Poet Profile: Ralph Murre
Ralph Murre calls himself "a recovering Wisconsin farm boy who has taken to poetry instead of plowing, since the pay rate is about the same, and the females involved tend to be human rather than Holstein." Don't let him kid you: this farm boy may be able to handle a plow, but I would hate to think of the loss if this man hadn't discovered his gift for cultivating language as well as crops. Photographer, artist, and philosopher as well as poet, Ralph is the author of three books of poetry and maintains a blog that features a blend of his many talents. He also has a marvelously droll sense of humor--which you'll find in his answers here, along with some blunt truths and more than a little wisdom.
It sounds like a bad joke to say that my attention span isn't long enough to write prose, but I'm afraid it's true. 500 words seems ridiculously long to me when writing. I think, though, that a poet has very little choice in the matter; it is, in the truest sense, a "calling."
How did you come to be a poet?
I have this notion that a poet may be that well before putting pen to paper. What I'm suggesting is that it's in the eyes, in the ears. It's in the heart. I'm not sure anyone can teach you to feel what you do not, to notice what you do not. I compare poetry very directly to the visual arts in this matter. My own development? Scrawled a few odd lines on bar napkins, having come in from the farm to live a post-beatnik/pre-hippie life on Milwaukee's East Side. Then, nothing for years. A couple more bar napkins at the end of my first marriage. Again, nothing for years. Then in 1999, my father died and I wrote and delivered a eulogy for his funeral. Most terrible and wonderful thing I'd ever done. While that was not truly a poem, it led me back. I began to think I should keep going, and have, with tremendous help and encouragement from people to whom I am greatly indebted.
Do you have favorite poets or poems?
Oh, my, yes. I've only read Neruda in translation, so I'm not sure if it's him or his translators that I love. Same could be said for Czeslaw Milosz. But of the writers speaking my language, I gotta insist that you read "Braided Creek" by Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison. It's one of the books I'd want to grab on my way out of a burning building. Read Kunitz and Kenyon, read Bill Holm, read Carolyn Forche. Don't stop.
What's the most interesting "poetry pilgrimage" you've ever made?
If you mean have I traveled off to see the house of X, Y, or Z famous poet of the past, no. That doesn't interest me a lot, though I might make an exception for Isla Negra. I do go to hear some of the greats when they're more or less in the neighborhood. Naomi Shihab-Nye is a delight, seems to be living her poems. Li-Young Lee, Ted Kooser, Todd Boss, Sherman Alexie, who doesn't actually read at all--go however far you must to hear him, Billy Collins, Sam Hamill (these last two may both be aghast at being mentioned side-by-side). But now that I think of it, the real pilgrimage was to T. Kilgore Splake's "poet tree," which is reached by climbing cliffs high above Upper Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, there to wonder at the world at your feet and the mountain goat that is Splake, 70-something and not out of breath, tacking his latest offerings to the ancient and weather-torn birch, along with Tibetan prayer flags, correspondence from around the world, and our little poems in streamers and watercolor, all for the winds and the spirits to take what they will.
In the great scheme of things, where does poetry fit in?
I'm pretty well amazed that there are people who seem to get by without it. Some are even my friends.
Describe your writing routine and/or process.
I guess this is where I'm supposed to say that I arise at something like 6 o'clock, with my pen aflame. It's happened, but it's a rare exception. I have an almost total lack of structure in my writing life, and am not much better in the rest of my affairs. I DO keep paper and a pen at my bedside, and I DO carry a tiny spiral bound notebook in my hip-pocket. This little book holds everything from grocery lists to cabinet dimensions to interesting words, lines of poetry, and sometimes, first drafts, full blown.
What's the most absurd thing you've ever written a poem about?
When/where are you most inspired?
Oh, the poem might reach out to me almost anytime.
Which classic poet would you most like to meet, and why?
If by "classic," you mean "dead," hmmm. . .I'll have to think about that. But listen--so far as I know, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still with us. Here's a cat that was THERE, and still is. Yeah, I'd like to meet him, hear his music. One of my books, Psalms, is more or less an homage to Ferlinghetti.
Is there some consistent trademark or characteristic that you've discovered in your poetry?
I actually TRY not to have that sort of characteristic, but people who've been subjected to a great deal of my poetry say they can hear my voice in most all of it. Many of my poems are developed through word-play, and I suppose I often veil that a little too thinly for some tastes.
Anything else you'd like to share--advice, anecdotes, forthcoming adventure, etc?
Above all--and this cannot be over-stressed--don't put on airs; write in the simplest possible language that conveys whatever it is you're hearing. If it doesn't "sound like" a poem, don't worry; your attention span may be long enough to write prose.
Many thanks to Ralph for his time and reflection on these questions. You're invited to read some of his wonderful poems in the YDP archives.