Of peace and nature
Poetry: Longley's oeuvre has revitalised the pastoral by radically turning it inside out, writes Chris Agee.
Despite the marvellous exactitude of his natural descriptions, Michael Longley is not a nature poet with the usual Darwinian orientation - an ecological voyageur, a green voice from the beleaguered biosphere - that might partly describe the work of Ted Hughes or Gary Snyder. It might be closer to the mark to say, as the Scots poet George Mackay Brown did of his own work, that he writes "green parables".
Yet Longley is an altogether rarer poet than even that description admits: a modern master of a revitalised pastoral, simultaneously cutting-edge and traditional, realist and arcadian - indeed, one of the very few such writers nowadays, in any genre, and certainly one of the greatest.
Since his first volume, No Continuing City (1968), much in his work points towards this core atmospheric: his affinity with Edward Thomas, a pivotal figure who straddled the Georgian and Modernist periods; his deep roots in the venerable traditions of English prosody, especially the classical poet-translators of the Renaissance; his innate classicism and abiding debt to the poets of Greek and Latin antiquity.
Last century, of course, the pastoral tradition in English poetry got a bad press. In its latter Georgian incarnation, it came to be seen as an urban-based idyll, unrealistic, "fight and flight" from the ravages of industrialism - golden age stuff.
Longley's oeuvre, however, has revitalised the pastoral by turning it inside out in two radical senses. If his early work veers towards the mastering strictures of traditional form (every line of his first book was rhymed), his middle and later work, especially the four volumes from Gorse Fires (1991) onwards, which followed a long poetic winter, are extraordinary for the richness and surefootedness of their formal extensions of - among many other things - that pastoral debt.
First off, for Longley, the arcadian is always centred on his poet's consciousness - i.e. in the poem itself, rather than any social world, rural or otherwise. Hence the many exquisite poems throughout his career about the autonomy of the imaginative order. The crafted veracity of his metaphor-making and the sinuous modulations of his syntax are the mimetic revelations of the celebratory and reverencing sensibility of a poetic "local historian" abroad in the universe.
Nature is more of a tool, less of a non-anthropomorphic end in itself. From evocation to invocation, and thence back to the actuality evoked: this is the characteristic arc of Longley's imaginative arcadia. He is, in fact, a master-humaniser of all that falls - light and dark - under his gaze, a true "poet of civilization" in the sense of a line in The Weather in Japan (2000): "Who was it who suggested that the opposite of war/Is not so much peace as civilisation?"
Secondly, Longley's work reminds us that the arcadia of imagination is actually necessary to the cultivation of civilisation: as an ethical antidote to all the daily and historical darkness that his poetry has also powerfully chronicled for four decades. In a world where economy is indeed wreaking havoc on the biosphere, the erstwhile pastoral is transformed into a steadfast ecological ethic, in that the implicit vision adumbrated - of an equilibrium between the human and the natural - is at odds with the reigning predations of the global technosphere.
This uniquely modern equivalent to an older lyrical space is especially suited to the predominantly "pastoral" (rather than "arable") landscape of Ireland, tamed and trimmed for millennia, where there's no wilderness to speak of (in, say, the North American sense). Much of Longley's magnificence as a lyric poet inhabits a quintessentially European or Japanese "middle landscape" between the urban and the wild, rooted in the sphere of "humanised nature" and garden-earth ecology celebrated by the French thinker René Dubos.
All this is on height-of-powers, state-of-the-art display in Snow Water, Longley's 10th collection. Under the capacious umbrella of his formal stateliness, all manner of self-reflexive twist and postmodern flourish - from the epistemology of seeing to touches of intertextuality - goes walk-about. Suites of interrelated poems open quietly one on to the other like sliding doors in the unfolding architecture of a teahouse.
That note of Japanese ceremoniousness informs, in fact, the poetic self-definition that is the theme of this collection's title poem. In earlier work, snow imagery had a long pedigree, evoking variously memory, the balm of the natural, or the world of the purely imagined in which the snow-like poem gathers "feathers from the wings of Icarus". Here, early on, the ceremonial brewing of "a gift of snow water" (reality) scalds into life a transformed "crock of snow water" (art's teapot: a second reality); while several later poems inflect the title-image with a new note of metaphysical reckoning.
Nature once again serves as the central matrix of his imagery; less immediately obvious, given the consummate grace of his image-stitching (what the Greeks called rhapsodising), is the variety of approach he brings to his search for natural metaphor. In one suite, our eternal homeland in the natural is made to echo with memory and art-making; in another, a series of mammal, plant and bird poems can be read as little parables for our human, natural and even mythological relations; in final fugal démarche, fauna poems serve as self-defining "translations" for the imaginative process itself.
One of Longley's most characteristic tones is the fusion of the elegiac and the natural, continued here with a series of poems on death: not so much elegies as death-pastorals, locating the vanishing act of extinction at a particular natural locus.
The counterpointing of a rich nominative particularity with the nothingness shadowing what is described works sensationally well:
Let us choose for the wreath a flower so small
Even you haven't spotted on the dune-stack
Between Claggan and Lackakeely its rosette -
Petalwort: snail snack, angel's nosegay.
Indeed, through sensuous perambulations like this, one of Longley's great achievements is to show how the celebration of "things in themselves" remains a cornerstone of the poetic art.
As with his last three books, the sense of Longley as a master humanist and poet of civilising perspectives is thrown into high relief by a series of war poems, including three translations from Homer.
Ironically, this aura of imagination-as-civilisation is one reason his Great War poems are so un-war-like. He never makes the category error of writing about the actuality of war per se - his evocations are always at one remove, filtered through literary or filial understandings.
From the anthropomorphising genius of 'Pipistrelle' to the violin resurrected from No Man's Land in 'Sycamore', each of the battlefield poems represents a civilising commemoration of war from the Pale of peace and nature, rather than the impossible feat of later depiction. Even so - two brief poems intimate - death is harsh in a way that no amount of humanising investiture, or aesthetic closure, can fully acculturate.
One of the drawbacks of the ethnic essentialism that rules the roost in Northern Irish literary matters is a distinct refusal to contextualise with overseas writing outside these islands. It is now evident (to this writer, at least) that this has hindered a wider appreciation of Longley's uniqueness in contemporary English-language poetry.
The "Province" may be awash with the well-made "Northern" poem, but in fact no prominent poet on this island or further afield really writes like Longley - the parallels are more apparent than real. 'Irish Hare' is a perfect illustration of the "form" he has made uniquely his own, the "eco-pastoral" (for lack of a modern term), part of the continuing work - the continuing city - of true civilisation:
Amid Sao Paulo's endless higgledy concrete
I found in adream your form again, but woven
Out of banana leaf and Brazilian silence
By the Wayana Indians, as though to last.
Chris Agee is the editor of Irish Pages. His second collection of poems, First Light, appeared in 2003. He has recently completed a new collection, Next to Nothing
Snow Water. By Michael Longley, Cape Poetry, 66pp. £8