Poetry: Les Murray | clivejames.com
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Les Murray

Born in 1938, Les Murray was already an outstanding poet when he first emerged at Sydney University in the late 1950s. In my capacity as literary editor of the student newspaper honi soit, it was my task to assess the printability of unsolicited poetic contributions, and I had no trouble assessing his as being verbally interesting beyond the ambitions of the average student — or of the remarkable student, for that matter — as well as being unusually well-founded in reality. The question was about what kind of reality. It wasn't urban. In those days we all fancied ourselves as city bred, but Murray, and his work, seemed to have come from somewhere else. It was a place called the country. Without making a fetish of it, he was casting himself from the first day as a poet for whom Australia included the land behind the coast. He was bringing with him his memories of an upbringing in the farming country near Bunyah Creek, NSW, and his poetry was marked from the beginning with a deep and consciously revolutionary corrective to the metropolitan emphasis of Australian poetry which had prevailed since the bush balladeers had been found guilty of insufficient sophistication during the previous century.

Until Murray's time, even those modern Australian poets who wrote about the land — Judith Wright was prominent among them — showed a wilful element, as if a city view might need to be enriched by choice. Murray's poetry was truly agrarian, in the sense that the whole array of its perceptions had the rural existence for a departure point rather than a destination. (There is a possibility that he later arranged his personal history to support this priority, but the same could be said of Robert Frost.) As Murray's thematic scope steadily increased in the course of decades, his work came to embrace the Australian cities and the whole metropolitan world. (He never relocated abroad, but he has always been a traveller, as well as a prodigious linguist.) Yet the base of his art has always remained firmly established in the hinterland, as if his sumptuously varied display of poetic produce were a kind of Royal Easter Show brought to the city for a long and imperishable season. When you consider that he would be one of Australia's most important literary critics even if he wrote no poetry — his prose collection A Working Forest can be particularly recommended — it becomes clear that all the journalistic talk about his sure trajectory towards the Nobel Prize is not idle. But his Collected Poems is a book precious beyond all prizes: one of the great books of our contemporary world. The proliferation of its inventiveness finally makes irrelevant the question of why he does not write in forms: everything he writes has a form of its own.

It should go without saying that I am very honoured by Murray's allowing me to publish a few of his poems here. Most of the poems in this short selection come from the 2002 edition of Collected Poems, but there are a couple from the most recent of his gratifyingly many slim volumes, The Biplane Houses. (There are more poems on the excellent website www.lesmurray.org *) The thought that a new young reader, in some country where Murray's books aren't readily available, might stumble on that primary magic as I once did when a short Murray poem landed on my desk, is enough to remind me that I initially conceived this website out of a determination to recapture that first thrill of turning up clueless at a university and discovering the world of human creation - and to put the thrill back out there in the air, where anyone could share it. 

Paris Review interview with Les Murray
* Archive Ed's Note: follow my link to the Wayback Machine's archive copy of Les's site;
the original domain lapsed and was grabbed for a blog by someone with a similar name.