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:
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:
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:
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:
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?
“Cryptic” is so daring there, and the last line in every sense breathtaking, simple and yet in no way straightforward. Murphy’s celebrations of the western seaboard pulse with psalm-like intensity: Seals at High Island, for instance, exudes a vivid sexuality: “When the great bull withdraws his rod, it glows / Like a carnelian candle set in jade.” Song for a Corncrake ends with these heartbreaking lines:
This poet also relishes turning on a sixpence. Several epigrammatic poems bejewel this collection. Double Negative is a gnomic love poem for his friend Tony White:
These four lines compress swirling emotions and remind us that miniature is not the same as minor. This quatrain fills the page.
The Price of Stone is for me Murphy’s least winning collection. Its dogged anthropomorphism is sustained over a suite of 50 sonnets in which various buildings associated with the poet’s life soliloquise – from Nelson’s Pillar to Letterfrack industrial school, from a waterkeeper’s bothy to Newgrange and a beehive cell. There’s something too predetermined here, a lack of surprise, too few “gasps”.
I much prefer the psychic desolation of the amorous, sometimes homoerotic poems in High Island (especially the exquisitely tender Sunup and The Glass Dump Road, which faces into the darkness of child abuse); the compassionate portraits of poverty and dispossession; the concentrated energy of the animal psalms; the delicate syncopations of Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie, a fugue-like masterpiece that brilliantly conceals its artfulness.
Murphy provides a preface that reverberates helpfully throughout this collection. There are several prose appendices explaining the provenance of some of the major poems and, at the end, a perceptive appreciation by Bernard O’Donoghue of Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie. This critical apparatus bears further witness to Murphy’s lifelong devotion to his craft. He is indeed one of our supreme makers.
Oscillating from beginning to end and from page to page between narrative and lyric, public and private, love poem and elegy, The Pleasure Ground is a hugely significant achievement. Now well into his ninth decade, Richard Murphy continues to be a poet of great fortitude and resource, one of the finest of our time.