“Longley hasn’t advertised himself as a Muse-poet, but that is what he is, a love poet, and a nature poet, a celebrant of the female principle; and like Graves he is also a war poet, of the two world wars in which his father fought, and of the war of nerves in Northern Ireland, where he lives.” [Derek Mahon, The Literary Review – 1985]
In the mid 1960s, three as-then-unpublished poets, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Mahon, together made a pilgrimage to Carrowdore Churchyard, the final resting place of poet Louis MacNeice (who died in 1964). By the end of the decade each had published works firmly establishing them as significant voices in contemporary Irish literature. Skip ahead thirty years and each of them have become both part of the canon of modern Irish poetry, and household names.
Of the three, Longley has been, perhaps, the most difficult to classify. Both Heaney and Mahon were relatively easy to identify and label in terms of the Ulster divide – Catholic/Protestant. Longley, born in Belfast to English parents, didn’t fit neatly. For example, the Field Day anthology of Irish writing chose to pigeonhole Longley in post-war English tradition akin to Philip Larkin. A judgement with some truth, but one which fails to take into account the influence of poets like Yeats and Kavanagh on his work. His work has also been influenced by the poets of the first world war (his father fought in both the first and second world war), and the classics.
Complicating the critical consensus was the fact that Longley went through a long period of ‘writer’s block’ where he ceased to publish new work. Commenting on this period to Mike Murphy, on Irish radio, he said: “I wasn’t completely silent, but everything I wrote was stillborn, it was bad. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t produce forgeries.”
Suggestions that Longley had peaked too early in his career were, though, swiftly banished in 1991, when, coinciding with his early retirement as an arts administrator, he published Gorse Fires. The collection won the Whitbread prize for poetry of that year and was followed by 1995’s The Ghost Orchid, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize. 2000’s collection The Weather in Japan, winner of the Hawthornden Prize and the TS Eliot prize, saw Longley exploring shorter forms to great acclaim. His latest collection, Snow Water, was described in the Guardian by Peter McDonald as a “radical refashioning of an already perfected manner”.
Longley has become one of Ireland’s most respected and most read poets. There are a number of dominant themes in his work. Perhaps the best description comes from the man himself: “I hope by the time I die my work will look like four really long poems; a very long love poem, a very long meditation on war and death, a very long nature poem and a playful poem on the art of poetry. And like a plant, I want the strands both to entwine with each other, but every now and again to emerge as separate.”
Michael Longley kindly agreed to the following interview with Three Monkeys Online (via email), as part of our continuing series on Irish Poetry.
T. Brace: You have written “I live for the moments when language itself takes over the enterprise, and insight races ahead of knowledge. Occasionally I have things to say, or there is something I want to describe. But these are not my main reasons for writing”. Could you tell us what are your main reasons for writing today?
Michael Longley: The answer is in the statement itself: “I live for those moments when language itself takes over the enterprise, and insight races ahead of knowledge”. Inspiration. Concentration. I really don’t feel like elaborating on that sentence.
T. Brace: When a poet and his audience are separated by distance, i.e. a ‘degree of independence on the poet’s part’, the poet is often said to be ‘ahead of his time’. C.K. Stead refers to this as causing a “straining of the voice” and quotes Blake as an example. What comment would you make on this?
Michael Longley: Readers will eventually catch up on the poet who is only “ahead of his time”. He is probably ahead by just a few lengths! You can hear him huffing and puffing in any case, straining. Was Shakespeare “ahead of his time”? The groundlings packed into the Globe. Were Aeschylus and Sophocles ahead of their time? The Greeks sat in their thousands all day long in the heat absorbing difficult poetry. Those mighty tragedians were ahead of time and they brought their audience with them on the day and forever. Good poetry is ahead of time.
T. Brace: You have remarked that “if many of the talented careless folk who call themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they would be dead”. I won’t ask you to name names, but in the context of the remark, do you have a style or school of poetry in mind?
Michael Longley: Surely I said “talentless”? I was castigating those who pay no attention to technique. Too many would-be poets are satisfied with wan little free-verse stutters – like walking along a white line on the road – not very clever – they’re not even aspiring tightrope walkers! Their practice also puts me in mind of someone buying a guitar and booking the Albert Hall for the following week. Or French cricket. The beautiful things are difficult, I’m afraid. On the other hand, one of the attributes of the good tightrope walker is insouciance. There are those who try too hard or are self-conscious: they trip over themselves and fall off the wire. Make your own list of the fallen.
