Richard Murphy at Sixty
Richard Murphy was born at Milford House, on the Mayo-Galway border, on 6th August 1927. In 1980, after twenty years in Cleggan, he moved to Killiney, Co. Dublin, where I interviewed him just before his sixtieth birthday. Richard Murphy's books from Faber have included Sailing to an Island (1963), The Battle of Aughrim (1968), High Island (1974), Selected Poems (1979), and The Price of Stone (1985). Maurice Harmon's excellent compilation, Richard Murphy: Poet of Two Traditions, was published by Wolfhound Press in 1978. John Haffenden's interview with Richard Murphy can be found in Viewpoints (Faber, 1981).
At the end of your interview with John Haffenden, you declared that "I feel now that my home is in the language". To what extent have you made a home in the language?
After uprooting myself painfully from Connemara, I felt I never wanted to become so deeply attached to a place again. The loss of places I had lived in, and of people I had loved in those places, was irretrievable. But poetry, working with imagination on the memory, can save something from oblivion. So in The Price of Stone I converted many of my former homes into sonnets expressing their spirit. I wrote to recover what I missed in the west of Ireland: and to accommodate myself to the unfamiliar Dublin area. I tried to give voice to some strange public structures, like the Lead Mine Chimney, on top of a hill, which you can see from this room across the valley silting up with housing estates; and to capture the spirit of this house, Knockbrack, ten miles from the city centre, blessed with a garden of outcropping granite, and a view of the Sugarloaf Mountain between pinetrees, like a painting by Cézanne. What attracted me, when I first came, was an atmosphere you get in a Chinese poem of the Tang Dynasty: of a mountain retreat to which a provincial governor might retire to live as a hermit with two concubines.
When I moved to Dublin, I felt insecure and vulnerable, with a need to impatriate myself, (to borrow a word I think was well minted by Declan Kiberd). So I looked around for public landmarks with which I could feel a personal connection, or hold a conflicting dialogue.
Every morning, before breakfast, I made a habit of going up to the top of Killiney Hill, and walking around the Folly, erected for a landlord in 1742: a spire superimposed upon two squares. Gradually, around Easter 1981, I felt this epicene structure had the makings of a poem. It began with the letter' 'I" on top of the page; and underneath this came "am"; then "the", getting wider and wider as it went down: a verbal spire. Perhaps a foolish aspiration! When I got down to the squares, quatrains emerged, and developed into a sonnet. The concrete beginning was removed like scaffolding.
What remained was the identification of some part of myself with the building: and that was liberating. Having discovered this, I was able to speak more revealingly, without confessional embarrassment, from oblique perspectives, like the Folly's decadent Anglo-Irish viewpoint: that of an object both admired and reviled, having a proud, witty elegance and style.
How did you set about writing the subsequent sonnets in the sequence?
Long before a sonnet would take shape, I'd begin by writing notes, at random, about what I was feeling, thinking, remembering, dreaming or imagining at the time. Gradually the notes would flow like rain on a mountain gathering into a narrow rocky cleft to make the sonnet's waterfall. Or to use another analogy, the notes would gradually concentrate on a listed building: I mean listed in my notes as having personal relevance, whether at home or away at boarding schools: and also sometimes historical, political or social relevance, such as Newgrange, Nelson's Pillar or Wattle Tent.
I had a rule that if I felt reluctant or ashamed to write something down, then it must go in the notes, as an exploration of the mind. This helped me to explore difficult subjects, such as homosexual promiscuity, aids and guilt, in Portico, Gym and Convenience. My notes might amount to thousands of words before a building would come into focus, or speak with a distinct voice. The sonnet would be the final statement to come from a long thought-process relating to a complex structure. The structure was in the real world, and had its own history. It was also in my mind, with an inner history, gathering metaphorical value, with many ambiguous verbal and moral connections.
Do you have a general preference for strict forms, such as the sonnet, over free forms?
I had written much freer verse before I began the sonnets in The Price of Stone. I like those reverberations of rhythm you can get from the metre of a sonnet. Its measurements force you to compress. They encourage the play of words with double or treble meanings. I think of the sonnet as a body of words, confined to a small space for a short time: as a body preserved in a book: not immortal, but coming back to life whenever it's read. Some of my notes for the sonnets were in free verse, but I felt that a regular architectural form would be best to carry the diversified voices of buildings. Technically, I found the end couplet was a challenge to say more than in any preceding quatrain.
Since each of your books has represented something of a change of direction for your work, and must have entailed a period of adjustment, you have presumably experienced intervals in which nothing was written. Do such intervals trouble you?
