Les Murray Overview

The following is from The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, eds. William H. Wilde, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Murray, Les (Leslie Allan Murray)   (1938– ), born Nabiac in the Manning River district of the lower north coast of NSW, spent his childhood and adolescence on his grandfather's dairy farm in the nearby Bunyah district. His Murray forebears had arrived on the Manning in the 1840s and he has always been proud of both his Gaelic and pioneer Australian ancestry. A placid but solitary rural childhood ended when he was 12 with the death of his mother, an event recalled in his ‘Three Poems in Memory of My Mother, Miriam Murray née Arnall’. In 1957 he began an arts degree at the University of Sydney. After four years of pursuing his own interests – usually in the Fisher Library or in the company of kindred literary spirits such as Geoffrey Lehmann and Bob Ellis – he left without a degree but with something of a reputation as a wit and an intellectual and with an attraction to Roman Catholicism, which faith he later officially embraced. In 1962 he married Budapest-born Valerie Morelli. During 1963–67 he was a translator of foreign scholarly and technical material at the ANU. In 1965, after the collaborative volume The Ilex Tree (with Lehmann) won the Grace Leven Prize for poetry, Murray attended the British Commonwealth Arts Festival Poetry Conference at Cardiff. In 1967 he resigned his ANU position and lived with his wife and two children for more than a year in England and Europe. He was briefly (1970) a public servant in Canberra but returned to Sydney (Chatswood) determined to make a career as a full-time writer. Aided, over the years, by numerous Literature Board grants, several editorial positions, income from book reviews, articles and essays in newspapers and journals, and royalties and prizes from about twenty books of poetry and prose, he could be said to have adequately achieved that aim. From 1973 to 1979 he was editor of Grace Perry's Poetry Australia, holding the fort as long as he could against the inroads of the so-called New Poetry, of ‘literary modernism’, that surfaced in Australia in those years. One of his complaints about post-modernism was that it removed poetry from widespread, popular readership, leaving it the domain of a small intellectual clique. From 1976 to 1991 he was poetry editor of Angus & Robertson and in 1990 became literary editor of Quadrant. By 1978 his literary stature was such that he became writer-in-residence at the University of New England (the first of several such literary tenancies to be held by him) and he began to be invited to represent Australia (and poetry) at overseas literary festivals and conferences. By the 1980s he was widely recognised as one of Australia's leading contemporary poets and literary personalities. His poetry has won numerous awards, among them the Grace Leven Prize on three occasions – The Ilex Tree in 1965, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral in 1980 and Dog Fox Field in 1991; the Captain Cook Bicentenary Literary Competition Prize for ‘Seven Points for an Imperilled Star’ included in Poems Against Economics (1972); the C.J. Dennis Memorial Prize for The Vernacular Republic (1976); the National Book Council Award for Lunch and Counterlunch (1975); the Canada-Australia Literary Award, the FAW Christopher Brennan Award, the NSW Premier's Award for Poetry and the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal, all in 1984 and all for The People's Otherworld; the 1993 C.J. Dennis Award in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, the NBC Banjo Award for poetry in 1993, and the 1993 NSW Premier's Literary Award, all for Translations from the Natural World. Two of his volumes, The Daylight Moon (1987) and Dog Fox Field (1990) became the annual choices of the UK Poetry Society. In 1989 he was awarded an Australian Creative Arts Fellowship; in 1991 he was the subject of an ABC television programme in the True Stories series; he has been made AO and has received an honorary D.Litt. from the University of New England.

Notwithstanding his success in the literary world both in Australia and overseas and his high public profile, Murray never wavered in his resolve to return to the privacy of Bunyah to live. In 1975 he was able to buy back part of the lost family farm and returned there for brief recuperative periods whenever possible. In late 1985, after an exhausting lecture and reading tour of Canada, North America and Europe, he returned with his family permanently to Bunyah – ‘I had been twenty-nine years away’, he lamented in ‘The Idyll Wheel’. Long labelled by the tabloids ‘The Bard of Bunyah’, he had finally taken up his favourite poet-in-residence position. The return did not, however, indicate an indolent, bucolic retirement. Two anthologies of verse compiled and edited, four further volumes of poetry written and two books of essays published since his return attest to his continuing contribution to Australian writing.

