Far too much modern art is created by people who have never bothered to do the hard, painstaking, time-consuming work that is required to master the basics: line, shape, form, space, texture, color, value, and above all, the draftsmanship and drawing necessary to utilize those basics.
In the same way, “free verse” has been taken over far too frequently by poets who lack the musicality, discipline, and education to master the fundamental skills of rhyme, rhythm, and meter, with those conforming to a specific form, as elegy or sonnet or ballad or whatever. Early free verse, and good free verse today, was in reality anything but “free,” but just as with modern art, it is too easy to skip the hard work of learning a craft, justifying Robert Frost’s observation that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.
Timothy Murphy not only had all the skills—the discipline, the musicality, and the education—but he also had an extraordinary, unique, and very rare (in any age, but especially ours) capacity for memorization. When his professor and mentor at Yale, the legendary, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner (for prose and poetry, the only man ever to have achieved that) Robert Penn Warren, told Tim to memorize three-thousand lines of classical verse, Tim moved the decimal point and memorized thirty-thousand lines. 30,000! Think about that. I was trained as an actor, accustomed to memorization, and lucky enough to have a certain inherited facility for it, but I couldn’t memorize thirty-thousand lines to save my soul.
Tim was not the only poet working in our era to utilize rhyme and meter, but he was by far the most gifted, the most adept, the most versatile, and—by an enormous margin—the most prolific. He was also a farmer, venture capitalist, hunter, sailor, lover of dogs and fine guns, gay, alcoholic, a lapsed Catholic who returned to the Church, and undoubtedly a true and singular genius.
There are a lot of good poets alive today, and far too many of them labor in obscurity. But there are also far too many who consider any random, undisciplined collection of thoughts acceptable as “free verse.” Very few, damned few, have the skills and discipline necessary to write in rhyme and meter, but just as important, far fewer still have Tim’s incredible range of experience about which to write. He once said somewhere—to me? in an interview? to our mutual friend Steve Bodio? I don’t remember now—that most poets become professors and consequently have no human interaction with anyone other than eighteen- and nineteen-year-old students, or any world experience outside the ivied walls of academe to write about. Tim went home to North Dakota to farm, after Robert Penn Warren wisely refused to recommend him for a teaching position, and as a consequence he had a wealth of old men and women as his friends and neighbors and mentors, old men and women who knew something about life and all its ups and downs, about the good and bad, the success and failure, the love and loss, the joy and sorrow that life is made of. He had, in short, real material to study and draw from and write about, and Lord have mercy, did he ever!
He also wrote one of the most extraordinary, unusual, beautiful memoirs ever, Set the Ploughshare Deep, a unique combination of verse, prose, and woodcuts (by Charles Beck) that I cannot recommend highly enough.
I will give you three short poems of his, one an elegy for a dog, and one that could serve as his obituary.
Plagued by the lack of jingle in my purse,
by Keats and Tennyson jingling in my ear,
I double-clutched to ease into reverse.
A ten-year-old showed me his new John Deere.
He taught me PTO, the fourteen gears.
Choke – wasn’t that something you did on dates?
Not five feet tall, savvy beyond his years,
he jounced beside me through the barbed wire gates,
Then sank the disc with a hydraulic lever
into a half-section of golden stubble.
It stretched fencerow to fencerow, stretched forever.
“If a wheel spins, downshift, ‘cause you’re in trouble.”
For him, my height was no redeeming factor.
“You go to Yale, and you can’t drive a tractor?”
Perro del Amo
Go where the blue wings flash
over the whitecapped wave,
where crippled mallards splash
and every bitch is brave
When the returning dove
roosts at your mother’s grave,
I’ll bury a box of ash
beside her in the sod.
Vaya con Dios, love,
you were the dog of God.
Steve told his wife, “I think Tim’s going to die,”
ten years ago last fall,
but answering a call
from the Spirit I staged another try,
a last grasp for the sky,
and so ensued a decade, far my best,
but now I must endure a cruel test
which I shall fail, because my fate is sealed.
So here’s my gratitude
for ten years latitude
in which my crippled soul was slowly healed,
my wounds annealed
by mercies far beyond selfish intent.
Let this be my Last Will and Testament.
I wrote a profile of Tim for Sporting Classics, but since the magazine has agreed to publish it, I cannot post here until it appears in print. When it does, I will post it.
This world could use more men like Timothy Murphy, but his like will not pass this way again.