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My moments with catholic Les Murray

  • 02 May 2019


In 1997 the Tenison Woods Education Centre (a ministry of the Sisters of St Joseph in the village of Lochinvar in the Hunter Region of New South Wales) invited poet Les Murray to be the guest speaker at its annual dinner. He assented, and he was a delightful guest.

He read and talked about his poetry — some of it including local references, since Les spent much of his life at Bunyah, on the mid north coast, within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. When Les wasn't physically at home in Bunyah, he was nonetheless anchored by home.

After that dinner I wrote to Les to thank him for his generous sharing, and was thrilled when he wrote back. He sent a postcard depicting a ruined abbey in North Yorkshire. I had, after some consideration, written 'Dear Les ... ', explaining that 'Mr Murray' just didn't feel right. He replied, 'You're right: Mr Murray's too formal and you're welcome to call me Les.' I had told him that I was teaching his poetry to year 11 students, and he sent good wishes to them.

The dinner wasn't the first time I had met Les. In 1986, the Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry was published — a comprehensive collection, selected by Les. At the time I was the Religious Education Coordinator (REC) at a high school in Maitland. Each term the RECs of diocesan schools met for formation and mutual support. The REC at St Clare's High School, Taree, organised for us to meet with Les at Black Head Surf Club.

Some of us had taught Les' poetry to senior students, which was set for the NSW HSC. We arrived bearing pristine copies of the anthology (ready to be signed of course), and Les simply chatted. He read some of his work, shared his selection criteria, and reflected broadly and generously on matters of faith.

Les became a Catholic when he married Valerie (nee Morelli) in 1962 but his abilities and interests could long have been described as 'catholic'. It's well known that he spoke many languages but his greatest gift to the world was to speak the universal language of poetry. I felt privileged to spend that time with Les, with the backdrop of the surf seeming to make its own religious statement.

Later, another opportunity to spend time with Les presented itself. The focus this time was as much on his author-wife Valerie as it was