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Wake Forest
University Press

Wake Forest University Press

Dedicated to Irish Poetry

Wake: Up to Poetry

"The act of poetry is a rebel act."

A Lil Bit of Lit Crit: Richard Murphy

In an issue of the Harvard Review, critic Floyd Skloot wrote about poet Richard Murphy and how his poems at his mid-career are consistently among his best. The reason for his brilliance, Skloot observes, is his tendency to focus his writings on the sea:
“At his finest, Murphy has long given us the sustained drama of the sea—the place he is most at home and most clearly removed from the mainland.”
It is easy to presume that the sea is such a significant metaphorical device due to its natural and symbolic implications. However, Murphy’s successful utilization of the sea as a primary medium for his poetry stems from a connection on a more personal level: his own familial background. Murphy is the son of ruling-class Anglo-Irish Protestant parents. Both his mother and father’s ancestral lineages can be traced to memorable historical figures such as William the Conqueror and King Charles II. In the old days and on, the Murphy family employed Irish Catholics as servants. It is clear that Murphy hardly grew up in a position of want, but his complicated lineage proved to be the source for his poetic inspiration.
Murphy was never seen as either truly Irish or truly British, and therefore an issue of national identity seemed inevitable. This question of identity and lack of true origin is perhaps why Murphy produces his best poetry when writing about the sea. The ocean is constantly in motion, breaking against different lands and places every second of every day. There is no final destination, no true sense of origin in the sea’s movement. Like the sea, Murphy has no distinct and concrete line of identity. He is comfortable in writing about the sea because he sees much of himself in it.
We at the Press agree with Skloot, and see the strength in Murphy’s utilization and connection with the sea as a poetic medium. Most notably, in his poem “Sailing to an Island” from our very own publication Collected Poems 1952-2000, Murphy retells a 1952 drunken voyage he took aboard an old, rickety ship. The poem reflects Murphy’s masterful control for the immediacy of scene through vivid effects:
“Now she dips, and the sail hits the water.
She luffs to a squall; is struck; and shudders.
Someone is shouting. The boom, weak as scissors,
Has snapped. The boatman is praying.”

In using the image of sea within much of his poetry, Richard Murphy captivates readers with his remarkable ability to communicate the impact of a scene of action while simultaneously bringing to light the issue of identity.

-Posted by Kelly


Categories: Lit. Crit.

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