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Les Murray (1938 – )

Leslie Allan Murray was born in 1938 at Nabiac, in the mid-north coast region of New South Wales, the only child of Cecil Murray and his wife Miriam (née Arnall), dairy farmers. The family lived in a primitive bush shack on land owned by Cecil Murray’s domineering father, John Allan Murray, at Bunyah in the central coast hinterland. The harsh conditions of the poet’s childhood years were offset by an early and lasting love for the rural woodland environment where he grew up; the Australian bush generally – and Bunyah specifically – would come to figure prominently as a setting and subject in his poetry. Murray’s first schooling was through a correspondence school in Sydney, and from 1948–1950 he attended Bulby Brush Public School, followed by a brief period at boarding school at the start of 1951. But in April 1951, Murray’s mother died after complications following an ectopic pregnancy, and this traumatic event dramatically altered the course of his life. He returned home from boarding school to look after his father, who was overcome by grief and unable to care for himself. Murray subsequently attended Nabiac Central School, leaving after completing ninth grade in 1953, after which he spent a solitary year at Bunyah, wandering in the bush and reading. In 1955–1956 he completed two further years of schooling as a boarder at Taree High. At Taree, Murray’s keen intellect, corpulence, and lack of social graces made him the target of sustained bullying, an experience that deeply marked his psyche and was to have powerful reverberations in his writing. His first poems were written at the end of 1956, at Bunyah.

In 1957, Murray commenced an Arts degree at the University of Sydney on a Commonwealth scholarship. He had little time for lectures and coursework, but read voraciously, teaching himself a range of languages in the process. He also became friendly with other young writers, including the poet Geoffrey Lehmann, and became involved with the student publications Arna, Hermes, and Honi Soit, where some of his early poems were published. In 1961, two of Murray’s poems were published in the literary journal Southerly (then edited by Kenneth Slessor). By this time, however, Murray had suffered a nervous breakdown, and in July 1961 dropped out of University and hitchhiked to Melbourne, subsequently travelling around Australia before returning to Sydney at the end of 1961. The following year he met Valerie Morelli, a fellow student, and the couple married in August 1962. In 1963 Murray took up a position as a translator at the library of the Australian National University in Canberra, drawing on his wide knowledge of European languages. He continued to write poetry, and was encouraged in his efforts by Canberra poets A. D. Hope and David Campbell. In 1965 Murray published his first book of poetry, a joint collection with Geoffrey Lehmann, The Ilex Tree. The work was an immediate critical success, and won the Grace Leven Prize for 1965.

In 1967 Murray resigned from his position at ANU and took his family to Europe, where they lived in Wales and Scotland, and the following year, supported by a Commonwealth Literary Fellowship, toured the continent. In 1969 he returned to the University of Sydney, completed the requirements for his Arts degree, and published his first sole-authored poetry collection, The Weatherboard Cathedral, with Angus and Robertson. In 1970 his poem sequence “Seven Points for an Imperilled Star” won a lucrative competition organised as part of the celebrations for the Bicentenary of the Endeavour voyage, and he was awarded a six-month Commonwealth literary fund fellowship for 1971. After his fellowship finished, Murray struggled to find suitable employment, and he finally decided to attempt to earn his living as a full-time writer. The 1970s saw Murray’s emergence as a significant figure on the Australian literary scene: he published five volumes of verse, including Lunch and Counter-Lunch (1974), joint winner of the National Book Council Award for Australian Literature, his first volume of selected poems, The Vernacular Republic (1976), and a verse novel made up of 140 sonnets, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980), winner of the Grace Leven Prize. In 1978, he published his first volume of selected prose,The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces, comprising essays on Australian political and cultural topics, and a selection of his book reviews, written mainly for the Sydney Morning Herald. From 1973 until 1980, Murray was editor of Poetry Australia, in which capacity he was an important figure in the so-called ‘Poetry Wars’ of the 1970s, and from the late 1970s until 1990 he was poetry reader for publishers Angus and Robertson.

Already a major figure in Australian literary circles, from the early 1980s Murray began to attain a greater international profile. His revised volume of selected poems The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961–1981 was published by Persea Books in New York and Canongate Books in Edinburgh, as well as by Angus and Robertson in Sydney. In the same year he published a small volume of poems, Equanimities, with Razorback Press in Copenhagen. Murray’s prolific output of poetry continued in the 1980s, and despite his often fractious relationship with academic critics and some fellow writers, his work continued to garner critical acclaim. His collections The People’s Otherworld (1983), The Daylight Moon (1987), and Dog Fox Field (1990), won various poetry awards including the New South Wales Premier’s Award for poetry, the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal, the John Bray prize, and the Grace Leven prize. In 1989, his contribution to Australian literature was recognised with the award of an Order of Australia. In the mid-1980s, Murray and his family left Sydney to live at Bunyah, were they have continued to live ever since.

Murray suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1980s, which, he has said, spiralled into chronic depression which lasted through much of the 1990s. In this period he was involved in a number of controversies, including a public dispute with the Literature Board of the Australia Council, with Murray and his supporters alleging political bias in the distribution of funds. Notwithstanding his depression and his involvement in public controversies, Murray continued to produce acclaimed volumes of poetry. His Collected Poems (1991) won the FAW Barbara Ramsden award, and his Translations from the Natural World (1992) won both the Kenneth Slessor prize and the C. J. Dennis prize. In 1996 Murray published perhaps his most celebrated collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems, which again won the C. J. Dennis prize as well as the prestigious international poetry prize the T. S. Eliot Award. Shortly after the publication of this work, Murray was hospitalised with a liver abscess, narrowly escaping death. On recovering, he wrote a second verse novel, the semi-autobiographical Fredy Neptune (1998), and published a volume of verse written in the aftermath of his illness, Conscious and Verbal (1999). Since the turn of the twenty-first century, he has continued to write and publish poetry, with his collections including Poems the Size of Photographs (2003), Collected Poems 1961–2002 (2002; 2006) and The Biplane Houses (2006).

