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Old 05-01-2001, 02:50 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Fellow Spherians,

I'm working on our guest list, but I think potential hosts will be slightly underwhelmed by the response to date. I'm going to ask Greg Williamson, whom many of us believe to be the most brilliant young poet in the country, to appear here as my first guest. Preceeding his appearance I'll post critical commentary on Discerning Eye, and a poem or two on Musing on Mastery.

I'll also be asking Tim Steele, R.S. Gwynn, Bob Mezey and others to join us, and I expect everyone to familiarize herself with the work of our guests. We all aspire to publish books, and the only way to ensure that there is a future for our texts is to support our best poets and their publishers.

To kick-start this somnolent corner of the Sphere, I'm appending to this post the best questions ever posed me by a single interlocutor, Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse. Some of my more outrageous comments have already been condemned elsewhere on the Sphere, but I hope this will stimiulate some discussion.

TIMOTHY MURPHY IN CONVERSATION

Timothy Murphy was born in 1951. His first book, The Deed of Gift,
containing poems written over 20 years, appeared from Story Line Press in
1998, when Murphy was 47. Forthcoming is his prose and verse memoir, Set
the Ploughshare Deep, and a version of Beowulf, translated with Alan
Sullivan. Murphy is a farmer and venture capitalist based in North Dakota's
Fargo, where he lives with his partner Sullivan, also a poet, and Murphy's
editor and sometime collaborator. This interview was conducted by e-mail
between 17 and 26 April 2000.


Compared to many contemporary poets, your background seems unusual. For the
sake of readers, can you give a brief account of it?

I am a small town entrepreneur who has founded and directed perhaps fifteen
companies. Their combined debts exceed $100 million. So I probably owe
more money than any poet since Henry VIII.

$100 million? You're kidding me. But can you pay it back?

I'm not kidding. Yes, we can pay it all off if Scotland buys enough bangers
to bail us out.

How do you find peace of mind to write poems?

I don't think I write in a state of peace of mind. I recently saw a kid in
an orange tee-shirt with red lettering which read "Contents Under Pressure."
That's me.

Was Henry VIII a poet?

Henry VIII was a gifted amateur. His daughter Elizabeth I wrote the first
limerick.

What is your impression of the contemporary poetry scene, perhaps especially
in the U.S.?

I think the free verse establishment is moribund, the creative writing
industry, appalling. But I've been just delighted to learn that I have so
many contemporaries writing forcefully in form. Put all of us together, and
you have half a Robert Frost. Our challenge is to find an audience.

Presumably the creative writing industry isn't appalling to those who earn a
living by it. Why do you consider it so?

In 1955 Harvard proposed a creative writing program. The real writers on
staff, Wilbur and Updike, deep-sixed the proposal, arguing that young
writers should be studying geography, geology, astronomy, etc. We have
18-year-olds in this country taking courses in the art of writing their
memoirs! Sam Gwynn has presciently observed that if we extrapolate present
rates of growth, by 2100 every man, woman and child in America will have a
degree in creative writing.

Are you a New Formalist?

I'm an old formalist. By the time I was thirteen I could sing the border
ballads from cock crow to sundown, and on Burns Day I still do.

Is Burns an important figure to you?

If you go to New England, most folks will tell you that Frost is the
greatest poet of our century. Go to Ireland, and I suspect the common man
will say the same of Yeats. But surely no poet was ever dearer to his
countrymen than Burns. No greater writer of song lyrics ever lived, and I
love his songs more than any book I ever read. People put up with my reedy
tenor because I sing Burns with some echo of the passion he brought to his
writing. The tunes he wrote to are so devastatingly beautiful that I rank
him not among the poets but the angels. [Singing:]

Oh woman, lovely woman fair!
An angel form's faun to thy share;
Twad been o'er meikle to gien thee mair,
I mean an angel's mind.

Burns speaks to a huge audience. You're an entrepreneur. Any ideas on how
finding an audience for contemporary poetry might be accomplished?

