‘To build a poem that will be beyond repair’
In Search of Poetry review: Richard Murphy’s greatest refuge is in the slow, painstaking crafting of poems
Richard Murphy locates his own voice partly in the change from Irish to English – a change also of tradition, culture and religion. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
In Search of Poetry
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 like 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
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The cauldron soup with undying gratitude,
Would you have chosen a coffin-ship?
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”.