Book publication sometimes causes a troubling interval, and you wonder, at sixty, why you were so keen to publish twenty or thirty years ago. But of course I was over the moon in April 1962, when Charles Monteith, who wanted to publish Sailing to an Island at Faber & Faber, where T.S. Eliot still controlled the poetry list, sent me a glorious telegram: "Tom says yes". My longest blank periods in Connemara may have been caused by my boating or building activities; but more likely by my attachment to the place as a country of perpetual youth, where you don't feel the time passing. I broke that spell, and, like Oisin, became 300 years old when I set foot in Dublin. This reminds me of what a carpenter's wife once said to me in Cleggan: "We hadn't the new car a week but we'd been to seven funerals" .
Do you ever regret not having gone to London, say, and lived a more literary life there?
I loved Connemara, and was happy enough there, especially while Tony White, a Londoner, was alive and visiting Cleggan often: or the year John and Madeline McGahern lived there. Charles Monteith used to stay every summer, and enjoyed fishing on the Ave Maria, my Galway hooker. But I lacked the competition of compelling deadlines and literary cliques, mercifully. I regret not completing a version of Sophocles' play Philoctetes, which proximity to a good theatre would have helped. But cities have always made me want to escape into the country.
Can you tell me what you're working on at present?
On Armistice Day, 11 November 1984 I arrived in Sri Lanka almost fifty years after I had left Ceylon as a child. I was enchanted by the country and its people. I couldn't speak Sinhala or Tamil: but well guided by Ashley Halpé, poet and Professor of English at Peradeniya University, I became fascinated by a collection of almost seven hundred songs, written in Old Sinhala, ten or twelve hundred years ago. These lyrics had been incised with metal styles on the Mirror Wall of Sigiri, the "Lion Rock", in the Central Province. The original holographs are still there to be seen by coundess visitors.
Written in the 8th., 9th. or 10th. centuries, almost every song had a different author, who wrote and sang it on the occasion of a visiit. Sigiri had been the fortress of a parricide king, who had reigned in the 5th. century: then it was abandoned. He had ordered his five hundred wives to be painted in fresco, half way up the 600 foot high monolith: and many of the songs are addressed to the beautiful women, or speak about their situation. Twenty portraits have survived. The songs have been well transcribed edited and translated by Senarat Paranavitana in a great book called Sigiri Graffiti, published in 1956 by Oxford. The Government of Sri Lanka hold the copyright of this text, and has given me permission to write poems in English based upon those ancient Sinhala songs.
How much latitude do you allow in arriving at your versions?
At first I go, word by word, through the Old Sinhala poem, to learn how Paranavitana arrived at his scholarly prose translation: and to get ideas, which may not be correct, about the sound and play of possible meanings in the original. I ask myself, what kind of per:son wrote this? Then a phrase with a rhythm of its own may form in my mind: and I let this develop freely, sometimes far from correctly. Each poem, I feel, ought to have an individually distinctive voice. It's a pluralist's dream of different levels, ranging from light erotic witticism to heavy moralising, or from mystical devotion to mundane scorn. If lucky, I record the rebirth, after a thousand years, of a Sinhala song in English.
Looking back over the many meetings with fellow poets which you have had over the years, which of these encounters has left the most lasting impression?
The visit of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to my house at Cleggan in September 1962 was unforgettable; especially as we were joined by Tom Kinsella at the weekend. I had taken Ted and Sylvia to Coole and Ballylee. They had been out in my Galway hooker, the Ave Maria, to Inishbofin. Sylvia fell for Connemara, and arranged to rent a house I found for the coming winter; but she never returned, and went instead to live a more literary life in London, where she killed herself. Ted returned with Assia, and their daughter Shura, two years later, and lived in a house across the bay. There he wrote some of the best pieces in Wodwo, and began to write Crow. He used to encourage me, then, to work on The Battle of Aughrim. Reading his work in progress, and showing him mine, was a great benefit.
I don't think that writing can be done in total isolation. I don't, on the other hand, think it's a group activity. You need an ideal reader, who is also a friend. I was blessed in finding both in Tony White, whose literary gifts were bestowed freely on his friends, and never used for his own acclaim. His sudden death in 1976 was one reason for my leaving Connemara.
Theodore Roethke's visit to Inishbofin in 1960 made such an impression that I wrote The Poet on the Island after he had been taken to the asylum in Ballinasloe. In Cleggan I had several visits from Cecil Day Lewis and his family. He was a kind and generous person. Philip Larkin came once, and actually permitted me to take him out in a pookhaun, getting half way to High Island, before he asked to be brought back into calmer water. I cannot forget my good fortune in beginning a unique literary friendship when I met you and Julie O'Callaghan at the Kilkenny Festival in 1975. The best writing has usually come where there has been a nucleus of writers. I love islands, but I'm not a penitential hermit. Quiet and solitude need to be given resonance by companions and friends.