T. Brace: Yeats remarked that “the mind of man has two kind of shepherds, the poets who rouse and trouble and the poets who hush and console”. Where do you see yourself in this polarity?
Michael Longley: Why does it have to be ‘either/or’? I would prefer ‘both/and’: “When you are old and grey and full of sleep” as well as “A shudder in the loins engenders there”. Great poetry is open to all the moods and emotions. Poetry is multifaceted, multiform, copious, kaleidoscopic and makes a nonsense of polar, black and white, either/or, binary approaches.
T. Brace: You studied the classics at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s, and the Classics clearly have had an influence on your own work. Do you think that the Classics have any degree of influence on the style of poetry that is being written today?
Michael Longley: After Ovid, the fairly recent compilation by James Lasdun and Michael Hofmann of translations, by various hands, of stories from Ovid’s great ragbag, Metamorphoses, is in itself proof of a strong continuing influence. The Greek tragedies are seldom out of the theatrical news. Brendan Kennelly, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Tom Paulin have all given us interesting versions of Sophocles, Tony Harrison of Aeschylus. The Odyssey and the Iliad go on selling. The finest Irish poets are still interested in formal matters – prosody, stanzaic architecture, syntax: this owes something to the Classics, even if only between the lines. We seem in many respects to be living in a neo-classical age (though Queen’s University, Belfast, has in deep ignorance closed down the teaching of Latin and Greek).
T. Brace: You are a poet of an urban background, yet much of your work deals with nature. Was this a conscious effort, as it were, to enter into another world? Or was it a reaction to the sectarian nature of urban life in Northern Ireland?
Michael Longley: The south Belfast suburb of my childhood was only partially built up. There were fields beyond and even between the houses. I played in long grass beneath ancient crab-apple tre
es. I can remember falling asleep to the calls of cows and curlews. I could bicycle in ten minutes through Barnett’s wooded demesne and along the towpaths of the river Lagan to the Minnowburn Beeches or the lock keeper’s house at Newforge. This was as much a part of my growing up as the cityscape of the Lisburn Road with its sweetie shops and cinemas. My early existence was not straightforwardly suburban: rather, I shuttled between rus and urbs. I do not run away from sectarian Belfast to the wilds of County Mayo. For me the light of Carrigskeewaun irradiates the northern darkness – although that’s far too polarised a way of putting things. The two parts of Ireland I love most are the city of Belfast and the western seaboard, especially counties Mayo and Clare. In my affections I don’t separate them or prefer one to the other.
T. Brace: In contrast to your discoveries in nature, particularly in the west of Ireland, Patrick Kavanagh left a rural background and discovered himself in the urban world of Dublin. To what extent do you think that this is a reflection of the different urban experiences of Belfast and Dublin?
Michael Longley: Kavanagh discovered himself as a poet in County Monaghan and that discovery continued long after he had moved to Dublin. Very little of his Dublin-inspired material involves me as much as his ‘country’ poems. I think Dublin might have coarsened this great writer. Kavanagh’s development doesn’t tell us anything useful about the cultural differences between Belfast and Dublin.
T. Brace: In his introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1935, Yeats remarked that poets must “purify poetry of all that is not poetry…that poetry was a tradition like religion, and liable to corruption”. What comment would you make on this?
Michael Longley: I partly disagree with Yeats. With regard to subject matter poetry should absorb as much impurity as it can stomach. A little dirt will do poetry good, will help to build up its immune system. With regard to language the poet should use words with all the accuracy and suggestiveness he can muster – that is, in a pure way.
T. Brace: Yeats wrote that “Ireland could never create a democratic poet of the type of Burns, although it had tried to do so more than once […] its genius would in the long run be distinguished and lonely”. Do you consider yourself, and other contemporary Irish poets, to be “distinguished and lonely”?
Michael Longley: What about Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Paul Durcan? Collections of their poetry get onto the bestseller lists in Ireland. It’s wonderful that three men of genius should excite so much public interest. It is good for poetry that such a richly complex poet as Heaney is so popular: a national figure, surely, not unlike Burns. As for myself, I would be perfectly happy to appear “distinguished and lonely”!
