Les Murray & Andrew Lansdown (Photo: Andrew Burke, March 2008)


Seventeen poems by Les Murray

1. “The Broad Bean Sermon”

2. “Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn”

3. “A Verb Agreement”

4. “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”

5. “Dog Fox Field”

6. “It Allows A Portrait In Line Scan At Fifteen”

7. “The Cows on Killing Day”

8. “Cotton Flannelette”

9. “The Beneficiaries

10. “The Mitchells” — with a critique by Geoff Page

11. “The Burning Truck”

12. “The Widower in the Country”

13. “Spring Hail”

14. “Senryu”

15. “The Quality of Sprawl”

16. “The Misery Cord”

17. “To Fly in Just Your Suit”


See also biographical and bibliographical information at the end of this page.


The Broad Bean Sermon

Beanstalks, in any breeze, are a slack church parade
without belief, saying trespass against us in unison,
recruits in mint Air Force dacron, with unbuttoned leaves.

Upright with water like men, square in stem-section
they grow to great lengths, drink rain, keel over all ways,
kink down and grow up afresh, with proffered new greenstuff.

Above the cat-and-mouse floor of a thin bean forest
snails hang rapt in their food, ants hurry through Escher’s three worlds,
spiders tense and sag like little black flags in cordage.

Going out to pick beans with the sun high as fence-tops, you find
plenty, and fetch them.  An hour or a cloud later
you find shirtfulls more.  At every hour of daylight

appear more that you missed: ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided,
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,

beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice
that the noon glare or cloud-light or afternoon slants will uncover

till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many, or
do they form in an hour? unfolding into reality
like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions,

like edible meanings, each sealed around with a string
and affixed to its moment, an unceasing colloquial assembly,
the portly, the stiff, and those lolling in pointed green slippers …

Wondering who’ll take the spare bagfulls, you grin with happiness
—it is your health—you vow to pick them all
even the last few, weeks off yet, misshapen as toes.

.         © Les Murray
.         from Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic



Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn

That slim creek out of the sky
the dried-blood western gum tree
is all stir in its high reaches:

its strung haze-blue foliage is dancing
points down in breezy mobs, swapping
pace and place in an all-over sway

retarded en masse by crimson blossom.
Bees still at work up there tack
around their exploded furry likeness

and the lawn underneath’s a napped rug
of eyelash drift, of blooms flared
like a sneeze in a redhaired nostril,

minute urns, pinch-sized rockets
knocked down by winds, by night-creaking
fig-squirting bats, or the daily

parrot gang with green pocketknife wings.
Bristling food tough delicate
raucous life, each flower comes

as a spray in its own turned vase,
a taut starbust, honeyed model
of the tree’s fragrance crisping in your head.

When the Japanese plum tree
was shedding in spring, we speculated
there among the drizzling petals

what kind of exquisitely precious
artistic bloom might be gendered
in a pure ethereal compost

of petals potted as they fell.
From unpetalled gun-debris
we know what is grown continually,

a tower of fabulous swish tatters,
a map hoisted upright, a crusted
riverbed with up-country show towns.

.         © Les Murray
.         from The People’s Otherworld



A Verb Agreement

After a windstorm, the first man
aloft in our broad silky-oak tree
was Andrew Lansdown the poet,
bearded and supple, nimbly
disinvolving wrecked branches
up where I couldn’t clamber.

He asked for our chainsaw, but I
couldn’t let him hazard an iamb or
a dactyl, nor far worse his
perched body of value and verses;
showering rubies were an image to terrify
even about an imagist so spry.

So, above my scattered choppings, he
hawked with a handsaw west-and-southerly
and went home to Susan with our thanks,
God-spared from caesuras or endstoppings.
The tree has twice since become
a Scala of ginger balconies, a palladium

as it does every October.
Birds with skin heads like the thumb
on a black hand interrogate its bloom
with dulcet commentary till it’s sober
but, bat-nipped gold or greening out blue,
it glories like the kingdom within Andrew.

.         © Les Murray
.         from Conscious and Verbal


(Click here to read other poems dedicated to Andrew Lansdown)



An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow

The word goes round Repins, the murmur goes round Lorenzinis,
at Tattersalls, men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.

The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.

The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly—yet the dignity of his weeping

holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.

Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us

trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgements of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.

Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit—
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping;
as many as follow her also receive it

and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body

not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.

Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.

.         © Les Murray
.         from The Weatherboard Cathedral



Dog Fox Field

The test for feeblemindedness was, they had to make up
a sentence using the words dog, fox and field.
.                                                     Judgement at Nuremberg

These were no leaders, but they were first
into the dark on Dog Fox Field:

Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
who grew big and yet giggled small,

Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
who knew his world as a fox knows a field.

Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts

for having gazed, and shuffled, and failed
to field the lore of prey and hound

they then had to thump and cry in the vans
that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.

Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

.         from Dog Fox Field
.          © Les Murray



It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen

He retains a slight ‘Martian’ accent, from the years of single phrases.
He no longer hugs to disarm. It is gradually allowing him affection.
It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute, shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through crashing doors.
He likes Cyborgs. Their taciturn power, their intonation.
It still runs him around the house, alone in the dark, cooing and laughing.
He can read about soils, populations and New Zealand. On neutral topics he’s illiterate.
Arnie Schwarzenegger is an actor. He isn’t a cyborg really, is he, Dad?
He lives on forty acres, with animals and trees, and used to draw it continually.
He knows the map of Earth’s fertile soils, and can draw it freehand.
He can only lie in a panicked shout SorrySorryIdidn’tdoit! warding off conflict with others and himself.
When he ran away constantly it was to the greengrocers to worship stacked fruit.
His favourite country was the Ukraine: it is nearly all deep fertile soil.
Giggling, he climbed all over the dim Freudian psychiatrist who told us how autism resulted from ‘refrigerator’ parents.
When asked to smile, he photographs a rictus-smile on his face.
It long forbade all naturalistic films. They were Adult movies.
If they (that is, he) are bad the police will put them in hospital.
He sometimes drew the farm amid Chinese or Balinese rice terraces.
When a runaway, he made uproar in the police station, playing at three times adult speed.
Only animated films were proper. Who Framed Roger Rabbit then authorised the rest.
Phrases spoken to him he would take as teaching, and repeat.
When he worshipped fruit, he screamed as if poisoned when it was fed to him.
A one-word first conversation: Blane. – Yes! Plane, that’s right, baby! – Blane.
He has forgotten nothing, and remembers the precise quality of experiences.
It requires rulings: Is stealing very playing up, as bad as murder?
He counts at a glance, not looking. And he has never been lost.
When he ate only nuts and dried fruit, words were for dire emergencies.
He knows all the breeds of fowls, and the counties of Ireland.
He’d begun to talk, then resumed to babble, and silence. It withdrew speech for years.
When he took your hand, it was to work it, as a multi-purpose tool.
He is anger’s mirror, and magnifies any near him, raging it down.
It still won’t allow him fresh fruit, or orange juice with bits in.
He swam in the midwinter dam at night. It had no rules about cold.
He was terrified of thunder and finally cried as if in explanation It – angry!
He grilled an egg he’d broken into bread. Exchanges of soil-knowledge are called landtalking.
He lives in objectivity. I was sure Bell’s palsy would leave my face only when he said it had begun to.
Don’t say word! when he was eight forbade the word ‘autistic’ in his presence.
Bantering questions about girlfriends cause a terrified look and blocked ears.
He sometimes centred the farm in a furrowed American Midwest.
Eye contact, Mum! means he truly wants attention. It dislikes I-contact.
He is equitable and kind, and only ever a little jealous. It was a relief when that little arrived.
He surfs, bowls, walks for miles. For many years he hasn’t trailed his left arm while running.
I gotta get smart! looking terrified into the years. I gotta get smart!

.         from New Selected Poems
.         © Les Murray



The Cows on Killing Day

All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.

All me have just been milked. Tits are tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.

All me standing on feed, move the feed inside me.
One me smells of needing the bull, that heavy urgent me,
the back-climber, who leaves me humped, straining, but light
and peaceful again, with crystalline moving inside me.

Standing on wet rock, being milked, assuages the calf-sorrow in me.
Now the me who needs mounts on me, hopping, to signal the bull.