Dana Gioia's famous essay has some very good suggestions for reaching them.
The best venue may be radio, and surely Wendy Cope is a model for us all.

Who do you see as the ideal reader of / listener to your poetry?

A masterful metrist who lives close to the land: R.S. Gwynn or Willie
Neill.

As you'd therefore have very few ideal readers, who do you think of as the
audience for your poetry?

The U.S. has a million farmers, 30 million hunters, and 50 million
fisherman. That's plenty of audience.

Do you regard your background, and what may be called its remoteness from
much contemporary, that is to say urban, experience, as an advantage or
disadvantage to you as a poet?

Definitely an advantage. I live surrounded by a desolate beauty which
Richard Wilbur calls non-Arcadian. I am in love with the horizontal
grandeur of the prairie, and even entering a great city is claustrophobic
for me.

Could you describe the North Dakotan landscape in terms which might help
bring it alive for Scottish/British readers? In Scotland, as Norman MacCaig
pointed out, in much of the landscape you walk a hundred yards and the
topography changes.

From the banks of the Ohio to Great Falls, Montana lie 1800 miles of
prairie. Imagine the North Atlantic planted to wheat. You can sail your
prairie schooner forever, and the topography doesn't change. The farms just
get bigger and drier

Could you also give readers some idea of climate in North Dakota?

Our climate is extreme. The record low is -48F and the high, 106F.

You have tended to portray yourself as a 'farmer poet' like Frost, say, or
Burns. But Frost was well known among the local farmers for not rising
until around 9am, and Burns worked farms which, by U.S. standards, are tiny.
Are you really a farmer poet? What does this mean, by North Dakotan
standards?

We farm on a scale inconceivable in Europe. The Millers, who farmed my
land, farm 22,000 hectares. Bell Farms, which I chair, produces 840,000
pigs a year. I wrecked my back lifting irrigation pipe in beet fields as a
boy, so now I do the dirtiest, most difficult job on the farm.

What's that?

I borrow the money.

You spent 20-odd years developing in comparative isolation as a poet. What
did you learn from that? Would you have preferred it otherwise?

I kept good company, poets ranging from Homer to Auden, and am thus free of
any later influence.There are young people in this country imitating the
likes of Ammons and Ashbery. God forbid!

Surely Ammons and Ashbery have written some considerable pieces.

Can you recite anything by either one?

If I could, would that mean it was necessarily better?

If we accept Auden's definition of poetry as memorable speech, certainly.

What would you consider to be the finest fate for your work?

To write a few poems which will be cherished long after I'm gone.

Where do you think modern poetry has gone wrong: if it has?

I think it went horribly wrong with both the turn to free verse and with
poets' excessive navel-gazing.

I take it you're not a fan of confessionalism. Do you see no merit in
Plath's, Sexton's, or John Berryman's verse, for instance?

You list three suicides. Richard Wilbur has expressed my feeling with great
tact in "Cottage Street,1953."

It's plain that you're opposed to free verse. I take it you never feel
inclined to try writing it. If not, why not?

I was a free verse poet, but nothing I wrote sang to me like Yeats or Burns.
Therefore I set myself to learn this excruciatingly difficult craft. So
to the first question, "No." To the second, E. A. Robinson said: "I write
badly enough as it is."

Who are the older poets who kept your notion of poetry alive?

For me in isolation, my master, Richard Wilbur. My various friends would
list Tony Hecht, Edgar Bowers or Joe Kennedy. For a younger poet in
Scotland, an embarrassment of riches: Edwin Morgan, Willie
Neill,Kirkpatrick Dobie, etc. They haven't achieved the notoriety of Pound,
but we know their words by heart.

"Soft bread born of an iron plow
Is miracle enough for me."

Edwin Morgan is a different matter, bet Neill and Dobie are probably hardly
read by most of the younger Scottish poets, who tend to be urbocentric in
vision. That's more an observation than a criticism .... How has Wilbur
influenced you?

