Friday, February 17, 2012

`Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New'

At the request of Timothy Murphy, the Dakota Institute sent me Hunter’s Log and Mortal Stakes / Faint Thunder (both 2011), three new collections of his poems in two volumes. Murphy is a formal master who gives accessibility a good name. He writes poetry for grownups who miss the days when serious readers considered poetry a part of their birthright as literate people. You can sit down with his poems and actually read them, line by line, page by page, without getting bored, irritated or offended. His editor-in-chief at the Dakota Institute Press, Clay S. Jenkinson, in his foreword to Mortal Stakes, says the best thing you can say about a poet: “He has no interest in writing inexplicable poetry.”

The adjective is carefully chosen. When reading Murphy’s poems you won’t feel patronized or proselytized, and will almost assuredly find pleasure in their concision, precision and music. You’ll know the experience, rare in contemporary poetry, of a thoughtful person talking to you with the utmost care and clarity. He writes unapologetically devotional poems and a few that make you laugh out loud. You won’t find self-regarding obscurity or chopped-up prose passing for poetry, but you will learn things about the real world. Murphy shares his enthusiasms, among which are guns, dogs, birds, the weather, whiskey (formerly), John Donne and Anthony Hecht. Here is “Missouri Breaks”:

“I am a trespasser on treeless ground,
home to the sharptail and the furtive hun,
and here the tallest thing for miles around
is a small hunter shouldering his gun.

“A blooded dog quarters the feral rye,`
and my body’s long quarrel with my mind
is silenced by a landscape and a sky
legible as a Bible for the blind.”

Sharptails are grouse. Huns are Hungarian partridges. Both are game birds and Murphy, who is sixty years old, has hunted since childhood. He lives in North Dakota. Here is “Confessiones 10.27.38” (“—after St. Augustine”):

“Wrongly thinking that beauty lay without,
blindly I cast about.
How late did I begin
to realize your beauty lay within.
To one deprived of sight
you said Let there be light,
and to my deafened ear
you called, you cried! hoping that I might hear.
I thirsted, hungered, yearned.
You touched me, and I burned.
How late I came to you,
Beauty ever ancient, ever new.
How late I came to you.”

And here is “V.I.P. Lounge,” a praise song for some of Murphy’s poetic forebears:

“The most exclusive anteroom in Hades
caters to those who wrote well in their eighties:
classical poets, Pindar and Sophocles
exchanging shop talk with Simonides.

“Hardy and Frost, Francis and Hope are there.
Scovell, Virginia Hamilton Adair
And Janet Lewis, sharing a pot of tea,
Raise their cups, praising Mnemosyne.

“The Goddess turns Her back on the elect
To greet a new arrival, Anthony Hecht,
Who takes his place among the Greats in Hell.
Would I could live as long or write so well.”

On Thursday, the day after Murphy’s books arrived in the mail, I read this interview with Richard Rodriguez, author of the memoir Hunger of Memory (1982) and the essay collection Days of Obligation (1992), among other books. Despite the obvious differences, Rodriguez reminds me of Murphy. Both men are gay. Both are seriously Roman Catholic. Both revere tradition. Both might be called cultural outsiders who don’t cultivate “Outsider” status, who reject the poseur trappings of culturally sanctioned bohemia. Both have refused the claims of “identity politics” and write as individuals. Here is Rodriguez:

“The most ancient notions of writing propose that the writer is more passive than active. The writer waits until the graces (or grace) flows through him. The writer awaits inspiration. The writing which Monday was so sluggish is suddenly free on Tuesday. How to explain it? St. Thomas Aquinas says that writing is a kind of prayer, leaving oneself open, utterly vulnerable, to inspiration or God. That feels right to me.”


William A. Sigler said...

Ouch, that’s just about the most hostile positive review I’ve ever read, and I’m scratching my head why poor Mr. Murphy (or myself) had to be subjected to it. One can drive from California to New York and hear nothing but clear, straightforward and regularly rhyming poems about God, dogs and guns. Even a general search of the web for poetry would probably yield 80-90% of poems clear, straightforward and regularly rhymed on a wide range of topics. So why do I feel like you drove up to a furniture store to find it all replaced by Henry Moore sculptures? Just because “Poetry,” the conservative organ of academic poetry doesn’t adequately represent your preferred brand you have to come on like that Rush Limbaugh comedian, sucking up all the air with his absurd rants on post-Christian society, liberal media or university truth squads?

Poetry has a tremendous amount of variety and resilience despite it being incomprehensible in all its forms to the vast majority of earth’s inhabitants. Walling it off further so that the only acceptable poems are those derived from British verse forms developed in the 16th century may be a legitimate individual choice, but it doesn’t really further the cause of “writing as a kind of prayer, leaving oneself open, utterly vulnerable, to inspiration or God.”

GAil White said...

I wish I knew where Mr. Sigler was finding that 80-90% of clear, concise formal poetry. I still find obscure, rambling free verse to be the preferred mode of the day.

Timothy Murphy said...

I don't know what planet Mr. Sigler is on. First, I regard Mr. Kurp's review as entirely friendly. Second, out here in fly-over country, the only meter and rhyme I hear on the airwaves comes from Nashville. The rhymes are bad, and the sentimentality is worse.