Imagine you have invited Michael Longley to give a reading of his poems to your class or group. What poems would you ask him to read and why do you think they would appeal to your fellow students?
If I was to invite Michael Longley to give a reading to my class I would ask him to read several poems. These include: Wreaths, Wounds, Ceasefire, Last Requests and An Amish Rug. The theme dealt with in “Wreaths”, and the honest poetic voice it is dealt with ensures I would pick it as one of the poems I’d have Michael Longley read out to my class. “Wounds” like Wreaths deals with an interesting theme. Couple that with the striking imagery present in it and there is no way this wonderful poem would not be one of my picks to be read out loud by the poet. “Ceasefire” gives us some very interesting insights into the conflict in Northern Ireland. “Last Requests” and “An Amish Rug” deal with the poets relationships with other people. Last requests also, like wreaths features Longley’s honest and unbiased poetic voice. I would therefore pick all these poems to be read out by Michael Longley to my class.
I believe these poems would appeal to my class due to their focus on the Northern Ireland Conflict. The Northern Ireland Conflict is a recurring and central theme in Longley’s Poetry, and he examines it extensively. Longley’s poetry gives us a deep insight into the Northern Irish situation by showing us its effect on ordinary, common people. This helps us gain much more of an understanding than merely through the television and radio coverage. In “Wreaths” Longley shows us how the ordinary Northern Irish people are affected by the fighting. We learn that it is not just those directly involved in the fighting who become victims. People such as a man ‘preparing an Ulster fry for breakfast’ or a greengrocer who “kept a good shop” can become victims too. Likewise, in “Wounds” Longley again shows us how the most ordinary people are affected by the Northern Irish conflict. We are told of a bus conductor who was in his house when “Without a murmur”, he was “shot through the head” by a shivering boy who had “wandered in”. In another poem, “ceasefire”, Longley provides us with the situation faced by many Northern Irish families during the conflict, when bodies of their loved ones were lost in the fighting and never returned to them to be buried and mourned. Many Northern Irish families did not have the luxury of Priam to go and kiss “the killer of my son”. Longley suggests that such compassion as is seen by both Priam and Achilles is needed in Northern Ireland, and that sacrifices, in the form of forgetting old grudges and declaring ceasefires, must be made before the two sides can reconcile. I believe my class would enjoy gaining such insights.
I also believe that Longley’s honest poetic voice will also interest my class. Michael Longley’s “poetic voice” out of all the poets I have studied is by far, the most honest and convincing. Longley portrays events in his poetry as they happened, and shows no emotion or bias towards any side. This is most clearly seen in “Last Requests” and “Wreaths”. Both Last requests and wreaths deal with war. They portray horrific events that either the poet, or his father experienced during their lifetime. I found it surprising, and believe my class will too, that having experienced such brutality he does not take sides and he tells us of the events as the happened. Last Requests deals with his father’s near-death experience during WW1 and his eventual death later on in life. Longley tells us how his father, a captain in the British Army was struck by an exploding shell was left “for dead” by his batman. As if that wasn’t enough, the batman stole his “pocket watch and cigarette case”. It was “all he could salvage from the grave” he so nearly had to share with “an unexploded shell”.
Having been told this, I as the reader felt that Longley would at some stage in the poem criticise the batman’s cowardly actions. This is however not the case. Longley surprisingly does not mention the batman again in the poem and does not express any sort of resentment or anger at him. In “wreaths”, Longley again tells us of despicable acts. Longley tells us of a civil servant who was shot by someone who “walked into the kitchen and shot him” while he was “preparing an Ulster fry”. The civil servant, a personal friend of Longley’s is shot in front of his family, while still in his dressing gown. Another man, a Greengrocer who “ran a good shop” was shot in his own shop “serving even the death-dealers”. The final victims portrayed in this poem are ten linen workers who “fell on the floor” and dropped “spectacles, wallets, small change, a set of dentures”. Throughout the whole poem the only time Longley directly mentions the killers, he refers to them as “death-dealers”. This is another example of Longley not taking sides, and telling it as it happened. He does not call the killers, murderers or anything else that would indicate his disapproval of them, yet he does not call them warriors or heroes, which would suggest his approval of them. He simply refers to them as “death-dealers”, almost as if it was a normal job for someone to have. This is another insight to be gained from reading Longley’s poem, and I believe it would appeal to my class.
