Photos don't do him justice. Tim Murphy is harder, leaner, smaller,
and more prominently beaked than any news photographer has caught to
date. Moreover, his brilliant red hair, set off by a welter of
freckles, softens to a dull, inexpressive gray in newsprint
black-and-white. Face to face, Murphy brings to mind a fierce, small
hawk over the North Dakota wheat fields of his native Red River
In addition to being a poet of note, Murphy is also a venture
capitalist and partner in a farm that produces 850,000 hogs a year.
"I do the dirtiest, most difficult job on a farm," he
often quips to reporters. "I borrow the money."
January will see the publication of Very
Far North (Waywiser,
UK), with an introduction by Anthony Hecht. His verse translation of
"Beowulf," with Alan Sullivan, will be published in July
in the Longman Anthology of British Literature, with Murphy
reading a two-hour CD edition of the translation as well. Set
the Ploughshare Deep: A Prairie Memoir (Ohio
University Press, 1999) is a bleak, prose-and-poetry account of the
harrowing, hardscrabble life of farming in what he terms "my
native patch of hell."
His poems have received kudos from high sources, including Pulitzer
prize-winning poet and former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, who
praises Murphy's wide learning, the elegance of his writing, and his
"extraordinary conversancy with a lot of the poets of the past,
in many languages."
"Tim uses rhyme and meter in a songlike way––which a great
many modern poets have forgotten how to do. Most poets nowadays are
not lyric in that sense. Tim writes poems that a composer could set
to music," says Wilbur. Moreover, "his poetry is lucid.
When he is subtle, it's the kind of subtlety that leads you into
understanding. He uses forms without showiness and always with a
At Yale University, where Murphy was Scholar of the House in Poetry,
he studied with Southern agrarian poet Robert Penn Warren (another
Pulitzer prize-winner and former poet laureate), who had grown up on
a Kentucky tobacco farm.
Warren, however, refused to give him a recommendation after Yale.
Murphy was courting the East Coast literary world and aiming for a
poet-in-residency at a prestigious academy. "I needed to
cultivate the sense of place which I so fervently admired in Yeats,
Hardy, and Frost, but which I had not yet found in the land of my
own birth," Murphy wrote in Set
the Ploughshare Deep. "Go home, boy,"
Warren had told him. "Buy a farm. Sink your toes in that rich
soil and grow some roots."
Murphy took the advice. Twenty years later, he published The
Deed of Gift (Story Line Press, 1998). During the
intervening two decades, he distilled his blowsy iambic pentameter
narrative lines to the briefest of dimeters and trimeters, often in
poems of a dozen lines or less.
The openly gay Murphy describes himself as a "Faggot Eagle
Scout Libertarian Factory Farmer Carnivore Poet." This
straight, left-wing, lifelong vegetarian interviewed him earlier
this year––by phone in North Dakota, and in person at an East
Coast poetry conference.
The Interview with Timothy Murphy
Where were you born?
Timothy Murphy: Hibbing, Minnesota.
CH: Isn't that where Bob Dylan was
TM: We lived in a little flat above the Zimmerman store,
and Mother once told me that Bobby Zimmerman used to push my
stroller. She now categorically denies the story, so it may be
apocryphal. But if true, it would explain my youthful passion for
CH: Your mother introduced you to
Shakespeare at the age of 7.
TM: Probably earlier than that. I think that the first
time we did a play was at the age of 7.
CH: Which play was it?
The Taming of the Shrew.
CH: That's one that would appeal to
TM: [Laughs] With a fierce mother like mine, it did.
CH: She was fierce?
TM: Well, with five children born in six years, she had
to be fierce.
CH: You were the firstborn.
TM: Yes, I was "the elder and more terrible."
CH: She read you a poem at your
TM: "Cradle Song," by Milne. The moment I was
put in her arms in the delivery room. She had decided that I was going
to be named Ulthawn, who was one of the heroes of some obscure
Norse saga. I'm Irish-Norwegian; she is very assertive about the
Norwegian half of my lineage. But she took one look at me and
recited this poem, which I am going to recite to you:
Oh Timothy Tim
Has ten pink toes
And ten pink toes
Has Timothy Tim.
They creep with him
Wherever he goes,
And wherever he goes
They creep with him.
Oh Timothy Tim
Has two blue eyes
And two blue eyes
Has Timothy Tim.
They cry with him
Whenever he cries,
And whenever he cries,
They cry with him.
Oh Timothy Tim
Has one red head
And one red head
Has Timothy Tim.
