Sunday 22 September 2019

Obituary: The poet Richard Murphy

Poet Richard Murphy died last week at his home in Sri Lanka where he had moved in recent years - but the West of Ireland was the forge for his craft, and to mark his passing, we reprint a Sunday Independent article which first appeared in 2002

BAND OF POETS: From left, Richard Murphy, Douglas Dunn, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes in January 1970. Below, Murphy in 1999
BAND OF POETS: From left, Richard Murphy, Douglas Dunn, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes in January 1970. Below, Murphy in 1999

There are images here, of land, leaf, sea; Richard Murphy's homelands of the heart. In the west of Ireland, steeped in remoteness, beyond the call of modern sirens, hot water, the national grid, Murphy forged his craft. He sailed a Galway hooker for the tourist trade, served as bailiff against salmon poachers, turned pilgrim on Croagh Patrick, cycled everywhere, in storm and gale.

Once, a rival accused him of guarding his literary ground too meanly, but the opposite seems true. To the west he brought Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke; keen minds and wild spirits lured into his landscape.

Roethke came in 1960, staying with Murphy as the Irishman captained the Ave Maria to sea each day, laden with American sightseers. Murphy recalled in verse how the American poet came, wayward, strong-willed, manic- depressive, stumbling under the burden of himself.

Roethke arrived on Inishbofin with his wife Beatrice, and when Murphy met them on the quay he wondered whether he had been right to invite them. Beatrice was evidently unsuited to the harsh island life he could tell as she glanced around with disdain and Roethke stood beside her, the misplaced spouse, his presence huge, "like a defeated old prize-fighter, growing bald, groggy and fat, clumsy on his feet, wrapped in silence".

On Inishbofin, Roethke drank and nursed his grievances. He saw Robert Lowell as his rival and craved the other poet's fame, complaining: "Why are you always praising Lowell? I'm as mad as he is."

He seemed determined to prove it, in his drinking and his rantings. Once, when Murphy explained how he had been provoked into pulling a knife during an argument in a pub, Roethke became excited, insisting he could advise on all aspects of blade play.

Richard Murphy in 1999
Richard Murphy in 1999

"You gotta have two of these," he roared, seizing the weapon. "First, you hold one in your mouth, with the sharp side out, and you clench your teeth on the blade ... while the other you hold down low, low, low, like this, and then you rip up and up until his guts are wide open and spill on the ground."

There is a visceral urge within the pages of The Kick, Murphy's newly published memoir of his life. Its images tug, at the belly as much as the intellect. In an interview, the poet once spoke of exploring the world "beyond the demesne", the wider realities outside the cloistered life of his upbringing as the son of a colonial Irishman who served the British. Yet it is belonging that runs as the resurgent theme of his memoir, surfacing again and again, in his wanderings abroad as much as in the west, where he fashioned both his poetry and his sense of the world.

By turns, Richard Murphy spent his life exploring the ties of land, of flesh and bloodline. He has two children, both from relationships that did not endure, and suffered the loss of a miscarried child. In his memoir he tells the story of how, in 1957, he buried his unborn son in the grounds of his home in Co Wicklow: "Larch twigs impede the spade as it slices through leaf mould, a scattering of beechnuts, food for red squirrels, who survive here. As clouds are dimming the moonlight, I shine a torch. He looks like me. Yet also like a figurine moulded from clay and fired thousands of years ago. Having dug deep enough, I tip the body from the bowl, gently, and look at him as he lies in the earth: head with a high forehead, full of intelligence; nose and chin, mouth and ears like mine in a photograph my mother has kept from my infancy, the eyes closed."

Murphy's past, the displacement of growing up an Irishman with an English accent, informs what seems to have been a long search for the ties that bind him to people, and to place. He experienced the classic Anglo-Irish upbringing. He was the grandson of the Church of Ireland Rector of Clifden, and his father became the last British mayor of Colombo in Ceylon, on which island Murphy spent much of his childhood.

He endured the questionable disciplines of boarding school, first in Dublin and then in Canterbury as a Cathedral chorister and in Wellington College, a British military school where most of his classmates were destined for the officers' academy at Sandhurst. He won the school's first English scholarship to Oxford, where his lecturers included CS Lewis and Tolkien. Academia, however, merely decided that his true vocation was poetry.

Murphy tells of early confusions over sexuality, of homosexuality reaching uneasy coexistence with heterosexual partners. He tells of the humiliation and fright of being stopped by a plain clothes policeman for lingering too long at the urinals at the public toilet in Piccadilly Circus. He was "fined" £5, even though he had done nothing, and later wondered if his detainer had been a police officer at all.

He lost his virginity in a Paris brothel, almost reluctantly. In the Bahamas, where he went to work as a secretary to his father, he made his first proposal. Patricia Cavendish, daughter of the Countess of Kenmare, accepted. There were, however, conditions.

"If I married her," he was warned, "I would have to share her bed in her mother's villa at St Jean Cap Ferrat with her porcupine and silver fox".

Patricia, besotted with animals as a reaction to witnessing the slaughter on her parents' safaris, later wrote and broke off the engagement. She had fallen in love instead with an Australian Olympian swimmer. "She married and divorced him," Murphy recounts, "and after another short marriage settled down in Kenya, living with lions in her garden and a lioness in her bed. No children".

When his parents retired and moved to a farm in Rhodesia, Richard went to London, where he shared a flat with his sister Mary. Another proposal followed, this time to the well-connected godchild of the Duke of Westminster.

"Eye to eye across a brandy snifter revolving in my hand," he writes, "I feel inspired enough to say, 'Let's get married!' and while her astonishment subsides into laughter mixed with tears I drain the glass."

