Leslie Allan Murray AO

Leslie Allan Murray

With the passing of local legend, and internationally acclaimed poet, Les Murray, we ask, what fitting tribute could we give to establish some kind of local commemoration of him?

With the passing of local legend, and internationally acclaimed poet, Les Murray, we ask, what fitting tribute could we give to establish some kind of local commemoration of him? 

A Special Library or reading room? A Scholarship? Don’t think Les’d want a statue. A Tree? (nope, the Council would probably cut it down if it was in the way of “progress.”) Ideas welcome and we’ll pass them on to his family. 

Here, Dr John Stockard gives an in depth analysis of Les’s talent and complicated personality. 

Leslie Allan Murray AO  

One in a Hundred Million

17th Oct 1938 – 29th April 2019

Leslie Allan Murray AO authored 30 volumes of poetry and was officially translated into 10 languages.  

In 2007, Dan Chiasson wrote in The New Yorker that Les Murray was “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.”  Consider this for a moment.   There are 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, 375 million of whom English is their first language.  The expression “one in a million” is inadequate for our Les; he is easily one in a hundred million.  

Widely considered Australia’s unofficial Poet Laureate, Les was a nationalist embracing the language and traditions of Australia instead of those of Britain.  He described himself as “the last of the Jindyworabaks”.   Australia’s Jindyworabak Movement was founded in the 1930’s by a group of poets and writers who sought a national consciousness, with an emphasis on a “sense of place” in our unique island continent, as well as the adoption and incorporation of Aboriginal values and “caring for country”, stewardship.  

Like Xavier Herbert, Australia’s Tolstoy, Murray championed a “creole” Australia, the hybridisation of European and Aboriginal values and traditions as well as races.  Though regarded as Australia’s national poet, he often described himself as a pariah, outside the country’s literary establishment because of his anti-liberal views:  “There was a time when I wasn’t liked much in academic circles in Australia and the thing to do was to get famous overseas – it made it harder to dismiss me.”  Providing an additional insight into the novel and period piece film, Ladies in Black, Les further explained this era in a 1997 interview:

“Australians were feeling inferior to their immigrants and thought they had to get sophisticated real quick and I was completely an obstacle.  There I was from the country, wrong tune, the wrong type of human being altogether. The only legitimate country people were Aboriginal and I wasn’t even black so I was a nuisance.  Nations occasionally decide to compose themselves into something and if you can’t meet the paradigm you’re in trouble.  The paradigm is loosening at last after 40 years…I think that one day before I die it might change.  I think I’m going from the pariah to the paradigm.”  

Awards

Murray won numerous prestigious awards during his life:  The Grace Levan Prize, Kenneth Slessor Prize, Petrarch Prize, T.S. Eliot Award, and, in 1999, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes.  In 1989 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Australian literature.  In addition to his many volumes of poetry, Les published two verse novels as well as volumes of prose and essays including “In a Working Forest” and “Killing the Black Dog”.  He was editor of Poetry Australia and Quadrant and also edited several poetry anthologies.  He was voted by the National Trust as one of our 100 living treasures in 2012.  In 2015 he was honoured with a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame Australia.  In the May 2016 issue of The Atlantic, James Parker proclaimed Les Murray “our greatest living English-language poet”.  

Born in Nabiac, Les was the only son of Cecil Allan Murray (born at Bunyah 1909) and Miriam Pauline Arnall, a trained nurse (born at Kurri Kurri 23rd May 1915).   Les was raised in a two room slab hut at Bunyah with wind whistling through gaps in the boards, without lining, ceiling or any insulation.  The earth floor was covered with linoleum.  Scarcely warmer outside than in during winter it was extremely hot in summer.  There was no running water and electricity didn’t arrive until 1960.  The shingle roof leaked.  Paraffin lamps provided light.  Without a bedroom, Les slept on the west porch, with a canvas screen to roll down when it rained.  On clear nights he would look up at the celestial stars.  Only a few windows were glassed, the rest just covered with cardboard.   Les’ impoverished but resourceful and industrious parents produced most of their food and so avoided hunger.  Although living much as those in the Third World, the Murrays owned a motor vehicle.   

Major issues of guilt and blame hung over Les, beginning with his father’s favourite brother, Archie, who died felling a tree that his father Cecil, an experienced axeman refused to cut because it was badly piped.  Their father, Les’ grandfather, ordered the inexperienced Archie to do so and he obeyed with fatal outcome.  Calvinists, Murray insisted, don’t accept the concept of accidents and so there can be no forgiveness.  The rancour from this was never resolved, with Cecil’s father leaving none of the property to him despite his working on it and paying punishing rentals to his Dad.   

