The Poetry of Rural Ulster (2)

Darran Anderson completes his examination of Ulster poets

If Heaney is the troubled rural native, Michael Longley is the enthusiastic emigrant, leaving the streets of Belfast to embrace the countryside. Longley was one of the great bearers of humanity through the dark days of the Troubles.

While the vast majority of intellectuals fled, he stayed through the worst and through his poetry , he maintained a brave and honourable form of humanism, despite receiving death threats and witnessing friends murdered. When the IRA called its ceasefire, it was Longley who anticipated what needed to be done with the heartbreaking lines, ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.’

He has produced some of the most glorious and haunting depictions of rural Ulster (and Ireland) using nature as a balance to the horrors of the Troubles.

In ‘The Ice-Cream Man’ he offers an elegiac litany of Irish flowers ‘thyme, valerian, loosestrife ‘ in memory of a murdered shopkeeper.

In ‘The Fishing Party’, he lists local fishing flies ‘Dark Mackerel, Gravel Bed, Greenwell’s Glory, Soldier…’ for off duty policemen killed on a fishing trip.

He too is under no illusions. Life is hard and on occasions cruel.

In ‘Two Pheasants’ he frames the unforgettable image of a pheasant running, ‘exploded over cultivated ground to where / A car in front of our car had crushed his bride.’

In his sequence ‘The Mayo Monologues’, from the collection Echo Gate (1979) he deals with the violence and alienation that bubble under the veneer of civilisation, using rural imagery such as a ‘ram tangled in barbed wire,’ ‘the purgatory of the windy gaps,’ culminating in the harrowing scene where a mentally handicapped boy is ‘flogged with a blackthorn’ because of a misunderstanding.

That he can still find an almost Zen-like beauty in such a world, that he must find it, is Longley’s abiding strength. Longley enables us to see the everyday as extraordinary and makes the familiar sound startlingly new ,for example in his poem ‘In The Corner Of The Eye’ he paints a kingfisher as ‘a rainbow / fractured against / the plate glass of winter’.

It is this reverence, this sense of awe in nature and the redemptive power of art that offers us some kind of hope. In his recent collection Snow Water (2004) he sums it up best, ‘Poems endure the downpour like the skylark's / Chilly hallelujah, the robin's autumn song.’

There are other poets whose work has a broad range of subjects, but who touch on rural themes.

The poet Derek Mahon, whose work travels through time and space and is inspired as much by Baudelaire as Hewitt, has immortalised the islands of Achill and Rathlin. The former as a place of beauty but also the setting for an ode to loneliness, ‘And wish she were with me now between thrush and plover / Wild thyme and sea-thrift, to lift the weight from my heart,’ the latter the setting of a massacre of native women by invaders but now a peaceful ‘sanctuary… where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter’ that is ‘through with history.’

The Brooklyn born, Tyrone bred poet John Montague has produced a wide-range of work from pastoral pieces steeped in Irish history to brave new twists on love poetry. His work has at its core an open-mindedness and urbaneness, no doubt the result of his travels and his time with Allen Ginsberg in California, Brendan Behan in Dublin and Samuel Beckett in Paris. Yet, he never preaches, but rather lets his work carry itself with moral subtlety. He is capable of great political and social meditation as in The Rough Field (1972) where he explores the faultlines of the North while also displaying a sense of delicate lyricism; ‘a hazel tree rustles, / I am led towards the borders of dream’ (‘The Screech Owl’).

He celebrates the countryside, laments modern man’s disconnection from it and mourns the lost names and Gaelic language of the place,

The whole landscape a manuscript
We had lost the skill to read,
A part of our past disinherited;
But fumbled, like a blind man,
Along the fingertips of instinct
. (‘A Lost Tradition’).

He once referred to the poet Theodore Roethke as, ‘Yeats in a speakeasy.’ The phrase is telling and he may as well have been saying it of himself, for he has that mixture of authority and subversion, dealing with myth and the history of the land, but with a crucial absence of Yeat’s aloofness and blessed with a modern worldly air.

Like Yeats, he has seen a relative renaissance and a resurgence of energy in his later years which he explores in his recent poem White Water (2004),

‘As a fish gleams most / fiercely before it dies,’ facing
down his own mortality as,
luminous, bleached –
white water –
that light in the narrows
before a storm breaks.

With the advent of post-modernism and globalisation, the nature of culture poetry has changed. The great academic patriarchs of old are increasingly solitary figures. Instead poetry has fragmented into many protean forms, finding its voice on journals and magazines, in bars and coffee shops and in the multi media forms of digital film, music and the internet.

The post-Heaney generation of poets (Carson, Muldoon et al) have followed prevailing trends and are thus more urban, more cosmopolitan, more postmodern. On occasion they touch on the rural but are more likely to look beyond the confines of Ulster, or the shores of Ireland for inspiration. Though in today’s globalised society there are vast thrilling continents of space and time to explore and inspire, it is important not to lose our roots, to ignore our sense of history and our place in the environment.

The danger is, in turning away from the land we may lose something. There is a danger of being set adrift in the cosmopolitan, just as others were once trapped in the parochial. If we have no affinity with the land, it and ultimately, we, are doomed. The future rests on a new generation of poets and writers finding fresh ways of seeing our surroundings and ourselves. A new generation of poets are only now beginning to make themselves known. The land awaits.