The tractor comes trotting in its grumble; the heifer human
bounces on top of it, and cud comes with the tractor,
big rolls of tight dry feed: lucerne, clovers, buttercup, grass,
that’s been bitten but never swallowed, yet is cud.
She walks up over the tractor and down it comes, roll on roll
and all me following, eating it, and dropping the good pats.

The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals.

Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed.

One me is still in the yard, the place skinned of feed.
Me, old and sore-boned, little milk in that me now,
licks at the wood. The oldest bull human is coming.

Me in the peed yard. A stick goes out from the human
and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out of an ear.
Me, that other me, down and dreaming in the bare yard.

All me come running. It’s like the Hot Part of the sky
that’s hard to look at, this that now happens behind wood
in the raw yard. A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree
is with the human. It works in the neck of me
and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy. All me make the Roar,
some leaping stiff-kneed, trying to horn that worst horror.
The wolf-at-the-calves is the bull human. Horn the bull human!

But the dog and the heifer human drive away all me.

Looking back, the glistening leaf is still moving.
All of dry old me is crumpled, like the hills of feed,
And a slick me like a huge calf is coming out of me.

The carrion-stinking dog, who is calf of human and wolf,
is chasing and eating little blood things the humans scatter
and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky.

.         from New Selected Poems
.         © Les Murray



Cotton Flannelette

Shake the bed, the blackened child whimpers,
O shake the bed! Through beak lips that never
will come unwry. And wearily the iron-
framed mattress, with nodding crockery bulbs,
jinks on its way.
.                           Her brothers and sister take
shifts with the terrible glued-together baby
when their unsleeping absolute mother
reels out to snatch an hour, back to stop
the rocking and wring pale blue soap-water
over nude bladders and blood-webbed chars.

Even their cranky evasive father
is awed to stand watches rocking the bed.
Lids frogged shut, O please shake the bed,
her contour whorls and braille tattoos
from where, in her nightdress, she flared
out of hearth-drowse to a marrow shriek
pedalling full tilt firesleeves in mid air,
are grainier with repair
than when the doctor, crying Dear God, woman!
No one can save that child. Let her go!
spared her the treatments of the day.

Shake the bed. Like: count phone poles, rhyme,
classify realities, bang the head, any
iteration that will bring, in the brain’s forks,
the melting molecules of relief,
and bring them again.
.                            O rock the bed!

Nibble water with bared teeth, make lymph
like arrowroot gruel, as your mother grips you
for weeks in the untrained perfect language,
till the doctor relents. Salves and wraps you
in dressings that will be the fire again,
ripping anguish off agony,
.                           and will confirm
the ploughland ridges in your woman’s skin
for the sixty more years your family weaves you
on devotion’s loom, rick-racking the bed
as you yourself, six years old, instruct them.

.         from New Selected Poems
.         © Les Murray



The Beneficiaries

Higamus hogamus
Western intellectuals
never praise Auschwitz.
Most ungenerous. Most odd,
when they claim it’s what finally
won them their centuries-
long war against God.

.         from New Selected Poems

.         © Les Murray



The Mitchells


I am seeing this: two men are sitting on a pole

they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise

I think for wires. Water boils in a prune tin.

Bees hum their shift in unthinning mists of white


bursaria blossom, under the noon of wattles.

The men eat big meat sandwiches out of a styrofoam

box with a handle. One is overheard saying:

drought that year. Yes. Like trying to farm the road.


The first man, if asked, would say I’m one of the Mitchells.

The other would gaze for a while, dried leaves in his palm,

and looking up, with pain and subtle amusement,


say I’m one of the Mitchells. Of the pair, one has been rich

but never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat. Nearly everything

they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.


Les Murray



A Critique of “The Mitchells” by Geoff Page

Les Murray’s ‘The Mitchells’ is a masterpiece of the laconic. It is about a particular Australian style, originating in the bush, but also to be found in the city (though perhaps less often now than when the poem was first published in the mid ‘70s). Murray is famous for having asserted that the only class is those who speak of class and this poem is a perfect illustration of his argument.

Of the two Mitchells, one has been rich but ‘never stopped wearing his oil-stained felt hat’. The other, by implication, is and has been poor. They are both working uncomplainingly at this manual but reasonably skilled task — and neither of them makes any fuss about which one of them has been rich. It is irrelevant (though pleasant enough at the time, presumably). One of them declares ‘I’m one of the Mitchells’ but so does the other one, ‘looking up with pain and subtle amusement’. The pain would seem to be at his having been asked at all, rather than from any recall of a past differential — which generates only ‘subtle amusement’ anyway.