It sleeps with him
In Timothy's bed.
Sleep well, red head
Of Timothy Tim.
Now I am red-haired…
CH: Yes, I was going to ask you
TM: And blue-eyed. She took one look at me, and recited
this poem, in iambic dimeter. So my first sounds of human speech
prefigured the direction that I would go as a writer.
CH: And saved you from an awkward
byline. I think you're better off with Timothy rather than Ulthawn.
TM: I think so, too. Though my middle name is Iver––which
is Norwegian, and was her father's name.
CH: That keeps you from getting
confused with all the other Timothy Murphys that are undoubtedly in
the North Dakota phone books.
TM: Essentially, I am a boreal mutt: Scottish, Irish,
Norwegian, and English.
CH: By the time you were 13, you
could sing the border ballads from cockcrow to sundown. Why were you
drawn to Burns, of all people?
TM: Well, my grandmother was Scots-Irish, and she sang
me Burns when I was a little boy.
He is certainly the greatest song lyricist in the history of
the English language, and maybe in the history of any language.
Song lyrics generally fall far short of the standards expected in
poetry, and are carried only on the weight of the beauty of their
music. He achieved a perfect marriage using all those old highland
and lalland songs, and writing those extraordinary verses.
CH: So you, too, flinch when you see
Beatle lyrics included in poetry anthologies? Well, that's the
fashionable thing, to say that modern song lyrics are poetry, too.
TM: I haven't really seen that, and it would depend on
the Beatles song. There are some lines that might rise to the
level of poetry. There are a few by Bob Dylan that rise to that.
CH: Perhaps that's because of a
decline in the lyricism of non-song poetry. Many song lyrics sound
more like poetry than much poetry does. I guess that's a rather
TM: I think it's a justifiably harsh opinion. Yet, at
the same time, let's face it, songwriters know how to mete and
rhyme. Most poets in the last thirty years have forgotten how to
do that. They come off better than they would if they were up
against Thomas Moore and Robert Burns.
CH: What do you think has replaced
TM: There has been this confessional navel-gazing, in
the form of lineated prose whose only pretension to poetry is
uneven right-hand margins. How is that for a dismissal of the
brilliant lights of poetry?
CH: How many brilliant lights do you
intend to dismiss? A lot of people who know more than I do make
great claims for, say, John Ashbery and A.R. Ammons.
TM: Ashbery and Ammons strike me as frauds who hold
their audiences in contempt. Isn't Ammons' great poem entitled
"Garbage?' Ashbery goes off into this puzzling space which
needs to be deconstructed and deciphered by the Helen Vendlers of
the world, and I have no time for that whatsoever. The
extraordinary thing about Set
the Ploughshare Deep is that, to this day, it is
being bought by the hunters and farmers for whom I wrote the book.
I believe that the poet speaks for his tribe––it is a very
old-fashioned ideal. I do not agree at all with the alienated
intellectual creeping off into a cavern to pity himself like J.
CH: I'm going to argue with you. I
agree with you about Prufrock. But I don't agree when it comes to
the "Four Quartets." I think that's a masterwork. You
TM: It's way too long, and it's boring. I much prefer
"Ash Wednesday." But everything in Eliot is so
self-pitying and black. Give me the poetry of a life-affirming
Christian poet, Richard Wilbur––and I'm no Christian. But as I
grow older, and see the end, I see some point in affirmation
rather than merely whining about our place on this planet.
CH: I disagree; I think Eliot is
life-affirming, but I also see your point about the self-pity that
runs through his poems. Very hard to burn that out of oneself if
it's part of one's character. If you are a self-pitying person, you
may or may not be a great poet, but that is inevitably going to leak
out in your poetry.
TM: [Sighs.] I am a self-destructive poet––but I dust myself
off and carry on.
CH: And that comes across in your
TM: I have strong people all around me, all the time,
engaging with their world, raising their kids––those are the
people I admire, not the Rimbauds rampaging off to Algeria.
CH: You have said you wanted to
write a poem "as cold and passionate as the dawn."
TM: That's from Yeats's "Fisherman."
…Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.
CH: And did you?
TM: Not yet.
CH: You said, "I'd like to
write a poem that helps the burdened carry on." Did you?
TM: I've written several.
CH: Which ones would you put in that
TM: The best one is "Tessie's Time." David
Mason described it as "a life in nine lines." Actually,
I think it's eight lines. Let's see :
She said the sundial stood so long
because it only counted hours
when the sun was shining.
