Ralph Waldo Emerson said the poet is "the complete man" who "apprises us of not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth."
Walking on Grand on a warm, bright Monday afternoon, I'm not surprised to see Gerry Murray (or Gerald E. Murray, public relations executive, or G.E. Murray, poet) on his way out of Jazz Record Mart. He can't stop long to talk, he tells me, because he must put in a few minutes more at the office before rushing home to River Forest to change clothes and coach his Little League team. "It's the last game of the season," he explains, "but I have to warm them up first."
Exactly when Murray has time to listen to his constantly expanding jazz collection is a bit of a mystery, but then he doesn't seem to need much sleep. Perhaps it helps that he only likes bebop.
G.E. Murray's poetry has been published in more than 60 magazines and seven anthologies, and he received a Pulitzer nomination this year for his most recent book of poems, Walking the Blind Dog. He reviews poetry and fiction for a wide variety of publications, including the Tribune, the Sun-Times, Chicago magazine, and TriQuarterly.
He is also general manager of the Chicago office of Ruder Finn, a highly respected New York-based public-relations firm; he presides over PEN's midwest chapter and serves on its national board; he periodically lectures on public relations at Columbia College and Northwestern University; and he races his sailboat, paints, and served until very recently on the boards of directors of several not-for-profit organizations--he's still on the board of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. He collects pipes (more than 200, most of them English and most of them unsmoked), antique pistols (about 20, mostly from Europe), toy soldiers (also about 200, also mostly English, but including a few Nazi soldiers from Germany), and paintings (mostly European figurative work). He keeps a fanatical watch on all the Chicago sports teams, drinks regularly with his buddies, with his wife Joanne is raising three kids--Caitlin, 16, Michael Brendan, 14, and Megan, 11--and goes to church on Sundays.
When I meet him outside Jazz Record Mart, he's wearing a rumpled beige summer-weight suit, a striped shirt, no tie, and Italian loafers. It's the first time I've seen him without a tie; he usually looks as if he's just come from a meeting with the president of IBM. The conservative suit, the striped shirt, the innocuous tie dissuade one from thinking of Murray as a Renaissance man. The large girth belies his high level of energy. Altogether, Murray doesn't look like who he is. He contradicts George Orwell's observation, "At 50, everyone has the face he deserves."
In 1974, after Murray published a chapbook, a Newport News reviewer wrote, "I've met Gerry Murray once, a big boisterous man who seems incapable of anything but smashing linebackerish poems. That's what is so good and beautiful about these poems--the tension that exists between true sensibility and a vigorous appetite for the world." I wouldn't characterize his more recent poetry as linebackerish, but a vigorous appetite still strains against sensibility.
At six feet, three inches, 250 pounds, Murray looks like a football player gone a bit to seed, not flabby, but not hard-muscled, either. He hasn't wrestled or played football or baseball since he left college in 1968, but he still moves gracefully. He works out in the gym three mornings a week, playing a little racquetball but mostly sitting on a stationary bike, reading his newspaper.
While he is surprisingly lacking in nervous habits, an air of busyness emanates from him. He speaks quickly and excitedly and often rushes in on the other person's sentences. He speaks with authority, and one tends to believe what he says; when he listens, it is as if your every word was gold.
Murray stopped smoking about ten years ago but there's still that charge to him of the nicotine fiend briefly between cigarettes, and every so often he'll take out one of his hand-carved English pipes and light it up. He drinks fairly steadily after work. He has to do something, one feels, to draw off the energy that drives him.
You have to know Murray pretty well to understand all the balls he's juggling--those kids he's coaching, the CEO of Jewel Stores he's advising about how to contain the damage done by a salmonella outbreak, the wind he's studying from the deck of his J24 sailboat, the review he's writing while flying through the night to London, the teenage daughter he's negotiating with about the use of a family car, the Chamber of Commerce board meeting he's sitting in on, the communion he's taking on Sunday morning. And all the while he's thinking about a new poem. He's working through the night now on one of the poetry projects he has going, one on coal mining, one based on the liturgy of the Mass, another on high fashion, yet another on voodoo and witchcraft.
You have to know him pretty well to know about all this. You're more apt to hear him exclaiming about the Cubs or the Bears or the Blackhawks or the Bulls or the mayor's latest shenanigans. He's like most men. He knows that jazz, poetry, painting, and writers' organizations are not the stuff of ordinary conversation, and Gerry Murray loves to be one of the boys. His "boys" include some of the best-known literary figures in America, though he says he doesn't much enjoy the company of other poets. The "literary" person he likes and sees most, he says, is Christine Newman, his editor at Chicago magazine and a longtime friend who is treasurer of PEN/Midwest.
"One of the nice things about writing in Chicago," Murray says, "is that there's no pressure on you to hang out with other poets. They're nice guys, but I sure wouldn't want to have a beer after work with them."
He's behind the desk in his office at Ruder Finn. I ask him, "What is your vocation?"
"My vocation? Oh boy! I think it's writing."
"So you're a writer who's a businessman, not a businessman who's a writer?"
