Patrick Crotty, review of Richard Murphy, The Kick and Collected Poems,
in Times Literary Supplement ( 4 Oct. 2 002).

Bibl. details: Patrick Crotty, ‘What a Strange Boy You Are’, review of Richard Murphy, The Kick (Granta Books), with Collected Poems (Gallery Press), in Times Literary Supplement ( 4 Oct. 2002), pp.26-27.

“Go back to John Bull’s country where you belong, Murphy.” The speaker was a local man in Cleggan in County Galway where Richard Murphy lived for twenty years from 1959 and wrote most his best-known poems. A cutting from the Statesman and Nation, containing Murphy’s poem “Largesse”, was circulating in the village, and had been misconstrued by the agitated man in Oliver’s Bar as an attack on the religious faith and economic competence of the community. It is probably fair to say that more experienced readers, too, have misconstrued Murphy’s poems, or have found them difficult to construe, largely because of their shifting and multifarious contexts. Now, almost two decades after the appearance of his last major collection The Price of Stone (1985), the poet has produced a superb memoir which clarifies and vividly amplifies those contexts. The Kick suggests that autobiography has been the invisible thread: linking the poems about boats and boatmen in Sailing to an Island (1963), the historical meditation The Battle of Aughrim (1968), and its Southern Rhodesian companion piece, “The God Who Eats Corn”, the lyrics about rocks, seals, storm petrels and itinerants (so-called “Tinkers”) which jostle with vignettes of a colonial Ceylonese domestic life in High Island (1974), the accusatory monologues spoken by houses and other architectural structures in the Price of Stone sonnets, and the translations of ancient Buddhist graffiti in The Mirror Wall (1989).

The poetry’s diversity of geographical setting highlights the problems of belonging for a writer whose uncertainty of political and cultural identity has been underscored by confusions of sexual orientation. If Murphy belongs more to the west of Ireland than to anywhere else that, he suggests, is because he has been drawn to spend the greater part of his life near the place where he felt most loved in childhood, Millford House in County Mayo, just over the Galway border, where he was born in 1927. He passed much of his boyhood in Ceylon (as it was until 1972), where his father was the last British mayor of Colombo . Murphy was educated mainly in “John Bull’s country”, first at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School, and subsequently at King’s in Carlyon Bay and at Wellington, where he was deeply unhappy. (His father overruled a decision to send him to St Columba’s in Rathfarnham in Dublin, a destination for many of his class and caste, in disapproval of the Southern Irish state’s wartime neutrality and fear that his children would “degenerate” if brought up in Ireland .) At Magdalen College, Oxford, Murphy studied under another transplanted Irish Protestant, C. S. Lewis. He has lived also in Crete, the States and the Bahamas, where his father succeeded the Duke of Windsor as Governor in 1945. The poet now spends most of his time in South Africa, at the Durban home of his daughter Emily and her family, returning to Ireland mainly to see the Shri Lankan wards he fostered and secured Irish citizenship for during the worst years of the civil war on their native island during the 1980s.

The adage about the Anglo-Irish being at home only on the Irish Sea seems inadequate to the complexities of Murphy’s case (and he has in any event been considerably more at home on the Atlantic, where he made his living and many of his poems out of running two Galway hookers between Cleggan and Inishbofin). In some respects, the poet seems decisively “Anglo-”, with a family more directly and lastingly implicated in the British imperial project than the great majority even of aristocratic Irish Protestants. He displays an unironical pride in his lineage throughout The Kick, claiming “as ancestors on his father’s side Charles II and his mistress, Lucy Walters, through the brother of Patrick Sarsfield”, and on his mother’s Geoffrey Chaucer and William the Conqueror. (“Could you believe it?” he asks of the latter name, and it is difficult to tell whether or not the question is rhetorical.) In other respects, however, Murphy’s outlook is characterized by a far-reaching egalitarianism, and his long record of practical work with fishermen, builders and itinerants in Co Galway has breached “the demesne walls of [his] mind[”] and given him an intimacy with the lives of what Flann O’Brien called the Plain People of Ireland such as few writers of comparable background have achieved.

