Obituary: Michael Murphy

Poet and writer admired for his lucid, intelligent work

In 1997 Michael Murphy, who has died of a brain tumour, aged 43, won a bursary – combining editorial work and doctoral research – with Nottingham Trent University's Trent Editions. Dick Ellis, the university's head of English, was setting up the imprint to republish unjustly forgotten books. In three astonishing years, Michael unearthed and edited the interwar work of George Garrett – a Liverpool seaman, writer and activist much admired by George Orwell – and completed an excellent PhD, concentrating on the work of WH Auden, Joseph Brodsky and George Szirtes. The Collected George Garrett was published in 1999, and Michael's PhD, Poetry in Exile, in 2004.

By then, Michael's own poetry was attracting the admiration of his peers. In 1998 his short collection, After Attila, had been well received. In 2001 he won the Poetry Society's Geoffrey Dearmer prize for new poet of the year. Two years later, when his first full collection, Elsewhere, appeared, it was praised by, among others, Mimi Khalvati, Lawrence Sail and Bernard O'Donoghue. Then came Michael's monograph on James Joyce (2004), distinguished, as was all his work, by its lucidity, intelligence and graceful wit.

Michael was the son of an Irish woman and an American but was brought up in Liverpool by adoptive parents, Terry Murphy, a coach painter, and his wife Gladys. As an adult, he would be reunited with his birth mother, Brenda Leahy, and so connected to a family of whose Irish roots he was intensely proud. An uncle's cottage in Mayo became a virtual home from home.

After Cardinal Allen grammar school he was apprenticed as a clerk to the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive. The post left him time to read – he enjoyed telling the story of how he first read Proust at a bus depot. Then, in 1990, he graduated with a first in English and drama from Liverpool Institute of Higher Education (now Liverpool Hope University), having been taught by the poet Matt Simpson, with whom he formed a close and lasting friendship.

He then became a research fellow at Crewe and Alsager College (now part of Manchester Metropolitan University). While there he considered a theatre career, and took himself off to Bali, Indonesia, to study mask-making before going on to Turkey and Hungary. In Budapest he encountered the work of the great modern poet Attila Josef. He then returned to Liverpool and, after two years of freelance teaching, won the Nottingham Trent bursary.

He completed his PhD in 2000 and then returned to Liverpool Hope, where in 2003 he became an associate professor. Also on the staff was the poet Deryn Rees-Jones, and in the early summer of 1999 they launched the International Gateacre Festival, named after the part of Liverpool where they lived. There were poetry readings, talks, jazz and organ recitals, an art competition for children, with Michael ably directing one of Beckett's short plays. Friends and acquaintances were cajoled into giving their services for free. The weekend was an occasion of intense happiness, a kind of prothalamion, a nuptial song to the marriage of Michael and Deryn later that summer.

In 2006 Michael became a senior lecturer in Nottingham Trent's English and media studies department. Late in 2007 he published Proust and America, a major study which was praised here and in the US for its illumination of dark and disputed areas of Proust's oeuvre and of the nature of modernity. He and Deryn also edited Writing Liverpool: Essays and Interviews (2007), and Liverpool University Press published his edition of The Collected Poems of Kenneth Allott (2008).

Illness was taking hold, but he still completed an affectionate, perceptive essay on the poetry of his mentor, Simpson. Early last year he brought out a further short sequence of poems, Allotments. This had begun life in 2005, when the Arts Council appointed him writer-in-residence at the Liverpool- based National Wildflower Centre. Essays, one of the finest poems in this superb collection, includes the lines: "Harvest. Grass lies down to the blade/As Persephone's skirts are raised les fleurs mauvaises."

Until the end of his life, Michael welcomed friends to the house he and Deryn shared with their two small children; to work on poems of increasing power and accomplishment; to listen to music – Debussy's piano compositions were a favourite – and to study the paintings and prints he had acquired, not necessarily by well-known artists, but because they were worthy of his love.

He is survived by Deryn, their daughter, Eira, and their son, Felix.

• Michael Murphy, poet and critic, born 14 December 1965; died 8 May 2009

John Lucas

The GuardianTramp

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