The Major Themes in the Poetry of Michael Longley

This year’s winner of the Griffin International Poetry Prize is Irish poet Michael Longley for his collection The Stairwell (Jonathan Cape).  In his acceptance speech on Thursday night in Toronto (June 4th, 2015), Longley said he had been writing since he was 15 years old.  “It’s my life.  It’s my religion.  It’s the way I make sense of the world,” he said.  The jury described Longley’s The Stairwell as ‘a book by a major poet writing at the height of his powers’. Longley has also won the Whitbread Poetry Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.  What follows here is a selective and subjective analysis and review of the major themes and issues which frequently recur in Longley’s poetry.

 

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For the purpose of acquiring an overview of Longley’s poetry it might be useful to re-read the poems in thematic groupings.  For example:

  1. ‘Wounds’, ‘Last Request’ and ‘Laertes’ deal with the poet’s father and thereby with his sense of his own identity and family background.
  2. ‘An Amish Rug’ features intimate love and home and family values and contributes to our understanding of the poet and his identity.
  3. ‘Wreaths’, ‘Wounds’, and ‘Ceasefire’ deal with violence, past and present, with violent myths, official war, and the Northern ‘Troubles’.
  4. ‘Carrigskeewaun’, ‘Badger’, ‘Poteen’ and ‘Self-Heal’ feature the Mayo landscape, Longley’s second home, his ‘home-from-home-land’ and alternative culture.

 

Note: These notes are aimed at those who are studying for Leaving Certificate (Higher level) English – or, indeed, those who teach them!  The six poems in bold print are the ones I would suggest you concentrate on.  Three deal with his own family background and the ‘Troubles’ in the North while the other three deal with Mayo.

As with the other poets on your course, consider each general point made here in these notes and then return to the relevant poems for supporting evidence and quotations.  If you disagree (as I hope you will) make your argument and back it up with supporting reference also.  Either way, build up knowledge of the poetic detail.  Make notes for yourself – indeed, make your own of these notes.

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MAJOR THEMES EXPLORED IN LONGLEY’S POETRY

Exploration of identity: poems of self-definition

We can interpret a number of the poems in this selection as pieces exploring the poet’s own background, environment, and values.  These areas are not covered in any broad and systemic way, but selected subjects serve as anchor points of his identity.

  • Family identity is anchored on the figure of his father in these poems. Acknowledgement of his soldier-father helps clarify his own identity.  As the critic Edna Longley summarised it, ‘The father focuses questions of belonging rather than longing: an Englishman who fought twice for his country.’
  • Honouring and remembering the dead is a part of this identity: see ‘Last Rites’, ‘Wounds’, ‘Laertes’.
  • The violent society also is part of that identity: see ‘Wounds’ and ‘Wreaths’.
  • An alternative culture, the native Irish identity, is explored in ‘Poteen’, with its emphasis on the rebel race memory. The bog figures here as it does in Heaney’s poetry.
Violence
  • For a stark treatment of violence in its ordinary, everyday reality: see ‘Wreaths’.
  • The pervasive nature of violence in society; death invades the home: see ‘The Civil Servant’ and ‘The Greengrocer’; it even invades the psyche: see ‘The Linen Workers’ section of ‘Wreaths’.
  • Human insignificance and powerlessness in the face of this violence: see ‘Wreaths’ and ‘Wounds’.
  • The ‘Troubles’ are dealt with against a background of wars and other human conflicts; this gives a sense of perspective to present-day violence: see ‘Wounds’, ‘Wreaths’ and ‘Last Request’. ‘He is able to analogise between different kinds and theatres of human conflict in a personal and historically informed and mediated treatment of the troubles’ (Peacock).
  • Longley presents the pictures of violence in a neutral, non-partisan way and with a slight air of detachment. He concentrates on presenting detailed pictures rather than conveying emotions; see ‘Wounds’ and ‘Wreaths’.
  • Examine what Longley himself has to say (in Tuppenny Stung) about the relationship between a poet and the ‘Troubles’:

I find offensive the notion that what we inadequately call ‘The Troubles’ might provide inspiration for artists; and that in some weird quid pro quo the arts might provide solace for grief and anguish.  Twenty years ago I wrote in Causeway: ‘Too many critics seem to expect a harvest of paintings, poems, plays and novels to drop from the twisted branches of civil discord.  They fail to realise that the artist needs time in which to allow the raw material of experience to settle to an imaginative depth where he can transform it…  he is not some sort of super-journalist commenting with unflattering spontaneity on events immediately after they have happened.  Rather, as Wilfred Owen stated fifty years ago, it is the artist’s duty to warn, to be tuned in before anyone else to the implications of a situation.’

