Michael Longley

A profile of Belfast's lyric poet

Michael Longley was born in Belfast in 1939 and educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Trinity College, Dublin, where he was a near-contemporary of fellow Instonian poet and classicist Derek Mahon.

Along with Mahon, Seamus Heaney and James Simmons, Michael Longley was one of ‘The Group’ of poets often associated with Philip Hobsbaum’s workshops at Queen’s University in the mid-1960s. Although, as Longley recalls, the Group ethos was not wholly to his taste.

'I didn’t much care for The Group aesthetic or, to be honest, the average poem which won approval. I believed that poetry should be polished, metrical and rhymed; oblique rather than head-on; imagistic and symbolic rather than rawly factual; rhetorical rather than documentary. I felt like a Paleface among a tribe of Redskins.'

Though Longley’s work of the last two decades has moved away from the carefully controlled (if occasionally contrived) formality of earlier collections such as No Continuing City (1969) or An Exploded View (1973), the key words of that credo stand.

Polished, oblique, imagistic and symbolic, and (more and more gently) rhetorical, the later poems achieve a ‘head-on’ intensity through their pursuit of its opposite:

The wind-farmer’s small-holding reaches as far as the horizon.
Between fields of raindrops and hailstones his frost-flowers grow.

That poem ('Wind-Farmer’, from 1995’s The Ghost Orchid) illustrates Longley’s ‘relaxation’: the ability of the poems to combine compression with conversational ease.

Comparisons with haiku or with early Irish nature poetry come easily, but there is also the influence of contemporary North American poets such as James Wright, whose ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ receives tribute in the opening poem of the last-named volume:

We should have been galloping on horses, their hoof prints
Splashes of light, divots kicked out of the darkness,
Or hauling up lobster pots in a wake of sparks. Where
Were the otters and seals? Were the dolphins on fire?
Yes, we should have being doing more with our lives.

(‘Water-burn’)

This late symbolic ease (‘Since a poem’s little more than a wing and a prayer’) is not merely the result of influence and experience. Gorse Fires, the first of the later collections and winner of the 1991 Whitbread Prize for Poetry, seemed both riposte and antidote to Longley’s ‘little brief authority’ as an officer of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. A glance at the work in Poems 1963 - 1983 (1985) reveals a continuity of image and address.

While the intimacy of the later work can be contrasted with the more formal registers of the earlier, the speaker of the poems has remained an individual speaking to other, often named, individuals (Longley is an inveterate dedicator of poems, a namer of names). Introducing the well-known triptych of ‘Letters’ to Simmons, Mahon and Heaney, Longley writes:

Now that the distant islands rise
Out of the corners of my eyes
And the imagination fills
Bog-meadow and surrounding hills,
I find myself addressing you…

Personal, direct address, a landscape identified by a few salient features but nonetheless present (where the addressee is usually absent); these are tropes that have been present throughout Longley’s work in varying proportions.

The addressee is typically a lover or friend, the landscape that of the west of Ireland, and it is tempting to summarise (or caricature) the archetypical Longley lyric as a thing of fine distinctions, a catalogue of birds or plants glimpsed by the solitary speaker and described to, or recollected on behalf of, an absent other:

Decades ago you showed me marsh marigolds
At Carrigskeewaun and behind a drystone wall
The waterlily lake’s harvest of helleborines.

(‘Marsh Marigolds’)

But of course Longley is aware of the risks he takes in what he calls, self-mockingly, his ‘botanical studies’ (‘Alibis’) or ‘poems about ornithology and snake bites’ (‘Damiana’). The humour in his work often goes unremarked, when in fact it is what allows him to discharge the symbolic duty of the lyric. The stonechat observed:

A flicker on the highest twig, a breast
That kindles the last of the fuchsia flowers

is both ‘wing’ (the real presence) and ‘prayer’, the appeal to and invocation of forces outside the self.

In the same way, the plants so painstakingly named and noticed – selfheal, heartsease, belladonna – are medicinal, purgative, narcotic. They are listed not for botany’s sake, but because their listing is itself a curative act.

The poems’ totemic gathering of flora and fauna is accompanied by a kind of ascetic connoisseurship of the everyday, mundane routine lifted to ritual through attention to detail:

A fastidious brewer of tea, a tea
Connoisseur as well as a poet,
I modestly request on my sixtieth
Birthday a gift of snow water.

Tea steam and ink stains. Single-
Mindedly I scour my teapot and
Measure out some Silver Needles Tea,
Enough for a second steeping.

(‘Snow Water’)

There’s an element of self parody, of playacting here. But at the same time such poems strike Longley’s defining note. The ‘fastidious’ connoisseur of the simple life is in fact upholding the humane virtues (Longley’s classical education should never be forgotten) and reminding us that ‘the opposite of war/Is not so much peace as civilisation.’

And war, one of Longley’s central subjects, is to be countered not through documentary anger, not ‘head-on’, but through the imposition of civility, even delicacy, upon accounts of its barbarism:

Around the shell holes not one poppy has appeared,
No symbolic flora, only the tiny whitish flowers
No one remembers the names of in time, brookweed
And fairy flax, say, lamb’s lettuce and penny-cress.

(‘The War Graves’)

Paradoxically, the further back in time these ‘war poems’ cast their net – for Longley, the war to end war was fought at Troy, not Ypres – the more they seem to speak directly and successfully to post-ceasefire Northern Ireland.

While he has written of the Troubles, Longley has studiously avoided – and spoken out against – any notion of the poet as journalist. Yet at least one poem has escaped the limitations of poetry’s narrow audience and entered the public realm of journalism, politics and debate, and the closing stanzas of ‘Ceasefire’ make a fitting place to end any brief account of Michael Longley’s continuing achievement.

III
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

IV
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’