Reviews of Very Far North
Magazine, April-May 2004
Murphy, who hails from North Dakota, is another farmer poet whose
gift for epigram and appetite for mental voyaging calls to mind
Emily Dickinson, though a line of Frost's gave him his title,
Very Far North. ('It is very far north, we admit, to have
brought the peach.') Murphy is a clever, aphoristic poet whose
short poems either work or they don't. There is little middle
ground. When he hits the nail on the head he's as sharp as any
of his mentors.
sign in a frozen ditch:
Stranger, welcome to Oakes,
home to hundreds of friendly folks
and one mean son-of-a-bitch.
here's is another, rather more profound, called 'The Abyss'.
subterfuge is deep
and devious is his task,
but the man behind the mask
I take off when I sleep
is the one friend I can ask
to look before I leap.
Frost before him, Murphy is an interesting mixture of plain-speaking
countryman and complex intellectual. After studying with Robert
Penn Warren at Yale he took his teacher's advice and returned
to his Dakota roots. Ambition and restlessness have taken him
further afield, and you'll find in Very Far North surprising references
to Norse mythology, Greek tragedy, Inuit and Sioux legends and
Japanese art. Sometimes his references are personal, sometimes
they are obscure, sometimes erotic, sometimes side-splittingly
funny with gay overtones, but mostly, when he takes risks, Murphy
wins. This poem called 'Collateral' is typical.
home, boy. Buy a farm.
Sink your toes in that rich soil
and grow yourself some roots.'
No stranger to the toil
of those who raise their fruits,
he clasped my freckled arm
and dragged me down to earth.
I learned to measure worth
as the plough measures a furrow.
Calling on country banks,
I pledge, encumber, borrow
and tell a dead man, 'Thanks.'
first fifth of Timothy Murphy's "Very Far North," subtitled
"No Place for Trees," surveys rural North Dakota, a
land that has been losing population for a century. The people
who hang on are like the trees in the poem from which the section
takes its title: "A few scrub oaks survive / droughts, blizzards,
and disease." Later, in "The Last Sodbusters,"
they are described directly, etched and scored by the land that
they in turn have ploughed: "Care furrows the brow / and
bows the straightest frame."
Murphy's previous collection, "Set the Ploughshare Deep,"
this book has no illustrations or prose passages to contextualize
the poems, nor does it need any. For all their meticulous craft,
the poems here evoke the senses, the sights and sounds, smells
and textures of a place that grudgingly, sporadically repays all
that human ingenuity and perseverance can do and that just as
often frustrates it. Here, for example, from "Unposted,"
we see a life's work dwarfed by the sweep of time and geography:
where the grass grew lank and damp,
the antiquated grain drill seemed a toy
some Lilliputian farmer might employ
to plant a field small as a postage stamp.
we hear the voices of people accustomed to expressing themselves
succinctly, perhaps to save breath against the incessant wind.
A "Master Farmer," maimed by his machinery, says, "The
picker took my fingers / to fertilize this land." On a Sunday
morning "while country wives are praying," a "Godfearer"
runs his plow across "the powdery plain" and offers
his own supplication to heaven: "Now where's the goddamn
rain?" Not content with sweat, the land demands the farmer's
very flesh. No amount of effort can make up for the rain that
doesn't come on time and the wind that does, making the biblical
"dust to dust" quite literal.
Far North" takes its title from a line in Frost's "There
Are Roughly Zones," in which an orchard keeper acknowledges
the folly of planting fruit trees at a high latitude but also
admires, it seems, the very human refusal to let nature have its
way unchallenged. Farming is both the most natural and the most
artificial of our occupations: even as we depend upon the forces
of nature we try to channel them into unnatural forms. In a harsh
land like North Dakota, the effort fails as often as it succeeds.
a sense that doesn't involve nearly as much dirt and sweat, a
formal poet does the same thing. Murphy shapes the natural cadences
of speech into tight, formal verse, often trimeter lines with
(usually) perfect rhymes that in the hands of a lesser poet would
sound stilted. But like the successful farmer who makes the land
yield far more than it would untended, Murphy turns colloquial
talk into music. These are poems not only meant to be sung but
almost impossible not to sing. Their music is as engrained as
the lines in that sodbuster's face.
third part, "Elsewhere," broadens the scope. It portrays
not merely a change in venue but a change of heart - or perhaps
something unchanging in our deepest nature: the need always to
be pressing onward, outward. "A fisherman longs for the land-locked
farm / its tenant would trade for the sea," Murphy sings
in the second of the two ballad stanzas of the title poem.
upland bird hunter and abandoned farm stalker turns out to be
an avid sailor. In many poems he trades the horizon-wide plains
for an even wider sea where he is no less at the mercy of wind.