Ten years later I wrote for the Poetry Book Society about what I was trying to do in my fourth collection, The Echo Gate: ‘As an Ulsterman I realise that this may sound like fiddling while Rome burns.  So I would insist that poetry is a normal human activity, its proper concerns all of the things that happen to people.  Though the poet’s first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations: and not just as a citizen.  He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively.  {Is there some veiled criticism of Heaney here?}  But if his imagination fails him, the result will be a dangerous impertinence.  In the context of political violence the deployment of words at their most precise and most suggestive remains one of the few antidotes to death-dealing dishonesty.’

The West of Ireland

Longley’s preoccupation with the West of Ireland can be traced throughout his poetry.  ‘Carrigskeewaun’ and ‘Poteen’ are from his second collection, An Exploded View, which contains poems from 1968 to 1972.  So even as he was focusing on the erupting violence of the times (in such poems as ‘Wounds’) he was also contemplating an alternative.  His attachment to the west grew as a result of long summers spent in County Mayo, and this is evident from Longley’s third volume, Man Lying on a Wall (1976).  And his fifth volume, The Gorse Fires (1991), is centrally focused on Carrigskeewaun, which had by then become his second home.

Critics have interpreted this fascination with the west in various ways.  Terence Brown asks: ‘Which is the poet’s Ireland – Belfast or Mayo?’  He believes this relates to the poet’s confused sense of national identity, in attempting to be an Ulsterman and an Anglo-Irishman.  Brown believes that the problem of confused identity ‘can partially be solved in an identification with the Irish landscape.’  And he notes how unusual ‘Carrigskeewaun’ is in Longley’s work for the sense it creates of a person ‘at ease with himself and his fellows.’

Peter McDonald takes a slightly different approach, regarding the west as an issue of perspective rather than identity.  He feels that the west is in fact a way of undoing the settled nature of the poet’s identity and that what it does is provide a new sense of perspective, an angle from which home can be reappraised, ‘can be reapproached without the encoding of tribal claims to certain territories.’

Gerald Dawe argues that while Longley accepts his northern roots, the ties of family, home, class and country, he is also searching for an alternative, imagined ideal, ‘a compensatory order to transcend these.’  He says: ‘For Longley, the West of Ireland is seen as an embodiment of some kind of alternative life, a fictional life that compensates for certain values and attitudes missing in the real, given, historical world … Longley itemises that vision into the simple sights of landscape and nature which, common to the West of Ireland, take on in his work a symbolic potency all of their own.’  (Is this the Romantic breaking out?)