T. Brace: In the above context, why has no significant work, or voice, emerged in Ireland dealing with the Northern Ireland conflict over the last forty years. Why has there been no conscious effort to use poetry as a political weapon?
Michael Longley: Not just Frank Ormsby and me, the above triumvirate as well as Derek Mahon, James Simmons, John Hewitt, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Tom Paulin and others have produced true poetry in response to the Troubles. So what on earth do you mean by “no significant work or voice”? I recommend to you, for starters, Ormsby’s outstanding anthology A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles: it contains such crucial works as Heaney’s ‘Casualty’, ‘The Other Side’, ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’; Muldoon’s ‘Truce’, ‘The More a Man Has’, ‘Gathering Musrooms’; Mahon’s ‘Afterlives’, ‘Courtyards in Delft’; Carson’s ‘Belfast Confetti’, ‘The Bomb Disposal’; Simmons’s ‘Claudy’. I would like to think that I make my own contribution with poems like ‘Wounds’, ‘Wreaths’, ‘Peace’, ‘Ceasefire’. There have also been some marvellous plays and novels. And of course we have had to endure too much of what we call here “troubles trash”, writing that hitches a ride on yesterday’s headlines and cashes in on the violence and anguish. To quote Mahon, a good poem is a paradigm of good politics.
T. Brace: Few modern Europeans appear to be driven by ideology. Do you accept this, and do you consider this has had an effect on modern European poetry?
Michael Longley: Poetry encourages people to think and feel for themselves, to question Church and State. Articles of faith would spancel the imagination. Ideological poetry would only tell people what they want to hear. It would be propaganda. Ideologies cause devastation. To paraphrase Louis MacNeice, poetry should appeal to people’s generous instincts.
T. Brace: Ezra Pound said that it was a gain for a poet when his admirers became displeased with his work, as his admirers always wanted him to ‘stay put’ and became displeased when he showed signs of stirring, of a new curiosity or of intellectual uneasiness. Do you consider that you have lost a number of your admirers?
Michael Longley: I don’t (can’t) keep count. And I don’t really care. Being a constant innovator is even more tedious than being a stick-in-the-mud. Really profound change will not be immediately discernible. Pound’s obscurities are increasingly explainable, whereas the clarities of Edward Thomas grow more and more mysterious. It’s good of course to have both poets.
T. Brace: Poets who once held centre-stage are now virtually unheard of. For example, Oliver St. John Gogarty was the centrepiece of the 1935 Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Yet today he is remembered more as a character in Joyce that as a poet. Do you think that poetry has its fashions and that there are fashionable poets?
Michael Longley: Yes. Rupert Brooke was all the rage when no one had heard of Wilfred Owen or Isaac Rosenberg or Edward Thomas. He probably still sells better than Owen who didn’t get so much as a mention in the Oxford guide (whatever it’s called) until 1936. Humbert Wolfe was once a poetic star. Sad really. He could be any one of us. Occasionally a fashionable poet is also a good one. Time sorts things out in the end, but it can take centuries (Donne, Propertius).
T. Brace: Finally, if you were exiled to one of Jupiter’s moons, which book of poetry would you bring with you?
Michael Longley: A toss-up between the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats and the Collected Poems of Edward Thomas. Probably the latter, in my wife’s edition. In that way there would be two voices keeping me company. On that moon I would need news of birdsong and green fields and trees and wild flowers and Earth’s seasons to keep me sane.
1. Taken from Reading the Future: Twelve Writers from Ireland in Conversation with Mike Murphy
2. Profile of Michael Longley in the Guardian, Saturday, August 21st, 2004.
The Poetry of Michael Longely
A selection of Michael Longley’s published works
No Continuing City, Macmillan, 1969
Under the moon, over the stars, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1971
Exploded View, Gollancz, 1973
Fishing in the Sky Poet & Printer, 1975
Man Lying on a Wall, Gollancz, 1976
Echo Gate, Secker & Warburg, 1979
Gorse Fires, Secker & Warburg, 1991
The Ghost Orchid, Cape Poetry, 1995
Weather in Japan, Jonathan Cape, 2000
Selected Poems Jonathan Cape, 1999