CQAF: Michael Longley
The poet on his new collection, A Hundred Doors, keeping it fresh at readings and how he only cares about one critic - his wife
The poet Michael Longley gazes through the window of the study in his Belfast home, pointing out the beautiful cherry tree in full bloom in a neighbour’s garden. It’s a wonderfully sunny day outside: a day in which it’s easy to appreciate the beauty to be found in the natural world, even in the city.
‘When I walk up the sides streets to our house I’m often electrified by the birdsong,’ Longley tells me. ‘Most of the houses round here have a blackbird and a robin. The wonders of nature are all around us.’
Longley's latest collection, A Hundred Doors, is filled with such wonder, and the things his life is blessed with. There are poems about the beauty of nature – mostly set in his beloved County Mayo townland, Carrigskeewaun – as well as poems about his wife (the critic Edna Longley), family, and especially his grandchildren.
The collection was eight years in the making (2004's Snow Water was followed in 2006 by the Collected Poems). ‘I think one of the things art does is to praise, and to glorify, and to revere,’ Longley says. ‘I didn’t plan the book in any way. I stagger from one silence to another wondering where the next poem is going to come from.’
He became a grandfather when his eldest daughter, Rebecca, gave birth to a boy, Ben. ‘He came with them to the remote cottage in Mayo. And I’d need to have been brain dead not to write a poem about his arrival in pouring rain in a neighbour’s tractor. So I wrote a poem called 'The Leveret'. And then my son and his wife produced a little boy, so I was really under some pressure to write a poem for him.
‘Eventually six grandchildren came along. And by this time I was under contract. Fortunately I was able to produce a poem for each of the six grandchildren. But after the fourth boy I did joke and say, well, unless the next grandchild is a girl, I'm going to on grandfatherly poetic strike. Then little Katy came along and I wrote a poem for her. And then Sarah – the artist – produced a magical little girl called Maisie, and there’s two poems for her in the book.’
In A Hundred Doors, Longley also writes – as he has many times before – about his father, who joined the army as a boy soldier in 1914 and served throughout the First World War. In a conflict where life expectancy was weeks, his father not only survived, but won the Military Cross for gallantry.
‘I continue to be preoccupied by the ghost of my father,’ Longley admits. ‘I just can’t get him… why should I get him out of my mind? In all of my nine books I’ve talked to his shade. I’m haunted by him, partly because I was only 20 when he died. I was a twerp: I didn’t appreciate him.’
It’s obvious from his poetry that family life is of the utmost importance to Longley. The walls of his study are filled with drawings bursting with colour by his artist daughter, Sarah; family photos fight for space on the mantelpiece above the fire. A constant presence throughout his work is that of his wife, Edna.
‘Ernest Hemingway said that every writer should have a built-in shit detector. My shit detector lives in this house with me,' Longley jokes. 'And she’s a very good critic.
'When I’ve written a poem I’m really quite nervous until she comes home and I’ve shown it to her. And she wouldn’t hesitate to say she didn’t like it, or point out what she thought didn’t work.’ His eyes stray to the doorway, beyond which – I’m sure – his wife is going about her day. Smiling, he adds: ‘When she says she likes a poem, I don’t really care what anyone else says.’
He and Edna have been married for almost 50 years, and it’s obvious from the way his eyes light up and a smile plays at the corner of his lips when he talks about her that he’s still very much in love. ‘If you can stand each other it gets better and better,’ he tells me. ‘It really does. I count myself blessed and very lucky to be married to her, and we have this life together in poetry.’
Is love at the heart of his work? ‘If poetry is a wheel, the hub of the wheel is love poetry,’ he explains. ‘Then branching out are the other loves and loyalties and preoccupations, like nature, family, country, art, friends. And for 50 years I’ve been writing obsessively about the birds and the bees, about nature, about a little corner of County Mayo, a tiny townland called Carrigskeewaun – the cottage which we visit.’
Longley and Edna have been holidaying there for 40 years. It has been a constant inspiration to him throughout his writing life, including the final poem of A Hundred Doors, 'Greenshank'. ‘I’m so heartbroken every time I leave Carrigskeewaun that I force myself to imagine leaving it for the last time,’ he says. ‘The pain of that thought inspired the poem, though I intend to have my ashes scattered in a certain point there.’
The two places that Longley really loves are Belfast – his birthplace – and the western seaboard, though he admits that he hasn’t written very much about his hometown. ‘There’s a gap in my writing in that I haven’t written very much – ever – about Belfast,’ he says. ‘I think it’s between the lines. Compared to someone like Ciaran Carson I haven’t written urban poems, if you like.’
Longley also has a particular fondness for the Irish landscape. ‘I was in Fermanagh launching a book a few weeks ago, and it’s breathtaking there too,’ he explains. ‘We’re really blessed. We live in a beautiful island still, despite our best efforts to fuck it up.’
He enjoys launches and readings – up to a certain point – and is looking forward to his appearance at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. ‘My work tends to be private, therefore being private in public is difficult,’ he admits. ‘But I believe poetry should be heard. We need to remember that poetry existed long before writing. In a way it’s a pre-literate art form.
‘When I write a poem I say it under my breath, and I work at the lines until they sound right. And sounding right is just as important as meaning something. The music of a poem is just as important as its meaning. In fact, you can’t separate the two: the meaning and the music are the one thing.’
The audience attending his reading should be treated to poetry both old and new. ‘It’s tempting to be slightly lazy and read poems that a well informed audience might know,’ he says. ‘So when a new book comes out I try to incorporate the new poems as much as possible. When you reach my age, three or four of your poems have a reputation and it’s tempting to read those. But one should break in newer poems.’
Longley feels that A Hundred Doors is one more part of a continuing work, filled with themes he will return to time and again, until – as with everyone – he reaches his inevitable end. ‘I’ve come to think of my life's work like a braid. And in the braid are these strands, weaving in and out of each other: war, art, children, love, nature. And by the time I die it’ll all add up to one long poem.’ Long may it continue to be written.