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In Search of Richard Murphy

Benjamin Keatinge

The Kick: A Memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy, by Richard Murphy, Cork University Press, 384 pp, €19.95, ISBN: 978-1782052340

In Search of Poetry, by Richard Murphy, Clutag Press, 160 pp, £15.00, ISBN: 978-0-9955591-4-1

In January 2018, one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets, Richard Murphy, died at his home in Sri Lanka aged ninety. Among the many tributes in The Irish Times, poet Theo Dorgan perceptively noted that: “A self-deprecating instinct underpins most of his writing, a refreshing refusal to cast himself in the heroic mould, and this somehow guarantees the enduring qualities of calm and measured reflection in his work.” These qualities are among the most beguiling of two works that appeared in 2017, marking the poet’s ninetieth birthday, and we should be thankful that Richard Murphy lived to see these two remarkable publications into print.

The Kick was first published in 2002, to wide acclaim. Karl Miller, writing in The Spectator, noted the memoir’s “dignity and candour”, while in the New York Review of Books John Banville applauded “a fine, considered and fascinating memoir of a life lived as close to the full as possible”. The perspicacity of Cork University Press in bringing out this new edition is to be warmly commended. Not only is it splendidly produced and keenly priced, it also includes wonderful photographs from Murphy’s adventurous career as poet, sailor, fisherman and rebel, a “conventional” kind of rebel as his sister Mary Cookson wisely suggests in the volume’s closing pages. Photographs of the colourful dramatis personae from the poet’s wide circle of family and friends also enhance this now classic memoir and a very useful index is supplied. The new edition is dedicated to Richard Murphy’s “beloved older sister, Mary Cookson ... whose lifelong kindness and generosity enabled me to write” and John Banville’s 2003 review serves as a perceptive introduction.

Gerald Dawe has recently suggested that Murphy has always been a “poet of other people” whose poems “are not about himself at all”, rather, they are “about ‘others’ and their reality”. Indeed Ted Hughes famously praised “the gift of epic objectivity” to be found in Murphy’s landmark volume The Battle of Aughrim (1968), in which he used a key military encounter of 1691 to explore his own inheritance and the wider panorama of Irish history. More recently, in The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012 (Lilliput Press / Bloodaxe Books, 2013) ‑ the definitive collected edition of his poetry – Murphy remembers “with gratitude all the friends, fellow poets, relations, editors, publishers and readers ... who have helped and inspired me to write”. This generosity of spirit, in both man and work, is richly conveyed in The Kick and the original Granta edition from 2002 was subtitled “A Life Among Writers” indicating how Murphy lived gregariously, counting among his many friends and acquaintances a host of leading postwar writers who populate the memoir via lively anecdote and reminiscence. The poet acted as a magnet during the 1960s and 1970s for poets and writers who wandered into the Pier Bar, Cleggan in search of Richard Murphy. The pages of The Kick are thus populated by such literary giants as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, JR Ackerley, John McGahern, Philip Larkin, WH Auden and Theodore Roethke, whom the poet encountered in his Connemara locale or in Dublin, London or the USA. Were it not for the poet’s sharp eye for social nuance and his witty, sharply-drawn style, this procession of famous people might start to pall on the reader. As it is, Murphy’s account of his fascinating life “among writers” is leavened by his own self-deprecation and by the insights he brings to bear on his milieu.

It is also clear that among this wide circle, only a few close friends and family members remain really central to the poet’s life, among whom one would count his wife, Patricia Avis, (the couple parted in 1959, a painful separation recorded in the poem “Grounds”), daughter Emily, older brother Christopher, older sister Mary, father Sir William Lindsay Murphy, mother Elizabeth (Betty) Murphy (née Ormsby), as well as trusted poetic colleagues and friends such as actor Tony White (who died tragically in 1976), Ted Hughes and Dennis O’Driscoll. There is also the disarming honesty by which Murphy recounts his feelings of guilt and self-recrimination at his emerging bisexuality in 1950s London and his struggles to achieve literary recognition, indeed, his doubts about the poetic vocation that he chose to pursue. The conventions of his class and family pressures suggested that the young poet should perhaps find a more respectable and remunerative profession. As he candidly recalls: “Anyone could see by the dimness of my spectacled eyes, as my mother would confirm, that poetry was not my birthright. To me poetry would never come naturally, as a gift. It would have to be made.”

In the early 1970s, Murphy would find inspiration in the monastic seclusion of High Island, where he periodically spent a few nights during the summer months, sojourns which yielded many of the remarkable poems of his 1974 volume High Island. Nevertheless, even these poems were hard-won. “Too often,” he tells us, “I’d written myself to a standstill ... making no progress” and he felt out of place teaching in American universities where students “equated poetry with self-expression” and resisted Murphy’s idea that “a poem needs a body’s or a building’s symmetry” to succeed. This latter theory would find full development in The Price of Stone (1985) which contains a fifty-sonnet sequence in which each sonnet (except the last, “Natural Son”) is spoken in the voice of a building connected to the poet’s life. The conflict between self-expression and objectivity is thus at the heart of Murphy’s poetics and one senses the poet moving back and forth from his earliest poetry in The Archaeology of Love (1955) to Sailing to an Island (1963) with its celebrated narrative poems of seamanship, to the “epic objectivity” of The Battle of Aughrim (also containing the important post-colonial poem ‘The God Who Eats Corn’, set in east Africa), to the plangency of High Island and the controlled confessionalism of The Price of Stone.

