ISSUE 18
November 2001

Timothy Murphy

 

Timothy Murphy graduated from Yale in 1972 as Scholar of the House in Poetry, having been tutored by Robert Penn Warren. Published works include The Deed Of Gift (Story Line Press, 1998), and Set The Ploughshare Deep (Ohio University Press, 2000). A verse translation of Beowulf, done in collaboration with Alan Sullivan, will be published in the Longman Anthology of British Literature, July 2002. Very Far North (The Waywiser Press, UK) will be published in January, 2002.

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 Valley.

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 point."

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.

––Cynthia Haven


The Interview with Timothy Murphy


Cynthia Haven
: Where were you born?

Timothy Murphy: Hibbing, Minnesota.

CH: Where?

TM: H-I-B-B-I-N-G.

CH: Isn't that where Bob Dylan was born?

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 Dylan Thomas.

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?

TM: Probably The Taming of the Shrew.

CH: That's one that would appeal to a seven-year-old.

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 birth...

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 about that…

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 harsh opinion.

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 it?

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. Alfred Prufrock.

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 don't?

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 poems…

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 category?

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:

from Beowulf   


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. Yes?

TM: And reading literary criticism.

CH: You still feel that's good advice?

TM: Yes.

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 Hardy, Housman––

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 roots."

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 like his.

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 "influence" you.

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 venue.


Listen to Timothy Murphy read two poems which recollect his youthful days with the Boy Scouts in the north woods of Minnesota:

       "The 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 Strand?

TM: No.

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 American poetry.

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 correspondence, yes?

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 "insufficiently charged"?

TM: Flaccid lines. It is certainly possible to write charged pentameter—

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 poet.

TM: Yes.

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 published poem?

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 verse?

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 experiments?

TM: His metrical schemes are way beyond anybody––but they make sense to my ear.

CH: You claim also Cavafy as an influence. Yes?

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 repeatable?

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 Iliad 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.

CH: Now?

TM: Yes. Last Saturday I went to the annual meeting of the Red River Valley Council.

CH: So you're a Scout leader, actually?

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.

CH: Why?

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 there?

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 checking account.

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 and there.

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 Globe.

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 Tim's version.

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 with that.

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 Crutchfield's book, 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 for?

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 wine?

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 libertarian tendencies.

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 VIII.

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.

CH: Nothing?

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 in The Deed of Gift between the Midwestern and the classical. Any comment?

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 a life.

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?

TM: 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 classical education.

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 Sapphics Against Anger, I pretty much did away with slant rhyme.

CH: Why?

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 poem.

TM: Like using off-rhyme in the odd lines, and full rhyme in the even lines.

CH: Yes.

TM: Sure, Auden is certainly the greatest prosodist of the 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, bookstores....

TM: [Laughter] We have seed stores and fertilizer dealerships.

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 to?

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, I believe.

TM: Actually I think it's my shortest poem:

Yggdrasil   

I am the least leaf
on the tiniest twig
of an unseen tree
inconceivably
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 devotional.

CH: The poems, the antecedents, or the dogs?

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 one, "Air":

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!


Cynthia L. Haven, a literary critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, has written about poets and poetry for newspapers and magazines throughout the U.S.

 

 

 

 

Timothy Murphy: Interview
Copyright © 2001 The Cortland Review Issue 18The Cortland Review