Mick Imlah's Les Murray Overview

The following is from the excellent Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English ed. Ian Hamilton (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Murray, Les(lie) A(llan) (1938- ), was born in the village of Nabiac on the remote north coast of New South Wales. An only child, he grew up on his father's dairy farm at Bunyah nearby, before attending Sydney University where he read modern languages. He worked with the translation unit at the Australian National University, 1963-7, but since 1971 he has made his living from literature. (Murray is a forceful advocate of state funding for the arts.) In 1986 he left Sydney-a city whose fashionable priorities and 'imported idiocies' he has long satirized-and returned to buy a forty-acre farm in Bunyah.

His first book The Ilex Tree (Canberra), co-written with his friend Geoffrey Lehmann, came out in 1965, and he has since written prolifically, employing an unusually wide range of subject-matter and treatment. The best of his poetry is to be found in three volumes: The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1981 (Sydney, Edinburgh, and New York, 1982) and two capacious subsequent collections, The Daylight Moon (Sydney and Manchester, 1987; New York, 1988) and Dog Fox Field (Sydney, Manchester, and New York, 1990), both dedicated 'to the glory of God'.

His most ambitious single work is the novel-inverse The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (Sydney), first published in 1980. Technically, its 140 deftly varied fourteen-line units, a mosaic of different kinds of writing, are a triumphant solution to the problem of how to square the demands of a prolonged narrative with the reverberating stops of lyric and meditative verse; they also keep Murray's habitual garrulousness in check. Its plot, however, a fable at the service of Murray's Roman Catholic beliefs and masculine and agrarian prejudices, is calculated to antagonize. Uncompromising views on war, abortion, and the sexes are aired between scenes of instructive violence: in one, a deplored feminist is retributively 'baptised' by scalding and disfiguring her face.

The novel reminds us of Murray's claim that white Australians should partake of the Aboriginal affinity with the environment – see also poems like 'The Buladeleah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle' from Ethnic Radio (Sydney, 1977). But for all its marvellous facility, it suggests a poet out of his place; and Murray's return to the country in the mid-Eighties had a measurable effect on his verse, restoring a serene non-fiction to the fore. The personality of the later poems is genial and mostly tolerant, the address muted and the technique subdued, their concerns as large and impersonal as the continent behind them. Murray has identified the distinguishing mark of Australian poetry as 'the endless detailed rehearsal … of Australian peculiarities that goes into it'; and neutral detail is the stuff of many spacious poems. The long piece which opens The Daylight Moon, for example, a voyage through flood-plains, ends on the exact and tranquil note of an 'unhurt' crocodile's 'pineapple abdomen'. A distinguishable class of poem is content to perform quiet variations on themes of home, farm and farm machinery, family, landscape, and provincial history. Murray is also increasingly preoccupied with telling stories, which, as he explains sarcastically for urban readers, are 'a kind of spoken video'; his refinements of the fireside yarn allow him virtuoso re-creations of a range of voices, and to convey choice scraps of local non-fiction.

Murray has published two volumes of his somewhat forbidding prose; his essay on his earlier poetics, 'The Human Hair-Thread', appeared in Meanjin (1977). A Collected Poems (Sydney, Manchester, and New York, 1991) was followed in 1993 by Translations from the Natural World (Manchester, New York, and Paddington, NSW).


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