Like farming, hunting, and hiking, though, sailing is another
discipline that involves finding the art in nature and the nature
in art - and not unlike poetry. Murphy's verse can be the boustrophedon
of a plowed field, and it can, equally, be the zigzag tack of
a sailboat. Here, in its entirety, is "The Watch," a
poem about sailing, love, and poetry:
I leave this little ship
(which I can ill-afford)
springlined in a slip
I leave my love aboard.
the weather is in doubt
he scans the sky for signs.
When the spring tide runs out
love will adjust my lines.
concluding lines, in particular, work in various distinct but
complementary ways. The "spring tide" that "runs
out" is quite literal but also suggests the onset of age
that we all hope our love will outlast; the "lines,"
of course, are real ropes holding a real boat, but they are also
lines of poetry and, perhaps, the bonds of affection, lines that
contract and attenuate but, with luck, always hold.
in "Timing" Murphy writes about the aspiration that
motivates a life well lived and a poem well written:
a narrow path
where pilgrims go astray,
I regulate my breath
because I cannot pray.
"pray" he must mean the rote, conventional prayers of
his boyhood. These poems are all prayers, each original and each
vital, sung in the regulated breath of a voice both disciplined
and wayward. Richard Wakefield
are the heirs of Richard Wilbur? If you don't care, skip the next
two paragraphs; if, like me, you admire Wilbur's meticulous poems
but haven't cared for most of his imitators, you'll want to meet
the North Dakota farmer Timothy Murphy, whose chiseled epigrams
make him the most formal, and perhaps the most interesting, new
'formalist' in some time. The best poems in his second book of
verse, Very Far North, all draw on his plains locale. 'The
Last Sodbusters' remembers the first farmers to settle Montana
... 'Nature' in North Dakota offers Murphy very few comforts and
no illusions; the comforts appear at home, through labor of skill,
signs of erotic and parental love ... Such compact forms enunciate,
as they reflect, an ethics: farming, like poetry, is no respecter
of persons, and requires both smart planning and long labor for
a product (grain, hogs, couplets, wisdom) whose end-users may
never know how much work it took. A skilled Dakota farmer (like
a Murphy poem) therefore wastes no syllable, no bit of dirt. Murphy
can use other preindustrial crafts (hunting, sailing, animal husbandry)
as subjects and analogues for similarly well-made poems ... [H]is
good poems are poems Frost, or Jonson, might have admired."
educated at Yale, Murphy's roots (and present life) are in the
agricultural world of North Dakota. Richard Wilbur provided a
Preface to The Deed of Gift and this third collection carries
an introduction by Anthony Hecht good enough indication
of the tradition to which Murphy belongs, although be is far from
being merely derivative or imitative. Any serious attempt to define
Murphy's line of inheritance would, indeed, have to begin with
the Greek Anthology and, in more recent times, include Walter
Savage Landor and Hardy, Robert Frost and J. V. Cunningham. Like
a number of these poets, Murphy is at his best in the short poem
(and, often, the short line). He can be witty and grave, can achieve
a chiselled quality that responds to his bleak environment and
articulates an alert sense of transience and mortality. Here,
for example, is 'Dies Irae':
the field's edge a feather
clings briefly to a bough
before a change of weather
offers it to the plough,
much as it did my father.
wonderfully effective that comma is at the end of the fourth line!
Sometimes Murphy achieves a kind of gnomic impersonality in lines
which seem to belong without affectation to another
age than our own, as in 'Four Sorrows':
fair counsel rejected,
love taken for granted
and Sappho uncollected.
four line poem presents a wry self-assessment:
am no man of letters,
only a puppet on a string
dancing jerkily in my fetters
when I hear my betters sing.
written in Bondage')
exactness of ear and the modesty are characteristic notes; in
truth Murphy's is an utterly distinctive voice, his world not
one with which most of his readers (least of all in Britain) will
be familiar. Strongly recommended." Glyn Pursglove
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Dakotan Timothy Murphy's Very Far North ... is the best
in this crop [of six new volumes of poetry], and that's very good
indeed. Whether grave or humorous, Murphy's high-plains voice
is always eloquent and clear. He presents images and stories unique
to North Dakota ... [b]ut his allusions and melancholy wisdom
testify to a broader, borderless view.
Murphy writes of harsh seasons, of a father's death, of depression,
love and lust. He writes about farmers, horses, boats, wild animals
and other poets. In one poem the language is colloquial; the next
one is rife with classical allusions. None of his many notes is
predictable or false." Pamela Miller
Contemporary Poetry Review
traditional poet in every sense of the word, Murphy possesses
a classical temperament which comprehends tragedy and human suffering;
he knows that "Care furrows the brow / and bows the straightest
frame. // Thistles follow the plow, / and hail threshes the grain."