"I think so. A guy I knew in college said to me not long ago, "I guess I'm sorta surprised that you're still writing.' I think there were a lot of us, when we came out of school, thought we'd go on writing, but in the back of our minds was, "What if no one ever publishes this shit? What if the magazines don't buy our stuff? What if we can't find a book publisher?' There might have been a time when I said, "I'm nuts and this is crap. Let me get on with my life. What do I do well? Maybe that's what I ought to pay attention to. You know, am I a good husband, a good lover, a good father, a good public relations person?' But I'm at a point where I'm way past that. I don't foresee now a time in my life when I wouldn't write. What I can see is the real need to publish more books. I have in mind four or five books.
"But as I answer your question, I'm sitting here thinking I've got a bunch of clients out there who are thinking, "He's doing this part-time,' which isn't the case at all. But if this is any measure, a day doesn't pass when I don't think of writing or revising a poem. It's long and it's tedious, but that's basically what I'm interested in. But you have to fill out your life with other things. There have to be other areas and other dimensions, so being a commercial communicator when I'm not being a noncommercial communicator works just fine with me. Some of my colleagues have urged me to write for the PR journals and do an occasional book, but I've made a conscious decision to write poetry and criticism and that's all. That other stuff takes a lot of time that I just don't have."
I'm curious. What drives Murray to try to juggle so many balls? "I'll tell you," he says. "It just strikes me that it's important to operate at a lot of different levels and have a lot of different interests. The people who are very good at business, or at sailing, or very good poets--that's just not enough in life. But why do I feel that way? I don't know. I always have this feeling that I face a deadline, that I'm always rushing from one thing to another. I've always done it. I don't know why." Murray doesn't really care why. One gathers that he does not regard introspection as manly talk.
Is sitting on a bar stool pouring small amounts of rum into a tall Coke at Riccardo's while bullshitting with his friends Murray's form of relaxation? "Yes, I'm pretty devoted to my friends. It's kind of passing time between this stuff, which is usually going crazy," he says, waving his arm over his desk, "and then going home to either do more of this stuff or write. Thank God Riccardo's is so close. It's literally on my way to my car."
He's at Riccardo's two or three evenings a week until 7:30 or 8. Other nights, he has meetings or dinners with clients. His wife, he says, saves dinner for him most nights. Does this bother her? "If it does," he says, "she's never said anything." She is a licensed dietitian who works for a company that invents and markets new recipes and food products. She is usually home before five, Murray says.
From "Poetry," by Marianne Moore:
I too, dislike it: there are things that are
important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
contempt for it, one discovers in it
after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high sounding interpretation can be put
upon them but because they are
useful. . . .
One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence
by half poets,
the result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, "imaginary gardens with
real toads in them," shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand
on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, then you are interested
Marianne Moore would approve of the poetry of G.E. Murray. The imaginary gardens that abound in Murray's poetry are mostly urban gardens, filled with the real toads of urban decay. As a reviewer in the Kansas City Star said of his first book of poetry, Repairs, in l979, "Murray explores the urban landscape--the relationship of natural man to an unnatural environment. Murray's flair for the striking image, the incongruous metaphor, supplies the poetic mainspring of insight and revelation." Consider this long fragment from the first poem in Walking the Blind Dog, "Swear to God: A Prologue From Memory":
Aroma of Friday night's
Yellow or blue pike fried crisp in dockside saloons,
Delicious once more,
Wafting among the unshaven men from rented rooms,
Who sink downstairs
To stumble in sawdust. People I know are there.
I hear them dissecting
Ambitions and love, those bloodless crimes of self
They tell in clusters,
In muscatel voices. The jukebox scratches on and on.
The sauntering proceeds;
Punctual calls for more watered liquor and song
All night. With such music,
Such wallowing of entertainments, they celebrate
Minor national disasters--
Wasting no words, braced for the last swallow.
Halfway home to memory's
Free clinic, an exercise in redemptions, and it's me
Again, really sliding up
A crowded, beer-soaked floor, and I'm six years old
Again, and I'm dancing
For heartless laughs and a fistful of gray pennies,
By God, dancing hard.
Most contemporary poetry lies dead on the page, full of obscure imagery designed to be disentangled by academics. Murray chooses his images from everyday life. Listen to this fragment from "Michigan," one of a series of poems about the Great Lakes:
Forgive us this dream of black and white, of the sad grins of the smelt fishermen,
that fast dancing in lakefront casinos, of blowtorch stacks rimming a lower skyline,
of kickwater shells gathering to design, of the chalky galactic light warming like milk
over Shedd Aquarium, along Meigs Field, inflexible in habit, without good reason.
We believe somehow in a northern shore, where the pig-iron barge trundles outward
toward movie-house darkness, and one gull lifts slowly and high in its losing flight.
What lifts Murray's poetry above the ranks is not just its accessibility but its ability to excite emotion. Finding an example is easy; choosing one is not. But consider this:
Tonight, only the dead you love
Ordain the places you left,
Lacking any right connection
Or vast territorial caress.