  • The West of Ireland then presents us with a different, alternative, landscape, another ethos, alternative values.
  • Is he claiming kinship with an alternative national identity, as in ‘Poteen’; merely fleeing home and ‘the Troubles’; or finding a good place of perspective from which to look north? What do you think?
  • Is he simply identifying with the Irish landscape? ‘The sense of a man at ease with himself and his fellows.’ (Brown).
  • The sheer enjoyment of nature, feeling part of the process: see ‘Carrigskeewaun’.
  • A genuine naturalist’s pleasure, the preoccupation with creatures: see ‘Badger’.
  • The lonely, isolated nature of his western experience, the absence of community, family and people; see ‘Carrigskeewaun’.
  • Not a romantic, Bord Failte, view of the west; he records the harshness, the pain, the violence and the ignorance as well as the beauty: see ‘Badger’, ‘Carrigskeewaun’, and ‘Self-Heal’.
  • Notice the precise description, the keen eye for detail: see ‘Carrigskeewaun’.
  • A view of the west as a place of compensatory values: ‘a community of realisable values that are personally authentic and yet generally available, such as there seems to be present in nature: particularly in the redemptive landscapes of the West of Ireland’ (Gerald Dawe).
The father-figure
  • Honouring and acknowledging the dead is part of the process of self-definition: see ‘Wounds’.
  • But Longley seems preoccupied with the father’s dying, his almost-dying in the trenches and then his actual death: see ‘Last Requests’ and ‘Wounds’.
  • Images of his father are of a frail old man, such as in ‘Laertes’ and ‘Ceasefire’, or focus on his teeth and glasses, images of his imperfection: see ‘The Linen Workers’. But they are of a man with endearing human frailties, such as his cigarette addiction.  And he has a sense of humour: see ‘Wounds’.
  • Note the intimacy of the father-son relationship: see the imagery of ‘Wounds’: ‘I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.’
  • A father’s love and the lengths to which he will go to reclaim a son are evident in ‘Ceasefire’.
The elusive ‘home’ in Longley’s poetry
  • In fact there are very few concrete images of home which feature in these poems.
  • The father-figure, used by the poet to define his identity, is never pictured at home but only in the trenches, in his grave, in his hospital bed: see ‘Wounds’ and ‘Last Requests’.
  • Carrigskeewaun is the poet’s home from home, yet it is merely an imagined image: ‘Recalls … a tablecloth and / A table she might have already set.’
  • The passages from Homer which he has translated (and which we have not studied) and which struck a chord with Longley are about a man longing for home, prevented for years from returning and on his return finding it has been taken over by others.
The sense of perspective in Longley’s poetry
  • Peacock talks of Longley’s ability to look beyond the immediate issues of his own society and personal circumstances to other historical times and literary traditions. Notice the range of settings and times in the small selection of his poetry on our course: present-day Ulster; the West of Ireland; the trenches in Europe, 1914-1918; the classical Greece of Homer.  The result is ‘a catholicity of culture and political outlook which fosters objectivity, non-partisan human sympathy and historically informed understanding’ (Peacock).
  • The past and present are placed in juxtaposition to achieve a sense of perspective: violence in the First World War and present-day Belfast; the classical past of Ithaca has parallels with modern Ulster (‘Laertes’ and ‘Ceasefire’).
  • Is present-day violence dingier? Or is all killing pointless?
  • Past and present, life and death are no longer distinct: his dead father is ever present in ‘The Linen Workers’.
A generally unromantic view of life
  • Dominated by war and violence: see ‘Wounds’, ‘Last Requests’, ‘Wreaths’ and ‘Ceasefire’.
  • Country life is rendered in all its realistic harshness (‘Carrigskeewaun’), its brutality and pain (‘Badger’), its ignorance and prejudice (‘Self-Heal’).
  • The exception in this selection is ‘An Amish Rug’, with its yearning for simple values and loving intimacy.
Yet there is sympathy in his poetry
  • For grieving parents and dead heroes: see ‘Ceasefire’.
  • For nature’s creatures: see ‘The Badger’.
  • For victims of violence, ancient and modern: see ‘Wounds’ and ‘Ceasefire’.

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LONGLEY’S STYLE AND TECHNIQUE: SOME POINTERS

First-person narrative
  • The personal voice lends an air of intimacy to many of the poems: see ‘Carrigskeewaun’, ‘Self-Heal’.
  • He uses a female voice in ‘Self-Heal’.
  • There is a strong autobiographical element in some of his poems: ‘Wounds’ and ‘Last Requests’.
Detailed descriptions
  • The use of precise detail creates the realism, whether dealing with violence or the beauties of nature: see ‘Wreaths’ and ‘Carrigskeewaun’.
  • Longley has an eye for incongruous detail. Often the point of the poem is made through this visual style rather than through any explicit comment: see ‘Wounds’ and ‘Ceasefire’.  For example, he views violence in the context of world wars and other violent contexts, and he views love in the context of the Amish culture.
Tone
  • The tone is unemotional for the most part, neutral and slightly detached: see ‘Wreaths’.
  • The concentration is on precise, matter-of-fact descriptions, objectively rendered: see ‘Wreaths’ and ‘Self-Heal’.
  • Yet the tone is not callous; he is full of sympathy for the human condition: see ‘Self-Heal’.
  • The indications of emotion occur in the poems dealing with his father: see ‘Wounds’ and ‘Last Requests’.
  • The balanced tone is achieved through this wide perspective he takes up. For example, he views violence in the context of world wars and other violent contexts and he views love in the context of the Amish culture: see ‘Wounds’ and ‘An Amish Rug’.
Indirect technique
  • He approaches subjects obliquely at times. For example, he uses his father’s war experience to forge a perspective on Northern violence: see ‘Wounds’.  Or he uses classical Greek poetry to explore the psychological and emotional relationship with his father: see ‘Laertes’ and ‘Ceasefire’.
  • This attempt at contrast and comparison is sometimes reflected in the structuring of the poem into two halves, resonating off each other: see ‘Wounds’.
Shape
  • Shape and form are important in Longley’s poems. See, for example, the thin longish poem ‘Poteen’, resembling a tube; the rectangular picture-postcard sections of ‘Carrigskeewaun’; or the rock-like, unbeautiful oblong of ‘Self-Heal’, immovable as ignorance.  Explore the relationship between shape and meaning in the poems.

