FARGO – Poet Timothy Murphy has found his former muse unable to keep pace with inspiring what he can now muster in meter.
“My muse was sitting with her nine sisters and her mother Mnemosyne on a well in Mount Helicon 30 miles north of Athens, but of course, I didn’t believe in them the way I believe in the Holy Spirit,” Murphy says.
Undoubtedly, his conversion back to Christianity over a decade ago has helped keep his pen well-inked
In September, Murphy says, he exceeded the poetic output of both Thomas Hardy and W.H. Auden, making him the most prolific of the major modern poets.
“People speak of John Keats as having his ‘annus mirabilis’ (miracle year) the year he was 23. Well, I’m having my annus mirabilis, and I’m 65,” he says. “I wasn’t even competent to write in meter and rhyme when I was 23. I started out at 17, and I was very slow to master it, and I joke that when Keats was my age, he’d been dead for 40 years.”
Murphy largely credits the Holy Spirit, from whom he simply takes dictation, he says. This new muse “comes nearly every day,” and often, in dreams.
“Richard Wilbur says, ‘It’s entirely unfair, Tim, because the only dreams I remember are the ones in which I lose my car keys,'” Murphy chuckles, admitting that 41 years of practice also figures in. “But paranormal things do happen.”
His latest collection, “Devotions,” will be released in February by North Dakota State University Press. As with past works, it includes references to his passions for hunting, scouting and the people and places he experiences as he explores the world, both interiorly and exteriorly.
It’s also a tribute to his late literary partner, Alan Sullivan.
“I’ve got over 100 pages of poems for Alan, the vast majority written since he died,” Murphy says, admitting it’s easier writing to him posthumously. “Of course, he was a forbidding character, known in the poetry world as the E.F.H. — the editor from hell. But I wouldn’t be the poet I am today if not for him.”
It now takes four people to do the job Sullivan did for Murphy as reader and editor.
Among them are Catherine Chandler, whom Murphy considers Canada’s foremost poet. The two have been online friends for nearly 15 years, and both write strictly formal, metrical poetry.
“We have a lot in common, in that we are both devout Roman Catholics,” Chandler says, “although we both went through periods of agnosticism and doubt.”
She adds that she greatly admires how Murphy puts such a wide variety of experience into metrical form. “He makes what is, in effect, a very difficult craft, seem easy,” she says.
Another of his readers, bilingual American poet and translator Rhina P. Espaillat says she considers Murphy one of the best poets writing in America today. “He does so much revising — he’s a real fusspot,” she says. “He’s never satisfied completely.”
He also has a wonderful lyrical sense, she adds, and she loves how he writes to be understood. “He is never obscure, writing with his hands in front of his mouth,” she says.
Espaillat, 84, an immigrant from the Dominican Republican who has lived most of her life on the East Coast, is not a believer in God. However, she regards Murphy’s religious poems among her favorites.
“He explains himself in such a way that you understand what he is and what he believes…it’s very palpable to me,” she says. “That’s all I ask. I don’t have to join him in it.”
Mike Hagstrom, president of the local Catholic schools’ network, helped bring Murphy into students’ lives locally through an invitation to teach at Shanley High several years back.
“I love the beauty of his books, the stark poetry, the images. Growing up on the farm, attached to the land, I have felt a connection to his poetry,” says Hagstrom, who also claims a longtime affinity for the work of Murphy’s Yale mentor, Robert Penn Warren.
Hagstrom says Murphy draws faith implications from nearly everything he observes, whether expounding on a feast day or the habits of his Labrador retriever.
Though Murphy has lived in other worlds, he finds this region to be his grounding place.
“This is where the magic works — on the prairie, near the north woods, 800 miles east of my beloved Rocky Mountains,” he says, noting that Warren’s years-old advice paid off. “He said, ‘Go home, boy, buy yourself a farm, sink your toes into that rich soil and grow yourself some roots.’ And I did.”
Murphy doesn’t write for himself, he says, but for his “tribe,” which he identifies as “farmers and hunters in North Dakota,” and Christians the world over.
“St. John of the Cross brought me to Christ, and King David brought Alan to Christ,” he says. “My highest hope for this book would be that it brings someone to Christ.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 10, 2016.]