Murray, who last night won the pounds 5,000 TS Eliot prize for the year's best volume of poetry, isn't afraid of picking up the brawny, macho "ocker" stereotype and converting it into a badge of honour. The prolific, crowd- pleasing Australian poet, born in 1938 on a sheep farm on the northern coast of New South Wales, entitled his most recent book Subhuman Redneck Poems. As a way of turning an insult around, that surely ranks alongside the radical rap group who called themselves Niggaz with Attitude.
Murray has Attitude in a distinctly Australian shade - touchy, argumentative, egalitarian - but his cascading verse buries the cultural cringe in a flood of generous and moving ideas and images. He is a Catholic who dedicates all his books "to the glory of God". He also combines great learning with democratic instincts.
As his British publisher, Michael Schmidt, explains, his is "a very anarchic Catholicism that translates into a hostility to all forms of coercion", whether by the state, by arts funding bodies or by liberal orthodoxy.
He is also, famously, a very big man in the physical as well as intellectual sense. The bard of the excluded, the forgotten, the humiliated, he can speak to everyone who recalls being a fat kid who was never picked for playground teams or a blushing adolescent who could never get a date. As his poem "Rock Music" asks: "The beautiful Nazis, why are they so cruel?/ Why, to castrate the aberrant, the original, the wounded who might change our species".
His lifelong empathy with the original and the wounded extends to the balance of power at home. Schmidt stresses that Murray "is very into Aboriginal art and insists on the centrality of Aboriginal culture to the Australian experience".
"Inside Ayers Rock" presents the ancient sacred site of the continent's first inhabitants as a cave of tawdry gimmicks, colonised by the banal suburban nation Australia has become.
Reading Murray, you sense above all a cornucopian talent, a writer who turn his hand and brain to any form and theme with an almost casual fertility.
England has not produced a bard-for-all-seasons of this kind since the days of Tennyson. Schmidt comments that Murray is "not really an ironist, although he's a great wit and savage satirist. That's what really sets him apart from modern British writing".
INSIDE AYERS ROCK
By Les Murray
Inside Ayers Rock is lit
with paired fluorescent lights
on steel pillars supporting the ceiling
of haze-blue marquee cloth
high above the non-slip pavers
Curving around the cafeteria
throughout vast inner space
is a Milky Way of plastic chairs
in foursomes around tables
all the way to the truck drivers' enclave.
Dusted coolabah trees grow to the ceiling,
TVs talk in gassy colours, and
round the walls are Outback shop fronts:
the Beehive Bookshop for brochures,
Casual Clobber, the bottled Country Kitchen
and the sheet-iron Dreamtime Experience
that is turned off at night.
A high bank of medal-ribbony
lolly jars presides over
island counters like opened crates,
one labelled White Mugs, and covered with them.
A two-dimensional policeman
discourages shoplifting of gifts
and near the entrance, where-you pay
for fuel, there stands a tribal man
in rib-paint and public tassel.
It is all gentle and kind.
In beyond the children's playworld
there are fossils, like crumpled
old drawings of creatures in rock.Reuse content