The poem, however, is no mere piece of sociologising. Murray has closely observed the men’s behaviour (and the values it implies) — and then proceeds to render it exactly. Their ‘dinner’ is, in fact, what most of us now call ‘lunch’. They boil water in a ‘prune tin’, not because they can’t afford an aluminium billy, but because a prune tin is good enough for the job so why waste money? They eat ‘big meat sandwiches’ rather than, say, delicate cucumber or asparagus ones. And they have kept them cool in a ‘styrofoam / box with a handle’ — not an ‘Esky’ as a reviewer once berated Murray for not saying.

Right throughout, Murray resists any temptation to simplify his protagonists. The ‘prune tin’ could have been a ‘billy’, much loved by the balladists. The ‘yes’ in line eight would have been, in most other hands, a self-consciously ocker ‘yeah’. Murray observes, truthfully enough, that ‘Nearly everything they say is ritual’ but note that it is only ‘nearly’ and not ‘everything’. They are also capable of quoting, if not themselves inventing, a forcefully poetic phrase: ‘like trying to farm the road’. This is the sort of vernacular poetry to which men like the Mitchells can effortlessly rise. These are people of some sophistication, capable of ‘subtle amusement’ and able to appreciate a ‘noon of wattles’ and ‘the unthinning mists of white // bursaria blossom’ even though they are unlikely to use such language to describe them. This sort of beauty, for them, would normally remain unspoken but would be no less appreciated for that. Some might think Murray is just showing off his lyrical talent but the ‘unthinning mists of white / bursaria blossom’ have, one could argue, a much deeper and more generous purpose.

Murray neatly avoids any sense of his simply barracking for his ‘home team’ (what some would call the ‘rural working class’) by leaving us with the reminder that ‘Sometimes the scene is an avenue’. In other words, the Australian laconic is not only to be found in the country, where it almost certainly originated, but also in the cities where most Australians live. The ‘avenue’ phrase works well, too, as a framing device. The poem begins with ‘I am seeing this’ and ends with the assertion that the scene can be replicated throughout the whole nation. A measure of just how Australian this poem is can be seen by trying to re-imagine it written by an English or American poet. Indeed, there is a great William Carlos Williams poem about two workers having lunch called ‘Fine Work with Pitch and Copper’ but it is nothing at all like Murray’s.

It is perhaps another mark of Murray’s respect for the Mitchells that he has taken the trouble to write their poem so well. This is not just a passing photograph to illustrate some sociological theory. It is a well-constructed, well-finished artefact, in much the same way as the pole the two men are about to raise will be well-cut and solidly placed.

For a start, Murray has written his account of the Mitchells as a sonnet, a form which has an 800-year-old history. It uses the Petrarchan stanza arrangement of two stanzas of four lines followed by two stanzas of three lines — though it doesn’t have the rhyme scheme normally associated with the convention. It does, however, have quite a deal of rhyme, if we extend our definition of rhyme to include half-rhyme and assonance. In the first stanza, for instance, where there seems to be no rhyme at all, we have the important internal rhyme of ‘pole’ and ‘hole’ plus a whole run of assonances, beginning with ‘dinner’ in the second line and culminating in the phrase ‘shift in unthinning mists’. In the second stanza we have the end half-rhymes ‘foam’ and ‘road’ and then the half-rhymes that link the last lines of the second last and final stanzas ‘amusement’ / avenue’. An even more relevant example is the assonance in the two key words ‘rich’ and ‘ritual’ which leaps across a distance of three lines. The rhyme is there but it’s part of the texture, part of the argument, rather than being something we can count off as aa bb etc.

