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From the Pleasure Ground

Joseph Woods

Making Integral: Critical essays on Richard Murphy, edited by Benjamin Keatinge, Cork University Press, 382 pp., €39, ISBN: 978-1782053255

Richard Murphy was unique, a truly maverick poet, oddball, builder, restorer of buildings and boats, and skipper, whose many projects and chunk of life in the west of Ireland were all about inspiring and creating spaces for his own poetry and, occasionally, spaces in which to avoid poetry. Often described as one of the last of the Anglo-Irish generation of writers, his own origins stretch back to birth in a Big House, Milford, in 1920s Mayo followed by a peripatetic “Empire” childhood, as the son of Sir William Murphy, a senior Ceylon civil servant stationed there, and then schooling and university ‑ Magdalen, Oxford ‑ in England. All conspired to make him a singular and modern classical poet. He once admitted that poetry never came naturally to him: “It would have to be made”, and so it was and we are grateful for his beautiful and numerous constructs, from sonnets to epic long poems.

Murphy’s publishing life began in the 1950s and culminated in his collected poems The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012, which covered seven decades of poetry and overlapped two centuries. Suggesting perhaps that his poetry has its feet firmly in the last century, while the late poems and prose projects, including his marvellous memoir The Kick, firmly establishes him in this century, and his influence has been significant.

Murphy passed away in January 2018 in Kandy, Sri Lanka, almost six months after his ninetieth birthday; he had outlived most of his literary contemporaries, with the exception of Thomas Kinsella. His move to the island nation of Sri Lanka in 2007 marked a return to one of his childhood homes and closed a circuit: he was done with travelling, which included returns to Ireland. Murphy did not live to see Making Integral; it was published last year and is now dedicated to his memory (1927-2018), but he was aware of its preparation and I hope had a sense of the immense service being done to his work.

Benjamin Keatinge is a meticulous editor and has arranged these sixteen essays, often from wildly different perspectives, to read seamlessly and coherently. Ideally, it should be read alongside a copy of the collected poems and indeed Murphy’s revealing memoir, which is also examined. Occasionally there are repetitions. Some of the major poems are invoked a number of times but it’s invariably to add to their sum or shine new critical light upon them. Keatinge has also contributed a significant essay and a very useful bibliography.

Maurice Harmon is almost a fellow journeyman of Murphy’s at this stage, having published the first critical book on his  poetry over forty years ago. In his critical survey on division and distress in Murphy’s work, he notes that the poetry has focused on topics that “had been absent from Irish poetry in the post-Yeatsian period”. And while every Big House demesne is its own “Pleasure Ground” (an early essay by Murphy), Harmon suggests that he transferred this notional “confinement” to the vaster and more varied pleasure ground of Connemara, its coast and islands, contrasting this with the “isolation of the compound” in childhood Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

In “Richard Murphy’s Plainstyles”, Bernard O’Donoghue expands upon an earlier idea that Murphy has created a new poetic language, “achieving an effect of plainness through a form of highly worked intricacy”. One of the bonuses of this “plain speak” is that it well represents local dialects or accents and, allied to metrical form, “has an immediate communicative impact”. This dovetails with Gerard Dawe’s lucid examination of love and loss in the poems, where Murphy is “an intriguingly available poet” whose poems “have all the bright music of great love songs”. Murphy’s “availability” has had more influence on subsequent generations of poets than he’s been given credit for. Dawe correctly discerns that while Murphy uncovered his own west of Ireland roots along with the “colonial taproot”, he avoided viewing Ireland as a “Celticised myth-kitty” but rather as an integrated site/s.

Various other slant perspectives are used in exploring Murphy’s themes and work. Lucy Collins explores Murphy through her essay on his “Island Lives” and the trope of the island in the role of poetry, reaching back to the Revival and Yeats’s encouragement of Synge to go west. One quibble however is the merits of gathering poets ‑ Máirtín Ó Direáin, George Mackay Brown and indeed Murphy ‑ collectively under the term “poetry of the British Isles”.

Tom Walker tackles Richard Murphy as a radio poet. In the many eulogies after Murphy passed away, it was recalled by President Michael D Higgins that he was the second poet chosen, after Dylan Thomas, when the BBC first broadcast poetry read by living poets. The president also commented on his “great reading voice”. Murphy had a wonderful reading voice, which even in his lifetime echoed the past, and his RP diction was always more British-sounding than Anglo-Irish.

Walker examines Murphy’s early periods of recording from 1950 up to the staging for BBC radio of The Battle of Aughrim in 1968, with multiple voices including Ted Hughes and music by Seán Ó Riada. The radio broadcast of this epic received a very high “audience reaction index of 73”, something unimaginable for today’s radio listenership. Sadly, the end of the ’60s seemed to mark the end of Murphy’s real participation in radio, apart from the occasional interview. Reading this essay, I recalled listening to Murphy being interviewed on RTÉ radio in the noughties in a programme where he chose for his closing and favourite tune “Land of Hope and Glory”. This may have been a nostalgic harking back to his Canterbury Cathedral Choir School days during the war, but it is said, perhaps apocryphally, that his choice resulted in the RTÉ switchboard being jammed with complaints. The BBC broadcast of The Battle of Aughrim coincided with its publication as The Battle of Aughrim and The God Who Eats Corn in 1968.