Murray's volumes of poetry are The Ilex Tree (1965, with Lehmann), The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969), Poems Against Economics (1972), Lunch & Counterlunch (1974), The Vernacular Republic (1976, a Selected Poems volume which has been regularly updated, e.g. 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988), Ethnic Radio (1977), The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980), The People's Otherworld (1983), The Daylight Moon (1987), Dog Fox Field (1990) and Translations from the Natural World (1992). In 1991 a Collected Poems in the A & R Modern Poets series was published; a selection from his previous volumes (except Dog Fox Field) rather than a full Collected edition, it won the 1992 FAW Barbara Ramsden Award. He has collected the best of his book reviews, articles and essays in four prose volumes, The Peasant Mandarin (1978), Persistence in Folly (1984), Blocks and Tackles (1990) and The Paperbark Tree (1992). He edited The Australian Year (photographs by Peter Solness) in 1985; subtitled The Chronicle of Our Seasons and Celebrations, it is a well-informed, lyrical and loving evocation of Australia. Murray's two anthologies are The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986) and the Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry (1986). The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (critically well received) is a somewhat eccentric collection with no more than three poems from any one writer, no accompanying notes about poets or poems, no long-standing favourite A.B. Paterson characters, a sprinkling of religious poems and numerous (thirty-one) translations of Aboriginal songs and song-cycles. It is also a typical Murray selection in that more than half the book illustrates the Murray reverence for the land and the landscape and the Murray belief in the Bush and Bush values. The bulk of the poems in the religious anthology come from the post-Second World War period. Unorthodox, in that the term ‘religious’ in the title is sometimes loosely interpreted, the anthology has proved popular with readers, necessitating a second edition within five years of publication. It incorporates the work of many of Australia's best poets – James McAuley, A.D. Hope, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Bruce Dawe, Francis Webb, Roland Robinson, Kevin Hart and Murray himself – twenty-three of his own pieces. Murray's account of the compiling of the anthology was given in the 1986 Aquinas Lecture, later reproduced in Blocks and Tackles.

There is a richness and diversity in Les Murray's poetry which quickly disposes of the simplistic labelling of ‘disguised autobiography’ that some critics have occasionally sought to apply to it. Murray himself does not accept that his ‘various books constitute chapters of the one work’ but there is, nevertheless, an obvious unity and wholeness in much of his writing. At the core of that unity is his consistent commitment to the ideals and values of what he sees as the real Australia, that is, the Australia centred – as the nationalistic 1890s version has it – on its rural heart-land, the Bush. For Murray that rural-centred Australia (his ‘vernacular republic’), although superficially modified by modern times and technologies, exists today essentially the same as it was in earlier times. The continuing themes of much of his poetry are those inherent in that traditional nationalistic identity – respect, even reverence, for the pioneers; the importance of the land and its shaping influence on the Australian character; admiration for that special Australian character, down-to-earth, laconic (‘we are a colloquial nation’) and based on such Bush-bred qualities as egalitarianism, practicality, straightforwardness and independence; special respect for that Australian character in action in wartime (‘the country soldiers’); and a brook-no-argument preference for the rural life over the sterile and corrupting urban environment. Such themes appear early in his published poems, e.g. in ‘Noonday Axeman’ from The Ilex Tree and ‘Evening Alone at Bunyah’ from The Weatherboard Cathedral. ‘Noonday Axeman’ reveres the toil and endurance of the pioneer Murrays:

A hundred years of clearing, splitting, sawing,
a hundred years of timbermen, ringbarkers, fencers
and women in kitchens, stoking loud iron stoves
year in, year out, and singing old songs to their children.

