Michael Longley, Jonathan Cape, 2017
Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2017
Michael Longley, Enitharmon Press, 2017
The ghost orchid (classification status: Endangered) is a small, delicate and translucent plant. It can survive underground for years, and will only flower when the conditions are perfect – there is no guarantee it will flower annually. When, after 23 years of being presumed extinct in the UK, a single flower was found in 2010 by an amateur botanist, he exclaimed: ‘Hello you – so there you are!’
Northern Irish poet Michael Longley published his collection The Ghost Orchid in 1995, while the plant was still thought extinct. But all of his work can be seen to have the qualities of ‘a wild orchid’ (‘Hazel’, Angel Hill). Longley made a similar return after a long writing break between 1979 and 1991. He defended the disappearance with his belief in the complete sincerity of every poem he has written: ‘In a religious sense, I believe that my present silence is part of the impulse and sooner silence than forgery. I’ve enough technique now to be quite a good forger.’ But now, after over 50 years of writing, Longley is far from silent. Just this year, he’s had published a new collection, Angel Hill, which won the 2017 PEN Pinter prize and was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize, and Sidelines, a selection of his prose from throughout his career.
Longley’s work has such scope and depth that it can be difficult to know how to approach it. He covers a range of themes, but his poetic treatment of them seems to come from something more lasting. (The ghost orchid has no leaves and no chlorophyll, feeding itself through fungus on its roots rather than through photosynthesis.) And while Longley certainly speaks to and forms part of a vibrant and shifting outside world, you get a sense that his imaginative material is drawn from something much deeper and less ephemeral.
Longley spoke about these connections across his work when he participated in a BBC Radio 3 series called ‘Letters to a Young Poet’. Leading contemporary poets wrote a letter after the style of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Briefe an einen jungen Dichter, giving struggling younger poets some of their wisdom. Longley told his imagined protégé (he named her ‘Alison’, ‘a nice middle class Northern Irish name’): ‘I have long believed that love poetry is at the heart of the enterprise. If poetry is a wheel, then the hub is love poetry, and branching out from the hub like spokes are all the other involvements and attachments: family, children, friends, nature, animals, country.’
For a reader of Longley, this is a valuable image: it provides a figurative framework, a model through which we can gain access to his work. But it also illustrates how easy it can be to see Longley’s recurrent themes as very separate spokes on the wheel. The structure of Angel Hill does little to ease this temptation. There is, for example, a little cluster of poems about Heaney, Mahon, Muldoon and co., and then one of love poems addressed to his wife. But to separate his ‘involvements and attachments’ is to dilute their power as a whole.
Longley’s ‘attachments’ have been many and varied. Born in 1939 (the same year another little boy, Seamus, would make his appearance on a farm called Mossbawn) to English parents in Belfast, he went to school at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (known to all in this country as ‘Inst’) and then read Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Although he had written a poem at 16 (to impress a girlfriend), it was at Trinity that he was really drawn into poetry, and engaged in friendly competition with fellow student Derek Mahon. He later worked as a teacher in Dublin, London and Belfast, and was part of Philip Hobsbaum’s famous Belfast group before publishing his first collection, No Continuing City, in 1969. Shortly after this, he joined the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and worked there until his retirement. Angel Hill is his 11th collection, and, aside from a 12 year gap between e Echo Gate (1979) and Gorse Fires (1991), he has written steadily all his life. With a career as prolific as Longley’s, thematic consistency can be found not necessarily within Angel Hill itself (as in Heaney’s Station Island, for instance), but across his whole body of work. He once said in an interview, ‘I hope by the time I die my work will look like four really long 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.’
I spent a full week reading his work, starting off with Angel Hill, but then going right back to No Continuing City and reading through his corpus chronologically. This mode of reading allowed an enactment of Longley’s wheel metaphor, mentally moulding his poetry into a loop. Enveloped in his poems, I moved through his literary world, which encompasses Belfast, Carrigskeewaun and Lochalsh, and which is always delicately reflective, and often self- referential. I lived through 50 years of Longley’s ‘involvements and attachments’ in the space of a few days. I read on as poems about friends and family became elegies, but also as new characters appeared, newborn grandchildren were given poems, and his world became one in which I was alive.
A connection to place, a tangible, earthy place, is an orchid’s source of life. Pick one, and it will wither away to nothing. Longley’s poetry, too, has this sense of a necessary rootedness in what he calls his ‘soul-landscapes’, places of poetic communion and inspiration. But, of course, such a connection is disrupted by deep- rooted political anxieties. How can a Northern Irish poet find an identity in a place, when the identity of that place is disputed: is it Irish? British? Northern Irish?