Its daily lesson kept her strong,
showing her how to husband powers
despite their slow declining.
When the years totaled ninety-one,
she was thirty-nine by the sun.
"It took 32 years
before I became a good enough writer to even attempt a translation
of [Beowulf]. It's an unspeakably great poem. ...it probably rivals "Paradise Lost" as the great epic
poem of the English-speaking people."
Listen to Timothy Murphy recite the last lines of "Beowulf,"
from his translation with Alan Sullivan:
There the king's kinsmen built him a bier,
wide and well-made just as he willed it.
They hung it with helmets, shields and hauberks,
then laid in its midst their beloved lord,
renowned among men. Lamenting their loss,
his warriors woke the most woeful fire
to flare on the bluff. Fierce was the burning,
woven with weeping, and wood-smoke rose
black over the blaze, blown with a roar.
The fire-wind faltered and flames dwindled,
hot at their heart the broken bone-house.
Sunken in spirit at Beowulf's slaying,
the Geats gathered grieving together.
Her hair waving, a woebegone woman
sang and resang her dirge of dread,
foretelling a future fraught with warfare,
kinfolk sundered, slaughter and slavery
even as Heaven swallowed the smoke.
High on the headland they heaped his grave-mound
which seafaring sailors would spy from afar.
Ten days they toiled on the scorched hilltop,
the cleverest men skillfully crafting
a long-home built for the bold in battle.
They walled with timbers the trove they had taken,
sealing in stone the circlets and gems,
wealth of the worm-hoard gotten with grief,
gold from the ground gone back to Earth
as worthless to men as when it was won.
Then sorrowing swordsmen circled the barrow,
twelve of his earls telling their tales,
the sons of nobles sadly saluting
deeds of the dead. So dutiful thanes
in liege to their lord mourn him with lays
praising his peerless prowess in battle
as it is fitting when life leaves the flesh.
Heavy-hearted his hearth-companions
grieved for Beowulf, great among kings,
mild in his mien, most gentle of men,
kindest to kinfolk yet keenest for fame.
CH: Your mentor at Yale, Robert Penn
Warren, advised you never to waste time reading critical theory.
TM: And reading literary criticism.
CH: You still feel that's good
CH: Why? I can make up my own
reasons, but I'd rather hear yours.
TM: Because I have to reread all of the great poetry in
the Western canon over and over and over again. And as he told me
about Stevens, "Read for yourself, boy. Send those essays
back to the stacks." If you read and memorize poetry, you
don't need any intermediary. This is advice given me by the man,
who with his partner, Cleanth Brooks, was the foremost exponent of
the New Criticism. His attitude was that those books were to teach
people who didn't have a clue. A poet didn't need them.
CH: Yes, you said that
by being in isolation for 20 years, you were able to keep clear of
many influences––trendy poets, trendy critical theory.
TM: Absolutely clear.
CH: And you think staying away from
the modern poetry scene was a beneficial thing?
TM: Very much so. I essentially had the poets to whom
Robert Penn Warren introduced me––which was enough to keep me
busy for 20 years. Three of the poets that Warren stressed were
CH: You've been compared to both…
TM: ... and [John Crowe] Ransom. Well, let's say four: and
Frost. And really, when I was a boy, I wasn't ready to come to
terms with any of them. I thought Housman was a silly old closeted
queen. Only in the last two years have I recognized what a
supremely perfect writer of small lyrics he is. I am discovering
new poets every day.
CH: Any recent discoveries?
TM: Probably the most shocking discoveries are A.E.
Housman, A.D. Hope, and Robert Francis. All are poets that I
simply hadn't paid attention to––or didn't even know the
existence of. David Mason brought A.D. Hope to my attention;
Wilbur brought Francis to my attention. Francis was writing poems
in dimeter and trimeter in 1934, which are so similar to my own
that I could be accused of being derivative of him, had it not
been for the fact that I hadn't even heard of him until I was 45.
CH: Well, you're not going to be
able to read everybody if you're going to go out and make crops
grow. Do you feel that's a disadvantage?
TM: No, no. In fact, my life as farmer and hunter gives
grist to my poetry that is really pretty unavailable to professors
of creative writing who spend their days surrounded by
18-year-olds and 19-year-olds. Very early in my life I started
spending my time with 70- and 80-year-olds. Men who had farmed
this land for the better part of a century, and whose roots were
so deep in the soil, who had encountered bitterness and
disappointment and yet went out every spring and did it all over
again. You'll recall in Set
the Ploughshare Deep Warren's advice: "Go
home, boy, sink your toes in that rich soil and grow some
CH: Is this why you say farmers are
your favorite people?