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 MICHAEL LONGLEY – AN OVERVIEW

Whenever Michael Longley gives a poetry reading he prefaces each poem with a description of how that poem looks on the page.  He will mention its formal shape, the number of stanzas, if the poem is written as one long sentence and so on.  The making of the poem is important to him and in this he has been influenced by his study of Latin and Greek.

The poems on our course illustrate the themes central to his work: the natural landscape, birds and animals, the First World War, the destructive sectarian Troubles in the North, his relationship with his father, his marriage and how contemporary events and feelings echo many Greek legends.

In ‘Badger’ his admiration is evident, but he also shows how a different attitude can cause the badger to suffer.  ‘Wounds’ contrasts the horrors of the Great War with the recent Northern atrocities.  The domestic setting literally brings home to the reader how frightening and random and merciless the violence is.  ‘Poteen’ and ‘Carrigskeewaun’ describe a landscape, but in one there is danger and threat, in the other a calm and stillness.  In ‘Poteen’ illegal and secret activity creates danger with its threat of violence; ‘Carrigskeewaun’ is an imaginative and idyllic picture of a form of Eden where husband and wife and children and nature seem to be in total harmony.  ‘Wreaths’ tells of twelve violent deaths: a civil servant, a greengrocer and ten linen workers.  Longley never rants, even when he writes of despicable, senseless murders in his native Ulster.  Neither does he flinch from harsh, brutal detail – ‘A bullet entered his mouth and pierced his skull’, but there is an extraordinary compassion and gentleness as he pays tribute to the dead in his poems.  ‘Last Requests’ tells of his dying father with deep feeling and without sentimentality.  He feels helpless as he watches his father; there is a wry humour in the observation ‘I thought you blew a kiss before you died,/ but the bony fingers ….. were asking for a Woodbine’.  ‘Self-Heal’ describes a well-meaning young woman who uses nature, the naming of flowers, to heal someone ‘gone in the head’, but fear and ignorance and inexperience cause violence and cruelty.  A very different mood is created in ‘An Amish Rug’, which celebrates married love.  His voice here is extremely intimate and the simplicity of the imagery is very effective.

Longley has said that prose is a river, poetry a fountain.  His poetry is carefully shaped and made, and there is a distinctively gentle tone.  His poetic voice is a gentle, reflective, considerate one.  His love of the West of Ireland, his warmth, his compassion, his lack of prejudice or bias in a torn community are remarkable.

There is also a striking and memorable quality to Longley’s work.  For example, his image of ‘Christ’s teeth’ ascending with him in ‘The Linen Workers’ and ‘his exposed canines’ fastened ‘to a wintry sky’ is surreal.  The connection which he makes between Christ’s teeth and his father’s dentures and the dentures of the gunned-down linen workers achieves a powerful effect.  The poem captures terror and helplessness.

Longley has been described as ‘a poet of the personal life, a quiet .. observer of love and landscape.’  He has been praised for his measured rhythms, his precision, that touch of mystery that sets certain poets apart, his ability to write of griefs and wonders.