Childhood

Even though regularly thrashed for misbehaviour, Les remembered an overall happy childhood until his mother died from a third miscarriage when he was 12, leaving Les with a sense of guilt that his own birth had caused the problems.  “I think she suspected my birth caused her troubles.  It’s a real bugger to feel that your birth might have prevented theirs.  You can become an only child by taking away their lullaby.”  Then the doctor was blamed for not responding in time with Les finally understanding that his father’s inability to articulate his wife’s condition (women’s business) over the open line meant the urgency of need for an ambulance wasn’t conveyed.  His father, Les said, mourned for the next 44 years, and there was little parenting after this tragedy.  At 16 Les was sent to Taree High, where he boarded nearby during the week.  There his freakish intelligence, awkward size, clumsiness and poverty, attracted bullying, particularly from six relentlessly cruel girls who sensed his hormonal need and craving for acceptance.  The other girls fell into line, frightened of being bullied themselves lest they not.  This bullying was to become the seminal experience of his creative life; what the mob, the “in-crowd” can do to individuals either side of the Bell Curve.  As his biographer, Peter Alexander observed, in Les Murray, A Life in Progress (Oxford University Press 2000):  “At Taree High, he would come to see, he was the victim of an organised, powerful majority, a mob with leaders who set the fashion and who had decreed his torture and exile.  And there was no appeal against his sentence.  ‘Nothing a mob does is funny’, he would say in Fredy Neptune, his most detailed study of this phenomenon.”   Murray experienced the pecking order and what he termed erocide—the deliberate destruction of someone’s sexual morale which is particularly vulnerable during adolescence and only possible from the opposite sex.  

Return to Taree

In 1977, 20 years after graduation, Les returned to Taree High and spoke to the students about poetry.  He remarked matter-of-factly to Edith McLaughlin before leaving, “I had one of the hardest times of my life here.”   Over time, Les came to realise he had certain autistic traits consistent with Asperger’s Syndrome, particularly after his fourth child, Alexander, was diagnosed with autism.  Les had a savant aptitude for languages and words and an exceptional memory for detail.  Autism is commonly accompanied with high levels of anxiety and depression, which are sometimes considered comorbidities.  With isolation, exclusion, bullying and loneliness from social ineptitude compounded, on the other hand, by jealousy and resentment of freakish savant “gifts”, travail is predictable.   Neurotypical people can find the intensity of Murray’s hurt puzzling and the bullying is better understood in the context of his autism.  

Austism

Hans Asperger, a Viennese paediatrician, first described a pattern of behaviour (1944) he observed in four young boys which 37 years later (1981) now bears his name, Asperger’s syndrome.  Asperger wrote:  

“Autistic children are often tormented and rejected by their classmates simply because they are different and stand out from the crowd.  Thus, in the playground or on the way to school one can often see an autistic child at the centre of a jeering horde of little urchins.  The child himself may be hitting out in blind fury or crying helplessly.  In either case he is defenceless.”  

Children with Asperger’s are at least four times more likely to suffer bullying than their peers.  Tony Attwood, an Australian considered the world authority on Asperger’s observed: 

“Clinical experience suggests that the psychological consequences of being the target of frequent bullying and teasing are likely to last many years and be a major contributor to clinical depression, anxiety disorder and problems with anger management.”   “…they (Adults with Asperger’s) have considerable difficulty understanding why they were the target so often, or the motivation of the children who tormented them.  Their main way of trying to understand why they were singled out is to repeatedly replay the events in their thoughts.  The person is re-living but not resolving past injustices.  This can be a daily experience, even though the incidents occurred decades earlier.  As the event is repeated in their thoughts, so are the emotions experienced again.”  

Taree High

Les recounted a particularly humiliating activity where girls at Taree would approach him with friendly overtures and when he warmly responded, they would then race off in peels of derisive laughter.  This is termed backhanded bullying and there are many variations to this treachery:  

“The social naivety of children with Asperger’s syndrome can lead to an unusual form of bullying described by Gray (2004) as backhanded bullying.  The other child initially appears friendly but subsequent actions are certainly not friendly.  An example is provided by Luke Jackson, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome…another child approached him with apparently friendly gestures and conversation while his accomplice, crouched down on his hands and knees directly behind Luke.  The ‘friend’ in front of him then pushed Luke back so that he fell backwards over the accomplice, was unable to prevent his fall and hit his head on concrete, resulting in his being concussed.”