Siobhán Campbell’s close reading of Murphy’s epic follows with its much quoted “Who owns the land where musket-balls are buried?”’ and Campbell posits: can “Who owns the land?” be the actual Irish question? She analyses the poem emphasising Murphy’s role as a “conflict poet”. The poem was also an exercise in trying to unravel the poet’s ancestry and his belonging to two camps. When Campbell considers the current political and institutional climate in Northern Ireland, she suggests, “Murphy is once more at his most prescient in this meditative poem. Prescience also abounds in the second long poem of that 1968 volume, The God Who Eats Corn.”

In 1949 Richard’s father, Sir William Murphy, retired as governor of the Bahamas and after a life in the colonies was not looking forward to retirement, according to Richard; in cold and wet Ireland, now a republic, without servants and with a poor pension. Chester Beatty persuaded the Murphys to buy a farm of “virgin land”, 1,500 acres, in Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe about an hour’s drive from Salisbury/Harare. From his visit there and a commission, Richard Murphy wrote The God Who Eats Corn about his father’s retirement project and an attempt to create a “Rhodesian utopia” giving work to the locals through the farm and tobacco plant, building schools and providing basic medical services, supported by Lady Murphy. Michael A Moir, in a superb analysis of “The instability of pastoral space”, sees that in the poem the retirement project was “doubly doomed, as it ignores the brutal realities of colonialism and the resentment of the native population”. The poem remains prescient and Sir William, as the dedicatee, was outraged.

I drove out to this farm last year, which still bears the name of “Kiltullagh”, and the topography of the poem remains, the dilapidated farmhouse the Murphys built and the now very tall cypress planted by Britain’s queen mother. The farm has since changed hands, both legally and illegally as is often the case in Zimbabwe with its recent history of farm invasions, which adds further poignancy to the poem. Michael A Moir’s essay brings new attention to the importance of this long and only “African” poem in Murphy’s oeuvre. Joseph Sendry’s impressive study “Poetry of Aftermath” includes a cold eye cast over Sir William’s project and the planting of a pleasure ground: “The foundering of Sir William’s arboretum emerges as an emblem of the ‘planting’ of Rhodesia itself.” Brilliantly, he casts Cecil Rhodes in the poem’s background, a presence analogous to Cromwell’s in Ireland, with his seizure of land from the native population.

Sendry also enlists the sonnets from The Price of Stone (1985), fifty pieces that ventriloquise various buildings that resonated with the poet. The process of putting together this sequence was considerably mentored, inspired and critiqued by the late poet and critic Dennis O’Driscoll, and further revealed in prose, In Search of Poetry (2017), which charts their conception and realisation. Tara Stubbs charts the linguistic ironies of some of the key(stone) sonnets, while James B Kelly’s “Exposure and Obscurity: The cruising sonnets in Richard Murphy’s The Price of Stone” is a startlingly original take on the sonnets and transforms our understanding of them.

Mention of Dennis O’Driscoll reminds me of when I enthused to him about Murphy’s memoir The Kick when it appeared in 2002. Dennis conveyed this to the author and arranged an introduction with him in Dublin and we became acquaintances. I was director of Poetry Ireland then and the appearance of The Kick was quite an event. Few poets and even fewer Irish poets have committed to print such a frank and revealing memoir ‑ although, at the time, another poet friend suggested that its subtitle “A Life Among Writers” should have been “A Life Avoiding Writers”, given Murphy’s tendency to avoid cities and his liking for distant places.

I particularly enjoyed Barbara Brown’s essay on the process of editing and extracting from Murphy’s voluminous notebooks. Without Brown, The Kick and other prose projects would not have seen the light of day. Elena Cotta Ramusino rightly evaluates The Kick in the genre of Anglo-Irish Autobiography and I would agree with Keatinge in his introduction that the book is simply “a masterpiece of (Anglo-) Irish memoir”. Fortunately, Cork University Press has also reprinted this work.

By the end of Making Integral I had the sense that the last word had been said on Richard Murphy’s work but Keatinge’s contribution of an essay and bibliography and indeed introduction, casts a line or two into the future. In “‘To seem a white king’s gem’: Richard Murphy’s Sri Lankan poems and Irish postcolonial studies”, Keatinge makes a case for Murphy as having direct experience of (post)colonial circumstances in Ireland, Africa and Asia/Sri Lanka – and writing about the injustices of colonialism in each case and ultimately making the post-colonial leap between his Irish and Sri Lankan experience. In effect, one senses room for further postcolonial studies of his work.

Keatinge’s bibliography will be a resource for researchers for years to come and it is curious, for me anyhow, how Murphy was contracted to the legendary Dolmen Press in the 1950s and goes from there to Faber & Faber for twenty-six  years and then in Ireland is published by Wolfhound Press, The Gallery Press and finally The Lilliput Press. Finding a home or a publishing house for his collected poems became a journey of sorts. When Richard met his old friend Ted Hughes (also celebrated in this volume with an essay by Mark Wormald) for the last time in 1998, he told Hughes he was considering leaving Faber & Faber for Bloodaxe, Hughes responded that it would be like leaving the ‘Brigade of Guards’ to join the Territorials. Richard didn’t heed this piece of advice.

Making Integral in all its wonderful contributions is a fitting tribute to Richard Murphy but more vitally, it has ensured that his work will remain as alive as ever.

1/12/2020

Joseph Woods is a poet and former director of Poetry Ireland. His most recent book, Monsoon Diary, was reviewed in the Dublin Review of Books in September 2018. Woods lives in Zimbabwe and is working on a travel-biography of the late colonial chronicler of Burma, Maurice Collis.

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