Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 29, 2019

Vale Les Murray (1939-2019)

The Australian poet Les Murray AO died today, aged 80.

The leading poet of his generation, and the recipient of numerous awards, he published over 30 volumes of poetry; two verse novels; and eight prose collections. He was also a critic, an editor and an anthologist of six collections of poetry.

The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985 edition) devotes almost two entire pages to Murray.  The entry reveals that he was born in the small town of Nabiac on the north coast of NSW and grew up on his father’s dairy farm.  He left the University of Sydney in 1960 without a degree, going on to work in 1963 as a translator of foreign scholarly and technical material at the ANU. [Frustratingly, the entry doesn’t give the language in which he was sufficiently fluent to do this.] However, after attending a poetry festival in Cardiff, he gave up this translating position, lived in England and Europe for a year, and then resumed university, graduating in 1969. [The Companion also doesn’t say what sort of degree it was.  I assume it was a BA).

His poetic inspiration, says the Companion, was derived from his continued association with the bush.  He alternated a working city life with bush holidays on a farm not far from where he grew up. His early poems, they say, have a sensitive awareness of the humanity that exists in situations that might seem too banal for poetry, celebrating his farming boyhood, his ancestors, and the rural people and life he intuitively understands. He also had a flair for fresh, original and brilliantly-inventive language and imagery.

These rural origins contributed to a conservative outlook, and Murray was notably the favourite poet of the very conservative prime minister John Howard.  This conservatism may account for the somewhat ambivalent tone of the Companion’s entry although it was published well before the controversies for which Murray was notorious, including his defence of the literary hoaxer Helen Darville who won the Miles Franklin Award under false pretences as a Ukrainian migrant.  The Companion, for example, somewhat dismissively refers to the verse novel The Boys Who Stole the Funeral as an attempt at a novel in verse (underlining mine) and there is also commentary about the obscurity of some of the poems in the ‘cow’ sequence of ‘Walking to the Cattle-Place’, brought about by masses of incomprehensible allusions, and in Roger McDonald’s words, by a ‘corner-of-the-mouth speech that has the effect of under-explanation rather than concentration’.   

At Wikipedia, (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links and footnotes) we read that

American reviewer Albert Mobilio writes in his review of Learning Human: Selected Poems that Murray has revived the traditional ballad form. He goes on to comment on Murray’s conservatism and his humour: “Because his conservatism is imbued with an angular, self-mocking wit, which very nearly belies the down-home values being expressed, he catches readers up in the joke. We end up delighted by his dexterity, if a bit doubtful about the end to which it’s been put.”

In 2003, Australian poet Peter Porter, reviewing Murray’s New Collected Poems, makes a somewhat similar paradoxical assessment of Murray: “A skewer of polemic runs through his work. His brilliant manipulation of language, his ability to turn words into installations of reality, is often forced to hang on an embarrassing moral sharpness. The parts we love – the Donne-like baroque – live side by side with sentiments we don’t: his increasingly automatic opposition to liberalism and intellectuality.”

Whatever about that, the Companion concludes by recognising Murray’s devotion to the Australian rural scene, respect and affection for the ordinary country man, and a conviction that modern society relinquishes, at its peril, the values that are enshrined in the land and in the lives of those who live in intimacy with it.

You can read some of this poetry at the Les Murray website.  

Update: there’s a lovely tribute from fellow-poet John Kinsella at The Guardian. 

Photo attribution: By Bjenks Realname Brian Jenkins – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Source: The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, by William H Wilda, Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, ISBN 0195542339


  1. I’ve scheduled my little tribute – smaller than this – for later tonight. Sad to see him go at only 80.


    • I look forward to seeing it, Sue. I think it’s important to mark the passing of members of our literary community, but I have to admit that I’m not familiar with Murray’s work. Students read his poems at school—Nathan Hobby commented at Twitter that Les Murray got him into poetry in Year 12—but I only ever read the occasional poem in The Weekend Australian.


  2. Sad news

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sad news, a great writer and national treasure


  4. Thanks very much for this post, Lisa. What a service you do us all by rounding up the facts like this. I’m planning a small blog post too, but it will have to wait a couple of days. I’m also shocked that he was only 80 – actually younger than David Malouf


    • Well thanks, Jonathan, but writing this has made me realise that maybe I need a newer edition of The Companion!


  5. […] to buy a book!), you can check out the Australian Poetry Library. Lisa ANZLitLovers) has also written a post marking his […]


  6. Lisa, in this obit it says his first language learned, after English, was German, but he became proficient in 20!


    • Thanks for the info, Glenda, but I can’t read the article because The Australian is paywalled. If I get time I’ll read it at the library today:)


      • Me too! But for some reason when I clicked on the link on the Association for the Study of Australian Literature’s FB post, it opened.


  7. Sorry to hear about his death. I have now read a little bit of his verse. He seems like he deserved all the accolades that he is receiving. I will be delving into some more of his work.


    • I read somewhere (last night) that he was a nominee for the Nobel as well.


  8. I have always been completely astounded by the technical breadth of his work. He was – to me – a genius in the poetic arena.


    • I can see why a fellow wordsmith would like him:)


  9. I suppose it’s time I forgave Murray for the John Howard preamble to the Constitution.


    • I’d forgotten all about that, and I was so angry at the time! I was fully in favour of having a preamble to the Constitution, (not to mention updating the entire horse-and-buggy thing, or even better tearing it up and starting all over again) but as soon as I saw the reference to God in it, I couldn’t in all conscience vote for it.
      (Mind you, I never blamed Les Murray for it. It had Howard’s sticky fingers all over it).
      #Musing, it just shows you, I was so very angry at the time, and until now I had completely forgotten about it. LOL I must be getting old…


  10. What’s wrong with getting old Lisa just think of all that brilliant knowledge sitting inside your skull and how we benefit from it. I too was a bit enraged for a time but heard him at a poetry launch in Perth and he was brilliant. A great poet who deserves all the accolades and respect he is due.


    • I suppose I was thinking that it’s harder to ‘maintain your rage’ as we get older…


  11. In my list of the best novels in verse I have read, I wrote the following:
    Fredy Neptune by Les Murray (1998) – an action packed Australian adventure novel in verse. This novel covers so much ground, I won’t try to summarize it.
    Reading Fredy Neptune was a wonderful experience for me. After that I attempted to read some of his short poems but they didn’t have the same impact for me.


  12. I also included Fredy Nepture on my list of favorite Australian novels with the following:
    Fredy Neptune’ by Les Murray – A raucous novel in verse. I can’t believe that the Australian Book Review left this book off even their longlist.


    • The only verse novels I’ve ever got on with have been children’s ones. I used to love reading Do-wrong Ron by Steven Herrick to the kids at school…

      Liked by 1 person

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