Only those dead you love tonight
Reach out like floodlights,
Grow louder than anthems.
So we have intricate times told
In two-part harmony, our retreats
And crossings, cold drizzle.
For many contemporary poets poetry is merely about words, about clever, often very skillful ways of putting words together. But poetry can also be about ideas and feelings, about attitudes, about religion, sex, history, economics, politics, and all the stuff of the human being in the world. Gerry Murray writes about this stuff. Here is a fragment from a poem called "At the Japanese Baths":
So it is whenever I prize her precise feet
bodywalking, I dream
she must be marching hard
into the foothills of Fuji
one moonless night,
us both bone-white and filled
with mist and stoney ash
from the very times we survive,
obedient to pain,
attendant to withdrawal,
while neither would ever admit
feeling a thing.
And this is a poem written in Buffalo, New York, Murray's hometown, about Squaw Island, a municipal refuse dump that Murray explains in a prelude is said to have been "home for a band of prostitutes who serviced workers from the Erie Canal, circa l840."
Kissing that last sure drop of sweat
From a heavy lip, tongues wag easy
In this good composed land
Amid mire and flesh, a threat of snow.
We rise from a hut born
To game and holiday, knowing barely
Ourselves. None of us escape
The terrible progress we make
Suffering yet another pleasure.
Sad, say, the ways we loved like stones--
No courting dance, no feathers
Or gesture. But then nobody asked
For more than favors or strange luck.
Murray's poetry is occasionally self-referential, and the tone of these poems is often mocking. Drinking appears once in a while, such as in this fragment from "Double-Dare Dreams at the Hotel Amsterdam":
Behind me, skin and wine, more composure
Under that bare stone moon. So a jenever
For luck, so a bloody spit for the sewer.
Nearsighted, I call it prayer and pour
Another treatment, another long hour
Marking time in the name of the Old Sailor.
For the first 60 years of the century poetry--like all the arts--flowered in America. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound fled to Europe. At home were William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, John Berryman, the beats--Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti--to name only some of the best known.
Their poems, as poet/anthologist Selden Rodman wrote in 1949, swept away the l9th century. They invented "imagery patterned . . . on everyday speech," poetry shorn of conventional rhyme and freed "from the ordinary logic of sequence, jumping from one image to the next by 'association' rather than the usual cause-effect route." Their concern was the common man, "almost to the exclusion of the 'hero.'" Their readings attracted hundreds of people.
The winning book of poetry in a recent contest that received more than 2,000 entries sold only 500 copies. The poet Dana Gioia wrote in the Atlantic last year, "American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group." Even the poetry of the nation's poet laureate, this year Mona VanDuyn, is generally ignored.
What accounts for the change? Why is it said that today, more people write poetry than read it?
"What happened was that poetry became academic," says Murray. (The phone on his desk keeps ringing as Murray talks, and colleagues stick their heads in, and after every interruption he picks up exactly where he left off.) "Because they can't make a living as poets, they went into the academy. When you think of our great poets--or good poets, we don't have a lot of great ones--they weren't academicians. Whitman certainly wasn't an academician. Emily Dickinson. Poe. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Eliot was a banker. William Carlos Williams was a skilled doctor. It wasn't until the 50s, but really the 60s, that the poets and the novelists went into the academy."
Murray pauses a moment, then his words rush on. "Poets lost touch with the world. They began writing poems about poems, writing about their neighbor's writing. How boring! How trivial!
"What happened and what annoys me most is the self-absorption of the poets now. Joe Parisi [editor of Poetry] has this parody of a modern poem, something like, 'I'm sitting at my kitchen window. I'm staring out. And I'm important.' That's a lot of what poetry is today. That's harmful to the craft. It's harmful to the readership. I think it drives the readers away. I think it leads to people coming to poetry and saying, 'Is that all there is? I can do that.' I think there's a lot of that."
Is he thinking of the cabaret poets who are attracting so much attention today? "Yes," he says. "It's 'I think I'll be a poet. All I have to do is show up at the Green Mill on Sunday night. And maybe I'll get laid.' I think there's a lot of that in the cabaret poetry. The social instead of the artistic thing. We have literally thousands of these would-be poets who may be thinking as much about getting laid as about making poetry. There are those groupies. 'Writing poetry seems to be glamorous. It'll get me laid.' But serious poetry, the published stuff, the stuff that earns the prizes, has the same effect on people. It's all so self-absorbed."
Murray continues, "I think good things come and go. The great flowering we had couldn't sustain itself for the whole century. There was the rebellion against Eliot and his influence into the late 50s and early 60s, and then the development of the confessional poets--Lowell, Plath, and Sexton--that seemed exciting then but just seems tedious now. The great flowering just seemed to wear itself out. And this may sound like crying in my beer, but other things started happening--the cinema, television exploded in the 50s. The world that Robert Lowell grew up in is quite different from the world I grew up in. Much more complex.