 

SOME INTERESTING ASPECTS OF LONGLEY’S POETRY

OBSERVING NAMES AND PLACES

One distinguishing quality in Longley’s verse is his use of naming and this trait can be traced back to his early childhood when, in his own words, ‘I had this urge to know the names of the flowers and the insects in our suburban garden, and in a way that urge has stayed with mw’.  Naming, in Longley’s view, is a poetic act resembling the naming by the first poet, Adam, in the Garden of Eden.

This poetic technique can be seen in many poems including ‘Badger’.  In ‘Badger’, the poet is alert and attentive to the various flora and fauna of his setting.  His sense of place is firm and assured.  He feels comfortable observing the badger ‘Pushing the wedge of his body/ Between cromlech and stone circle.’  The poet is also aware of the ‘zig-zags’ of the fox’s path across ‘goose-grass’ and towards the ‘bluebell wood’ and ‘brambles’.  There is an intimacy with this scene and the poet shares this intimacy with us.  Naming suggests a closeness and in employing the technique the poet attempts to draw the reader into the scene which is so vividly described.

Indeed, the naming of plants, animals and artefacts in the landscape paints a very vivid canvas and it is against this canvas that the poet sketches his reflections.  It is evident that many descriptions in the poem are written almost from a naturalist’s point of view.

In ‘Wounds’, Longley locates his settings ‘at the Somme’, and later in the suburbs of Belfast.  There is an artist’s eye in the depiction of the soldiers ‘going over the top’ and in the graphic portrait of the ‘London-Scottish padre/ Resettling kilts with his swagger-stick’.  These descriptions are conveyed with admirable economy, but they are memorable pictures nonetheless.

The poet then considers the atrocities of civilian ‘warfare’ against the background of his father’s honourable death.  The graphic recollection of the three murdered soldiers, ‘bellies full of / Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone’ is indeed an evocative and pathetic reminder of brutality on civilian streets.  The stark detail in these descriptions is incisive, if disturbing.

The effect of Longley’s detailed observation is to build extensive word-pictures in his verse.  Many of these pictures are also rich in sound, such as the reference to the ‘heavy guns’ which put out ‘The night-light in a nursery for ever’.  Detail and naming create a sense of place and time in Longley’s work.  Naming becomes a means of ordering the various experiences observed or felt by the poet.  Such ordering helps the poet to gain an element of control over, and understanding of, those experiences.

THE USE OF FREEZE-FRAME

Michael Longley, in considering his own poetic style, remarked: ‘I freeze-frame moments, like a painter’ (Metre 4, 1998, Lilliput Press, Dublin).  There are many examples of memorable moments which are freeze-framed in his poems.   This technique is evident in ‘Carrigskeewaun’, where Longley presents a sequence of freeze-frames from the landscape of Co. Mayo.  The poem opens with an itemised outline of a bleak mountain setting: ‘This is the ravens’ territory, skulls, bones’ while on the strand the poet discovers ‘Cattletracks, a sanderling’s tiny trail, / The footprints of the children and my own’.  These descriptions are static, but even where there is a sense of motion in his descriptions, it appears that even movement is a replica of energies and preoccupations that have continued unchanged for centuries.  An interesting example of this is seen in the poet’s first awkward steps along the path, which ‘dislodge the mallards/ Whose necks strain over the bog to where / Kittiwakes scrape the waves’.  The effect is a familiarity, a security with a landscape which has changed little through the years and where even the lake ‘will duplicate at any time’ its own familiar image.

Longley’s capacity to convey relationships in a graphic, precise manner and with an economy of words is clearly seen in a very impressive and almost still-life depiction of simple rural life in ‘An Amish Rug’.  In this poem, marriage is visualised as ‘a horse and buggy going to church / And the children silhouettes in a snowy field’.

His preoccupation with the human condition, even in a world of men with god-like stature is evident in the poem ‘Ceasefire’.  In this Homeric story, Longley continues his search for the resonant and poignant moment that can be captured in freeze-frame.  The poem is constructed around three extraordinary moments between Achilles and Priam, whose son, Hector, Achilles has slain.  In the opening quatrain, Achilles empathises with the distress of Priam and, remembering his own father, is moved to tears over the body of Hector.  The picture of the great King Priam, ‘curled up’ and wailing at the feet of Achilles is indeed an extraordinary sight.  Hector’s body, ‘Laid out in uniform’ by a sensitive and compassionate Achilles, is returned to Troy for burial and Priam, in gratitude, bends to his knees to ‘kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son’.  This remarkable poem has frozen extraordinary poses to the point where they become almost individual pieces of sculpture.

