Michael Longley

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The Times Literary Supplement

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With No Continuing City another young Irish poet emerges from the British end of the path beaten by Seamus Heaney. Michael Longley is going to have to get used to being mentioned in the same breath with Mr. Heaney: it is one of those misleading compliments that build you up while they slow you down. "A Personal Statement", one of the best poems in the book, is dedicated to Mr. Heaney, so one assumes that they are friends. There are certainly qualities they share: tight formal discipline, lion-in-your-lap evocation of things seen, and an utter rejection of the bogtrotting mythtery of the Celtic revival in all its phases. You feel with either man that a poem about the German light industry grouped around Shannon airport wouldn't be beyond his thematic boundaries. But there are non-Heaney qualities in this book that are immediately, sharply interesting in their own right.

For a start, there is Mr. Longley's open-faced and very welcome sense of humour: he has a touch of the Audenesque gift for reminding you, by an audacious placing of stresses within a normally slurred polysyllable, that a single word is itself an assembly. And then there is his imagery, which is often well observed and clearly evoked. You see it without special glasses and sometimes it is sprung on you with a suddenness that draws a gasp. Of his imagery, it could be said that too much of it remains attached to thematic emphases that are not wholly his. "The Osprey", for example, is the sheerest Wilburese right down to the 'nuff-said syntax of its clinching line…. And elsewhere his excellently carpentered poem "Camouflage" has all the stylish characteristics of the bottega that produced The Beautiful Changes. The volume as a whole is a bit short on personal subject matter, although it should be pointed out that where somebody has done one of his things before, Mr. Longley is nevertheless capable of doing at least as well. (The four poems on jazz are all good, none of them diminishing the subject, and the one on Fats Waller does a better job of capturing the great pianist's spirit than Larkin's comparable poem does on Bechet.) But the poems on classical themes—Circe, Nausicaa, Persephone, Narcissus—are rather ordinary in everything except accomplishment. It's in poems like "In Memoriam" and "Leaving Inishmore" (even with its heartsick MacNeicean sexiness) that the individual voice breaks right through and effortlessly captures our attention.

"Accomplished Carpentry," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3546, February 12, 1970, p. 151.∗

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Alan Brownjohn


The Times Literary Supplement