A geography of the mind

 

In a valuable interview with John Haffenden 20 years ago, Richard Murphy remarked of his move to the west coast of Ireland: "What I really wanted to do was to simplify my life and to find a bedrock on which I could build, and to get to know the heart of the country in which I'd been born, which was totally different to the world in which I'd been brought up, Ceylon and England. It was a kind of exploration, my coming to Connemara".

One of the truly great things about Richard Murphy's Collected Poems is just how alive the book is to the west of Ireland: its history and people, the landscape, customs and folkways of making a living (as Murphy did) from the sea. On this score the poems gathered in from Murphy's earlier books, such as Sailing to an Island (1963) and High Island (1974) have become classics in their own time. But it is not as pastoral that these poems really live; the western islands and the terrain become austere emblematic presences, dramatising an intense struggle for personal and cultural identity. Traversing this geography of the mind, Murphy auspiciously reinvented in "The Battle of Aughrim" (1968) an historical frieze of war and conflict in the late 17th century spliced through with images drawn, almost cinematically, from 20th-century Ireland.

The characteristic imaginative strain of Murphy's earliest volumes (supplemented here with poems written but uncollected at the time) up to his most recent works, The Price of Stone (1985) and The Mirror Wall (1989), is towards an ordered and orderly world. If the sea is the challenge the individual fights, so, too, is history. There is a personal courage marked in these poems, all the more fascinating because it is today increasingly rare, rendered almost meaningless as the high romantic belief in the self's discovery of otherness and conflict has turned into the petulant silliness of "lifestyle".

The elegiac tone of many of his finest poems - those dedicated to his "mentor", Tony White, for instance, or the immaculate lyric dedicated to the actor, Mary Ure, bear what Murphy has called elsewhere, an "unvarnished clarity". The grand meditations on the lives of his grandmother, "The Woman in the House" and father, "The God who eats corn" present, as with the best-known novels of J. G. Farrell, an unflinching view of the complex moral universe of the colonial Anglo-Irish. The counterweight of Ceylon/Sri Lanka in poems such as "Coppersmith"," The Fall" and, particularly, in part five of the Collected Poems, show Murphy's artistic ability to explore other worlds and understand their separateness, their uniqueness. The lucid, confident voice which tells the stories of these poems, far from being confessional or smugly self-regarding, demonstrates how emotional power is like a physical force which looms beneath the surface brilliance of the poetry.

Love, like sexual union, turns into an almost operatic passion in the magnificent poem, "Seals at High Island". The relinquishing of love in "Grounds, 1959", or "Niches", offers a perfect example of just how much true poetry simply expresses the complications of human feeling, whereas in the little poem "Walled up" Murphy takes an ironic glance at how he himself is seen by others. In the concluding (sixth) part of the Collected Poems, "The Price of Stone" is published in full - a sequence of sonnets, inlaid, compact, allusive and mesmeric. Here the desire for structure literally takes over as the poet's voice shifts into ventriloquism. It is a strange, estranging act whereby the poem pretends to be something else: a hut, hexagon, pier bar, ice rink, roof tree, industrial school . . .

If England features little in the Collected Poems, the English in which the poems are written reminds us of diction as clear as a bell and distinguished by an inherited civic consciousness. Where Yeats may stand formally behind some of Murphy's achievement, Murphy can also, undoubtedly, be read in terms of what he called "the beautiful lucidity" of Philip Larkin. Richard Murphy is an intriguingly available poet and, like those of Robert Graves, his poems have all the bright music of great love songs:

Mary Ure

Bare feet she dips across my boat's blue rail

In the ocean as we run under full white summer sail.

The cold spray kisses them. She's not immortal.

Sitting in her orchard she reads `Lady Lazarus'

Aloud rehearsing, when her smallest child lays

Red peonies in her lap with tender apologies.

She walks by Lough Mask in a blue silk gown

So thin the cloudy wind is biting to the bone

But she talks as lightly as if the sun shone.

Gerald Dawe's poetry books include The Morning Train. His selected essays, Stray Dogs and Dark Horses, was published earlier this year