Born to Protestant English parents but defining himself as a ‘sentimental’ disbeliever and having never voted Unionist, Longley defies easy categorisation (and in Northern Ireland, this is unsettling – especially for an older, rural population, who try to define what ‘sort’ you are by whether you put the milk or the tea in the cup first). In Angel Hill, his sense of his position in a cultural and political no-man’s-land asserts itself through disturbingly close ecological connections. In ‘Granddaughters’, the speaker is trapped in the earth and metamorphoses into the place which he inhabits, exhibiting, perhaps, a fear of being defined by one’s homeland. In ‘Song’, food chains become distorted and cyclical, with a claustrophobic sense of entrapment and futility. The entrapment jars uneasily with a positioning of the speaker as outsider, never truly belonging, creating what seems to be a poetic space of abjection.
Longley’s ‘soul-landscape’ is Carrigskeewaun, a townland in County Mayo. Townlands are a distinctly Irish phenomenon, dating back to long before the Norman conquest. A townland is the smallest geographical division of land within the old Gaelic system, usually only a few hundred acres. The English planters mapped and anglicised the townlands (the sense of loss this entailed is captured beautifully in Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations). So, Longley’s use of the townland name is in itself significant, as is ‘Place-Names’ (Angel Hill), a dedication to the poetry of townlands like ‘Traleckachoolia / And Carrignarooteen.’ Carrigskeewaun comes from the Gaelic ‘Carraig an Sceamháin’, which means ‘rocky place of the rockcap fern’ (and yes, the names do tend to be that long). Townlands connect a place to its ancient rural past, evoking a time when Ireland was intimately connected to the earth, and life revolved around the changing of the seasons. Carrigskeewaun is a place where one can find a home in the landscape without a sense of unease. Longley describes it as ‘a shimmering beauty to illuminate the northern darkness. We have peace of a kind but no cultural resolution. The tensions which produced the Troubles are still there. It is important for me to see beautiful Carrigskeewaun as part of the same island as Belfast.’
Angel Hill marks an expansion of Longley’s ‘soul-landscape’ to include the Lochalsh burial ground from which the collection takes its name. Lochalsh is the home of his daughter, painter Sarah Longley. The two places, he says, ‘keep in touch’ through their art. Indeed, Longley’s vision is at times consciously an artistic one: he depicts a watercolour world, in which flowers that were ‘colourless’ at night become ‘light-painted’ in the morning, when one can see an entire field ‘in a toothglass’ (‘Nosegay’, Angel Hill).
The mixture of bathos and wonder in the image of a ‘field in a toothglass’ sits uneasily alongside the relentlessly metonymic landscape he painted back in 1973, as a comment on the endless Troubles art of that era:
Now every lost bedraggled field
Like a mythopoeic bog unfolds
Its gelignite and dumdums
(‘Letters’, An Exploded View)
Longley seems to criticise a false linkage of history and politics to place. While he is happy to use classical mythology in his poetry, it is only ever done to break down false mythologising of the present. Much like the troublingly close ecological connections in ‘Granddaughters’ and ‘Song’, here we have a jarring and harmful connection between nature, poetry, and politics. The ancient bogs of Ireland are being reshaped by poetry to include ‘gelignite and dumdums’ (explosives and bullets), and Longley sees a falsity in this. Perhaps he worries that connecting the conflict to the place acts as a way of justifying continued violence. Indeed, he point blank refuses to romanticise any violence, and his treatment of the Troubles is testament to his balance of poetic and political delicacy.
Longley has, in the past, used other themes and ideastoexploretheeventsoftheTroubles.‘The Ice Cream Man’, which appeared in his 1991 Gorse Fires, commemorates John Larmour, who was shot and killed by two IRA gunmen after ordering some ice cream on the Lisburn Road. But John Larmour was not ‘the Ice Cream Man’; he was an RUC Constable looking after his brother’s shop. Being a member of the British security forces made him what the IRA called at the time a ‘legitimate target.’ By removing this rhetoric from the poem, and choosing to identify Larmour as ‘the Ice Cream Man’, Longley depicts the horror and brutality of shooting a man in the back as he turns round to serve what in NI is called ‘a poke’ (cone). In the poem proper, Longley moves even further away from political issues and creates what he has called a ‘metaphorical wreath of flower names’:
…thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb Robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
After the publication of the poem, Longley received a letter, one which he says he considers more valuable than any review. He read it aloud once in an interview.
