Timothy Murphy: bird hunting’s (should-be) poet laureate
By Tom Davis
Illustrations by Eldridge Hardie
Describing transcendent prose as “poetic” or “lyrical” has become commonplace. One can summon any number of examples from the larger world of literature (the work of James Salter leaps to mind), but even in the curious little corner of “outdoor writing” certain authors have been dubbed the “poet laureates” of their respective domains.
Burton Spiller, for example, is acclaimed as the poet laureate of grouse hunting, while Tom Kelly is hailed as the poet laureate of turkey hunting. Dana Lamb holds similar pride of place for his books on Atlantic salmon fishing, and to the extent that one writer can be singled out from the crowded field of trout-fishing contenders, it’s probably Roderick Haig-Brown.
This is all well and good. Superior writers deserve to be recognized and to enjoy a wide, appreciative audience—and if a little hyperbole gets sprinkled around from time to time, it’s hard to see the harm in it. Still, am I the only reader who finds it ironic that we admire prose writers for the poetic quality of their language and seek them out for that very reason, while we all but ignore the work of poets themselves?
If your response is, What poets? well, I’ll concede the point. Poetry in general is little read in 21st Century America, and a large percentage of those who do read poetry are poets themselves. So if you’re not a poet and you don’t subscribe to one of the handful of general-interest magazines (like The New Yorker) that still publishes “serious” poetry, it’s entirely likely that you can’t even name a contemporary poet.
Don’t worry: It doesn’t make you a bad person.
Of course, a big reason poetry is so little read these days is that so much of it is bafflingly incomprehensible. Those of us of a certain age long for the deceptively simple (read: more complex than meets the eye) poetry of Robert Frost—poetry that can be enjoyed and made sense of by the typical, reasonably literate taxpayer.
Frost’s work has the additional virtue of adhering to traditional poetic norms. Meaning, in other words, that it scans and rhymes. Indeed, it was Frost himself who famously opined that writing poetry in free verse is like “playing tennis with the net down.”
Well, what if I were to tell you that for nearly 40 years an American poet with unimpeachable literary credentials not only worked in classical rhyming forms, but also devoted the majority of his output to poems about hunting birds—pheasants, sharptails, doves, waterfowl—on the prairies of the Dakotas with his Labrador retrievers?
His name was Timothy Murphy, he made his home in Fargo, and his poetry, if you’ve not had the pleasure, will hit you where you live. Here’s a teaser from his large and luminous body of work.
I hauled September’s gear out of the truck,
waders, the Mojo Doves and Roboduck,
the Deep Woods Off, my threadbare Gore-Tex camo,
swapped duck and dove loads for our pheasant ammo,
fine cleaned my BSS, a 20 gauge,
while Feeney howled in a bloodthirsty rage
and I sprayed Rem Oil on my 28.
Destiny calls, and Feeney has a date.
As you can infer from the authority evident in that poem, Murphy was no dilettante afield. He once wrote, “I hunt with a purity of purpose which I devote to few endeavors,” and, while he earned his daily bread as an estate planner and venture capitalist, his life’s twin passions were hunting birds and writing poetry. Happily, the former provided a bumper crop of grist for Murphy’s restlessly creative mill, as he reflects in “Compensations of Age”:
We are not here just for the prairie views,
planets in indigo, my deepest blue.
No, we are here to harmonize Tim’s words
and bring an old widow a brace of birds.
He came by these passions honestly. Murphy’s father took him hunting for the first time when he was 7, the same age at which his mother introduced him to Shakespeare. By then the family was living in Moorhead, Minnesota (across the Red River from Fargo), having moved from Hibbing, the Iron Range town where Murphy was born in 1951. When he was a boy there, one of his babysitters was a shy kid with delicate features named Bobby Zimmerman—a kid who, some 60 years later and going by the name Bob Dylan, would become the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In 1968 Murphy traveled halfway across the continent—and crossed a gaping cultural divide—to attend Yale. Even among the best and brightest, Murphy’s talent stood out, and soon he was studying poetry on a one-to-one basis with Robert Penn Warren, then the éminence grise of American letters. Warren tasked him with memorizing an astonishing 30,000 lines of poetry; he also told him, on an occasion when the two were drinking together, that the first line of a poem should “grab you by the throat and say poetry the same way this Jack Daniel’s grabs your throat and says whiskey.”