From those pioneers, and others like them, have come, for Australia, ‘the rough foundation of legends’. Wielding his own noonday axe where his ‘great-great-grandfather … with his first sons’ had done the same, he acknowledges the claim that the land and the past have on him. Distracted as he would certainly be down the years by ‘the talk and dazzle of cities’ he knew that ‘the city will never quite hold me. I will be always coming back here …’ In ‘Evening Alone at Bunyah’ the finality of ‘This country is my mind. I lift my face and count my hills’ indicates the only course open to Murray when those distractions have ultimately been put aside. The final return to Bunyah took longer than he would have anticipated and the poems themselves trace the continuing saga of loss and recovery – ‘The Away-bound Train’, where he dreams of his ‘left-behind hills’ on one of his half-reluctant journeys back ‘to the twentieth century’; ‘Blood’, where his ‘smart city life’ has made him momentarily squeamish about the slaughter of the pig, until his cousin's mild reproof reminds him of the natural rural order that requires such acts; ‘SMLE’, where, on another brief visit to Bunyah, he goes out shooting, a country action that when done ‘rightly according to its nature’ is one of the rare valid uses to which a rifle is put; ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, where he and his family, and other city families like them, crowd back briefly to the country for the Christmas holidays to recover their origins, ‘walking out, looking all around, relearning that country’; ‘Cowyard Gates’, where the old house he lived in as a boy has finally been pulled down, an event which he partly blames on his own repeated desertions of it; ‘Laconics: The Forty Acres’, where having at last bought back ‘our beautiful deep land’, he can plan in detail for the ultimate return. And when the recovery has been effected there are poems to tell of that – ‘Extract from a Verse Letter to Dennis Haskell’, where what has been regained (‘the milk and honey I came home for’) are ‘Trees, space, waterbirds – things of that ilk/plus people of my own kind’. The distractions of ‘this metropolitan century’ are at last rejected with the ultimatum that the years away finally brought: ‘get out of Yuppie City or go mad’.

‘Aspects of Language and War on the Gloucester Road’ has him safely returned, nostalgically recalling events from his own and Bunyah's past. In ‘The Idyll Wheel’ he describes, in a baker's dozen poems (there are two Aprils), the month-by-month cycle of the first year back. A labour of love, ‘The Idyll Wheel’, which appeared in a limited edition in 1989, in parts in Dog Fox Field and in toto in the 1991 Collected, is rich in verbal imagery. Heart, mind and eye banquet on Keatsian colours – ‘purple, foam-white, skims of leek and sherry, tawny, bronze and citrine, rosy-blue’ – and on the beauty of Spring:

Burning days … die out over west mountains
    erased with azure
…Emerald kingparrots, crimson-breasted, whirr
    and plane out of open feed sheds
…Poddy calves wobbling in their newborn mushroom colours
…Bees and pollen drift
    through greening orchards.

The preference for rural life and values exhibited in the above poems is private and personal. That same preference was aired in a more universal, public and hence more controversial, manner in Murray's essay ‘On Sitting Back and Thinking about Porter's Boeotia’, published in 1978 in Elkin's Australian Poems in Perspective and later included in The Peasant Mandarin. Porter's judgement of Australia, in ‘On First Looking into Chapman's Hesiod’, was that it was Boeotian in character and attitude and likely to remain so, Boeotian equating to primitive, unpolished, uncultured and over-traditional. ‘Australians’, he said, ‘are Boeotians’, and he described the Boeotian poet Hesiod in terms clearly applicable to Murray:

Like a Taree small-holder splitting logs
And philosophising on his dangling billies

Chris Wallace-Crabbe later saw Murray somewhat similarly – ‘Oscar Wilde in moleskins’ – though Murray, indeed, has a marked preference for shorts and ‘Wellies’. In his thoughts on Porter's poem Murray dated the fundamental tension that has long existed between the two models of civilisation – the rural and the urban – from the rivalry that sprang up between the newly established Athens of the sixth century BC and the older, rural Boeotia. Urbanminded Athens grew scornful of traditional, pastoral Boeotia, whose people and ways it held to be boorish and old-fashioned and whose art and culture it saw as unsophisticated and unexciting. Porter envisaged ‘a new land’ of the future where the individual would be valued for his intellect and culture but Australia was unlikely to become that new land, being too limited by its Boeotian past and present. Murray, however, saw merit in Australia's Boeotian-ness – it was the only true distinctiveness that Australia possessed (‘our distinctiveness is still firmly anchored in the bush’). Australia, he felt, could become Porter's ‘new land’, but only if it retained the Boeotian quality that came with its beginnings, only if it refused to allow that rural character to be swamped by an imported, imposed Athenian culture. Among the distinctive Boeotian figures are the Aborigines – ‘their culture is a Boeotian source of immeasurable value to us all’. There is ‘wisdom in Australia's Boeotian-ness’ and the idea of our ‘deliberately remaining Boeotia is full of exciting possibilities’It would be something indeed, to break with Western culture by not taking, even now, the characteristic second step into alienation, into élitism and the relegation of all places except one or two urban centres to the sterile status of provincial no-man's-land largely deprived of any art or any creative self-confidence. This is what is at stake.

