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A builder of `sound' buildings. In Richard Murphy's poems, form is as concise as content

The Price of Stone & Earlier Poems, by Richard Murphy. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press. 190 pp. $14.95 cloth, $7.95 paper. In ``Canterbury Cathedral,'' Richard Murphy makes the building ask him and, by implication, us, ``What building tuned your ear for poetry?'' It's a good question, and a provocative one. It reminds us that structures like buildings and poems are analogous, that the epithet ``sound building'' is more than a pun. It provokes us to think about the spaces we frame for ourselves, whether mental or physical, how and why we build them, and with what materials. And it suggests that for Murphy, and potentially for us, poetry is a paradigm of such building and such contemplation.

Richard Murphy began publishing his poems in the '50s. A few critics soon recognized him as one of the major new talents in Irish poetry since World War II. Others in that group -- John Montague, Thomas Kinsella -- went on to become more widely recognized. Murphy did not.

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As suggested by Dillon Johnston in his ``Irish Poetry after Joyce,'' (University of Notre Dame Press), it's likely that Murphy was considered old-fashioned in the '50s and '60s, a period when readers and critics favored the fictions of self-expression, even ``confession,'' in poetry.

Now, what Johnston calls Murphy's ``restraint and reticence'' may be more to our liking, and some of us will go so far as to say: Richard Murphy was right all along.

The poems in ``The Price of Stone'' bear witness to Murphy's lifelong commitment to the exacting discipline of the poetic craft. Reading it through is an eye- and mind-opening experience: one notices that, while the style of many poets of Murphy's generation got looser and more ostentatiously experimental, Murphy's poems reflect his increasing ability to make every aspect of language -- rhythm, meter, sound, definition, connotation, image, and so on -- work together beautifully toward an intelligent and intelligible end.

The result is shocking, really. Murphy's latest poetry, as represented by the title sequence (``The Price of Stone'') constitutes a series of 50 Shakespearean sonnets. And yet among these sonnets are some of the most moving modern lyrics I know. The limitations imposed by this strict form, like the peculiar device of having buildings and sites speak about what they've seen and experienced, have enabled, not crippled, this poet: These sonnets are among Murphy's best poems.

The sonnet exhibited here, ``Killary Hostel,'' shows how Murphy sees buildings as a part of natural history, and humans as among the elements. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's scruples about the ultimately public nature of language, and the burden that puts on personal expression, seems native to Murphy. Finally, the evocation of Wittgenstein in exile on the Irish coast is both moving and witty, especially the irresistible rhyme of sign/Wittgenstein.

These sonnets appear to be a fitting keystone of Murphy's window on the world. The polysemous title of the sequence refers in the largest sense to the cost of art to the artist. In ``Letterfrack Industrial School,'' one of the sonnets, Murphy writes: ``Wild boys my workshops chasten and subdue / Learn here the force of craft.''

That theme -- the price the artist pays to be an artist -- goes deep into Murphy's oeuvre. The ``earlier poems '' referred to in the book title include, for example, ``Stone Mania,'' a letter to friends apologizing for spending so much time on ``building more rooms / to entertain them in . . . .'' that he never had time to visit with them. And ``Arsonist'' says: ``So firm his tongued and grooved oak floors! / By his building he's possessed.''

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Then in ``Roof-Tree,'' one of the later sonnets, the poet speaks angrily to himself about his behavior after bringing his wife and first child home: ``How did you celebrate? Not with a poem / She might have loved, but orders to rebuild / The house.''

According to Murphy, there is a price the artist pays: Art takes its toll on the artist's experience; he pays for every step he takes into the hitherto unknown realm. But Richard Murphy is living proof that this doesn't necessarily mean the de-creation of the poet as a human being. If honest, he will measure his art against ``the price of stone'': such self-knowledge will make him a better person and a far better builder and artist.

Murphy has learned much from the great poetic builders -- from Yeats, of course, also Hardy, Dylan Thomas, and others. He has absorbed, and now helped make new, the ballad tradition. Behind it all is the proud Irish tradition of verse-craft.

Most importantly, as an artist Murphy has come to treat his building materials -- the words of the English language -- with the deepest respect, even with something like love. He handles each word in light of its weight, texture, and history. He has not builded on the sand. We can live with his poems, admiring each stony word that has weathered the test of time and human use.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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