"But I think the main thing is that poets are not living in the real world. This is a little self-serving, but where I live there is material for poetry. I've been accused by friends who've read my work of packing three pounds in a one-pound bag, of crowding too many images into a poem. But that's a risk I take. I can read the Wall Street Journal on semiconductors, not a story I'm interested in, but there may be a phrase I steal. I lift the phrase and put it in my notebook. I'm a great collector of phrases and ideas from everywhere. They will end up a hundred miles from where they started, but they add dimensions that I hope gives my poems their life. You need all that input to make poetry. All the really good poets knew that." Marianne Moore called for real toads.
Murray speaks of other poets with some authority. He has been reviewing poetry for 20 years and has read, by his estimate, several thousand books of poetry in the process. "When I rail against cabaret poetry," he says, "it's not because I'm against experimentation, though I come from a fairly traditional background. I'm not at all against breaking the rules. But you need to know the rules before you can break them. The cabaret poets are not really breaking rules. They just don't even know any rules exist. And some of the serious poets are breaking the rules for the sake of it rather than for the sake of making a poem.
"Frankly, I feel as if I'm in the asshole of the century from a literary point of view. No one's writing great stuff that I can see. It's not as much fun as it must have been in the 20s, for instance. The 20th century came in like a lion. It's sure going out like a lamb. Poetry is in trouble as an art."
Murray refers to the Atlantic article in which Dana Gioia argued for poetry's importance in the life of the nation. "The poet's central mission," wrote Gioia, quoting Mallarme, "is 'to purify the words of the tribe.' . . . One is hard pressed to imagine a country's citizens improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry." Gioia quoted Pound: "If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays."
Murray adds, "What's important is that it's so inherent to the structure of the language. Cultures without poetry fail. They collapse. That's historically true. When you lose part of what informs the language--poetry, which energizes the language--it's potentially dangerous. Most of the poetry being written today doesn't add to the language. Certainly that stuff in the cabarets doesn't add anything. Whether you liked the confessional poets or not, whether you liked the beats or not, they added to the language."
I ask Murray about poets writing in other languages who have invigorated their own native tongues--and ours in translation. What about Joseph Brodsky, a native Russian? And the Pole Czeslaw Milosz? I ask Murray. "I think in our quarter of the century they are the best. That's because they have broad humanism and compassion. They've been war torn. They have ideas. Even in translation, when they might look a little trite when they talk about faith and glory and hope, you know that it's true, it's heartfelt, as opposed to some dipshit who comes from suburban Chicago talking about 'Woe is me. Ah life.' Ah life in the shopping malls!"
And what about the Latin Americans? "Borges, Neruda, Octavio Paz were almost trendy when I was in graduate school, but I don't think anything is happening there now. But the Eastern Europeans are another thing. Poles, Czechs, former East Germans, whatever Yugoslavians we can still find alive. I'm working with the Goethe Institute to arrange a panel of former East Germans to come and speak for PEN.
"Poetry is much more important in Europe. The second largest paper in Rome devotes its third page to literature. There are always poems published there. The chances of that happening in the United States are nil. The last time I saw anything even near the front page of a newspaper here relative to literature--even the Pulitzer Prizes are back-page news--was when Anne Sexton's biography came out, and that was only because her shrink turned her tapes over to the biographer. It had nothing to do with her being a poet. It had to do with her being a famous suicide.
"England is just kind of dowdy. And nothing's happened in France since the turn of the century. The poetry today is in what I'm still calling Eastern Europe, though they probably wouldn't like that."
At one time Murray envisioned a career in the academy. His first taste of teaching changed that. A graduate assistant, he taught freshman English at Northeastern University in Boston from l968 to l97l, while he studied for an MA in English at Northeastern and then for a master's in creative writing at Brown University, 45 minutes from Boston. At the same time, he supervised a Northeastern dormitory to make a few extra dollars.
Murray became buddies with his office mate at Northeastern, the then brand-new crime-novel writer Robert Parker, and he enjoyed associating with writers John Hawkes and James Schevill at Brown. Otherwise, the experience appalled him.
"I actually thought I would teach English until I got to graduate school and found out what it was like," he says. "This is as ugly a place as the so-called real world. English-department politics were horrible. Arguing over the slightest point. Really nasty. And what's the life? Reading freshman themes! God! Once I realized what the academic world was like, after those years at Northeastern, I gave up any ideas of that."
Murray had already begun to publish his poetry. Now he needed a way to earn a living. Most English majors in his shoes look for work that at least involves using the language. They become advertising copywriters or go into publishing, usually starting as researchers or assistants to editors. Or they try public relations. Murray chose PR. And he decided to enter it through the insurance industry, after Wallace Stevens, who'd been an insurance company executive.
At Northeastern, Murray had studied with the Stevens scholar Samuel French Morse. He had engrossed himself in Stevens's work and life. Now he got a job as a speech and public affairs writer for Allstate Insurance in Northbrook. He remembers his friends at Brown telling him, "The only kind of writers they'd want at Allstate would be underwriters." But he adds, "They obviously had corporate communications. I told them I could write speeches. I'd never written a speech in my life. But they were kind and generous and let me work."
