In search of Richard Mur­phy

In Search of Po­etry

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Peter Sirr

By Richard Mur­phy Clu­tag Press, £15

What is the cost of po­etry? Or rather, what is the cost to one­self and oth­ers of a life of ded­i­ca­tion to a lonely art? Which per­fec­tion, in the Yeat­sian for­mula, do you choose, the life or the work?

The ti­tle of Richard Mur­phy’s new book sug­gests a re­flec­tion on the art of po­etry from a mas­ter prac­ti­tioner now ap­proach­ing his 90th birth­day, but the book is much more per­sonal and in­ti­mate than that.

Part jour­nal, part work­ing diary, part mem­oir, all from the early 1980s, it charts the ini­ti­a­tion and de­vel­op­ment of the son­net se­quence that would make up The Price of Stone, the poet’s much praised 1985 col­lec­tion.

Each poem in what be­came a 50-son­net se­quence ven­tril­o­quises a build­ing that has a res­o­nance for the poet. This in turn means that the poet be­comes the ad­dressee, the bi­o­graph­i­cal sub­ject mat­ter dis­placed into the con­scious­ness of a roof- tree, restau­rant, in­dus­trial school or an­ces­tral home. They are free to ad­dress and ac­cuse the poet so that the se­quence also func­tions as an oblique self-ex­am­i­na­tion.

They also in­ter­ro­gate his own ori­gins. A Mur­phy an­ces­tor would have been the first to “take the soup”, start­ing a jour­ney from peas­ant im­pov­er­ish­ment to the pa­tri­cian reaches of An­glo- Ir­ish­ness and his fa­ther’s ca­reer as colo­nial gover­nor of the Ba­hamas and Ceylon, where he was the last Bri­tish mayor of Colombo. Mur­phy lo­cates his own voice partly in the change from Ir­ish to English – a change also of tra­di­tion, cul­ture and re­li­gion – which left him “the voice with which I speak and write . . . a voice that hungers for author­ity and yearns to make peo­ple and things, which are sure to van­ish, last in ver­bal gran­ite”.

A poem l i ke Car­low Vil­lage School­mas­ter al­lows him to see an Angli­can­ised fore­bear in his for­bid­ding school, can­ing a pupil for speak­ing Ir­ish, and asks: Not forced to sip The cauldron soup with undy­ing

grat­i­tude, Would you have cho­sen a


Un­ease is at the heart of the po­ems, as well as the en­tries here. Mur­phy is never re­ally at home, whether in his “new sub­ur­ban Catholic Ir­ish na­tion­al­ist neigh­bour­hood”, his own his­tory, or his own im­me­di­ate fam­ily. He seeks refuge in­stead in the dra­matic land and seascapes of the west, in grand male pur­suits of sail­ing, farm­ing or ob­ses­sive build­ing projects, re­al­is­ing that his ren­o­va­tions – re­ally an­other kind of soli­tari­ness – were in fact of­ten as much an es­cape from re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as an ad­di­tion to fam­ily life.

Of­ten this kind of re­al­i­sa­tion comes too late, of course. His great­est refuge, though, is in the slow, painstak­ing crafting of po­ems, and this is the book’s real fo­cus. The lines are ag­o­nised over, writ­ten and rewrit­ten. An im­por­tant men­tor is the late Den­nis O’Driscoll, who is the poet’s first critic and trusted con­fi­dant, and Mur­phy’s re­ports of their con­ver­sa­tions pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into how the ne­go­ti­a­tion be­tween pri­vate creation and val­ued au­di­ence pro­vided a space where his art could flour­ish.

As well as fill­ing in many of the per­sonal blanks the po­ems keep to them­selves, these jour­nals record the con­stant strug­gle to keep po­ems alive. The poet, fit­tingly in this con­text, al­ways sounds like an ar­chi­tect or a builder about to get his hands dirty: “I am about to be­gin con­struc­tion of a new poem about the recla­ma­tion of a new build­ing . . .”

The book, a very use­ful ad­di­tion to the Mur­phy cor­pus, ends where it be­gan, in Knock­brack, the Killiney house Mur­phy bought and ren­o­vated, with the poet sit­ting at his ta­ble and try­ing, as al­ways, “to build a poem that will be be­yond re­pair”.

Each poem in what be­came a 50-son­net se­quence ven­tril­o­quises a build­ing that has a res­o­nance for the poet

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