TM: No, I said that Robert Penn Warren was the greatest
man I'd ever known, with the possible exception of four master
farmers, all of whom are identified in Set
the Ploughshare Deep.
CH: Why Warren?
TM: Because he was a towering intellect.
CH: Your poetry does not seem much
TM: No. It seems utterly unlike his. He knew that was
going to be the case. Warren writes well in long, unmetrical
lines. One of the first poets he told me to read was John Skelton––who
writes in dimeter and trimeter, in densely rhymed lines. And, in
fact, Warren occasionally does that as well.
CH: So he had the gift of being able
to support your own direction, rather than trying to
TM: Just to look at those adolescent scratchings and
know where my gift lay thirty years down the road! He was the
greatest teacher that I could ever imagine.
When Joseph Blotner published his huge biography, I tried to
write a poem about Warren. After twenty years, I finally sat down
and said well, at least I have to get these memories down in
prose, because Blotner's biography simply doesn't depict the man I
remember. So I wrote a 2- or 3-page piece, published in both Dark
Horse and in Chronicles, my great right-wing
Listen to Timothy
Murphy read two poems which recollect his youthful days with the Boy Scouts
in the north woods of Minnesota:
Path Mistaken" and "Father of the Man"
CH: Back to Yale, you were Scholar
of the House in Poetry. What exactly does that mean?
TM: The Yale faculty elects 12 boys––I shouldn't say
boys, anymore––it elects 12 seniors every year to pursue
independent study. And they are called "Scholars of the
House." So I was given my senior year off––through the
intercession of the poets Robert Penn Warren, Richard Howard, and
Mark Strand, all of whom were teachers and mentors of mine.
So my senior year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare,
twice––and I wrote verse.
CH: Is that all? I don't mean to
imply that that is insubstantial––but did you do anything else?
TM: Drugs and booze and boys. Actually, I took on one
other really significant task that year. I was lacking a
distributional requirement. I had not taken a social studies
course, and you had to have one of those to graduate. So I went to
my dean and I said, "Okay, I can take any number of these gut
courses and simply challenge the exams. But here's what I want to
do. I want to take intensive Greek." So I took intensive
Greek. Seventy-nine of us started that course, and six of us
passed it. It was the worst course in Yale's history. That and
intensive freshman physics were the two toughest courses.
All that I did was learn enough Greek so that I could recite
portions of the
Iliad and get that music ringing in my
head. Warren insisted that I take it. And of course he had
that ringing in his head; he had Virgil ringing in his head; he
had Dante ringing in his head. An amazing man.
CH: Are you still in touch with Mark
CH: Any reason, if it's not
intrusive to ask?
TM: No. Greg Williamson gave him my book––an
inscribed copy––and he never responded. I don't think Mark
would be interested in anything I'm writing. Nor is Richard
Howard. We're on opposite sides of the fault line that severs
I'm frankly very grateful for what those guys did for me when I
was 18 and 19. They were really good teachers. I don't care for
their verse, and they don't care for mine—but that's okay.
CH: You also cite Richard Wilbur as
"my master" in poetry. That influence began as a
TM: At the time I wrote him, I was writing long
narrative and dramatic poems in heroic quatrains. My most intense
experience involved my interaction with books. I had no life. When
Mr. Wilbur replied to my first letter, and told me that my
language was "insufficiently charged," I began writing
in shorter lines, figuring if my lines were musical and varied,
they would have that charge.
CH: What do you think he meant by
TM: Flaccid lines. It is certainly possible to write
CH: He does it.
TM: Well, I do it too, now. Through the choice of le
mot juste. But I was trying to make things come out at ten
syllables, and have them rhyme. I was just a rookie. By the time I
was 27, Keats had been dead two years and I had scarcely written a
good poem. I am no incandescent genius.
CH: So you followed his advice.
TM: For the next 14 years, I reinvented myself. And then
when we corresponded in 1994 he was far more collegial, and he
said, I am delighted to see how far you have come. So whatever he
was telling me to do, I guess I did.
CH: Yet you began as a free-verse
CH: How long ago?
TM: Oh, when I was 17.
CH: What kind of verse were you
writing then? Was that your pre-gay poet time?