“What a strange boy you are”, observed a fellow undergraduate at Oxford, to which Murphy replied, “None stranger”. The Kick, worked up from the detailed notebooks he has kept for decades, and drawing in its early pages on his mother’s diaries and the recollections of his siblings, marks the poet’s attempt in his seventies to “make sense of the confusions of my life”. Murphy observes at one point that it is impossible to tell the whole truth “either in a court of law or in a book”, and his memoir negotiates a path between reticence on the one hand and a sometimes disarming honesty on the other. Thus, though we find no reference here to the love affair with an itinerant which some of the High Island and Price of Stone lyrics adumbrate. there are frank discussions of other relationships glimpsed in the poetry. The book reveals that the English actor Tony White sometime neighbour of the poet in County Galway from 1959 until his sudden death in 1976 at the age of forty-six - was at the centre of Murphy’s emotional life, but that their deep friendship was based on an understanding that the poet’s sexual feelings were not to be reciprocated. There is a moving account of Murphy’s brief marriage to and subsequent friendship with Patricia Avis - the Patsy Strang of Philip Larkin’s Belfast years - along with many anecdotes relating to his struggle to come to terms with the ambiguities of his sexuality.

Yet for all its personal dimension, The Kick generally eschews inwardness. Its most memorable pages present Murphy less as protagonist than witness, variously to the slow eclipse of the Anglo-Irish, to the lives of some of the most distinguished of his contemporaries, and to killings and corruption in the Sri Lanka to which he returned for extended periods, after a fifty-year absence, in the 1980s. The book’s literary portraiture is particularly sharp, at once laconic and - save where uncouth behaviour on the part of its subjects demands otherwise - generous. Lively sketches of Auden, Spender, Norman MacCaig and Seamus Heaney complement fuller descriptions of J. R. Ackerley, Charles Monteith, Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin and a devious, obstreperous Patrick Kavanagh. (Larkin turned off his hearing aid and snored through a reading of The Battle of Aughrim .) An understated account of the descent of the poet Desmond O’Grady and his retinue on Cleggan provides one of The Kick ’s more hilarious moments. We are given a detailed narrative of Theodore Roethke’s increasingly manic sojourn on Inishbofin (“Why are you always praising Lowell ? I’m as mad as he is!”; “Don’t you think I’ve got Yeats licked?”), along with interesting sidelights on stories which have often been told before, though from less intimate perspectives. The half-suicidal and wholly farcical climax of the triangular relationship of Geoffrey Phibbs, Laura Riding and Robert Graves is presented as Phibbs, who by then had been forced by the notoriety of the case to change his name to Taylor, recounted it to Murphy. In this telling Phibbs/Taylor comes across as anything but the stooge described in earlier versions of the events that led to Graves’s departure from England . Murphy recalls that when in 1961 he introduced himself to Graves “as a friend of the late Geoffrey Taylor”, the older poet “turned his back on me without a word”.

The account of the visit by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to the west of Ireland a few weeks before Hughes absconded from his marriage appears here much as it does in Murphy’s appendix to Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, though a detail has been added showing the (ironically?) destructive character of Hughes’s conversation at the time. It is chilling to hear that Assia Wevill asked Murphy in 1968 “if the same ‘atmosphere’ existed today between herself and Ted as the one I had felt between him and Sylvia three months before Sylvia’s suicide.” He replied, “to give her hope”, that it was “altogether different”. (A dedication “for Shura” has been added to the little elegy “Lullaby” in the Collected Poems, revealing it to [be] have been occasioned by the deaths of Wevill and her daughter by Hughes in 1969.) Hughes views on the suicide of both women, divulged to Murphy over the years, are revealed.

