December 24, 2019
By Robert Messenger
One of the saddest events of 2019 was the death in late April of the poet Les Murray, at age 80. Murray was considered at one time to be the most likely candidate to join Patrick White as Australia’s only Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Murray, like another great Australian poet, David Malouf (author of the 2007 collection Typewriter Music), used a manual portable typewriter to compose throughout his writing career – in Murray’s case a Brother.
Murray was called the Bush Bard of Bunyah and was considered Australia's unofficial Poet Laureate. One of his peers said Murray was not just Australia's greatest poet, but its greatest writer in any literary genre. He was most certainly a national living treasure.
In his 2015 collection Waiting for the Past, Murray included a poem called The Privacy of Typewriters, the sentiments of which would ring true for most typewriters users today. It began:
I am an old book troglodyte one who composes on paper and types up the result as many times as need be.
The computer scares me, its crashes and codes, its links with spies and gunshot, its text that looks pre-published
and perhaps has been. I don’t know who is reading what I write on a carriage that doesn’t move or ding.
I trust the spoor of botch, whiteouts where thought deepened, wise freedom from Spell Check, sheets to sell the National Library.
Murray was also a noted anthologist and critic. He published 30 volumes of poetry as well as two verse novels and collections of his prose writings.
Leslie Allan Murray was born in Nabiac on the North Coast of New South Wales and grew up in the neighbouring district of Bunyah. His first published poem appeared in The Bulletin in 1961 and the following year he set off overseas, living in Wales and Scotland and travelling through Europe. But it would be a decade before Murray resigned from “respectable cover occupations” of translator and public servant in Canberra to write poetry full-time. In 1976 he began to reach a far greater audience when Selected Poems was published by Angus & Robertson..
Murray half-jokingly described to himself as the last of the “Jindyworobaks”, an Australian literary movement whose white members sought to promote indigenous Australian ideas and customs, particularly in poetry. In 2007, Dan Chiasson wrote in The New Yorker that Murray was “now routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets”. He was described as “a traditional poet whose work is radically original Australia”.
Now that his beloved Brother portable typewriter has been stilled, modern poetry is much the poorer.
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