Cecil, shattered by grief for years afterwards, accused Les, whose birth had been induced, of killing Miriam. Murray ran wild for a year or two and then went to Taree High School where, a large boy with a huge brain and few social skills, he was variously ignored and bullied savagely. This had a deep effect and gave him a lifelong aversion to mobs and bullies.
From these beginnings he was tipped into another world in 1957 when he moved to the city to study for an arts degree at the University of Sydney. Other students, some of whom became good friends, included Geoffrey Lehmann, Bob Ellis, Penny McNicoll, Robert Hughes and Clive James. Murray made a place for himself in this world, but it was not an easy one, and he suffered from a bout of the depression that would recur throughout his life. Fortunately for himself and for Australian poetry, he met Budapest-born Valerie Morelli, and in 1962 they married.
In the same year his grandfather died, and the third of what might be called Murray’s foundation stories was established. Cecil discovered he would not, as promised, inherit the farm on which he lived and where he had toiled for so long for so little.
Murray and Valerie moved to Canberra, where he became a translator at the Australian National University while working on his first volume, The Ilex Tree. It was published in 1965 and contained poems by Murray and Geoff Lehmann, and launched both their reputations. It showed Murray struggling to reconcile his past with his future, in poems such as The Away Bound Train (“But I must forget the farm, and how the seasons/ Appear and are – or else not reach the world.”)
In 1967 Murray abandoned non-literary work and went with Valerie on a trip to Europe, with their first two children. On his return he published The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969), the first of many volumes that would contain some of Australia’s best-loved poems, including An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow (“There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.”), The Quality of Sprawl (“An image of my country. And would that it were more so.”), and The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever (“To go home and wear shorts forever/ in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate”). Reviewing The Weatherboard Cathedral, Kenneth Slessor wrote that it was “full of magnificent poetry” and that Murray, “says all that Lawson and Paterson tried to say but with infinitely more passion and subtlety”.
Murray quickly became Australia’s leading younger poet. Books such as Lunch & Counter Lunch (1974, winner of the National Book Council Award) and Ethnic Radio (1977) established his reputation. His work began to be published in the Times Literary Supplement and other foreign outlets, and he was invited to literary events overseas. Valerie worked as a teacher and in 1974 they were able to buy 40 acres of the farm from which Cecil had been evicted. Murray had a small prefabricated house built on “our beautiful deep land”, and the next year Cecil moved in. The Murrays spent their holidays at Bunyah, and in 1976 Murray wrote one of his great works, The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle, based on Aboriginal oral poetry and, like it, seeking to bring the land alive by speaking of it.
Although Murray didn’t fit in with the fashionable ideas of the 1970s (at university he’d converted to Catholicism), there proved to be a strong audience for his sophisticated renewal of traditional values, which he could provide with an authentic imagery less available to his more gentrified and urbanised colleagues, many of whom became distracted by more “modern” poetic concerns from America. As though sensing a need to justify what he was doing, or at least clear some space for it in the culture, he wrote a series of major essays. They included ‘The Vernacular Republic’, an argument that despite its political shell, Australia was already a republic, and ‘On Sitting Back and Thinking about Porter’s Boeotia’, a gentle dispute with Peter Porter, an Australian poet who lived away. The first of five books of Murray’s collected prose, The Peasant Mandarin, appeared in 1978.
In 1980 Murray published The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, a delightful verse novel of 140 sonnets about a city boy fulfilling his great-uncle’s desire to be buried up north. A work of great facility, it was a savage attack on some of the ideas of the time, including aspects of feminism, and the only major work Murray refused to have reprinted. Beneath its lively surface the book is an aching meditation on the rural poor for whom love of the land provides consolation.
Murray’s stature as one of Australia’s leading writers led to various jobs such as editor of Poetry Australia (1973 to 1979), of Angus & Robertson’s poetry list (1978 to 1991), and literary editor of Quadrant (from 1990).
Murray and Valerie, who lived in Chatswood for many years, had five children and in 1985 finally moved to Bunyah, after another modest building had been erected next to the house where Cecil lived. This homecoming produced The Idyll Wheel, a series of poems for each month of the year. In 1986 there appeared two anthologies edited by Murray, The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, and the Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry.
The next years were rich with more books of poetry, collections of prose, awards, and trips abroad.
In 1995 Murray received the German Petrarch Prize, the first non-European winner in its 20 years existence. The next year he became seriously ill with an abscess on his liver and was operated on in Newcastle, where he went into a coma for 20 days. There was a public outpouring of affection and he woke to find “my State funeral in full swing”. The experience perhaps helped hold his depression at bay over the next few years, which saw the publication of Subhuman Redneck Poems (1996) and the receipt of the TS Eliot Prize (1996) and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1998). Cecil had died in 1995, which prompted one of Murray’s most moving poems, The Last Hellos (“Don’t die, Dad -/ but they die.”).
In 1998 Murray published what he regarded as one of his major works and something of an autobiography, the verse novel Fredy Neptune. It is about a man who witnesses the Armenian genocide in 1915 and loses his sense of feeling. The book was well reviewed in Australia and greeted as a masterpiece by some reviewers in Europe.
In 2000 Peter Alexander’s fine biography, Les Murray: a life in progress, appeared.
Murray’s later collections of verse, such as Poems the Size of Photographs (2002) were noted more for their playful imagery than any particularly new subject matter. He continued to go on reading tours in Europe and Australia, to audiences often enchanted by the unity of man and work. Among many other qualities he was a great entertainer who, despite traces of autism, loved an audience.
Les Murray is survived by Valerie, children Christina, Daniel, Clare, Peter, and Alexander.