Les Murray – described as Australia’s greatest living poet. Photo Lic. CC 2.0.

Writer Watch

The Poets

Les Murray


From ‘The Instrument’ by Les Murray

Who reads poetry? Not our intellectuals;

they want to control it. Not lovers, not the combative,

not examinees. They too skim it for bouquets

and magic trump cards. Not poor schoolkids

furtively farting as they get immunized against it.


Someone, somewhere, must be reading Les Murray’s poetry because he has published over thirty books in Australia and his work has been translated into sixteen languages. The list of awards is frighteningly long, but suffice it to say that Les was awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1996, The Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1999 on the recommendation of Ted Hughes, and the Mondello Prize in 2004.

Les Murray’s career as a poet, anthologist and critic spans over forty years. He has been described as ‘the leading Australian poet of his generation’ and The National Trust of Australia rated him as one of the 100 Australian Living Treasures – I suspect that he would be highly amused by this last accolade.  

Les Allan Murray, AO was born in Australia on 17 October 1938 in Nabiac on the North Coast of New South Wales and grew up in the district of Bunyah where, unfortunately, the family eventually lost the family home. Luckily, Les later managed to buy back part of the property, and in 1985 he and his family returned to live there permanently.

After attending primary and high schools in Nabiac and Taree, Les began studying at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Arts in 1957, and also joined the Royal Australian Navy Reserve to boost his income.

It hadn’t been easy going for young Les as he explained to his friend, Clive James: ‘I was as soft-headed as you could imagine. I was actually hanging on to childhood because I hadn't had much teenage. My Mum died and my father collapsed. I had to look after him. So I was off the chain at last, I was in Sydney and I didn't quite know how to do adulthood or teenage. I was being coltish and foolish and childlike. I received the least distinguished degree Sydney ever issued. I don't think anyone's ever matched it.’

It was during this period that Clive James, who was literary editor of the student Newspaper honi soit, became aware that Les Murray was a poet of no mean ability.

‘It was my task to assess the printability of unsolicited poetic contributions,’ Clive said later. ‘I had no trouble assessing his as being verbally interesting beyond the ambitions of the average student – or of the remarkable student, for that matter – as well as being unusually well-founded in reality.

‘The question was about what kind of reality. It wasn’t urban. In those days we all fancied ourselves as city bred, but Murray, and his work, seemed to have come from somewhere else. It was a place called the country.

‘Until Murray’s time, even those modern Australian poets who wrote about the land – Judith Wright was prominent among them – showed a wilful element, as if a city view might need to be enriched by choice. Murray’s poetry was truly agrarian, in the sense that the whole array of its perceptions had the rural existence for a departure point rather than a destination...

‘As Murray’s thematic scope steadily increased in the course of decades, his work came to embrace the Australian cities and the whole metropolitan world. (He never relocated abroad, but he has always been a traveller, as well as a prodigious linguist.) Yet the base of his art has always remained firmly established in the hinterland, as if his sumptuously varied display of poetic produce were a kind of Royal Easter Show brought to the city for a long and imperishable season.’

During his studies Les met other poets and writers as well as future political journalist, Laurie Oakes. He got involved with the Sydney Push along with Clive James and Germaine Greer, and after hitch-hiking around Australia, lived for a brief time at one of the Push’s homes in Milson’s Point.

In the 1960s he returned to undergraduate studies and converted to Roman Catholicism after meeting and marrying Valerie Morelli in 1962 (they later ended up having five children).

Les developed an interest in ancient and modern languages and became a professional translator at the Australian National University from 1963 to 1967. In 1971 he decided to resign from his ‘respectable cover occupations’ as a translator and public servant in Canberra in order to write poetry full-time.

Les Murray was no stranger to controversy. In 1972 he authored an idealistic campaign manifesto for the Australian Commonwealth Party and, during the 1970s, opposed the New Poetry or ‘literary modernism’ emerging in Australia. His argument against post-modernism was that it removed poetry from a widespread readership and handed it over to a small intellectual clique.  

He also became embroiled in the Demidenko/Darville scandal when it was discovered that author, Helen Darville, who had won several major awards for The Hand That Signed the Paper  written when she was a mere 20-year-old, was in fact the daughter of English migrants and not that of  a Ukrainian immigrant as she had claimed.

In her defence, Murray said: ‘She was a young girl, and her book mightn't have been the best in the world, but it was pretty damn good for a girl of her age. And her marketing strategy of pretending to be a Ukrainian might have been unwise, but it sure did expose the pretensions of the multicultural industry.’

If nothing else, Les Murray is never dull. Taller When Prone is Les’s latest accomplishment, and enthusiasts will be able to see him in the Red Chamber at Parliament House (sounds ominous) on Friday, 7 September along with other word wizards, and also on Saturday, 8 September in the Breezeway, Maiwar Green, when he will read from his works and chat with Sarah Holland-Batt.

See the Session Watch page for further details and website information where you can follow the links on Les Murray’s official website to read many examples of his work; some of his poems may also be found on Clive James's website. 

Website Watch

Les Murray

Les Murray is an award-winning Australian poet, anthologist and critic. He has published over 30 volumes of poetry, two verse novels and several collections of prose. Les has been described as ‘the leading Australian poet of his generation’ and has been rated by the National Trust of Australia as one of the 100 Australian Living Treasures. This official site for Les Murray is maintained by Jason Clapham with support and contributions from Les Murray and his biographer Peter Alexander. There are a number of other sites listed on this website for the enthusiastic Murray fan. A visitor feedback page makes interesting reading. You may contact Jason at Go to

There is also another Murray site to listen to the Author and view Teachers Notes pages at publishers