by Michael Longley
We should have been galloping on horses, their hoofprints
Splashes of light, divots kicked out of the darkness,
Or hauling up lobster pots in a wake of sparks. Where
Were the otters and seals? Were the dolphins on fire?
Yes, we should have been doing more with our lives.
Poet No. 7
by Jim Harrison
We must be bareback riders. The gods
abhor halters and stirrups, even a horse
blanket to protect our asses is forbidden.
Finally, our legs must grow into the horse
because we were never meant to get off.
In the last of the twin poem series we have a tabloid situation. Michael Longley’s “Water-burn” and Jim Harrison’s “Poet No. 7” are twins separated at birth. We can marvel at the genetic similarities and wonder at the behavioral differences.
Each poem has five lines, each begins with a directive (We should, We must), and each uses the same image to talk about how life is to be lived. Brevity and the ancient (and now rarified) activity of horseback riding lend the poems punch and brawn.
Each poem begins with an achievable instruction—we should gallop, we should ride bareback—and both end with an image not possible in real life—human legs growing into a horse, dolphins on fire.
There the similarities end. The poems stem from opposite philosophies. Longley’s poem is wistful but fundamentally optimistic. Yes, we should have been doing more with our lives, the poem ends—the implication being that life is fantastic and wonderful and ours for the taking, had we the courage. Harrison, in classic fashion, is fatalistic. Life is a wild, hard ride, so don’t expect ease and don’t expect a break—revel in the difficulty.
The titles of each are puzzling. I thought I might have made a mistake typing the title of the Harrison poem, but no, it is indeed “Poet No. 7” and not “Poem No. 7.” Why? I’m imagining a Bachelorette-type format with each poet numbered and given two minutes to sell you on his spiel. And what is a “Water-burn”? Scalding water or a mark imprinted on our lives as with a watermark or wood-burning pen?
I left the poems at the airport. Travel always makes me reconsider how I live, and I hope these poems will do the same for someone else.
Michael Longley was born in 1939 in Belfast and is considered one of the foremost Northern Ireland poets. He studied Classics at Trinity College in Dublin. Among many awards he’s received the Whitbread Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, which sounds so grand it almost seems made up. He’s published 11 books of poetry.
He and his wife, literary critic Edna Longley, have three children, among them artist Sarah Longley.
You can listen to him recording his poems here (that Northern Ireland accent, so soothing).
I love this quote from him (from the Poetry Foundation website):
When asked in a 1998 interview about the formal discipline that helps him produce four- and two-line poems, Longley replied, “Was it Tennyson who said that a perfect lyric inscribes the shape of an S? That sense of a gesture, you know, the way you use your hand if you’re bowing, if you’re reaching out to shake somebody’s hand, if you’re going to stroke a cat, if you’re holding a woman’s hand to take her on to the dance floor.”
Here’s a bio of Harrison from a previous post:
Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was born in Grayling, Michigan, the second of five children in a close-knit, book-loving family. As a young boy he lost an eye when a little girl smashed a broken bottle in his face.
Two years after he graduated from Michigan State, his father and sister were killed by a drunk driver, an event that committed him to a writing life. He said in an interview, “If people you love are going to be taken from you, why compromise?” He got his masters in comparative literature and taught briefly at Stoneybrook University before rejecting academic life and turning to writing full-time, supporting his wife and two daughters with manual labor. The family lived in poverty for many years until he published Legends of the Fall, a novella which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt.
He worked as a screenwriter on several movies, making fast friends with the rich and the famous in Hollywood, including Jack Nicholson and George Harrison.
His appetite for food, drugs during his Hollywood days, alcohol, and sex were over-the-top, leading to health problems in his older years. Which of course didn’t stop such an animal-nature from continuing to indulge. Here’s a telling bit from his obituary in the New York Times:
“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”
He was a prolific writer, publishing seven novellas, eleven novels, thirteen poetry collections, and three books of nonfiction. A nature lover, he kept a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a farm in Leelanau. In later years he and his wife spent summers in Montana and winters in Arizona.
Harrison is my second favorite food writer (M.F.K. Fishers holds the top post). The Raw and the Cooked is earthy and hilarious, a perfect read for fall.
Married for 55 years he died at 78, six months after his wife passed. He was in the middle of writing a poem when his heart gave out.