Michael Longley broke a 12-year silence in 1991 with the publication of Gorse Fires, an outstanding collection which went on to win the Whitbread Poetry Prize. Shaped by his poetic voice with its characteristically inspired balance of mystery and Northern directness, as well as his rich, enduring sources, nature and classical Greek verse, its Homeric quality also left no doubts as to his powerful feelings about the political situation in Northern Ireland.
Four years later his sixth collection, The Ghost Orchid, appeared. Among the works included was Ceasefire, a poem which had earlier been published in the books pages of the Irish Times coinciding with the announcement of the first IRA ceasefire in the summer of 1994, Prophetic, and as coincidental as it was planned, Longley had written it at a time when there were rumours of an IRA ceasefire and I hoped I would be able to make a small contribution. It expressed his hopes and was later seen to define a moment in history encapsulated in the poets tone, of reconciliation; particularily the closing couplet: I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son. None of the present irony is now lost on him as he agrees the present mood in the North is tense, even bitter. Dont make too much of it, he cautions, while admitting to feeling let down by the current stalemate.
His latest collection, The Weather in Japan, has just been published, another is already underway; Ive about 10 new poems. Longey the poet is a most reflective, deliberate craftsman, convinced of the relevance of silence, and writing only when you have something to say, adding: I like the way farmers allow fields to go fallow, it gives time to recover. I think poetry should be like that.
Obviously taken with the practical farming imagery, he refers to the value of having time to think, to look around, to live. His nature, poetry has never been that of the idle romantic; he is an engaged observer, the best kind of amateur naturalist — knowledgeable, informed yet still curious. Do they ever meet out there, / The dolphins I counted, / The otter I wait for? / I should have spent my life / Listening to the waves. (Out There, from The Ghost Orchid).
An easy talker, he moves from the subject of classical music, to painting, playing rugby, the contrasting personalities of his cats, his wish for a dog, Co. Mayo which he began visiting about 30 years ago, and more recently, the Burren.
No-one could accuse him of playing the tormented artist. He enjoys creating the impression that he is relaxed about his poetic reputation - and is not driven by an artistic quest. Of cours he is - he is just better at concealing his commitment.
Forty years Ive been at it, working hard, / A poetic pro, no longer a neophyte. / Im standngin hear the metalworkers yard / and cant find the words for this starry night. (Fragment, The Weather in Japan.) as he says, I don;t wear my angst on my sleeve, and makes it quite clear that for him poetry is a religious vocation, not a hobby and the poet is both visionary and craftsman. He asks with a smile, Do you like the new book?, The new collection has a unifying tone of elegiac wisdom. Longley is able to create an atmosphere of ease, the conversation is natural and gracefully random.
Only after a while does it become clear that for all its casual grace, his conversation is direct, his remarks astute: Michael Longley even at his most urbane does not waste words, he quizzes everything as if testing a piece of cloth. A throwaway remark such as objecting to the use of words such as major and minor makes him recall an edition of T. S. Eliots work. Near the back there was this section under the heading Minor Poems - was that supposed to mean that all the previous ones were major?
Slow moving and friendly, his benign demeanour is complemented by his wife Prof Edna Longley, a formidable, forthright intellectual whose exacting approach to criticism has been determined by the political inevitabilities of Irish literature. By birth a Dubliner born into an academic family, Edna Longley, recently elected, to the Royal Irish Academy, seems to have become more Northern than most native Ulster people. Her husband points out she has made an immense and largely unappreciated contribution. It was Edna who told them there were a million Protestants up here. All she does is preach, multi-culturalism and tolerance.
Just as his work, despite a serene surface, conveys a sense of outrage, the likeable Longley is, not indifferent to being misunderstood. At the height of his pleasure in the success of Gorse Fires, he had to absorb the insult of being described, or perhaps more accurately, dismissed, in The Field Day Anthology of lrish Writing as a poet having more in common with the semi-detached suburban muse of Philip Larkin and post-war England than with Heaney or Montague. He was also grouped with the British post-modernists.