In 1977 he wrote me: "Just because you're writing about the themes of
Constantine Cavafy does not excuse you from the task of sufficiently
charging your language." This was crushing, but I eventually figured out
that if I rhymed on every sixth syllable, my lines would sing. Now this
despairing farmer is contending with the redemptive power of Wilbur. My poem
most influenced by Dick is one you published, "Tessie's Time."

I can't see the Wilbur influence in that poem.

The Wilbur influence in Tessie's Time is that the poem expresses joy in the
face of mortality. It is utterly unlike my typically bleak utterances. I
once wanted to write a poem "cold and passionate as the dawn." Next year
I'll be fifty, and I'd like to write a poem which helps the burdened carry
on.

Choose your greatest 20th century poet.

When I was young I would have unhesitatingly said Yeats. Today I only
answer with a glorious list: Hardy, Yeats, Frost, Auden, and Wilbur.
Recently I've read the Mezey/Barnes samizdat translation of the Complete
Borges, and it occurs to me that he may surpass our poets. Lacking Spanish,
I cannot judge.

Can you frame, briefly, why you consider them the greatest?

John Kennedy said of Frost: "He has bequeathed his nation a body of
imperishable verse." The same could be said of any of them. Personally,
they all "take the top of my head off."

Which 20th century poet do you consider most over-rated?

T.S. Eliot. Great on cats, but I think his influence has been utterly
pernicious.

Surely 'Preludes' and especially a poem like 'The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock' is as great in its way as anything by Hardy or Yeats? And Eliot
was a marvellous critic. Why do you find his influence 'pernicious'?

Prufrock is a great poem for alienated adolescents to outgrow as swiftly as
possible.I won a declamation contest at 16 by reciting Prufrock, and I knew
the Wasteland too. These days I much prefer Wendy's limerick version. Upon
mature consideration I don't think Eliot is worthy to shine Hardy's shoes.
Marvelous critic? I yield to no man in my love for Tennyson. I used to
recite the Morte D'Arthur to rapt audiences of boy scouts. But Eliot's
assertion of Lord T's vast superiority to Thomas Hardy is pernicious. Hardy
invented modern poetry while Tennyson just rode romanticism into the sunset.
Wasn't it Virginia Woolf who said "Tom's problem is he's a fag, and he
doesn't know it." Had he been man enough to come to grips with Jean
Verdenal, I might feel differently about him. As to his ranking versus
Yeats, we know that Eliot held him in awe and Yeats held Eliot in contempt.
Both poets were correct. A.D. Hope said "Eliot was a poet with real, but
very modest ability."

I agree with you about Hardy. But I think A. D. Hope sounds ridiculous in
that essay of his in which he tries to rubbish free verse: not some free
verse, but all of it. He simply comes across as utterly close-minded.
Magnificent free verse has been written in this century, by Jeffers,
Lawrence, and Ted Hughes, among others. But to get back to Eliot: he also
said that contemporary poetry, of necessity, had to be difficult. What's
your take on that?

Utter nonsense. Your best poems, my best poems are perfectly comprehensible
to the man on his tractor. The T'ang master Po Chu-i read his poems to an
old toothless peasant woman and rewrote anything she couldn't understand.
There's nothing difficult about Auden, and Eliot thought the world of him.
According to Tim Steele's Missing Measures, by 1950 even Eliot began to
comprehend the extent of the damage he had wrought.

Let me quote something at you: "Rummaging in rubble/critics are
scribbling/like fieldmice nibbling/in a farmer's stubble." Do you think
your experience of basic hard reality gives you a certain impatience or
perhaps insouciance in the face of literary theory?

I'm delighted that someone actually has a Murphy poem by heart! I really
don't even know what literary theory is. Robert Penn Warren told me never
to waste time reading critical prose (of which he wrote reams), and I never
did.

The Scottish poet Don Paterson said in an interview a year or so ago, "The
thing to do is to be true to the voice of the poem and, no matter how much
you like it, never fall into the trap of thinking it's your voice. You
don't have one. You might have favourites, but they aren't you."
Personally, I regard the whole idea of the 'death of the author' as sheer
daftness. Do you regard the voice in your poems as your actual voice?