Dear Mr Longley,
My daughter bought your book, Gorse Fires, for me, after hearing you on the radio. Your verse on ‘ e Ice Cream Man’ was clear to us who you were writing about. But I do appreciate very much that someone outside our family circle remembered my son John. e fact that there were 21 avours of ice cream in the shop and you wrote 21 owers was coincidental. I do bless you for your kind thoughts, and may God bless you.
The Ice Cream Man’s mother, Rosetta
Arguably his most famous poem, ‘Ceasefire’ (printed in e Ghost Orchid), uses the Iliad to broach the topic. It was published in the Irish Times on the week of the 1994 IRA ceasefire. The final two lines, a rhyming couplet at the end of the sonnet, delivered a message that many were not ready for:
I get down on my knees, and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.
Botany and classical mythology become lenses through which these historical events can be viewed from a detached perspective. In the midst of the Troubles, it was almost impossible not to take a side. But in Angel Hill, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, Longley is ready to ‘look sorrow in the face’, with his sparse, brief, and chilling poem ‘The Troubles’:
Think of the children
Behind the coffins.
Look sorrow in the face.
Call those thirty years
The Years of Disgrace.
These powerful imperatives are a far cry from his hesitant broaching of the subject back in the 80s and 90s. He has indicated artistic reasons for his comparative reticence: ‘A poet is not a super reporter; the raw material of experience has to settle to an imaginative depth where it can come out as true art.’ This new approach, however, could well be a reaction to a romanticising of the Troubles that has come with temporal distance. Gerry Adams’ adamant statement that ‘Martin McGuinness was not a terrorist; Martin McGuinness was a freedom fighter,’ alongside the increasingly hateful and sectarian behaviour at Loyalist bonfires, are just two indications that time has allowed not for a dissolving of differences, but a deliberate forgetfulness regarding past atrocities. Longley refuses to forget the ignoble ‘Disgrace’ of the Troubles.
Northern Irish poets are often lumped into generations or categories like ‘Troubles poets’. In an interview published in Sidelines, Longley comments, ‘I’m not really into this generational stuff. I find it all a bit authoritarian and patriarchal. I have never thought in Irish dynastic terms and don’t see myself in some kind of Irish succession. I dislike the graveyard view of poetry, literary necrophilia, ancestor worship.’ Yet in his essay ‘Poetry in Northern Ireland’, he concludes with some comments on young, contemporary poets, hoping to show that they are ‘inheritors of a worthy tradition.’ So while it is unhelpful to make broad comparisons, it is also insufficient to look at Longley alone, without consideration of his contemporaries and friends who pop up constantly in his poetry. As a member of the famous Belfast Group, poetry was for him a collaborative act, often explosively so. He recounts in Sidelines the charged, excited atmosphere of that time: ‘After one fierce disagreement (not, I might add, at a Group meeting) I walked backwards out of a crowded room, shouting at Hobsbaum and, from a parcel under my arm, dropping sticks of rhubarb on to the floor!’
He remembers reading Heaney’s early poems: ‘It is as though the particulars of life on an Ulster farm are inventing a language for themselves – a dialect that our senses seem always to have known.’ I know what he means. Reading Heaney as I grew up in rural County Down, the poetry always seemed a little too close to home. At 13, I resented ‘the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.’ I wanted the unfamiliar, and was drawn in by Tolstoy and Flaubert. And while I now cherish the sense of familiarity so inherent in Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist (1966), Longley’s poetry seems a bit more linguistically detached from Northern Ireland. The Ulster dialect of Longley’s speech never strays into his poetry, and it’s not immediately apparent why. Perhaps it is fuelled by the tendency of critics to ‘always subordinate the term “literature” to the term “Irish”’, in the words of Edna Longley, his wife. (Longley jokes that he is probably the only artist who writes love poems to a critic.)
Longley’s last collection, e Stairwell, was dedicated to his late twin brother, Peter. One cannot help but feel that Angel Hill places a similar emphasis on Heaney. Longley had already written ‘Boat’ in 2011, which anticipated Heaney’s death two years later: in ‘Boat’ Heaney was ‘approaching Ithaca.’ In Angel Hill, he has arrived. In particular, ‘Room to Rhyme’, named after a poetry tour Longley and Heaney did alongside folk singer David Hammond around NI in the 60s, was written ‘in memory of Seamus Heaney’. It recounts a series of snapshots of their friendship, from the lighthearted (‘smashed … in Cushendall’) to the tragic and profound (‘you / Stood helpless in the morgue and wept and wept’). Ultimately, though, there’s a sense of uncrossed distance, as Longley blows Heaney a kiss, but concludes by charging him to ‘Awaken’ and ‘Kiss me on the lips’. The cause of that distance is unclear; perhaps it was the competition, or maybe that quintessentially Northern Irish way of masking emotion with humour, a mixture of reservation and self-preservation which never really goes away.
