Writer’s Block With Michael Longley

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to MICHAEL LONGLEY about his GREAT OBSESSIONSPOETRY AS RELIGION and studying THE CLASSICS 

Photograph by Brenda Fitzsimons

The legendary Michael Longley CBE is one of the great literary pillars of Northern Ireland. His outstanding contribution to contemporary poetry has entered the hearts of readers all over the world, and has been engrained in the memories of countless school children and third level graduates.

Michael was born in Belfast to English parents; his father Richard Longley was a veteran of the First World War. The poet was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He later studied Classics at Trinity College Dublin, where he was the editor of Icarus. Indeed, such ancient texts have inspired legions of iconic writers over the centuries, and Michael Longley is no exception.

Alongside his friend, the late Seamus Heaney, Michael is one of Ulster’s key creative voices. His compact, lyric poetry possesses an unpretentious splendour that sings on the page. Michael has published over twenty books, including Gorse Fires (1991), Collected Poems (2007) and The Stairwell (2014). His most recent titles are Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015 and Angel Hill, his eleventh poetry collection, both released in 2017.

Michael worked for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for over twenty years, and was the Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2007 to 2010. Among his countless honours and accolades, he has won the Whitbread Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Hawthornden Prize and the Griffen Prize. In 2015 he was given the freedom of the city of Belfast and was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize in 2017. Don Paterson, the chair of judges and fellow poet said of Michael, ‘For decades now his effortlessly lyric and fluent poetry has been wholly suffused with the qualities of humanity, humility and compassion, never shying away from the moral complexity that comes from seeing both sides of an argument.’

Michael Longley lives in Belfast with his wife, Edna Longley, a literary critic and commentator. 

The Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas takes place from June 8 to 10. Michael will read from his work at the annual poetry presentation by the T.S. Eliot Foundation on Sunday 10. For tickets visit www.festivalofwritingandideas.com.

Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015 (€42, Enitharmon Press) and Angel Hill (€14, Cape Poetry) are available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in South Belfast, in a leafy street midway between the residential “posh” Malone Road and the commercial Lisburn Road, which is the centre of my universe. I try most days to walk to the shops through Drumglass Park past the swings and slides and the uplifting noise of children at play. It matters to me to be on Christian name terms with the newsagent and butcher and barber. Our local delicatessen the Arcadia stocks an impossibly varied range of delights. I especially like to support their fish counter and their world-class collection of cheeses. In the coffee shop I read my dailies over an Americano until I am interrupted by lively chat about the brilliance of Irish rugby and the tedium of Ulster politics. These small businesses generate what I would call civilisation. They help our complicated little society to work.

On roots 

I was brought up in Bristow Park, a fairly well-off street a mile or so away from where I now live. At that time it was not completely built up. There were open fields between the houses and beyond, the remains of ancient hedges, crab-apple trees that cradled our games and our make-believe, an oval field in which the pupils of a riding school trotted their ponies, bramble tangles for the wild birds. The now extremely rare corncrake used to call from the Stranmillis College sports fields behind our house. You had to be careful not to walk on larks’ nests in the couch grass. One autumn the fields were covered in mushrooms, so we got up very early to harvest them before our neighbours. A short bike ride took me to Barnett’s Demesne and the slopes of the Lagan and the magnificent Minnowburn beeches and the Giant’s Ring like a huge radar dish scanning the heavens.

On creating

My study is cosy and enclosed – a good space for concentration. Two of its walls sport shelves packed with the books that feed some of my obsessions: the Great War, the Holocaust, Latin and Greek literature, books about birds and wild flowers, several dictionaries and a much-thumbed thesaurus. I have pinned up snaps of my three children and seven grandchildren, all of whom have inspired poems. Among the hanging pictures there’s an old photograph of my father receiving his Military Cross from George V at Buckingham Palace in 1918, a watercolour by my daughter Sarah Longley of Cardoso, a lovely little hilltop village in Tuscany which we visit every year, and a map of the townland of Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo, my home from home since 1970 and the inspiration for about half of my poems. The room’s presiding genius is a large sculpture of a raven brilliantly constructed out of scrap metal by my Scottish friend Helen Denerley.

On bookshops

No Alibis bookshop in Botanic Avenue is owned and run by a genius, David Torrans. Local authors would be lost without him. He not only stocks the poetry and prose books which our society generates in increasing numbers, he organises readings, launches and book-signings. For David a new book is an occasion for celebration. His shop is a cultural focal point, and its reputation is spreading far and wide. No Alibis is more than we deserve.

On his “TBR” pile

Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey sounds exciting. This is the first translation by a woman of Homer’s great story. I have been drawn to Homer since my teens when I read him in the original Greek at school. Looking at paintings is a central part of my life. The Irish painter William Orpen was an official war artist during the Great War. I recently acquired his account of his experiences, An Onlooker in France, a celebration of creativity among all that destruction.  I’m also curious to find out how to deal with old age and produce true art. The great Japanese artist Hokusai continued making art into his nineties. So I look forward to reading (and looking at) Hokusai: A Life in Drawing by Henri-Alexis Baatsch. Beside my bed wait new poetry collections by Leontia Flynn and David Wheatley, two brilliant poets.

On escapes 

I’ve already mentioned Cardoso in Tuscany and my Mayo home-from-home. But in another sense, I don’t need to go anywhere. I have in the past tried to escape into a creative quietude, but if you go on vacation, the Muse will not necessarily accompany you. Conversely, a good poem will emerge no matter what the circumstances. Fine poems were created in the trenches of the First World War and in the concentration camps. I remember writing what might be my best love poem, ‘The Linen Industry.’ My younger daughter Sarah was about three at the time, and she was crawling all over me on the sofa and being a handful. But there was no way she could have stopped that poem being born. You know those stories about women giving birth on aeroplanes? I felt a bit like that.

On friendship

At Trinity College Dublin, Alec Reid was an inspirational teacher who got me hooked on poets such as Edward Thomas and Louis MacNeice, poets who remain constant spiritual companions. Getting to know fellow undergraduate scribblers like Derek Mahon and Brendan Kennelly was a huge excitement. We vied to get our apprentice verses published in the college literary magazine Icarus. When I returned to Belfast in the early sixties Seamus Heaney and I became friends and showed each other our poems. He introduced me to Paul Muldoon who was followed by Frank Ormsby and Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian. I do indeed feel blessed to have known such gifted writers. W.B. Yeats suggests how I should measure my good fortune: ‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / And say my glory was I had such friends.’

On poetry

Poetry is my religion. It is my way of making sense of the world. For me there’s nothing to compare with the excitement of a poem working itself out, as though I had nothing to do with it. I have no idea where poetry comes from, or where it goes when it disappears. For a decade or so in my forties I wrote little or no poetry. I thought I was finished. Then the Muse returned as of her own free will, and now in old age I am scribbling away. Yes, it is a mystery. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just can’t will a poem into being (or I certainly can’t).

On the classics

Secreted away in a great work of art like Homer’s Iliad there are other smaller works, plays, paintings, poems. I studied Classics at Trinity, and was lucky enough to be taught by the great Homeric scholar W.B. Stanford. ‘Chalepa ta kala,’ he used to say: ‘The beautiful things are difficult.’ Several of my books contain versions of moments in the Odyssey and the Iliad which I freeze-frame to generate self-contained lyrics, in much the same way as a visual artist might choose a single episode as the subject matter for a painting. I’m interested in creating poems rather than translations. Homer has enabled me face into the darkness and write about the Troubles here in Northern Ireland, as well as deal with sorrow and pain at a more personal level. In my collection The Stairwell I write about the death of my twin brother in a series of short intense elegies which refract my emotions through Homer. I couldn’t have written them otherwise.

On what’s next

The next poem, I hope. Rows of words.

@SophieGrenham

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