Les Murray

Leslie Allan Murray (born 1938) is the outstanding poet of his generation and one of his country's most influential literary critics. A nationalist and republican, he sees his writing as helping to define, in cultural and spiritual terms, what it means to be Australian. Leslie Allan Murray was born in 1938 in Nabiac, a village on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, and spent his childhood and youth on his father's dairy farm nearby. The area is sparsely populated, hilly, and forested, and the beauty of this rural landscape forms a backdrop to many of Murray's best poems, such as 'Spring Hail':"Fresh-minted hills smoked, and the heavens swirled and blew away. The paddocks were endless again, and all around leaves lay beneath their trees, and cakes of moss."His parents were poor and their weatherboard house almost bare of comforts; Murray remarked that it was not until he went to the university that he first met the middle class. His identification was with the underprivileged, especially the rural poor, and it was this that gave him his strong sense of unity with Aborigines and with 'common folk'. The title he chose for his Selected Poems, The Vernacular Republic, indicates both this sense of unity and his Wordsworthian belief that through the use of 'language really spoken by men' poets can speak to and for the people. Many of the Scottish settlers on the New South Wales coast had been forced out of Scotland by the Highland clearances of the l9th century, and they in turn were among those who dispossessed the Aboriginal Kattang tribe around the Manning valley; in later years Murray's own father was forced off the land by family chicanery. The theme of usurpation, whether of land or of culture, as well as the influence of Murray's Celtic background, often make themselves felt in his work, as one sees in poems such as 'A Walk with O'Connor,' in which the two Australian Celts try in vain to understand Gaelic on a tombstone, the grave becoming symbolic of the death of Celtic culture:"...reading the Gaelic, constrained and shamefaced, we tried to guess what it meantthen, drifting away, translated Italian off opulent tombstones nearby in our discontent."In 1957 Murray went to the University of Sydney to study modern languages. While there he worked on the editorial boards of student publications. At Sydney he was converted from the Free Kirk Presbyterianism of his parents to Roman Catholicism, and the influence of passionately held Christian convictions can be seen everywhere in his verse, though seldom overtly; instead it shows itself, in poems such as 'Blood' or 'The Broad Bean Sermon,' in a strong sense of the power of ritual in everyday life and of the sacramental quality of existence. 'AImost everything they say is ritual,' he remarked of rural Australians in one of his best-known poems, 'The Mitchells.' He left Sydney University in 1960 without a degree, and in 1963, on the strength of his studies in modern languages, became a translator of foreign scholarly material at the Australian National University in Canberra. His first volume of poems, The llex Tree (written with Geoffrey Lehmann), won the Grace Leven Prize for poetry on its publication in 1965, and in the same year Murray made his first trip out of Australia, to attend the British Commonwealth Arts Festival Poetry Conference in Cardiff. His appetite whetted by this visit, he gave up his translator's post in 1967 and spent over a year traveling in Britain and Europe. Travel had the effect of confirming him in his Australian nationalism; he was a republican who believed that Australia should throw off the shackles of political and cultural dependence, and he saw his work as helping to achieve that end. On his return to Australia he resumed his studies, graduating from Sydney University in 1969. After that he earned his living as a full-time poet and writer. He is one of Australia's most influential literary critics and

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