Richard Murphy: standing apart

The Battle of Aughrim alone would have stood as a memorable testament to his gifts but he leaves much else that holds the mark of major poetry

 

On a patrician evening in Ireland

I was born in the guest-room…

With those opening lines in the marvellous elegy for his grandmother, Richard Murphy announced not only his entrance into the world but the arrival of a poet who, by virtue of his background, would stand apart from his contemporaries.

Along with the two other major figures among his mid-twentieth century contemporaries – Kinsella and Montague – he faced the challenge of remaking and liberating Irish poetry in the post-Yeats era. His collected poems, The Pleasure Ground, shows the measure of his response to that challenge and confirms a sense of complete achievement. As a craftsman he was resourceful, and in both the short lyric and longer narratives there is strictly controlled precision and fastidious care in the choosing of each single word.

While his background was Anglo-Irish, a factor that perhaps allowed the cool, detached outlook in his perspectives on Irish history, he looked to quite different social realities and lives in poems about fishermen, travellers, his “vanished masons”. A builder of boats and dwellings (though never an Ivory Tower ) with his own hands, his inherited credentials were never an obstacle to contact with the people “cultivating fields” or “happy in the monotony of boats”. His evocations of individuals in west of Ireland settings – often strangers such as the American poet Theodore Roethke, the philosopher Wittgenstein, the actor Mary Ure – are among his most powerful lyrics. The Connemara landscape, its seacoast and offshore islands provided fruitful imagery.

Murphy’s command of the lyric form displays “singularly perfect thrusts”, as Lowell said of William Carlos Williams. Beyond his interrogation of history and its complexities, his poems always remained close to his lived life. The Battle of Aughrim was and remains a profound exploration. That achievement alone would have stood as a memorable testament to his gifts, but he leaves much else that holds the mark of major poetry.

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