“Go home, boy. Sink your toes in that rich soil and grow some roots.” So America’s first poet laureate urged his apprentice in 1972. Very Far North is the third book depicting the consequences of that advice.
After his undergraduate years at Yale, Timothy Murphy turned his back on cities and the academic world. Returning to the Red River of the North, he bought and sold, farmed and failed like his forebears. All the while he distilled what he saw, heard or felt into his tall tales and short verses. His first collection, The Deed of Gift, compiled more than twenty years of poetry. Published in 1998, the book promptly sold out its first printing, no small feat for the work of an unknown from North Dakota. But few poets anywhere have earned such encomia from the likes of Robert Penn Warren, Anthony Hecht, and Richard Wilbur.
Here is the conclusion of the latter’s preface for The Deed of Gift: “If I tried to say what it means for these poems to be so songlike, I think I would say that I hear in their music the jauntiness of a survivor, and the high morale of a man who has a purchase on reality, however bleak.” Murphy’s second book, a prosimetrum called Set the Ploughshare Deep, appeared in 2000. Adorned by the gracious woodcuts of Charles Beck, it gained additional accolades for its author. In this rich soil of literary recognition, Murphy’s muse has blossomed, and his new crop of verse has grown quickly. In his thoughtful preface to Very Far North, Anthony Hecht observes: “If Fargo, North Dakota, seems off the beaten literary track, it has not kept Murphy from the sort of mental voyages abroad that Dickinson liked to make: and in this volume the reader will encounter excursions into Norse Mythology, Inuit legend, Sioux lore, Japanese art, Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Latin sources, including a terse condensation of the first choral ode of Sophocles’ Antigone.”
Amid this diversity of sources, a single and singular sensibility unites apparent contradictions. Murphy is simultaneously rural and urbane, humorous and grim, gay (in both senses) and austere. Hecht concludes: “If his poems are dealt out as morsels, this book constitutes a large, nourishing, and uncommonly varied banquet.” Robert Frost’s poem 'There Are Roughly Zones' provided the title and epigraph for Very Far North. Since Frost’s death, few poets have bidden more persuasively to win repute as America’s most distinctive regional voice.