Michael Longley, “The Miner”

I hadn’t meant to write about  Longley again so soon but I was put in mind of his  poem “The Miner” by a piece in Cynthia Fuller’s Background Music. It’s in his 2004 volume, Snow Water. Generally, I suppose, I find the imaginative pressure of this collection just a little lower than that of Gorse Fires, but “The Miner” is one of those poems that seizes you by the throat and pushes tears into your eyes by the sheer force of the ideas it brings together so delicately and simply, without rhetoric or straining after effect or seeming to have any designs on the reader at all. I’ve tried to find a link to it on the net but Google wouldn’t give me one. What I say may not mean much to readers who don’t have Snow Water, but it’s a wonderful book, attractively produced by Cape – one it’s easy to feel everyone interested in poetry should have.

As its title might hint, Snow Water is full of poems about aging, the death of friends and acquaintances, remembrance, loss and continuity, and “The Miner” echoes these themes. It begins in a low key, courteously conversational way, with just a hint of formality and ceremony but above all with the absolute ease and grace characteristic of Longley’s perfected voice. The poet is visiting Durham Cathedral, where, coincidentally, the Durham Miners’ Book of Remembrance is open at the page of a William Longley. In the first line Michael Longley had asked “How many of my relatives worked down the mine?” – a line which seems a-metrical and almost arrhythmic. A prosaic, matter of fact feel is maintained almost throughout the first ten lines of the poem. However, in line five the poet says of this possibly related miner “Let him who ‘breaketh open a shaft’ rub shoulders” with the known family of rural artisans. In this use of the subjunctive and the archaic diction of the phrase between inverted commas, the language momentarily moves up a gear. On one level, “let him” works as a poetic fiat, implying a Yeatsian world of art in which the poet creates the reality of which he speaks. At the same time, hovering in meaning between command and acceptance, it submits the world created by the poet to the world as it is, as if to suggest that we can only truly create the world as we receive it. Then the linguistic level drops again till we come to the great turn of line 11:

When they turn the page tomorrow, William Longley
Will disappear back into darkness and danger
And crawl on hands and knees in the crypt of the world
Under houses and outhouses and workshops and fields.

Line 11 echoes line 2:

The page of William Longley of Ryhope Colliery.

These two lines frame the story of the poem in that they initiate the two movements of William Longley’s emergence from the darkness of oblivion and his disappearance back into it. The twist is that he comes most fully alive in our minds as the poet thinks how he will re-enter the darkness. The imaginative leap that makes the poem begins at this point, and the poet marks it with a regular metrical pulsation through most of this line and through the highly though differently rhythmical phrases which follow it. The simple language becomes highly charged with literal, metaphorical and symbolic resonances. The effortlessness of this change of gear is a stunning artistic accomplishment. It gives one an almost violent shock every time one reads the poem. It is as though the bottom drops out of the comfortable world in which we have been accompanying the poet on his historical tour. Suddenly in the starkly simple phrases of the last three lines we are made to realise and feel the discomfort, deprivation and danger of William Longley’s life, his obscurity and the fact that he’s dead with extraordinary intensity. But the poem doesn’t end in these different kinds of darkness. It follows them with the sense of richness, unfolding openness and broadening light given by the last line (another of Longley’s masterful lists), holding them in tension with this sense of all that we lucky ones enjoy while we are alive.

I say “while we are alive” because as he emerges from the darkness and returns to it, William Longley is like Bede’s image of the brevity of human life as like a sparrow flying from the winter night into the warmth of a lighted hall and back into the cold and darkness again. As well as a poem about William Longley, “The Miner” is also Michael Longley’s contemplation of his own and everyone’s mortality.

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