Archive for September, 2008

What I am reading: Les Murray – a Life in Progress

Yesterday I wrote about having read a great deal of the poetry of the Australian poet Les Murray. This was in preparation for writing a research paper for one of the units I am studying for my Master of Arts in Creative Writing.

In addition to reading many of his poems I also reread much of a biography about Les Murray. This book, Les Murray: a Life in Progress was written by Peter F. Alexander and was published in 2000. I picked up this volume from a remainder table in a large Sydney bookshop several years ago. It is fascinating reading.
It is little wonder that Murray writes with such passion. His childhood was extremely unhappy and the family struggled in poverty on a dairy farm near Taree in the mid north of New South Wales. His schooling was limited and his mother taught him to read before he attended school. He was a voracious reader with an incredible memory, matched only by his insatiable curiosity. All of these attributes have served him well throughout his poetic career as he draws on so many ideas from his reading for inclusion in his writing.

His mother died when he was only 12 and this sad event had a lasting effect upon both Les and his father. He wrote many poems about those tragic times later in life. When he attended Taree High School he was constantly bullied and ostracized. Again, this proved fertile ground for his poetic pursuits. Once Les commenced at Sydney University he began to blossom as a person and as a poet. He quickly established himself as an emerging poet. In fact, his writing took precedence over his studies; he hardly studied at all and took nearly a decade to complete his degree.

He tried various jobs which would help support his young family, but he never really enjoyed any of them. Eventually the proceeds from his books – he has had over 30 books of poetry published so far – plus income from various fellowships, awards and prizes went some of the way to providing for his family. Without the income from his wife’s teaching he would not have been about to continue his prolific output of writing over such a long period of time.

One aspect of Murray’s poetry I found difficult at first was the form that much of it takes. He uses rhyme sparingly, and when he uses it, he is not always consistent. Another interesting aspect of Murray’s poetry is the irregular metre of much of his poetry. If one is looking for a set metrical pattern in his poetry you will often be disappointed. There are exceptions, of course, and they are usually more noteworthy for its inclusion.

Because Murray grew up in rural New South Wales, he has drawn on his knowledge and many of his experiences of farm life for his poetry. I believe that Les Murray is the quintessential Australian landscape poet. Other poets may be able to capture the essence of the Australian landscape, but none have been able to do this on a consistent basis over such a length of time and in so many poems.

One of the strengths of his poetry is the process by which Murray incorporates the Australian fauna a flora in a natural, unforced way into his poetry. I believe that one of the strengths of the poetry of Les Murray is his ability to take everyday objects or incidents, and explore them in verse. Even the simplest thing – taking a shower – is material for his poetry.


Alexander, Peter F. 2000. Les Murray: A Life in Progress. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.

Further reading:

  • Les Murray: a extensive archive of articles about Les Murray, including copies of many of his poems.

What I am reading: the poetry of Les Murray

My Master of Arts in Creative Writing course requires quite a deal of reading as well as the writing assignments. Last term I had to write a research paper on a well known poet. The focus had to be half on the life of the poet with the balance being an analysis of the poet’s work.

I chose to study the Australian poet Les Murray. He is regarded internationally as one of the most talented poets currently writing in English. He is arguably regarded by many as Australia’s best poet. That is a big claim and, having read fair slabs of his poetry in recent weeks, I would have to concur.

I found it challenging to obtain a true grasp of the scope of Murray’s poetry. It is so vast, so broad in subject matter and he has probably been Australian’s most prolific poet to date. It is hard to summarise and categorize such an extensive oeuvre. Despite this difficulty, some themes do stand out. It can be said without contradiction that his poetry is rich and amazingly diverse.

He is also acknowledged as a master of linguistic dexterity, playing with words like a child building a magnificent structure with simple toy blocks. I believe that Les Murray is the quintessential Australian landscape poet. Other poets may be able to capture the essence of the Australian landscape, but none have been able to do this on a consistent basis over such a length of time and in so many poems.


