Murray, Les(lie) (Allan)

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MURRAY, Les(lie) (Allan)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Nabiac, New South Wales, 17 October 1938. Education: Taree High School; University of Sydney (co-editor, Arna and Hermes; literary editor, Honi Soit), 1957–60, 1962. Military Service: Royal Australian Naval Reserve, 1960–61. Family: Married Valerie Gina Maria Morelli in 1962; three sons and two daughters. Career: Translator, Australian National University, Canberra, 1963–67; officer in Prime Minister's Department, 1970–71; co-editor, Poetry Australia, Sydney, 1973–80; writer-in-residence at universities of New England, Armidale, New South Wales; Stirling; Newcastle, New South Wales; Copenhagen; New South Wales; and Sydney. Scottish-Australian Writers Exchange fellow, 1981. Awards: Grace Leven prize, 1965, 1980, 1990; Australian Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1968, 1971; Cook Bi-Centenary prize, 1970; Literature Board Senior fellowships, 1973–79, 1981–84; National Book Council award, 1975, 1985, 1992; C.J. Dennis memorial prize, 1976; Australian Literary Society Gold Medal, 1984; Canada-Australia prize, 1985; Australian Bicentennial prize, 1988; New South Wales Premier's prize for poetry, 1993; Victoria Premier's prize for poetry, 1993; T.S. Eliot prize, 1996; Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, 1998. D.Litt.: University of New England, 1990; University of Stirling, 1991; Australian National University, 1994. Officer, Order of Australia, 1988. Agent: Mrs. Margaret Connolly, 16 Winton Street, Warrawee, New South Wales 2074, Australia. Address: c/o Angus and Robertson, 4/31 Waterloo Road, North Ryde, New South Wales 2111, Australia.

Publications (works before 1990 as Les A. Murray)


The Ilex Tree, with Geoffrey Lehmann. Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1965.

The Weatherboard Cathedral. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1969.

Poems against Economics. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1972.

Lunch and Counter Lunch. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1974.

Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1976.

Ethnic Radio. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1979.

The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1980; New York, Farrar Straus, 1991.

The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961–1981. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, and Edinburgh, Canongate, 1982; revised edition, New York, Persea, 1982.

Equanimities. Copenhagen, Razorback Press, 1982.

The People's Otherworld. Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson, 1985.

Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1986.

The Daylight Moon and Other Poems. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1987; Manchester, Carcanet, and New York, Persea, 1988.

The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah, New South Wales, April 1986-April 1987. Canberra, Officina Brindabella, 1989.

Dog Fox Field. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1990; New York, Farrar Straus, 1993.

The Vernacular Republic: Poems, 1961–1983. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1990.

The Rabbiter's Bounty: Collected Poems. London, Carcanet, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1991; Port Melbourne, Heinemann, 1994.

Translations from the Natural World. Paddington, Isabella Press, 1992; New York, Farrar Straus, 1994.

Subhuman Redneck Poems. Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove, and Manchester, Carcanet, 1996; New York, Farrar Straus, 1997.

New Selected Poems. Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove, 1998.

Collected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.

Fredy Neptune. Manchester, Carcanet, and Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove, 1998; New York, Farrar Straus, 1999.

Conscious and Verbal. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.

Learning Human: Selected Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.


The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1978.

Persistence in Folly: Selected Prose Writings. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, and London, Sirius, 1984.

The Australian Year: The Chronicle of Our Seasons and Celebrations, photographs by Peter Solness. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1985.

The Gravy in Images. Hobart, Tasmania, International Liturgy Assembly, 1988.

Blocks and Tackles: Articles and Essays 1982–1990. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1990.

The Paperbark Tree. Manchester, Carcanet, 1992.

Killing the Black Dog: Essays and Poems. Annandale Press, New South Wales, Federation Press, 1997.

A Working Forest: Selected Prose. Potts Point, New South Wales, Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997.

The Quality of Sprawl. Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999.

Editor, The New Book of Australian Verse. Melbourne, Oxford, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Editor, Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry. Blackburn, Victoria, Collins Dove, 1986.

Editor, Fivefathers: Five Australian Poets of the Pre-Academic Era. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Translator, An Introduction to the Principles of Phonological Description, by Trubetzkoy The Hague. Niihoff. 1968.


