Michael Longley Terence Brown

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Terence Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 conventions…. At their purest these poems attain to moments of refined mystery…. (p. 201)

But Longley's early poetry is rarely as emotionally pure as it is in these moments of stylised reflection. There is in the volume an underlying nervousness, a heightened self-consciousness that suggests emotional insecurity. The poems are often so careful in their cerebral control, so syntactically exact as to suggest a poet who knows there are wilder regions of experience than he can yet safely consider. Longley frequently employs the words 'mind' and 'head' at central points in his early poems, and a sense of the self ordering its perceptions dominates the book…. The poet in this volume arranges the world strategically as a series of sharply focused snapshots…. Experience is organised in many of the poems into sequences of finely polished images so that had Longley's second volume not shown considerable advances on his first, he would surely have achieved a reputation as a skilled miniaturist whose work verges on the precious. (pp. 202-03)

In some poems in No Continuing City, however, Longley dramatises a dialectic between the mind and the world beyond its organising power. In 'A Personal Statement' that world comprises the body and its physical perceptions. But even here the poet hopes for balance, control, a harmonious synthesis…. The intricate formality of the poem … suggests that the mind is still firmly in authority. The solution of sense and emotion is still being filtered through a mental membrane. In 'The Hebrides', a poem of an equivalent formal intricacy, the dialectic is more fully realised as the poet tests his urban intelligence against a wild natural landscape in which no principles of rational order can be discerned…. (p. 203)

Longley's second volume An Exploded View (1973) allows the insecurity and emotional pain implicit in his earlier book to surface. The self-conscious artifice and formal elaboration of the earlier book is reduced to a tougher-minded economy of statement and a hard-edged clarity of image and diction. The poet's central concern is still himself, but the self-absorption is recognised as slightly ludicrous, in contrast to his earlier work where it was accorded solemn esteem. Many poems in An Exploded View therefore present the poet as a clownish ridiculous figure, important to himself but minuscule, unimportant in larger, more public contexts. In 'The Rope-Makers' the poet diminishes 'in a square of light'…. In 'Dark Glasses' the poet glimpses his 'own reduced expression' in the images reflected in a pair of sun-glasses…. [In 'Alibis'] Longley's internal world of refined formality, precious itemising, and protective style has been disturbed by public, social and historical forces. Language and poetic structure can no longer control the poet's insecurity, heightened now by undeniable external pressures aggravating personal strains.

The central insecurity of the volume is that relating to the poet's confused sense of national identity, explored in the sequence 'Letters'. Longley believes that the violence in Northern Ireland in recent years originates in a conflict of national identities and most especially in the Northern Protestant's identity crisis…. Longley is, in part, speaking … about his own problem of identity as a lyric poet nurtured in the English and classical poetic traditions attempting to come to terms with the fact that he was born in Ireland of an English father and that he now lives in a Belfast shaken almost nightly by the national question, violently actualised. (pp. 205-06)

For Longley, as for Allingham, MacNeice and Hewitt, the problems of confused identity can partially be solved in an identification with Irish landscape. Poems such as 'The West' and 'Carrigskeewaun' are unusual in Longley's work for the sense they create of a man at ease with himself and his fellows…. 'Lares' celebrates the properties of Irish rural folk culture (in a note Longley informs: 'This sequence owes much to my reading of Irish Folk Ways by E. Estyn Evans') as the poet's personal lares, relating his sense of Irish identity to the neo-pagan traditions enshrined in them, as Ferguson responded to the Fairy Thorn and Hewitt to the Salmon of All Knowledge. But in the countryside there will always be 'news through the atmospherics … / Waves like distant traffic, news from home …' ('The West'), to remind us of problems that cannot be resolved so simply.

In several poems in An Exploded View Longley confronts the events that make the news in Belfast. Longley, like Heaney, has consistently advised indirection as a sensible and possibly fruitful aesthetic response to Northern Ireland's violent present. He distrusts the journalistic ease of instant response—the poetry of the latest atrocity—as he rejects tendenz poesie. One detects, in some of his prose statements, a desire simply to get on with the task of following his own imaginative and poetic inclinations as a literary traditionalist 'proud to stand on the geographical and, possibly, the cultural edge of a vital tradition which can accommodate a few Irish accents'. But his own insecure sense of identity and the violence in the streets are not things that can easily be wished away. (p. 210)

The sequence 'Letters' is obviously an attempt to write poetry that will absorb the impurities of a gravely infected colonial situation, and its success, which is mainly a matter of tone and emotional honesty, gives reason to hope that the imagination as 'an ordering agent … should survive its engagement with the "impure" just as the body is strengthened by inoculation'. Other even more direct efforts to absorb impurities are 'Casualty', 'The Fairground' and 'Nightmare'. In these poems private nightmares serve as metaphors of Irish history and experience, while in 'Kindertotenlieder', and in 'Wounds' especially, Longley looks directly at political violence in a humane expository discourse…. (p. 211)

In An Exploded View Longley has shown his ability to develop as a poet. The nature-poems in the volume are less literary and less precious than in No Continuing City. There is in them an awareness of violence and pain, an occasional finely comic awareness of the ridiculous, while the book as a whole, as I have suggested, allows the poet's insecurities and fears freer expression than in the over-cautious, elaborate formality of the earlier book. The final poem of An Exploded View begins: 'My head is melting' ('An Image From Propertius'). Longley's development from poet of cerebral prudence and aesthetic circumspection to poet willing to take emotional and imaginative risks deserves respect. The metamorphosis cannot have been without its discomforts. (pp. 211-12)

Terence Brown, "Four New Voices: Poets of the Present," in his Northern Voices: Poets from Ulster (© Terence Brown, 1975), Rowman and Littlefield, 1975, pp. 171-213.∗