Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Surprise Within Continuous Form

Bert Almon

Collected Poems
Michael Longley
Wake Forest University Press, 2009

Michael Longley, Belfast-born, has evolved into one of the best contemporary poets, an eminence recognized by the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, the Whitbread Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. He was appointed Ireland Professor of Poetry for 2007-2010, an especially appropriate honor. His Collected Poems show the three qualities that T. S. Eliot thought were the marks of a great poet: “abundance, variety, and complete competence.” The 328 pages of the collection demonstrate abundance, but sheer volume is not enough. He has the other qualities as well.

Longley himself has suggested that by the time he dies his work will look like four poems: “a very long love poem, a very long meditation on war and death, a very long nature poem, and a playful poem on the art of poetry.” Certainly these elements in his work constitute sufficient variety: they are among the perennial subjects of poetry. He is particularly haunted by war and death, with impetus given by his father’s experiences in two world wars and his own experience of The Troubles. His father fought in the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme and was marked for life by the ordeal. Longley knows that Ulster’s participation in the Great War had a bizarre political tinge that foreshadowed later conflicts: as he points out in one of his best known poems, “Wound,” soldiers went over the top shouting “Fuck the Pope!” and the Unionist motto, “No Surrender!” The poem, anti-Catholic expletive and all, is a standard piece for the syllabus in English schools, and it is a far cry from the old favorite, Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” Longley’s numerous poems dealing with the Trojan War and the return of Odysseus from it have been a brilliant means of writing obliquely about war and civil war, though he has never been reluctant to write about the conflicts directly. His “Ceasefire,” about the scene in The Iliad wherein King Priam goes to Achilles to beg for the body of Hector, resonates with the griefs of European wars and the family tragedies of Northern Irish conflicts. Longley writes love poems of deep tenderness. His two line masterpiece, “The Parting,” manages to convey the poetry and pity of war, in Wilfred Owen’s phrase, and its pathos is heightened because it is an exchange between husband and wife. The Ulster injection, “och,” which conveys grief, gives the scene a local habitation and name:

He: “Leave it to the big boys, Andromache.”
‘Hector, my darling husband, och, och,’ she.

So much is packed into these lines: male hubris and condescension, and female helplessness which can find an outlet only in keening. Longley is an outstanding writer of elegies, extending a tradition that goes to the origins of lyric poetry in the West. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland has given him numerous subjects for elegies.

Longley majored in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin and studied with the great scholar, W. B. Stanford, whose study of The Odyssey in Western literature is a classic. Longley claims to have been an indifferent student, but his poems inspired by Homer, Ovid, and Horace make up for any earlier neglect. He has an Horatian interest in writing about the art of poetry. In an interview, he singled out his couplet, “The Weather in Japan” as work about the art of poetry: “Makes bead curtains of the rain. / Of the mist a paper screen.” Like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” the poem illustrates the creative power of metaphor in two lines of great delicacy. Longley was a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s famous creative writing circle in Belfast, The Group (as were Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, James Simmons, Paul Muldoon, and Ciaran Carson). Longley’s poem called “The Group,” which skewers poetasters called by names like Telesilla, Ion, Charexinna, and Lamprocles, has the edge of Roman satire, and anyone who has taken part in a creative writing circle or workshop will recognize the types. Presumably, the targets are not his friends. Increasingly, Longley has written poems about nature, especially in his second home in Carrigskeewaun, County Mayo, that continue the ancient tradition of pastoral poetry and seem imbued with the hard-won serenity of the odes of Horace.

It is not enough to invoke the classical traditions or praise commitment to art. The poems must measure up. Longley has a dedication to craft that would please his classical models. He has experimented with syllabic verse and free forms, but most of his poetry is in traditional meters and rhymed with a skill rare even among so-called New Formalists. A reader looking through the Collected Poems might notice how frequently Longley uses lines without pauses. He achieves a variety of tonal and rhythmic effects in such lines, ranging from grim irony to a lyric poignancy. The last line of “Thaw” shows the lyricism: “The spring’s a blackbird with one white feather.” He frequently works without pauses at the ends of his characteristically long lines, end-stopping or enjambing them rather than drawing out the sense from line to line in the way that Milton advocated. These strategies contribute to his distinctive music. His dedication to lyric perfection is signaled by his love for a saying by Tennyson: “a perfect lyric inscribes the shape of an S.” The letter S is symmetrical and regular, but has a sinuous swerve in it, a surprise within a continuous form. The choice of such a metaphor for poetry seems appropriate for Michael Longley. This review began with T. S. Eliot’s characterization of the qualities of great poetry. They were quoted from Eliot’s essay on Tennyson. It would be premature to call a living poet “great,” but Longley’s work, with its abundance, variety, and complete competence, has a rare distinction.

Bert Almon teaches a poetry masterclass with Derek Walcott at the University of Alberta.