Something similar can be said for the poem’s rhythm too. Murray’s sense of rhythm is certainly idiosyncratic but no less real for that. In a sonnet, of course, we expect the iambic pentameter but Murray rarely, if ever, gives us that satisfaction. The second line, for instance, has thirteen rather than ten syllables but we can still sense the pentameter’s five stresses in it: ‘they have dug a hole for and will, after dinner, raise’. The same use of unstressed syllables can be seen in the line ‘(and) look/(ing) up/, (with) pain/ (and) subt/(le) (a)muse(ment)’ — though one could see the first four feet as being purely iambic, of course. One might also argue that, despite the highly poetic nature of his ‘bursaria blossom’ image,  Murray is producing his own version of the Mitchell’s vernacular where an irregular number of unstressed syllables serves to emphasise the stress when it comes, rather in the manner of the irregular four-stress lines in the Anglo-Saxon tradition from which poetry in English derives.

Because it was written only thirty years ago, it may be premature to call  ‘The Mitchells’ a ‘classic’ but it is surely unlikely that anyone will ever better define and illustrate the essence of at least one important Australian style, the laconic.  Paradoxically, one can’t imagine the Mitchells making such a large claim for themselves though. They just go on yarning and slowly eating their lunch (sorry, ‘dinner’).


This essay by Geoff Page is from his book 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now (University of New South Wales Press, 2006) and is reproduced on andrewlansdown.com by kind permission of the author.



The Burning Truck


It began at dawn with fighter planes:

they came in off the sea and didn’t rise,

they leaped the sandbar one and one and one

coming so fast the crockery they shook down

from off my shelves was spinning in the air

when they were gone.


They came in off the sea and drew a wave

of lagging cannon-shells across our roofs.

Windows spat glass, a truck took sudden fire,

out leaped the driver, but the truck ran on,

growing enormous, shambling by our street-doors,

coming and coming. …


By every right in town, by every average

we knew of in the world, it had to stop,

fetch up against a building, fall to rubble

from pure force of burning, for its whole

body and substance were consumed with heat …

but it would not stop.


And all of us who knew our place and prayers

clutched our verandah-rails and window-sills,

begging that truck between our teeth to halt,

keep going, vanish, strike … but set us free.

And then we saw the wild boys of the street

go running after it.


And as they followed, cheering, on it crept,

windshield melting now, canopy-frame a cage

torn by gorillas of flame, and it kept on

over the tramlines, past the church, on past

the last lit windows, and then out of the world

with its disciples.

               © Les Murray
.               from The Illex Tree (1965)
.               & Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (1976)




The Widower in the Country


I’ll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.

I’ll go outside and split off kindling wood

from the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,

and the sun will be high, for I get up late now.


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,

the windless trees, the nettles in the yard . . .

and then I’ll go in, boil water and make tea.


This afternoon, I’ll stand out on the hill

and watch my house away below, and how

the roof reflects the sun and makes my eyes

water and close on bright webbed visions smeared

on the dark of my thoughts to dance and fade away.

Then the sun will move on, and I will simply watch,

or work, or sleep. And evening will come on.


Coming on dark, I’ll go home, light the lamp

and eat my corned-beef supper, sitting there

at the head of the table. Then I’ll go to bed.

Last night I thought I dreamed – but when I woke

the screaming was only a possum ski-ing down

the iron roof on little moonlit claws.

               © Les Murray
.               from The Illex Tree (1965)
.               & Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (1976)




Spring Hail


.         This is for spring and hail, that you may remember:

.         for a boy long ago, and a pony that could fly.


We had huddled together a long time in the shed

in the scent of vanished corn and wild bush birds,

and then the hammering faltered, and the torn

cobwebs ceased their quivering and hung still

from the nested rafters. We became uneasy

at the silence that grew about us, and came out.


The beaded violence had ceased. 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.

Sheep trotted and propped, and shook out ice from their wool.

The hard blue highway that had carried us there

fumed as we crossed it, and the hail I scooped

from underfoot still bore the taste of sky

and hurt my teeth, and crackled as we walked.


.         This is for spring and hail, that you may remember

.         a boy long ago, and a pony that could fly.


With the creak and stop of a gate, we started to trespass:

my pony bent his head and drank up grass

while I ate ice, and wandered, and ate ice.

There was a peach tree growing wild by a bank

and under it and round, sweet dented fruit

weeping pale juice amongst hail-shotten leaves,

and this I picked up and ate till I was filled.


I sat on a log then, listening with my skin

to the secret feast of the sun, to the long wet worms

at work in the earth, and, deeper down, the stones

beneath the earth, uneasy that their sleep

should be troubled by dreams of water soaking down,

and I heard with my ears the creek on its bed of mould

moving and passing with a mothering sound.


