Michael Longley Essay - Critical Essays

Longley, Michael


Michael Longley 1939–

Irish poet, critic, and editor.

Longley is one of the respected "Ulster Poets" who helped revitalize poetry in Northern Ireland during the 1960s. Along with Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, Longley has won praise for composing finely honed verse that is rich in imagery and striking in its clarity. The three poets all initially concerned themselves with such traditional subject matter as love and nature and used conventional poetic forms and structures through which they established their individual voices and identities. Longley has been overshadowed somewhat by Heaney and Mahon because his development has been more gradual. But with the publication of Selected Poems: 1963–1980 (1981), many critics feel Longley has won his place as a consistent and distinguished poet.

With the volume No Continuing City (1969), Longley, in the words of Alan Brownjohn, made an "honourable" rather than an "exciting" debut. The poems reveal a preoccupation with form and favor the ordering of experience through intellect. While some critics complimented Longley's disciplined verse, others found this volume unemotional. An Exploded View (1973), Longley's next volume, strengthened his reputation as a fine craftsman. He won further respect for broadening the themes of his poetry, dealing for the first time with such subjects as the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. A major concern in his poetry, artistic identity, is investigated in several poems in which he wonders about the poet's relationship to the violence around him. Critics appreciated the way in which Longley's tight, formal verse structure presents and contends with chaos. In addition, Longley's poems on nature and love were praised for their tenderness.

The Echo Gate (1979) has been viewed as Longley's most important collection. Many critics believe that Longley's emphasis on learning his craft in order to free his imagination is fully realized in this volume. Here he attempts to achieve a balance between stability and flux, sense and sensation. These poems are considered more emotional than previous works, and they emphasize affirmation and mutability. Critics were most impressed with Longley's view of the poet as a reintegrating force in an unstable world.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102.)

Alan Brownjohn

No Continuing City shows the stubborn, interesting persistence of formal and intricate patterning in verse. Michael Longley, on this showing, is a deeply fastidious craftsman, working out his mildly metaphysical plots over complex, careful stanza grids, arriving at his point through minute convolutions of syntax. The scene is the Northern Irish (and Scottish) landscape, the themes small-scale, with nothing forced or pretentious in the medium or the message. It's a quiet and honourable first book rather than an exciting one; its weaknesses are in precisely that formal neatness, which leads poems on a bit automatically to unremarkable conclusions, its strengths in some moments of quirky, original vision…. (p. 832)

Alan Brownjohn, "Rival Claims," in New Statesman (© 1969 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 78, No. 2021, December 5, 1969, pp. 830, 832.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

With No Continuing City another young Irish poet emerges from the British end of the path beaten by Seamus Heaney. Michael Longley is going to have to get used to being mentioned in the same breath with Mr. Heaney: it is one of those misleading compliments that build you up while they slow you down. "A Personal Statement", one of the best poems in the book, is dedicated to Mr. Heaney, so one assumes that they are friends. There are certainly qualities they share: tight formal discipline, lion-in-your-lap evocation of things seen, and an utter rejection of the bogtrotting mythtery of the Celtic revival in all its phases. You feel with either man that a poem about the German light industry grouped around Shannon airport wouldn't be beyond his thematic boundaries. But there are non-Heaney qualities in this book that are immediately, sharply interesting in their own right.

For a start, there is Mr. Longley's open-faced and very welcome sense of humour: he has a touch of the Audenesque gift for reminding you, by an audacious placing of stresses within a normally slurred polysyllable, that a single word is itself an assembly. And then there is his imagery, which is often well observed and clearly evoked. You see it without special glasses and sometimes it is sprung on you with a suddenness that draws a gasp. Of his imagery, it could be said that too much of it remains attached to thematic emphases that are not wholly his. "The...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Michael Longley's new collection of poems [An Exploded View] includes pieces dedicated to Seamus Heaney and James Simmons; and although it seems unjust to define such a distinctive and accomplished poet as Mr Longley by way of comparison, it could be said that An Exploded View combines something of the rhythmic deftness and pinpointing verbal exactness of the later Heaney with the more distancing, drily ironic technique of James Simmons. Mr Longley hasn't the sensuousness of a Heaney, but he does share with him a preference for pared (but not purist) verbal structures which elicit an isolated gesture or moment…. The imaginative tact of this is a consistent strength in the book, and both senses of "tact" are relevant: in his most impressive work Mr Longley is able to re-create the feel of the world within a poetry which remains discreetly restrained, emotionally impersonal but not clinical….

Mr Longley has the knack of inserting single latinate terms ("designations", "dispositions", "supervised") which fend off the immediate action of a poem and open a wider perspective on to it, while reminding us at the same time, firmly but unobtrusively, of the poet's vigilant presence and his ironic control of his subject-matter. One of the few disappointments in this excellent volume is that the subject-matter is perhaps rather slight; there is not with Mr Longley's work much sense, as yet, of a hinterland of complex, consistent preoccupations which might supply it with more substance.