Les Murray has unquestionably been a major figure in contemporary Australian literature. Media reports since the 1980s have frequently referred to him as Australia’s ‘unofficial poet laureate’, and since the 1990s he has been described as part of an international ‘poetry superleague’ of the best contemporary poets writing in English. Murray has attracted more international attention than any other Australian poet; he has been the recipient of prestigious international poetry prizes including the Petrarch Prize (1995), the T. S. Eliot Award (1997), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry (1998); collections of his work in translation have appeared in numerous languages including German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, and Hindi. In addition to his poetry, Murray has been prolific as an essayist and cultural critic since the 1980s, publishing further collections of prose including Persistence in Folly (1984), Blocks and Tackles (1990), A Working Forest (1997), and The Quality of Sprawl: Thoughts about Australia (1999). He has also edited a number of Australian poetry anthologies, and has served as literary editor for Quadrant (1989– present).

A committed nationalist and republican, Murray’s writing has often championed what he defines as traditional Australian rural values, while stridently opposing perceived intellectual cliques and snobbery emanating from the cities, which he has associated for him with a kind of cultural imperialism. In an influential public literary debate with the poet Peter Porter, he has characterised this according to classical models as a Boetian-Athenian dichotomy, with Murray arguing that Australian poetry is – or should be – Boetian: that is, unadorned, traditional, and resistant to literary fashions, particularly those emanating from overseas. Murray’s poems have often expressed his philosophical positions, exploring themes of modern urban alienation (‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’), the meditative qualities of bush life (‘Evenings Alone at Bunyah’), the lives of ordinary rural Australians (‘The Mitchells’), and individual suffering at the hands of intellectual orthodoxy (‘For Helen Darville’). Much of his poetry, particularly his later work, has a strong autobiographical element (see, for example, ‘The Steel’). Primarily a lyric poet, Murray has also written extensively in longer verse forms and sequences, his output in this area including his two verse novels, The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah, New South Wales, April 1986-April 1987, and The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, a long poem based on a translation of a traditional song of the Wonguri-Mandjiagai people of North-Eastern Arnhem Land.

Poetry Collections
  • [with Geoffrey Lehmann] The Ilex Tree (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1965).
  • The Weatherboard Cathedral (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1969).
  • Poems against Economics (Sydney: Angus and Robetson, 1972).
  • Lunch and Counter Lunch (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974).
  • Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1976).
  • Ethnic Radio: Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1977).
  • The Boys Who Stole the Funeral: A Novel Sequence (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980).
  • Equanimities (Copenhagen: Razorback Press, 1982).
  • The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1981 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1982).
  • The People’s Otherworld: Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1983).
  • Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986).
  • The Daylight Moon: Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1987).
  • The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1983 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1988).
  • The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah, New South Wales, April 1986-April 1987 (Canberra: Brindabella Press, 1989).
  • Dog Fox Field: Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1990).
  • Collected Poems (Sydney: Angus and Roberston, 1991).
  • Translations from the Natural World (Sydney: Isabella Press, 1992).
  • Collected Poems (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1994).
  • Subhuman Redneck Poems (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1996).
  • Killing the Black Dog: Essays and Poems (Sydney: Federation Press, 1997).
  • Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998).
  • New and Selected Poems (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1998).
  • Freddy Neptune: A Novel in Verse (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1998).
  • Conscious and Verbal (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999).
  • Learning Human: New Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001).
  • Poems the Size of Photographs (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2002).
  • The Full Dress (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2002).
  • Collected Poems: 1961-2002 (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003; Melbourne: Black Inc, 2006).
  • New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2003).
  • The Biplane Houses (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006).
  • Selected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2007).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Peter F. Alexander, Les Murray: A Life in Progress (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Ashok Bery, ‘Fusion and Translation: Les Murray’s Australia,’ Cultural Translation and Postcolonial Poetry (Houndmills, Hants: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 51–73.
  • Laurence Bourke, A Vivid Steady State: Les Murray and Australian Poetry (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press and New Endeavour Press, 1992).
  • Margaret Bradstock, ‘Les Murray’s Journey Poems,’ Five Bells 14.1 (2006): pp. 16–18.
  • Carmel Gaffney, ed., Counterbalancing Light: Essays on the Poetry of Les Murray (Armidale, NSW: Kardoorair Press, 1997).
  • Robert Gray, ‘An Interview with Les Murray,’ Quadrant 20.12 (1976): pp. 69–72.
  • Lyn McCredden, ‘The Impossible Infinite: Les Murray, Poetry, and the Sacred,’ Antipodes 19.2 (2005): pp. 166–71.
  • Les Murray, A Working Forest: Selected Prose (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997).
  • Les Murray, Blocks and Tackles: Articles and Essays 1982 to 1990 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1990).
  • Geoff Page, ‘Les Murray,’ A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1995), pp. 205–09.
  • Noel Peacock, ‘ “Embracing the Vernacular”: An Interview with Les Murray,’ Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 7 (1992): pp. 28–40.