In l975 Murray joined the Chicago office of Burson-Marsteller, a large international PR agency. "I thought I'd be out of there in two years, but I liked it and stayed." Murray was there 13 years and he's remained in the business since. He's worked extensively in Western Europe and Japan doing traditional PR and marketing work.
He established a reputation as a skillful crisis manager. The day in l982 when the story broke about the Tylenol murders in Chicago, Murray was visiting Burson-Marsteller's New York office. Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, was a client. His New York boss said, "Gerry, I want you on this because you're in Chicago."
Murray explains that crisis management is always a team effort. Thirty people were involved in the Tylenol assignment, which acquired a reputation as "the classic case," he says. "That case shouldn't be viewed as the classic case, though," Murray adds, "because the client was really a victim. The real problem cases are the ones in which the client commits a boo-boo."
Murray's team created new methods of handling crises, particularly the teleconference, a nationwide closed-circuit press conference in which all the major players could participate. The Johnson & Johnson teleconference patched together hundreds of people in 30 cities. Johnson & Johnson lost hundreds of millions of dollars when it promptly removed Tylenol products from the nation's drugstore shelves. But the brand eventually regained its dominant position in the analgesics marketplace. Murray says Tylenol's good name was retrieved by "careful opinion research about what we needed to do."
He began to get frequent calls to help out in other business crises. Several days after an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that was traced to dairy products sold at Jewel stores, Jewel's parent company turned to Murray in desperation. The company had botched the situation, he says. "At Johnson & Johnson, you didn't have to tell the chairman to be caring and sensitive. He was. And he was pissed off at what had happened. In the case of Jewel, the parent company [American Stores] out in Utah was saying, 'It's no big deal. Keep it local.' Well, an outbreak of salmonella poisoning is hard to keep local. It spreads like wildfire. You shake hands and you've got it. In an hour you're vomiting your guts out. I'd heard about it in the news. Then I got a call on Easter Sunday from my boss to prepare to go to Jewel with a proposal to help with the response to the public. Five or six days had passed and it had spread to five or six states. About l4,000 people actually got sick. And all the time they'd been stonewalling people. People would call to find out what to do, what was happening, and they would say they had nothing to say. We were finally able to convince the chairman to go on television to make some explanation. And then we put out some public-service radio and television spots telling people what to do if they got sick. But the damage was pretty much done. It finally just went away.
"To this day, I still get calls for this stuff. When I was in Florida on vacation I got a call on the Chicago flood. But I wasn't interested. I wasn't coming back from my vacation. There was a time in my career when I would have flown back immediately, when that was very exciting to me, but now I'm too old. It's not worth the thrill of the hunt anymore."
These kinds of business crises seem to be happening much more frequently, I suggest. "Yes," Murray says, "I think we are in a crisis era, because people are trying to do things much faster, cheaper. It's much more competitive out there. So here we are blowing up silos, the O-rings don't work, foods are getting poisoned. All this has to be remedied and apologized for. Take the Sears things. For l00 years, they existed on their goodwill. Now, this auto repair racket. It's like my mother sleeping with some bum. Jesus, my mother doing that! That's a public relations problem that takes a lot of thought." It's not his problem, however.
The meat and potatoes of public relations isn't crisis management but spreading the good word. Murray says one of his favorite clients today is Stouffer's. "It's a good product," he says. He enjoys boosting it.
There's a question anyone in PR has to be asked: Do you ever have qualms about dressing up a dirty chicken? Murray insists he has never done this. "I've declined to work for some people. I had an opportunity to work on the new hospital that Oral Roberts was putting up in Tulsa. I'm not saying it was a dirty chicken, but I felt uncomfortable with it. Not a professional qualm, a personal qualm. I had a chance to do some work for the tobacco lobby. I was even a pretty serious cigarette smoker at that time, but I opted against it because I had a pretty strong sense that cigarettes weren't good for your health, that the surgeon general's warning was true. I could smoke on my own because that's between me and myself, but I didn't think I wanted to bring what I thought were my very persuasive abilities to a larger audience, so I turned them down.
"A couple of other people have called over the years and they're absolutely guilty, and if they're willing to tell you that I believe they deserve their day in court, but that's not to say that I would alter the truth. Sometimes you just have to tell the truth and cut your losses. The ones that really annoy me are the ones you have a strong feeling they're on the wrong side of the issue, but they don't tell you the truth. The time and money isn't worth it to work for them. So while I do believe that everyone deserves his day in court and not only in the courts but also in the media, I reserve the right not to work for someone like that."
I wonder about the division of personality that has to occur in a person who is both a poet and a businessman. "Isn't it true that PR people have to suppress their own egos because they are working in someone else's name?" I ask Murray.
"They should be able to. The good ones can," he says. "Never get your name in the newspaper."
"That's the least of it," I reply. "I'm talking about your day-to-day relationships with your clients. They are always right. You can argue, you can try to convince them otherwise, but basically, if they're going to go on renewing their contracts, they're going to want you to operate in their image."
