On Michael Longley

Colin Burrow

There are few contemporary poets as likeable as Michael Longley. That’s not because his poems are simply amiable, but because he looks at things hard and clearly and invites his readers to share his acts of seeing. In his new book, Angel Hill (Cape, £10), even a cataract operation is an opportunity to celebrate sharpness of vision: ‘My eyeball’s frozen. I lie/At the bottom of a well./Leaves decorate the ice.’ Longley’s poems often describe the natural world, but they rarely do so from the perspective of a lone visionary eye. Usually he is in the company of friends, or, as in the cataract poem, of a surgeon who ‘reaches into my mind’, or (latterly) grandchildren, whose excitement he provokes and shares. That tempers what can be a frustration in reading a poet of the natural world: locked up in his own experiences, counting birds or tracking otters, thickly bejerseyed against the cold, and probably not caring much for others, the common-or-garden nature poet can seem to lack human affection. That’s not true of Longley. So the slight but lovely poem ‘Hedge-Jug’ in A Hundred Doors (2011) begins by invoking an ‘us’ before it goes on to describe a group of long-tailed tits at work on their ever growing nests of lichen and moss:

Cocooning us in their whisper of contact-
Calls as I carry you into the house, seven
Or six long-tailed tits flitter out of the hedge.
How can there be enough love to go round,
Conor Michael, grandson number four?

Counting long-tailed tits – which tend to fly in sixes and sevens, bundled up in mutual delight – is hard because they move so fast and seem interchangeable. That feathery profusion extends to the grandchildren: can a poet love six or seven long-tailed tits and an ever growing number of grandchildren as well? He asks that question not out of doubt, but out of wonder that it is possible. The birds seem to cocoon us all together, as the tits ‘build a dome with wool and moss and/Spiders’ webs and feathers, then camouflage/With many lichen fragments their hedge-jug’.

Longley’s collections of verse over the past twenty years or so have tended to move between three main focal points. They usually begin with the landscape of Carrigskeewaun, on the west coast of County Mayo, where his is the only house. They might open with a tumble of otters and hares, and probably the odd wren. He can tease himself about his own trademark scenes and fauna. ‘I am writing too much about Carrigskeewaun,’ he complained in A Hundred Doors, and his elegy for Kenneth Koch records his American guest coming to Carrigskeewaun and saying: ‘Where are all those otters, Longley, and all those hares?/I see only sparrows here and house sparrows at that!’ But it is from Carrigskeewaun that he tends to begin. His volumes may then dip back to the experiences of the Great War, in which Longley’s father fought (in a kilt, we are told). Those evocations of war – some worthy of Isaac Rosenberg, some eerily funny – often mingle with the third imaginative centre of Longley’s work, which is free translations of passages from the classics, particularly the Iliad or the Odyssey. These translations are very fine in themselves, since Longley is one of few contemporary poets who can capture Homer’s spare and unrelenting humanity, but their impact often depends on their positioning alongside other poems. The Stairwell (2014) – one of the loveliest collections of verse in the past decade, and probably the place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Longley’s work – juxtaposes a paraphrase of the moment when Patroclus’ ghost appears to Achilles in Iliad 23 with a poem in which Longley describes feeling the feet of his dead twin brother’s corpse. That makes the passage from Homer instantly something more than a translation:

‘Patroclus, dear brother, I shall do as you ask:
I’ll see to the arrangements for your funeral. But
Come closer now, for a moment let us embrace
And wail in excruciating lamentation.’
He reached out but he couldn’t get hold of him:
Like smoke the hallucination slipped away
Bat-squeaking underground.

‘Dear brother’ stands in for kephalē (head, chief love), and pulls Homer into the series of poems on the death of Longley’s twin.

Often Longley’s writing makes sense retrospectively, as you think back through it. ‘Excruciating lamentation’ here seems at first awkward, then it’s made to work by the virtual rhyme on ‘hallucination’. The same goes for his sequences of poems. Because he is so sensitive to the art of juxtaposition Longley can write a short sharp descriptive poem which then reverberates through poems later in the collection. And because his sequences of poems tend to move from the fastness of Carrigskeewaun out into a more violent world which is often associated with family memories, reading a volume of his verse is like getting to know someone: the wren-watcher and otter-lover becomes a griever, and a place of retreat becomes entangled with memories and relationships. Some of his best late poems are about the process of recollection, which is not presented as a Wordsworthian drama of personal development but as a jokey expression of anxiety about how difficult it is as you get older to be sure that what you remember is actually how it was. In ‘Memory’ from Angel Hill he remembers writing the first poem in his Collected, ‘Epithalamion’, but ends wondering, ‘Was that the night I sat up late to hear/Clay beating Liston on the radio?’ which would date it to 25 February 1964. Memory makes a busy night.

Literary historians of the future will no doubt position Longley among his fellow Irish poets Heaney and Mahon as the heirs of Yeats, and if not children of the Troubles then their wise observers; a short sharp poem in Angel Hill called ‘The Troubles’ says just: ‘Think of the children/Behind the coffins./Look sorrow in the face./Call those thirty years/The Years of Disgrace.’ But to my (English) eye what makes Longley distinctive is the way he responds to English poetry of the first two decades of the 20th century. A cliché of the literary history of that period is the supposed split between the lucid accessibility of Georgian poets – Brooke, Graves, Sassoon – and the high arcana of the modernists. Longley is by no means alone in breaking the banks which separate those two artificially divided streams, but he does so with remarkable force. Edward Thomas is a particularly strong influence, which is not surprising given that Thomas was a nature poet turned Tommy who therefore could serve as an imaginative proxy for Longley’s own soldier father. Another less visible influence is Ezra Pound, both Pound the free and eclectic translator and Pound the poet of phanopoeia, or the vividly appearing image. In reading Longley you can see the clarity, eclecticism (and occasionally some of the violence too) of Pound taking lessons from the directness of Rosenberg and Thomas, and absorbing their ability to feel pain and beauty around them.

Angel Hill includes a lovely poem called ‘Room to Rhyme’ in memory of Heaney, in which ‘I blew a kiss across the stage to you/When we read our poems in Lisdoonvarna’ and ‘We peed against a fragment of stone wall,’ and which recalls the two of them driving off to join the Newry March after Bloody Sunday (the poem was first published in the LRB of 24 September 2015). This latest collection displays so many of Longley’s friendships and personal associations that, were he not so humorously unassuming, it might seem a wee bit in-groupy: the first poem is dedicated to Fleur Adcock; others are for Edna O’Brien; others modestly describe having his portrait painted. But there is a nice twinkle in Longley’s eye when he remembers ‘That time I shared a lobster with Heaney/(Boston? New York?) he took the bigger claw’ and ‘Mahon was unimpressed by consommé:/ “Proper soup has leeks and barley in it.”’ In ‘Age’ he sees his poetry shrinking in scope:

Salvaging snail shells and magpie feathers
For fear of leaving particulars out,
I make little space for philosophising.
I walk ever more slowly to gate and stile.
Poetry is shrinking almost to its bones.

Angel Hill is a collection of old age (its author was born in 1939, the same year as Heaney), and frequently scales down the preoccupations of Longley’s earlier career. There is less of the war and less of the classics here, and more Carrigskeewaun. The final group of poems, ‘The Siskin’s Egg’, ‘The Whimbrel’s Call’ and ‘The Dipper’s Range’, follows the precepts of ‘Age’ by paring his preoccupations back to their delicate skeletons, and a final neo-Poundian ‘Image’ strips poetry itself down to pure observation of structure:

The last day of the year:
Greylag geese are flying
In regular formation
Along the shoreline, sky-shapes,
An image of poetry.