Poet of radiant revelation
On Michael Longley’s 70th birthday, a fellow poet celebrates his compassionate love of the world and his restorative, compelling art, writes GERALD DAWE
IN ONE OF his poems of tribute to a fellow artist, Emily Dickinson, included in his first full collection of poems, No Continuing City, published 40 years ago, Michael Longley sees the American poet in her “ house in Amherst, Massachusetts”:
Though like love letters you lock them
The poems are ubiquitous as dust.
You sit there writing while the light
While you grow older they increase each day,
Gradual as flowers, gradual as dust.
Now celebrating his 70th birthday, Michael Longley’s poems have become to a new generation of readers “ubiquitous” in the best sense of the word and in the most positive light they cast upon our life and times. For Longley is a bringer of light and his Collected Poems, published by Jonathan Cape in 2006, amounts to one of the most impressive achievements in contemporary poetry in English. Reading the volume from cover to cover is like reading a great classical novel of the European tradition, with a powerful dramatic (and self-dramatising) voice guiding the reader through a fully rendered, physically alive, thriving and glorious work of the senses. Aligned to the sheer abundance of this imagined world of nature (who else has written so carefully and minutely of flora, the botany of our countryside?) and creaturely life (Longley’s poems are literally full of swans, bats, badgers, choughs, hares, herons, swallows, kestrels), there are the sights and sounds of domestic life and suburban living, often seen through the unexpected glimpse out “the corner of the eye”.
Longley’s curiosity and interest in how lives are lived, often on the other side of religious experience, makes his poems sometimes seem like a form of radiant revelation in themselves, such as in the unforgettable The Pattern or in The Scissors Ceremony, as an elderly couple is seen in a lovingly trustful moment as the woman clips her husband’s fingernails, “scattering them like seeds out of a rattly packet”: “Are they growing younger as I walk the length of the hedge?/ Look! The scissors ceremony is a way of making love!”
The joy of the exclamatory revelation, like the pleasure which the Collected Poemsgives from Longley’s naming of things – those great lists of the names of quilts, flowers, apples, trade routes, ice cream, tea flavours – amounts not just to a poetic anthropology but to a real and compassionate love of the world and the bounties that come our way – through the senses, in watching, seeing, being aware, as well as in physical passion and in the celebration of the things themselves.
Longley is a great poet of pleasure; precious wonder then that in an important interview he gave on RTÉ radio and subsequently published in Reading the Future: Irish writers in conversation with Mike Murphy (2000) in response to the question, that if “people are reading poetry in 100 years, what would you like those readers to receive from your work?”, Longley replied: “The main thing I want them to receive is pleasure – if they’re reading it, that is. I would like them to pick up some sense of reverence for the physical world, and some sense of mystery beyond the physical world. I would like them to absorb the poetry in a way that allows them to remember it. I think that is what every poet secretly wants to do. I think it was Robert Frost who said he would like to lodge a few poems in the minds of people where they can’t be got rid of.”
The darker side of life, the tragic note of loss, the search for and reclamation of the heroic, the appalling sickening destructive power of war – both world wars and the Holocaust feature strongly in Longley’s verse over many years – are intrinsic to his vision; a vision identified often with his own father’s experience of fighting at the front during the first World War. This is The Kilt:
I waken you out of nightmare as I wakened
My father when he was stabbing a tubby
Who pleaded and wriggled in the back
He had killed him in real life and in real life
Lice by sliding along the pleats a sizzling
So that his kilt unravelled when he was advancing
You pick up the stitches and with needle
Accompany him out of the grave and into
Your arms full of material and his
The role of family as a critical conveyance of emotional and historical truth is the dramatic focus of many of Longley’s poems. Here, for instance, in a tribute to Isaac Rosenberg, the young Jewish poet who died at the front, the past takes its shape clairvoyantly, so to speak, in the here and now, of Longley’s poem:
Who will give skin and bones to my Jewish
She has come down to me in the
Of three certificates, a dog-eared
And the one story my grandfather told
Indeed there is a sense too, in the most awful of settings – trench life, no man’s land and in the Nazi concentration camp – of the transformative power of poetry to heal, or, at least, to preserve the humane amidst the inhuman. In such poems as Buchenwald Museumthe imagination finds a way of releasing the ghastly reality into an image of redemption:
Among the unforgettable exhibits one
Was an official apology for bias. Outside
Although a snowfall had covered
A wreath of poppies was just about visible.
No matter how heavily the snow may come
We have to allow the snow to wear a poppy.
From the beginnings in No Continuing Cityto his most recent collection, Snow Water (2004), the substantial emotional depth of Longley’s poetry is matched by the rigour and composure, by the metaphorical range and dramatis personae of formal classical traditions which underpin all his writing. When I think of Michael Longley’s richly restorative and compelling art – with its wonderful jazz sounds, alongside the mischievous banter, the epiphanies of love set against the shock of violence, the ghost life and aftermath of all this living – an image comes to mind from the last stanzas of Second Sight, conveying his unique sense of wonder and illustrating why Michael Longley’s is such an impressively available poetry to enjoy and honour for generations to come:
I have brought the Pocket Guide to
My Map of the Underground, an address –
A lover looking for somewhere to live,
A ghost among ghosts of aunts and uncles
Who crowd around me to give directions.
Where is my father’s house, where my
If I could walk in on my grandmother
She’d see right through me and the hallway
And the miles of cloud and sky to Ireland
‘You have crossed the water to visit me’.
Gerald Dawe’s most recent collection is Points West(2008). The World as Province: Selected Prose 1980-2008 and Country Music: Uncollected Poems 1974-1989are due later this year. He is director of the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing and senior lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin
A Quiet Cottage
for Michael Longley on his 70th birthday
It all began at Inst.
You were among the finest
forwards in the great game
learning from the scrum
how to advance against
the exigencies of form.
“Think globally and act
locally”; folk and jazz
sing to the autumn skies
and your creative tact.
Our cultural confusion
worked for resolution.
You found it in a quiet
cottage down the west
and took the answer back
to angry old Belfast;
bubbles of image-smoke
rose from a chimney pot.
The best thoughts survive
decades of fear and hate;
linen, cloud and snow
absorb the blood and sweat.
Now we relax and live
the lives we used to know.
Earth voices in the branches,
butterflies at the flowers
on overgrown trenches,
and recent graves, replace
the historical nightmares.
Now we can die in peace.