One senses also that The Kick elegantly balances candour and discretion, self-revelation and privacy. For the memoir is based on voluminous notebooks that the poet kept over many years, beginning “one day” in September 1954 when he “entered the vast Papeterie de Joseph Gibert” in Paris “and bought ... a small notebook for mathematicians, the pages lined with little squares, bound in green boards, quite cheap”. These notebooks were used for journal entries and prose notes towards poetic composition with the constraints of the “little squares” holding in their “net the music of poetry”, preventing words from “swimming into measureless prolixity”. However, the poet knew “from the start” that “the notebook would have to be kept secret, under guard like a salmon river” and only the poet would be permitted to “fish in the future for poems”. The Kick is therefore a masterful distillation of a vast corpus of autobiographical writing held at the Special Collections of the McFarlin Library at The University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which houses the Richard Murphy papers. The selection and arrangement of the memoir was a lengthy process on which the poet worked for much of the 1990s with the assistance of Dr Barbara Brown, professor emerita of Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia. We can understand more readily the compositional process at work by virtue of the second book under review, Richard Murphy’s In Search of Poetry, published by the enterprising Clutag Press on the initiative of poet and publisher Andrew McNeillie and dedicated to Barbara Brown. Here we have privileged access to a selection of extracts from the notebooks kept by Richard Murphy from 1980 to 1983, during which time he lived in Killiney, Co Dublin working on the fifty sonnets published in The Price of Stone, taking their cue from buildings associated with Murphy’s life.

The book is fascinating on many levels. It records a creative journey from prose to poetry with each of the thirty-four short chapters tracing the poet’s meditations as he prepares the ground for his next sonnet in his journals. For Irish readers, there is an added topographical fascination as many of the structures to which Murphy lends a “chiselled voice” (“Nelson’s Pillar”) are public monuments or well-known locations: “Kylemore Castle” in Connemara, the “Wellington Testimonial” in Phoenix Park, the “Pier Bar: in Cleggan, the now defunct “Red Bank Restaurant” in Dublin. There is also a personal drama in the background as the poet traces a romantic relationship and the birth of his “Natural Son”, William, in January 1982, and the subsequent breakdown of that relationship leading to feelings of guilt, remorse and loss. Several features of The Kick (which contains also some notebook passages integrated into the wider narrative) can be traced to the notebooks: the precision and attention to detail that Murphy shows in recording people, places and events and his probing of his own family origins to make sense of himself as well as his interrogative candour in analysing his feelings and shortcomings. In Search of Poetry also brings into focus Murphy’s forensic attention to etymology and his pursuit of the minute shades of meaning in words with their multiple associations.

The book is thus a synthesis that can be enjoyed on many levels. For those who know Murphy’s poetry well, it provides new details and insights into his working methods. For those new to Murphy, it is an excellent introduction in which each chapter serves as an explanatory voyage to the sonnet with which it ends. Neither diary, nor memoir, nor conventional autobiography, it is a hybrid work which will more than likely be the subject of scholarly attention and imitation in the burgeoning field of “life-writing” or “self-writing”. It demonstrates an exemplary meticulousness on the part of the poet in seeking out his poetic subject matter and exploring all of the possible angles of literary approach, much like a visual artist making preparatory sketches.

If The Kick has the polish of a sculpted memoir, here also, even in these notebook entries, is the same care and precision which confirm the poet’s “inherited love of symmetry”. Murphy speculates that he derives this sense of form from his paternal great-grandfather, Richard William Murphy, whose role as schoolmaster in “Carlow Village Schoolhouse” is recorded as one of stringent discipline, filling “the blank spaces of a child’s mind with knowledge as hard as well dressed masonry”. In showing an acute awareness of the “unimaginable generations” who were subjected to such narrow pedagogy, Murphy situates himself within a larger historical process without being himself “didactic”, but rather seeking out “a form that your conscience feels is true” in poetry.

There is a real integrity here, an examination of the self in which there is an acknowledgement of guilt, of vulnerability and of susceptibility. Memories of Murphy’s own childhood and education are writ large in both books. The senselessness of the public school regimen is recounted in chapters which recall the poet’s unhappy experiences at preparatory school in “Baymount” in Dublin and later at boarding school at “Wellington College”, which “scarred” the poet. But more happy memories are also recalled, including an interlude in his English education when, in 1940-41, he and his brother Christopher received private tuition at home in neutral Ireland due to the perilousness of the wartime situation. The notes to the sonnet “Suntrap” recall that their “elderly tutors” taught them “better than ever [they] were taught in school” and that he and Christopher were “tamed ... with kindness, not cruelty”.

The lost idyll is a common trope in Anglo-Irish memoir and it is the theme of Richard Murphy’s essay “The Pleasure Ground”, which serves as a preface to Poems 1952-2012. There he recounts how the old symmetry of the walled garden at his family home of Milford, Co Mayo “vanished” over time, leaving the poet feeling “guilty and lost”. Thus, he explains, he “went back to that earlier unfenced romantic pleasure ground in the treeless hills of Connemara on the edge of the sea”, where he lived for the poetically fertile period of 1959-79. One senses then, in these remarkable books, a journey and a recuperation, paradise lost and paradise regained. There is a striving towards freedom, but an eschewal of formlessness, a life fully lived that has been captured in the cadenced net of Murphy’s poems which are “true to that life in words put together to last”.

1/6/2018

Benjamin Keatinge is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. He has co-edited France and Ireland in the Public Imagination with Mary Pierse (Peter Lang, 2014) and Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey with Aengus Woods (Irish Academic Press, 2010) and he has published on different aspects of Richard Murphy’s poetry, most recently in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets edited by Gerald Dawe (2017). He is editor of Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy forthcoming from Cork University Press.

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