Michael Longley Vernon Young - Essay

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Longley's development, in the four volumes from which [Selected Poems: 1963–1980] was culled, has been fairly unhesitating, or perhaps the major hesitations don't show in the verse he has wrested from those private ordeals in which a poet is shut in with the bull. (I might better say, shut in with W. B. Yeats!) To read these as forty-three undated poems is to admire the virtual absence of solecism. To realize that they were conceived and shaped over a period of seventeen years is to appreciate the struggle which must have accompanied and determined the lyric force and the fearless compassion that together define Longley's poetic profile. (pp. 155-56)

From [his second volume, An Exploded View,] on Longley is in command of a vocal affluence so consistently attuned that I hesitate before the numerous examples there are to offer: pastoral matters; brooding memorials for painters and poets and just men, gone under; simulations of characters out of literature or myth: Fleance, Circe, Proserpine; apotheoses of the past and, in "Company," his greatest blank-verse orchestration, the future; a badger, a goose, swans mating and [a] perfect landscape without figures…. (p. 157)

Like all good poets he is much possessed with death; like all good Irish poets he is impenitently conscious of the chemistry and decay that rob dying (and disposal) of the austerity we should prefer it to exemplify. He marks the shrivelling "fatty brain" of Oliver Plunkett, a mummified bishop in Drogheda Cathedral, his head "the end of the body that thins / And says things, says things as the body does—/ kisses, belches, sighs"; he deduces the long gregarious feasting on a ram's corpse left to wind and rain ("Casualty"): "A surgical removal of the eyes, / A probing of the orifices, / Bitings down through the skin, / Through tracts where the grasses melt…." And in "Obsequies," a corpse reflects as it falls asleep in Formalin…. "Florence Nightingale," his consummate poem of this order, invokes the most unusual perspective for this inscrutable woman since Lytton Strachey's…. Any day now, this man is going to write the grand stuff, equal to the best of the Bog Poems by his contemporary, Seamus Heaney. (pp. 157-58)

Vernon Young, "An Irishman and Three Americans," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall-Winter, 1981, pp. 155-68.∗