Les Murray was born on the NSW north coast on 17 October 1938. He was an only child, and his mother died when he was just 12. He struggled at Taree high school, where he was bullied. But a whole new world opened up to him in 1957 when he came to the University of Sydney to study for an arts degree.
Murray's cohort included such luminaries as art writer and historian Robert Hughes, journalist and political commentator Bob Ellis, poet Penny Nelson (nee McNicoll) and author and critic Clive James. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 2001.
His first publication was a volume of poems, The Ilex Tree, co-authored with Geoff Lehmann, another Sydney alumnus, and published in 1965. This debut publication launched both their careers.
Murray was a poet whose capacious work somehow made room for everyone.
“Les Murray was a giant of Australian – and world – poetry,” says Professor Annamarie Jagose, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
“Everything about him seemed XXXL from his physical form to his published oeuvre, even the whiff of the Nobel Prize, the award he was fingered to win but never did. Politically conservative, Murray was a poet whose capacious work somehow made room for everyone. It is instructive to see, in the immediate aftermath of his passing, when real and imagined structures of address are newly unstable, Murray’s written corpus revivified in obituaries and social media feeds as almost everyone, it seems, quotes their favourite lines to temper the news of his death.”
Writing was Murray’s life. He published some 30 volumes of poetry, as well as two verse novels and collections of poetry and prose as editor. The citation for his Honorary Doctorate of Letters reads:
“There are many Les Murrays. There is the author of the poems; the essayist who examines politics, religion, literature and history with deep insight and in precise and provocative words; the controversialist who was asked to write the preamble to the constitution; the republican advocate who launched a book by an antirepublican, and who once wanted to redesign the Australian flag. Over the years, he has assumed the status of a figure like Yeats in Ireland, Neruda in Chile or Whitman in the USA, a figure who has broken out of the frame of poet and writer to become a national bard.”
He was the recipient of several of the world’s major literary prizes, including the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry for The People's Other World (1984) and again for Translations from the Natural World (1993), the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry for Dog Fox Field (1990), The Petrarca-Preis (Petrarch Prize) (1995), the TS Eliot Prize for Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996), The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1998) and the Mondello Prize (2005). These many awards brought with them wide recognition of Australian poetry. Murray was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Australian literature in 1989.
“Les Murray was one of a kind, in life as in art,” says Peter Kirkpatrick, Associate Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. "He was a nationalist who enjoyed a global reputation, and a modernist with roots in an older Australian rural tradition. In his early life Murray knew what it was like to be poor and marginal, which made him sensitive in a way that few poets are to class and to those who live outside the cultural mainstream. His poetry can be both laconic and pyrotechnic, sharp and sprawling, and it isn’t always easygoing, but much of it will surely endure and continue to astonish present and future generations.”
Murray is survived by his wife Valerie, whom he married in 1962, and their five children.
Image: Newcastle Herald