"Keeping in Touch," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3726, August 3, 1973, p. 894.∗

Douglas Dunn

[In An Exploded View, Michael Longley] gives the impression of not wanting to take History or politics too seriously, but at the same time admitting that he has a responsibility to subjects under his nose. In "Casualty" he shows himself to be as willing as [John] Montague to fabricate a notion of the irrational-historical, and by so doing he abdicates the right to say whether contemporary events are good or bad. Like Montague, he appeals to an Unknown, a "something." All that's left of an animal cadaver that represents the body of Ireland are bones, horns and hooves….

One wonders, however, about the efficiency of the poem. It conjures up the official spectre of Ireland, elevating social realities into mysticism, into an excuse for the present. Longley and Montague both suppose themselves detectives from the Destiny they find frightening. Peter Porter has an image of poking fingers through the slits in a hoplite's helmet to frighten the cat. People can be frightened in the same way; and although one can see that poets might do this as a way of applying brakes to certain movements of feeling in their communities, in this case it does seem more like the old Celtic habit of believing in ghosts, in Montague's "dark permanence of ancient forms."

An Exploded View is usually concerned with a more recognisable version of life. Longley is a literary dandy and love poet. His most impressive gift is the natural ingenuity with which he can make images grow, construct careful narratives, and at the same time avoid an indulgence in...

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Terence Brown

The early poems of Michael Longley … are the work of a self-conscious, urban sophisticate for whom Ireland as a possible poetic subject scarcely exists. Indeed his first volume, No Continuing City (1969), contained only one poem on an explicitly Irish subject. In that collection we enter a world of private associations, of wit, intelligence and formal relations. Elaborate metaphysical conceits are skilfully worked, an instinct for subjective allegory is indulged, while the central properties of the poet's consciousness are urban and bourgeois. The tone, imagery and rhythms imply a humanist education; the poems on personal relations suggest a sense of formality and tradition, of civilised rituals and...

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Douglas Dunn

In the past [Michael Longley] proved himself defter than most in the handling of rhymes and metre. There was a consistently smooth elegance about his work, his intricate verse forms—especially in No Continuing City—reflecting an ambitiously precise kind of craftsmanship.

Man Lying on a Wall is no less scrupulous a book. It has already been criticised, insanely, on the grounds that it is too neat, too careful. Elegance is no longer the thing-itself for Longley, if, indeed, it ever was. His care is a simple consequence of his honesty. It just so happens his poems unfold in slow, clear, careful lines. They are lines full of experience embodied in flowers and creatures; or of experience...

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Douglas Sealy

Michael Longley's Man Lying on a Wall might almost be a photograph album of a family holiday in the country: the poet is seen swimming, plucking a goose, carrying water, admiring a view, sailing, etc—some of the poems are like extended haikus where natural objects are seen with clarity and affection, but Mr Longley is seldom content just to describe and allow the reader to make connections between the objects of the poem and the feelings they arouse. It is as if the photographs were each supplied with a caption that sought to turn a snapshot into a statement….

Nowadays poets don't like to be thought of as writing light verse, though it is a respectable genre with a long history. The title...

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Andrew Motion

In the past, Longley's strong point has always been his lyricism—largely because he has never allowed elegance to inhibit plainspeaking. And the same is true of the best poems in The Echo Gate; 'Dead Men's Fingers', typically, reinforces amorous exultation by relating it to the phenomenal world with a kind of excited tenderness…. Elsewhere the objects chosen to play a part in negotiations between spirit and flesh are more conventionally romantic—which invariably means rural. Hillsides, lakes, snow and wild flowers recur with particular frequency, and gather considerable symbolic value as the book proceeds. While this obviously enriches them in one respect, it also threatens their naturalism, and subverts...

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John Mole

Michael Longley is a patient, properly ambitious poet who has worked hard to achieve a distinctive style without appearing to question his deep trust in the resources of formality and pattern. His early poems are sometimes rather strenuous exercises in craftsmanship, models of determination which become exhausted by their refusal to stop until an argument has been pressed home; but the monotony of their attentuated structures is at the same time evidence of an admirable seriousness, a readiness to demonstrate the importance of apprenticeship rather than a bid to catch the eye too easily and too soon.

In the introduction to his 1968 pamphlet Secret Marriages,… Longley was already taking an...

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Douglas Dunn

Longley's first book, No Continuing City (1969), established at once that he was at home with the colloquial and natural as well as with artifice. Interestingly enough, the seven poems reprinted from that book [in Selected Poems: 1963–1980] do not include those which, through a refreshing technical accomplishment, recommended themselves at the time—poems like "Epithalamion", "A Personal Statement" and "The Hebrides".

His development suggests a slow riddance of the more noticeable restraints of formalism, an affectionate departure from rhyme and metre rather than a trite rejection of what can be achieved through traditional means. Verse, however, is still the ground on which...

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Vernon Young

Longley's development, in the four volumes from which [Selected Poems: 1963–1980] was culled, has been fairly unhesitating, or perhaps the major hesitations don't show in the verse he has wrested from those private ordeals in which a poet is shut in with the bull. (I might better say, shut in with W. B. Yeats!) To read these as forty-three undated poems is to admire the virtual absence of solecism. To realize that they were conceived and shaped over a period of seventeen years is to appreciate the struggle which must have accompanied and determined the lyric force and the fearless compassion that together define Longley's poetic profile. (pp. 155-56)

From [his second volume, An Exploded...

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