Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015, by Michael Longley review – a generous selection
His gift seems always to be waiting for the moment in which a story exceeds itself, one story begetting another
Michael Longley at his home in Belfast. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015
Sidelines provides a generous selection of Michael Longley’s occasional writings, some pages from his memoir Tuppenny Stung, book reviews – many from The Irish Times – short essays, introductions to his favourite Irish painters – Colin Middleton, Gerard Dillon, Felim Egan, Brian Ferran, David Crone, and Jeffrey Morgan – three lectures, and three interviews. It is good to have access to the range of his interests between one poem and another. His themes, formal and colloquial, are never far from poetry, art, music, and the responsibility of an imagination engaged with the world.
We think of Longley as a Belfast poet, to begin with: birth on July 27, 1939, legendary father and mother, schooling, then Queen’s, that nest of singing birds where he read Classics and started thinking of himself as a poet surrounded by poets. In To Seamus Heaney he refers to “the sick counties we call home”. When he went to Dublin as a student at TCD, he continued with Classics under the formidable guidance of Donald Wormell in Latin and WB Stanford in Greek. By his own confession, he was a desultory student in those years and spent most of his good time reading poems with Derek Mahon – “Once Derek arrived reciting Rimbaud” – a year or two his junior but already an accomplished confederate in poetry. But Belfast, more than Dublin, has remained his place. Austin Clarke and Thomas Kinsella don’t seem to have come into Longley’s reckoning. Kavanagh is “immortal Kavanagh”.
Longley has not developed a theory of poetry. “Poetry’s only essential attribute is rhythm,” he declares, but he has found it hard to say what rhythm is or how it becomes authoritative, when it does. Does it inhere in particular poetic lines, like Yeats’s “The light of evening, Lissadell,” or does it somehow govern an entire poem ? Longley’s particular talent is for the lyric poem and he is especially alert to those moments in which an event, real or imagined, has broken through the dailiness of life and demanded to be recognised in lyric terms. He can tell a story as well as anyone, but his gift seems always to be waiting for the moment in which a story exceeds itself, one story begetting another. The Troubles in the North gave him enough provocation for his strongest poems such as Wounds, The Butchers, and The Linen Workers. Then the classics, mainly Homer, Propertius – “my soul mate, love’s polysyllabic / pyrotechnical laureate” – and Ovid. They have given Longley Persephone, Baucis & Philemon, and many of his best poems.
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But he has another place than Belfast. Since 1970 he and his family have enjoyed the custom of spending Springs and Summers in David Cabot’s cottage in Carraigskeewaun, a townland in Mayo. “One-third of my poems are set in south-west Mayo.” Not that the two poetries are completely separate. Longley has a talent for being “in two places at the same time.” One day, as he reports in Sidelines, he walked the Burren to see how many varieties of wild flower he could find in one day. Bad news travels fast. On that same day the IRA killed a man who sold ice-cream from a shop on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. Longley wrote a poem, The Ice-Cream Man, starting with a list of ice-cream flavors and ending with a longer list, the 21 varieties of wild flowers he had jotted down on the Burren. If there is a moral to the poem, it is not that nature makes up for human wrong but that our only recourse is to hold wrong and right simultaneously in the mind – a wooing both ways – and do the best we can with them while we can. But in his pastoral moments Longley is tempted to think – or at least to hope – that ardent appreciation of sun and moon, stars and sky, the sea and the earth, flowers, animals, and fish may save us. I doubt it.
The boldest assertion in Sidelines comes in an essay on Louis MacNeice: “He was, like all the major poets of this century, more or less untouched by the Modernist movement.” That sounds like an examination question, to be followed by the instruction: “Discuss.” I am not sure that Modernism was a movement, but I find it strange that Longley, like the poets he admires – MacNeice, Graves, Edward Thomas, Heaney, Mahon, Larkin, James Simmons, Montague, Richard Murphy, and Eavan Boland – have written as if the poems of Hopkins, Eliot, Pound, Valéry, Hart Crane, and Beckett did not exist. In the sentence before the bold one Longley refers to “the true tradition of English poetry to which MacNeice belongs”. What makes it true ? There are as many traditions as there are major poets who embody them. Graves, Mac Neice, Longley, and the poets whom Longley appreciates regard middle-class educated conversation as the decent norm, fit to maintain the middle C of poetry while allowing for local extravagance, demotic or sublime. This is evidently what Longley means by “the true tradition”. No wonder his sole mention of Eliot is to say that The Hollow Men is “pretentious tosh”. But I recall Hugh Kenner saying, in A Colder Eye, that if Montague and Heaney disregard Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, and Keats, “that is because they can profit from Modernism’s disengagements, and Montague especially from American Modernism”. That, too, is worth making a note of.
I balk at one phrase. Longley refers to the Troubles as “our tawdry little civil war,” (16) repeats the phrase in a lecture in TCD (324) and again, 90 pages later in an interview, with a minor change to “our grim little civil war”. (412) Grim, yes; tawdry, if it means cheap or in bad taste, I’m not sure, I don’t see the point; but why “little,” three times? Bobby Sands and the ice-cream man didn’t find the Troubles little.