Michael Longley, Snow Water, Cape; Seamus Heaney (translator), The Burial at Thebes: Sophocles' Antigone, Faber
One of Seamus Heaney’s earliest poems, “My Personal Helicon” is dedicated to his fellow poet Michael Longley. It is a poem humbly about the sensations associated with different wells in Heaney’s childhood. One was “So deep you saw no reflection in it”, another echoed with a “clean new music in it”. Although Longley is associated with Mayo and Heaney with Derry, there is a shared sense of rural life in the dedication. As the title suggests, Helicon being the Greek mountain said to be the source of poetic inspiration, the poem is also, more ambitiously, an engagement with the classics and with the nature of poetry itself. The link with Longley is as a brother-in-the-craft.
Few would argue that either poet has moved far from the evocation of rural particularity or the invocation of events, large and minor, from the classical canon. It may even be that the engagement with Greek and Latin texts, though hardly unique to Irish writers, is one of their particular obsessions. This is surprising, given the richness of Ireland’s own mythological heritage, but perhaps, as with Ted Hughes’s inspired translations, there is a sense still that writing in, around, and through the Western classics is a touchstone of greatness – if it can be achieved with grace and with power.
Much of the time in Snow Water Michael Longley is untroubled by Troy Etc. Instead here are modest poems about modest life on the west coast of Ireland, sometimes with an unpoetic baldness that is nothing if not prosaic. “I am looking out of the bedroom window” is not one of the best lines in modern poetry, although it is certainly functional. Readers may also raise an eyebrow at one or two of the casual line-endings which seem to observe neither a natural breathing pause nor a meaningful enjambement. For such short lyrics this suggests uncharacteristic haste, but at his best Longley is reminiscent of the best work of Thomas A. Clark, especially in these two poets’ evocation of wild flowers. A near unity across these poems is maintained by references to native and visiting birds, and to Allaran Point, a mesmeric feature of the shore. In addition, there is the revisiting of themes dear to Longley, the First World War, the elegy, and, yes, the classics. Perhaps the most whimsical manifestation of the latter is the poem “The Group”, which humorously recreates a writing group of imagined classical poets, like the Belfast gathering from which Heaney and Longley emerged.
There is humour in Sophocles’ Antigone, too (through the character of a candid guard) but it is hardly known for it. Often translated, the play’s central conflict, between family love and duty to the state, has proven a lasting one. Heaney’s language is understated here, the poet preferring an almost unpoetic transparency for this severe play. Antigone, fatal daughter of Oedipus, wishes to honour her recently slain brother Polyneices with a decent burial but such an act is outlawed by Creon, King of Thebes. The resulting clash, as Antigone compels herself to do what she thinks is her duty, and Creon is compelled to do what he says is the rightful behaviour of a king, is further death and further sorrow, made tragic by Creon’s too-late decision to relent. Sophocles’s message is loud and clear in this translation: the opportunity for an overbearing authority to re-align itself with justice is a fleeting one, but catastrophe follows if that opportunity is missed.
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