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Published March 16 2012

Poet drawn to Gaelic verse’s tuneful nature

North Dakota poet Timothy Murphy can easily explain his affinity for Gaelic poetry.

The Fargo writer, hunter and farmer once heard it said that when poetry gets too far away from the dance or song, it’s in trouble.

“Irish poetry simply stays very close to the song and the dance, and Ireland has a formidable record,” Murphy said. “Yeats isn’t a one-man band over there. Ireland maintains a standing army of 3,000 poets. Their contribution to English poetry is way disproportionate to the tiny size and population of the country.”

One might wonder if the suffering element of Irish history bears any weight on this fact, to which Murphy replied, “Suffering is helpful – the greatest poetry comes out of suffering – although certainly great poetry can come out of joy as well.”

More so, he said, the vibrancy of Gaelic poetry, both Scottish and Irish, can probably be explained in terms of its being more of an oral tradition than that which is produced in places such as England, “where poetry essentially exists more on the page rather than being sung in the pubs, which is what keeps it close to song.”

An academic poet, having graduated from Yale in the 1970s as Scholar in the House of Poetry, Murphy described the true wellspring of his poetry as the folk songs of Ireland and Scotland, particularly the poetry of Robert Burns in Scotland and William Butler Yeats in Ireland, as well as their descendents in Canada’s Acadia and American’s Appalachian Mountains.

“I wanted to be a folk-singer and folk-song writer when I was younger but I just didn’t have a good enough voice and wasn’t a good enough guitarist, either,” he said, noting that his ultimate decision to change from singing to poetry “was a gain for both arts.”

Yeats was a particular influence on Murphy, who took a three-year tutorial from poet and novelist Robert Pen Warren. Murphy memorized 30,000 lines of poetry as a child, and of those, about a third were William Butler Yeats, he said.

“His command of music in English poetry is unsurpassed by anyone who has ever written lyric poetry, and thank God I was able to shake off his influence,” he continued, “and, once I got a life of my own, started writing about hunting and farming in North Dakota.”

Words For My Forebear, Perhaps

“Do not despair, love. Do not grieve,

though you’re with child and I must go

from a wharf white with snow.

Trust that we take not now our final leave.

“Somewhere I’ll find an unclaimed swale,

and there bailiffs who cannot wait

for the maize to ripen late

will never march their tipstaffs down the trail.

“When I have earned your steerage fare

you and the child can follow me

to where rack rent will be

a bitter memory of County Clare.

Click on the link to hear Murphy read this poem.


Local poet Timothy Murphy’s latest work includes three poetry books published by the Fort Mandan Foundation and Dakota Institute Press. All are available at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo or online through Amazon.com