an Australian Poetic Landscape by Ulla Fürstenberg (2004)

Selected works:

  • The Ilex Tree, 1965 (with G. Lehmann)
  • An Introduction to the Principles of Phonological Descriptions by Nikolai Sergeevich Trubetskoi, 1968 (translator, with H. Bluhme)
  • The Weatherboard Cathedral, 1969
  • Poems against Economics, 1972
  • Lunch & Counter Lunch, 1974
  • The Vernacular Republic, 1976 (rev. ed. 1982)
  • Creeper Habit, 1976
  • The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces, 1978
  • Ethnic Radio, 1979
  • The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, 1979
  • The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1981, 1982
  • Equanimities, 1982
  • The People's Otherworld, 1983
  • Persistence in Folly: Selected Prose Writings, 1984
  • The Australian Year: the Chronicles of Our Seasons and Celebrations, 1985 (with P. Solness and others)
  • Selected Poems, 1986
  • Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry, 1986 (editor)
  • New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, 1986 (editor, rev. ed. 1991)
  • The Daylight Moon and Other Poems, 1987
  • The Gravy in Images, 1988
  • The Idyll Wheel, 1989
  • Blocks and Tackles: Articles and Essays 1982 to 1990, 1990
  • Dog Fox Field, 1990
  • Collected Poems, 1991
  • The Rabbiter's Bounty, 1991
  • The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose, 1992
  • Translations from the Natural World, 1992
  • A. B. Paterson: Selected Poems, 1992 (editor)
  • Fivefathers: Five Australian Poets of the Pre-Academic Era, 1994 (editor)
  • Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996
  • A Working Forest, 1997
  • Fredy Neptune, 1998
  • New Selected Poems, 1999
  • Learning Human: Selected Poems, 2000
  • Conscious & Verbal, 1999
  • The Quality of Sprawl, 1999
  • Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002
  • Collected Poems 1961-2002
  • The Full Dress: An Encounter with the National Gallery of Australia , 2002
  • New Collected Poems , 2002
  • Best Australian Poems 2004 (editor)
  • Hell and After: Four early English-language poets of Australia, 2005 (editor)
  • Best Australian Poems 2005 (editor)
  • The Biplane Houses, 2006
  • Selected Poems, 2007
  • Taller When Prone: Poems, 2011
  • Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression, 2011

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