TM: I was studying with Mark Strand at Yale––of
course, he is one of our only important free-verse poets. I was so
intimidated by poets that Warren was having me read that it seemed
easier to do that. But as I pursued free verse I quickly realized
nothing being done by Strand or Merwin or any of those guys stuck
in my head the way that Milton and Keats did. At the same time,
Warren was having me memorize 30,000 lines from the canon––and
you can be assured he wasn't having me memorize any free
verse––and I realized I simply had to learn how to write in
meter and rhyme.
CH: You refer to it as "an
excruciatingly difficult craft."
TM: Yes, it is.
CH: Could you elaborate?
TM: Well, I started writing in meter and rhyme when I
was 18, and I don't think I really had a good poem till I was 25.
Now again, that is because I am not an incandescent genius like
all those romantic poets who died young. But it is no different
from playing the piano—you don't simply go and noodle on the
piano. It's a great art. You spend a couple of decades practicing
the scales and working your way up from difficult compositions to
more difficult compositions.
CH: Where and when was your first
TM: I was published in the Yale Review when I was
19. And they will not publish my works today.
CH: Those first poems were free
TM: They were free verse. But they were assonantal, and
full of rhyme. They were utterly incompetent, but they were
ebullient. And then in the late '70s, Christopher Street
published a number of my way-gay poems, and then I just quit
publishing until the mid-90s. Reinventing myself, as I said before—going to short lines and tight, formal control.
CH: You once said that there's
nothing difficult about Auden. Do you stand by that?
TM: Not entirely. He manipulates line and syntax so
intricately and elegantly, that he might be indecipherable to a
generation of kids who never learned to diagram sentences.
CH: I was thinking of "In
Praise of Limestone"…
TM: I don't find anything difficult about "In
Praise of Limestone." If you've got a good dictionary, you
can figure out Auden. He uses a vast vocabulary. But I really
never found anything opaque about Auden.
CH: Even his metrical schemes and
TM: His metrical schemes are way beyond anybody––but
they make sense to my ear.
CH: You claim also Cavafy as an
TM: Cavafy is a huge influence. He showed me the way to
write in my twenties. Essentially, I looked at the way Cavafy was
writing about Byzantium, Syria, Egypt, and his other historical
poetry. Graduation from Yale freed me to read as I willed. A
couple years ago, I heard a Yale professor lamenting that "We
can no longer expect our students to read twelve books per
week." Well, that's what we had done, little goslings being
force-fed to produce paté de fois gras. So escape from the
university was liberation. It freed me to read classical history,
which provided me material as it did Cavafy. And of course
Cavafy's personal poems are all gay as hell. He was a huge
influence––he no longer is.
CH: Why? Just because he's not
TM: No. Because my life is so different from that of a
customs clerk in Egypt, chasing boys through the perfume shops.
Last night I read Cavafy to two boys who are guests in our
house for the next five days. They are really gifted symphony
musicians in their twenties. They're lovers and they're gay. And
they had never heard Cavafy––and they don't know much about
poetry. They were just as devastated and blown away by Cavafy as I
was when I read him at age 19. He is an extraordinarily powerful
and great poet. Anyone that you can read in translation, and have
it still come across that forcefully, is really the genuine
article. I've read Rae Dalven's translations, I've read [Edmund]
Keeley and [Philip] Sherrard translations, and I've read my friend
David Mason's translations. No one has done it right. When I look
at modern Greek, I can't even understand how I would smuggle
Cavafy into English. Although I would say this. We have two things
in common: we're homosexuals, and he regards himself just as
squarely as a son of Homer as I do. To me, Western poetry began in
800 B.C. And we are all trying to say the same thing again, and
make it new.
CH: How do you see yourself as a son
of Homer and saying the same things Cavafy did?
TM: First of all, my conception of Western poetry
begins, "Menin aiede thea, Peleiadeu Achilleus!" And I
can go on for a long time in that vein. The center of the
is the wrath, the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles. But the
real heart of the poem is the grief of Achilles for the death of
Patroclus. From Homer, from Sappho, and Anacreon, down to many of
the Latin poets—frankly, many of the best practitioners were gay.
Homosexuality is at the heart of the Western canon. And it is at
the heart of my poems. So that is how I am a son of Homer.
CH: You're a self-confessed
"homosexual altar boy and Eagle Scout."
TM: Right. [Laughs.]
CH: Why Eagle Scout?
TM: I am an Eagle Scout.
TM: Yes. Last Saturday I went to the annual meeting of
the Red River Valley Council.
