The Epic, Neglected Vision of Joan Murray


Arts & Culture

The following is adapted from the editor’s introduction to a new collection of Joan Murray’s poems, published last week.

Joan Murray. Photo courtesy of Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.


“What truth, what mystical awareness can be lived,” Joan Murray wrote in a letter to her mother. Like the young Rimbaud, Murray intended to make herself a seer—what she calls, among other figures, the “Unemployed or universal Architect.” She became this architect-seer not, as Rimbaud proposed, by a total derangement of the senses but by building “the firm reality of a consciousness, consciousness in the never-ending, the great wideness that one must blend withal.” Like Emily Dickinson and Laura Riding before her, Murray belongs to a radical arc of American metaphysical women poets, most of whom still remain unsung. Her untimely death from a congenital heart condition in 1942, at age twenty-four, marked the loss of an extraordinary poet; yet Murray’s poems recalibrate the notion of a life’s work. The tragic facts only underscore the epic achievement of her vision.

Five years after her death, out of the blue woodwork of 1947, her first book of poetry was published as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition with the title Poems by Joan Murray: 1917–1942. W. H. Auden, who had been dissatisfied with the manuscripts he had received as a first-year judge, had reached out to Murray’s mother to inquire about the possibility of publishing her daughter’s work posthumously for the prize. Murray had been a student in Auden’s Poetry and Culture course at the New School in 1940, and her mother countered Auden’s invitation with the accusation that he had killed her daughter by inspiring her “poetry fever.” But she was devoted to her daughter’s work and eager to see it published, so agreed to the Yale edition with the condition that her friend Grant Code—a poet, Harvard lecturer, and dance and theater critic—edit the collection.

While Murray’s Poems received mostly laudatory reviews in Poetry, the Saturday Review, the New York Times Book Review, and The New Yorker, it soon fell into obscurity and remained out of print for more than fifty years. I first learned about the collection in 2006, thanks to the poet Shanna Compton, who posted an invaluable pdf of it on the PhillySound blog’s Neglectorino Project, a series on neglected writers started by the poet CAConrad. In a note to the pdf, Compton writes, “Despite the untimely death of the author, the flawed editorial work, and the fact that the book has been out of print for decades, Murray has managed to earn something of an underground reputation.” How was it possible that Murray’s poems—with their wild and unwavering authority, their singular metaphysics of a migratory American psyche, one unburdened by any formal or aesthetic “schooling” and the clearest evidence we’ve ever had of the visionary nature of youth, what George Eliot averred of the young Teresa of Ávila whose “passionate nature demanded an epic life” and who found her epos in poetry—how could these poems be so totally unknown?

Joan Margaret Murray was born in London on February 12, 1917, during an air raid. She was born to Canadian parents, Stanley Webster Murray and Florence “Peggy” Margaret Murray (née Poaps)—parents who affectionately called her “Twinks.” Stanley, the son of a well-known Presbyterian minister in Toronto, had served in the war with a British infantry regiment and later became a successful portraitist and illustrator. Peggy worked as a traveling diseuse, a monologist who could also sing and dance. At some point, Murray decided she preferred the middle name Vincent—from the Latin vincere, “to conquer”—and often signed her poems Joan Vincent Murray.

The family moved frequently—to London, Paris, and Ontario—until Stanley and Peggy separated in the early 1920s, when Murray was about seven. At age ten, she was sent to live with the Jacksons, her maternal aunt and uncle, and their three children, in Chatham, Ontario, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Despite long stretches without seeing her mother, Murray maintained an intimate bond with her, the two corresponding extensively throughout Murray’s life, sometimes on a daily basis. Her father, though, dropped out of her life and seldom kept in contact.

Murray suffered her first bout of rheumatic fever when she was eleven, leaving her with a permanently damaged heart valve and susceptibility to recurring infections. Her condition required constant vigilance and extensive rest, but Murray was restless. Two years later, at age thirteen, she suffered an even more acute attack, one so severe that death seemed certain according to her doctors—but she survived it.