"I agree with that 90 percent," Murray says, "The real smart clients want that to happen, but they also say, 'What I'm really paying you for is to give me a different perspective.' But I think what you said is true of most people. Nine out of ten will want you to be their mouthpieces. One of the problems I've found over the years is that, if I work for them a long time, I do start to think like them. And I find myself saying, 'They wouldn't like that because they like this.'
"So," I ask, "the fact that a PR person has to suppress his or her ego is in direct contradiction to the kind of personality that a poet has. One thing a good poet never does is suppress his or her ego. He creates an imago, even if a little one, that is always right out there in front."
"In general, that's true," Murray says.
"So that makes you a little schizy."
"It is a contradiction. That's for sure."
"So how do you reconcile it?"
"You don't. You live with it and you love it."
"Go a little crazy?"
"Not any crazier than every bedbug on the street. I think contradiction is good. I'm a great believer in Emerson. You read Emerson and you believe half that shit? He contradicts himself every 20 pages. I think it's an American tradition to think that way and to live that way.
"What's always amazed me," Murray adds, "are people who are uniform in what they do, thoroughly predictable and one-dimensional. To me, doing one thing semiwell is never enough. I wouldn't want to just be a poet. And I certainly wouldn't want to be just a commercial writer or a commercial businessperson. I know people who say, 'That's what I do and I want to be the best at it.' I think that's crazy. There are so many other things you can do. I paint, for example. I wouldn't want to give that up. I'm a frustrated and learning sailor. It's important for me to learn to do that, to spend a certain amount of time thinking about that. I would never want to do things that work in single lockstep. One of the great things is constantly surprising people. They say, 'I didn't know you did that.'
"You know Wallace Stevens was famous for that. He died in l955, I think. His obit in the New York Times was, you know, famous American poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and also he was vice president of the Hartford Life and Casualty Company. [Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, to be precise.] A lot of his business colleagues didn't know he was a poet. And many of his poet friends said, 'You know I always knew he had a job somewhere. He was always the guy in the black suit.' He was always very good at keeping those worlds pretty far apart."
"Did you ever try to do that?" I ask Murray.
"I tried at one time, but now I don't care one way or the other. Now that I'm getting old, I just have to forge ahead and do what I have to do. I don't think it's necessarily useful for my clients to know about my new book or buy my book. I don't need that kind of satisfaction. And the people in poetry know that I don't teach like most of them do."
Murray tells a story about having had his identity as a poet revealed to a client years ago. "When my colleague from New York told this Sears executive that I was a poet, you could see him get pretty uncomfortable. They never know what to say--like 'That's nice.' Or, 'What kind of poems do you write?' Or they feel obliged to recite a poem from childhood and ask you about it. It's an awkward moment. My colleague knew that would happen. He's kind of a mischievous guy--not malicious, just mischievous. And he went on to say, 'In fact, we were thinking of having Gerry write your letter to the shareholders in iambic pentameter.' To which we all went 'Ho, ho, ho.' And I'm starting to die. I'm really embarrassed. And there was a pregnant pause. And a stifled laugh, and then the Sears guy says, 'You're kidding, of course.' And my buddy said, 'Of course.'
"So those moments when the twain meet are not necessarily beneficial for anyone. It makes people feel very awkward. I will say, on the other hand, that Ruder Finn has become a very comfortable home for me. David Finn, one of the owners, is one of the preeminent photographers of art in the world. He was Henry Moore's photographer for years. He's done over 30 books. And the company has a commitment to the arts. In fact, we have a division called arts and communication that does nothing but promote corporate art shows. We did the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati. It was just another little exhibit in Cincinnati and suddenly, when the police came down, our arts and communication division was into crisis management. When they started the company in l948, their first client was Perry Como. They started out to do just arts and entertainment, but we have branched out to do everything.
"David is sending out copies of my book to the senior staff saying that this is the work of one of our people and is in the tradition of the firm. So that's nice. And David has written about poetry in the Harvard Business Review, something like why poetry is important to businesspeople. It's easier to work for a firm like that. The PR business is getting very profit-minded. Most of them are owned by ad agencies, which we're not."
"On another level," I say to Murray, "you are clearly a man of action. You like to move a lot and fast. The PR business has a lot of excitement in it, which you seem to love."
"That's true. There are some slow days, but usually there's something happening. And I traveled about a fifth of my time for years. I tend to be physical and I like all the action and the pace. To keep that up, you have to be a sort of physical person."
"And yet poetry is basically a sedentary activity."
"I think you're right. And to compound it, there's this image of this effete, intellectual poet."
"I didn't mean that. The fact is, being a poet means sitting down, in one place, mostly in isolation, for a reasonable length of time. Deep concentration. Generally, one doesn't write a line of poetry here and another line there. It's not what could be called the active, exciting life."
"I've only gotten through a whole poem at one time twice in my life. I do them in pieces."
"How long do you spend at any one time?"
"It can range from all evening, with one or two lines, to--I am constantly thinking about it. If I am jogging around the block, or riding in the car, listening to NPR. I hear a line that someone says. I jot it down. I have notebooks stacked up with lines I've heard. I pretty much think of it as being a process that goes on most of the time. I've sat down and written the first draft of a book-length poem called Oils of Evening in 48 hours. Now, the revisions were extensive and took about a year after that.
"I remember my wife was out of town and only my oldest daughter was home. I sat down on a Saturday morning and I went through Sunday night. I think I stopped at about five Sunday morning and crashed and was still in bed at two in the afternoon. I don't mean that I didn't get up to get a drink and move around and stretch. I think my daughter thought I had died. 'It was a great weekend except that Dad died.' And then I got up and went on and had close to the first full draft by that night. But that's a poem I'd been thinking about for four years when I was in Europe. It relates to art theft and art forgery, which I know something about. So it wasn't as if it just hit me at once.
"Now, tonight I've got a fairly busy schedule, but I might be able to find 45 minutes alone, and that might give me two or three poems I'm thinking of at the same time. They're pretty much second or third draft."
I ask Murray whether he writes at Ruder Finn. "No," he says, "I can't concentrate in the office. In fact, if I have to draft anything serious for the office I do it at home in the evening because I spend most of my day on the phone or face to face with people. I don't do much writing for the office, though. I started at Allstate as a writer but gradually you get promoted into roles where there is less and less writing. If you close your door as the general manager, it sends the wrong signal. On any given day, about one-fourth of my staff has a need to talk to me. That's about four hours of my time. They come in to talk about an account or just to say, 'I've got good news.'"
As someone who travels a lot, Murray has found airplanes good places to write. At home, there's an office over the garage, which is attached to the house. "It's pretty quiet. My family don't come up there unless they really need to. I have a word processor in there, so occasionally I have a kid banging on it."
Murray used to try to write every day for a couple of hours, but long ago he gave it up. "I wind up stealing as much time as I can. It's sporadic. I don't really have any schedule. I should be better organized but I'm not and I don't worry about it. That's why I do a lot of streaky writing. I can go months without writing, which isn't to say I ever go a day without thinking about it. But when I sit down I might write three or four poems.
"I'm a crazy reviser, too. The longer the poem the more revisions. If you're arranging three or four stones, it's pretty easy, but when you're arranging a lot of them it gets more complicated. When I finished that first draft of Oils of Evening, I realized that all the characters sounded alike, like me. I had to change that, but that's easier said than done."
Oils of Evening is, very loosely speaking, a verse play that combines poetry and prose and involves nine characters in 13 locales. Murray's prelude describes it as "a sequential poem conceived in the shadow of several mysterious paintings, set in many nights now faded to whispers half-hearted, half-remembered. It is a puzzle and an indictment--a study of the confluence of art's diverse enterprises and allegiances. It also is an appreciation of increasing aesthetic and economic value in the face--and grip--of contemporary cunning, willfulness, diffidence, and charm."
The 87-page book is laced with quotes from Picasso, Kenneth Rexroth, Time, Reuters, the Boston Globe, BBC Radio, you name it. It's as if Murray had put to use all those lines he'd been collecting over the years. Most of them are completely apt. One of my favorites is "Dark it may be. / Dull never," an English beer slogan with which Murray opens the poem, following a one-line introduction that's from The Maltese Falcon: "A man of your caliber in your profession must have known some astonishing things in his time."
To give a flavor of this exotic, strange work, here is an early passage from it:
A frontier guard is summoned from his supper to examine a false burden of dreams. Whispers and cries in the trunks unheard. Properties and pretensions are bundled in bubble-pack into two limousines aimed in opposite directions.
Crimes of success
Fly across time like wet kisses
From art's fat lipstick.
What's the significance of a not-quite Rubens,
Or just-barely Meissen jug? Miracles of a mystery,
Authoritarian jokes. You guessed it,
It's still valuable as either light or salt--
Never both. Persistent knowledge floods
Out of fever, a feint, another man's menu
Of green-blooded secrets.
There's always that extra glow:
Fire in one eye of contrarian buyers.
So hard skins all around, a few canvases
Done during someone's asylum years.
Needed as lamps in a windowless room.
Again the kiss, sudden obligation:
Deceit sweetened or feast from the ages.
Some practice a stranger's art,
Like tonight's mist, redistilled, evaporating
Into worlds of working-class colors.
Chance the cost of nuance, awash in memory
And funds, even greed's disavowals:
A lull from the purity of experience
Under brute weights of random pricing.
If memory believes before knowing remembers,
Then light is time, and there are second chances.
On his father's side, Murray comes from working-class stock. His grandfather was a coal miner, his uncles worked in the steel mills of Buffalo, where he grew up. His father, the only son in that "just-off-the-boat-Irish" family to escape the mills and its only college graduate, was a traveling salesman who sold fencing for U.S. Steel. Murray's mother and her brothers, also from a traditional Irish family, were graduates of Catholic colleges. Those uncles all went to law school. Murray makes little of it, but one has to wonder how the two sides of his own family got along.