Certainly one must be true to the poem, but a grown poet finds a voice to
which he must also be true. In adolescence I longed for a "voice." Much
later I found it, and when I belie it, that poem goes in the fire. The
contemporaries I most admire have utterly distinctive, unmistakable voices;
so I completely disagree with Don Paterson.

Does this mean that you could never, say, see yourself writing a dramatic
monologue in which the speaker is not yourself? Or are we talking about
'identifiable style' when we talk of 'voice'?

I wrote many dramatic monologues in my youth, and I'd like to do so again.
By 'voice' I mean style and tone and certain choices one comes to expect of
that voice.

What's the attitude of the North Dakotan farming community, if such a thing
exists, to you as poet?

The few farmers who know my work value it. My memoir in verse and prose,
Set The Ploughshare Deep, is about be published. Substantial excerpts will
appear in the region's agricultural papers, and then we'll see what farmers
think of me.

How have your experiences as a farmer affected your attitude to poetry?

Prior to 1982 I pretty much wrote long, narrative pentameters about
homosexuals in ancient Greece and Rome. When I bought my first farm I had
my own struggles to deal with and my poetry changed utterly. A concise poet
was born.

The great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean likened poetry to the pearl produced by
the grain of sand in the oyster. What's your grain of sand?

Probably being an alcoholic, homosexual altar boy and Eagle Scout.

Isn't that three grains?

The grain of sand is my sexuality, which confounded my own and everyone
else's expectations.

You mention alcohol. There is an almost traditional association in Scotland
between alcohol and poetry. What do you think of the correlation?

I think drink is an aid to creativity, but one can reach a point where it is
mortal poison. I'm there.

You're a 'lapsed' Catholic. Has Catholicism had an influence on your verse?
If so, what?

My lapsed faith rarely enters my poems, but it sure as hell irritates the
oyster. It's something I need to come to grips with. To realize you're gay
at the age of 12, and be told by your church that you'll burn in hell, is
goddam painful. The notion of a gay Christian is as inconceivable to me as
the notion of a Jewish Nazi. Nonetheless, I was much moved by the images of
John Paul in Israel, and I wrote him a sonnet:

Apologia Pro Ecclesia Sua


Holy Father, you slip a folded prayer
between two stone blocks at the Wailing Wall.
What do you pray for? An end to the despair
that holds the land of Palestine in thrall?

Your sermon is an overdue endeavor
to make your peace with women, Muslims, Jews.
But not with homosexuals. No, never.
Ours is the priestly sin you won't excuse.

Crippled by your incurable disease,
you shuffle slowly through the Holy Land
as throngs of sinners praying on their knees
bow to the scepter in your palsied hand.

You preach that God is three and God is one?
If He exists, you are His dying son.


Your gayness in addition to your farming background is an unusual
combination one would have thought in a no-doubt conservative farming
community. Could you say a little about the difficulties (or their absence)
in that situation for yourself as a practising poet.

It makes me an outsider, particularly in a community where every gay boy
flees to a gay ghetto in the cities. But it also means that I shall have no
progeny, no legacy but my rhymes. And that focuses me on my task.

Do you identify with any tradition of gay writing?

Cavafy showed me a way to write in my twenties, which is why my early poems
are way gay. And I certainly identify with gay writers from Classical
times: Sappho, Anacreon, Meleagros, Catullus,etc.

Lastly, if you were advising a young poet on how to survive in the current
situation, what would you say to him or her?

It would depend on the young poet's aptitudes. I might suggest banking or
teaching. Or I might quote Robert Penn Warren: "Go home, boy. Buy a farm.
Sink your toes in that rich soil, and grow some roots."

