A Brief Biography
The following biography is by Peter Alexander, author of Les Murray: A Life in Progress (see Bibliography). It was originally published in the Encyclopedia of World Biography (New York: McGraw Hill, 1992) and is reproduced here in an updated form.
Leslie Allan Murray (born 1938) is the outstanding poet of his generation and one of his country's most influential literary critics. A nationalist and republican, he sees his writing as helping to define, in cultural and spiritual terms, what it means to be Australian.
Leslie Allan Murray was born in 1938 in Nabiac, a village on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, and spent his childhood and youth on his father's dairy farm nearby. The area is sparsely populated, hilly, and forested, and the beauty of this rural landscape forms a backdrop to many of Murray's best poems, such as 'Spring Hail':
.. Fresh-minted hills
smoked, and the heavens swirled and blew away.
The paddocks were endless again, and all around
leaves lay beneath their trees, and cakes of moss.
His parents were poor and their weatherboard house almost bare of comforts; Murray remarked that it was not until he went to the university that he first met the middle class. His identification was with the underprivileged, especially the rural poor, and it was this that gave him his strong sense of unity with Aborigines and with 'common folk'. The title he chose for his Selected Poems, The Vernacular Republic, indicates both this sense of unity and his Wordsworthian belief that through the use of 'language really spoken by men' poets can speak to and for the people.
Many of the Scottish settlers on the New South Wales coast had been forced out of Scotland by the Highland clearances of the l9th century, and they in turn were among those who dispossessed the Aboriginal Kattang tribe around the Manning valley; in later years Murray's own father was forced off the land by family chicanery. The theme of usurpation, whether of land or of culture, as well as the influence of Murray's Celtic background, often make themselves felt in his work, as one sees in poems such as 'A Walk with O'Connor,' in which the two Australian Celts try in vain to understand Gaelic on a tombstone, the grave becoming symbolic of the death of Celtic culture:
.. reading the Gaelic, constrained and shamefaced, we tried to guess what it meant
then, drifting away, translated Italian off opulent tombstones nearby in our discontent.
In 1957 Murray went to the University of Sydney to study modern languages. While there he worked on the editorial boards of student publications. At Sydney he was converted from the Free Kirk Presbyterianism of his parents to Roman Catholicism, and the influence of passionately held Christian convictions can be seen everywhere in his verse, though seldom overtly; instead it shows itself, in poems such as 'Blood' or 'The Broad Bean Sermon,' in a strong sense of the power of ritual in everyday life and of the sacramental quality of existence. 'AImost everything they say is ritual,' he remarked of rural Australians in one of his best-known poems, 'The Mitchells.'
He left Sydney University in 1960 without a degree, and in 1963, on the strength of his studies in modern languages, became a translator of foreign scholarly material at the Australian National University in Canberra. His first volume of poems, The llex Tree (written with Geoffrey Lehmann), won the Grace Leven Prize for poetry on its publication in 1965, and in the same year Murray made his first trip out of Australia, to attend the British Commonwealth Arts Festival Poetry Conference in Cardiff. His appetite whetted by this visit, he gave up his translator's post in 1967 and spent over a year traveling in Britain and Europe. Travel had the effect of confirming him in his Australian nationalism; he was a republican who believed that Australia should throw off the shackles of political and cultural dependence, and he saw his work as helping to achieve that end.
On his return to Australia he resumed his studies, graduating from Sydney University in 1969. After that he earned his living as a full-time poet and writer. He is one of Australia's most influential literary critics and a prolific contributor of book reviews and literary articles to newspapers and journals, acted as poetry reader for the publisher Angus & Robertson, edited the magazine Poetry Australia, and was literary editor of the journal Quadrant. Four selections of his prose pieces have appeared in volume form: The Peasant Mandarin (1978), Persistence in Folly (1984), Blocks and Tackles (1990) and A Working Forest (1997).
However, it is his steady output of volumes of poetry of extraordinary power that gives Murray his position of unchallenged eminence. In addition to The llex Tree, these include The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969), Poems Against Economics (1972), Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (1976), Ethnic Radio (1977), The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980), Equanimities (1982), The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1981 (1982), The People's Otherworld (1 983), The Daylight Moon (1987), The Idyll Wheel (1989), Dog Fox Field (1990), Translations from the Natural World (1992), Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996), Fredy Neptune (1998) and his latest volume, Conscious & Verbal (2000).
Murray's poems are remarkable for their diversity and range, but a number of themes run through them from start to finish. Chief among these are his celebration of life and nature in all their diversity; his sense of the sanctity of human existence, and yet of its pathos as well; his association with 'the people,' particularly common country folk, and a concomitant distrust of elites; and his strong sense of what it means to be an Australian, paradoxically combined with a deep-rooted cosmopolitanism resulting from his wide reading in a range of languages.
His poetry is remarkable for its energy and for the bounding Elizabethan fecundity of its images. In the manner of the 17th-century poets too, it is often intellectually demanding, while never surrendering its claim to be popular. Its emotional range is very wide: Murray is a master of lightly humorous verse and of brilliant description, but he can also be deeply moving or bitingly satirical, as in the fine series of 'Police' poems he published in Lunch and Counter Lunch. He seldom plays with words merely for the sake of the play; his is poetry with a passionately felt message to convey. It draws attention also by its variety of poetic forms: Murray is able to use free verse or the most difficult of traditional stanzaic forms with equal ease, and his work showed this flexibility from the very start of his career.
Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of his technical skill came in The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, in which he produced a verse novel consisting of 140 sonnets. Since the volume makes a plea for the maintenance of order and traditional values, the formality of its structure can be seen as contributing directly to its meaning. This unity of form and content is evident in many of Murray's best poems.
The Boys Who Stole the Funeral also further developed an element which had shown itself early on in Murray's work: a deep interest in Aboriginal poetry, and an ability to use the conventions and concerns of Aboriginal oral culture in poetry that is distinctively and maturely Australian, yet has a very wide appeal. His focus on the poor and dispossessed, his love of the land and his sense of its spiritual value, the importance of the clan in his writing (some of his best poems are about his family), all these are elements which link his work with Aboriginal culture.
He is widely recognized as the outstanding poet of his generation in Australia, and he has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, most recently the Petrarch Prize, funded by the German government. Until 1988 he lived chiefly in Sydney; from that year on he has made his home on a small farm just a few miles from where he spent his boyhood. His volume of poems The Idyll Wheel reflects his sense of joyful renewal at this return to his rural roots.
Les Murray's own writing about his work is still the best criticism available on him. The Aboriginal element in his work is explored in 'The Human Hair Thread,' reprinted in his volume Persistence in Folly (1984). In that volume he also reprinted several other articles that shed light on the passionately-held beliefs behind his poetry. His other volumes of prose pieces, The Peasant Mandarin (1978) and Blocks and Tackles (1990), are also illuminating in this way.