Warren’s most important advice to his gifted protégé, though, was that he should steer clear of academia and the glossy allure of the literary “establishment.”
“Go home,” Warren admonished. “Buy a farm. Sink your toes in that rich soil and grow some roots.”
That wasn’t advice Murphy wanted to hear as a 21-year-old with highbrow literary aspirations, but by the mid-1970s he’d seen the wisdom in it and, after a stint in the Twin Cities, relocated to Fargo. And, yes, he did eventually buy a farm. Still, it wasn’t until 1985, when he acquired his first Labrador retriever, Dee (Elmwood’s Diktynna Thea), that the hunter’s road and the poet’s road fully merged:
(Diana the Huntress)
For José Ortega y Gasset
We hunker by the fire
to read a hunter’s praise
of Socrates. The blaze
leaps like a dog’s desire
when ducks circle a blind,
then gutters and burns low.
Outside the moonlit snow
flows in a bitter wind.
I scratch my bitch’s withers.
She sighs for whirring Huns,
cackling cocks, blasting guns
and a mouthful of feathers.
Murphy’s Labs—in addition to Dee there were Maud (Elmwood’s Maud Gonne), Feeney (Elmwood’s Bold Fenian) and Chucky (Lone Willow’s Cuchulain)—were a revelation. “Peerless creatures,” he called them. They invested his hunting with deeper meaning, opening up an undiscovered geography of drama, excitement and purpose. The partnership of his dogs engaged Murphy body and soul, tapping into a well of poetic expression that, once released, streamed out of his quill in torrents.
The resulting works, honed mirror-bright as the bores of a fine double gun, are collected in Hunter’s Log (2011) and Hunter’s Log: Volumes II & III (2019)—both books, by the way, beautifully illustrated by Eldridge Hardie. (Murphy, a longtime fan of Hardie’s work but at the time a complete stranger, sent him a draft of Hunter’s Log “out of the blue” and asked if he’d consider illustrating it; after staying up until the wee hours mesmerized by the power of what he was reading, a deeply impressed Hardie told Murphy it would be an honor.)
The poems themselves—which, as the title Hunter’s Log implies, comprise a loosely chronological album of what is ultimately a spiritual journey—range effortlessly from the elegiac to the exultant, from meditations on loss and disappointment to celebrations of triumphs afield and, sometimes, of the hard-won ability simply to pull yourself out of the sucking existential mud and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
We tingle with Murphy at the boundless anticipatory promise of a new puppy; we taste the bittersweet tang when he takes us hunting with a gray-muzzled campaigner who’s nearing the end of the line. There are cunning cock pheasants in these poems, implacably wild sharptails, speed-merchant doves whose succulent breasts Murphy dreams of spearing with jalapeño, wrapping in bacon and searing on the grill. We learn that he’s partial to gamebird gumbos too.
He writes not only of dogs and birds and hunting, but also of the savage extremes of weather on the Northern Plains; the bruising rhythms of the seasons; the ineluctable cycles of birth, life and death. As Stephen Bodio (an early and ardent champion of Murphy’s work) puts it in his foreword to Hunter’s Log: Volumes II & III: “These volumes are full of the rueful mortal comedy of a man who has seen friends and dogs die and knows he is not immune.”
Bodio’s words proved sadly prophetic: Timothy Murphy died June 30, 2018, at the age of 67, when Hunter’s Log II & III was in the early stages of production. I regret that I came to Murphy’s work too late to have known the man (like Murphy, I grew up in the deep Midwest but went East for college), and yet, through the unflinching honesty of his poetry, I feel as if I knew him well. Consider this, from “Hunting at Sixty-Five”:
Let me swirl sips of whiskey on my tongue,
Recalling barn doors where cocks were hung
to air, their entrails in the bloodied grass
where young hunters sigh with a soft alas
this hunt is over, and this too shall pass
when like our forebears we are growing old.
Too soon I shall come in out of the cold.