Richard Murphy: A Conventional Rebel

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It is with great sadness that I have learned, somewhat belatedly, that Richard Murphy, a fine Irish poet, passed away peacefully on 30 January 2018 at his home in Sri Lanka. Richard was one of my earliest poetry heroes so I was very pleased in, 2014, to review  The Pleasure Ground, Poems 1952-2012. Shortly afterwards, I was bowled over when he contacted me by email to say that of the various reviews he had received that mine was ‘the most perceptive and well informed’!  Subsequently, we had several friendly exchanges, in the course of which I sent him a copy of my own ‘collected’,  A Slow Blues, Poems 1972-2012. He was kind enough to say that although he no longer kept up with new poetry he was really enjoying it, especially the poems set in Sri Lanka, where he had been settled for many years. So, in the hope that it might draw new readers to his work, I am republishing my review alongside three of his poems.

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Richard Murphy’s The Pleasure Ground, Poems Poems 1952-2012

The Pleasure Ground, Poems 1952-2012, Richard Murphy, Bloodaxe Books, 288 pages, £12 (paperback). (ISBN 978-1-8461-186-3).

The Pleasure Ground, Poems 1952-2012, is a definitive gathering of work by a important Irish poet of the Twentieth Century. Born in 1927 at Milford in County Mayo, Murphy is a member of the poetic generation whose other most significant voices are those of Thomas Kinsella and John Montague. While both of these poets have found admirers in the UK, their first collections were published by the Dolmen Press in Dublin, which may have hindered their wider recognition on this side of the water. By contrast, Murphy’s first full collection, Sailing to an Island, was published by Faber and Faber in 1963 to considerable acclaim. This was followed by The Battle of Aughrim (1968), High Island (1974), and The Price of Stone (1985). In 1989 Faber and Faber brought out his New Selected Poems, but then dropped him from their list, having shown no interest in The Mirror Wall, his versions of poems from the ancient Sinhalese. It is with a hint of wounded pride, perhaps, that Murphy recounts in his memoir, The Kick, (Granta 2002) that on its eventual publication by Bloodaxe Books it gained for him the Poetry Book Society Translation Award. Published in his mid-eighties, The Pleasure Ground contains almost everything from his previous collections with a small number of more recent or previously uncollected poems. Opening with an autobiographical sketch, the volume also contains an appendix of documentary pieces giving the background to various phases of the poet’s development. However, disappointingly, it does not include his versions from the Sinhalese.

Born into an Anglo-Irish family of the ‘Ascendancy’, Murphy spent his formative years between Sri Lanka, Ireland and boarding schools in England. After completing a degree at Oxford he returned to the West of Ireland, where he ended up earning his living by ferrying tourists to Inishbofin in a Galway Hooker or púcán. The title poem of Sailing to an Island is the first, and shortest, of three masterly poems which describe the rugged seascapes and the sailing heritage of Mayo and Galway. From the outset the rhythms are assured and mimetic:

The boom above my knees lifts, and the boat
Drops, and the surge departs, departs, my cheek
Kissed and rejected, kissed, as the gaff sways
A tangent, cuts the infinite sky to red
Maps, and the mast draws eight and eight across
Measureless blue, the boatmen sing or sleep.

Evoking a domain haunted by ‘the hot O’Malleys, and the daughters of Granuaile, the pirate queen’, Murphy’s verse is redolent of local history, Vergilian epic and the realism of J.M. Synge:

Am I jealous of these courteous fishermen
Who hand us ashore, for knowing the sea
Intimately, for respecting the storm
That took nine of their men on one bad night
And five from Rossadillisk in this very boat?

An Anglo-Irish Protestant, Murphy is an outsider looking in on a close-knit community, all the more so when he speaks with an upper class English accent, a fact which we learn from The Kick has sometimes been thrown in his face. In two other poems he evokes the figures of outsiders who have come to these desolate parts. In ‘Wittgenstein and the Birds’ the philosopher is presented as ‘A solitary invalid in a fuchsia garden.’ In ‘Theodore Roethke at Inisbofin’ the American poet is another tormented soul: ‘laden with books for luggage, / And stumbling under the burden of himself, / He reached the pier, looking for refuge.’ In his memoir Murphy explores his patrician background and the tensions between family loyalties and his natural inclination to sympathise with the weak and exploited. Several poems in Sailing to an Island are informed by this inheritance. ‘Epitaph on a Douglas Fir’ is a shapely poem in tercets which develops the Yeatsian theme of the big house in decline: ‘Arbour and crinoline have gone under / The laurel, gazebos under the yews;’ while in ‘Auction’ the poet wonders ‘With what shall I buy / From time’s auctioneers / This old property / Before it disappears?’ ‘The Woman of the House’ is a beautifully sustained elegy in twenty six quatrains written in memory of the poet’s grandmother. The exuberance of its imagery is at times reminiscent of Dylan Thomas:

In the lake of her heart we were islands
Where the wild asses galloped in the wind.

Her mind was a vague and log-warmed yarn
Spun between sleep and acts of kindliness;
She fed our feelings as dew feeds the grass
On April nights, and our mornings were green.

However, the spare lyricism of ‘Girl at the Seaside’ hints at the tone of his later poems:

A sailor kisses me
Tasting of mackerel,
I analyse misery
Till Mass bells peal.

Murphy’s ambivalence towards Anglo-Irish history is given powerful expression in ‘Droit de Seigneur, 1820’, which points towards the historical concerns of his next collection. It is a poem in which the asymmetry between the rights of Gael and Planter is made clear from the start in the poem’s title. Evoking the siege mentality of colonists at a time of unrest, it concludes by condemning the injustice of wrongly hanging a simpleton for being one of the Ribbonmen.

Commissioned in 1963 by the BBC Third Programme, ‘The Battle of Aughrim, 1691’ was broadcast twice in August 1968. In his illuminating note Murphy explains:

I had written enough externally about boats and the sea in Sailing to an Island. Now
I wanted to look inward at the divisions and devastations in myself as well as in
Ireland; the conflicts, legends, rituals, myths and histories arising from possession
of the land – why we still had borders and bigotries.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s inclusive vision of a united Ireland in a united Europe was soon to be shattered by the renewal of violence in the North. Again, in his note to the poem, Murphy explains how the sequence grew slowly and organically. Written in a variety of stanzaic forms, the poems were then arranged chronologically into four groups: ‘Now’, ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’. A tour de force in which the images are razor sharp, the poet’s eye ranges cinematically across the killing fields. ‘On Battle Hill’ opens with the question that had set the poet on his journey:

Who owns the land where musket-balls are buried
In the blackthorn roots on the esker, the drained bogs
Where sheep browse, and credal war miscarried?

The divisions which survive to this day, enshrined in toponymy, are made clear in ‘Orange March’: ‘Derry, oakwood of bright angels, / Londonderry, dingy walls / Chalked at night with Fuck the Queen.’ In ‘Casement’s Funeral’, the nationalist hero is placed alongside Wolf Tone in the pantheon of doomed martyrs. Then, as the narrative develops and we are taken back in time, we see the vanity and incompetence of St Ruth, the commander of the Jacobite forces, who is unable to speak to his troops in any language they can understand. In ‘The Sheepfold’ the high-handed treatment of some peasants leads to betrayal. ‘In Rapparees’ the insurgents appear as if from nowhere ‘Out of the earth, out of the air, out of the water;’ yet the consequences of capture are there for all to see: ‘The highway trees are gibbets where seventeen rot / Who were caught last week in a cattle raid.’

It is ironic, perhaps, that having written a poetic sequence which can now be seen as prophetic and a harbinger of Montague’s The Rough Field and Heaney’s North, it is at this point that interest in his work starts to wane. While Murphy struggled with writer’s block, the media spotlight was now firmly focused on the violence in the North and the new poets who seemed to be spawned by it. When High Island came out in 1974 it contained less than thirty poems, some of which seemed quite slight. However, going back to them now, one finds poems that are amongst the best he has written. Moreover, Murphy’s poetry, even at its briefest, has one admirable quality: its memorability. Here are the four lines of ‘Double Negative,’ originally a much longer poem:

You were standing on the quay
Wondering who was the stranger on the mailboat
While I was on the mailboat
Wondering who was the stranger on the quay.

Among the highlights of this collection are the five poems about his colonial childhood in Sri Lanka. In ‘Firebug’ he describes an incident of pyromania:

The fire bursts into song,
Eats the doll, stick out its tongue, stands up
Gyrating like a crimson top: then dies.
Burnt celluloid leaves a guilty smell.
The girl cries over the ashes, ‘Give me back my doll!’
‘An angel took it to heaven, didn’t you see?’
The devil needs thrashing with a shoe.

Equally impressive are poems relating to the lives of travelling people. ‘The Glass Dump Road’ is a dramatic portrayal of child abuse. In ‘The Reading Lesson’ the poet describes his attempts to teach a recalcitrant tinker boy: ‘If books resembled roads, he’d quickly read; / But they’re small farms to him, fenced by the page… / A field of tasks he’ll always be outside.’