CH: So you're a Scout leader,
TM: Yes. Within an organization that prohibits
homosexuals from even belonging. My role, however, is not to teach
young boys how to build campfires. My role is to build the
Council's endowment. I'm the money man.
CH: I see.
TM: They are more than happy to have prominent gay money
men in the organization. And I'm mad as hell about it.
TM: Because I think it is just such preposterous
hypocrisy. Anybody who's studied the history of the Scouts or has
grown up in the organization realizes that homosexuals have played
an enormous role in the organization.
CH: In the Scouts?
TM: Certainly. If you're going to have an all-boy
organization––an all-male organization—homosexuals are
naturally going to gravitate to it––n'est-ce pas?
CH: I suppose…
TM: It's not unlike the Sacred Band of Thebes. The
Sacred Band was destroyed at the Battle of Chaironea. It's the
earliest poem in
The Deed of Gift:
The Sacred Band is overthrown.
Lover by slaughtered lover sleeps
while iron-hearted Macedon
sags on his bloody horse and weeps.
CH: You were an altar boy?
TM: Yes, I was.
CH: But you're not now. You're too
old for that. Catholic, then?
TM: No, I left the Catholic Church when I was about
twelve. The closest approximation to my view of the universe is
that of the Buddha.
CH: How do you work? You go into
this office, "Murphy & Sons." Are you all by yourself
TM: No, I have my brother and my secretary––and my
Dad's 86-year-old partner. I deal with poetry and business here.
And at home I deal with poetry and business. But poetry always
shoves business aside––unless it's something really crucial,
like a $200,000 principal payment when I have five bucks in my
CH: So you're not one of those
people who gets up every morning at 4 and works for four hours?
TM: I get up most mornings at about 5, I work both here
CH: You don't have any regular
habits for writing poetry?
TM: Oh no, I can't imagine that. I mean if the muse
knocks, you open the door. She doesn't knock very often, you know.
I've been doing this for 35 years, or 33 years, and I've got,
what, maybe 200 poems. Now that I'm really coming into my own I
write maybe 20 poems a year––as opposed to the drought years
in the '80s, when I was writing… I think I once went 18 months
without writing a line, and I did that a couple of different
times. I figured out how to write in my adult voice when I was 32,
when I bought the farm. But I didn't really produce any volume of
poetry until I was 40 years old.
CH: What got you and your partner,
Alan Sullivan, embarking on a translation of "Beowulf"?
TM: Mr. Warren making me learn Anglo-Saxon.
CH: But that was years before you
started the translation, yes?
TM: It took 32 years before I became a good enough
writer to even attempt a translation of "the Wulf." It's
an unspeakably great poem. If you know Anglo-Saxon, it probably
rivals "Paradise Lost" as the great epic poem of the
English-speaking people. I really regard Anglo-Saxon as English.
Just that it's ancient English. Our intent was to create a
metrical, alliterative translation that followed the B-poet's
rule, one that used his language, abjured the romance languages
and the Latin languages, in an attempt to smuggle the damn thing
over the dark boundary between ancient and modern English. And I'm
very, very pleased with the result.
CH: Any publication plans?
TM: Longman is incorporating all our "Wulf" into their big
BritLit Anthology and publishing critical editions here and in
Britain. And they want me to cut a CD of the poem.
CH: And you didn't know that Seamus
Heaney was working on a translation when you were working on yours?
TM: No, we did not. Not that it would have made much
difference. And I like Heaney's translation, I think it's the best
one in print––but it doesn't hold a candle to ours.
CH: Why not?
TM: Because he goes along in his four-beat line for
about three lines, and then he falls off the horse, and gives us a
hexameter, or a pentameter, or a fourteener. He is metrically
incompetent. And it's so full of Latinate, and worse yet, Celtic,
vocabulary, that I think it could be described as the epic poem of
the Celtic people.
CH: Well, of course, that's
precisely what he's been praised for.
TM: I know that. The poetry editor of the Atlantic
Monthly, Peter Davison, talked about our versions in the Boston
CH: He did?
TM: Oh, and it's been discussed in the TLS and in
The New Republic––in letters to the editor and that
sort of thing. There's a lot of buzz going on about Alan's and
CH: That's quite remarkable for
something that's only been excerpted in periodicals.
TM: Right. Peter Davison said, "The rhythm and
swing of the Irishmen from North Dakota makes me drool––but
there is a depth to the elegiac Heaney which probably results from
his growing up in an embattled land, which gives it great
authority." And that's all he said.
