Catriona O’Reilly, review of Michael Longley, Collected Poems, in Times Literary Supplement (16 March 2007), p.10.

In her recent critical study, Reading Michael Longley, Fran Brearton writes of an anecdote Longley recounted in his opening address to the W. B. Yeats Summer School in 2003. Twenty-four years earlier, on August 12, 1969, he had delivered a lecture to the School on Yeats’s influence on contemporary poets, in the course of which he bemoaned a lack of formal, syntactical deftness in most recent poetry. By coincidence, events in Derry on August 12, 1969, led to the siege of the Bogside, from which a new and horrifying phase of the Northern Irish Troubles would unfold. Brearton writes:

On the Saturday following the battle of the Bogside, impassioned political comments were quoted in the paper’s [the Irish Times] “this week they said said ...” column. Also included among these comments on the crisis was the following sentence: 1 am often depressed by the decline of the subordinate clause” - Mr Michael Longley, the poet.

Longley recalls this episode with selfdeprecating amusement. but the anecdote throws into relief a more recent event in his literary career, the publication in the Irish Times of his sonnet “Ceasefire” in the week following the IRA’s declaration of their cessation of hostilities from August 31, 1994. Between these two public points - the young poet seeming (however misleadingly) to be caught unawares by political events on his home ground, and the mature writer taking with admirable accuracy the pulse of his time - spans a four-decadeslong writing life during which he has, with heroic faith, abided by his own powerful principles about the role of art in both private and public spheres.

Michael Longley’s Collected Poems is a volume of rare quality in many ways, not least in its unity. It makes visible for the first time the profound continuities in Longley’s work, like magnetic lines running from the early formal tautness of No Continuing City (1969) to the more relaxed structures of his poetry from the 1990s. The much-written-about “silence” which Longley endured during the 1980s (he did not publish a full collection between Poems 1963-1983 in 1985 and Gorse Fires in 1991) has taken on a perhaps unwarranted significance among the critical myth-makers; Collected Poems indicates a very significant adjustment that took place at this time, the organic midpoint of his career, but it also demonstrates just how naturally and consistently prolific a poet he is. The happy copiousness of recent years is the fruit of Longley’s meticulously achieved and maintained balance, his formidable artistic stamina. He is fortunate or careful enough to be deeply intuitive about the nature of his own gift, and one of the thrilling things about reading this volume from start to finish is that one witnesses a remarkable critical intelligence at work also: marshalling its resources, beating a strategic retreat when necessary. Longley is the supreme poet of tact, and this instinctive delicacy pervades all of the genres in which he has laboured over the years.

surgical removal of the eyes,
probing of the orifices,
Bitings down through the skin,
Through tracts where the grasses melt

And the bad air released
In a ceremonious wounding
So slow that more and more
I wanted to get closer to it.

It is easy to see in this a commentary on the poetic process which involves honing the material down to its essence, but the poem is alive also to the dangers of that “ceremonious wounding”, the price paid by the obsessive watcher, the poet as auto-vivisectionist or describer of horrors. Longley has commented that “nothing remains ordinary if you look at it for long enougW’, but this poem ends on a note of mystery, describing “soniething that had followed / Fox and crow was desperate for / A last morsel and was / Other than wind and rain”. The perils of excessive artistic self-consciousness are skirted by Longley throughout his career; he is aware that ideally the left hand should not know what the right hand does, or at least that a delicate balance must be struck again and again in each poem. Something must always escape the control of that obsessive eye or I.

Longley the nature-poet is “ecological” in the sense that he is always highly conscious of himself as a potential intruder on the natural scene. Peter McDonald has observed that in much of his erotic verse “it is less the land which is sexualized than the body which is landscape”. “On Mweelrea”, from The Echo Gate (1979), thus flawlessly combines the erotic and the ecological: “Behind my eyelids I could just make out / In a wash of blood and fight and water / Your body colouring the mountainside / Like uncut poppies in the stubbly fleids”. But it is impossible to read the nature poems without an acute awareness of their troubled hinterlands. Given the poisonous political atmosphere Longley inhabited during the first part of his writing life, a poem like “On Mweelrea”, which risks destabalizing the self, and iwth it all easy notions of identity, becomes charged with a deeper significance. Local writers of his own and later generations found individual ways of responding to the “Troubles”, but Longley is always acutely aware of the context in which he is writing and of the “dangerous impertinence” posed by selfaggrandizing imprecision in verse. As a result, poems like “The Linen Workers” or his superb version from Tibullus, “Peace”, confound by virtue of their capacious humanism and great skill, confirming Seamus Heaney’s comment that Longley’s poetry should “enforce a realisation that the sweetness of achieved forms is a good in itself”. That “sweetness” is perhaps a little misleading: this is not poetry which shies away from the detail of atrocity, but which possesses enough humanity and ethical force to admit such details without impertinence. Longley demonstrates the true, deep significance of Yeats’s assertion that “words alone / Are certain good”. The mostly seamless blending of his concerns - eroticism with landscape, violence with domesticity, nature poetry with elegy - is visible throughout the Collected Poems, and demonstrates that Longley is a poet of unusual imaginative faithfulness.

