Lecture by Bruce Clunies Ross

Les Murray and the Poetry of Australia

Discussant: Martin Leer, University of Geneva


Oddly, considering he was sailing with a consignment of convicts being removed from their country for their country’s good, Captain Watkin Tench of the Marines noted in his diary, as the first fleet sailed from Cape Town about noon on the 12 of November, 1787: “we … soon left behind every scene of civilization and harmonised manners to explore a remote and barbarous land and plant in it those happy arts which alone constitute the pre-eminence and dignity of other countries”. The antipodean environment of that remote and barbarous land presented obstacles to the transplantation of the happy art poetry which persisted into the twentieth century. This is apparent in earlier Australian verse, and it was noticed by a number of poets, up to Les Murray, but in his work the obstacles turn into poems of Australia. In about seventeen collections, from The Ilex Tree in 1965, up to Waiting for the Past, published a few weeks ago, and including the “novel sequence” The Boys Who Stole the Funeral and the verse novel Fredy Neptune, the country is imaginatively mapped in an ongoing succession of  sonnets, lyrics, meditations, informal dialogues, poem cycles and narratives. Individually, they are precisely located, but altogether, they cover the country extensively. The focal point is the Jerry-built slab house no longer standing in Bunyah where Murray grew up, but while Murray’s poetry is deeply rooted in Australia, it cannot be sequestered there. In his work, the matter of Australia takes on universal significance, though not quite in the way envisaged by Captain Tench.