On Easter Sunday, I was privileged to see in print my first-ever, page-one (above-the-fold) article for The Forum, in the form of a conversion story. The article will be accessible online through April 7.
The chance to interview Timothy Murphy in his Fargo home turned out to be every bit as much an honor as writing this piece.
Here, he’s sitting before his computer following the interview. He’d just shown me the cover to his forthcoming book, “Man of Sorrows,” created by Charles Beck, the artist with whom he’s partnered for visuals to match the themes of much of his work.
Though he’s claimed North Dakota as home for most of his life, many in our area seem unaware of Murphy’s presence, not to mention his significance. Nationally and even internationally, he’s a prominent poet, having been compared to such greats as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur, who once described Murphy as “a mature and greatly accomplished poet (Wikipedia).”
I grew up in the home of a man in love with words. My father, an English teacher, was a poet in his own right, though he never achieved the sort of fame Murphy has rightly enjoyed. Nevertheless, because of this grounding, I find myself naturally drawn to others who breathe literary expression.
So I found it both comfortable and intriguing being in the presence of Murphy, getting to know this fellow faith-seeker and, might I add, walking poetry book.
Even the interview emerged like a poem, with expressions arriving in succinct, evocative fashion. Often, after pausing to consider a query, rather than answer outright he’d reach for one of his books, perusing the pages to offer his response in rhythmic form.
So much of his life is contained within his poems, after all. Why trouble yourself with answering off the cuff when you can pull out a published poem that says it better? Not everyone can trade poem for answer in such a way.
Side stories emerged throughout the process, too. For example, Murphy shared with me later that following his conversion, his hair turned from red pepper and salt back to its original red. In his words, “It’s not just good genes, it’s right church. My barber’s never seen anything like it, and everybody thinks it’s fake. But it’s the real deal.”
I’ve always felt slightly intimidated by poetry, yet drawn to it at the same time. During my years working as a newspaper reporter along the Hood Canal area of Puget Sound, I frequently attended poetry readings by regional poets at various coffee shops or homes organized by my writing mentor, poet Carolyn Maddux.
My own deficiencies aside, I keep circling back to this form of word-gathering, finding myself in awe over how cleverly fashioned the written word can be; words into art, feelings into symbols that have the power to affirm or change our perception of the world.
Perhaps the best way to offer a glimpse of Murphy is by doing as he would — reaching for one of his poems and saying, “Here he is, right here in these stanzas. That’s the guy.”
I came into his home as a reporter, curious and wondering, and left realizing I’d just met a new friend.
The following poem is one that didn’t make it into my article, though he’d indicated he hoped there would be room, so I thought I’d share it here, nearly five years after “First Things” magazine printed it, just after his conversion from atheism back to Christianity:
Augustine’s Confessions, 10.27.38 – Timothy Murphy
Wrongly thinking that beauty lay without,
blindly I cast about.
How late did I begin
to realize your beauty lay within.
To one bereft of sight
you said Let there be light.
Thus to my deafened ear
you called, you cried! hoping that I might hear.
I thirsted, hungered, yearned.
You touched me, and I burned.
How late I came to you,
to beauty ever ancient, ever new.
How late I came to you.