Murray, L. and Lehmann, G, 1965, The Ilex Tree. ANU Press, Canberra.

Murray, Les, 1983, The People’s Otherworld. Angus and Robertson, Sydney

Murray, Les, 1987, The Daylight Moon. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Murray, Les, 1996, Subhuman Redneck Poems. Duffy and Snellgrove, Potts Point.

Murray, Les, 1998,  New Selected Poems. Duffy and Snellgrove, Potts Point.

Using interviews for writing

One of the writing assignments I had to complete recently for my Master of Arts in Creative Writing course involved doing an interview. I then had to write an article suitable for a magazine, giving it a creative angle to show the personality of the person being interviewed. All that in only 500 words.

I don’t enjoy being that restricted but I rose to the challenge. I had to be very ruthless with my word count, cutting back to the bare bones of the story. On this occasion it was my lecturer imposing the restrictions and I would have been marked down if I’d gone over the word count. Editors of magazines are just as demanding. Often they only have space for 150 or 200 words, or less. If you don’t cut the extra words, they will. Then you might find important facts missing from the final article.

Anyway, I was reasonably pleased with the end result. I managed to keep within the word count too. The lecturer gave me a distinction, so she was pleased with it as well.

My comments policy

It always amazes me how many people read this stuff that I write here on this blog. When I look at my statistics I am astonished that so many people are interested in reading what have to say. So I think I’ll keep on saying it.

I also get great encouragement from the many people who have bothered to linger long enough to leave a comment or two. You are appreciated – thank you.

This morning, however, I had two rather abusive and quite crude comments about something I had written. The person’s name was Clara, but that is probably a pseudonym. Please understand that all comments are moderated by me – otherwise I’d have thousands of spam comments on this blog – no, make that over 50,000 (and counting). In the past I have allowed comments that disagree with me because I believe that it is only fair that voices of disagreement be heard. It opens the debate in a healthy way. A writer must never be above constructive criticism.

What I will not allow are comments that are crude, abusive, filthy or in bad taste. I encourage my readers to continue commenting, and if that is in the form constructive criticism, I will both allow and welcome it. If you like what I write, agree with my ideas or disagree for some reason, please leave a comment and enter into the debate.

But if you can’t say it nicely in a civilised way, I will gently show your comment out the door.

Good writing.

What I am reading: ‘Hiam’ by Eva Sallis

‘Hiam’, a novel by South Australian writer Eva Sallis, is an unusual novel.

My immediate reaction is that it is more lyrical than prosaic. The poetic devices used by Sallis dominate the narrative. Many passage could be quoted to back up this opinion. The story telling elements near the end of the novel are pure poetry, particularly the gazelle story.

I was in awe as I read the many beautiful passages in the writing. Sentences like this one are most memorable: The Aunties are all creeping on tiptoe around their hearts. Other images are simply haunting. The road was the protagonist’s straitjacket, the car her prison, or her skull; herself the thread of life.

Initially I felt great anticipation as I read of the place names in the early pages. They were all recognisable places here in South Australia giving me an instant identification with the story. Not too far on, however, the novelist took me as the reader into a strange and very unfamiliar world. The psychotic world of a very confused and hurting main character is very disturbing. I couldn’t put my finger on the cause of this disturbance in my reaction until late in the novel when the main character Hiam plainly states that her husband had killed himself. All the evidence was there from the beginning, of course – I had merely not fully understood.

Hiam’s sense of isolation in Australia is clearly drawn by the author throughout the novel. This was her first encounter with rural and inland Australia. Everything seemed strange to her and she encounters many things which are alien to her from her cultural understandings. There are some constant elements in Hiam’s journey of discovery. Thoughts, memories and dreams of her husband, her daughter and her religion help her through her desolation.


  • Hiam by Eva Sallis, published by Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998. It was the winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award.