In fact The Kick is haunted by suicide – a former schoolmate kills himself because of the pressures of being homosexual in the 1940s, Patricia Avis’s brother crashes his plane because he can’t cope with the death of his wife, Patricia and the actress Mary Ure usher themselves out of life with alcohol and barbiturates, an American geology professor with whom Murphy has arranged a house-swap cuts his throat in the woods. The stoicism which helped the poet avoid such a fate himself is evident throughout the book, not least in its cool, pellucid style. The poetry is similarly characterized by self-possession, by a fastidious quality which has struck some commentators as classicism and others as a species of desiccation. [26]

Again and again in the memoir Murphy expresses doubts about his own lack of inspiration, about the constructed, assembled character of his poems: “To me poetry would never come naturally, as a gift. It would have to be made.” Yet if the poems of Sailing to an Island are seamed and caulked like the boats they celebrate, their sturdy architecture makes them as buoyant today as they were forty years ago. The early work constitutes more than a mere poetry of action and the outer life, of the ways of death and survival of North Connemara fishermen; its narratives of storms and endurance have a fairly obvious further level of significance in their metaphorical application to the emotional sphere, to the endless struggle for ascendancy over a mutinous self.

At times, however, too much in Murphy’s verse remains implicit: it is almost as if he is too well bred to be obvious. The oblique commentary on American colonialism in Vietnam which Ted Hughes valued in The Battle of Aughrim must remain undetectable to less robustly speculative readers. (Murphy is to be admired for recording not only Hughes’s praise but also his friend John McGahern’s admission that he could feel no more than “cold admiration” for the sequence because it was “written too much from the outside”.) The pressure of contemporary events is more directly registered in the meditation on African decolonization in “The God Who Eats Corn”. This poem, too, is executed with a tart grace which flares memorably but perhaps too infrequently into figurative life.

“The God Who Eats Corn” had been scheduled for star billing on the front of the second section of the Sunday Times on December 29, 1963, when it was “Pulled” to facilitate coverage of the Pope’s surprise visit to Jerusalem . Even in the non-event, this was more attention than any poet of Irish domicile had received between the death of Yeats and the rise to celebrity of the Heaney generation. Murphy’s fall from his 1960s prominence has been even more precipitous than that of his contemporary Thomas Kinsella. He is rarely mentioned in British poetry circles these days and has been scanted even by his compatriots: he appears neither in Paul Muldoon’s Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986) nor in Edna Longley’s Bloodaxe Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry . Perhaps the most telling blow his reputation has suffered was his dropping from Faber’s list in 1995.

Gallery’s handsome collected edition of the poems - particularly when read in the bright glow of The Kick - makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Murphy’s best work was done in his years of relative obscurity in the 1970s and 80s. Two lyrics from these years the sinuous “Morning Call” and the majestic “Seals at High Island”, an extraordinary meditation on sexuality, the voraciousness of the natural world and (arguably, at least) the marginalization of the Anglo-Irish - deserve inclusion in even the slenderest anthology of late twentieth-century British and Irish poetry. The fifty sonnets which made up the second half of The Price of Stone in 1985, and are given a more separate being under that title here, gain immeasurably from the autobiographical and architectural information supplied in the memoir. Now that their gnomic quality has been dispelled to reveal a paradoxical and self-flagellating candour, it is conceivable that these poems, with their almost Elizabethan verbal ingenuity, will yet be seen as the summit of Murphy’s art.

Some pieces have been dropped from the collected edition, including “Amazement”, a brief, penetrating excoriation of the Maze hunger strikers of the early 1980s. A few others have been added, notably “Scythe”, one of the surest lyrics in the book. Many poems have been revised, one of them (“Planter Stock”) substantially. The sequence of individual items in Sailing to an Island and High Island has been radically altered, while - surprisingly - only a selection of the Mirror Wall translations has been preserved. Each of the books under review needs and profoundly enhances the other. Together they form a unitary achievement, a life’s work truer, broader and deeper than criticism has suspected.’

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