Waiting for the Past – Les Murray


Is Australia shackled to a poetic history of “bush ballads”, rare marsupials, doing it tough on the land? A young nation, in English speaking terms, attempting to carve out a unique writing style, poetic and fiction, does it lead to perpetuating formulaic styles & subject matters?

For writers who have been professionally creating for over sixty years and published consistently for over fifty years an expected style, common themes, and a version of “Australianess” is to be expected.

If you read Australian poetry, you know of Les Murray, in fact a week before the announcement of the Nobel Prize Murray’s betting price was the same as winner Bob Dylan at 50/1. Extensive information about Murray’s background, farming, premature leaving of school due to his mother’s death, move to full time writing, depression, and controversies is all available on the web, for a more high level precis of his achievements the Australian Poetry Library site says:

Les Murray has unquestionably been a major figure in contemporary Australian literature. Media reports since the 1980s have frequently referred to him as Australia’s ‘unofficial poet laureate’, and since the 1990s he has been described as part of an international ‘poetry superleague’ of the best contemporary poets writing in English. Murray has attracted more international attention than any other Australian poet; he has been the recipient of prestigious international poetry prizes including the Petrarch Prize (1995), the T. S. Eliot Award (1997), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry (1998); collections of his work in translation have appeared in numerous languages including German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, and Hindi. (for full article visit webpage here  )

It is not unusual for Murray to appear on the shortlists of poetry prizes and his latest collection “Waiting for the Past” was shortlisted for the prestigious TS Eliot Award, missing out to Sarah Howe’s stunning debut collection “Loop of Jade”.

There are numerous reasons why this collection should be in contention to win the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. And it is possibly a fruitless exercise to attempt to find those features. Let’s look at a few “highlights”

The first, and only, Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church, Mary MacKillop, is the subject of one poem, “The Canonisation”, the process of her being declared a saint starting in the 1920’s and the canonisation taking place on Les Murray’s birthday, 17 October, in 2010:

Sainthood? So long after God did?
Independence? But you’re your own Scot.
The job of an Australian icon?

Or the uniquely Australian story of Lindy Chamberlain, and her baby Azaria, who she claims was stolen by a dingo during a camping trip to Uluru in 1980, after being imprisoned for murder and subsequent evidence coming to light, the coroner eventually confirmed Chamberlain’s story in 2012 (thirty-two years after the disappearance);

Being Spared the Inquests

A toddler’s scream –
the bared leap of a dingo,
the boy’s father running
with shouts and shovel blade.

Our valley came this close
to a deadly later fame.


With the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival currently underway it is timely to read the poetry of the horse racing industry and the cash changing hands, the outfits, the international shipping of horses, the breeding and the stance of jockeys is all captured in “Money and the Flying Horses”. The uniquely Australian themes running further with poems about Sydney Harbour Ferries, or desert grass (spinifex).

Rural themes have always featured in Murray’s poetry, and this collection is no different, “High Speed Trap Space”, set at night, a narrow country road, it is raining and suddenly an animal steps into the headlight beams…Or “Dog Skills” which opens;

From his high seat, an owner
of cattle has sent dogs
to work a mob of Angus.

As the title of the collection suggests. “Waiting for the Past” this book is deeply rooted in Murray’s past, with poems about his rural upbringing, his mother’s passing away from cancer, mentions of paddocks, horse riders, milking, there is the city folk, “while factory protein spiced with clones/grew beef or mutton, milk or bones” and the theme of ageing, prominently on display in the poems “Diabetica” and;


Last time I fell in a shower-room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Taken to the town clinic, I
described how I tripped on a steel
rim and found my head in the wardrobe.
Scalp-sewn and knotted and flagged
I thanked the Frau Doktor and fled,
wishing the grab-bar of age might
be bolted to all civilisation
and thinking of Rome’s eighth hill
heaped up out of broken amphorae.

When, any time after sixty,
or any time before, you stumble
over two stairs and club your forehead
among rake or hoe, brick or fuel-tin,
that’s time to call the purveyor
of steel pipe and indoor railings
and soon you’ll be gasping up landings
having left your balance in the car
from which please God you’ll never see
the launchway of tyres off a brink.
Later comes the sunny day when
street detail gets whitened to mauve

and people hurry you, or wait, quiet.


There is also the change resistant writer, one who uses paper & a typewriter, fearing the computer, in “The Privacy of Typewriters”:

I am an old book troglodyte
one who composes on paper
and types up the result
as many times as needs be

Mixed alongside the reminiscing there are modern views, such as “The Massacre” where a high school shooting sits alongside a poem about carers looking after the aged and the slow decay of the brain (as well as Murray’s own headstone inscription), and then poems about the natural, as in “High Foliage” or even domestic violence in “The murders of women”, or even clipping one’s toe nails.

To me these read as a collection of sixty-four poems that have been published in one book, not a themed collection, however I may have missed something. As an iconic Australian writer, Murray will surely be in contention when it comes to naming the main winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, personally this is another collection of his works that are finely written, readable and enjoyable. But they were not works that pushed my boundaries, and as most of you know I am a reader who likes to be challenged it didn’t quite hit the mark.  Having said that, readers who haven’t explored Australian poetry before and the rural themes generally found in the traditional fare this would be a nice introduction to the genre, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize probably a better judge of the poems than my bias and taste.




7 thoughts on “Waiting for the Past – Les Murray

  1. Pingback: 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. I am a huge fan of Murray’s work. Some of my favourite poems are ‘The Quality of Sprawl’ and ‘Noonday Axeman’. There’s also one about a Taree Holiday (I don’t have all my books at hand at the moment and can’t think of the title) but it is a poem based on a song of the people of Arnhem Land I think. Thanks for this review.


    • Thanks for stopping by KarenLee, it is heartening to know poetry reviews are actually read. I’m not a “huge fan” of Murray like yourself, however are you talking about “The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”? Personally I’m not 100% convinced that whitefella’s reimagining blackfella culture is a good thing and there has been an ongoing debate about such – here’s an interesting recent article at “The Overland” https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-222/feature-four-perspectives/


      • Yes . . . that’s the one. I’m not 100% convinced in 95% of reimagining cases either. However, Les Murray’s upbringing and his strong sense of unity with the Indigenous people he grew up with (some of whom he refers to as his ‘cousins’) allows for some leeway in my opinion. Given his upbringing, it would be hard to cut that whole chunk of himself off and not write about it.


  3. Pingback: 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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