The Letters in Japan: Michael Longley’s Archive

Michael Glenfield received a Short-Term Fellowship to visit Michael Longley’s Archive in the Stuart A. Rose Library.  The visit was also supported by the University of Bristol in England, where Michael has recently finished his PhD. In order to complete the trip Michael was afforded study leave from his lectureship at Bishop Grosseteste University. His thesis, ‘Nature and Landscape in Michael Longley’s Poetry’, examines the poet’s ongoing exploration of place and art through the lens of the natural world.

Michael Longley’s landscape poems travel beyond his celebrated ‘home-from-home’ at Carrigskeewaun. Among his poetic elsewhere are Scotland, the town of Cardoso in Tuscany and the south of the United States, which he encountered as a visiting lecturer at the University of Emory. One terrain which has repeatedly engaged the poet’s eye over the is that of Japan. Longley’s interest in Japan goes beyond the study of an unfamiliar landscape; his poems also engage with East Asian culture in terms of art, poetry and place. The poet told Sarah Broom about his longstanding interest in Japanese culture during an interview in 1998:

I went to Japan in – I think it was 1991. But I had been interested in things Japanese before that, Japanese poetry, and especially Japanese wood-engraving and porcelain. And it was – part of it was a bit like going home. Here I get my leg pulled, and they think it’s a bit effete to write about birds and petals and feathers. There I was reading my poems to people whose culture circulates around things like that. They have moon-viewing parties – you go and you just sit and look at the moon. And then when the petals are falling, you have petal-falling parties. So it was a marriage made in heaven, really.[1] 

The materials at the Stuart A. Rose Library contain a wealth of information about Longley’s visit to Japan. The Longley Papers allow insights beyond the itinerary of the poet’s trip through letters, postcards and diaristic writings which detail the moments which inspired his Japanese poems.

The connective power of the natural world is a prevalent concern in Longley’s poetry. The poet has stated that The Ghost Orchid (1995), and in particular the poems written in the light of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, allowed him get ‘a kick out of the humour and surrealism, the high jinks. It was healthy to tousle the slightly Japanese, Chinese, feathery, leafy, butterfly-wingy side of my imagination’.[2] Longley’s sense of humour is plainly visible in the fourth and final Japanese poem of that collection:

A Pair of Shoes

Who stole my shoes from the Garden of Ryoan-ji? Have they come near you in Tokyo or Nagoya Or Takayama? Fifteen rocks make up the landscape We borrow, faraway places in gravelly sea.[3]                                               

The series of place names, some of which are likely to elude readers, display a writer who intentionally connects landscapes. The primary landscape, the Ryoan-ji Zen Garden in Kyoto, is described by Sean McGovern as consisting of

a relatively small, 10 × 30 metre area of raked grey gravel marked off by a low earthen wall. The garden is located on the south side of the main temple hall and is viewed from a long wooden veranda on its north side. The garden is bounded by walls on the southern and western sides and a gated area (that opens toward the veranda, not the garden space itself) is on the east. The rectangular space contains 15 rocks of various sizes and shapes. The only plant life in the garden precinct itself is the moss that grows around the base of the rocks. Beyond the wall a line of treetops are [sic] visible.[4]

This garden is wildly removed from the botanical richness Longley’s usual landscapes in Irish West. Instead, the practice of Zen gardening subtracts the proliferating variety which so consistently inspires Longley. Nonetheless, the poet responds to the spare simplicity of the garden by viewing the large rocks as an archipelago that is borrowed to mirror the ‘faraway places’ which he experiences as a traveller.

There is also a plaintive comedy in this depiction of a bewildered and unshod tourist. The theft admits to the reality of travel and depicts a grounded sense of Japanese life. Longley’s visions of Japan are not stuffy or sanitised but honestly depict the crime which exists in any major city. The poem retains a sense of humour about the loss. The irony of being robbed of footwear in a temple is matched by the directness of the first line which works when read either as a bellow or whimper. The Longley papers contain a memory of the day. Longley was taken to Ryoan-ji by Professors Sano and Furomoto of the Yeats Society of Japan, only to realise that his only pair of shoes had gone, much to his the embarrassment of his hosts:

Furomoto ran around the temple grounds in several directions at once trying to catch the thief – but in vain. In the vestibule the elderly, diminutive Japanese woman supervised the shoes, was mortified and flapped her hands in panic. To put her at ease I accepted by way of recompense the tiniest pair of plastic slip-ons I’ve ever seen. They just about covered my big toes. In these and with Sano and Furomoto holding my elbows as though anxious I may topple over, I tippy-toed out of the vestibule feeling huge and embarrassed.[5]

Happily, Longley and the professors managed to find a fitting pair of replacements in a shoe-shop very shortly after. In the taxi to their next appointment, Professor Sano took the poet’s arm and said ‘“How disgraceful! How embarrassing! But let us now enjoy the comedy!” And we laughed and laughed’. The shared laughter that palliated the experience can perhaps be seen in the tonal positivity of the poem, which is achieved through the imaginary journey Longley allows his lost shoes. The second line of ‘A Pair of Shoes’ insists on the connecting power of the shoes’ journey, despite the theft. The synecdoche of footwear and travel is mirrored in the final two lines, where the Ryoan-ji garden represents the wider Japanese archipelago. Like the shoes, the Japanese poems in The Ghost Orchid are well travelled. Their connection to people and place is a relationship born of experience and understanding. At the close of the collection’s sequence of Japanese poems Longley, admits to borrowing these ‘faraway places’ which implicitly indicates a return home. This is perhaps a signal that these foreign poems function in relation to Ireland by virtue of their contrast. In 1983 Mark Storey stated that ‘in a society built on rifts and arguments, there is at some point no room for an outsider, the debate will not admit an intruder. This is as true of culture as it is of politics’.[6] Longley’s writing has always insisted on a fidelity to reality and a precision that comes from observation. These traits overwhelmingly lead the poet to connection with the other, whether expressed in floral, geographical or human terms. It is possible to suggest that the poems which encounter and celebrate Japanese paintings and places are a complex way of modelling what cultural engagement could mean, both at home and abroad.

Longley’s next collection, The Weather in Japan (2000) also expresses a personal connection in the midst of cultural exchange in the poem ‘Birds & Flowers’. This piece is dedicated to Fuyuji Tanigawa, who has been a professor in the Department of English Language and Culture at Konan Women’s University, Kobe and has been a visiting professor in the James Joyce Research centre at UCD.[7] The poem explores correspondence between the men, who are clearly friends. The first two lines create an inversion of the second verse in ‘A Gift of Boxes’: ‘My local The Chelsea where I took you for a pint | Has been demolished, which leaves us drinking in the rain’.[8] In the earlier poem the Irish poet is brought to a Japanese tea-ceremony. In ‘Birds & Flowers’ the cultural ceremony features the drinking of Guinness rather than green tea. The second half of the poem suggests that Tanigawa was present during Longley’s trip to Japan:

You who translated for me ‘ichigo-ichie’ as ‘one life, One meeting’ as though each encounter were once-in-a Lifetime, have been spending time with your little children: ‘But I will go back to the world of letters soon.’ Fuyuji

The world of letters is a treacherous place. We are weak And unstable. Let us float naked again in volcanic Pools under the constellations and talk about babies. The picture you sent to Belfast is called ‘Birds & Flowers’.

This poem shows that many of the connecting factors between Longley and Japanese culture are underpinned by personal experience. Both men have shared their homeland with the other and continue to communicate despite the considerable distance. The space between Belfast and Japan is connected through relationship.

The affinity between Longley and Tanigawa goes beyond mutual hospitality. Both men are shown enjoying the hot springs in a state of nature. The idyllic vision of ‘volcanic | Pools under the constellations’ is matched with their preferred subject of children. Their shared enjoyment of nature ends the poem. The card which inspired the poem is held within the Longley papers (see Figure 1). The picture’s title, which the poem borrows, refers to Longley’s appreciation of Japanese art while simultaneously hinting at Tanigawa’s respect for Longley and Irish poetry more generally. ‘Birds & Flowers’ plays on their shared love of poetry with the pun of ‘letters’, meaning correspondence, literature and the academy. The poem contrasts the peace found in Japan’s volcanic pools to the difficulty of critical and creative endeavours. The pair are freighted by the same career concerns which plague most middle-aged men. This grounds the poet’s engagement with Japan to a mundane realism which is resisted by the last two sentences of the poem. The beauty of the postcard, which is inspired by the beauty of the natural landscapes of Japan, is enriched by Tanigawa’s final line about his love for his children: ‘I was often surprised to know so much passion hidden in myself’.[9] In this sense nature, art and connection are presented as an antidote to the pressures of modern life.  