Spare and unadorned as a Dakota prairie, Murphy's poems are generally
short in line and length, metrically tight and artfully rhymed.
They can evoke the solemn tones of a biblical psalm or the lucid
brilliance of a Greek lyric. His verbal landscapes and portraits
depict the lives and character of his local culture and region,
yet look beyond them to primal elements and patterns that predate
Bronco bucked on rocks as daybreak's glow
drove darkness down the range from summit snow.
We rode to where the switchback track was blocked;
and then we walked
into a world where strings were not yet strung
on tortoise shells, where Gilgamesh was young.
Haunted by rituals as old as human conscious-ness, Murphy's poems
mingle observations about farming, hiking, hunting, loving and
dying with allusions to Greek, Native American, and Norse myths.
In writing of farming or hunting, he celebrates ancient virtues
like hard work, good husbandry, and expert marksmanship. Concluding
his book with a group of poems on Chinese and Japanese history
and art, he appears to have found amidst North Dakota's
arid plains and buttes the fabled Northwest Passage to
the East." Paul Lake. To read the full review, please click
astute reader may wonder why Light should allow me space to review
a collection of poems of which about three-quarters are serious.
The reason is that other quarter. Two dozen of these poems are
unmistakably light in tone, though some are sharp-edged, bittersweet,
or wry, like "Lemuel's Travels," whose speaker might well be a
am a slender note
rolled in a stoppered flask.
Year after year I float
wherever currents lead me,
and everywhere I ask
Who in the world will read me?
light verse so rarely finds book publication anymore that a new
collection by Timothy Murphy, who writes some of the best of it,
seems ample cause to cheer. For present purposes, let me pretend
to ignore the fact that Murphy writes powerful and moving poems
as well. As Alan Sullivan has aptly remarked, Murphy's lyrical
poems tend to be "terse as gunshots in duck season." Such terseness
is a rare virtue nowadays, and a huge advantage for any writer
of light verse. As if to capture the soul of wit, Murphy is often
sign in a frozen ditch:
Stranger, welcome to Oakes,
home to hundreds of friendly folks
and one mean son-of-a-bitch.
Murphy is one of the few contemporary poets whose work I don't
yearn to cram through a trash compactor and squeeze the excess
verbiage out of it. A devastating satire, "My Banker," begins:
doctor's daughter and the banker's son
married, and their receivables were joined.
If lending to the poor and sick were one,
oh what a tidy fortune could be coined!
goes on, but even when Murphy isn't epigrammatically brief, he
is concise. Other engaging bits of levity in the book include
"The Giving of Names," a dialogue between an Indian boy and his
father, the boy seeking to determine why his name is an obscenity,
and "Game Log":
now the lore
of living creatures."
A clowder of cats
a charm of finches,
a rabble of robins.
A shoal of fishes
a pod of seals
or a gam of whales.
A pack of pointers
flushes from bushes
a bevy of quail,
or covey of partridge
while hunters are harassed
by swarms of hornets,
clouds of mosquitoes,
and hordes of wardens.
A gaggle of geese
dabble and gabble,
as aimless as auks
or a plague of poets.
extended catalog of collective nouns seems artfully contrived
to lead to that surprise in the last line. However, Murphy doesn't
consider all poets a plague, and can pay tribute to one in "Lines
Written in Homage":
cannot quite abolish
the follies of my youth
or forge the English language
with the plangent ring of truth
Borges brings to Spanish,
so let me hush my anguish
with a whisper of vermouth.
/ anguish" is a rhyme to set on edge the teeth of the persnickety,
but it's funny, and the wonderful rhyme "youth / vermouth" gives
the poem as smooth a closure as an ice-cold Noilly Prat.
recent years, Murphy has won attention as a regional poet, a voice
out of North Dakota's ranches and farms. As he recalls in the
poem "Collateral," Robert Penn Warren, his teacher at Yale, urged
him to go home after graduation "Sink your toes in that
rich soil and grow some roots." This advice Murphy has taken,
though he also became a venture capitalist, bankrolling local
factories and farms. Actually, his roots were already there. His
family, prairie-dwellers for generations, inspire a number of
his poems, among them "Horses for My Father" and two poems about
Tessie, his resilient grandmother. He captures the speech of Scandinavian
farmers (in "From the Neck Up"): "I yust can't remember / was
it your brudder or you / who died last December?" "Country Voices"
also echoes speech, as in the part entitled "Dollar Corn" (which
I gather must have been a dismayingly low price):
I asked, how have we sinned?
