Michael Longley: Haiku-like moments and Classical Allusion

The work of contemporary Irish poet Michael Longley serves as a very interesting way to tie together the varying themes and forms of Derek Mahon that we discussed on Thursday in class. Longley was born in 1939 in Belfast, very much a peer of Mahon. He is a member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and founder of Literary Programme. Having studied Classics at Trinity College, Longley’s love of Greek and Roman mythology is reflected in his poetry. In his poem “Ceasefire,” he mixes Classical allusion with modern events, much like Mahon’s “Achill,” in reaction to a recent ceasefire in the violence in Northern Ireland.

Longley also has a very keen eye for and appreciation of the natural world.  He often studies short, specific moments of time and natural beauty, producing works thematically similar to ideas explored in haiku. Such is the case in his poem “Snow Water,” (coincidentally about tea and snow) which is similar to Mahon’s response in “The Snow Party” to haiku master Basho.

Sorry for including so many poems in this long post! (I got really excited).

To learn more, click here to see Longley’s personal website.

Snow Water (1994)

A fastidious brewer of tea, a tea

Connoisseur as well as a poet,

I modestly request on my sixtieth

Birthday a gift of snow water.

Tea steam and ink stains. Single-

Mindedly I scald my tea pot and

Measure out some Silver Needles Tea,

Enough for a second steeping.

Other favourites include Clear

Distance and Eyebrows of Longevity

Or, from precarious mountain peaks,

Cloud Mist Tea (quite delectable)

Which competent monkeys harvest

Filling their baskets with choice leaves

And bringing them down to where I wait

with my crock of snow water.

Remembering Carrigskeewaun (1998)

A wintry night, the hearth inhales

And the chimney becomes a windpipe

Fluffy with soot and thistledown,

A voice-box recalling animals:

The leveret come of age, snipe

At an angle, then the porpoises’

Demonstration of meaningless smiles.

Home is a hollow between the waves,

A clump of nettles, feathery winds,

And memory no longer than a day

When the animals come back to me

From the townland of Carrigskeewaun,

From a page lit by the Milky Way.

Ceasefire (1998)

I

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears

Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king

Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and

Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

II

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles

Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,

Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry

Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

III

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both

to stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,

Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still

And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

IV

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’