Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

The Difficulty of We: The Epistolary Poems of Michael Longley and Derek Mahon

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

The Difficulty of We: The Epistolary Poems of Michael Longley and Derek Mahon

Article excerpt

In 1971, Michael Longley published two epistolary poems, dedicated to his fellow poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, in the New Statesman; later, he added a third, to James Simmons, and published them together in his volume An Exploded View (1973). For Longley and Mahon, writing these epistolary poems seemed like a game. One of Mahon's letters to Longley implies that if he did not answer the other poet within a week, he had to pay out a bottle of whiskey ('the two-way bet [...] a bottle of whiskey from the one | who, for whatever reason or none, | allows his weekly stint to lapse'). (1) Yet the formulation of these jokey and competitive games, written just as the Troubles were taking hold in Northern Ireland, reveals something more serious. These poems express the last gropings towards an idea of a coherent poetic group in Northern Ireland; they reveal a concurrent need for these poets to find an individual voice; and these meditations on group versus individual, on community versus poet, were a result not only of poetic maturation but of the specific--and for some poets, sudden--problematic political and cultural situation in Northern Ireland at this time.

The question of distinctiveness of voice among the Northern Irish poets has been addressed in many places, not least by the writers themselves, both in print and in interviews. Heaney, Mahon, and Longley have often been thought of as something of an homogenous group; this impression is probably largely due to their early association with the Belfast 'Group', the poetry workshop begun in the mid-1960s by Philip Hobsbaum, then an energetic, young professor at Queen's University. Heaney and Longley have tended to look back on the Group with some fondness. Heaney, for example, has written of the Group in a vocabulary of the first person plural and of sharing: 'What happened Monday night after Monday night in the Hobsbaums' flat in Fitzwilliam Street somehow ratified the activity for all of us who shared it'; one of the effects of the Group was to allow the participants 'to move from critical comment to creative friendship at our own pace.' (2) In a similarly nostalgic tone, Longley has recently written: 'I believed then in some kind of poetic community.' (3) But almost since the inception of Hobsbaum's Belfast Group, many of the writers associated with it have also stressed how little it affected their own voice. Longley himself has written that he formed some important friendships at the meetings, but 'I can honestly say that I didn't alter one semi-colon as a result of Group discussion'. (4) The same is true for Mahon, who memorably claimed in 1991, 'I was not a member of Philip Hobsbaum's fucking Belfast group. I was in a different city. I was a member of my own group in Dublin. I went once to Philip's group, and never again.' (5)

While the Group may or may not have affected the aesthetic of these writers, their informal groupings did. From the evidence of newly-available correspondence and drafts of poetry, there emerges an informal community, rather than the formalized community of Hobsbaum's group. This sense of connection through artistic rather than through regional similarities is captured well in Michael Longley's phrase 'sodality of the imagination', which he often uses to describe his sense of that poetic community. (6) The poets in this community may have disagreed with each other poetically and politically but they listened to each other, habitually communicated with each other, and often changed their poetry on the advice of one another. They also promoted each other shamelessly to potential publishers. In a letter to a reader at Gollancz, Longley ends with this appeal: 'If a young Irish poet called Derek Mahon ever submits a collection to you for goodness' sake don't reject him.' (7) Similarly, James Simmons writes to James Michie, his publisher at the Bodley Head: 'I was involved in the Belfast festival, meeting the Irish poets. They all have publishers except Michael Longley, 18, Hillside Park, Belfast, 9. …

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