It was to be another eleven years before Murphy published The Price of Stone in 1985. His most substantial collection to date, it was also to be his last. It is divided into two sections: a selection of lyrics in various forms and a title sequence of fifty autobiographical sonnets. Well received on its publication, it showed that Murphy was still capable of writing at the height of his powers. The first section opens with ‘Moonshine’, an enigmatic love poem: ‘I think I love you / When I’m alone / More than I think of you / When we’re together.’ ‘A Nest in a Wall’ is less riddling: ‘Let me kiss your eyes in the slate-blue calm / Before their Connemara clouds return.’ In other poems he focuses upon his day to day life, evoking the rituals of work and community. ‘Care’, one of Murphy’s finest poems, is about a young kid that the poet and some local children killed with kindness:

Out in a forest
She would have known a bad leaf from a good.

Here, captive to our taste, she’d learnt to trust
The petting hand with crushed oats, or a new
Mash of concentrates, or sweet bits of waste.

So when a child mistook a sprig of yew
And mixed it with her fodder, she descried
No danger: we had tamed her instinct too.

Back in the 1950s when Murphy had settled down again in the West of Ireland he bought two sailing boats and became obsessed with their renovation. Subsequently, his purchase of Ardoileán or High Island involved him in a ‘mania’ for building which he alludes to frequently in his collection of that name and again in The Price of Stone. It is appropriate, therefore, that in an autobiographical sequence he should focus on buildings that represent some of the key moments in his life, and that his concern for craftmanship should draw him to the discipline of the Shakespearean sonnet. Moreover, by personifying each edifice, which then in turn addresses him, the poet is able to put some distance between himself and the life he is examining, while at the same time placing it in the wider context of Anglo-Irish history.

Living for much of his life on the periphery of literary establishments, Richard Murphy is a poet who has gone his own way and transcended the ephemeral. Rightly praised by Ted Hughes for the way his work ‘combines a high music with simplicity force and directness,’ his dedication to his craft has been exemplary. The Pleasure Ground contains a body of work that is coherent, unified, and timeless. It is surely certain to survive.

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Richard Murphy: Three poems

THE SEALS AT HIGH ISLAND

The calamity of seals begins with jaws.
Born in caverns that reverberate
With endless malice of the sea’s tongue
Clacking on shingle, they learn to bark back
In fear and sadness and celebration.
The ocean’s mouth opens forty feet wide
And closes on a morsel of their rock.

Swayed by the thrust and blackfall of the tide,
A dapped grey bull and a brindled cow
Copulate in the green water of cove.
I watch from a cliff-top, trying not to move.
Sometimes they sink and merge into black shoals;
Then rise for air, his muzzle on her neck,
Their winged feed intertwined as a fishtail.

She opens her fierce mouth like a scarlet flower
Full of white seeds; she holds it open long
At the sunburst in the music of their loving;
And cries a little. But I must remember
How far their feelings are from mine marooned.
If there are tears at this holy ceremony
Theirs are caused by brine and mine by breeze.

When the great bull withdraws his rod, it glows
Like a carnelian candle set in jade.
The cow ripples ashore to feed her calf;
While an old rival, eyeing the deed with hate,
Swims to attack the tired triumphant god.
They rear their heads above the boiling surf,
Their terrible jaws open, jetting blood.

At nightfall they haul out, and mourn the drowned,
Playing to the sea sadly their last quartet,
An improvised requiem that ravishes
Reason, while ripping scale up like a net:
Brings pity trembling down the rocky spine
Of headlands, till the bitter ocean’s tongue
Swells in their cove, and smothers their sweet song.

THE READING LESSON

Fourteen years old, learning the alphabet,
He finds letters harder to catch than hares
Without a greyhound. Can’t I give him a dog
To track them down, or put them in a cage?
He’s caught in a trap, until I let him go,
Pinioned by “Don’t you want to learn to read?”
“I’ll be the same man whatever I do”.

He looks at the page as a mule balks at a gap
From which a goat may hobble out and bleat.
His eyes jink from a sentence like flushed snipe
Escaping shot. A sharp word, and he’ll mooch
Back to his piebald mare and bantam cock.
Our purpose is as tricky to retrieve
As mercury from a smashed thermometer.

“I’ll not read any more”. Should I give up?
His hands, long-fingered as a Celtic scribe’s,
Will grow callous, gathering sticks or scrap;
Exploring pockets of the horny drunk
Loiterers at the fairs, giving them lice.
A neighbour chuckles. “You can never tame
The wild duck: when his wings grow, he’ll fly off “.

If books resembled roads, he’d quickly read:
But they’re small farms to him, fenced by the page,
Ploughed into lines, with letters drilled like oats:
A field of tasks he’ll always be outside.
If words were bank notes, he would filch a wad;
If they were pheasants, they’d be in his pot
For breakfast, or if wrens he’d make them king.

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MOONSHINE

To think
I must be alone:
To love
We must be together.

I think I love you
When I’m alone
More than I think of you
When we’re together.

I cannot think
Without loving
Or love
Without thinking.

Alone I love
To think of us together:
Together I think
I’d love to be alone.

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