Michael Longley

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Douglas Dunn

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649

[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 decorative skills. As with Heaney or Derek Mahon, a different kind of talent to that needed by a poet who actually wanted to write poems about the North of Ireland's troubles can be seen in Longley's work. Their talents have been intruded on, and it is offensive to say that Northern Ireland offers them an important poetic challenge to which they ought to face up. It was, in any case something of a challenge before 1968. Longley's reaction to violence is simply one of helplessness before human suffering, as in "Wounds", his most topical poem. Longley makes the dead his "unrestricted Tenants", leaving "fingerprints everywhere, teethmarks on this and that." Public and private disturbance run through his book as individual affront. A poet in the North of Ireland is a non-combatant conscript, just like its citizens.

The showpieces of An Exploded View are three verse letters to James Simmons, Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney. In "the sick counties we call home", for a poet to "take his stand" is

            Disinfecting with a purer air
            That small subconscious cottage where
            The Irish poet slams his door
            On slow-worm, toad and adder….

What Longley wants is that

            Mind open like a half-door
            To the speckled hill, the plover's shore

which associates his sentiment with the pastoral nostalgia of Montague, although his view of Irish history, despite "Casualty", is contemptuous of heroics or racial tragedy…. Inveterately civilian attitudes are preferable to Montague's alarming historicism, with its leaps from fact into faith on the classic lines exposed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. A sprinkling of European revolutionary awareness in Montague's poems makes lapses of that sort surprising. Longley is more literary. Being a poet is for him a cachet of eccentricity in a world of football supporters, "obstreperous bigfisted brothers" and "guilty suburbs." While he grieves for the casualties in humane and imaginative poems, he also wants to be "the last poet in Europe to find a rhyme." Longley is sustaining the value of poetry on its own terms; he undertakes the survival of his individuality, and the language which experience gives him. Not to do so would be to fall into silence, or to write Tendenzpoesie. (p. 72)

Douglas Dunn, "The Speckled Hill, the Plover's Shore: Northern Irish Poetry Today," in Encounter (© 1973 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XLI, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 70-6.∗

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