The Crooked Path of Timothy Murphy

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Dana Gioia

The Crooked Path of Timothy Murphy



Timothy Murphy was not an unusual writer. He was an anomaly, unique among the poets of his generation. Born in small town Minnesota in 1951, he left the northern Plains States for only one extended period, his four years at Yale. Resolved to be a poet, he returned to his native region—not to pursue graduate study or teach, but to work in insurance and agribusiness. Murphy became an entrepreneur with a high appetite for risk. He made and lost a fortune several times as a commercial hog-farmer, manufacturer, and farmland investor. Meanwhile, in nearly complete isolation from literary life, he developed into a poet of notable originality. His literary maturation was slow, private, and uncharacteristically patient. When his first book appeared from Story Line Press in 1998, he was forty-seven.
 Murphy was at home in the Great Plains. He was a hard-drinking farmer, passionate hunter, and struggling small businessman—all common types in Fargo. He was also a chain-smoking, gay libertarian with an Ivy League degree who wrote formal poetry and attended daily Mass. Those discordant qualities made him unusual in the Rough Rider State; in the literary world, they rendered him sui generis.
 Some future scholar will document how the ambitious Eagle Scout from Hibbing, Minnesota—a small town famous for its other poet, Nobel laureate Robert Zimmerman—made it to New Haven to study with Robert Penn Warren in the nation’s top-ranked English Department. In the thirty years since his death, Warren’s reputation has declined so steadily, that it is difficult to recall the special eminence he once enjoyed. Three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (once for fiction, twice for poetry), best-selling novelist, influential anthologist, charter member of the Fugitives, and—by Act of Congress—first US Poet Laureate, Warren embodied the rise of modern Southern letters. He was also a divided soul—a high priest of New Criticism who spoke with a backwoods Kentucky accent, a Southern Agrarian bivouacked among Connecticut Yankees.
 In retrospect, Warren’s tutelage of the young Murphy seems like destiny. Perhaps “Red” Warren saw something of himself in the feisty carrot-topped undergraduate. A cosmopolitan regionalist, Warren understood that . . .
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