Last reviewed: June 2017
October 17, 1938
Nabiac, New South Wales, Australia
Leslie Allan Murray can be considered the first Australian poet to rise to world prominence. Previous Australian poets had gained some renown outside Australia, but Murray is the first Australian poet in his lifetime to be regarded as one of the three or four best poets writing in English. Murray’s rural childhood provided him with most of his poetic images and gave him an affection for and insight into country life that has reverberated through his entire oeuvre. His mother’s death when he was twelve years old was traumatic for Murray, and its effects can be found in a number of his poems. At the age of nineteen he entered the University of Sydney, which he attended for four years but without earning a degree. Murray married Valerie Morelli in 1962; they had two children. Throughout the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s the family lived in Sydney.
Murray’s poetic career began in collaboration with a fellow student at the University of Sydney, Geoffrey Lehmann. Together the two young poets produced The Ilex Tree, in which Murray’s incantatory lyricism contrasts vividly with Lehmann’s skeptical urbanity. In The Weatherboard Cathedral and Poems against Economics Murray found his poetic voice. In the poem “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” Murray evokes the pathos of a man crying in the middle of the city center of Sydney. People flock to the weeper as a symbol of spirituality, but he evades his potential believers and hurries off into anonymity. This poem is characteristic of Murray in both its emotionalism and its rejection of absolutes.
Murray’s 1976 collection The Vernacular Republic: Selected Poems made him a household word in Australian literature and established him as a literate but above all democratic poet who is determined to celebrate and give dignity to the ordinary things of life in lyrical form. One year earlier Murray had made the important decision to leave Sydney and move his family back to Bunyah, where he had grown up. Most Australian writers at the time chose to live either in Melbourne or in Sydney or to move abroad to cosmopolitan centers such as London or New York. Murray’s embrace of his country roots provided the backbone for both his poetry and his public persona for the ensuing twenty years. In a friendly dispute with Peter Porter, an Australian poet living in London, Murray, referring to Athens, the sophisticated city of ancient Greece, and Boeotia, the rustic countryside, espoused a “Boeotian” rather than “Athenian” aesthetic. Murray’s place was firmly in the countryside, but his very use of the word “Boeotian” showed that this did not exclude an educated perspective on the world.
In volumes of prose such as The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces Murray set forth his idiosyncratic views on art and society, which have been mistakenly classified by many commentators as “conservative.” Through his essays, his public visibility, and his distinctive, larger-than-life appearance, Murray became more than simply a poet in the eyes of the Australian public: He became a folk hero. One would have to turn to Robert Frost to find an American equivalent of this phenomenon.
In The People’s Otherworld Murray is considered to have reached new heights of complex yet accessible poetic achievement. He began to travel to other countries to represent Australia at literary conferences, and he developed important friendships with three other poets writing in English, the St. Lucian Derek Walcott, the Irishman Seamus Heaney, and the Russian exile Joseph Brodsky. These four formed a close circle.
Murray eventually began to experiment with poetic forms other than the lyric, as in his only partially successful verse novel The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. His greatest achievement in his volume The Daylight Moon continued, however, to be in the lyric, whether the amiable philosophizing in “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever” or the concentrated pathos of the two magnificent religious poems “Easter 1984” and “Poetry and Religion.” In the 1980s Murray, a convert to Catholicism, began paying increasing attention to religious issues in both his prose and his poetry. In 1986 he edited an anthology of Australian religious poetry.
In Dog Fox Field Murray once again turns his attention to rural matters, at times with a striking vividness and harshness. In late 1994 the American literary magazine Pequod published an installment of Murray’s new verse novel The Middle Sea, which concerns the Australian participation in World War I. This project eventually became Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, an epic-length poem recounting the almost picaresque adventures of Friedrich Boettcher, an Australian who leaves home aboard a German submarine in World War I and finally returns to marry his childhood sweetheart after World War II. Learning Human gathered poems from Murray’s first book, The Ilex Tree, through 1996’s Subhuman Redneck Poems. Poems the Size of Photographs is a sequence of almost photograph-like poems capturing individual scenes, moods, and memories. A severe liver infection in 1996 put Murray into a coma for three weeks; the experience informed his 2001 collection of poems, Conscious and Verbal.