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Remembering Les Murray –Australia mourning one of its cherished and prize-winning poets

Les Murray: “It was a very great epiphany for me to realise that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its resources.”

TRIBUTES are flowing for Les Murray, celebrated Australian poet, larrikin and Catholic, who died this week leaving a world-recognised literary legacy. 

Leslie Allan Murray (pictured), known as the Bush Bard of Bunyah, died in Taree on the NSW Mid North Coast on April 28, aged 80. 

Bunyah is where he grew up on a poor dairy farm, and it is where he returned in adulthood.

His 30 volumes of poetry covered a vast, creative landscape and big subjects like death, nation and religion – but his poetic heartland was Australian life – often the rural poor, beyond the boundaries of city sensibilities.

In a 2005 interview in the Paris Review he described himself as a “freak – but happily my freakishness was in language”.

“It was a very great epiphany for me to realise that poetry is inexhaustible, that I would never get to the end of its resources,” he said.

“I am obsessive, I fear. It goes with being mildly autistic.” 

A Catholic convert as a young man, Mr Murray prefaced several of his books with the dedication “To the glory of God”.

In 2016, Australian Catholic University awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contribution to Australian literature and to contemporary poetry.

Mr Murray won many international literary awards including the Petrarch Prize and the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize.

In 1999 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

Mr Murray was born in 1938, and grew up in tough times on a farm, in an era he described as “late pioneer”.

When he was 12, his mother died from an ectopic pregnancy. 

He wrote about the tragedy in a moving poem “The Steel”, claiming her death may have been avoided if the local doctor hadn’t initially refused to authorise an ambulance.

Apart from the death of his mother, the most scarring experience of Mr Murray’s childhood was the relentless bullying and name-calling (“a plethora of fat-names”).

In 1957, he began studying at the University of Sydney on a Commonwealth scholarship, proving even then to be an outstanding poet, but he never quite finished an arts degree at his first attempt. 

He read voraciously and rubbed shoulders with a band of future writers including Geoffrey Lehmann and Clive James.

In 1962 he married Valerie Morelli, and started the process of becoming a Catholic. 

They had five children.

He developed a strong interest in languages and, in the mid-1960s, worked as a translator at the Australian National University. 

He published his first book of poetry in 1965, a joint collection with Geoffrey Lehmann, The Ilex Tree. 

It was an immediate critical success, winning the Grace Leven Prize.

In the early 1970s Mr Murray gave up what he described as his “respectable cover occupations” to embrace poetry as a full-time career. 

This period saw his emergence as a significant figure in Australian literature, publishing numerous volumes of verse and prose. 

From 1973-80, Mr Murray was editor of Poetry Australia, and from the late 1970s until 1990 he was poetry reader for publishers Angus and Robertson.

For many overseas critics and academics he was the voice of Australia, and his poetry has been published in 16 languages. 

In 1989 Mr Murray’s contribution to Australian literature was recognised with an Order of Australia.

He has been the recipient of many awards including prestigious international poetry prizes: the Petrarch Prize (1995), the T. S. Eliot Award (1997), the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry (1998), the Mondello Prize (2004), and a Prix des Trois-Rivières (2014).

Mr Murray openly spoke and wrote about his battle with depression, contributing to a more frank discussion of “the black dog” in the wider community and offering insight and hope to those who have encountered despair.

Irish poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll, in the Paris Review hailed Mr Murray’s many achievements. 

“A poet with a panoptic vision of – and for – Australia, he has not only enhanced the literary standing of his country but has also contributed to the shaping of its destiny: influencing its arts policy, proposing a design for its flag, drafting its vote of allegiance, celebrating its indigenous plants and creatures, urging fellow Australians to shake off what he regards as their colonial mind-set and to allow their country to mature into a republic.”

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