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Old 05-04-2001, 05:41 AM
SteveWal SteveWal is offline
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Just thought I'd tell you how much I enjoyed this interview. Of course, being a poet who writes mainly in "free" verse, I disagree on some points. Though not as many as you'd think. I'm not much into navel-gazing, for instance. And I'm not even sure that Auden was right about all poetry being memorable speech. I'm an Ashbery fan etc. But it's good to have something to challenge us; and I'm increasingly of the opinion that a training in meter is good for the free-verser as well as the metrist.

------------------
Steve Waling
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Old 05-04-2001, 02:23 PM
Richard Wakefield Richard Wakefield is offline
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Tim:
I've had the pleasure of reading this interview before, and I have often thought back to it. Seeing it again is a good opportunity to raise a question about the "grain of sand in the oyster" hypothesis. As you know, in many ways you and I are very different, at least in the things that you list as the sources of your poetry. Now, maybe that means that I'm doomed never to be much of a poet (and don't think a few people haven't suggested as much), or maybe it means that life, any life, has plenty of sand in it. Some of us can point to something very specific, but even those who can't will accumulate all the wounds and wonders it takes to engender a few poems, if we have the tenacity and the talent to create them. In fact, for there to be any audience at all for poetry it must be that everyone feels something close to the same range of emotions, else how could a person with a superficially different set of experiences respond so strongly to verse like yours?
I don't mean to challenge what you say about your own life and poetry. You're the authority on those things. I mean to suggest that our shared engagement with certain poems, and maybe with the world of poetry, offers a glimmer of consanguinity beneath our apparent differences.
Richard
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Old 05-05-2001, 06:07 AM
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MEHope MEHope is offline
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I WANT THIS ON A T-SHIRT -- YES!!!

In 1955 Harvard proposed a creative writing program. The real writers on
staff, Wilbur and Updike, deep-sixed the proposal, arguing that young
[i]writers should be studying geography, geology, astronomy, etc. We have
18-year-olds in this country taking courses in the art of writing their
memoirs! Sam Gwynn has presciently observed that if we extrapolate present
rates of growth, by 2100 every man, woman and child in America will have a
degree in creative writing.</i


------------------
~~Mary
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Old 05-05-2001, 07:42 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Wounds and wonders? There are too many wounds and not enough wonders in Tim Murphy's poetry, and it is the wonders that Murphy best likes in Wakefield. Actually Richard, we're hopelessly similar, farmboy backgrounds and Frost-worship being just two starting points for comparison. Height, weight and age are also too close for comfort. As I get older I am less and less impressed by the blackness in my verse and others' and more impressed by poets who can articulate a redemptive vision of this mortal coil. That's why I'm so crazy about Mayflies and find myself reading late rather than early Donne. Maybe you should write some poems which begin to come to terms with your conversion to the Catholic faith. Skip the sand and go straight to the miraculous pearl!

Didn't Frost excuse American fiction on the grounds that we haven't suffered enough to write like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Well, not everyone's lucky enough to be a homosexual, colorblind, alcoholic atheist with rotten teeth.
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Old 05-05-2001, 04:19 PM
Richard Wakefield Richard Wakefield is offline
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If we're thinking of the same comment, it was Howells who said that in America life just goes too "smilingly" to give rise to heavyweight fiction. I don't know how he managed to miss Hawthorne's rather persuasive counter example.
One of the things I admire in your verse is that the distinction between wounds and wonders gets blurry. Maybe that effaced distinction is one of the gifts of much good and great poetry, and for me (bear with me) it's another of the ways that poetry seems an extension of my spiritual life. I don't mean that my poetry achieves that kind of vision, only that I strive for it and that it is also something that comes in my rare moments of unselfconscious religious belief. Think of the grieving father's spontaneous metaphor in "Home Burial": "Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build." His wife is too wounded to accept the wonder and so refuses to let his words rise into metaphor, but he, at least to my ear, is right at the nexus of love, poetry, religion -- and farming, I suppose.

By the way, add bad teeth to the list of our similarities. One of us had better gain some weight or when one commits a crime the other will be fingered in the police lineup.
Richard
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