Posts Tagged ‘michael longley’

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.

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Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. (more…)

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The Burren is a limestone plateau in County Clare, Ireland. Occupying more than a hundred square miles, it is one of the quietest places on earth, and its gray expanse has often been likened to a lunar landscape. Yet it also hosts more than six hundred varieties of flowering plants, which thrive in reflected light.

Here is a poem set in the Burren. Its author is Michael Longley, one of Ireland’s finest poets and a lifelong resident of Belfast:


Easter Sunday, 1998

While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills

You showed me, like a concentration of violets

Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky

A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.

Poll Salach (pronounced pole sol-ock) means “dirty pool” in the Irish language. Poll Salach is situated in the northwest region of the Burren, where the limestone pavement runs into the sea. Despite its name, it is an austere and beautiful site.

The narrator of this poem is walking at Poll Salach, and with a little help from an unnamed companion, he discovers a spring gentian (Gentian verna), a solitary flower. Its five petals are a bright blue, and to the poet the flower resembles a “concentration of violets.” At its center is a pure white throat. According to Irish folklore, to pick a spring gentian is to precipitate an early death. To bring one indoors will cause your house to be struck by lightning.

It is significant that the narrator of this poem was looking for one thing—Easter snow—and discovered another. As the Zen teacher Toni Packer has remarked, most of the time we are looking for something, but we can also cultivate pure looking, or looking for its own sake. In that way we open ourselves to what is present in the here and now.

Something of that kind happens to the narrator of “Poll Salach,” though he is also thinking of the future. For him, the blue of the gentian conjures a “future unimagined sky,” which is to say, a future that has yet to be envisioned, much less determined.

Michael Longley wrote “At Poll Salach” on Easter Sunday, 1998, two days after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast. The Good Friday Agreement signaled an end to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which had claimed more than 3,000 lives. In the ensuing decade, paramilitaries on both sides of the conflict have relinquished fighting and put their faith in peace and reconciliation.

Last month that truce was threatened, when dissidents from the Irish Republican Army killed two unarmed British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is now composed of Catholics as well as Protestants. This time, however, the leaders of the once-warring sides united in condemning the atrocities and renewing their commitment to peace.

It remains to be seen whether that peace will hold. Edna Longley, Michael’s wife and a prominent literary critic, has described the “shivering” gentian in her husband’s poem as a “tentative floral image,” which indeed it is. But it is also an image of hope, as potent in its way as the lilies of Easter Sunday.


“At Poll Salach” appears in Michael Longley’s collection The Weather in Japan (Wake Forest University Press, 2000). It is reprinted here by permission of Wake Forest University Press (http://www.wfu.edu/wfupress/index.php).

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