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Sample Answer:

In his poem ‘Homeland’ which appears in his award winning collection, The Stairwell, Longley describes Mayo as his ‘home-from-home-land’.  Discuss the theme of journeying, both of the landscape and of the mind, which is seen as  a recurring preoccupation in the poetry of Michael Longley.  

Michael Longley is a poet who journeys through time and space in his poetry.  His journeys can be internal, an exploration of experiences recollected or engendered in the mind.  However, his journeys are also very much tactile, physical journeys across rural and urban landscapes.in the process of journeying, the poet explores many diverse feelings such as love, pain, anguish and contentment, in addition to examining the poet’s own sense of place.

An interesting, early journey in Longley’s poetry is seen in the poem ‘Wounds’.  The poet travels back in time to a real event which has been kept secret in his mind for decades.  It is a journey towards great suffering and madness along the trenches of World War I as the soldiers advance, screaming ‘No Surrender!’, their ferocity ‘Wilder than Ghurkhas’.  The story then skips to the present day and for a moment the feeling changes to one of tenderness as the poet recalls his father, a ‘belated casualty’ of war, utter with honour that he is ‘dying for King and Country’.  Moved, the poet adds: ‘I touched his hand, his thin head I touched’.  However, bloodshed and slaughter re-emerge when the poet remembers the more recent victims of savagery: ‘Three teenage soldiers’ and the bus conductor who ‘collapsed beside his carpet-slippers’.  Not a heart attack, but ‘shot through the head / By a shivering boy’.  These journeys into the troubles of his homeland are painful reminders of the gruesome murder of civilians and of the daily suffering of families who have lost their loved ones and buried them without ‘badges’ or ‘medals like rainbows’.

The journeys across the wild rural landscape of Co. Mayo in the poem ‘Carrigskeewaun’ are of a different nature.  This sequence of short poems presents a rural landscape in its various guises over mountain, along paths and trickling down to the lake or the sea.  The images in the poem recall real journeys made through the rugged and remote landscape and seascape of the West of Ireland.  The opening snap-shot pictures the poet traversing ‘the raven’s territory’, calling into the vast openness, almost gathering his children to the mountainside for a memorable picnic.  It is a physical place, unspoilt and untamed, Longley’s Garden of Eden, a place of ‘skulls’ and ‘bones’ and ‘boulders’ where the poet stands ‘alone’ and his voice echoes through ‘the district’.

In the second poem in the sequence, ‘The Path’, the poet steps outside of his remote cottage and disturbs the wild birds whose necks have strained ‘over the bog’ for centuries.  The sense of nature’s antiquity and of her great variety is suggested in the ‘circle’ of the ‘Kittiwakes’ flight, joined by ‘lapwings’, ‘curlews’ and ‘snipe’.  One can almost sense the euphoria in the poet’s heart as he witnesses nature’s inexorable cycle, and the feeling of privilege that he has shared in these impressive ‘waves’ of nature.

‘The Strand’ is also a striking poem that captures the beauty of nature and the brevity of man’s stay in her midst.  The poet discovers traces of his children’s footprints in the sand interwoven with the prints of a ‘sanderling’s tiny trail’.  The children’s footprints evoke nostalgia in the poet whose own teenage footprints may have marked the same strand in the past.  This reflective poem gives Longley a sense of himself, a sense of who he is, and a sense of his place in time.  Indeed, there is a sense in all of the short poems in the sequence that these journeys through Carrigskeewaun are both actual and internal, journeys through landscape and mindscape.  However, they are also the product of reflection on and awareness of man’s place in nature and of the vast cycles and rhythms of nature’s beauty which can be enjoyed for a short time by him.

Journeying is, therefore, an important motif in Longley’s work.  There are journeys back in time to World War I, and further still to the Homeric tales of Achilles and Priam.  There are journeys through an urban Belfast and through a rural and remote area of Mayo.  Some journeys are accompanied by a sense of grief and loss, others evoke love and affection, but each of them help to define for Longley his relationship with nature, society and with the people of that society – ultimately they define the essence of the poet himself.

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