This beautifully produced book is part of the series The Poet's Chair: Writings from the Ireland Chair of Poetry, which collects the lectures given by the holder of the Chair during his or her tenure. This volume collects the lectures delivered by Michael Longley, a poet whose dedication and rigorous approach to poetic composition, together with his wit and modesty as a man, have made him an exemplary figure for generations of Irish poets.
The first lecture, A Jovial Hullabaloo, is something of a poetic autobiography, in which Longley explores the seed time of his soul. There are glimpses of his Trinity days, and a time when the attics and basements of Merrion and Fitzwilliam Squares were planted with poets. We later see the young Longley finding his feet in his native city of which he would become a Freeman.
The jostling of so many big poetic talents in such a small place is certainly rough, but the fierceness of the literary quarrels of Belfast in the 1960s testifies to the commitment and passion for poetry of the protagonists. He mentions The Honest Ulsterman's famous categorisation of bad poetry into three types: "Shite, Dogs' Shite and Mad Dogs' Shite". A fine set of distinctions that I have long found useful in my own literary life.
Still, a poet’s real autobiography consists of the singing schools he has attended. Like Robert Lowell, Longley has a fondness for homing in on a poet’s best six to eight lines, and using them as ladders to ascend to his own voice. In his case the ladders were provided by George Herbert, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stevens, WB Yeats, Robert Graves, Hart Crane and Edward Thomas. What these poets all seem to have in common is a strenuum of rhythm and syntax that informs the muscular shape of Longley’s own work.
He pays tribute to the legendary WB Stanford, regius professor of Greek at Trinity. Stanford is also invoked by Paula Meehan, the current incumbent of the Chair, in her intensely moving lecture, The Solace of Artemis, showing the lasting influence a great teacher can exert. In the spirit of Stanford's fascinating book, Enemies of Poetry, Longley argues for the autonomy of the poetic universe. He rightly draws a distinction between being a writer and being a poet. "I have no idea where poetry comes from, or where it goes when it disappears. Silence is part of the enterprise."
Unsurprisingly, Longley finds that “much contemporary writing sounds to my ears syntactically flabby, linguistically impoverished”. In the second lecture, he reasons that this is because, in losing touch with Latin and Greek, poetry has lost its backbone. Like Yeats, he calls the Greeks the builders of his soul, and the spine here is Homer, with whose work he has had a long and fruitful engagement.
One Wide Expanse is a robust defence of classical learning, but it is more than that: it is also a guided tour of the workshop in which Longley produced some of his most memorable poems, in what he calls his "Homeric adventure". He reveals his technique of pushing against the narrative drive of the poems to "freeze frame passages in order to release their lyric potential", and uses the poem Ceasefire as an example.
In August 1994, as he was reading Book XXIV of The Iliad, rumours were circulating of an imminent IRA ceasefire. Longley took the passage describing Priam's visit to Achilles' tent and artfully moved the action round so that the hand-kiss that opens the scene in Homer moves to the end of the poem, to become one of the most famous couplets in recent poetry:
I go down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.
Poetry in motion
Longley proclaims, modestly, that it was Homer who spoke to us across the millennia: "I was only his mouthpiece." Could any poet aspire to more? He points out, with characteristically offhand profundity, that poetry "had to change" after The Iliad. "It did change, but it didn't get any better. A bit like music after JS Bach."
Just as the actual technology of poetry has changed little in thousands of years, neither has the poetic trade and all that it involves. Its essential elements have rarely been better summarised than here, in the course of a discussion of his versions of minor Greek poets: “careerism, fashion, fame, obscurity, integrity, contamination, factionalism, camaraderie, intrigue, idealism, transitorineess, failure”.
The third lecture is mainly concerned with the poet’s “sodden Ithaca” – the Mayo townsland of Carrigskeewaun, and by extension, the west, Longley’s “soul-landscape”. He considers the strange pull that the west exerts on artists from the North – Louis MacNeice, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Gerald Dawe and painters Paul Henry and Gerald Dillon. (Their Dublin-born comrades tend to be drawn to the east.) An element of this could be the lure of the exotic, “the far-flung outposts of experience”, but it seems to me to go deeper than that.
In the late 1970s, an old man on Inishbofin showed me an unused well: it had been poisoned since the Troubles began, he told me. This kind of organic, imaginative linkage is fundamental to Longley’s feeling for the west, and derives from his profound insight into the nature of the variegated but unified biological and geological habitat that is this island.
He rightly praises the great work of men such as Tim Robinson, Michael Viney, and David Abbot, who are as much cartographers of our psyche as of our birds and stones.
Solace of poetry
All these aspects come together in another canonical Longley poem, The Ice-Cream Man. He describes how after a day's botanising in the Burren, he drove home to Belfast to find that the man in the ice-cream shop on the Lisburn Road, where Longley lived, had been murdered. The poem was his response:
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowblade, tray blade, crowfoot . . .
The solace of poetry here is hard-won, and it involves what Longley calls “the poet as a close observer of the natural world”. It sometimes seems as if no Irish poet ever truly looked at our flora and fauna before Longley. And has any poet brought more solace?
The best books about poetry are written by poets: Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age, Robert Haas's Twentieth Century Pleasures, Heaney's The Government of the Tongue. It's a select company, but this small volume can be added to that pantheon.
A number of times in these lectures, Longley refers to himself disparagingly as a “lapsed classicist”. That may be so, but he himself has become a classic.
Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent collection is In This Life (New Island). The Poet’s Chair: Harry Clifton, Michael Longley and Paula Meehan in conversation with Arminta Wallace takes place at Smock Alley Theatre, in Dublin, at 2.15pm today