Les “discovered” poetry at the age of 18 with the active assistance of two sympathetic teachers at Taree High; Keith McLaughlin, his English teacher, and Les Lawrie, his PE teacher who excused him from classes while also encouraging his interest in poetry.  “I was a freak, but happily my freakishness was in language—not, say, in classifying antique crankshafts.”  Without poetry, he reflected, he would likely have followed a dark path.  These two sensitive teachers were Murray’s saviours, rescuing an outstanding, besieged and tortured genius.  Les spied some German texts in Keith McLaughlin’s office one day and taught himself German; the first of a score of languages which he could read with ease; anything resembling Italian or German was accessible.  At the age of 24 (1963) he was employed as translator at the Institute of Advanced Studies, a section of the ANU in Canberra, which he held until he resigned in early 1967, just prior to his European travels.  

Les suffered from depression and wrote openly about it in “Killing the Black Dog”, later reflecting that he had been chronically depressed from the age of 8 to 58, with periodic troughs of major depression and panic attacks.   Oddly, after three weeks in a coma while suffering from a near-fatal liver abscess in 1996 his “black dog” finally abandoned him for good.  

Depression

As Murray observed in an interview, “Most common-or-garden writers and artists have depression.  We have at least one serious involvement with it anyway.” Another time he referred to depression simply as “poet’s flu”.  Murray described his terrifying panic attacks “like dying hundreds of times”:

“With depression you don’t get the visuals – it’s a radio medium, it’s not a television medium.  You don’t get to see hallucinations or hear voices.  It’s in your head, it’s pure misery.  It distorts your thinking.  I suppose the psychiatric definition is that it doesn’t break the bounds of your ego, you don’t dissolve into the world around you and start believing that things out there are inside you and things inside you are out there.  I learnt something about fear and that is that the fear of death –which some people have written very eloquently about—you get beyond that to where fear has no subject matter at all, it is just pure fear.  You’ve not afraid of anything anymore, it’s just plain fear and that’s the worst of the lot.” 

Self Educated

In 1956 Les won a Commonwealth Scholarship to Sydney University, where in true Asperger’s tradition, he gave up attending his classes and instead went to the Fisher library educating himself as his fancy directed.  At University he met many talented people who went on to fame:  Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Bruce Beresford, Bob Ellis, Mary Gaudron, Michael Kirby, John Bell, Richard Wherrett, Geoffrey Lehmann, Richard Butler, Mungo MacCallum, Richard Walsh, Colin Mackerras, Laurie Oakes…and many, many more personalities.  He lived a dissolute, Bohemian life, often ordered out of his accommodation, lived with The Push and, for a time, slept on the streets.  He joined the Newman Society, the main Catholic social club at Uni, where he made other friends.    

At Uni, Les met and then married his wife Valerie Morelli, a strikingly beautiful woman who had arrived as one of the millions of post-war European migrants.  Born in Budapest (1st August 1941) from Swiss parents, she arrived with her mother, father and brother when she was just nine.  She entered Sydney University in 1959 to read languages, intending to become a teacher.  Bob Ellis, Les’ close friend commented that Valerie was “like an identikit of the perfect woman for Les.  They came out of the same cookie cutter.  Her European extraction didn’t hurt either (Murray was prejudiced against Australian women after Taree High).  He was always fascinated with things German, Hungarian, Swiss and she was the perfect roll-your-own European woman for him.”   The marriage lasted his life, and the couple had five children. 

“The Bush”

Murray has been involved in a number of political controversies and a standard neurotypical explanation is inadequate.  Murray felt the Great Australian conflict was between Sydney and “The Bush”.   In a 1997 interview, Murray said this about Pauline Hanson:  

“She’s very useful to the press because she is a stick with which they can beat the country people.  She’s come up out of a profound disaffection between the urban elites and the country people, who feel hard-pressed.  They feel hard pressed all the time because of the climate and because of the terrible damage that the banks have been allowed to do to them.”  Les stated that four times in Australian history, “the banks have been let loose on country folk”, pushing up interest rates so that it was impossible to pay back the loans, taking away their land and reselling it profitably “to the next lot.”  

Peter Porter wrote: “Murray sees it as his duty to protect ordinary people from cultural snobs – but his own poetry is at an elite virtuosity.  He’s for the people but writes over their head in the style required to address their enemies.”   

The conservative journal Quadrant was formed in 1956 by Richard Krygier and James McAuley with seed money from the CIA.  James McCauley was also a member of the Newman Society and Chief Editor until 1963.   Murray served as Quadrant’s Literary Editor from March 1990 until the January 2019 issue.  All the same, Murray wrote a poem which protested the Iraq War and accused the Australian government of “crawling in the dirt after America.”  Murray felt Australia lacked a vision, hadn’t grown up and was still an adolescent, looking overseas all the time for direction.  “It will be centuries before men are truly at home in this country.”  

Politics A Curse

A 76 year old Murray reflected:  “I’m trying to lean out of politics altogether.  In my lifetime it’s been mostly a curse.  I’ve just found it such an unpleasant, compulsory and savage world that it sickens me.  That’s true of all political sides.  I don’t like any of them.”  In 1997, he told Romana Koval, “Politics is always a reduction of poetry anyway.  It brings me down to a smaller size than I’d want to be thought of as.  It can be, in the end, irrelevant, and I get sick of it.” The bullying tone in politics reminded him of the playground. “Politics is a dreadfully risky occupation that ultimately will have its revenge on you.”  

Murray was “contrarian” and had no imitators, with an individual, singular mind.  Sarah Holland-Batt, Associate Professor at the Qld Univ of Technology and poet, stated “Murray was always suspicious of group think.  His entire philosophy was suspicious of institutions and consensus.  He was iconoclastic, adopting provocative stances not only for the pleasure of sparring but also deeply held beliefs…Intellectuals of his generation, like Germaine Greer, weren’t afraid to stake out their own ground as unpopular as that may be.”  Peter Martin, Business and Economy Editor of the Conversation, said, “What binds us is the Australian landscape and Murray is the pre-eminent person apart from visual artists at solidifying that for us.”  

“Learning Human” (2001) contained 137 poems which Murray considered his best.  The title refers to the profound divide between the autistic mind with its lack of social instinct and hierarchical focus and the neurotypical one with its elaborate preening, grooming and often ruthless social ranking.  Basic social skills which are instinctual for neurotypicals can only be learnt by autistic individuals.   “Wrong Planet” is a euphemism for autistic alienation and also the name of a website for those with autistic spectrum disorders.  Uncluttered by social instinct and activity, the autistic mind turns to other subjects, often with an intense obsession which, combined with the requisite intelligence and, perchance, seemingly magical savant gifts, can attain tremendous success, particularly should such an individual find his or her niche in neurotypical society.  Hans Asperger wrote, “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.  For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways, with all abilities canalized into the one specialty.”  

Religion

Murray routinely dedicated his work “To the Glory of God”.   Les was one of two local Murrays to convert from the Presbyterian Church to Catholicism out of conviction, the other being Alice Gleeson (nee Murray), mother of Murray, the 11th Chief Justice of Australia.   Les converted to Catholicism at Sydney University, quite coincidental to marrying his European-born wife, also a Catholic.  Murray felt the very nature of Calvinism was “an unforgiveness machine.”  Murray claimed it was the “words of the mass” and the history of Catholicism that converted him to it.  In his view, there were two conflicting forces, and one either leaned towards poetry or to reason.  One either received whatever welled up from the deep unconscious or reasoned it out as a Calvinist.  Murray found it more natural for him to receive what was bubbling up from below, ”…things that you knew that you didn’t know”.  

Murray believed in the necessity of a creative trilogy; body, conscious and unconscious needed to be in concert for the distillation of poetry.  In a 1998 BBC interview, Murray explained that his poems are written in a trance.  “It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious mind.”  In the Robert Hass interview 2011, he described it as the dreaming, rational and dancing minds.   Les compared his poetry to the syncopation of jazz, off-beat and bouncing between rhymed, metred and free verse.  

In an interview for the Paris review in 2005, Murray reflected, “I’m cursed with a strong sense of the dark side of everything; I was brought up on the idea that whatever you do will fail, that sooner or later it will crash.  One thing I dare to be proud of; I managed to wrestle life on to my terms without ever rising socially.”   Despite his towering creative genius and the international recognition of it, our Les remained a man of the common rural folk, champion of indigenous culture and advocate of a national Australian identity welded to our unique island continent.  Les Murray’s family has accepted the offer from the NSW government for a state funeral.  The State Memorial Service will be held at the State Library of NSW on Wednesday, 12th June.  

I occasionally saw the Bard of Bunyah in Taree having a cup of coffee alone or with Alexander and Valerie.  He seemed invisible to the local community.   I made it a point of greeting him and we had a few small exchanges.  I found it heartening just knowing this living national treasure had somehow secured triumph against all the tall poppy cutters and the inimical forces of mediocrity and herd conformity.   I’ll miss the chance of ever seeing him among us again.    

John Stockard 

One Response to Leslie Allan Murray AO

  1. Gary Hayes says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful insight into this amazing man’s life in the Manning.
    A well written article about a great local poet, and his unhappy school days.
    His two teachers who helped turn Les’s life around were neighbours of mine years ago, and both deserved applause for the ways in which they helped build Les’s self esteem.
    I occasionally saw Les around town, but never met him, but would have loved to have sat down with him over a couple of wines, to hear more about his interesting life.

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