CH: You said once that for you
alcohol was "mortal poison." Obviously, you still work
TM: Yeah, I still do. I'm on and off. For years, I
persuaded myself the muse would not darken my door unless she was
offered a little glass of bourbon on the rocks. But the little
glass became a bottle. I turned 50 three months ago. I've simply
got to quit. And it is simply not true that my muse will not call
unless I pour her a drink. I learned that three years ago when I
started experiencing extended periods of sobriety.
If we look at the history of American poetry in this light,
it is a pretty sad tale. I mean, Berryman, Roethke, Auden.
CH: I understand Auden's drinking
was greatly exaggerated.
TM: Not when I met him. He was plainly inebriated at a
public reading, which is something that I have never done. Those
were the days when it was cool for a poet to fall off the stage.
My poem for Richard Wilbur in
The Deed of Gift sadly but
briefly tells the tale. It doesn't even begin to touch on the vast
number of poets who have this problem. I think that a closer
approach to the problem is the artists' isolation from
society––and his failure to speak for a tribe, which all
begins with Wordsworth and Byron.
CH: It begins with the Romantics.
TM: Yes. Precisely.
CH: And it's so funny because we
take Romantic assumptions as such a given: the lonely, misunderstood
artist. Shakespeare didn't talk like that. Alexander Pope didn't
talk like that. It's a purely Romantic convention.
TM: Certainly. The reason that I wrote Set
the Ploughshare Deep was to communicate, in the
common speech, with the citizens with whom I share this
extraordinary common called the Great Plains.
CH: You've said, "There's a
toughness and single-mindedness in farmers unlike any I've
seen." Is this still true, or perhaps even more so, since the
recent hardships they've seen?
TM: Oh, eternally... eternally.
CH: You have also said you were
concerned that as people lose the farms, they will lose the rural
values. Could you speak a little to that?
TM: There's an independence that is native to
entrepreneurs. Of course, the nation's aboriginal entrepreneurial
class is the sod-buster. Since the federal government began
interfering in farms in such a huge fashion in 1934, this has been
undermined. At the same time, our cities are growing, our rural
populations are shrinking, and that independent spirit is simply
disappearing. The subject goes far beyond the compass of this
interview, and I would recommend that readers find Richard
Trees, Why Do You Wait? Approximately
60 percent of the book focuses on North Dakota, and what's
happened here. My own sentiments about this matter are best
expressed in "Buffalo Commons":
In Antler, Reeder,
Ryder and Streeter
stray dogs bristle
when strangers pass.
In Brocket, Braddock,
Maddock and Wheelock
dry winds whistle
through broken glass.
The steeples are toppled
and the land unpeopled,
reclaimed by thistle
and buffalo grass.
CH: In Set
the Ploughshare Deep, you said of your career in
farming: "everything I feared has come to pass, but most
everything I hoped for has happened, too." What did you hope
TM: Well, what I hoped for was that there would be some
generation of wealth, and that I would survive as a farmer. My
interest in Bell Farms is worth millions of dollars––and I
lost millions of dollars as a dryland wheat farmer. My initial
concentration as a grain farmer came to rack and ruin. But my
small foray into the hog business has been immensely successful.
CH: Out in the Wine Country, there's
an old joke: Do you know what it takes to make a small fortune in
TM: And what is that?
CH: A large fortune.
TM: Okay. [Laughs.] We didn't have a large fortune. But
that is certainly the case. The thing with wine and hogs, they're
both agricultural ventures, but they're not subject to government
price orders, supports, and regulations. I have lost in my
ventures that were supported by the government. That reinforces my
CH: You once said you've lost more
money than any poet since Henry VIII.
TM: I said I owe more money than any poet since Henry
CH: Still true?
TM: Oh sure. My companies have debts of about $125
million. James Merrill had a lot more money than I owe. [Laughs.]
But my understanding is that he was simply an income beneficiary
of his father's trust. I don't think he was ever given much chance
to exercise any business judgment, whatsoever.
CH: What do you think of James
Merrill, by the way?
TM: Not much.
TM: Nope. He's not on my radar screen.
CH: Why? He's going through a big
revival and reassessment now.
TM: He just doesn't appeal to me. Of course, he was a
great buddy of Strand and Howard and I met him, I heard him read.