.         This is for spring and hail, that you may remember

.         a boy long ago on a pony that could fly.


My pony came up then and stood by me,

waiting to be gone. The sky was now

spotless from dome to earth, and balanced there

on the cutting-edge of mountains. It was time

to leap to the saddle and go, a thunderbolt whirling

sheep and saplings behind, and the rearing fence

that we took at a bound, and the old, abandoned shed

forgotten behind, and the paddock forgotten behind.

Time to shatter peace and lean into spring

as into a battering wind, and be rapidly gone.


It was time, high time, the highest and only time

to stand in the stirrups and shout out, blind with wind

for the height and clatter of ridges to be topped

and the racing downward after through the lands

of floating green and bridges and flickering trees.

It was time, as never again it was time

to pull the bridle up, so the racketing hooves

fell silent as we ascended from the hill

above the farms, far up to where the hail

formed and hung weightless in the upper air,

charting the birdless winds with silver roads

for us to follow and be utterly gone.


.         This is for spring and hail, that you may remember

.         a boy and a pony long ago who could fly.

.               © Les Murray
.               from The Illex Tree (1965)
.               & Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (1976)






Just two hours after

Eternal Life pills came out

someone took thirty.

               © Les Murray
.               from The Weatherboard Cathederal (1969)
.               & Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic (1976)




The Quality Of Sprawl

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

Sprawl is doing your farm work by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home.
It is the rococo of being your own still centre.
It is never lighting cigars with ten dollar notes:
that’s idiot ostentation and murder of starving people.
Nor can it be bought with the ash of million dollar deeds.

Sprawl lengthens the legs; it trains greyhounds on liver and beer.
Sprawl almost never says, Why not?, with palms comically raised
nor can it be dressed for, not even in running shoes worn
with mink and a nose ring. That is Society. That’s Style.
Sprawl is more like the thirteenth banana in a dozen
or anyway the fourteenth.

Sprawl is Hank Stamper in Never Give an Inch
bisecting an obstructive official’s desk with a chain saw.
Not harming the official. Sprawl is never brutal,
though it’s often intransigent. Sprawl is never Simon de Montfort
at a town-storming: Kill them all! God will know His own.
Knowing the man’s name this was said to might be sprawl.

Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first
lines in a sonnet, for example. And in certain paintings.
I have sprawl enough to have forgotten which paintings.
Turner’s glorious Burning of the Houses of Parliament
comes to mind, a doubling bannered triumph of sprawl –
except he didn’t fire them.

Sprawl gets up the noses of many kinds of people
(every kind that comes in kinds) whose futures don’t include it.
Some decry it as criminal presumption, silken-robed Pope Alexander
dividing the new world between Spain and Portugal.
If he smiled in petto afterwards, perhaps the thing did have sprawl.

Sprawl is really classless, though. It is John Christopher Frederick Murray
asleep in his neighbours’ best bed in spurs and oilskins,
but not having thrown up:
sprawl is never Calum, who, in the loud hallway of our house
reinvented the Festoon. Rather
it’s Beatrice Miles going twelve hundred ditto in a taxi,
No Lewd Advances, no Hitting Animals, no Speeding,
on the proceeds of her two-bob-a-sonnet Shakespeare readings.
An image of my country. And would thatit were more so.

No, sprawl is full gloss murals on a council-house wall.
Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

               © Les Murray
.               from The People’s Other World (1983)




The Misery Cord


Misericord. The Misery Cord.

It was lettered on a wall.

I knew that cord, how it’s tough to break

however hard you haul.


.         My cousin sharefarmed, and so got half:

.         half dignity, half hope, half income,

.         for his full work. To get a place

.         of his own took his whole lifetime.


Some pluck the misery chord from habit

or for luck, whatever they feel,

some to deceive, and some for the tune —

but sometimes it’s real.


.         Milking bails, flannel shirts, fried breakfasts,

.         these were our element,

.         and doubling on horses, and shouting Score!

.         at a dog yelping on a hot scent,


but an ambulance racing on our back road

is bad news for us all:

the house of community is about

to lose a plank from its wall.


