Edna Longley

Edna Longley teaches at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her book Poetry in the Wars was reviewed by Patricia Craig on 19 February.

Belfast Diary: In Belfast

Edna Longley, 9 January 1992

Nina FitzPatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus prize for a first work of fiction, only to be disqualified when the pseudonymous author was deemed to be more Polish than Irish. This made the book the stuff of its own fables, which satirise an inbred and confused intellectual milieu. Since 1960 the Republic of Ireland has certainly provided grounds for confusion: modernisation and secularisation; the women’s movement; determined rearguard action from the Catholic Church; a conservative-radical split within the Church’s own ranks; a new urban youth-culture; urban-rural tensions aggravated by swelling Dublin; Northern Ireland; Europe; and – for the intelligentsia – Marxism, Post-Structuralism and all that. Ideological tides often reach Irish shores just as they start to ebb elsewhere.’

What the doctor said

Edna Longley, 22 March 1990

Most books offered as poetry never leave the condition of prose – which is not to say they are good prose. But when a prose voice enters poetry, it can clear and freshen the air. Beside Raymond Carver’s posthumous collection, the others I have been reading seem musty, costumed, made-up. Anyone who finds his poems flat or prosaic might consider Edward Thomas’s defence of Robert Frost: ‘if his work were printed [as prose] it would have little in common with the kind of prose that runs to blank verse … It is poetry because it is better than prose.’ A New Path to the Waterfall is poetry because it is better than prose. Another of Thomas’s insights into Frost also applies to Carver at his best: ‘with a confidence like genius, he has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, and he has turned it over until he has no doubt what it means to him, when he has no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other.’ Let the theorists make of that what they will.’

England and Other Women

Edna Longley, 5 May 1988

The structural ironies of Edward Thomas’s life still condition his reputation. Just as he made a late poetic start, so criticism has been slow to gather momentum. Even the recent spate of studies – by Michael Kirkham, Stan Smith, and the contributors to Jonathan Barker’s Art of Edward Thomas – seems more fortuitous than co-ordinated. Thomas, as Robert Frost reminded him, ‘knew the worth of [his] bays’. However, it is unwise to die in war when a hegemonic project like Modernism is getting under way. Frost’s reputation survived because, feigning simplicity, he appealed to the people, to readers, over the head of ‘the Pound-Eliot-Richards gang’. Frost initially marketed Thomas as well as himself in the US (‘I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him’): but this return for Thomas’s influential promotion of North of Boston lapsed after the latter’s death. The separation of Thomas and Frost along an Anglo-American dotted line distorts perspectives on early 20th-century poetry. A history so specific to poetry has been additionally marginalised by the Modernist convergence of literary modes. Thus Frost, and Thomas, can be omitted from poetry courses in American universities where Modernist orthodoxy prevails. Their combined critical as well as creative forces might dent this orthodoxy. Thomas’s review of Exultations (1909), no snap judgment, anticipated the direction of Pound’s career: ‘both in personal and detached poems he is, as a rule, so pestered with possible ways of saying a thing that at present we must be content to pronounce his condition still interesting – perhaps promising – certainly distressing. If he is not careful he will take to meaning what he says instead of saying what he means.’ As if in revenge, the hard-faced men who have done well out of Modernism either ignore Thomas’s poetry or patronise some fancied resemblance to Imagism – a movement he shrewdly criticised. The tendency to exclude Thomas from general discussion of modern poetry (panoptic views favour Modernism) not only severs his vital tie with Frost, but obscures his different affiliations to Yeats and Hardy. A few essays in The Art of Edward Thomas open out the issues, but a whiff of poet’s corner lingers on. Pace Peter Levi, it is not quite enough to celebrate Thomas as ‘certainly genuine, authentic, a true poet’.’

Diary: Ireland by Others

Edna Longley, 17 September 1987

On the 11th of July the Belfast-London shuttle was an airlift by jumbo-jet. But the exodus I joined had nothing to do with political panic. It meant holiday-time – ‘the Twelfth fortnight’. The Protestants left behind to march, and Catholics left behind to object to their marches, were mostly those who couldn’t afford Corfu. In The Crack: A Belfast Year Sally Belfrage notes: ‘A look at the class-composition’ of the Twelfth procession was ‘to see overwhelmingly the poor, albeit with the gentry to the fore, and it ill becomes middle-class snobs to sneer at this celebration of who they were.’ I was deserting this ‘genuine people’s festival’, this dangerously alive piece of folklore, for an academic conference on Irish drama. However, the dust of Ulster is not so easily shaken off: at the University of Caen there were video-clips of something called ‘the Northern play’, a dramatic form which now interests Continental professors. Searching for origins, they might turn to the first page of Northern Windows, where William Carleton tells how ‘for some years after the Rebellion of ’98 a bitter political resentment subsisted between Protestants and Catholics … The plays of the Siege of Londonderry and The Battle of Aughrim were acted in barns and waste houses every night.’ Back home, too, middle-class Belfast watches working-class Belfast on TV, in fact and fiction. But viewing the familiar mayhem at a seminar in France made me more conscious of the processes whereby a slice of life ends up as a critical category.


One is Enough

9 March 1995

Ian Hamilton makes a mystery out of a molehill when he asks: ‘Why did Louis MacNeice have to wait thirty years for a biography?’ Anthony Thwaite (Letters, 23 March) also worries unnecessarily. There was no censorship. Some delay was certainly due to the sensitivities surrounding a once-divorced, once-separated man, who died prematurely and had a child by each marriage. Indeed, Jon Stallworthy still...

Weasel, Magpie, Crow: Edward Thomas

Mark Ford, 1 January 2009

‘Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou!’ Verlaine resonantly, and eloquently, declared in his ‘Art poétique’ of 1874. The line must have lodged in...

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Like the trees on Primrose Hill

Samuel Hynes, 2 March 1989

In ‘The Cave of Making’, his elegy for MacNeice, Auden describes his friend as a ‘lover of women and Donegal’. The geography seems a bit wrong – the Irish counties...

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Green War

Patricia Craig, 19 February 1987

Wars and battles: these words, appearing prominently in the titles of two of the books under consideration, might give the impression that poetry, or criticism, or the criticism of poetry, is a...

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Valorising Valentine Brown

Patricia Craig, 5 September 1985

In a recent Times article, Philip Howard pounced on the deplorable word ‘Valorisation’ which seems to be trying to edge its way into the English language. ‘To enhance the price,...

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