In each of his volumes Murray has produced memorable poems. Poems Against Economics (1972) is a composite of three sequences, ‘Seven Points for an Imperilled Star’, which won the Captain Cook Bicentenary literary competition in 1970, ‘Juggernaut's Little Scrapbook’ and ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’. The ‘Imperilled Star’ sequence includes ‘Toward the Imminent Days’, an epithalamium for his friends Geoff Lehmann and Sally McInerney. ‘Walking to the Cattle Place’, a complex meditation sequence of sixteen ‘cow’ poems (few poets have found poetry in dairy cows) is given some framework but little explanation by Murray's comment, ‘I set out to follow a cow and I found a whole world, a spacious, town-despising grassland where Celt and Zulu and Verdic Aryan were one in their concerns.’ The most substantial poem in Ethnic Radio is ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’, a group of thirteen poems (songs) in the style and metre of R.M. Berndt's translation of ‘The Moon-bone Song’ from the Wonguri linguistic group of the Aboriginal Mandjigai (Manjikai) tribe of north-eastern Arnhem Land. A remarkable fusing of ancient Aboriginal and modern White Australian urban and rural cultures (for example, the Pacific Highway in holiday time is described in terms of the all-giving Rainbow Snake), the ‘Holiday Song Cycle’ is an imaginative poetic statement of the Jindyworobak dream that White Australians should have the same affinity with the environment as the Aborigines had, and is also another emphatic illustration of the loss suffered when children grow up and desert their rural origins for urban life.

The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, a sequence of 140 sonnets, is a novel-in-verse. Two young men, Kevin Forbutt and Cameron Reeby, steal the body of a First World War veteran, Clarrie Dunn (Kevin's great-uncle), from a Sydney funeral parlour and carry it by car to the old man's native place, an isolated spot named Dark's Plain on the NSW north coast. In carrying out the old man's wish to be buried at Dark's Plain, Kevin manages also to escape from the unrewarding urban environment into a more satisfying rural existence.

The People's Otherworld (the title a joking reference once made by him to Australia), in which Murray allowed an exuberance of language that matched his customary rich visual imagination, so dazzled the critics and literary judges that it won virtually every poetry prize in 1984. Several poems both admire and question the impact of modern technology, especially where it is dramatically changing the once familiar face of the urban landscape. Commenting on the book he remarked, ‘The old idea that Murray only writes about rural stuff is an exaggeration’. In spite of that protest about a critical view that has really never been widely held, ‘the governing pastoral vision with all its ambivalence toward technology’, in the words of Lawrence Bourke, remains firmly in place in these poems. ‘The Sydney Highrise Variations’ (first published in the Bulletin, 1980) contains five poems. The first, ‘Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville road bridge in the year 1980’, sets the scene. Compelled by a car breakdown to wait ‘atop a great building of the double century’ (the bridge), Murray has the opportunity to take in the ‘View of Sydney, Australia, from Gladesville road bridge’.