Longley has given many metaphors for poetry over the years. As an undergraduate studying Aristotle, he was asked to produce his own definition of poetry, and decided that, ‘If prose is a river, then poetry is a fountain.’ While prose can flow naturally, a fountain is shaped. ‘Shape’ is Longley’s critical euphemism for form. While a fountain appears to flow freely, it is really being controlled by its design. And it is this critical opinion which makes his epigraph to An Exploded View so surprising. It asserts that poetry is an act of desperation, almost beyond the will of the speaker, as though self-control has necessarily been lost at the beginning creative process.
We are trying to make ourselves heard
Like the lover who mouths obscenities
In his passion, like the condemned man
Who makes a last-minute confession,
Like the child who cries out in the dark.
It is an unusual metapoetic statement from a man who admits: ‘Sloppy confessionalism wearies me.’ Longley’s poems never seem desperate or uncontrolled; they are always dignified, shapely, and they never shout. This doesn’t necessarily come from form. No Continuing City was certainly formally impressive – complex rhyme schemes and stanzas abounded, alongside classical allusions and fully formed analogies – but these had none of the quiet dignity and reflection of his later poems.
Longley is very self-aware about how his poetry has evolved over the years. In ‘Memory’, he discusses his ‘first poem that was any good’, ‘Epithalamion’ (1969). The poem draws on the ancient Greek tradition of poetry for the bride on her way to the bed chamber, and these historical roots are carried through into a strict adherence to rhyme and metre. Looking back, Longley sees ‘rhyme-words dancing / Down the page ahead of the argument’. And while he still believes in the importance of form (‘Syntax is poetry’s backbone’ he tells the imaginary Alison), he seems to be scraping away the obvious marks of formal poetry (no strict rhythms or rhyme schemes) to get to the heart of what he wants to portray. So while Angel Hill contains several sonnets (including ‘Memory’ itself ), they don’t conclude with that giveaway rhyming couplet, or the sense of completion that goes with it. ‘Ceasefire’ needed the couplet, and so did Longley (‘I worked out what I felt by trying to write a sonnet’), but Angel Hill doesn’t need it, and I don’t think Longley wants it. He wanted his Collected Poems to be ‘a milestone, not a tombstone’; and despite the elegies which set a melancholy tone, one can detect a conscious attempt in his subsequent collections to avoid a sense of finality.
That said, these lines near the end of Angel Hill deliver a poignancy relevant to all Longley’s strands of thought.
I make little space for philosophising.
I walk ever more slowly to gate and stile.
Poetry is shrinking almost to its bones.
This isn’t just a comment on form. I think it points out a growing tendency towards metonymy in Longley’s work, a tendency that sees the panoramic through the microscopic, and is always conscious of this paradox.
I had been writing this article for four days before I discovered a note in my mother’s hand attached to Longley’s Collected Poems. She had written out
The world is dew
The world is dew
And yet and yet
I soon discovered this was a translation of a haiku by the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763- 1828), written on the death of his second child. I don’t know why she put it there, or how she came across it, but it seemed to offer an interesting perspective on Longley’s poetry. One can see dew-like qualities in his work. There’s a continual freshness about it, even if it’s to say ‘I am writing too much about Carrigskeewaun’ (‘The Wren’). There’s an insubstantiality there too: his subjects ‘materialise out of sea-mist and / Into hawkbit haziness disappear’ (‘The Poets’). Longley rarely lingers on ancient oak trees or the rocks of the Giant’s Causeway. We don’t have otters but ‘otter prints’ (‘Fifty Years’), and even when we do have a ‘mighty beech’ it ‘has lost an arm’ (‘Storm’). Transience of subject is the lifeblood of poetry, its raison d’ être. If the subject is transient, the poem is everlasting. But Longley doesn’t buy into that ‘And yet and yet’. His ‘and yet’ is not poetry. In ‘Storm’, it isn’t just the ‘mighty beech’ and Heaney’s home on Ashley Avenue which have collapsed, but ‘poetry / And conversation collapsing’ too. ‘Pillows’ is another remark upon the insubstantiality, the magical, ethereal nature of poems within human relationships.
Your intelligence snoozes next to mine.
Poems accumulate between our pillows.
The poems are made active, given power, yet they don’t seem tangible. Longley isn’t asking us to picture the poems piling up on the bed, or letters appearing in midair or sheets of paper rustling. The poems are without body, but perhaps floating invisible to our eye, like minute dust particles, or like dew appearing and disappearing every morning without trace.