Les Murray (17 October 1938)
Biography of Les Murray
an Australian poet, anthologist and critic. His career spans over forty years, and he has published nearly 30 volumes of poetry, as well as two verse novels and collections of his prose writings. His poetry has won many awards and he is regarded as "one of the leading poets of his generation." He has also been involved in several controversies over his career and has been rated by the National Trust of Australia as one of the 100 Australian Living Treasures.
Murray was born in Nabiac on the North Coast of New South Wales, and grew up in the neighbouring district of Bunyah, where he currently resides. He attended primary and early high school in Nabiac, then attended Taree High School. In 1957 he began study at the University of Sydney, in the Faculty of Arts, and joined the Royal Australian Navy Reserve to obtain a small income. Speaking about this time to Clive James he has said: "I was as soft-headed as you could imagine. I was actually hanging on to childhood because I hadn't had much teenage. My Mum died and my father collapsed. I had to look after him. So I was off the chain at last, I was in Sydney and I didn't quite know how to do adulthood or teenage. I was being coltish and foolish and childlike. I received the least distinguished degree Sydney ever issued. I don't think anyone's ever matched it.” He developed an interest in ancient and modern languages, which qualified him to become a professional translator at the Australian National University (where he was employed from 1963 to 1967). During his studies, he met other poets and writers such as Geoffrey Lehmann, Bob Ellis, Clive James, Lex Banning; and future political journalists Laurie Oakes and Mungo McCallum Jr. Between times, he hitch-hiked around Australia and lived briefly at a Sydney Push household at Milson's Point. He returned to undergraduate studies in in the 1960s, and converted to Roman Catholicism when he married Budapest-born fellow-student Valerie Morelli in 1962. They lived in Wales and Scotland and travelled in Europe for over a year in the late 1960s. They have five children.
In 1971 Murray resigned from his "respectable cover occupations" of translator and public servant in Canberra (1970) to write poetry full-time. The family returned to Sydney, but Murray, planning to return to his home at Bunyah, managed to buy back part of the lost family home in 1975 and to visit there intermittently until 1985 when he and his family returned to live there permanently.
Les Murray has had a long career in poetry and literary journalism in Australia. When he was 38 years old, his Selected Poems was published by Angus & Robertson, alongside respected Australian poets such as Christopher Brennan, A. D. Hope, Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright, signifying his emergence as a leading poet. That said, his poetry garners both praise and criticism. Biographer Peter Alexander writes that "all Murray’s volumes are uneven, though as Bruce Clunies Ross would remark, ‘There's “less good” and “good”, but it's very hard to find really inferior Murray’"
Murray edited the magazine Poetry Australia (1973–79), was poetry editor for Angus & Robertson (1976–90), and in 1991 became literary editor of Quadrant. He has edited several anthologies, including the Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry. First published in 1986, it proved popular with readers, resulting in a second edition being published in 1991. It interprets religion loosely and includes the work of many of Australia's well-known poets, such A. D. Hope, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Kevin Hart, Bruce Dawe and himself. The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse was most recently re-issued in 1996.
Murray has described himself, perhaps half-jokingly, as the last of the Jindyworobaks, an Australian literary movement whose white members sought to promote indigenous Australian ideas and customs, particularly in poetry. Though not a member, he was influenced by their work, something that is frequently discussed by Murray critics and scholars in relation to his themes and sensibilities.
In 2007, Dan Chiasson wrote in The New Yorker that he is "now routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets". Murray is now being talked of as a possible winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Les Murray has published around 30 volumes of poetry and is often called Australia's Bush-bard. Academic David McCooey described Murray in 2002 as "a traditional poet whose work is radically original". His poetry is rich and diverse, while also exhibiting "an obvious unity and wholeness" based on "his consistent commitment to the ideals and values of what he sees as the real Australia".He is almost universally praised for his linguistic dexterity, his poetic skill, and his humour. However, these same reviewers and critics tend to be more questioning when they start discussing his themes and subject matter.
While admiring Les Murray's linguistic skill and poetic achievement, poet John Tranter, in 1977, also expressed uneasiness about some aspects of his work as exemplified in his Selected Poems. He writes that "it is disconcerting to note the pontificating tone in much of what he has to say, the utter certainty he puts into statements about how bush people think, how honor is properly measured, how Les A. Murray alone has the key to what really matters, and you city folk had better listen". He suggests that:
I think the basic problem here is that Les Murray is a little too self-satisfied, a little too inexperienced in the necessarily tortured metaphysics of our modern urban world, to be able to adopt convincingly the mantle of tribal elder. The philosophy of the Left is too important to dismiss without proper argument, as Murray tries to dismiss it; the legend of Anzac is too stained with the blood of Vietnamese to be celebrated as one-sidedly as Murray does, the intellectually stunted lives of those who dwell in our bush towns is not as veined with easily mined ore as he would have us believe.
