Controversial or not, it’s difficult to ignore a voice when it looms so large. Even those writing in opposition to Murray are still, in some ways, grappling with the views he helped shepherd onto the page: that Australia’s beauty is to be found in hardworking, dusty communities far from the major cities.
“He was such an individualist and a curmudgeon in some ways that you kind of feel people wrote to spite Les, almost,” says Deakin University literature professor Lyn McCredden. In her view, Murray’s anti-establishment streak helped reinforce the idea that his poetry had a larrikin quality to it; thereby making his writing seem even more “Australian”.
“He dedicated all his books to the glory of God. What does that mean in a secular Australia? What does white Australia think of as sacred? I believe that was the big question he was asking in his poetry a lot of the time. Good poetry takes you beyond yourself. Not just to a club where everyone thinks the same as you.
“When you read poetry, you’re made to read something that goes beyond your own belief system. And I think it’s really important to do that. I don’t agree with a lot of his politics and one-off lines about academia or feminists or city-dwellers, but his poetry doesn’t do that. It lifts us into a different space where we can hear an otherness beyond ourselves.”
In McCredden’s mind, Murray is irreplaceable. However, that doesn’t mean his legacy won’t live on. She points to young poets like Lachlan Brown, as well as more established ones such as Judith Beveridge, as Australians writing about sacredness.
“In Beveridge’s case [it’s] Buddhism. Which was not Les’ forte, of course, but I think they compare in the context of, ‘What do we hold as sacred? What is beyond the material, capitalist present?’
“Samuel Wagan Watson has also got a wonderful poem called Kangaroo Crossing which is about … modernity but also Indigenous ancientness coming together in one, flashing moment.”
Beveridge, who was born in London, cemented herself as one of Australia’s leading poets after winning a NSW Premier’s Literary Award in the late 1980s for her collection The Domesticity of Giraffes. She has been a poetry editor for the prestigious literary journal Meanjin and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Sydney.
Wagan Watson – a Bundjalung and Birri Gubba man based in Queensland – has several collections of poetry under his belt and last year won the prestigious Patrick White Award. His latest collection, Love Poems and Death Threats, explores songlines as well as ideas of injustice and resilience.
Neither Beveridge nor Wagan Watson disputed the idea that their work shares themes with Murray’s. However, both were hesitant to compare themselves directly.
“My spirituality is part of the fabric behind my lines,” says Wagan Watson. “Whether something is perceived as sacred or not … that’s something else.”
Beveridge, meanwhile, describes Murray as an “intimidating” master of language.
“What he gave me was a benchmark for really trying to get some intensity … in one’s own poetic language,” she says. “I write about nature and the environment and human interactions with the environment. I think they’re essentially sacred activities. If we don’t open ourselves up to the beauty and wonder of the world, then we’re not going to want to save it.”
One of the up-and-coming writers Murray helped inspire was Omar Sakr. Like Murray, the Sydney-based poet’s work explores the downtrodden – but with a particular focus on Western Sydney and Lebanon.
Sakr says Murray had a “huge impact” on his writing, especially in the pieces exploring the gulfs and hollows of mental ill health. And just as Murray did several decades ago, Sakr is seeing the first glimmers of international success: his publisher, University of Queensland Press, recently sold the international rights to his second book, The Lost Arabs, to US-based publisher Andrews McMeel.
So what other voices should people turn to now that Murray is gone? Beveridge’s answer is simple: whatever catches your eye or ear.
“Go to the anthologies, pick out the poets you find interesting,” she said. “Anthologies are always a good place to start if you’re not familiar with poetry. It’s all done for you, more or less. Go out and explore.”
A fitting piece of advice given Murray’s well-documented love of pluralism. “I have a very wide taste and I don’t figure that any particular period should be dominated by any particular period of poetry,” he told The Age in 2002. “‘Let a thousand flowers bloom.’ Mao didn’t mean that when he said it.”
Indeed, award-winning poet David McCooey says it’s possible to name “any number of poets” interested in the Australian landscape or what it means to be Australian.
“There’s a great diversity of voices in contemporary Australian poetry,” he says. “They are working against national and transnational boundaries in interesting ways.”
The Age’s former poetry editor, Gig Ryan, agrees. She says the proliferation of online publishing, the rise of creative writing programs and identity politics have all played a part in shaping the current Australian poetry landscape.
“Poetry is now far more pluralist and inclusive, and has moved from that war between a conservative or internationalist stance.”
Five of Les Murray’s most beloved poems
A chilling account of animals being slaughtered from the perspective of a cow.
“Standing on wet rock, being milked, assuages the calf-sorrow in me.”
A poem about the intersection between masculinity and mental health.
“Back when God made me, I had no script. It was better. / For all the death, we also die unrehearsed.”
As the title suggests, a meditation on life and the natural world.
“Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence. Trees, planets, rivers, time/ know nothing else. They express it / moment by moment as the universe.”
A piece about how grief stays with you. Nick Cave has said this is one of his favourite Murray poems.
“I’ll drive my axe in the log and come back in / With my armful of wood, and pause to look across / The Christmas paddocks aching in the heat.”
One of Murray’s finest, sprawling nature poems.
“Nests of golden porridge shattered in the silky-oak trees, / cobs and crusts of it, their glory box.”
Broede Carmody is an entertainment reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald