“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?