Michael Longley (b. 1939) is the foremost living poet of Northern Ireland. Born and reared in Belfast, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied classics. Although he has traveled widely, he has lived in his native city all his life, and some of his most admired poems address what he has called the “Years of Disgrace”—the thirty-year period of sectarian warfare in twentieth-century Ulster. But Longley’s poetic imagination is most at home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, where he and his wife, the distinguished literary critic Edna Longley, have owned a cottage since 1970. Over the decades, they have regularly returned to their remote retreat, and many of Longley’s most compelling poems are exquisite miniatures, set in the Mayo landscape. Many feature birds and flowers.

Longley’s most recent collection, Angel Hill, includes a poem as remarkable for its diction as for its concentration:


              Let us follow Gwen John’s

              Night-walk down the lanes

              Picking colorless flowers,

              Our nosegay of shadows,


               So that, come the morning,

               We wake to the surprise

               Of light-painted flowers,

                A field in a toothglass.

Poets have been called the custodians of language. If the job of the poet, as T. S. Eliot believed, is to “purify the dialect of the tribe,” it is also to preserve endangered words that might otherwise disappear. In the present poem, two such words are so honored. Nosegay is an old-fashioned, Anglo-Saxon word for bouquet. Less common than its Latinate synonym, it is also more evocative. The other nearly-extinct word is toothglass, which cannot be found in modern dictionaries. A toothglass, as the reader might infer, is a tumbler where toothbrushes or dentures are kept. By choosing the older, more parochial word for this common object, Longley imbues it with an aura of rarity. As the late Seamus Heaney, Longley’s fellow poet and boon companion, might have put it, the poet takes a familiar domestic object and “makes it strange.”

In the opening line of “Nosegay,” Longley refers to the noted artist Gwen John (1876-1939), the elder sister of the famed Welsh painter Augustus John (1878-1961). In 1903, Gwen John and a friend set off on a walk from Calais to Rome, reaching as far as Paris. There she became a model for Auguste Rodin and subsequently his mistress. Best known for her oil portraits of women, she is also remembered for her quiet interiors and her still lifes of flowers. “I don’t pretend to know anybody well,” she is reported to have said. “People are like shadows to me, and I am like a shadow.” Vivid but diffuse, her Post-Impressionist paintings reflect that way of seeing.

In alluding to “Gwen John’s / Night-walk down the lanes,” Longley recalls both the artist’s floral paintings and her legendary walk. In the first stanza, he depicts himself and Edna following in John’s footsteps, as they walk down a dark lane, picking flowers whose colors they can’t discern. Their improvised nosegay is a gathering of black-and-white, shadowed forms, which they take to their bedroom upon retiring.

With the stanza break serving as a cinematic cut, Longley portrays the couple waking to a pleasant surprise. Their monochromatic nosegay has morphed into a colorful array—or so it seems from their perspective. In reality, of course, daylight has revealed the flowers’ original colors. In a manner reminiscent of classical verse, Longley personifies the morning sun as a painter daubing the petals with fresh color. By this magical touch, the flowers, the humble toothglass, and the general atmosphere of the room are radically altered.

Michael Longley’s short poems have often been described as meditative lyrics, and their forms have been compared to haiku. Those generic descriptions sort well with “Nosegay,” insofar as the poem enacts a “haiku moment”: a process of “stopping and looking,” in which an ordinary object—in this instance a “field” of wildflowers—is seen clearly and afresh by the awakened mind, and its true nature is acknowledged. Much the same process occurs in Zen meditation.

Yet “Nosegay” is also, and essentially, a love poem. In a recent interview, Michael Longley remarked that if poetry were a wheel, love poetry would be its hub. And in the poem at hand, he amply confirms that observation. “Nosegay” is, among other things, a proposal, in which the narrator invites his wife to join him on a nocturnal walk. The outcome of that romantic adventure is a “surprise,” akin to an anniversary gift set beside a marital bed. Adding to a sense of ceremony, the poem is itself a gift of love: a present from a master craftsman to his wife. Within the confines of a single, beautifully balanced sentence, a story is told, and a marriage of more than fifty years is rightfully celebrated, even as the shaping energies of language and perception, so easily dulled by callous daily use, are refreshed and joyfully renewed.


* Michael Longley, Angel Hill. Jonathan Cape / Wake Forest University Press, 2017. Copyright Michael Longley, 2017.

“The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” an interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, November 3, 2016.

Photo: Michael Longley at Corrymeela Peace Center, Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, July, 2012.

