Derek Mahon

Noah’s Ark

Collected Poems

By

Jonathan Cape 368pp £25 order from our bookshop

This book is long overdue. At a time when poetic form is at a premium Michael Longley is, among other things, a master of it. Pasternak, like Tolstoy, thought of history as an organic growth, seeing it ‘in the form of images taken from the vegetable kingdom, moving as invisibly in its incessant transformations as a forest in spring’. Beauty, he wrote, is ‘the joy of possessing form, and form is the key to organic life since no living thing can exist without it, so that every work of art, including tragedy, witnesses to the joy of existence’ (Dr Zhivago, tr Hayward and Harari). Form, imagery, organic life. Even as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, Longley had a precocious grasp of the sort of stanza favoured by Donne and Herbert, and the first poems included here shine with remarkable formal confidence: ‘Epithalamion’, ‘A Personal Statement’, ‘The Hebrides’. This is one of the benefits of knowing your Greek and Latin. A student of Homer and the Roman elegists, he has worked equally well with compelling anecdotes and elaborate lyric shapes. The latter are characteristic of his early years, since when he has pursued an increasingly direct mode which dispenses with ingenuity and rhetoric. The personal voice he established with Gorse Fires (1991) – well-travelled and wide-ranging, while rooted in local experience – is now the recognisable Longley sound, relaxed and authoritative:

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