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Taller when prone: The contradictions of Les Murray

  • 10 May 2024
  Before his death five years ago in April, Les Murray was widely considered Australia’s leading poet and among the world’s most significant. He published 38 collections of poetry along with books of essays on art, poetry and culture. The garlands laid upon him by critics and fellow poets included ‘the custodian of Australia’s soul’, ‘the one by whom the language lives', and a panoptic visionary who enhanced Australia’s international literary standing and sought to shape the nation’s destiny.

Murray was an only child, born and raised in Bunyah in rural New South Wales. Poverty, Free Presbyterianism, family feuding, and the early death of his mother made for a complicated childhood.

‘As a kid, I grew repelled by the Calvinist atmosphere, the competitive personal holiness, the mean advantage often taken of the poorest in our community,’ he told Image journal in 2010. ‘We were the poorest family in our district; the wind came in through the gaps between the boards of our house, and my parents seethed in humiliation about this, because it was contrived for us by Dad’s father.’


Our bare plank house/ with its rain stains down each crack/ like tall tan flames/ … it reaped Dad’s shamed invectives/ Paying him rent for this shack!/ The landlord was his father. (from ‘The Steel’)


Les’s father Cecil had had a brother who died in a farming accident. Because he perished cutting down a tree that Cecil had refused to fell, Cecil’s father blamed him for the death.

‘An unforgiving kind of blame stayed between dad and his father for the rest of their lives,’ The Guardian quoted Murray in 2010. ‘Dad was given a farm, but my grandfather made sure he kept hold of the purse strings so he kept my parents poor. After I was born my mother had no more live children and had several miscarriages. The two things together were pretty crushing for my parents and they were depressed a lot of the time.’

As if that weren’t enough, Murray’s mother died when she was 35 after haemorrhaging during labour at home. Murray eulogised his mother in his poem ‘The Steel’, which outlined the complexities surrounding her death: the family car had broken down and Cecil couldn’t afford to fix it; Cecil rang a doctor who failed to urgently call an ambulance:


Perhaps we wrong you,/ make a scapegoat of you;/ perhaps there was no stain/ of class in your decision,/ no view that