By then an established love poet, Longley was hurt and bewildered at the time and the years have not softened it. Nothing in his first four books, No Continuing, City (1969), An Exploded View (1973), Man Lying on A Wall (1976) and The Echo Gate (1979) would justify his being categorised so inaccurately. Asked about it at the time he said, I object to being embalmed wearing a false face, a mask. I feel diminished and travestied. He still feels as strongly. If Longley was influenced by Auden, John Clare, Keats and Edward Thomas and the War Poets, so too was he shaped by MacNeice and to some extent Kavanagh, Homer, Ovid and others also had their say in making him. Among the finest poems in the new collection is The War Graves, which testifies to his ability to catch the menace lurking behind even the calmest scene.
The exhausted cathedral reaches nowhere near the sky / As though behind its buttresses wounded angels / Snooze in a half-way house of gargoyles, rainwater / By the mouthful, broken wings among pigeons wings.
unlike many of Irelands leading poets he did not pursue an academic career and instead spent 21 years working for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, a job he enjoyed for the first 10 years or so, and spent much of the rest of the time writing little poetry, and wondering if he would ever return to it.
Making soup in his Belfast kitchen in a home not very far from Inst. (the Royal Belfast Academical Institution he attended as a boy and later taught at - I loved teaching he says with a trace of surprise), Longley appears a man at ease with himself and his poetry. Now at 60 and, by his own a a fat poet, he mentions that he has recently been diagnosed as a diabetic and has been ordered to lose four stones. Bearded, with dark brown eyes which were famously mistaken by artist Edward Maguire, ... long / Distance calls in the small hours, crazed arguments / About the colour of my eyes — his strange mistake — (From Sitting for Eddie, The Ghost Orchid), his physical resemblance to Ernest Hemingway has increased apace. By now Longley must also be weary of being told as if it were some form of personal endorsement he was the Ulster poet who stayed.
There were reasons. There were jobs, the university and the Arts Council. It is also one of the most interesting, if heartbreaking, places in the world. Its like living in three places at once; Ulster is a province of Ireland, its a province of the UK and its also its own awkward self. Its been a privilege.
In his early years, Longley, the son of English parents, was aware of having to invent and borrow his version of Ireland, and refers to stepping between cultures en .route from the schoolyard to his home. He has since acquired a strong of sense of place, stron enough to enable him to write River and Fountain, walking forwards into the past with more of an ideal, / I want to say to my friends of thirty years ago / And to daughters and a son that Belfast is our home ... How does he see himself as an individual?
Sometimes I feel Irish, sometimes I feel British, often neither. While admitting to currently feeling let down and wary of the more, rancid elements of both sides, he stresses, The Good Friday Agreement and the power-sharing executive are triumphs of the political imagination. They allow me to feel more Irish, more British and just as importantly, more neither. It is important to note that his concept of history owes far more to the natural world, birds, animals, flora and landscape than to politics. Having said that, his work resounds with a subtly dep-political commentary, and he recognises those preoccupations by placing ghosts and images of the dead within a natural setting such as a bog-meadow full of bog-aphodels.
Growing up on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast, with English parents, while a student at a Protestant school, would culturally test anyone. If the young Longley had any abiding trait it appears to have been resourcefulness. His parents moved from Clapham Common to Belfast in 1927. Richard Longley Longley had worked as a commercial traveller fora furniture manufacturer before joining the army.
After the war there was no work so he became a professional fundraiser. In another life, as a 17-year-old he had enlisted in 1914, rose to the rank of captain and was twice decorated. Then when the second World War began, he volunteered, he started all over again and went in as a private. His son knew nothing of his fathers war experiences until shortly before Richard Longleys death in 1960.
He was a, gentle, kind man, recalls Longley, who agrees his father and his secret heroism have a strong presence in his work. The father image is a constant while his fathers life as a soldier has also played a part in Longleys war poetry as well as more intimate pieces. I waken you out of your nightmare as I wakened / My father when he was stabbing a tubby German / Who pleaded and wriggled in the back bedroom. / He had killed him in real life ... (From The Kilt, The Ghost Orchid).
