Friday, May 29, 2009

Back in the Savile again ...

Another Trinity College dinner. Another celeb singing for his supper.

This one almost a contemporary of Malcolm's, overlapping by just the year.

Michael Longley was a feature, nay an ornament, of Trinity before Malcolm arrived. Longley and Derek Mahon were already acknowledged as the coming thing in literary life. They were the arbiters of what was admissible to Icarus, the College literary magazine. They were, to general envy, one of that exclusive circle of "published poets".

For some reason the Belfastmen had a throttle-hold on poetics (rumours of soon-to-be all-conquering Heaney were also rife), while the English immigrants (Ralph Bates, Mike Bogdin, Jo Van Gyseghem, a certain Bill Oddie) cornered the theatricals.

The young Longley was a square-built, clean-cut figure: he looked more the off-duty rugger type, that annually dropped off the Inst production line, than a versifier. The ever-present ciggie and the distant-expression were the only main clues.

Today he is four-square, white-bearded, still quiet-spoken, a solid citizen. Perhaps not quite as tall as Malcolm remembered. He could do the walk-on rôle of generic literary figure, direct from Central Casting, without visiting make-up.


Malcolm suspected Longley would have a receptive, if unsophisticated audience from a moment beforehand, in the Savile library.

Malcolm was struck by a framed autograph letter, on Club headed notepaper, by Thomas Hughes. He remarked upon it. His neighbour wondered who this Brown fellow could have been.

So Malcolm mentioned Tom Brown's Schooldays. No response. No recognition.

The character of Flashman? Sorry: literature and reading are two of my blind-spots, was the depressing reply.


Longley, obviously a veteran of such occasions, did a quick in-and-out on the nature of being a poet, illustrated by snatches of recollection of his time at TCD (W.B.Stanford; peddling Icarus at Front Square; the squalor of Botany Bay ...).

He based this on the two contrasting views of what a poet should be. He obviously preferred to think of himself as "the poet as makar", a good Ulsterman identifying with the likes of Henryson (that plain Dunfermline dominie) and Dunbar. In a quick passing mention, he called in aid the Greek root of "poiētēs". So the "poet" is a craftsman, an artificer burnishing words into a work of art.

At the other extreme, there is the poet as prophet or seer: Longley reached for the word "vatic".

Yeatsian aside

Longley could, but didn't, have embroidered the thought by mentioning Yeats and his Byzantium, where the two views are incorporated.

Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium (of 1927) been inspired by the mozaics of Theodoric's Ravenna:
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
When he revisited the conceit in Byzantium (1930), Yeats was struggling, even harder, to overcome the limits and impotence of his ageing body to become:
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;

I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Another way of approaching this dichotomy is to stick with Yeats for a moment.

When Yeats retreated to his Tower at Thoor Ballylee, he saw it as a place of retirement, of separation from the world. It was, partly to draw from James Joyce, his "Omphalos": the stone artefact that marked the centre of his world. Even so, the world and its violence came to Thoor Ballylee in the form of the Irish Civil War:
An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were

The finest play under the sun.

A brown Lieutenant and his men,
Half dressed in national uniform,

Stand at my door, and I complain
Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
A pear-tree broken by the storm.
Yet, inevitably with Yeats, the symbol of the Tower is ambiguous. It may be phallic and male, but also vaginal and feminine, with its "Winding Stair". If it is the "Omphalos", the navel, it is also a "Pharos", a lighthouse: again, the ambiguity of the internal and the external signification.
A Moate defensiue to a house?

Herein Malcolm would see Longley's moment of confusion.

Unlike Heaney, who betook himself from the "Troubles", to Wicklow and further afield, Longley remained in and of Belfast throughout those years. Admittedly, in the benign retreats of the Malone Road and the University Quarter, but in earshot of the events around him.

Contrast that with his former associate and sparring partner, Derek Mahon [right], who escaped, and, from a distance, tried to find connection and empathy:
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last

And learnt what is meant by 'home'.
Longley remains very close to home, but rarely ventures beyond his front door and morning paper for any explicit reaction to the diurnal decay and despair of the Black North.

If we take his best-known reflection, The Ice-Cream Man (which he himself cited at the Savile Do), we are left with this:
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady's bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
Longley's reflection on this poem was to recall that he was touched when a relative of the victim wrote to him, thanking him for the memory, and noticing that the twenty-one wildflowers matched the number of flavours the dead man had sold.

Yet, in this poem, Longley notably detaches himself and the reader from the event. This is done with the different and confusing pronoun points-of-view: "they", "you" and "I". Then he explicitly removes himself across the island to the County Clare.

The outsider

When Longley commented to Dermot Healy:
I have written a few inadequate elegies out of my bewilderment and despair. I offer them as wreaths. No more.
he correctly anatomised his inability more fully to engage with the events around him.

In one particular poem, he reaches out from his personal experience to one of the many horrors of the years of the Troubles. Longley's dying father, Major Longley, Military Cross, first appears with:
two pictures from my father's head
These are the Ulster Division, going over the top at the Somme, and the subsequent battlefield, strewn with corpses of slain Scotsmen in their kilts. Longley associates these received memories with the burial of three squaddies, shot by the IRA in a pub urinal:
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
Major Longley had his passing moment at the Savile Club last evening.

Longley recounted his "audience" at Buckingham Palace; and how an equerry had taken him to the spot in the Palace grounds, recorded in a family photograph, where Longley Senior had been awarded his First World War medal. With little sense of irony, Longley Junior then appended his personal story of returning to Ireland, being asked by the security man why he had been in London, and producing from a side pocket the Queen's Medal for Poetry.

Yet Major Longley, post World War One, was an immigrant to Northern Ireland, a war-wounded commercial traveller. While Michael Longley is explicitly of Belfast ("Home is Belfast. Belfast is Home. I love the place."), he still struggles to connnect with it:
For reasons I don't understand, I find it difficult to get Belfast into my own poems -- unlike Ciarán Carson or, to a lesser extent, Derek Mahon.
In short, Longley's problem (one with which Malcolm finds connection) is that a large part of him is the Englishman abroad. His anecdote of the visit to Buck House was prefaced by a remark on the monarch's appeal:
I went into that audience a republican. I came out a convinced monarchist.
How unlike the decided home-life of any dyed-in-the-wool Ulsterman.

A bit of class distinction

Longley's home turf is the prosperous bourgeois enclave around the University. Here, free-thinking decent folk eat organic, bemoan the lack of a Waitrose, read the Guardian, deplore sectarianism and bigotry, and so feel free to vote Alliance and Anna Lo.

He is particularly differenced from Mahon (the lad from Glengormley) and Carson (the Catholic from the Falls) by social class. He, again without too much explicit self-recognition, memorialised that:

Belfast's more prosperous citzens have usually been careful to separate themselves safely from the ghettoes of the bellicose working classes. An odd exception is the Lisburn Road which runs south from the city centre. Intermittently for about three miles workers' tiny two-up-and-two down houses squint across the road at the drawing-rooms of dentists, doctors, solicitors: on the right, as you drive towards Lisburn, gardenless shadowy streets; on the left rhododendrons and rose bushes. Belfast laid bare, an exposed artery.
Yet, in his poem for the TCD 400th, Longley celebrates himself, stewing in the Bath-house (where the present Buttery entrance is), and sharing the Fabian choruses of The Red Flag.

A likely tale.

None of this should imply that Malcolm lacks appreciation of Longley's considerable and distinctive work. Nor that of his wife, Edna, whose critical monograph on Louis Macneice is excellent. Both have that crucial stamina which means that they will remain in the cultural heritage long, long after less-worthies (ahem!) have gone to oblivion.

And it certainly has nothing to do with that cruel rejection note that Malcolm received, all those years ago, from Icarus. That was when Mahon was the editor, any way. Sphere: Related Content

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