For a fuller explanation of the “haiku moment,” see Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Tuttle, 1957), 24.

197. Nothing special

Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory.

Not so in the Zen tradition, where the word special and, more broadly, the concept of specialness, occupy a more ambiguous position. On the one hand, the Zen tradition is based on what its founder, the fifth-century Indian monk Bodhidharma, called a “special transmission outside the scriptures,” which is to say, a special understanding of reality and the nature of mind, engendered by communion with an authentic teacher. Yet Zen is probably unique among spiritual disciplines in portraying its practices as “nothing special.” “My miraculous power and spiritual activity:,” wrote the eighth-century Buddhist practitioner Layman P’ang, “drawing water and carrying wood.” More recently, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), founder of the first Zen monastery in America, explained to his students that “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.” And the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), author of Everyday Zen (1989) and Nothing Special (1993), insisted that the practice of “living Zen,” as she called it, was nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary. Coming from realized masters who devoted their lives to Zen, these characterizations may seem curious or even disingenuous. Yet they point toward the paradoxical nature of the practice.

The true spirit of Zen, it may be said, resides in ordinary life. Although committed practitioners, lay and monastic alike, spend long hours in silent sitting, releasing thoughts as they come and go, and though advanced practitioners may experience those transformative moments of illumination known as kensho and satori, the primary aim of Zen practice is not some special vision or attainment that will elevate the heroic, solitary practitioner above other, unenlightened beings or convey some special authority. Rather, it is to train us to be mindful in all of our activities and to perform them in full awareness, whether the task at hand be washing dishes, cleaning a bathtub, or driving a car in heavy traffic. Grasping for some special experience or state of mind, we distract ourselves from that central aim.

And all too often, we delude ourselves as well. In his book Why Buddhism Is True (2017), the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright asserts that a “sense of specialness,” applied to ourselves, our families, our tribes, and our species, may be hardwired into our brains. Such a predisposition, he suggests, is natural selection’s way of ensuring our survival and the propagation of our genes. Be that as it may, our conferring of special status upon a person, place, or spiritual practice may have little or nothing to do with objective reality. As the psychologist Robert Zajonc has written, “[A]ffective judgments are always about the self. They identify the state of the judge in relation to the object of judgment.” If our overarching aim, as Zen practitioners, is “just to live, always in reality,” and to align ourselves and our actions with things as they are, the notion of specialness and the imposition of that notion on our immediate experience are likely to be more subversive than constructive.

Zen is a non-dualistic practice. It encourages us to see and accept the whole of our lives, rather than rank one moment of consciousness over another or compartmentalize our experience under such rubrics as “sacred” or “profane,” “trivial” or “profound.” By labeling a particular experience “special,” we imply that our other experiences are “not-so-special” or perhaps “non-special.” As Zen masters from Seng-ts’an (d. 606) to Thich Nhat Hanh have warned, dualistic descriptions slash undifferentiated reality into separate parts. Such discrimination is necessary for navigating the world, but without the balancing forces of awareness and holistic intuition, our powers of discrimination can immure us in our bubbles of dualistic thought and blind us to the realities beckoning our attention. All the more reason to abandon our notions of specialness, or failing that, hold them in abeyance. By so doing, we will not only cease to delude ourselves. We may also restore our sense of the wonder, beauty, and boundlessness—the specialness, as it were—of every moment of our lives.


Photo: Meditation hall, Dai Bosatsu Zendo

The translation of Layman P’ang’s lines is by Stephen Mitchell. See The Enlightened Mind (Harper, 1993), his anthology of sacred writings.

The comment by Robert Zajonc is quoted by Robert Wright in Why Buddhism is True, p. 236.






Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. Continue Reading »

All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are impermanent. A conditioned thing is a phenomenon that arises from contingent causes and conditions. A pickup truck, a million-dollar home in California, a relationship, thought, or state of mind—all arise from particular causes and conditions;  all are subject to what Zen calls the “law of impermanence.” Continue Reading »

In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. Continue Reading »

192. A singular image

Last month I read a book I hadn’t intended to read. Entitled The Camera Does the Rest, it is an illustrated history of the Polaroid camera. Its author, Peter Buse, chronicles the creation, the triumphant success, and the sad demise of the Polaroid phenomenon in twentieth-century American culture. More broadly, he assesses the impact of Edwin Land’s brilliant if rather bulky invention, once considered near-miraculous, in the history of photography. There had been nothing quite like it before, and though it foretold the digital era, its unique properties have yet to be fully replicated by digital technology. Continue Reading »

I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail. Continue Reading »