The central theme of Les Murray’s poetry is his commitment to the region in New South Wales where he was born and raised. Though he moved to Sydney as a young adult to study at a university and work as a translator, as soon as the success of his poetic career permitted, he returned, at the age of thirty-seven, to the town of Bunyah in New South Wales, where he settled in, supporting himself as a writer and editor.
The long sequence near the beginning of Learning Human, “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle,” comes out of Murray’s love of his homeland’s countryside. Australians driving north along the highway on their way to their summer vacation are likened to the Aborigines of presettlement days. Their movement from place to place is envisioned as a spiritual pilgrimage not unlike that of the nomadic Aborigines. Whereas other poets would denounce the presence of the automobile in the Australian landscape as an intrusion of modern technology into primeval space, Murray braids humanity and landscape, dreaming and waking consciousness, and the joy of fellowship and the ecstasy of nature in all its splendor. This powerful cycle embraces the totality of sensations in the Australian environment and presents it as a world of wonder.
Throughout his poems, Murray champions the experience of ordinary people. This is not a result of the familiar patronizing condescension to the locals on the part of the more educated denizens of a rural region, but is the outcome of a genuine, spontaneous feeling for his fellows. In “Sprawl” and “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever,” he embraces the relaxed, unpretentious, and amiable way of life of the average Australian, celebrating the Australian ideal of “mateship” that aspires to an equal, supportive companionship with other people. Murray is alert for possibilities in experience easily passed over by superficial or snobbish renderings of the world. In “The Hypogeum,” he attacks the banality of a modern shopping center but also shows how it becomes a forum for vibrant human interchange. In “Driving Through Small Towns,” he once again eschews the traditional intellectual posture of condescension and pity toward small rural communities. Unlike the metropolitan sophisticate who may look down on small-town residents and pity their constricted lives, Murray depicts the small-town people as far from being fixed, but instead trending, psychologically, into the unknown quantity of the future; they are changing and growing in a spiritual way beyond any observer’s knowledge.
In his country poems, Murray is a poet of the animal as well as of the human world; additionally, he dwells on inanimate as well as animate objects. He writes about comets, mollusks, shale, bats, eucalyptus...
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