The outstanding section in the volume, however, is the sixth, Gorse Fires (1991), a collection in which all of these forces in Longley’s writing achieve their apotheosis. Sixteen years after its publication, it retains the freshness and power which saw it deservedly showered with critical plaudits. This is the volume in which Longley’s mature voice reaches a new pitch of plangency and celebration. Fran Brearton has described it as a poetic “homecoming”, yet the poems also extend beyond boundaries in remarkable ways, not least formally. Longley has described his technique in Gorse Fires as representing “prosodic loosenings-up and an increasingly ambitious, even reckless, syntactical reach’. It is difficult not to read the poems as simultaneously “about” their own composition; this is not a tedious postmodern selfconsciousness, however, but a slightly bewildered and touching wonder at self-rediscovery. “Peregrine”, for example, is both a love poem and a loving acknowledgement of the elusive muse:

I had been waiting for the peregrine falcon
As a way of coming to terms with the silence,
As a way of getting closer to you - an idea
Above the duach, downy whirlwinds, the wind’s
Mother-of-pearl for instance, an eddy of bones.

Did the peregrine falcon when I was cycling
To meet you, swoop from the corner of my eye
And in and out of the culvert and out of sight
As though to avoid colliding with me - wings
Under the road, a blur of spokes and feathers?

“Coming to terms with the silence” is the most difficult thing of all for a poet, yet for Longley it is a necessary virtue. One of his poetic forefathers, Isaac Rosenberg, wrote on this subject: “You know the conditions I have always worked under ... you know how earnestly one must wait on ideas (you cannot coax real ones to you) and let, as it were, a skin grow naturally round and through them”. This patience is evident throughout the Gorse Fires section. Tiny poems like “Blitz” and “Terezin” achieve remarkable things; “Ghetto” is a more extended, and extremely moving, meditation on art and atrocity. Yet the variety of subjet and tone also impresses. There is a sense, in a poem like “Halley’s Comet”, of pressure released, of urbane insouciance, and of a large-humoured gusto: “It was the seventeenth variation after all. / The original theme had fluttered out of my hands / And upside down on the linoleum suggested it. / An ink blot on the stave inspired the modulation”. This is intensely infectious; the pleasure of writing becomes the pleasure of reading.

Longley read Classics as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin in the 1960s, and has remained Homer-haunted throughout his career. As well as displaying a large debt to the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, No Continuing City wore its Classical concerns on its sleeve in “Odyssey”, “Nausicaa”, “Circe”, “Narcissus”, “The Centaurs” and “Persephone”. There is a strong kernel of eroticism. in these poems, but, in Gorse Fires and the collections that followed, the slightly blokeish tone of these early pieces has modulated into something altogether more fertile and multifaceted. In the achingly poignant Homeric poems in Gorse Fires, and the versions from Ovid in The Ghost Orchid, it may be possible to identify, as Fran Brearton has suggested, patterns of scansion from the original Greek and Latin (and here is material for scholarly source-study), but what catches Longley’s eye most are the moments of lyric intensity in the epic. The temperamental collision between Romanticism and Classicism in Longley’s work finds in such moments a congenial source and outlet. Meditations on mutability, ageing and loss are refracted through the lens of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but always at that “magined angle to reality”, or to the source text, which releases something new and strange, as when, in “Arachne”, the muse turns nasty:

Enticing the eight eyes of my imagination
To make love on her lethal doily, to dangle sperm
Like teardrops from an eyelash, massage it into her
While I avoid the spinnerets - navel, vulva, bum
And the widening smile behind her embroidery.

Such classical concerns persist through the final collections included in Collected Poems, The Weather in Japan (2000) and Snow Water (2004). In these volumes Longley continues to assert the importance of the lyric form in a spate of elegies, nature poems, satires and translations. If, in these later poems. there is a leaning towards self-parody, a sense that “I am writing too much about Carrigskeewaun”, it is a tendency of which he is whimsically and goodhumouredly aware, as he writes in “Moon Cakes”, “The wee transcendental mountain cottage / Is where I continue painting almond / And plum blossom into extreme old age. ...” Although in the earlier part of his career Michael Longley did not attract the same amount of critical attention as contemporaries such as Heaney, Mahon and Muldoon, since 1991 his reputation has grown steadily. This growth seems set to continue, and deservedly so. This Collected Poems is an essential book for anyone interested in poetry: it bears witness to a rare sensibility, one which seldom falters in its patient fidelity to the highest artistic and ethical standards.


[ close ]

[ top ]