"Oh darling," his imminent fiancee replied. "What an amazing idea!" At the dress rehearsal for the wedding, however, he realised his mistake. His bride-to-be accepted his apology gracefully, telling him he was far too young to tie himself down.

Murphy toiled at poetry while spending a spell as a budding broker to try to raise a rapid fortune. The job came to nothing, and his life migrated towards Ireland, where he would find his poetic heartland. He signed a lease on a remote cottage, the Quay House at Rosroe, near the mouth of Killary Harbour. There he immersed himself in nature's moods, learning to love the islands and the sea, travelling for the first time to Inishbofin in a rickety boat. He explored, finding letters left behind as doorstops when the philosopher Wittgenstein had stayed in the cottage. He wrote, attempting to produce "a modern Irish epic", and from the rich stock of local stories he gathered his sources. Existence at the Quay House, Murphy says, was somehow graced, "like living in a poem there was no need to write".

In 1954 he left Ireland for France, where he studied at the Sorbonne. One day he opened his mail to find a note from Patricia Avis, the woman who would become his wife and mother of his daughter Emily. Patricia was the daughter of a rich businessman in Johannesburg and his Irish Catholic wife. Her father was violent with a foul temper.

She was married, but in the last throes of the dying relationship. As her divorce came through, they fell in love, and travelled together to Ireland to look for a house. After unsuccessfully touring the west, they took up Ernest Gebler's offer to buy his fishing lodge at Lake Park in Roundwood, Co Wicklow. Patricia became pregnant and in 1956 Emily was born. It was in Wicklow, too, that she later miscarried, the tragedy that rocked an already shaky marriage.

Richard writes of their open relationship: "Our marital agreement required us to be tolerant of each other's affairs," he says, but he admits it was a difficult task to accomplish. At Lake Park, Patricia, a poet and novelist, wanted to immerse herself in intellectual work, while her husband was becoming more concerned with his land. She told a neighbour: "I thought I had married a poet but he's turned out to be a farmer."

Murphy writes of his wife's attraction to Conor Cruise O'Brien. The Murphys had met him in a restaurant. "Conor sat facing us, often breaking into French to impress Patricia," he says. "I thought he was showing off but she was awed by his brilliance."

In the car on the way home, Patricia was clearly captivated, asking: "When are we going to see him again?"

In The Kick, Murphy touches on several generations of Ireland's literary scene. There are Dublin parties, pregnant with self-consciousness. There are characters, too: Patrick Kavanagh holding court to a pub of disciples; Sean O'Faolain; Elizabeth Bowen. But the book's greater interest, perhaps, lies in his foreign introductions, in Roethke, and in the visit to the west of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

In 1962 Plath, a judge in a poetry competition, wrote to tell Murphy he had won, and to invite herself and Ted as guests to visit him at Cleggan. They arrived in September, after the tourists had gone.

Individually, each partner spoke to him of their troubles. Ted explained that their marriage, once a source of brilliance, had become destructive. Sylvia said she wanted a legal separation rather than a divorce.

At dinner one night, Sylvia made a pass at Richard, giving him "a gentle kick, under the table, provocatively".

"This alarmed me," he writes. "I didn't want to have an affair with her, or break up her marriage."

But the next day Sylvia told him Ted had left, gone to stay with friends. He panicked, considered the reaction of his fellow islanders, and asked her to leave. Sylvia was outraged, later sending him a letter rescinding an invitation for Murphy to visit her, and mocking his reasons for sending her home. "She said a little cripple hunchback with a high black boot kept an eye on everybody entering or leaving her house," Murphy recalls.

Plath's suicide is part of a run of tragedy that provides harrowing punctuation to Richard Murphy's account. There is Patricia's death, and the suicide of Assia Wevill, Ted Hughes's next partner. In 1976, too, came the greatest shock, the sudden death of his life-long friend Tony White.

White, a friend though never a lover, had long been a literary helpmate. He was the final arbiter of Murphy's verse, who carefully checked each poem before submission. When he died, from complications after breaking a leg in a soccer match, Murphy was devastated.

"All that I ever wrote in these notebooks," Murphy recorded, "...was written with an underlying assumption that Tony would be the one to read with complete understanding all I had written, that he would outlive me, that he would make sense of the confusions in my life".

It is, perhaps, impossible to explain the tidal pulls that move any man. It is tempting to read Richard Murphy's memoir and speak of the search for roots, but it seems an incomplete appraisal. The need for ties is there; in his love of the west, his second child from a later relationship, in his later legal adoption of Sri Lankan youths, brought to Ireland for their education.

Ties, though, tell only part of the story, for Richard Murphy has let go, time and again, the places, situations, relationships that seem wrong. He once said that he became a poet because of a search for permanence. "I wrote poetry all my life to try to make something last," he told one interviewer. "Poetry is the best way of remembering through words the people we love."

This then, might be the one true tide that pulls him. On High Island, a small jut of land off the Mayo coast, he lamented the apparent loss of a stone cross, a symbol of reverence across 1,000 years. The cross had soaked up its centuries, permanence standing against change, surviving storms, and the wars and whiles of man. Then: a theft, a petty act. Permanence uprooted.

Words have limitations, and it is poetry that best approaches their boundaries. TS Eliot once instructed Richard Murphy to remember that poetry was song, and it was advice he took to heart, for music lasts, carried in the heart long after the meaning of words is lost. The story carried a fitting coda. Years later, long after the message of guidance had struck its target, Murphy had occasion to contact Eliot again.

"In 1960 I sent (poetry) to Eliot, explaining how his message had inspired the poem," Murphy recalls. "I received a reply from Russell Square, in which he wrote that he had not the slightest recollection of that particular remark... He added that he liked the poem."

This piece, by Stephen Dodd, first appeared in the Sunday Independent in May 2002

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