My moments with catholic Les Murray

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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.

Les Murray at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park, Vic., in 2013. Photo by Peter ThomasHe 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 on the internationally renowned poet. In 2016, Hungarian-born Valerie wrote what she called 'a European-Australian memoir', Flight from the Brothers Grimm.

 

"A light has gone out, but the meaning remains."

 

As editor of the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan magazine Aurora, I visited Valerie and Les, and their son Alex, at their home at Bunyah. Bunyah is Murray country and the pleasure Les took in his land was palpable. He walked me around and told stories of trees and flowers, dairy cattle and the struggle to build a dam.

I asked Les from where his poems emerge and he replied that it could be 'a word, an image, a thought ... and some poems demand to be written'. He wrote in longhand and Valerie typed the final version. As a typewriter aficionado, I was delighted to see a manual typewriter on a crowded desk.

The life of a poet — even an internationally revered one − is unlikely to be lucrative but the Murrays were rich in experience, love, and a multi-storied family life. The shared love of language was their treasure.

I asked Les then what he anticipated at the end of what was for him a very earthed life. Les was phlegmatic — he imagined a reunion with his parents (his mother died when he was 12) but was content to 'wait and see ... we are on certain post-mortem promises after all'. He told me he would like inscribed on his headstone, 'Les Murray — poet' and maybe, 'mate of Tom Soper', the late local gravedigger whose faith he greatly admired.

Thank you Les for all you gave — the poetry, the verse novels, the prose — a rich and lasting legacy. In his poem 'Driving Through Sawmill Towns', Les wrote, 'a light going out in a window here has meaning'. A light has gone out, but the meaning remains.

 

 

Tracey EdsteinTracey Edstein is a freelance writer and former editor of Aurora, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

Main image: Les Murray during a visit to the Carmelite Library in Middle Park, Vic., in 2013. Photo by Peter Thomas.

Topic tags: Tracey Edstein, Les Murray, poetry

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you Tracey for these memories of Les Murray. You mention his editorship of 'Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry', a remarkable production that went into a revised edition. It is about the first such book to include large sections of Indigenous poetry, the long line and land description of which came to influence his own English language poetry. Kevin Hart's 'Oxford Book of Religious Verse' came out soon after, more diverse collection in subject terms, and a good addition to what Les had already put out there. Even though both of these books are borrowed frequently from the library I run, are on the shelves of any number of clergy and laity in Australia, and are requested in bookshops to this day, the publishers seem incapable of understanding that a reprint is more than just viable. That it is over twenty years since these two titles came out should be telling someone that a new Australian religious poetry collection is overdue.
Philip Harvey | 02 May 2019


Les Murray was an enormously decent human being. He was indeed a Catholic, an Australian and a Boy from the Bush. These things helped define him, but he was not limited by birth, upbringing or place of abode. It is as if, with artists of his calibre, the Almighty gives them a vision where they can transcend the mundane realities of everyday existence, or, to put it in a better way, they can see beyond, or more deeply into them. Sometimes that vision, as with Blake, is a little hard to comprehend. Les' genius allowed you to see the sacredness in everyday things. In these days of immensely posturing 'artists', some of limited talent, Les was a genuinely talented artist with no artificial posturing. Like Dorothy Mackellar, he had a vision of what Australia is. He reconciled so many things both in himself and others. He was a genuinely mature A1 human being. Our deepest condolences should go out to his loving family. Meanwhile, he ascends upwards to God. R.I.P.
Edward Fido | 02 May 2019


Les: a poet without peer, as one headline proclaimed so aptly. Thanks to Philip and Edward for eloquent comments. In Kevin Hart's "The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse" Les' contributions are: An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow; The Barranong Angel Case; The Future; The Chimes of Neverwhere; At Min-Min Camp.
Pam | 02 May 2019


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