Another reason I like the poetry of Michael Longley is because of its imagery. In his poetry Longley uses imagery which suddenly and forcefully conjure images in our minds of the events of his poetry, a subtle and clever way to engage us in and help us understand his poetry. In “Wounds” Longley describes the dead bodies of those at war. By mentioning an almost insulting part of the dead bodies, “a landscape of dead buttocks” Longley seems to be almost crossing the line of decency. But at the same time, he reminds us of the finality of death, and that when we die all that is left is merely our bodies, or parts of, such as our ‘buttocks’. This is all that war has managed. It is has taken life from these bodies and it is war’s only true and devastating effect. In a way I believe it is a very fitting image to convey this, because while it may appear insulting and comical at the start it draws the reader’s attention to it. It is a very unusual image and makes the reader reflect upon it. He also tells us of the Ulster Division “going over the top with ‘Fuck the Pope!’, ‘No Surrender!’ a boy about to die”. This image is one which I wont forget any time soon. Millions of images let us picture the soldiers going over the top. Few however can convey the fear and anxiety felt by the soldiers, who also happen to be young men if not boys. By mentioning the slogans shouted by the soldiers, I at least, can feel the anxiety and fear felt by the young soldiers. I don’t think many other poets have Longley’s ability to convey the emotions felt by the protagonists in a poem as clearly as he has. In “An Amish Rug” Longley tells us, the readers, about an Amish rug he gives to his wife as a present. When describing this rug Longley uses some of his most striking and clear images. He describes the rug as a “smallholding” which has “threads the colour of cantaloupe and cherry, Securing hay bales, corn cobs, tobacco leaves”.
I believe this to be Longley’s clearest image in his poetry. He describes the picture embroidered into the rug by comparing it to an actual farm. This is I believe a very effective way of portraying the colour and detail in the rug’s pattern. Longley also describes the rug as a “cathedral window” if his wife was to hang it on a wall. I think this is another striking and clear image. Longley is trying to convey the detail and colour on the rug by comparing it to the intricate, colourful windows in a cathedral. While these images are incredibly vivid and clear-cut I do not believe they can stand up to his war imagery. I found these striking images very interesting, especially upon reflection. I think that my class would enjoy these images and having them read out to them by the poet himself would help convey the images in a way that, reading the poems alone could not.
The final reason I believe my class would benefit from having Longley’s poems read out by himself is because of the relationships he portrays in his poems. On my Leaving Certificate course very few poets focus on relationships in their poetry; they talk about random meetings between people, or sometimes even just when they are alone. Longley is unique in that he talks about his close relationships with people. In “Last Requests” Longley reveals the extent of his relationship with his father. He shows us here his love for him, but how separated he is from his father at the same time. He truly loves his father. However, despite this love, Longley admits he is separated from his father now – he misinterprets when his father asking for cigarettes, and believes he ‘blew a kiss before you died’ instead. He admits he “Couldn’t reach you through the oxygen tent”, the oxygen tent is another symbol of their separation. Longley loves his father seems to have failed to communicate with him, a bit like Gar in “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” from my comparative course. We see another relationship revealed in “An Amish Rug”. This poem is a love poem to his wife. Here he explores the relationship with his wife and shows the depth of their love – he shows how they are united in marriage, with the declaration that ‘We shall step over it (the Amish rug) as over a flowerbed’.
I very much enjoyed Longley’s poems. While I liked their theme, I was most impressed by the way he told the poems using his honest, poetic voice. I believe Inviting him to read out his poems in persons to my class would only add to this effect, something I would dearly like to see. I believe the poems I have picked are Longley’s most interesting poems, and the ones that show off his extensive skills the best. I believe that the imagery in his poems can only get more striking and clear if read out loud by him. I think my class would therefore truly enjoy that, and benefit from it hugely as well. I believe having Michael Longley read out these poems would make for a truly enjoyable event from which my class will be able to benefit and most importantly enjoy.