Manuscript Collection: National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Les A. Murray" by Dianne Ailwood, in Southerly (Surrey Hills, New South Wales), 3, 1971; "An Interview with Les A. Murray," in Quadrant (Sydney), December 1976, and "Garlands of Ilex," in Poetry Australia (Sydney), May 1979, both by Robert Gray; "Evading the Modernities: The Poetry of Les A. Murray" by Gary Catalano, in Meanjin (Melbourne), May 1977; Study Notes on the Poetry of Les A. Murray by Penelope Nelson, Melbourne, Methuen, 1978; Ken Goodwin, in Australian Poems in Perspective, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1979; "Country Poetry and Town Poetry: A Debate with Les Murray" by Peter Porter, in Australian Literary Studies (Hobart, Tasmania), May 1979; "The Frequent Image of Farms: A Profile of Les Murray" by Graham Kinross-Smith, in Westerly (Nedlands, Western Australia), September 1980; "Les Murray's Watershed" by C.J. Koch, in Quadrant (Sydney), September 1980; "The Common Dish and the Uncommon Poet" by John Barnie, in Kunapipi (Aarhus, Denmark), 1, 1982; A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry by Laurence Bourke, Kensington, New South Wales University Press, 1992; "This Country Is My Mind" by Carmel Gaffney, inWesterly (Nedlands, Australia), 39(1), autumn 1994; "Fullness of Being in Les Murray's 'Presence: Translations from the Natural World'" by Bert Almon, in Antipodes (Brooklyn, New York), 8(2), December 1994; "'Countour-Line by Countour': Landscape Change As an Index of History in the Poetry of Les Murray" by Martin Leer, in Australian Literary Studies (St. Lucia, Queensland), 16(3), May 1994; "'Religions Are Poems': Spirituality in Les Murray's Poetry" by Nicholas Birns, in 'And the Birds Began to Sing': Religion and Literature in Post-Colonial Cultures, edited by Jamie S. Scott, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1996; "Land and Theory" by Martin Harrison, in Southerly, 57(2), winter 1997; "Les Murray and the Tradition of the Emblem Poem" by Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, in Counterbalancing Light: Essays on the Poetry of Les Murray, edited by Carmel Gaffney, Armidale, Australia, Kardoorair, 1997; by Jamie Grant, in Southerly, 58(2), winter 1998; by Barbara Williams, in her In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1998.

*  *  *

Les Murray is the Australian poet of his generation who is most clearly marked for celebrity. His work combines great force of personality, an extraordinary play of language, and masterful confrontation with—one could say a masterful dancing among—large and difficult subjects.

The poems in Murray's first book, shared with Geoffrey Lehmann, mostly treat of country places and customs, an abiding preoccupation. The exception is the much anthologized "The Burning Truck," a sustained run of thirty-six lines about the truck and the fearfully delighted onlookers.

Later book titles have emphasized Murray's local and partisan temper and his uncompromising allegiances. These can be explored in the books of critical essays and reviews. The poems present a wide range of reflections on man's interactions with nature, firmly localized, for Murray of all Australian poets has most strongly celebrated small-farming districts, particularly his own Northern Rivers (of New South Wales) with its dairy industry. This interest first culminates in the magnificent sequence "Walking to the Cattle Place" in Poems against Economics. In many different forms, quirkily ranging from Sanskrit derivations to ideas of God, from bullock jumping in Australia to the salutation of a Xhosa tribesman, the poems encounter, discuss, and play with man's age-old role as a cattle herder, as in "The Names of the Humble":

Fence beyond fence from breakfast
I climb into my thought
and watch the slowing of herds into natural measures.
Nosedown for hours, ingesting grass, they breathe grass,
trefoil, particles, out of the soft-focus earth
dampened by nose-damp. They have breathed great
   plateaux to dust.
They concede me a wide berth at first. I go on being
and some graze closer, gradually. It is like watching
an emergence. Person.
Where cattletracks mount
boustrophedon to the hills
I want to discern the names of all the humble.

Other human creations Murray discusses are the Lee Enfield rifle ("SMLE"), law and order ("The Police: Seven Voices"), and learning ("Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato," a reminiscence and discussion in nine unrhymed sonnets that is based on Murray's university experience). "Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil" is groaningly funny and "Folklore" not merely funny.

David Malouf, in a careful discussion ("Subjects Found and Taken Up" in Poetry Australia) of Lunch and Counter Lunch, began by calling Murray "perhaps the most naturally gifted poet of his generation." Malouf remarked on his "almost unlimited" verbal inventiveness, the freshness and originality of his insights, and his wit and humor but then stated his uneasiness at Murray's need for a debating stance. He said that he felt the earlier subject matter had been worked through and that new material must be found "fully expressive" of Murray's gifts.

