Earlier this week Les Murray, poet and giant of Australian letters, died at the age of eighty.
Born in Bunyah in 1938 to a family of farmers and timber-cutters, Murray was an odd sort of character, who could perform some very strange and remarkable feats with words. Verse behaved mysteriously under his pen, playing tricks, dancing, and often making you giggle as you read.
A roving derelict for much of his early life, Murray spent many nights sleeping out in bus stops, on golf courses, and in the bush. By the time he graduated from the University of Sydney, his poetry was already on the reading syllabus. There he was part of the famed Sydney Push, joining the likes of Clive James, Robert Hughes, Barry Humphries, and Germaine Greer. But unlike them, Murray chose to remain in Australia, eventually returning to his home town to contemplate the natural world and write poems in the bush.
In one sense Murray’s was a truly rare and innovative voice. He did not belong to a single literary period or tradition. His strange and capacious style was quirky and unpredictable, making him something of an outsider, a basso profundo in a world of tenors. In an early collection of poems entitled Translations from the Natural World, Murray’s odd and unorthodox approach first began to develop. His attempts at channelling a bee in Honey Cycle are particularly memorable.
Grisaille of gristle lights, in a high eye cells,
ex-chrysalids being fed crystal in six-sided wells,
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many sweating comb and coming it, seating it sexaplex
Next, grid-eyes grown to gathering rise where a headwind bolster
hung shimmering flight, return with rich itchy holsters
and dance the nectar vector.
Murray’s knack for illuminating the unobserved and forgotten was testament not merely to his skills in poetical pyrotechnics but also to his own distinct and idiosyncratic style.
In a narrower sense, however, his oeuvre embodies something which remains unmistakably Australian. In his collection of poems, The Ilex Tree and The Weatherboard Cathedral, we can hear dim echoes of the old bush balladry that was synonymous with late nineteenth century Australia. But here the bush was never invoked as a stale prop or decoration. While Murray celebrated and defended the rusticity and earthiness of a now largely vanished Australia—championing what he called its “Boetian strain”—his representations were never prosaic or crude. “The price of the past is bondage to the dead”, he wrote in a memorable line from The Away-Bound Train. For Murray, nature was vexed by change and moved by the numinous. And in his most well-known, and perhaps best loved poems, such as An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow or The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever, we can hear the recurrence of that theme.
To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,
shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!
to be walking meditatively
among green timber, though the grassy forest
towards a calm sea
and looking across to more of that great island
and the further topics.
Murray captured the spirit of the early bush balladeers but in a much subtler and more authentic form. He had, as the writer Tom Keneally said earlier this week, “raised that long tradition of bush contrarians to an immortal eloquence.”
But behind the vibrancy and cheek there is much pain in Murray’s work. Prone to long and intermittent bouts of depression throughout his life, the death of his mother during a miscarriage left him both scarred and tormented. Murray had just turned twelve. His father would never recover from the ordeal. In his earlier work he returns to the theme of guilt, a life-long preoccupation he incurred at the death of him mother. (“I am older than my mother / Cold steel hurried me from her womb / I haven’t got a star / My zodiac got washed away”) He did not err from exploring the more painful subjects of shame, anguish and suffering in his poetry. In his celebrated collection, Killing the Black Dog, Murray ruminates on the strangeness of depression, that “shredded mental kelp marinaded in pure pain.” That he should address these subjects with such candour and intensity surely gives his poetry a more contemporary resonance.
Peter Porter once described Murray as the “custodian of the Australian soul”, but his poetry was embraced by a truly global audience. By the 1990s he was frequently grouped alongside the likes of Heaney and Walcott. But Murray was never one for the spotlight. Whenever the topic of prizes or honours were raised, he always demurred with a spluttered chuckle or self-effacing grin. In a poem called The Trances he quips:
Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.
For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike
down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.
For the adjustments after, aligning facets in a verb
before the trance leaves you.
Humble and unassuming – perhaps even to a fault – to look at the man you’d think him a back-bar accretion, beamed in from an outback pub, certainly not the type for a literary festival and poetry reading. But Big Les was full of surprises. No airs and graces, just the generous openness of “scunge” and “sprawl”. A peculiar kind of genius: cheeky and playful, then profound and elegiac. Poetry as painting, poetry as music. So, let’s all “dance the nectar vector”. Farewell, Big Les, The Bard of Bunyah.