Les Murray

The death of Australia’s greatest poet has moved me deeply. In a world that can seem threatened by the bland cosmopolitanism of noisy people with little to say, Murray had a genuinely vernacular voice that expressed the perspectives of a white rural Australia (‘subhuman, redneck’) that was utterly untouched by movements of dangerous populism. He was a poet of marvellous verbal dexterity and extraordinary range. How many have given voice to the feelings of cows (‘The Cows on Killing Day’ is probably my favourite; another poem approaches cows via Sanskrit, and concludes ‘I will follow cows’), as well as people in the centre of Sydney (the stunning ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’). ‘The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle’ evokes the song lines of Indigenous Australia. And so on.

But what most draws me to Murray is his authenticity. A childhood spent in rural poverty, wretched feelings that he had caused his mother to die, misery from being teased without mercy at high school, extreme awkwardness at failing to fit in at university, depression and border-line autism meant that he was no stranger to adversity. Yet photos of him as an adult invariably show him radiating contentment. Poems such as the wonderful ‘Wearing Shorts Forever’ and, more indirectly, ‘The Quality of Sprawl’ do not merely suggest the way Murray, a man of great size and casual dress who enjoyed eating what he still referred to as chook, looked, but validate such things. To hear him reading his poems was to encounter a broad Australian accent that couldn’t be bothered to move to the kind of register that the quality of his work might have suggested. It is impossible to imagine such a person carefully curating the way he presented himself on social media. Many poets have voiced alienation and discontent; Murray, utterly at home in himself, went further, expressing wonder at the world in which he lived.

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