"We were a typical 50s family, father worked, mother stayed home, two kids, little house in the suburbs, Catholic, religious, good Kennedy Democrats back when Democrats were Democrats. My mother was in charge of voting in the town for 25 years, my uncle was a four-term judge who we were always campaigning for--not supposed to produce poets. But down the road about ten miles was Joyce Carol Oates growing up at the same time. And in Batavia, not far away, was the novelist John Gardner. We all grew up in the same neck of the woods, though they're a little older than I am."
Strangely, Murray has little to say about his early years. "I had a very happy childhood," he says. "Not a lot of angst. Not a lot of material. Maybe that's why I don't have the ability to stand up and--" ( . . . and spill his guts, he means.) "On the shores of Lake Erie--my grandfather built a cottage out there for the summers. All summer long I'd be out on the lake. High school athletics were very important to me." Murray is at least conscious of the angst he should have felt. As he wrote in a Sun-Times review of William Kennedy's Very Old Bones, "No sense in being Irish if you don't know the world is going to break your heart."
Murray played football in high school and studied art. "When people ask me when did you start to draw, I ask when did I stop? Most kids draw and then they stop. Most kids tell stories, write poems, and then they stop. I just never stopped. I just kept doing it, hopefully a little better than when I was a kid."
During grade school, Murray attended the Saturday school for children at the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo. He published poems in his high school literary magazine and recalls, "I had a big fight with my football teammates over it. I walked into the locker room and one of my poems was up on the bulletin board and there was a lot of laughing. I thought, 'Oh God, this is going to be a fight.' There was a big brawl and I won and that was it." He went on and published more poems and no one bothered him again. He weighed 225 pounds. He was an all-conference football player.
He was also a good Catholic who went to church every Sunday, something he still does. "I'm working on a long poem now that basically uses the organization of the Mass," he says. "Do I believe? I don't know. Christianity asks for a lot of suspension of disbelief. The rising of the dead! How do you get your mind around that one? It's hard to be a Christian if you don't believe in the Resurrection. I see religion more as keeping things orderly and keeping things in a process. I don't have a craving, starving need for that, but it helps."
Murray followed his mother's brothers to Canisius College, a small Jesuit school in Buffalo. "I basically hated the place, but in retrospect I liked the Jesuits. When I went to Northeastern, in my first class we each had to stand up and say something about ourselves, something substantive. Whatever I said, I don't remember what it was, the teacher, who was Jewish, said, 'You were trained and taught by Jesuits?' And I said yeah, and that was all. Then, after class, I went to him and asked him, 'How did you know that?' and he said, 'I don't know. It's the way you act.' He'd never been trained by Jesuits, didn't know much about them, but there was something he recognized, he said. I never have been able to figure it out. Not all Jesuits are the same. They're fairly strict. They're fairly classical. They emphasize lucid thinking. From day one, you are labeled as Greek or Latin or none of the above, and if you choose that, which I did, you're a second-class citizen."
James Reilly, a graduate of Chicago's Saint Ignatius High School and Loyola University, now runs Loyola's press office. He's known Murray for several years. I asked him what it is about a Jesuit education that enables a product of it to be picked out of a crowd.
"That's not an easy question," Reilly said, "but I'll try. Some of the things I've noticed about Jesuit training is a great emphasis on clear thinking. Obviously, that doesn't differentiate the Jesuits from everybody, but it is a very important concern. The Jesuits had, in the l600s, the first curriculum ever set down for the education of the young gentlemen. And they still have a very clear idea of what a liberal arts education is. If you come into a Jesuit college from a public school, you have to fulfill their requirements of history, math, language, and so on. In most Jesuit schools, the performing arts are very much alive and well because there is a great emphasis on being able to speak and write clearly and well. You are encouraged to do those things.
"There's also a strong emphasis on philosophy. You can go through any college in the land and not take a philosophy course, but in a Jesuit school you must take philosophy, which is all about the systematic asking of the question why? That seems to me to produce people who are not satisfied with doing things until they understand why they are doing it. A lot of people don't have that. I think Gerry does. So that, combined with Gerry's great articulateness and very lucid mind, may be what that professor saw."
Murray played football and wrestled at Canisius, took a lot of literature courses, read a lot of poetry, took part in the college's very mild protest politics, considered crossing the border to Canada if he got drafted, (which he wasn't because of a football-damaged knee), worked for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in l968, and in his senior year edited the literary magazine. He says his evolution into a serious poet simply grew out of the courses he took and the books he read.
Forgoing law school, which his family expected of him, Murray decided after graduation that he wanted to study more English, especially poetry. He was offered fellowships at Georgetown, a Jesuit university, and at Northeastern.
"I couldn't go to another Jesuit school," he says. "I'd be labeled. Next step the seminary. So I decided I'd better go to that big urban university in the middle of Boston with a concrete campus."
Most of Murray's decisions in life, and much of what he does, seem to have been designed to avoid labels. But call him a Renaissance man and he grins.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.