The astonishing adaptation in English of the Aboriginal song cycle might be taken as Murray's reply. "The Buledelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle" has thirteen long-lined sections. They look Whitmanesque on the page but actually are distinctive, and although there is some rhythmical affinity with Robinson Jeffers, Murray's lines are end-stopped:

It is the season of the Long Narrow City; it has crossed the
   Myall, it has entered the North Coast,
that big stunning snake; it is looped through the
   hills, burning all night there.
Hitching and flying on the downgrades, processionally
   balancing on the climbs,
it echoes in O'Sullivan's Gap, in the tight coats of
   the flooded-gum trees;
the tops of palms exclaim at it unmoved, there near
Glowing all night behind the hills, with a north-
   shifting glare, burning behind the hills;
through Coolongolook, through Wang Wauk, across the
the booming tarred pipe of the holiday slows and
   spurts again; Nabiac chokes in glassy wind,
the forests on Kiwarrak dwindle in cheap light;
   Tuncurry and Forster swell like cooking oil.

The poems celebrate the country-bred city dweller's yearly return with his family to his childhood district, camping and picnicking, fishing, showing off accustomed things, observing change. Other popular poems that go to the native earth are "The Broad Bean Sermon" and "Laconics: The Forty Acres." They continue Murray's earlier interest, one that is further explored in The Daylight Moon, published a year after Murray returned to live on the farm where he had grown up.

The enterprise and skill—and scholarly scrupulousness, for Murray is a polyglot who has worked as a translator—involved in using the song cycle also points to an urgent interest in the racial mix in Australia, first strongly signaled in "Jószef" in Lunch and Counter Lunch. This interest is carried into poems related to his Celtic origins and celebrating the arrival of his wife's family in Australia.

The verse novel The Boys Who Stole the Funeral has a plot characteristically expressive of Murray's allegiance to the rural community and his contempt for city folk and sophisticates, his instinct for principled rebellion, and his need for heroic presentation of a case. The hero's aim is to bury an old soldier fittingly; his destiny, an encounter in the bush with two mentors—one white and one black—is an interesting variation of a motif used by Xavier Herbert in his 1938 novel Capricornia. But Murray's energy in reaching toward sufficiently subtle and final-sounding truths and principles, embodied in the symbolic "Common Dish," is all his own.

Murray's achievements in the 1980s includes The Idyll Wheel, a calendar cycle of monthly poems for the year April 1986 to April 1987 that richly evoke his hometown of Bunyah. Filled with the lore of a district, it includes local stories ("spoken video") in kitchens in June and "Midwinter Haircut," set in July, as well as the yearly round of animal husbandry and agriculture.

Murray's influence was widely felt during the 1970s through his editorship of Poetry Australia and during the subsequent period when he served as the poetry series editor for the publisher Angus and Robertson. He has been involved in several controversies, including a flyting with Peter Porter over poetic values: Boeotian (rural and bardic, supported by a Gaelic background—Murray) or Athenian (urban and sophisticated—Porter). Standing on bardic tradition, he is a doughty proponent of continuous public funding for full-time poets. His poetry bears witness to his staunch and highly individual Roman Catholicism. He is a vivid and dogmatic presence at festivals and conferences, and his strongly held, sometimes reactionary opinions continue to win him polemic responses.

Murray's public position, both in Australia and internationally, grew in the later years of the 1990s. He won the T.S. Eliot prize in 1996, and in 1998 he was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. With the publication of the aggressively titled Subhuman Redneck Poems in 1996, Murray revealed for the first time a medical and mental crisis that had its origins in his mother's early death and his unhappy experiences as a bullied "fat boy." Despite brilliant individual poems in the collection, its overall aggressive stance leaves a bitter aftertaste. The poem-novel Fredy Neptune was published in 1998, and although the work won numerous awards and has a startlingly ambitious narrative that ranges across many of the "big" historical crises of the twentieth century and pays tribute to everything from the Hollywood epic to European masterworks, it has proved a difficult book for many of Murray's admirers to accept wholeheartedly. In some ways it is congruent with Subhuman Redneck Poems. In 1996 the poet suffered a serious illness and was in a coma for three weeks and was not expected to live. Murray's 1999 collection, Conscious and Verbal, though presenting evidence of the author's amazingly prolific output during this period, also contains some of the breathtaking inventiveness of his earlier Translations from the Natural World. The delight in language and life shines through the collection, as does a sense of recovery and balance.

Murray easily retains the unofficial position of national poet, for though he is firmly based in northeastern New South Wales, he has traveled throughout and written brilliantly of many parts of Australia. He has clearly attempted to articulate a personal, national, and artistic ethos ("The Vernacular Republic") that, though it may appear to be right-wing, can be seen as being affiliated with country and small-farm life, in the line of the turn-of-the-century Sydney Bulletin. Other poets have proved more limited in range and spirit, less spectacular in their talents, and less ready to assume a public role, and they also lack Murray's authentic connection to an undoubted rural and outback heartland.

—Judith Rodriguez

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Murray, Les(lie) (Allan)

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