Greed in some former life?
Kelly pondered, and then he grinned,
I'd hafta ask the wife.
I relish "Boom and Bust," apparently the off-the-cuff recollection
of a home-grown millionaire:
old man with a wink:
"I struck it rich three times.
Whenever I was broke
bellhops tipped their caps,
beggars took my dimes
and maitre d's, our wraps.
What did my Ida lack?
In fat years and in lean,
I had good scotch to drink,
Cuban cigars to smoke,
and fine wool on my back.
So what does money mean?"
will sense that Murphy takes hunting and running Labrador dogs
pretty near as seriously as he takes poetry, and something tells
me he is equally skilled at those demanding arts. His poems abound
in real and sometimes harrowing details of weather and the farmer's
battle with flood and drought. He's well aware of history, of
the legions of native Americans and settlers who have survived
on the occasionally stingy bounty of the land. Murphy has written
a deep and engaging "prairie memoir" in prose and poetry, Set
the Ploughshare Deep,illustrated with colored woodcuts, handsomely
published by Ohio University Press (2000). But if his work is
regional, it isn't provincial a vital distinction made
by Anthony Hecht in the book's introduction. Indeed, several of
the poems refer to such disparate places as Greece, the Orient,
and Key West.
is an inspiring example of a later bloomer. His first book, The
Deed of Gift, didn't appear until 1998 when he was 47. Yet
In a short time he has come a long way toward establishing himself
in the forefront of poets who still cherish meter and rhyme. Incidentally,
his latest publisher is distinguished, however small: a press
administered by Philip Hoy, who also does Between the Lines, that
series of probing,book-length interviews which has dissected poets
Gunn, Hall, Heaney, Hecht, Justice, Snodgrass, and Wilbur.
X. J. Kennedy
is it that Murphy is doing that other poets are not? His mastery
of meter and rhyme is not the whole of it. It goes beyond even
the song-like quality of his typically short lines. (He considers
a line of pentameter a long line: even two of the six sonnets
in this collection are written in tetrameter.) It has to do with
humor, with humility, with bringing other people's voices into
the poem, not only on occasion, but time and again. A poem called
"Country Voices" whose title spells out Murphy's poetic
enterprise quotes a "master farmer:"
picker took my fingers
to fertilize this land.
Only his green thumb lingers.
I shake his other hand.
another section of the same poem, the farmer-poet frets about
the falling price of corn.
I asked, How have we sinned?
Greed in some former life?
Kelly pondered, and then he grinned,
I'd hafta ask the wife.
Murphy's poems typically begin in delight, a delight in the folksy
phrases of the men and women who populate his rural community.
Their language lingers on the ear and in the air, become as much
a part of place as the tractor and the plough. "Dakota Greetings"
quotes "a frosted sign in a frozen ditch;" "The Last Sodbusters"
a pamphlet circa 1907. "The Honey Wagon" repeats a joke rendered
a proverb by general "common sense. / You can't fertilize a field
/ by farting through the fence."
is as though Murphy has designated his time at the podium as "open
mike time," except that everyone who speaks has access to his
poetic skill, which is put at the service of the community, like
a country doctor's. Murphy has revived an older notion of the
poet's role in society, and has chosen to live by it. All the
most admirable qualities in his work are branches of one tree:
his respect for tradition, form, meter and rhyme; his sense of
humor; his ear for what people say; and a humility that knows
the true worth of poetry in relation to other things of worth,
dispute the notion
that horses are poetry
it's not fair to the horse ("Horses for My Father")
nor underestimating that worth.
last the path runs straight
from his hovel to the skies
and the bolted postern gate
of the Western Paradise
where seven times seven
immortals judge a throng,
admitting some to heaven
for the pittance of a song.
of these qualities are rooted in an accurate perception of the
poet's role in society, and by society I mean what Russell Kirk
(paraphrasing Edmund Burke) defined as "a community of souls,
joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn." He adds,
"It coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians
call love of neighbor." Alfred Nicol
The Hudson Review, spring 2004
poet who is simultaneously 'at liberty and in control'
and who rejects the depressingly widespread philosophy that the
mind is the enemy of the heart is Timothy Murphy, whose
Housman-haunted third book of poetry, Very Far North ...
boasts an introduction by Anthony Hecht ... Murphy is a very gifted
poet who ... specializes in short poems that are formal, but also
comic, capricious, and charming." Bruce Bawer
Murphy recently gave Cynthia Haven an extended interview for the
on-line poetry magazine, The Cortland Review. Click here
if you would like to read it: