Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
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 trees, echidnas, and, especially, cattle with the same brio he brings to human subjects. In “Bats’ Ultrasound,” for instance, he undertakes the bravura feat of trying to write in what bat language might sound like if it were translated into English. At the end of “Bats’ Ultrasound,” God is explicitly invoked by means of a Pentecostal mutual translation in which all languages, even animal ones, are interconnected.
Murray does not write many autobiographical poems, but two poems in this volume, written in the 1990’s, address very personal aspects of his life. In “Demo,” he speaks of the people who persecuted him in high school, particularly the girls who taunted him about his weight and made him believe he would never be attractive to women. Despite his Christian convictions, which would encourage forgiveness, Murray remains intransigent; even decades later, he will not forgive his schoolmates. They have never asked to be forgiven, and Murray suggests that, in a large sense, the crimes of the heart they committed against him in his childhood still persist in the form of powerful systemic transgressions that perpetuate the evils he experienced as a child, especially the hardening of social class into a virtual caste system. In this sense, his schoolmates are experiencing a form of perdition. Another trauma of Murray’s early years, the sudden death of his mother, is echoed in several of his poems; there is in many of his poems a general sense of loss and deprivation that serves as a counterpoint to the poet’s temperamental optimism. In yet another autobiographical poem, “It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Age Fifteen,” Murray writes of his autistic son, Alexander, in a way that brings insight into the experience of autism. That Murray, a poet of great intellect, is so proficient at writing about the very different cognitive state of his son demonstrates that, as great as his intellectual gifts are, they are always in the service of a higher mission involving the achievement of empathic resonance or emotional truth.
In general, Murray’s poems demonstrate compassion for those whose lives are, in conventional terms, unfulfilled. In “Australian Love Poem,” he writes of an eccentric bachelor who cares for an old widow, even though none of her relatives or members of the larger society are grateful for his sacrifice. This attention to the marginal is an aspect of Murray’s refreshing lack of egoism, shown in “The Wedding at Barrico,” an epithalamium (wedding poem) for his daughter Christina, in which he speaks of his daughter and her husband as now at the center of things, his own generation retiring to the rear.
Sources for Further Study
Alexander, Peter. Les Murray: A Life in Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Authorized and highly controversial biography containing necessary information about Murray’s upbringing, relationships, and values, as well as his clashes with prominent personages on the Australian literary scene.
Booklist 96 (January 1, 2000): 864.
Bourke, Lawrence. A Vivid Steady State. Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1992. The first book-length study of Murray; does not include the work of the 1990’s but offers a good orientation to the basic themes of Murray’s early and middle poems.
Gaffney, Carmel, ed. Counterbalancing Light: Essays on Les Murray. Armidale, N.S.W.: Kardoorair Press, 1997. This anthology, with contributors from Europe and the United States as well as Murray’s home country, includes two essays on Murray’s relationship to spirituality by Robert Crawford and Nicholas Birns, covering themes of nature and history, respectively.
Hergenhan, Laurie, and Bruce Clunies Ross. Poetry of Les Murray: Critical Essays. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2002. This anthology, with material contributed by teams of Australian and Danish scholars, testifies to Murray’s increasing international stature. It explores Murray’s versification, sense of narrative, and deftness with language. Included are close readings of important poems.
Library Journal 124 (December, 1999): 140.
Matthews, Steven. Les Murray. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. Comprehensive overview of Murray’s career, written for an international audience; Murray’s Australian context is thoroughly explored.
The New Republic 222 (June 6, 2000): 52.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 12, 2000): 10.
Publishers Weekly 246 (December 6, 1999): 72.
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