Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Creative Arts


This PhD comprises two components: a scholarly thesis and a poetic work. The thesis, Les Murray and the Task of the Translator, explores the question of translation in the poetry of Les Murray, specifically with regards to his neglected book, Translations from the Natural World. I argue that Murray, in attempting to translate the natural world into human speech, demonstrates that poetry is translation, that is, ‘bringing the other to presence through language.’ The poet’s task is that of the translator. But what is translation? In order to investigate this question—and indeed, that which constitutes the ‘task’ of the translator—I turn to Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, as a methodological frame for interpreting Murray’s poetry. In Benjamin’s essay, literal translation (however impossible) shows itself to be the only ‘just’ sort of translation. With this in mind, I then return to Murray in order to show that Translations from the Natural World attempts to embody this specific form of ‘impossible justice’. Thus if poetry is translation, but translation is impossible, then poetry is impossible as well.

The poetry portion of the PhD comprises a book length twelve-tone poem, entitled The Raft. Formally, the poem attempts a ‘translation’ of Schönberg’s twelve-tone theory of musical composition. For dodecaphony, all twelve tones of the octave (rather than the eight tones of the traditional chromatic scale) are sounded before repetition. The result is a new, democratic harmony: each tone is given equal importance, regardless of key. The task of The Raft is to translate (however impossibly) the twelve tones of the musical octave poetically. Interpreting tone as voice—The Raft serialises and permutates twelve voices or tones over twelve moments, in order to move poetry to a harmonic form that is not simply lyrical, epical, or dramatic, but tonal—a raft of voices, each with their own ‘pitch’, and each sounding off in accordance with the rules of twelve tone, for the duration of the work. The narrative retells the famous story of ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, in which over one-hundred people perished off the coast of Senegal in 1816. The Raft begins as the unlucky ship passengers (those with little money or education) find themselves consigned to a raft built from the remains of the sinking Medusa. Their provisions are running out, and their chance of survival has just been cut.