Murray’s formal schooling was irregular and incomplete. In the fall of 1929, she and her cousins Jean and Betty Jackson were sent to a local Ursuline convent boarding school, the Pines, which she attended off and on until 1932. That August, at the age of fifteen, she immigrated to Detroit, Michigan, with the Jacksons. In her passport photo she wears a serious, fiercely radiant expression, a blazer and tie, and a slick curtain crew cut. In Detroit, she finished the ninth grade at the Miss Newman School, but her secondary schooling ended there. A letter from Headmistress Newman described her as “lovely, modest” and wholly unsuited to a conventional education; with her extraordinary artistic sensibility she was “a soul apart.”

From then on Murray directed her own studies, focusing on writing, acting, and dance. She often worried about gaps in her education and struggled resolutely to fill them through a rigorous daily schedule and ambitious reading lists that reveal the breadth and depth of her study, as reflected in this letter to her mother, which she wrote when she was seventeen:

I was lying in bed yesterday thinking I ought to be creating something or other, that awful nagging feeling a writer gets, you know when suddenly the idea came that I should write nine dedicatory poems to the great people that I feel I know so intimately, the first five to those who are dead: Duncan, Terry, Bernhardt, Duse and Irving; the other four to Bori, Lily Pons, Barrymore and Le Gallienne—some job, what? The first on Le Gallienne probably breaks all the rules of poetry, grammar, punctuation, etc.

Even as a teenager, Murray always kept several dedicated irons in the fire and held high ambitions for her creative endeavors. A notable 1934 side project, The Hills and the Hollows, her childhood memoir in blank verse, describes a vision she had at age three of a ring of “two-inch miners” that she tried to save from a “lizard-sized dragon.” “It was a vision that a labor-union or communist St. Joan might have had,” she reflected, suggesting the kind of person and writer she aspired to become. Yet Murray’s primary desire at seventeen was to write for the theater and act. She was at work on her first major play, The Son of Pan, with hopes of the writer-director-actress Eva Le Gallienne, a pioneer of the American repertory movement, producing it. She writes to her mother:

I care too much about the theatre to wish to clutter it up with any more superfluous drama. Give me a year and I’ll give you a play! I’ll write it all over again. I’ll make it live! Put some strength into it! My main character is too interesting to handle in the manner I have. I should go more deeply into all the characters, make the poetry more unified and carry the play on to an ending truly worthy of the Son of Pan. Whether I can do this or not I don’t know. All I know is that I feel much happier at the thought. I mean business!

Murray’s dream to study theater at the prestigious Irvine School compelled her to move to New York when she turned eighteen. She acted and danced semiprofessionally, first with Theodora Irvine and the Irvine Players, continuing later to study theater with Tamara Daykarhanova and Maria Ouspenskaya and to dance with Mikhail Mordkin.

When she was twenty, she met the novelist Helen Anderson, and though they saw each other in person only four times, theirs was a marriage of true minds, the kind Murray shared with few others, and they corresponded frequently with a devotional intensity. The friendship with Anderson played a significant part in Murray’s decision to focus on writing and less on acting. At her friend’s suggestion, Murray started writing a novel but became so frustrated with it, she made little progress. She dreamed of joining Anderson and her boyfriend in an artist commune in Oregon and of becoming an ascetic “in a turret or in a desert with a sack cloth and nothing more.” But her mother insisted that Murray’s health was prohibitive.

By the fall of 1937, Murray felt even more caged by the theater and city life, and continued to plot a move to the northwest or to her native England. She headed back to Detroit without plans and stayed for two years, ever hungry for “crits” on her stunted novel and for artistic community. She studied part-time at the University of Michigan, where one course in Far Eastern art deepened her interest in Buddhist thought. And then in a short-story writing workshop with Donald Hamilton Haines in the fall of 1938, she found the support she craved. Haines encouraged her pursuit of fiction and advised her to delay publishing, advice she heeded. But a critical poetic revelation was imminent.

