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by Bamber Gascoigne

Les Murray (1938-2019)


Prolific Australian poet and essayist, whose major theme was the "Australianness", the landscape, colonial history, and redneck bravado of his country. In his verse Les Murray combined rural intimateness and his personal references with the timeless elegance of classical poets. Also Aboriginal world-view, especially perception of the land, influenced 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 suffered from bullying and name-calling, learning "a plethora of fat-names".

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. After their son, Alexander, was disgnosed with autism, Murray recognised mild autistic traits in himself. "I’m what you might call a high-performing Asperger. I’m not very good at human relations, and it took me a terribly long time to deal easily with people." ('A Conversation with Les Murray' by J. Mark Smith, Image, Winter 2009-2010) 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, away from the spiritual centre of his poetry. 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 is the curiously isolated Bunyah, a sacred place. Farm work, which is observed without sentimentality, is associated with basic values, freedoms, and obligations. Commonplace and even national clichés had their place in his poetry. Before moving back to Bunyah, he said in 'The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever' (The People's Otherworld, 1983): "Satisfied ambition, defeat, true unconcern, / the wish and the knack for self-forgetfulness / all fall within the scunge ambit / wearing board shorts or similar; / it is a kind of weightlessness."

"Murray is not a poet of the inner life", J.M. Coetzee stated 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 contrasted 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). Until his breakdown, Murray had been an eight-cigar-a-day smoker, but he "suddenly became unable to endure the taste of tobacco; it was worse than burning rubber, and this change has been lasting. " (Killing the Black Dog, 2011, p. 3)

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. In 1991 Murray became Literary Editor of Quadrant. Murray started to regard poetry as a religious vocation in the 1960s, but although he had grown up in a strongly Presbyterian community, he converted in 1964 to Catholicism, the faith of his wife and several of his cousins. Beginning from The People's Otherworld, he dedicated his subsequent collections "to the glory of God." Poetry is a literary expression of the Divine: "Religions are poems. They concert / our daylight and dreaming mind, our / emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture / into the only whole thinking: poetry." ('Poetry and Religion,' from The Daylight Moon, in Collected Poems: 1961-2002, 2002, p. 265) 

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. Taller When Prone, Murray's first collection of poems since The Biplane Houses (2006), appeared in 2010.

Murray served as writer-in-residence at several universities. His 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. Les Murray died on 29 April, 2019, at a nursing home at Taree. For many years, he was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

For further reading: 'Murray, Les(lie) A(llan), in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby (1991); A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry by Lawrence Bourke (1992); Counterbalancing Light: Essays on Les Murray, edited by Carmel Gaffney (1992);  'Murray, Les(lie) A(llan), in Encyclopedia of the World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, edited by 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, edited by Laurie Hergenham and Bruce Clunies Ross (2002); Les Murray and Australian Poetry, edited by Angela Smith (2002); Les Murray Country: Development and Significance of an Australian Poetic Landscape by Ulla Fürstenberg (2004); 'Les Murray, The Art of Poetry No. 89' by Dennis O'Driscoll, in  The Paris Review, Issue 173 (Spring 2005); 'In Their Fathers' Footsteps: Performing Masculinity and Fatherhood in the Work of Les Murray and Michael Ondaatje' by Katharine Burkitt, in Performing Masculinity,  edited by Rainer Emig, Antony Rowland (2010); "Art with its largesse and its own restraint": the Sacramental Poetics of Elizabeth Jennings and Les Murray by Stephen McInerney, in Between Human and Divine: the Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, edited by Mary R. Reichardt (2010); The Enclosure of an Open Mystery: Sacrament and Incarnation in the Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, David Jones, and Les Murray by Stephen McInerney (2012); The West Verandah: The Life and Work of Les Murray, edited by Sonia Mycak (2016)

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, 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, 2010
  • Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression, 2011
  • Best 100 Poems of Les Murray, 2012
  • New Selected Poems, 2014
  • On Bunyah, 2015
  • Waiting for the Past, 2016 (First American edition)
  • Collected Poems, 2018
  • The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray, 2019
  • Continuous Creation: Last Poems 2022

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