Authors: Les A. Murray

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Australian poet

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.

Author Works Poetry: The Ilex Tree, 1965 (with Geoffrey Lehmann) The Weatherboard Cathedral, 1969 Poems against Economics, 1972 Lunch and Counter Lunch, 1974 Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic, 1976 Creeper Habit, 1976 Ethnic Radio, 1977 The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, 1980 The Vernacular Republic: Poems, 1961–1981, 1982 Equanimities, 1982 The People’s Otherworld, 1983 Selected Poems, 1986 The Daylight Moon, 1987 The Idyll Wheel, 1989 Dog Fox Field, 1990 The Rabbiter’s Bounty: Collected Poems, 1991 Translations from the Natural World, 1992 Subhuman Redneck Poems, 1996 Fredy Neptune: A Novel in Verse, 1998 Conscious and Verbal, 1999 Learning Human: Selected Poems, 2000 Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002 The Full Dress, 2002 New Collected Poems, 2003 The Biplane Houses, 2006 Taller When Prone, 2010 The Best 100 Poems of Les Murray New Selected Poems, 2015 Waiting for the Past, 2015 Nonfiction The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces, 1978 Persistence in Folly, 1984 The Australian Year, 1985 (photographs by Peter Solness) Blocks and Tackles: Articles and Essays, 1990 The Paperbark Tree: Selected Prose, 1992 Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression, 1996, revised 2009 A Working Forest: Selected Prose, 1997 The Quality of Sprawl: Thoughts About Australia, 1999 Edited Texts The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, 1986, enlarged 1992 Anthology of Australian Religious Verse, 1986 A. B. Paterson: Selected Poems, 1992 Fivefathers: Five Australian Poets of the Pre-Academic Era, 1994 Best Australian Poems 2004, 2004 Hell and After: Four Early English-Language Poets of Australia, 2005 Bibliography Alexander, Peter F. Les Murray: A Life in Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A literary biography. Well researched, drawing on extensive interviews with Murray. Birkerts, Sven. “The Rococo of His Own Still Center.” Parnassus 15, no. 2 (1989): 31-48. A serious and sympathetic appreciation of Murray’s poetry by a prominent critic. Birkerts highlights those poems most appropriate for inclusion in the Murray “canon,” showing a keen sense of what Murray’s poetic project entails. Among the first thorough treatments of Murray’s poetry in the United States, this is an accessible and useful introduction. Bourke, Lawrence. A Vivid, Steady State: The Poetry of Les A. Murray. Kensington, New South Wales: New South Wales University Press, 1992. The first full-length academic study of Murray. Hergenhan, Laurie, and Bruce Clunies Ross, eds. The Poetry of Les Murray: Critical Essays. Queensland, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 2001. Reprints the essays from a special edition of the journal Australian Literary Studies, devoted to Murray. Kane, Paul. “Relegation and Convergence.” In International Literature in English: The Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross. New York: Garland Press, 1991. A good introductory essay. Matthews, Steven. Les Murray. New York: Manchester University Press, 2001. A full-length critical study that places Murray in the context of Australian literature and culture. Murray, Les A. “An Interview with Les Murray.” The American Poetry Review 15 (March/April, 1986): 28-36. This interview by Carole Oles, which is lively, wide-ranging, and informative, focuses on many of Murray’s central concerns. A good introduction to the way in which Murray himself sees his own poetic project, it contains some useful background information on Australian literary politics and movements. Murray, Les A. “Les Murray in Conversation.” PN-Review 6LL (July/August, 1996): 29-36. The distinguished English poet and critic Willilam Scammell is particularly good at bringing out the critical and aesthetic best in the loquacious Murray. Parker, James. “The Greatest Poet Alive: The Feral Genius of Australia’s Les Murray.” The Atlantic, May 2016, Accessed 13 June 2017. Offers a brief biography of the poet and discusses his achievement and influence. Taylor, Andrew. “The Past Imperfect of Les A. Murray.” In Reading Australian Poetry. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1987. Taylor, an Australian poet and critic himself, examines Murray’s sense of time and suggests that the absence of the female in the poetry is a result of the early death of Murray’s mother. This essay is part of a “deconstructive” reading of Australian poetry. Walcott, Derek. “Crocodile Dandy.” The New Republic 6 (February, 1989): 25-28. This is a generous review by one important poet of another. Walcott makes a case for the international stature of Murray, looking at his extraordinary verbal facility and mastery of form. The sacramental quality of Murray’s poetry is noted, and comparisons are made to such authors as Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and Rudyard Kipling. Wilde, W. H., ed. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Includes a lengthy essay on Murray’s career and work. William, Barbara. In Other Words: Interviews with Australian Poets. Amsterdam: Rodolpi, 1998. Murray in conversation and in the context of poets in his own country.

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