Murray had read and written poems since she was a child—A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad was one of her favorites—but reading Yeats when she was twenty-two spurred a conversion. Her transformation was sealed by the spring of 1940, when she moved back to New York and enrolled in W. H. Auden’s Poetry and Culture class at the New School, and then continued her studies with him in the fall in his seminar called the Language and Technique of Poetry. Auden was already a renowned poet at age thirty-three, and Murray found in him a kindred spirit, as she wrote to her mother: “I may ask Auden for crits because our struggles are in many ways alike and we are more of an age. As a creative artist he has not only talked but led. He has used his knowledge.” In the summer of 1940, between semesters, Murray and Auden exchanged many letters and their friendship grew. She worked and reworked her letters to him many times, characteristically using correspondence to formulate her own poetics and thoughts about art. She also continued to send him poems to read. In April 1941, Auden chose Murray’s poem “Orpheus: Three Eclogues” for publication in the magazine Decision: A Review of Free Culture, the first and only poem published in her lifetime.

The last three years of Murray’s life were her happiest, and marked by intense creative productivity, as she wrote to a friend in 1941:

There is the fresh imagination and understanding. I may hit directly to the core of the intellectual intuitive. One almost has to forget that others have thought before one so that the essentials may be alive and not inhibited by the second- or third-hand reaction generally exhaled. The mind of an Unemployed or universal Architect epitomized in the desire to recreate what is desolated, to rebuild; the fact that the spirit exists beside every terrible destruction; that the sensitive but inarticulate line is being put upon innumerable plans while all is in shambles. The characters are of course symbolic. The jungle that the whole thing may or may not pull through is pretty nerve-wracking. But as I have mentioned, I ask myself the question and the rest is inordinate adventure.

Murray moved upstate to to the loving home of Elmer and Pauline (“Dai”) Newton on Rockledge Road (now Rockledge Lane) in the town of Saranac Lake, New York. She embarked on extensive, solitary walking trips in the northeast, hiking the hills and valleys of Vermont and Massachusetts, often fifteen miles a day, from town to town, stopping to read and to write letters to her mother, and cavorting with other artists and travelers, the like-minded company she had long sought.

One summer day in 1941, Murray returned to Saranac Lake from a solitary walking trip in Vermont with a fever and was taken to General Hospital. What seemed to be a fever caused by an infection from a blister instead turned out to be a general infection spreading from her heart. Murray spent the last five months of her life between the hospital and her home at Saranac Lake. She was nursed by her mother and Dai, and visited often by the Jacksons, especially her cousin Jean. Murray died on January 4, 1942. Following her wishes, Peggy, Dai Newton, and her cousin Jean Jackson spread her ashes at the foot of the pines at Saint John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in Paul Smiths, a hamlet north of Saranac Lake, reciting her untitled poem that began: “It is not I who am sleeping in the rock under the wood.”

After the Yale edition fell into the dustbin of history, it wasn’t until John Ashbery published an article on Murray in the October/November 2003 issue of Poetry Project Newsletter that her work began to be noticed again in poetry circles. (Ashbery had also mentioned Murray in passing as a “central poet” in his book Other Traditions, published in 2000.) In February 2014, Mark Ford’s superb essay “Joan Murray and the Bats of Wisdom” appeared in Poetry magazine. In it he describes a trunk full of Murray’s original manuscripts supposed to have been lost in transit when Peggy sold her own papers, along with her daughter’s, to the Smith College archive in 1968. Ford inquired about the trunk and it was subsequently found, complete with a dent in its side, which corroborates the lore of its falling off the delivery truck. But what it contained was still a mystery as the materials had not been processed. Ford’s momentous homage to Murray and the bolstering promise of the trunk electrified me with purpose. I visited the archive at the Sophia Smith Collection in September 2014, and had the rare and exhilarating privilege of being the first to go through the new acquisitions, the long-lost papers of one of my favorite poets.

