The Australian poet Les A. Murray (1938–2019) was born in Nabiac on the north coast of New South Wales. He deeply loved this part of the country all his life, and wrote about it extensively. Apart from a period of living in Sydney, and occasional trips overseas, he spent his life in farming country in Bunyah, nor far from where he was born.
Early in his career, Murray’s writing about the landscape and mores of rural Australia drew attention in his home country. He learned from Robert Bly’s first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, how to write simply and movingly about country towns and the folk who live in them—while eschewing Bly’s commitment to European and South American verse. “Driving Through Sawmill Towns” remains Murray's strongest early poem, despite its indebtedness to Bly’s “Driving to the Lac Qui Parle River.” With later volumes of poetry, Murray fastened on topics in Australian history, most notably in “The Ballad of Jimmy Governor.” A rural conservative, he wrote about his native locale with formal and thematic inventiveness, though he also had stretches of drab writing.
Murray’s poetry reached its highest point with “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle,” composed in the mid-1970s. This long, tranquil poem offers a panoramic vision of his beloved landscape in the mode of an Aboriginal song cycle. If some readers complained that he had appropriated Aboriginal heritage, others were struck by the sensuousness and rich detail of his long lines of verse. Never before had Australian rural life been celebrated in a manner at once so dense and relaxed. Here, in the meditative mode, Murray is at his most convincing. The mid-length meditative poem was always his home ground. He needed room for his reflections to rise and dip, and the lyric simply did not give him sufficient space. He attempted the verse novel twice, more successfully with the second, Freddy Neptune, than with the first, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral.
A prolific writer, and always an uneven one, Murray’s poetic intensity started to wane after “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle.” One of his gifts was a supple, folksy voice; too often, though, his later poems were engaging (and sometimes humorous) tall tales of bush life or obita dicta about whatever happened to be on his mind. There were recoveries, of course, sometimes impressive ones. “Second Essay on Interest: The Emu” and “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands,” for example, display linguistic inventiveness married to close attention to nature. The start of the latter poem displays Murray’s dazzling gifts: “Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels, / jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages, peaty cupfulls, soft pots overflowing, / setting out along the great curve. Migrating mouse-quivering water.” Celebration, with a great deal of verbal fizz, is one of the things people notice first when reading Murray. What the poetry notably lacks, however, is broad sympathy for the human condition and depth of spiritual perception.
Less prized than his poetry is Murray’s prose, although the best of it may endure longer than much of the verse. The Australian Year: The Chronicle of Our Seasons and Celebrations contains some of his most memorable writing. Few people have been as sensitive to the subtle climatic changes and colors of the Australian continent than Murray, and no one has written more intimately about them.
A convert to Catholicism upon his marriage, Murray held the Church to be “a bulwark against the world,” as he liked to say. He had no time for innovations in the Church and, among other things, prized priestly celibacy because it scandalized modern society. Devout in his own manner, he nonetheless confessed that he simply could not pray. For many years, he was plagued by depression, and at times fell victim to painful delusions. In 1985 he told me over lunch that he had become a better poet than Keats; the following year, he said that he was about “to overtake Dante.” When he did not receive the adulation he felt he deserved, he claimed it was because of a conspiracy of the political left, which he believed was centered in the academy. Once in the late 1980s, when walking past the Parliament of Victoria, he reported that the Liberals and the National Party (the two conservative political parties in Australia) had been defending him the previous night in fierce debate against the Labor Party.
Yet Murray received much applause in his day, gaining warm support in the poetry world from Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, and Ted Hughes. Each, in his own way, found him a sympathetic (if sometimes prickly) presence. With their help, Murray stepped onto the international stage. He gained one honor after another, and in the end produced a large body of writing.
National feeling for someone who deeply loved the Australian land, its animals, and its rural poor will buoy up Murray's reputation for many years to come. But what will endure is likely to be a small body of his rugged work in which language flares and lights up the natural world around and about it.
Kevin Hart teaches at the University of Virginia and is author, most recently, of Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry. His most recent collections of poetry are Barefoot and Wild Track: New and Selected Poems.