Posts Tagged ‘seamus heaney’

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.

Read Full Post »

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.

Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. (more…)

Read Full Post »

800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

RED TWIG Winter 2014Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the dearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.” (more…)

Read Full Post »

Seamus Heaney, 1984 Alfred, New York

Seamus Heaney, 1984
Alfred, New York

As the world knows, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney died last month at the age of seventy-four. On the day of his funeral, former Irish Senator Maurice Hayes, father of the actress Margaret (“Maggie”) Hayes, recalled that Heaney brought a handwritten poem to Margaret’s christening. “I must put that away,” Hayes said to himself, “because by the time she is getting married he will have the Nobel prize.” Regettably, the manuscript eventually went missing, Hayes’s best efforts notwithstanding. “I put it away so carefully,” he ruefully reflected, “that I couldn’t find it.”*

Something similar happened here in the village of Alfred, New York, though the circumstances were rather different. Seamus Heaney visited Alfred University in January, 1984 to give a reading. He stayed in the home of Carol (“CB”) Burdick, an adjunct professor of English who frequently hosted visiting writers. At the time, Seamus was suffering from a toothache, and for most of his reading he kept his palm pressed to his cheek. Early the next morning, he assuaged his pain by writing a piece of light verse, a self-ironic poem modeled after William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” (1508). As he was leaving, Seamus thanked CB for her hospitality and presented her with the handwritten manuscript. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Dennis O' DriscollPhoto by Kim Haughton

Dennis O’ Driscoll
Photo by Kim Haughton

“He gave the art a good name,” remarked the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney of the Irish poet Dennis O ’Driscoll, who died suddenly on Christmas Eve at the age of fifty-eight. Dennis was the author of nine collections of graceful, civilized verse and one of the most respected voices in contemporary Irish letters. I am saddened by his early death, as are many of his fellow writers, Irish and American, who remember him as a true gentleman and a generous friend. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Rowan berries by Moor Lane

Now that the leaves are falling, and the hills are splashed with color, I’m reminded of an autumnal poem by the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo:


On the road with not a soul

to keep me company,

as evening falls

katydids lift their voices

and cheer me along


hito naki michi no

yusare wa

koe nite okuru

kutsuwamushi kana (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »