The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012, by Richard Murphy
Reviewed by Michael Longley
The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012
Way back in the 1960s, when we were just beginning to spread our wings, the poets of my generation looked for inspiration to the first collections of our immediate Irish predecessors, John Montague, Thomas Kinsella and Richard Murphy. We were eager to learn what makes a line and how a stanza is built; how far the iambic pentameter can be stretched. In Richard Murphy’s milestone collection, Sailing to an Island, three narrative pieces, in particular The Last Galway Hooker, The Cleggan Disaster and the title poem, released a new kind of music, melodious enough but also open to narrative waywardness and matter-of-fact detail:
Down in the deep where the storm could not go
The strong ebb-tide was drawing to windward
Their cork-buoyed ninety-six fathom of nets
With thousands of mackerel thickly meshed.
In a blink the documentary inflection can modulate into a surreal lyricism: “What were those lights that seemed to blaze like red / Fires in the pits of the waves?” The movement is risky and assured:
In the dark before the moon rose, he could smell
Fish-oil and blood oozing from the nets
Where a shark was gorging on the tails of mackerel.
We hadn’t heard a poetic noise quite like that before.
In Murphy’s storytelling there is plenty of room for song. Intense lyrics sit side by side with the big narratives: Girl at the Seaside, The Drowning of a Novice:
Where was the pebbled cove
and the famine cottage?
His piano-playing fingers
ached at the oars.
The verse can sometimes be overwrought. In Wittgenstein and the Birds: “He clipped with February shears the dead / Metaphysical foliage”. A whiff of insouciance is needed here.
The next major undertaking was The Battle of Aughrim, 1691, a sequence of thematically and musically linked short poems that explore the violent complexities of a historical moment, or, according to the poet’s own gloss: “A meditation on colonial war and its consequence in Ireland written in Connemara between 1962 and 1967.” Murphy’s imagery is both down to earth and emblematic: “A wolfhound sits under a wild ash / Licking the wound in a dead ensign’s neck.” Here, in its entirety, is Martial Law, one of many powerful lyrics:
A country woman and a country man
Come to a well with pitchers,
The well that has given them water since they were children:
And there they meet soldiers.
Suspecting they’ve come to poison the spring
The soldiers decide to deal
So they hang them on a tree by the well.
The long and the short lines and the part-rhymes masterfully evoke the nightmare scene. I can think of no contemporary poet who has more tellingly transmuted the stuff of history into poetry.
Much of Murphy’s loveliest work is to be found, I think, in High Island, poems of the years 1967 to 1973, loose limbed and open throated. Is there a finer bird poem than Stormpetrel?