Richard Murphy on Body Politic: A Poetry Collection
Interview Essay with Richard Murphy by Brooke Carlson
I was fortunate in that I was introduced to Richard Murphy a while back, and he was kind enough to entertain some questions. That expansive dialogue led us into the topics of teaching, poetry, and Murphy’s own writing. In our correspondence, Murphy shared two video readings: “Location, Location, Location,” the third poem in the Body Politic compilation, and, “Prologue to the Impossible,” the next to the last. These two serve as a bookend of sorts and I asked Murphy what he thought of new technology and twenty-first century poetry.
“For me, I see video poetry now as a marketing strategy, or a way to assist readers by welcoming them with images that may help with reading. Video poetry as an art in itself is probably an argument that could be made. After all, it is performance art, but so is writing a poem. The poet would need to be expert at video creation as well as at writing poetry.”
Murphy made these “readings” with Glenn Di Benedetto, a former student of his he has known and worked with for some twenty years. It’s always a treat to hear a poet read his own work, and I see this “video poetry” as a terrific way to augment the reader’s experience of the collection. Indeed, poetry is adapting to and within the new confines of digital literacy. Unlike the recording industry, book sales have not decisively shifted to online formats. If reading Murphy online, though, it will be that much easier to open another tab, or window, and search.
“Thinking Revolution?”, midway through the collection, starts with an epigraph from Walter Benjamin, the literary critic and thinker, and if you don’t know Benjamin, then it helps to be able to look him up. The first poem, “Arms,” is entirely made up of quotes, and citations in these poems range from famous dead writers to contemporary journalists. In an age when critical thinking, fact-checking, and certainly literariness are being re-visioned by conservatives as elite and out of touch, I asked the poet how he sees his poetry appearing in, to, and for the public. Murphy’s response helps organize the collection: “The epigraphs at the beginning of the book and at its middle were to mark the beginning and the middle as chapter epigraphs….I was trying to give foundation to the book of poems so that the subject matter wouldn’t come as a surprise.” Organizing a collection of poems can be a challenge in this way, and section divisions like these will likely helpful with contemporary audiences. In discussing this, Murphy also spoke of influences and departures:
“I am aware that my poetry is not, as Charles Alexander wrote on the cover of Americana, ‘your grandfather’s poetry.’ That is especially true in Boston where the confessional style remains very common today. I remember as a very young man reading other styles of poetry with admiration and deciding that I was going to respect the work of Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and Starbuck (who was one of my teachers and a wonderful poet and man) but move in a very different direction.”
One reason I enjoy Murphy’s poems is his merging of the emotional being and the intellectual. Many see poetry as the more emotive and emotional genre, more so than expository writing, and even than fiction. Murphy works through both. On poetry as of the head and the heart, he offers, “You may start out as a poet who rests on emotion using large doses of empathy, but you would need a way to grow so that you don’t repeat yourself. It is difficult to lean on emotion and empathy and not explore what intellect offers. After all, empathy is limited, even by the reach of an imagination.” As suggested by the title of The Body Politic, Murphy is reaching beyond the confessional tradition, working within a genre of democratic poetry, of capitalist poetry defined as “interactive, multi-media vignette for re-enactment. How do you beat ‘Just do it’ or the performance of eating as a pretend slave by eating from KFC’s bucket?” This is a question for all artists, as well as us ordinary folks. How do we make meaning in a capitalist vacuum that reduces everything to consumption? Murphy offers more, and I have reduced much of that material here.
“In a democratic poetry and poetry that lacks a cultural foundation educating emotion through educating the imagination is important. We have had to strip poetry of simile and allusion due to the lack of foundation. I understand very well the battle in aesthetic of modernism between Eliot and Williams and how important it was to strip connotation from English as much as possible so that the doors open to ‘the Other.’ And that happened and continues to happen through self-expression movements. But one can’t remain static as a poet any more than a surgeon can remain static in his practice. I am not advocating an elitist poetry, but I am articulating the bind many are in if we are poets looking to grow. Usurping democratic poetry and pop culture, capitalism that brings banality to everything has out done literary poetry and its use of empathy as its driving force.”
While Murphy is speaking broadly of genre here, and poets, he also returns to people, the “surgeon,” for example. One need not be a surgeon to read poetry, nor to feel capitalism. The impact capitalism has upon us all is profound. How much we feel certainly depends on our own individual consciousness, our own class, and our education. This leads us back to questions of readership. Murphy writes,
“Well, I am hoping that this book is relevant enough that a small readership embraces it. If the reader has paid attention to social justice and the economic issues, including the excuses for wars over the last forty years, the read should find it interesting or recognize the passion in it. If readers have read contemporary poetry books over the last twenty years, they should recognize what I am doing in the poems. (I am hoping to be realistic in my expectations.) Who do I think picks up my book? My pessimism suggests few will read the book though I am hoping to be wrong.”
I hope he’s wrong, too. Pick up The Body Politic, enjoy these poems, think deeply upon them, and share.