by Michael Longley (North Carolina, U.S.A./London: Wake Forest University Press/ Cape, 2007)
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What T.S. Eliot said in defense of how few poems he wrote each year is relevant when thinking about Michael Longley’s versions of poems and passages from antiquity: “They should be perfect in their kind and each should be an event.” Instead of seeming remote, Longley’s free translations offer lines that are strikingly pertinent today: “Who was responsible for the very first arms deal –/The man of iron who thought of marketing the sword?” (from “Peace,” 1979). “Peace” is a rendering of poem ten from “Liber I” by Tibullus, a first-century B.C. Roman poet and elegist. And the question he poses at the poem’s outset reverberates darkly two millennia later. The Latin original stands as a rejection of war and a diatribe against the misuse of the power. Longley’s translation, which contains no ornamental exposition and no moralizing additives, is faithful to Tibullus’ intent and impulses.
His decision to stay as close to the original as possible epitomizes the kind of selective, subtle and significant work he does. Bringing past insights to bear on present circumstance, one cannot help but conclude how little we have evolved, in human terms. In an era of the ubiquitous screen, symbol of the media’s invasion of our lives, the words of “Peace” hit a nerve: “I would like to have been alive in the good old days/ Before the horrors of modern warfare and warcries/ Stepping up my pulse rate.” Through his revisiting of ancient texts, Longley has found an emphatic if oblique voice to speak to twenty-first century tragedy. His Collected Poems, for this reason if no other, will make a mark on the landscape of contemporary verse.
The rendering of passages from Greek and Roman poems are not solely responsible for making this collection stand out. His early volumes – No Continuing City (1969), An Exploded View (1973) –reveal the poet taking pleasure in matching sounds, in experimenting formally with rhyme, enjambment and stanza shape. In “Letters,” we see a harmonious depiction of elements of the Irish landscape that finds complement in end-rhyme pairs: “Now that the distant islands rise/ Out of the corners of my eyes/ And the imagination fills/ Bog-meadow and surrounding hills.” His use of rhyme is less pronounced in later books, but, as Fran Brearton claims, “Longley has said he would ‘like every line in the last book to rhyme, as in [his first book] No Continuing City,’ thus bringing him full circle.” More recent volumes – Gorse Fires (1991), The Ghost Orchid (1996), The Weather in Japan(2000) and Snow Water (2004) – illustrate an increasing interest in a haiku-like utterance, the impact of a symbol or two, less exposition, and more taut meditative verse. Not uncommon are four-line poems, such as the 1991 “Insomnia”:
I could find my way to either lake at this late hour
Sleepwalking after the night-alarms of whooper swans.
If I get to sleep, the otter I have been waiting for
Will surface in the estuary near the stepping stones.
This short poem typifies the way Longley’s imagination works over and finds sustenance in images from the natural world. Note how his rhymes have softened (‘hour’ and ‘for,’ ‘swans’ and ‘stones’). While his lyrics become increasingly suggestive as the years pass, his allegiance to the works of antiquity does not diminish. A third of The Ghost Orchid contains versions or free translations of passages from Homer and sections of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
His almost always brief lyrics gather force when we can trace the development of certain themes – the flora and fauna of Ireland, stories and scenes from antiquity, World War One soldiers and their poetry – over forty years. Arranged chronologically, Collected Poems contains all but nine poems from Longley’s eight volumes (and includes a selection of sixteen poems from 1985). His work has deservedly garnered the T.S. Eliot and Hawthornden Prizes, among others. Longley claims that his study of ancient Greek and Latin verse taught him about “the power of the sentence: how you can release energy by measuring the sentence against the metrical unit and that you can build up enormous pressure if you keep the sentence going on for some time.” “Ceasefire,” which was published in the Irish Times around the time of the first IRA ceasefire in Northern Ireland in 1994, illustrates how Longley thinks about syntax and the pressure it exerts against the measured poetic line. The poem is more or less a Shakespearean sonnet divided into four parts, each separated by a Roman numeral. The lines, however, are not pentameters but are twelve syllables long (approximating Homer’s hexameters) and contain iambic cadences. This Homeric passage condensed into a sonnet closes with an unrelenting downward pull of rhyme that mimics the action described: “‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’”
“War and Peace” from the 2004 Snow Water renders a dramatic scene from Book 22 of The Iliad, in which Achilles hunts down Hector, chasing him three times around the walls of the city; the sonnet’s sestet imagines what the same path was used for in peaceful times, “before the Greek soldiers came to Troy.” Longley condenses eighteen lines of the original into fourteen; the poem begins:
Achilles hunts down Hector like a sparrowhawk
Screeching after a horror-struck collared-dove
That flails just in front of her executioner, so
Hector strains under the walls of Troy to stay alive.
In this first complete sentence, Longley eschews any overt rhyming patterns, although there is an off-rhyme link in ‘dove’ and ‘alive.’ He relies instead upon occult rhyme to stitch the lines together. Note the repeated vowel pattern in “horror-struck collard dove,” and the use of consonance (for example, the ‘h’ sound in ‘hunts,’ ‘Hector,’ ‘hawk,’ ‘screeching,’ and ‘horror,’), followed by the alliterative ‘flails in front.’ In this two-sentence-long sonnet, the lines extend to hexameters and half of them begin with strong stresses; trochees seem appropriate for a poem about chase, as trochaic (‘running’) meter lends itself to rapid movement. Longley builds on the momentum of compounding subordinate clauses, one on top of the other, for mimetic effect – a movement as relentless and undisturbed as Achilles’ hunting of Hector. After describing Hector’s struggle to stay alive, Longley punctuates the close of the first quatrain with a full-stop, which spells out the warrior’s fate.
In Reading Michael Longley, Fran Brearton remarks that “darkness is embedded in [Snow Water’s] return to that most traditional of forms, the sonnet,” and quotes Robert Bly who suggested that «the sonnet is where old professors go to die,» as if use of the form signals enervation, a lack of interest in experimentation. Longley’s use of the sonnet is similar to his use of Homeric and other ancient tales. Clearly, by bringing a Homeric tale into a twenty-first century book of poetry, Longley wants to emphasize the immediacy of the seemingly remote literary past. By blatantly avoiding end rhyme, Longley may want to accentuate the ways the formal properties of a poem like a sonnet might “strain under the walls of Troy to stay alive.” His Collected Poems, connected as they are to the poetry of the past, illustrate his consciousness not of what is dead but what is still living, and the lessons that, as urgently as in Homer’s time, have yet to be learned.
Brearton, Fran. 2006. Reading Michael Longley. Bloodaxe Books