.         Grief is nothing you can do, but do;

.         worst work for least reward,

.         pulling your heart out through both eyes

.         with tugs of the misery cord.


I looked at my cousin’s farm, where he’d just

built his family a house of their own,

and I looked down into Fred’s next house,

its clay walls of bluish maroon.


.         Just one man has snapped the misery cord

.         and lived. He said once was enough.

.         A poem is an afterlife on earth:

.         Christ grant us the other half.

.               © Les Murray
.                from The Daylight Moon (1987)




To Fly In Just Your Suit

Humans are flown, or fall;
humans can’t fly.
We’re down with the gravity-stemmers,
rare, thick-boned, often basso.

Most animals above the tides are airborne.
Typically tuned keen, they
throw the ground away with wire feet
and swoop rings round it.

Magpies, listening askance
for their food in and under lawn,
strut so hair-trigger they almost
dangle on earth, out of the air.

Nearly anything can make their
tailcoats break into wings.

               © Les Murray
.               from Poems the Size of Photographs (2002)


Les Murray is Australia’s leading poet and one of the greatest contemporary poets writing in English. His work has been published in ten languages.

Les Murray has won many literary awards, including the Grace Leven Prize (1980 and 1990), the Petrarch Prize (1995), and the prestigious TS Eliot Award (1996). In 1999 he was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes. (Quoted from Les Murray’s website – http://www.lesmurray.org/index.htm.)


Literary Works by Les Murray


  1. The llex Tree (with Geoffrey Lehmann), Canberra, ANU Press, 1965
  2. The Weatherboard Cathedral, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1969
  3. Poems Against Economics, Angus & Robertson, 1972
  4. Lunch & Counter Lunch, Angus & Robertson, 1974
  5. Selected Poems: The Vernacular Republic, Angus & Robertson, 1976
  6. Ethnic Radio, Angus & Robertson, 1977
  7. The Boys Who Stole The Funeral, Angus & Robertson, 1979, 1980; and Manchester, Carcanet, 1989
  8. The Vernacular Republic: Poems 1961-1981, Angus & Robertson, 1982; Edinburgh, Canongate, 1982; New York, Persea Books, 1982 and (enlarged and revised edition) Angus & Robertson, 1988
  9. The People’s Otherworld, Angus & Robertson, 1983
  10. Selected Poems, Carcanet, 1986
  11. The Daylight Moon, Angus & Robertson, 1987; Carcanet, 1988; and Persea Books, 1988
  12. Dog Fox Field, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1990; Carcanet, 1991; and New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993
  13. Collected Poems, Angus & Robertson, 1991; Carcanet, 1991; London, Minerva, 1992 and (released as The Rabbiter’s Bounty, Collected Poems), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991
  14. Translations from the Natural World, Paddington: Isabella Press, 1992; Carcanet, 1993 and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994
  15. Collected Poems, Port Melbourne, William Heinemann Australia, 1994
  16. Subhuman Redneck Poems, Carcanet and Sydney, Duffy & Snellgrove, 1996
  17. Fredy Neptune, A Novel in Verse, Carcanet and Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998
  18. Collected Poems, Carcanet, 1998
  19. New Selected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999
  20. Conscious and Verbal, Carcanet, 1999; and Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000
  21. Learning Human, Selected Poems, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000; Carcanet 2001
  22. Learning Human, New Selected Poems, Carcanet, 2001
  23. Collected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002
  24. Poems the Size of Photographs, Duffy & Snellgrove; and Carcanet, 2002
  25. New Collected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002; and Carcanet, 2003
  26. Learning Human: New Selected Poems, Duffy & Snellgrove, 2003
  27. Biplane Houses, Black Inc, 2006; and Carcanet 2006
  28. Taller When Prone, Black Inc, 2010; Carcanet, 2010
  29. Les Murray Reading from his poems, CD, The Poetry Archive, 2005


  1. The Peasant Mandarin: Prose Pieces, St. Lucia, UQP, 1978
  2. Persistence in Folly: Selected Prose Writings, Angus & Robertson, 1984
  3. Blocks and Tackles: Articles and Essays 1982 to 1990, Angus & Robertson, 1990
  4. A Working Forest (essays), Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000
  5. The Quality of Sprawl: Thoughts about Australia, Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999


Read more of Les Murray’s poems on his official website:




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