I first met Michael Longley 20 years ago and have not forgotten a moment of that meeting. Not only did I think and still do that his poetry is up there with the greats (he is every bit as good as his friend and contemporary Seamus Heaney) but he also won me over with his love of good writing, charming ability to laugh at himself and lack of self-importance (a rare quality in a poet). He was emerging from a writers block he likens now to several fallow fields. An unhappy job at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the responsibilities of young children and dying parents and reasons I still cant fathom had, in his 40s, stopped his pen. He had believed himself finished. He reminded me that Louis MacNeice used to say middle age was tricky for poets that poetry is best left to the old and young. And he threw out a line I have continued to remember: If I knew where poems came from, Id go there.
His latest collection, A Hundred Doors, is beautiful. The new poems are like talismans; you want to learn them off by heart. They are the sweetest mixture of winter and spring, proof that MacNeice was right about old age. Longley is 71, and there is a poem for each of his six grandchildren. In the wrong hands, this could have been a doddery self-indulgence but each child has nested securely in his imagination. Yet, after four grandsons, he half-seriously threatened to resign as grandfather/laureate unless a girl was produced. And lo and behold, little Catherine came along We sketch the family tree: he has three grown-up children with the critic Edna Longley: Rebecca, a headhunter, has two sons, Ben and Eddie; Daniel, a molecular biologist, has three children, Jacob, Conor and Catherine; Sarah, an artist, is mother of Maisie the newest arrival. What suffuses these poems is love. But I had to be careful of becoming soft-centred. There is a hard core in the grandchildren poems. The darkness, which inevitably awaits us all, is there in each one of them.
This is a collection that marks departures as well as arrivals and in which Longley celebrates, as he has done throughout his poetic life, his father. His father was a commercial traveller, originally from Clapham in south London, who moved to Belfast (the family was Protestant).
Longley is visibly moved by the thought of him. Was he able to let his father know how much he mattered during his lifetime? No. When he died I was 18 or 19, in revolt, growing sideburns and about to study classics at Trinity College Dublin. His father was dying and I didnt realise it. If I had my life over again, Id ask him so many questions. Now, he gets glimpses of what was noble and beautiful in him and that is what I respond to.
Writing about Remembrance Day for The Irish Times, he regretted never having seen the citation his father received when, as a 20-year-old captain, he was awarded the military cross. A reader tipped him off and an SAE and cheque for £4 put this right. When he read the words from The Times of 27 April 1918, I was shaking with emotion. I was overwhelmed. He realised the chap who had written the citation might have had a classical education because the prose divided into rough decasyllabic lines:
Longley looks at me: Wasnt he brave?
He is, in every way, a family man. He made his audience laugh at a recent reading on the South Bank when he said: I am the only person I know who writes love poems to a critic. And while his wife is no poetic referee, he is delightful on the subject of how much the Edna Longley household seal of approval means.
I dont give a damn what anyone else thinks, if she likes it. She has perfect pitch, he says. And when she says, thats lovely, he feels like doing a war dance of relief and celebration.
He is superstitious about writing: I dread old notebooks in which there are failures in case they are contagious. I dont want to be like a French chef, trying to save scraps. He finds todays poetry scene congested with too much poetry and not enough poems. He is left cold by new formalists chunky, overwritten, musclebound. His key companions remain John Clare, John Keats, Yeats, MacNeice, Edward Thomas, the war poets and Larkin.
He says: I believe in inspiration and the old-fashioned notion of the muse. And, above all, in the continuing inspiration of Carrigskeewaun, a cottage in County Mayo where he and Edna have been holidaying for 40 years. He explains: We cant take being there for granted. It can be cut off. We get there sometimes by stripping to our belly buttons and wading through the tide. We have it to ourselves which seems important, although I have introduced the grandchildren to it, so I must want to share it.
Sometimes, he jokes, we squint through binoculars on the great yellow strand and see a group walking in the distance and feel crowded out When I cant sleep, I walk around it in my imagination.
Longleys main address continues to be in Belfast. Co Mayo and Belfast are his two poles and reflections of my love of Ireland they have to come together to shape my soul
He says: I dont go to Carrigskeewaun for escapist reasons. I want the beauty, the psychedelic wild flowers, the calls of the wild birds. I want all of that shimmering beauty to illuminate the northern darkness. We have peace of a kind, but no cultural resolution the tensions which produced the Troubles are still there. It is important for me to see beautiful Carrigskeewaun as part of the same island as Belfast. I might be most a Belfast man when I am in Carrigskeewaun.
Longley has become more conscious of the dangers of overworking poems: I am less formally obsessed now, more interested in what you might call shape.
He talks of his need for a kind of insouciance. And there is something marvellously unforced about his recent poems (in Call it is as if he were determined not to disrupt the surface of the world, or his old friend, on the eve of the millennium). He waits as a birdwatcher might, in patience and stillness. You have to wait without scaring the poem away.
Birds are everywhere in his work and our conversation. He is particularly fond of choughs though they are diminishing. Not that he is a twitcher. He is as moved by common birds. He marvels at the wrens monumental song produced by a bird the size of a ping pong ball. And when he hears a robin sing in autumn, it is like an electric shock going through my whole system.
When he envisages his own death as he does he says: There is a headland as you approach Carrigskeewaun and that is where I want my ashes scattered. And I just want one little stone, with my name on it, to be blown around by the wind and to mingle with the sand grains.