I wish to hell I had inherited $250 million dollars. But I guess my
struggles as an entrepreneur and an impoverished farmer inform the
best of my verse, and I can't quite imagine being Merrill. At the
same time, he must have been a truly wonderful man. We went down
to Key West in '97. We were supposed to have dinner with Dick and Charlee [Wilbur]. Dick and Charlee called and said, "We can't
have dinner––Jimmy died today." And for a week, they were
just so shattered that they couldn't even see us. There's no doubt
in my mind that he was an extraordinary fellow. It's just that the
words he put to paper don't particularly lodge with me.
CH: There's a curious juxtaposition
The Deed of Gift between the Midwestern and the classical. Any
TM: Well, the early poems are the classical––those
are poems that were written all prior to age 30, when my most
intense experience of life was studying classical history. The
rest of the book dates from the time I got the first farm and got
CH: Still, even in your hunting
poems there's that juxtaposition between the classical and the
Midwestern landscape, which is very striking, and yet has
antecedents in at least a few other writers.
TM: And in my next book, my worlds are going to talk to
each other better than they did in
The Deed of Gift.
CH: What is your next book?
Very Far North, which is another phrase from
Frost. It's a collection of about ninety lyric poems, or short
narratives. A little shorter than
The Deed of Gift. And it
consists of poems written between 1996 and 2000.
CH: You said "the two realms
talk to each other." Could you explain a little bit? How do you
see them talking to each other?
TM: Well, when I walk on a beach––this is taking us
out of the Midwest—and the surf is rolling in, I hear "poluphloisboio
thalasses," "the loud murmuring seashore."
Everywhere I go, my impression of the world is affected by my
CH: Well, sure, that's the whole
point of it…
TM: It's not just Homer, it's Virgil, it's Ovid, it's
Beowulf––it's the whole canon of English verse.
CH: Let's go back to your poem,
"Letter to A.D. Hope," which is kind of a confessional
poem about poetry. You mentioned that "slant rhyme is my
vice"––is it still?
TM: No, after I read Timothy Steele's
Against Anger, I pretty much did away with slant rhyme.
TM: I made a compact with the devil when I started
writing in trimeter and dimeter in the '80s, and I said I can use
any damn off-rhyme I choose, because I'm making my rhymes come
every four syllables, or six syllables. Then when I read Tim
Steele, I said, "This is preposterous, Murphy. You cannot be
so sloppy. You have to live up to the example of the elder
Tim." I still use off-rhyme for emphasis, but if I do so, I
tend to do so programmatically throughout a poem, and it's very
rare. I pretty much full rhyme all the time now.
CH: That sounds kind of Audenesque.
He did that sort of thing. Using a consonantal rhyme throughout a
TM: Like using off-rhyme in the odd lines, and full
rhyme in the even lines.
TM: Sure, Auden is certainly the greatest prosodist of
20th century, with the possible exception of Frost. So I pay a
great deal of attention to him. I mean, Auden and I couldn't be
much more different. He is of the cities; I'm of the prairies.
Auden once said, "I cannot see a plain without a shudder,
'Oh God, please, please don't ever make me live there.'"
That is precisely my reaction to cities. I live four miles out of
Fargo, because I can't stand to come into town. Traffic,
congestion, 110,000 people living on eight square miles of land.
CH: Love it. Coffee houses,
TM: [Laughter] We have seed stores and fertilizer
CH: In your A.D. Hope poem, you said
your poems are "no high-flown musings on a graven bone,"
and yet you have had many musings on a graven bone. You have many
poems on classical themes. I take it that's what you're referring
TM: That is false humility, which is something I
specialize in, abasing myself before the great. You know my little
poem, "Yggdrasil." Yggdrasil is the ash tree at the
center of the universe in Norse mythology.
CH: And the subject of a short poem,
TM: Actually I think it's my shortest poem:
I am the least leaf
on the tiniest twig
of an unseen tree
bigger than me.
CH: You've spoken a good deal about
your homosexual poems, and yet probably no one has written so many
love poems to dogs as you have. At least, not in recent times.
TM: [Laughter.] That is a good point. I'm trying to
think of literary antecedents. They are mute and absolutely
CH: The poems, the antecedents, or
TM: The dogs.
CH: I'm not sure I've been around a
mute dog––or poem, for that matter. But I like the ending of
you will not heed my gun
or leave this grassy grave—
your hunting days are done.
Drowse Diktynna drowse
lulled by a humming hive
under the apple boughs.
So stealthily stole death
my love could not retrieve
your evanescent breath.
TM: This has been fun!
L. Haven, a literary critic for The San Francisco
Chronicle, has written about poets and poetry for newspapers
and magazines throughout the U.S.