The new materials comprise a tremendous addition to her already astonishing output: the hundreds of pages of missing original manuscripts of poetry; several hundred pages of letters that unlock her previously scant biography and include her correspondence with Auden, as well as reflections on her poetics; about a dozen stories, at least one of which looked like a novella or the novel that she had abandoned, as well as a few short plays in various stages of completion; and the unfinished memoir of her childhood. Lastly, and perhaps the most singularly fascinating manuscript, was an almost four-hundred-page multi-genre autobiographical work that Grant Code compiled from all the materials listed above and dedicated to Peggy. Most if not all of Murray’s biography that I’ve pieced together comes from this text that Code titled A Faun Surmising.

In his editor’s note for the 1947 edition of Murray’s poems, Code accurately describes the papers that Murray’s mother passed on to him as a “confusion: pages of prose mixed with pages of verse and scarcely two pages of anything together that belonged together.” And yet, it is a well-known saga of women’s literary history that editors have “improved” or “corrected” their original writings according to their own agendas and perceptions of public taste. Code was well aware of this issue, writing in his note: “I am opposed to the practice of trying to ‘improve’ the work of poets, as was done with the poems of Emily Dickinson. The important thing is to preserve exactly what the poet wrote.”

Code’s effort to “prepare the poems for publication,” however, competed with his desire “to preserve exactly what the poet wrote.” He made frequent changes to grammar and diction in order “to make the meaning and syntax clear.” The punctuation he added is far more numerous and regulating of syntax than in even Murray’s most revised poems, where the punctuation became much sparser. Perhaps misreading Murray’s fluidity and innovation, he shaped single-stanza poems into quatrains and changed neologistic compounds like “greyskirts,” “tallgaunt,” and “summer-wheat” into two words or hyphenated them. Furthermore, because a clear final draft was rarely evident, Code’s approach was often to combine “the best of all versions,” merging drafts and supplanting the preferred variants, and to add titles to poems that Murray had left without them. He also omitted more than eighty poems considered “incomplete, fragmentary, or immature,” granted with some pressure from Auden to do so.

Still, it’s hard not to admire Code’s tireless efforts to present what he thought would be the best version of Murray’s work. Most of her poems exist in multiple typed drafts with no indication of their order of composition or of a preference for one version over another. What look like obvious spelling errors, typos, and formatting inconsistencies abound, sometimes making the text or handwritten edit over the text illegible. Given the absence of a final typescript, trying to understand Murray’s composition process automatically becomes open to interpretation.

After studying Murray’s papers—alive with her slanted scrawl—I discovered that the differences between the drafts of each poem weren’t significant enough to alter a single one. Instead, I considered each individual poem in its relation to the drafts and to the patterns of edits I noticed among all of her poems, and I selected for publication that which appeared to be furthest developed.

Though Murray was a self-professed perfectionist, she distinguishes between a lesser “neatness” and “balance.” The latter signals an erotic feat—when divisions inherent in one’s self intertwine. Her quavering lines—whether in scrawls, doodles, or poems—are drawn in heat. Her margins, like her poem’s churches, are filled with devils that look like monks (or vice versa) chained and doubling as if in sex magic. Her spiritual architecture is “Unemployed” and “universal”—free from the “second- or third-hand reaction generally exhaled,” the doors of perception cleansed. To be vulnerable to both continual destruction and creation and still participate in the work of the building spirit is Murray’s invincible realization as a poet. And the luxuriance of her uncontainability is there, in what is left unfinished, hanging utterly in the balance.


Farnoosh Fathi is the author of Great Guns (Canarium, 2013), editor of Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, and Poems (NYRB Poets, 2018) and founder of the Young Artists Language and Devotion Alliance (YALDA). She lives and teaches in New York City, most recently at Stanford Online High School, Poets House, Columbia University, and the Poetry Project.

Adapted from Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, and Poemscourtesy of NYRB Poets.