A few weeks ago a package arrived with a letter suggesting I might find the enclosed book worth reading. The book’s author, Timothy Murphy, was familiar to me, but not very much so. He was a poet, now dead, from Fargo, and this was his latest book, titled “Hunter’s Log: Volumes II & III.”
Some minutes had passed, maybe 15, and I was still standing, turning pages, the torn package and letter lying on the kitchen table, when I said to my wife, Jan, “Take a look at this.”
Stuck as she is with me, my wife weathered too many imageries of sun risings and settings, ducks banking into decoys, trout rising to sip flies and pheasants flushing into autumn skies. So she suffers fools of the trade not at all lightly, including me.
Murphy’s writing was far better than that, as was quickly apparent.
From “October, an Ode”: Twelve years ago, Pheasant Opening Day,/I said my verses on the National Mall./More love for poetry no hunter hath/than he set aside his predatory wrath/to fly east on the grandest day of all./Today I walk two thousand miles away.
Timothy Murphy was born in Hibbing. The son of literate parents who regaled their children at dinner and other times with Robert Burns’ verses, and Shakespeare’s, Murphy as a boy skipped a grade forward, was an Eagle Scout, graduated president of his senior class in Moorhead and journeyed east, to college at Yale.
By then he also bore a guide’s credentials as a bird hunter. His father, Vincent, had first taken him afield at age 7, and by his early teens he and Jim, his younger brother, were foot-walking marsh edges and brushy fence lines near Fargo and Moorhead, hunting pheasants. For armament they shouldered double-barrels their dad had purchased for them, choices both favored throughout their shooting lives.
The family’s move from Hibbing to Moorhead and later to Fargo was prompted in part by Vincent Murphy’s desire to make more money than he was paid as a teacher. Over the years in North Dakota he built a minor empire providing estate planning and selling business-continuation life insurance policies to farmers and ranchers, a venture Timothy ultimately also entered while concurrently cultivating a poetry career that time, most critics agree, won’t easily tarnish.
Throughout it all, after making and losing and making again millions of dollars in insurance, venture capitalism and farming (he once said his farm job was hardest of all: “I borrow the money’’), and publishing multiple books of poetry, he remained at his core a wingshooter who regularly rose at dawn to load his Labradors and follow his truck’s headlights onto North Dakota prairies.
Pheasants. Doves. Sharptails. Ducks. Geese. He loved them all. And wrote about them all.
That Murphy was gay and throughout much of his life enthusiastically abused tobacco and alcohol seemed not to slow him down, not even while peddling multimillion-dollar insurance policies to North Dakota farmers and ranchers.
“Tim could sell ice cream to Eskimos,” brother Jim, of Fargo, said. “He was very charismatic and enjoyed meeting new people. Even in the ’70s and early ’80s, being gay never was an obstacle for him. He didn’t hide it. But he wasn’t in people’s faces about it. People just accepted it.”
At Yale, Murphy left his mark. Named Scholar of the House in Poetry, he was mentored by Robert Penn Warren, who once told Murphy a poem’s first line should “grab you by the throat and say poetry the same way this Jack Daniels grabs your throat and says whiskey.”
Richard Wilbur, like Warren a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. poet laureate, wrote the preface to Murphy’s 1998 book, “The Deed of Gift.”
“A reader will find,” Wilbur wrote, “that despite the technical challenges which Murphy sets himself and meets, the voice of the poem is not that of a daredevil formalist or nifty technician, rather it is the voice of a Dakota farmer who knows everything about outrageous extremes of weather, crop failure, and the many adversities which can lead to falling-down barns and ghost towns.”
The “technical challenges” Wilbur references speak to Murphy’s use of meter and rhyme. Less common today than free verse, poetry written the “old way,” as did Robert Frost and Lord Alfred Tennyson, among many others, requires a command of language and cadence few can summon.
From the poem “Gas Station” in “Hunter’s Log: Volumes II & III.”
Pay at the pump, but something more./Come to the High Plains, hunters, where the best/farm kids on earth start in our Cenex stores,/then win our medals when they wage our wars.
Challenged at Yale by Warren to memorize 30,000 lines of poetry, Murphy mastered that many and more. In 2004, at the National Mall appearance referenced in “October, an Ode,” he recited by memory for First Lady Barbara Bush the first 20 lines of “Beowulf’s” Old English and translated versions.
He could have continued: He knew by heart nearly all of the poem’s Old English version’s 3,182 alliterative lines, which took more than six hours to recite.
“He was the smartest person I ever met,” said John Murphy of Maple Grove, a cousin and hunting partner.
On Jan. 10, 2018, Murphy’s 67th birthday, he was diagnosed with cancer. Always prolific, Murphy wrote even faster in his remaining days. “Hunter’s Log: Volumes II and III,” was in production at North Dakota State University Press when, six months later, he died.
Two more volumes of Murphy’s poems, “Hiking All Night,” and “Last Poems?” are planned.
From Murphy’s excellent 2000 memoir, “Set the Ploughshare Deep” this is “The Recruit.”
Memorial Day 1997.
An honor guard of battle-scarred old men
discharges antique carbines at the sky
as if the ghosts of war were winging by
like pintails flushing from an ice-rimmed fen.
How many of these troops will hunt next fall?
Fewer and fewer totter out to shoot.
They hardly hear the mallard’s bugle call
which lures me to the sloughs with my recruit —
a boy shouldering arms where reeds grow tall
and mankind’s present enmities are moot.