Tranter goes on to suggest that his "central message ... is confused with the worst conventional Australian values: ‘perhaps it’s time some of you went to the rain-quiet graves / of that buried war ... and said with hard purpose, my franchise will bleed in my hands / till all these rise with their houses and their years...’ A speech, ambiguous though it is, that would not be totally out of place at the Cenotaph on Anzac Day.” Despite these criticisms, however, Tranter praises Murray's "good humour" and concludes that "For all my disagreements, and many of them are profound, I found theVernacular Republic full of rich and complex poetry.”
Bourke writes that:
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.
American reviewer, Albert Mobilio writes in his review of Learning Human: Selected Poems that Murray has revived the traditional ballad form. He goes on to comment on Murray's conservatism and his humour: "Because his conservatism is imbued with an angular, self-mocking wit, which very nearly belies the down-home values being expressed, he catches readers up in the joke. We end up delighted by his dexterity, if a bit doubtful about the end to which it's been put."
In 2003, Australian poet Peter Porter, reviewing Murray's New Collected Poems, makes a somewhat similar paradoxical assessment of Murray: "A skewer of polemic runs through his work. His brilliant manipulation of language, his ability to turn words into installations of reality, is often forced to hang on an embarrassing moral sharpness. The parts we love – the Donne-like baroque – live side by side with sentiments we don't: his increasingly automatic opposition to liberalism and intellectuality."
Themes and subjects
Twelve years after Murray's induced birth his mother miscarried and, after the doctor failed to call an ambulance, died. Literary critic Lawrence Bourke writes that "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". Beyond this, though, his poetry is generally seen to have a nationalistic bent. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature writes that:
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, down-to-earth, laconic and based on such Bush-bred qualities as egalitarianism, practicality, straight-forwardness and independence; special respect for that Australian character in action in wartime and a brook-no-argument preference for the rural life over the sterile and corrupting urban environment.
Of his literary journalism, Bourke writes that "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 1972, Les Murray was one of a group of Sydney activists who launched the Australian Commonwealth Party, and authored its unusually idealistic campaign manifesto. During the 1970s he opposed the New Poetry or "literary modernism" which emerged in Australia at that time, and was a major contributor to what is known in Australian poetry circles as "the poetry wars". "One of his complaints against post-modernism was that it removed poetry from widespread, popular readership, leaving it the domain of a small intellectual clique". As American reviewer Albert Mobilio, describes it, Murray "waged a campaign for accessibility".
In 1995, he became involved in the Demidenko/Darville affair, in which it was discovered that Helen Darville, who had won several major literary awards for her novel The Hand That Signed the Paper was not the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant, as she had said, but the child of English migrants. Murray said of Darville that "She was a young girl, and her book mightn't have been the best in the world, but it was pretty damn good for a girl of her age [20 when she wrote it]. And her marketing strategy of pretending to be a Ukrainian might have been unwise, but it sure did expose the pretensions of the multicultural industry". Biographer Alexander writes that in his poem "A Deployment of Fashion", Murray linked "the attack on Darville with the wider phenomenon of attacks on those judged outcasts (from Lindy Chamberlain to Pauline Hanson) by society’s fashion police, the journalists, academics and others who form opinion. In 1996, he was embroiled in a controversy about whether Australian historian, Manning Clark, had received and regularly worn the medal of the Order of Lenin.
In 2005, a short experimental film based on five poems by Murray was released. It was directed by Kevin Lucas and written by singer-festival director, Lyndon Terracini, with music by Elena Kats-Chernin. Its cast included Chris Haywood and indigenous Australian actor and dancer, Frances Rings. The five poems used for the film are "Evening Alone at Bunyah", "Noonday Axeman", "The Widower in the Country", "Cowyard Gates" and "The Last Hellos". Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, Paul Byrnes concludes his review with:
The film is stunningly beautiful at times, and wildly ambitious, an attempt to be both wordless and wordy, to get to the hypnotic state that poetry and music can induce while saying something meaningful about black and white attitudes to land and love. This last part, as I read Murray, is largely imposed and disruptive, trying to pin a romantic political agenda to the work that's hardly there. It makes the film too literal, too current, when it wants to lodge itself in the more mysterious part of the brain. The film still has a power – Haywood's performance is magnificent – but it never achieves a strong inner reality. It falls short of its own tall ambitions.
Awards and nominations
1984 – Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for The People's Other World
1989 – Creative Arts Fellowship
1989 – Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Australian literature
1990 – Grace Leven Prize for Poetry for Dog Fox Field
1993 – Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for Translations from the Natural World
1995 – Petrarca-Preis (Petrarch Prize)
1996 – T. S. Eliot Prize for Subhuman Redneck Poems
1998 – Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry
2001 – shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize for Learning Human
2002 – shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Prize for Conscious &
2005 – Premio Mondello, Italy for Fredy Neptune
1965: The Ilex Tree (with Geoffrey Lehmann), Canberra, ANU Press
1969: The Weatherboard Cathedral, Sydney, Angus & Robertson
1972: Poems Against Economics, Angus & Robertson
1974: Lunch and Counter Lunch, Angus & Robertson
1976: Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic, Angus & Robertson
1977: Ethnic Radio, Angus & Robertson
1982: The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961–1981, Angus & Robertson; Edinburgh, Canongate; New York, Persea Books, 1982 and (enlarged and revised edition) Angus & Robertson, 1988
1983: Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn
1983: The People's Otherworld, Angus & Robertson
1986: Selected Poems, Carcanet Press
1987: The Daylight Moon, Angus & Robertson, 1987; Carcanet Press 1988 and Persea Books, 1988
1994: Collected Poems, Port Melbourne, William Heinemann Australia
1989: The Idyll Wheel
1990: Dog Fox Field Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1990; Carcanet Press, 1991 and New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993
1991: Collected Poems, Angus & Robertson, 1991; Carcanet Press, 1991; London, Minerva, 1992 and (released as The Rabbiter's Bounty, Collected Poems), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991
1992: Translations from the Natural World, Paddington: Isabella Press, 1992; Carcanet Press, 1993 and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994
1994: Collected Poems, Port Melbourne, William Heinemann Australia
1996: Late Summer Fires
1996: Selected Poems, Carcanet Press
1996: Subhuman Redneck Poems
1997: Killing the Black Dog, Black Inc Publishing
1999: New Selected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove
1999: Conscious and Verbal, Duffy & Snellgrove
2000: An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
2000: Learning Human, Selected Poems, Farrar Straus Giroux; also published as Learning Human, New Selected Poems, Carcanet Press, 2001
2002: Poems the Size of Photographs, Duffy & Snellgrove and Carcanet Press
2002: New Collected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove; Carcanet Press, 2003
2007: The Biplane Houses Macmillan: Carcanet Press
2010: Taller When Prone, Black Inc Publishing
2011: Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 86 pp (autobiographical)
Collections as editor
1986: Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry (editor), Melbourne, Collins Dove, 1986 (new edition, 1991)
1991: The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, Melbourne,Oxford University Press, 1986 and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991, 1999
1994: Fivefathers, Five Australian Poets of the Pre-Academic Era, Carcanet Press
2005: Hell and After, Four early English-language poets of Australia Carcanet
2005: Best Australian Poems 2004, Melbourne, Black Inc.
1979: The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, Angus & Robertson, 1979, 1980 and Manchester, Carcanet, 1989
1999: Fredy Neptune, Carcanet and Duffy & Snellgrove
1978: The Peasant Mandarin, St. Lucia, UQP
1984: Persistence in Folly: Selected Prose Writings, Angus & Robertson
1984: The Australian Year: The Chronicle of our Seasons and Celebrations, Angus & Robertson
1990: Blocks and Tackles, Angus & Robertson
1992: The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose, Carcanet; Minerva, 1993
1999: The Quality of Sprawl: Thoughts about Australia, Duffy & Snellgrove
2000: A Working Forest, essays, Duffy & Snellgrove
2002: The Full Dress, An Encounter with the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia
- A Retrospect Of Humidity
- Amanda's Painting
- An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
- Aurora Prone
- Bat's Ultrasound
- Cockspur Bush
- Flowering Eucalypt In Autumn
- Inside Ayers Rock
- Late Summer Fires
- Music To Me Is Like Days
- Noonday Axeman
- On Home Beaches
- On The Borders
In the painting, I'm seated in a shield,
coming home in it up a shadowy river.
It is a small metal boat lined in eggshell
and my hands grip the gunwale rims. I'm
a composite bow, tensioning the whole boat,
steering it with my gaze. No oars, no engine,
no sails. I'm propelling the little craft with speech.
The faded rings around the loose bulk shirt
are of five lines each, a musical lineation