Fig. 1. Card from Professor Fuyugi Tanigawa to Michael Longley. See note 9.


After the poem ‘Moon Cakes’ and a brief reference to a Hokusai painting in ‘Two Pheasants’ in Snow Water (2004), Longley did not explicitly mention Japan in his poetry for the next fifteen years. This does not necessarily indicate a disinterest in the place. It is more likely that the poet has less need to examine or defend his technique. The space between Snow Water in 2004 and A Hundred Doors in 2011 was punctuated by Collected Poems in 2006. The collection and revision of his life’s work perhaps marked a natural conclusion to the problems of form which inspired him to look to the East.[10] Although Longley had ceased to explore the art of Japan in his verse, a remarkable inversion would occur before the poet’s latest collection. On the sixth of June 2018 he was awarded the inaugural Yakamochi Medal from Toyama Prefecture in Japan.[11] The Irish Times reported that the prize, worth €16,000, is named after Otomo no Yakamochi, ‘a Japanese poet and compiler of the Manyoshu, the oldest existing Japanese collection of poetry’ who composed half of his poems ‘during his time as a governor of Etchu Province, which corresponds to present day Toyama Prefecture’.[12] In a government pamphlet celebrating Yakamochi’s connection to the area, Longley’s poetry is described as

permeated with love for others. While love is the starting point, he spins beautiful words into poems dealing with nature, war, art, one’s hometown, and many other themes, calmly and yet sometimes sharply. His gaze is always fixated on life and existence. Furthermore, form is an important component of his poems. Inspired by the Japanese artistic philosophy of crystallizing energy that can been seen in haikus, he is also known for creating short poems.[13]

In a delightful outworking of symmetry, Japanese critics have recognised in Longley’s work the virtues which draw him to Japanese art. This award, which was open to any poet with ‘outstanding literary achievements from around the world’, demonstrates that Longley’s respect for the culture of Japan is requited.[14]


[1] Sarah Broom, ‘Interview with Michael Longley’, Metre, 4, (Spring/Summer 1998), 17–26 (p. 25), <> [accessed 1 July 2022].

[2] Peter McDonald, ‘“Au Revoir, Oeuvre”: An Interview with Michael Longley’, Thumbscrew, 12 (Winter 1998), [n.pag.], <> [accessed 1 July 2022].

[3] Michael Longley, Collected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), p. 208.

[4] Sean McGovern, ‘The Ryôan-ji Zen Garden: Textual Meanings in Topographical Form’, Visual Communication, 3.3 (2004), 344–359 (p. 346), <> [accessed 1 July 2022].

[5] The Michael Longley Papers (Collection 744 can be found at the Woodruff Library, Emory Univer-

sity, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Longley Papers, Box 38, Folder 15.

[6] Mark Storey, ‘Michael Longley: A Precarious Act of Balancing’, Fortnight, 194 (1983), 21–22 (p. 21), <> [accessed 1 July 2022].

[7] Research Map, ‘Fuyuji Tanigawa’, <>, [accessed 1 July 2022].

[8] Longley, Collected Poems, p. 282.

[9] Longley Papers, Box 8, Folder 9.

[10] Fran Brearton, Reading Michael Longley (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2006), p. 247.

[11] Toyama Prefecture, The Manyoshu and Toyama Prefecture, <> accessed 01.04.2021 [n,d., n.p., n.pag.,].

[12] ‘Marian Keyes to judge prize for comic women writers’, Irish Times, 15 August 2018, <>, accessed 01.04.2021 [n.auth.].

[13] Toyama Prefecture, The Manyoshu and Toyama Prefecture, n.pag. In a moment of understandable bias, the report also describes The Weather in Japan as Longley’s ‘masterpiece’.

[14] ibid.