In ‘The Flight from Manhattan’ he attributes the modern Sydney city skyline to the New York skyscraper influence. The remaining pieces, ‘The C19–20’ and ‘The Recession of the Jones’, link the technology that produces such vast urban structures to the cargo cult of consumerism that consumes the lives of so many in contemporary times. ‘Variations’ certainly reflects Murray's awestruck wonder at the miracles of modern technology, but the ultimate message of the poems is regret that, in the onward march of technological genius, the old, familiar, accessible and fondly remembered Sydney that he knew has been all but obliterated. ‘Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman’, which shared the 1981 Mattara Poetry Festival Prize, is a spectacular set of ten Spenserian stanzas divided by a single sonnet (the ‘Pendant Spaceman’). This is a free-wheeling, exuberant set of verses, crammed with poetic devices and sparkling with witty verbal flourishes. The machines portrayed – e.g. a bulldozer, combine seeder, satellite dish, space shuttle, crane, geophone and river ferry – demonstrate the mechanical ingenuity that Murray clearly admires but carry with them a somewhat intimidating mystique that raises the question whether they indeed are the slaves or the masters. The poems of The Daylight Moon, wide-ranging as ever, include a number of narratives (tall tales of the bush) based on local oral history – e.g. ‘The Megaethon: 1850, 1906–29’, the story of the steam engine ordained by its owner to be walked from Sydney to the Hunter Valley; ‘Physiognomy on the Savage Manning River’, starring the tempestuous Isabella Mary Kelly; and ‘Federation Style on the Northern Rivers’ in which the astute storekeeper, J. Cornwell, to save his impecunious rural customers, outwits the city auditor. Prominent in The Daylight Moon also are poems dealing with the return to Bunyah, e.g., ‘Extract from a Verse Letter to Dennis Haskell’ and ‘Aspects of Language and War on the Gloucester Road’. Murray's stated aims for Dog Fox Field – to recover, or learn, the art of brevity and to use rhyme freely – were born of his long-held desire to make poetry accessible to a wider reading public. Poems such as ‘The Up-to-date Scarecrow’, ‘Midnight Lake’, ‘The Ballad of the Barbed Wire Ocean’, ‘Spotted Native Cat’, ‘The Tin Wash Dish’ and ‘Low Down Sandcastle Blues’, while admittedly brief and mostly rhyming, are, at best, semi-doggerel. Defending this marked change in technique Murray indicated (in Blocks and Tackles) his admiration for similar nineteenth-century verse – ‘newspaper’ verse and the populist poetry of the Bulletin school – which was, he said, ‘a colloquial middle-voice poetry’ that caught ‘a great deal of ordinary human experience’ and shared it ‘in an unfussed way with a broad range of people’. Until Dog Fox Field Murray, a truly modern bushman, had made no attempt to actually locate himself or his poetry in the Boeotian world of the Bush, no matter how strongly he and his poetry had urged the worth of that world. Some critics have seen little merit in his attempt to restore and revalue the colloquial poetry that was characteristic of it. Dog Fox Field, in spite of some exceptional poems – ‘The Transposition of Clermont’, ‘The Emerald Dove’, ‘Hastings River Cruise’ and ‘Spring’ – sometimes gives the impression of a poet momentarily out of sorts with himself, his muse and even the world about him. Translations from the Natural World indicates, having been published by Heinemann in the Australian Poetry series, that Murray's break with Angus & Robertson is complete. A multi-award winner, it also sees him return to his full capacity for brilliantly conceived and executed poetry. The book takes its title from the second section (of three) subtitled ‘Presence’. Each of the forty poems in ‘Presence’ takes a particular natural object and attempts to ‘translate’ the essential presence of that object into poetry, and to link such individual presences to the one all-encompassing presence of the natural (which includes the human) world.

The Peasant Mandarin gathers together a first selection of Murray's prose, the book reviews, articles and essays that he had written from 1972 to 1977. Two articles on the plight of the impecunious artist/writer and the need for both governmental and private support, ‘Patronage in Australia’ (1972) and ‘Patronage Revisited’ (1977), helped to bring that subject more fully into public debate to the benefit of writers. ‘The Australian Republic’ (originally in Quadrant April 1976), while deploring the lack of a true political republic, takes comfort in our possession of the one that is ‘inherent in our vernacular tradition’, our Vernacular Republic. Complementing the ‘Republic’ is ‘The Flag Rave’ in which he rejects the ‘three quarters of a national flag’ that Australia has and commends (while submitting four of his own designs) the Eureka Flag. Persistence in Folly (1984), a further prose collection, includes the major essay ‘The Human Hair Thread’, in which he pays tribute to the Aborigines and to the Jindyworobak movement, acknowledging aspects of both as the sources of his own view of the Australian psyche. Blocks and Tackles brought together his articles and essays from 1982 to 1990. ‘Poems and Poesies’ and ‘Poemes and the Mystery of Embodiment’, complex examinations of the inner workings of poetry and an essay on the timber-working history of the lower north coast, are notable pieces. The Paperbark Tree, published in England, contains thirty-eight prose pieces, all of which have appeared in other publications.

Lawrence Bourke's A Vivid Steady State (1992) is the first of an undoubted stream of major critical works on Murray destined to appear in the future.


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