Lawrence Bourke's Les Murray Overview
The following is from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English eds. Eugene Benson and L.W. Conolly (Routledge, 1994). Lawrence Bourke is the author of A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry (1992).
Born in Nabiac, New South Wales, Australia, he grew up an only child in the isolated Bunyah valley close by. Murrays had settled in the area in 1848 with other Scottish Presbyterians; by 1938 the great holdings had gone, and Murray's father, a tenant farmer, was later dispossessed when his father (and landlord) died. Twelve years after Les Murray's (induced) birth his mother miscarried, severely haemorrhaging. The district doctor refused to send an ambulance and she died. Murray, linking his birth to her death, traces his poetic vocation from these traumatic events, seeing in them the relegation of the rural poor by urban élites. Dispossession, relegation, and independence become major preoccupations of his poetry.
In 1957 Murray enrolled at the University of Sydney, meeting other university poets, notably Geoffrey Lehmann. In 1962 he married a Roman Catholic and in 1964 was baptized; Catholicism becomes increasingly overt in his poetry. After The Ilex Tree (with Lehmann, 1965), he found his poetic subject in The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969), setting the timber and dairy country of Bunyah against "exile" in the city, where he lived until his return to Bunyah in 1987.
Murray took upon himself the role of ebullient guardian of nationalist traditions and rural pieties, a complex that two collections of his verse describe as the "Vernacular Republic" (Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic, 1976, and The Vernacular Republic, 1988). His poetry quickly attracted critical attention. Kenneth Slessor favourably reviewed The Ilex Tree and awarded it the Grace Leven Poetry Prize for 1965. In 1970 Slessor awarded Murray first prize in the poetry section of the Captain Cook Bicentenary Literary Competition.
In 1971 Murray left "respectable cover occupations" translator at the Australian National University; public servant, Canberrato write poetry full time, soon cementing his position in poetry and publishing. In 1973 he became temporary editor of Poetry Australia, remaining until 1979. In 1976 the first edition of his selected works was published. In 1986 he edited The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse and the Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry. He was poetry reader and adviser for Angus and Robertson (later Collins/Angus and Robertson), the major publisher of Australian poetry, and in 1990 became Quadrant's poetry editor.
From 1972 Murray began writing literary journalism; some is collected in The Peasant Mandarin (1978), Persistence in Folly (1984), and Blocks and Tackles (1990). In a lively, frequently polemic prose style he promotes republicanism, patronage, Gaelic bardic poetry, warrior virtu, mysticism, and Aboriginal models, and attacks modernism and feminism.
In outline Murray recalls New Zealand poet James K. Baxter in the Gaelic heritage and value of clan; the conversion to Catholicism while retaining a Calvinist sense of election and wrath; anti-materialism; the sense of being an outsider while celebrating community; cultivation of vernacular idioms; ritualism and mythopoeia; and cultural borrowing from the indigenous people. Yet the differences are more striking. Baxter's myths centre upon the poet; his interrogations of nada or nothingness, often in a sexual context, are foreign to Murray, whose myths centre upon a patriarchal community. Murray prefers a public, nationalist, celebratory tone, which one critic likens to the bardic tone of Tennyson.
Murray has aligned his writing with the richly metaphoric yet representational poetry of Slessor and Douglas Stewart. He also styles himself the "last of the Jindyworobaks" . (See Jindyworobak Movement.) Rex Ingamells urged poets to "annex" , or "join with" Aboriginal legend; Murray more happily refers to "convergence" , of which his great example is "The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle" . "Rewriting" R. M. Berndt's translation of "The Wonguri-Mandjikai Song Cycle of the Moon Bone" , Murray celebrates his "spirit country" , finding a modern festive ritual as people leaving Sydney to holiday in the country achieve peace through contact with their childhood, family, the land, and wildlife.
The journey from city to country for health and wholeness recurs throughout Murray's poetry. Peter Porter once compared Murray to Hesiod, the recorder of rural works and days, while referring to Australia as "Boeotian" (country yokel). For Murray, Athens and Boeotia are figures for an archetypal psychic and political conflict, a dissociation deep within European consciousness and history that might be resolved in Australia. The country becomes the site for the traditional values through which independence will be realized, while the city, dominated by overseas fashions and institutions, clings to colonialism.
The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980), composed of 140 sonnets (formally adapted from Baxter), rehearses the opposition. The narrative follows a boy who steals the body of an old Anzac from a city crematorium and takes the corpse up-country, where it receives a Catholic burial. Keeping faith with the digger, the boy ends up inheriting his land (and values). Along the way, concerns with family breakdown, feminism, and intellectualism receive a thorough airing. The work has been criticized for rolling ideology over the characters; indeed, all characters tend to be "flat" stereotypes in Murray's poetry, which emphasizes ritual and celebration. Even overtly personal poems such as "Three Poems on the Death of My Mother" , rather than moving inwards for self-exploration, move out to universal themes such as the need for the existence of a divinity if justice is to have meaning.
Murray's strength is the dramatization of general ideas and the description of animals, machines, or landscape. At times his immense self-confidence produces garrulity and sweeping, dismissive prescriptions. The most attractive poems show enormous powers of invention, lively play with language, and command of rhythm and idiom. In these poems Murray invariably explores social questions through a celebration of common objects from the natural world, as in "The Broad Bean Sermon" , or machines, as in "Machine Portraits with Pendant Spaceman" . Always concerned with a "common reader" , Murray's later poetry (for example, Dog Fox Field, 1990, Translations from the Natural World, 1992) recovers "populist" conventions of newspaper verse, singsong rhyme, and doggerel.
As pre-eminent poet and editor, Murray has coloured thinking and practice in contemporary Australian poetry. His sophisticated poetry of metaphor and representation cleared the way for poets from Robert Gray to Philip Hodgins. His stature is also apparent from poets such as John Tranter and John Forbes who, while opposing representational landscape poetry, nevertheless compulsively engage with his work.