The last half-century has been a remarkable one for Australian literature. Some might trace many of our literary achievements back to the year 1972, the year the Literature Board of the Australian Council of the Arts (as it was then) was established. Within twelve months an Australian had been awarded the Nobel Prize, and international recognition followed for a diverse group of writers, beginning with the Booker Prize winners Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey, and with poets who had turned into novelists such as David Malouf and Roger McDonald. Yet for all the acclaim, and sales success, accorded to these other writers, literary historians looking back must see that half-century as The Age of Les Murray.
Certainly Les Murray’s poetry-writing contemporaries, without exception, have defined themselves, whether in opposition or assent, in relation to his achievement. It was clear as early as 1976, with the publication of The Vernacular Republic, the earliest version of his Selected Poems, that Murray was the greatest Australian poet; four decades later the scale of his body of work is such as to dwarf all Australian writers in every genre.
Only with the benefit of hindsight is it possible to discern the inevitability of such a phenomenal career for the young Leslie Allan Murray, who was born on October 17, 1938, the only child of a struggling dairy farmer. His early childhood on the family farm at Bunyah – a settlement that is little more than a cross-road, half way between Forster and Gloucester on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales – was contented enough, though “at eighteen, I made a great vow/ I’d never milk another bloody cow.”
Before that vow, the central event in Murray’s life was the death of his mother when he was just twelve years old; he was effectively orphaned by this tragedy, as his father in reaction to it “himself became a baby”. A lonely, overweight child, Murray was bullied mercilessly at school at this time; though he bitterly resented the cruelty of this treatment, it would appear to have been the catalyst for his determination to excel in later life.
Meanwhile, Murray’s father, Cecil – himself a rare character, and the source of many of the memorable stories threaded through the poems, though it is doubtful he ever actually read his son’s work – had been disinherited, and “harried back to tree-felling… by his father/ who supervised from horseback”, so that the family experienced a degree of poverty few these days could even imagine. One of Murray’s much-returned-to topics concerns the “relegation” by Australia’s predominantly wealthy, urban society of the rural poor.
Murray’s first book, The Ilex Tree, which he shared with Geoffrey Lehmann, was an instant success, winning the Grace Leven Prize for poetry. By the time it appeared in 1965 he had left home and enrolled in an Arts course at Sydney University from which he would only graduate after ten years, and after his poems had begun to appear on the English Department’s syllabus. He had also, by then, married Valerie Morelli, whose wealth of Swiss-Hungarian family folklore enabled Murray to become one of Australia’s first truly multicultural writers, and with whom he was to have five children.
The prize was the first in an abundant harvest of such rewards; Murray sometimes said that he would only enter a poetry competition he could be sure of winning, and he entered many. His successes were such that by 1971 – aided by Valerie’s salary as a schoolteacher – he was able to retire from what he termed “respectable cover occupations” to concentrate on his writing. Among the jobs he had held, before that, was a time as a porter on Chatswood railway station, four years as a translator at the Australian National University (two of his best, and most dissimilar, poems begin with the line “I was a translator at the Institute”), and a year as a public servant in the Prime Minister’s Department.
It was in the last of these occupations that he prepared a paper for the then-Prime Minister, John Gorton, proposing a scheme of Government support for writers which was to be realized in the form of the Literature Board’s fellowships. When the Whitlam Government made Murray’s idealistic plan – which he had also expanded on in an essay published in Quadrant – a reality, he was among the first group of recipients of the new patronage. Ironically, Murray later became the leading critic of what was in effect his own invention, as the scheme he had proposed proved all too susceptible to corruption, nepotism and political manipulation.
With his financial security guaranteed by the Literature Board, Murray wrote prolifically while becoming perhaps the most widely popular Australian poet since the bush balladists Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. Yet he was no mere populist writer: much of his work is dense and difficult to follow on the page, though the difficulty could miraculously dissolve from some of the poems when Murray read them aloud. Still, Murray made no attempt to simplify his style in order to achieve popularity, as he felt that to do so would be to belittle the intelligence of the average reader.
By the mid-1980s Murray was widely regarded as one of the half-dozen leading poets in the world, and he travelled widely in response to invitations to read his poems throughout Europe and America. One of the reasons for his popularity was the air of affability he projected, both in person and through his verse, and in consequence he was often approached by strangers as though he were an intimate companion. He never developed the self-concealing shell of the modern celebrity: at the height of his fame he would, if asked to visit a school in Broken Hill or Perth, simply get into his battered station-wagon and drive to meet his admirers, no questions asked.
His constant travel throughout Australia enabled him to be not just “The Bard of Bunyah”, as newspaper captions liked to reduce him to, but the poet above all others who knew, and transfigured with his art, the entire length and breadth (and depth) of the still-growing nation. It was true that the inspiration he drew from the district he called, in the Aboriginal manner, his “spirit country” made Bunyah as a much a centre of the world’s poetry as London or New York, yet at the same time Murray was as much a poet of Sydney as his distinguished predecessor Kenneth Slessor; he also was the author of the finest poems that have yet been written about the Kakadu National Park and Darwin in the Northern Territory, about the Kimberley and the inland of Western Australia, about the Tasmanian highlands, and about cities as varied as Brisbane, Newcastle and Mildura. Murray’s constant experimentation with technique and viewpoint, his unmatched verbal brilliance and richness, his ability always to produce the very poem his critics would say he was unable to write, the sheer consistency of his work, which means that even those weaker poems he chose to discard from his Collected Poems still surpass the standard of most of his contemporaries – all of this contributed to his standing above all Australia’s writers. Yet all of this omits the dimension Murray came to regard as the most important, which is the spiritual. Few of his poems speak directly of religion, but all of them glow with the power of Murray’s Catholic conviction; from the mid-point of his career (The People’s Otherworld) his books all bear the dedication “to the glory of God”. The poet Robert Gray, skeptical of the strength of Murray’s belief, once asked him to explain why he had converted to Catholicism; Murray replied, “Because it’s true.”
• Jamie Grant is the author of eight collections of his own poems, and has edited (or co-edited) six anthologies of poetry of and sports writing, including The Longest Game and Lasting Lines. He lives in Sydney.