Poetry and Peace

Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland

Richard Rankin Russell

Winner of the 2011 South Central Modern Language Association Book Award

Winner of the 2011 South Atlantic Modern Language Association Book Award

Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney’s lives and careers have been intertwined since the 1960s, when they participated in the Belfast Group of creative writers and later edited the literary journal Northern Review. In Poetry and Peace: Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Northern Ireland, Richard Rankin Russell explores Longley’s and Heaney’s poetic fidelity to the imagination in the midst of the war in Northern Ireland and their creation, through poetry, of a powerful cultural and sacred space. This space, Russell argues, has contributed to cultural and religious dialogue and thus helped enable reconciliation after the years of the Troubles.

The first chapter examines the influence of the Belfast Group on Longley and Heaney’s shared aesthetic of poetry. Successive chapters analyze major works by both poets. Russell offers close readings of poems in the context of the poets’ cultural and political concerns for the province. He concludes by showing how thoroughly their poetic language has entered the cultural, educational, and political discourse of contemporary Northern Ireland as it pursues the process of peace.

Richard Rankin Russell is associate professor of English at Baylor University. He is the author of Bernard MacLaverty and Martin McDonagh: A Casebook.

“Russell’s book takes a worthwhile and relatively unusual approach to criticism of modern poetry from Northern Ireland, by combining in-depth study of two poets, and putting these figures in the context of what he calls ‘reconciliation’—that is to say, the evolving peace-process in contemporary Northern Ireland, along with the history of its long gestation through the years of the Troubles. Russell believes that art—and in this case the art is poetry—made a difference to political and cultural developments in Northern Ireland over the past thirty and more years, and that this difference was one for the better, contributing to the political developments that delivered (or at least have so far seemed to deliver) an end to violence in the Province.” —Peter McDonald, Oxford University

“Richard Rankin Russell shows clearly there are strands of reconciliatory feeling, desire, and attitude that bind the poetry of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley together. He demonstrates on the strength of this reconciliatory aesthetic how these poets ought to be considered together in critical intimacy. Along the way, Russell draws profitably on some interesting and occasionally little-known thinkers on religion and the sacred.” —John Wilson Foster, University of British Columbia

“Although Richard Rankin Russell is wise enough to realize that poets are not ‘legislators of the world,’ whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, he argues convincingly that Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley have nurtured the process of reconciliation in war-torn Northern Ireland. By concentrating on the way they have addressed the violence that has ruined so many lives in their home country, Russell makes a significant contribution to the scholarship that surrounds them and their peers. He also teaches us how the imagination that makes art can also make peace.” —Henry Hart, College of William and Mary


“Russell’s book is valuable in giving full attention to the work of Michael Longley, a poet of great range and variety who has been unjustly overlooked in some quarters. The book is additionally valuable in the way it takes poetry out of the ontologically abstract place it is assigned to by most literary criticism.” — The New Criterion

“Richard Rankin Russell’s Poetry and Peace represents the best of the second wave of Heaney criticism and the rising tide of Longley criticism. . . . As a result of his far-reaching and adept research, insightful and informed analysis, and progressive thesis, Russell’s work is more than an excellent introduction to Longley’s poetry; it marks a new day in Longley studies. Sharing the beautifully illustrated and finely produced cover of Poetry and Peace with Seamus Heaney brings a well-deserved, but long-in-coming, recognition to Longley’s work on and off the page. There is a clarity of purpose and coolness of execution that makes Poetry and Peace a very convincing book, a very approachable book, and a very important book. . . .” — James Joyce Literary Supplement

”. . . Russell does show that Longley and Heaney have contributed appreciably to the peace process in Northern Ireland through their poetry, which remaining utterly faithful to its own autonomy, creates a discourse that escaped the violence and vengeance that have marked Northern Ireland since the Troubles. It does so by creating an imaginative space for the other and by emphasizing the shared cultural patrimony of the province. Russell luminously illustrates how Longley’s and Heaney’s emphasis on the legacy shared by Protestants and Catholics opens a way past the cycle of carnage and settling of scores; this emphasis affirms a community that includes all those once excluded by sectarian fury and mania.” — Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice