Michael Longley Douglas Sealy - Essay

Douglas Sealy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 poem of Mr Longley's collection describes a man, dressed in a city suit complete with bowler hat, lying on a wall, and wonders whether he's asleep or reluctant to go somewhere. His briefcase, containing perhaps other people's worries, lies discarded on the ground beneath. Mr Longley writes of this curious little vignette: "The man lying on the wall might be resting between sleep and waking, dream and reality, fact and fiction, freedom and responsibility, life and death." He might be between many other opposites, but Mr Longley's remark sounds like an attempt to drag the poem into the category of high seriousness. The poem is a "Homage to L. S. Lowry"; if Lowry has painted a man he saw, or imagined, on a wall, I am sure he meant it to be a man lying on a wall and nothing else. The lack of any message would be as plain as the man. It is difficult to be sure whether or not Mr Longley's most innocent and charming snapshots are not concealing some message: I can enjoy the pictures but am worried about the captions.

Douglas Sealy, "The Intermittences of the Quill," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3901, December 17, 1976, p. 1588.∗