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 intelligent, self-critical backward look at his "long preoccupation with form, with stanzaic patterns and rhyme—pushing a shape as far as it will go, exploring its capacities to control and its tendencies to disintegrate", and in his first full collection No Continuing City, published the following year, he presented what was very much the outcome of conscientious experiment, a volume of considerable versatility. Packed with forms, it seemed at its weakest a kind of throttled ventriloquism, but at its best—as in poems such as "The Centaurs"—it indicated what was to become Longley's chief strength, that sudden lift from an immaculate ordering of particulars towards the numinous, a delighted "waking into reason": "At ease along the river's edges / Each cavalry man become a centaur, / The causeways growing into bridges." In the same book "A Personal Statement", dedicated to his friend Seamus Heaney who three years earlier in his own first collection had dedicated "Personal Helicon" to Longley, amounts to a clear-headed memorandum, a poem to pin up above the work-desk:
My sponsor, Mind, my satellite, Keep my balance, Steer me through my heyday, through my night, My senses' common sense, Selfcentred light.
The aim is a synthesis of sense and sensation, the vital concern being balance—to be achieved through the intelligent ordering of experience. The "selfcentred light" is to be the opposite of an indulgent self-absorption; it is to stand for a disciplined centring on self—the mind's inward eye—for the purpose of a shared enlightenment. Heaney's concern had been expressed in similar terms at the end of his poem, though in a characteristically less elaborate (more confidently rhetorical) fashion: "… I rhyme / To see myself to set the darkness echoing."
Both poets in their emphasis on learning the craft—on honing a voice, shaping a method—were at the centre of what has seemed most encouraging, and least parochial, about the recent poetic "scene" in Ulster. There has been an active sense of responsibility, a scrupulous attention to the nuances of language and a belief in what Longley, writing of Emily Dickinson, has described as "dressing with care for the act of poetry". Compared with Heaney, Longley took a longer time dressing and tried on a greater variety of clothes, but as a witness to the importance of learning the craft in order to release the imagination—the achievement of ease—his career has been exemplary.
It is hard to avoid thinking of Heaney and Longley together, and, although Heaney is without doubt the more insistently powerful poet it would be a serious mistake to see Longley as writing in his shadow. Just as there is a case for considering Louis MacNeice a better (though not greater) poet than W. H. Auden—and certainly a more approachable one—so there are resources of skill, elegance and (not least) of an enticingly generous, idiosyncratic humour which in Longley's case makes the relationship between poet and reader a particularly intimate one and perhaps...
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more open to an imaginative sharing than seems the case with Heaney. It is as if Heaney's enormous gift has earned him aposition while Longley's careful practice has found him a smaller but intent community within which to work.
The Echo Gate is Michael Longley's fourth collection, and it is certainly his most unified. Its central theme is the process of imaginative reconstruction viewed as a discreet act of healing. In the short title poem, the poet is "a skull between two ears that reconstructs / Broken voices, broken stones, history", and in "Finding a Remedy"—the last of a short series of folk-prescriptions entitled "Lore"—the "wound" is treated and covered "bringing together verse / And herb, plant and prayer to stop the bleeding". However, despite the restorative powers of nature, human love and domestic order which are found in Longley's most mythopoeic celebratory vein ("Metamorphosis", "Meniscus", "Household Hints"), real suffering is seldom far from his attractive surfaces. It is there in "Late Requests", another poem about the death of his father, who is seen as a "belated casualty" of the First World War. (In an earlier poem, "Wounds", this slow "bleeding" was linked to the sufferings of Ulster.) Suffering is also to be found—sharply and among much ingenuity of conceit—in the triptych "Oliver Plunkett". There is the immediate confrontation with present-day "death-dealers" in "Wreaths", or the desolate routine and episodic violence of the Mayo peasantry, captured by means of a matter-of-fact accumulation of disquieting detail in four excellent monologues which are full of a profound sense of place and history, and are rightly positioned towards the middle of the book….
It is for [his] central concern to get the exact register—the "dressing with care" however disturbing the material—that Michael Longley's poetry should be valued. His accomplishment is unsensational, but whether he is writing a love poem, preserving fragments of Irish lore, or examining the effects of violence, his attention seldom wanders from the "discreet litter" which constitutes an identity, the small—immaculately phrased—particulars of a setting or a relationship. And because that attention amounts to the scrupulous observation of an intelligent mind, the particulars enlarge to offer (as Longley's poem about Emily Dickinson puts it) a "window on the mystery". At his least interesting, Michael Longley can be teasingly enigmatic, serving up what one of his critics has called "lozenges of inhibition". There are, however, very few such lapses in The Echo Gate. Much more worth recording are the many memorable successes.
John Mole, "A Question of Balance," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4011, February 8, 1980, p. 133.