Joseph Colin Murphey, poet, editor, and teacher, was born in Lufkin, Texas, on December 13, 1915, the son of Llewelyn and Georgia M. (Collins) Murphey. His father, a sawmill worker, and his mother, a schoolteacher, were both native East Texans. His younger brother, Jack, was an artist who lived in Corpus Christi. Murphey attended Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas, where he received his doctorate in education in 1963. During World War II he was stationed in India with the United States Army Air Corps, an experience about which he wrote in the last year of his life when he was dying of cancer: "I've ceased to be amazed at a C-54 or a C-47, after declaring an emergency, rolling up on the landing strip loaded with glad souls going home after the war with an absolutely dry tank, but that was in that now ancient war, back in 43–46 when l was running an air-to-ground emergency net, an approach control and a control tower outside of Calcutta. So I'm not in the conditionis extremis of those guys. Maybe I'm just not praying as hard as they all did in that every, every shattering instant before the miracle."
Murphey's teaching career took him to various parts of the state: to Corpus Christi, where he taught in the public schools, to Sherman, where he taught at Austin College, and to Huntsville, where he became a tenured professor at Sam Houston State University and in 1972 founded Stone Drum, a literary magazine. Through 1974, Murphey published in Stone Drum such leading American poets of the period as Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Robert Creeley, and Texas poet Vassar Miller. After leaving Sam Houston State in 1974, Murphey worked in a packing plant and as a real estate agent in Dumas, and later moved to Gainesville and began teaching again at Cooke County Community College. He revived Stone Drum in 1984 and continued to edit and publish the magazine until 1989, promoting in its pages many regional writers. Lee Schultz of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches dedicated the winter 1993–94 issue of his magazine, RE: Arts & Letters, to the memory of Joseph Murphey, whom Schultz refers to as "the consummate editor." Murphey had begun his editing career in 1964–65 as poetry editor for the Southwest Review under Decherd Turner and Margaret L. Hartley. In addition to editing, he wrote plays, novels, and poetry.
His poetry places him among a handful of the most important native Texas poets. His work is collected in two volumes, A Return to the Landscape (1979) and Three Texas Poets (1986). His poems also appear in Travois: An Anthology of Texas Poetry (1976), Southwest: A Contemporary Anthology (1977), Washing the Cow's Skull / Lavando la calavera de vaca, a bilingual anthology (1981), and Texas in Poetry (1994). Murphey's poems are rooted in East Texas, the Panhandle, North Texas-wherever he lived in the state. But always his writing is concerned as much with the art of poetry as it is with a regional subject matter. His style is a personal expression of his easygoing nature, which was nurtured in the Piney Woods of the Lufkin area. As Murphey says in his poem "Yippee Yi O Ti Yay," his landscapes are peopled with "the men in my country / who come to the Texan Cafe / each morning to drink coffee / and fight the world off / with fine old stories of how / it was." In "A Meeting of the Saints," he revisits a favorite aunt, "a shouting Holy Roller...who made such / miraculous pies and whose kiss / was apple-sweet!" And in "The Short Happy Bloom of Lurline Scruggs" he depicts a young woman once "tall and straight like the pines / and her flesh smooth as new pears" but after the war "a bent design, / a question mark with child, / carrying under the straight, high pines / a soon sought weight of guilt to swear at / all her life through twisted teeth." In "Crop Duster Disaster," the poet evokes the "once-dare-devil-P-47 / World War II Ace now faced / with living dangerously...over wheat fields, corn and maize." And in "From Dumas South," he wonders "what these rough / hills and valleys / these tortured bad lands / are trying to say / between here / and Amarillo....They have a different tongue from what / I've known." Throughout his writing, Murphey enters the lives of those he knew, or, as in "Re-Stringing 100 Year Old Wire," of the man who first strung the wire and later hanged himself, "whose trees still shade the porch." Here Murphey offers something of a blessing on the man's grave the poet has never seen, "nor the carved / stone it bears, but he is more alive here / than he is anywhere else in this earth / The good he did lives after him....I hope all the bad / is interred with his bones."
Murphey's development can be studied in the archive of his work and of his small magazine, Stone Drum, preserved in the special collections library at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. His handwritten notebooks of his poetry are a state treasure, and his trilogy of unpublished novels based on his forebears in East Texas is of special interest to historians of the region. A vast amount of his unpublished poetry awaits a wider readership. Murphey died in Denton on November 25, 1993.