Longleys relationship with his mother was more complex, and distant. She seems to have been clever and volatile as he has written, to use a geological metaphor, my fathers personality was sedimentary, my mothers volcanic. As a baby, the elder by 30 minutes of twin boys - who remained known as the twins, until il we became the boys - Longley had formed a strong attachment with a Fermanagh girl who had come to work for his parents, I began by loving the wrong woman. It was only near the end of her life that he became close to his mother. Over several tumultuous months we lived out her childhood, and mine, he writes in Tuppenny Stung, an autobiographical sequence, ... she confessed that in the early days of the preg nancy she had attempted in an amateurish way to abort us - or it as we then were ... Somehow this knowledge made it easier for me to hug her dying lopsided body. It was like a courtship, and I accompanied her on my arm to deaths door. She died in 1979.
People appear important to him - if Ive done anything in my life its that Ive become close at 60 with my brother Peter - and Longley enjoys speaking of the achievements of his friends such as Derek Mahon and the nature writer Michael Viney. Nature and landscape grasped his imagination as a boy. When I was young, it only took about five minutes by bike to reach the countryside. I would cycle along the towpath of the Lgan. It was all part of my world.
Asked to describe the role of the poet, Longley doesnt hesitate. It is a subject he has thought long and hard about. Though the poets first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively ... In the context of political violence the deployment of words at their most precise and suggestive remains one of the few antidotes to death-dealing dishonesty.
I write for everyone and no one in particular. The first person I try to, please is myself. A poem is an organism in which relationships on many levels between words fuse various orders of experience into a unique perception. A poet makes the most complex and concentrated response that can be made with words to the total experience of living. For these reasons I would go on trying to write poems, even if nobody wanted to read them. Where does poetry for him originate? He agrees it is of the moment. I believe in the old fashioned notion of inspiration, the breathing into the mind of some idea, the suggestion of an emotion or impulse. Aware of its delicacy, he says, if you try too hard, it disappears. His first poems were written as a schoolboy and he says they werent any good.
I didnt write anything worthwhile until I was 23, not like Mahon who began writing brilliantly at 16. It didnt matter; Longley had other interests, largely involved with his decision to be an aesthete which he says he was from an early age. Ive always been interested in the arts. I began going to classical music concerts when I was 15. Ive always liked painting. I joined the Arts Council as a temporary Exhibitions Officer. By then he had already been reviewing local art exhibitions for The Irish Times and mentions an interview he did with the artist Colin Middleton. It was a rather important interview. At Inst, Longley had acquired an excellent classical education which influenced his decision to study classics at Trinity College.
While his classical background. has proved so important to his work, his variations on classical Greek and Latin works are among his finest achievements, such as Gorse Fires. Having succeeded in having some poems published in the college magazine, Longley recalls that just when he was beginning to settle into the role of college poet, Mahon, two years his junior, andvery accomplished arrived wanting to borrow his typewriter. The two middle-class Protestant boys were as much outsiders in Dublin as they were in Belfast, where they traced in August sixty-nine / Our imaginary Peace Line / -Around the burnt-out house of / The Catholics wed scarcely loved ... Two poetic conservatives / In the city of guns and long knives. (From Letter to Derek Mahon, in An Exploded View).
Longleys work must be read on two levels: the personal and the political. If you were to read my poems, all of them, I mean, / My lifes work, at the one sitting, in the one place, / Let it be here by this half-hearted waterfall / That allows each pebbly basin its separate say; ... (From The Waterfall, The Weather in Japan) - which clearly refers to individual cultures as well as to individual poems.
Longley creates special worlds. Sitting at the small kitchen table he takes up his three later books, Gorse Fires, The Ghost Orchid and The Weather in Japan, a wide smile opens his face, and he adds, his Selected Poems, which was published in 1998. It is, a good-looking quartet. He says as much. But he is equally proud, of a collaboration, Out of the Cold, undertaken with his youngest daughter Sarah, in which 14 of his poems, are illustrated by her.
Several large framed charcoals decorate the Longley home. Sarahs very good, she has it. She loves drawing, he says, as much an art critic as proud father. His comments give some clue to the lyric genius of Michael Longley, a poet who seems to regard himself as a late developer. To be a poet you have to live, but it also helps to look long and hard.