Michael Longley's Cultural Life
Following the announcement that he is to receive the freedom of Belfast, read an archive Q&A with the acclaimed poet
Can you recall your boyhood?
I grew up in Bristow Park off Balmoral Avenue, comfortably middle-class, and still not fully built up: we played in fields and climbed trees and built tree houses and explored Barnett’s Demesne and cycled along the Lagan towpath.
I was blessed by having a twin brother, Peter, and a sister, Wendy, who was nine years older. She was a second mother. She started going steady with her future husband, Ernie, when she was just 16. The two of them were terrific fun – like older playmates, younger parents. I didn’t sleep alone until Peter went off to be an apprentice engineer at the age of 17. My parents were gentle and generous, but somewhat semi-detached. Wendy and Ernie took 'the twins' off their hands!
Which subjects were you top and bottom of the class at during your time attending Inst?
I was strongest at English and classics (Latin and Greek) and won prizes in these subjects most years. I particularly enjoyed writing essays. I wasn’t so good at maths and science, but I was no dunce either. I was in the top class with boys who went on to become distinguished mathematicians and scientists. It was tough trying to keep up with them, but good for my soul.
You studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Were you a typical hedonistic student sleeping in until noon or did you live in the library?
I was idle and fond of lying in. I now wish I had spent more time in the library. But daydreaming didn’t do me any harm. Creativity requires reverie. Young people don’t get enough of it these days.
When you met your wife, Enda?
In the Entrance Exam (in 1958), Edna was sitting behind me, and was sick. It was very romantic.
What would you say is the secret of your long and happy marriage?
Listening and conversation. Intelligence listens. Love sets free. If you hang in there, it gets better and better.
When did you first begin to write poetry?
I wrote a few poems when I was 16. One was called ‘Song of a Night Watchman’: 'I can’t desire what is not mine / For things in reach are out of sight.' I relished the difficulties. But my teenage years were hectic – rugby, girls, discovering the arts, studying for exams, experimenting with nicotine and alcohol. I was more laid back at Trinity, where poetry took over as my life’s central obsession.
You have worked as a teacher and later as arts director at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Did these public roles get in the way of your writing?
Teaching young people and doing what I could for artists were great privileges, but a lot of creative energy did get burned up. That’s life. That’s part of the deal. But the toxins of the bureaucratic life were another matter. That’s death. The managerial ethos smothers and destroys.
Which writers/artists have most inspired your work?
I could fill the page with their names. For starters: Bach, Schubert, Sibelius; John Clare, Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, DH Lawrence; Bonnard, Van Gogh, Gerard Dillon, Colin Middleton.
Is the urge to write and create still as urgent now, in your later years?
The urge to write is just as urgent. I’ve nearly completed my next collection, which I’m going to call A Hundred Doors. What still matters most is the next poem. Of course the Muse may choose not to turn up.
Can you define the magic that makes a great poem, or is it a secret of the Muses?
A great poem? I’m not bothered by terms like 'major' and 'minor'. I prefer the adjective 'immortal'. You sense that certain rows of words will last for ever, whether they be Shakespeare or 'Humpty Dumpty'. And that’s because of their rhythmic vitality. Rhythm is a poem’s heartbeat. If the rhythm fails, then the poem dies of heart failure. The rhythm and accompanying musical felicities such as rhyme and assonance make the poem memorable. It lodges in people’s minds and survives there.
Your love of the natural world seems a major influence in your poetry. Are you happiest in the great outdoors?
As a child I wanted to know the names of birds and flowers. I am still that child. Hearing a bird sing, finding and naming a beautiful flower – for me these are religious experiences. The natural world demands my devoted attention. Most of my poems are inspired by the great outdoors, as you call it. Poetry reminds us that we are all part of nature. A poet’s mind should be like Noah’s ark with room for all the creatures.
As a Belfast poet, you have tackled the trauma of the Troubles in your work, linking it to the conflicts of ancient Greece and the First and Second World Wars. Did the conflict here ever darken your optimism or faith in humanity?
I was overwhelmed by the ferocity of the violence and bewildered by its causes. It was some time before any of the writers here felt able to approach the mayhem. We were anxious not to produce what we called 'Troubles trash'. We did not want to be intrusive or impertinent. We did not want to hitch a ride on yesterday’s headlines – to write the poetry of the latest atrocity. We preferred an oblique approach. It was especially important to remember the victims. My poems about the Troubles are elegies mostly. Their drift is remembrance.
The greatest poem about war and death is Homer’s Iliad. Homer enabled me to write about our own poisonous conflict. I also turned to the ghost of my father, who had been a boy-soldier in the trenches of the Great War, and in my imagination I asked him what he made of it all.
Would you agree with the WB Yeats' assertion that 'we only begin to live when we conceive of life as tragedy'?
There’s no future for poetry if it fails to face into the darkness, into the nightmare of violence and destruction. But there also has to be room for the poetry of equable joy. A good poet should be able to write love poems and nature poems as well as battlefield lamentations. Poetry is about everything that happens to people.
You had a festschrift, 'Love Poet, Carpenter', dedicated to you in celebration of your 70th birthday (in August, 2009). Your friends and fellow poets, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon (among many others) paid warm tribute to your artistic gifts. Surely this is an achievement most writers can only dream of?
The festschrift was a miraculous 70th birthday present. It made me very happy and proud. I’m still gobsmacked. I’m pleased that my work as a teacher and arts administrator are recognised, as well as my poetry. The many distinguished contributors are generous. My wife advises me not to inhale!
Music and poetry are closely allied. What kind of music do you most enjoy?
Jazz and classical music. Boogie-woogie and Bach, Bessie Smith, Schubert, Billie Holiday and Debussy. I also love Irish traditional music. At the Arts Council I initiated the programme for traditional music and got to know geniuses like Len Graham and Joe Burke. I’m an unreconstructed highbrow, a devoted fan of BBC Radio Three. For me listening to music and writing poetry are connected at some deep level. They are both about rhythm and melody.
You like rugby also, and Van Morrison once described you as the only 'human' one among Northern Irish poets. Why do so many poets have such an otherworldly reputation?
I wouldn’t agree that they have that kind of reputation. Most of the poets I know are down-to-earth, fond of eating and drinking, interested in sex and involved in the world around them.
Do you have a favourite novel or poem?
‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ by John Clare, or ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by WB Yeats. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence would be one of my favourite novels.
What, in your view, is the meaning of life?
The ultimate meaning of life? I’ve no idea. In the meantime I would suggest: keeping going and making the most of everything. The ancient Greeks advised: know thyself, and nothing too much. Years ago Paul Muldoon and I worked out our own little motto for living: promise nothing and take nothing for granted.
How would you describe yourself?
When someone begins a sentence, 'As a poet I...' you can rest assured that person is in no way a poet. You can’t call yourself a poet. That’s like calling yourself a saint. I like it when other people call me a poet.