Les Murray called himself a “subhuman redneck”, but the Australian poet and writer was also “the patron saint of misfits” who sang the nation’s landscape, culture and vernacular into being, writes Gary Nunn.
The bush bard. Rustic giant-genius. Polyglot. Unofficial Australian poet laureate. The greatest living writer in Australian literature or the English language. All this and more has been said of Les Murray, who died this week at the age of 80.
“It’s my mission to irritate the hell out of the eloquent who would oppress my people,” Murray once wrote, “by being a paradox that their categories can’t assimilate: the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems”.
In a writing career which spanned more than 40 years and almost 30 volumes of poetry, he “created a vernacular republic for Australia, a place where our language is preserved and renewed”, his publisher, Black Inc, said.
For Peter Kirkpatrick, English professor at the University of Sydney, Murray was a “complex man and a unique but often difficult poet”.
His death, he says, has “left a hole in Australian literature as big as his vast vocabulary”.
Next sign, the dust that was white pepper bared
starts pitting and re-knotting into peppercorns.
It stops being a raceway of rocket smoke behind cars,
it sidles off foliage, darkens to a lustre.
Extract from The Warm Rain by Les Murray
Born in 1938, Murray was often referred to as the “Bard of Bunyah”, after the New South Wales dairy farm where he was raised.
He grew up an only child, running around barefoot, with no running water or electricity. He briefly went away to school, where he endured brutal bullying that made him forever distrustful of any in-crowd, but returned home aged 12 following the pregnancy-related death of his mother, a tragedy his father blamed on him.
His background and isolated childhood were formative influences on his poetry.
“These experiences gave him insight into how class operates in Australia, and how the mainstream treats those it disapproves of,” Prof Kirkpatrick says.
“This also made him suspicious of intellectual fashions and academics.”
John Hawke, a literary studies expert at Monash University, says Murray’s great achievement was defining and describing the minute sensations of everyday Australian life, grounded in a recognisably vernacular language.
In his wistful poem The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever, Murray writes “shorts…are an angelic nudity…spirituality with pockets! A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!”
“His wonderful poem was used as 1990s Australian tourism advertisement,” says Dr Hawke, “and conveyed more about the experience of being Australian than any number of shrimps on the barbie or Crocodile Dundees ever could”.
Dr Hawke ranks him “amongst the greatest English-language poets since Yeats”.
“It’s nearly impossible to write Australian poetry without acknowledgement of his legacy,” he says.
Prof Bronwyn Lea teaches creative writing at the University of Queensland. She considers Murray to be both “one of the greatest poets writing in English in the past hundred years” and the “patron saint of misfits”.
“At a time when Australian poets were turning their attention to its cities or moving abroad – Clive James, Peter Porter – Murray fixed his eyes on the bush. He considered it the only unique aspect of Australian culture,” she says.
He had a knack of speaking for the common person but with a prodigious vocabulary and love of arcane knowledge that made him the most sophisticated and challenging poet, says Prof Lea.
Murray’s poetry was infused with anger against academics and urban elites. He demonised post-modernism for making poetry distant from widespread, popular readership.
But for Prof Lea there was an element of posturing to this railing.
Titling one volume Subhuman Redneck Poems, she says, “served as a mask he liked to wear to disturb polite company”.
The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.
Extract from An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow by Les Murray
Much of Murray’s work shows how influenced he was by Aboriginal culture, which he said had been “carried by a vast map of song-poetry”.
Poetry was for him an “integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind”.
He was widely seen as following the Australian “bush poet” tradition of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Dorothea Mackellar.
But that epithet may be undeserved, says Ray Essery, vice president of the Australian Bush Poets Association.
According to him, bush poems were often recited around campfires. They didn’t necessarily need to be about the rural landscape, but they did need to rhyme.
“I’ve never heard one of his poems recited,” says Mr Essery.
“I never got into that heavy literary style. His poetry isn’t something I’d learn or identify with – in the way I would Waltzing Matilda, written by a rhyming bush poet.”
Although his literary style may have been anti-establishment, his politics were not.
Former Prime Minister John Howard enlisted Mr Murray to draft a proposed preamble to the Constitution (later dropped) in the 1990s. He was also a Catholic, who dedicated much of his poetry to “the glory of God”.
Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?
Extract from Poetry And Religion by Les Murray
Murray won a string of poetry awards throughout his life, including the prestigious TS Eliot Prize in 1996 for Subhuman Redneck Poems, and was considered a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In later life he moved with his family back to Bunyah, where he had grown up.
Though he resented the literary elite, his later work became “increasingly cryptic”, says Prof Kirkpatrick.
“He liked to think his poetry was broadly popular but while a number of his party pieces travel well in the media, his work is often obscure.”
But he says the poems in the 1992 volume Translations from the Natural World – written from the perspective of plants and wildlife – “are among the greatest ever written about non-human animals”.
Murray died on 29 April in a nursing home not far from his home. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Valerie Morelli, and their five children.
His genius, says Prof Kirkpatrick, “remade the English language into a super-charged Australian vernacular, and to that extent he deserves his current world standing”.