Michael Longley

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Douglas Dunn

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

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 told in stories, either whimsical, made-up fictions pressed gently from the imagination, or more direct narratives. His truths and fidelities are among the qualities of contemporary poetry which must infuriate impostors who believe Saussure should revolutionise our native verse. (pp. 80-1)

[Man Lying on a Wall] presents a poet among his kinsfolk and relatives; on his landscape, which is pieced together by desire and imagination as much as it is real; among his loves, children and affirmations. It is this fullness of view [Longley] has consistently worked towards. Domesticity co-exists with the world beyond his house and selves; the affectionate little details of life are seen to be as awe-inspiring as profounder designs, larger intentions.

Long raking sentences, cumulative syntax, work through poem after poem, imitating in their shapes the exploratory desires of a poet who invents as he goes. He seeks to affirm where he can. He makes ordinary endorsements and hallows the world. (p. 81)

There is a robust but sensuous clarity about [Longley's] new work which, if his poems are singular, eccentric even, keeps them in touch with the world. We are less used to this in contemporary poetry than we think. It may have been one of the disadvantages of Ted Hughes's reputation that poetry has come to be associated in the public mind with the real made extraordinary and the commonplace exotic. (Not Mr Hughes's fault, the public's.) Other more overtly modernist schools of writing have presented extraordinary disjunctions of style as opposed to extraordinary interpretations of subjects or observations. As for poetry which intends to be political, Adrian Mitchell has made it so that only extraordinary flights of indignation will suffice to convince a reader or listener a poem might be as political as it is claimed.

These versions of the extraordinary are ignored by Longley. Instead, and like other poets of his generation, he knows well enough that the imagination has its own extraordinary potentials: there is no need to light a cigarette with a flame-thrower when a simple match will do…. Originality has been equated with deliberate attempts to innovate. Talent, truth, fidelity and scrupulousness no longer enter into many poets' minds, let alone those of critics. Longley relaxes in the assurance that, to write a poem, you must be honest towards feeling and object, to language and cadences which embody them in words and create a singular truth. (pp. 81-2)

Douglas Dunn, "The World and His Wife: New Poetry," in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XLVII, No. 5, November, 1976, pp. 78-83.∗

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