The professional grandfather of poetry on wedding dresses, the wonders of childhood and remembering Ronan Kerr
Michael Longley is nothing if not self-deprecating. Before beginning a mesmerising reading at the Black Box, which spans the many decades of his writing life, he says, 'I've been trying to write poems for 50 years. I keep doing it because I haven't got it quite right yet.'
The audience smiles appreciatively. They know they're in the hands of a master. But while there is humility here, there is also assurance, and a deftness that is never glib. There is nothing effortful or strenuous in Longley's reading of his own poetry.
Instead there is a quiet depth of emotion, and a brave acknowledgement that the dark shadow of our own mortality is never far away, even as we celebrate birth and light and the coming of spring.
Longley says that 'poetry should be launched from the mouth and find its resting place in the ear. It's important to stand up and read it aloud', and hearing him read his own work, I am struck once again by the understated beauty of his poetry, the living power of the words - especially in the love poems and elegies, which he says are 'at the core of my poetic enterprise.'
In 'Swans Mating', he speaks of the female's 'neck under the water like a bar of light'; in 'Cloudberries', he describes how the fruit is 'sweetened slowly by the cold', laughs boyishly, a little self-consciously, at the idea of 'kisses at our age … cloudberry kisses.'
'The Pattern', from a different stage of his life, was written after discovering the old six shilling Vogue pattern for his wife's wedding dress, the 'box pleats and hems, tissue-paper outlines' a reminder of that far-off windy day in 1964.
In his own words, Longley is 'a fully-fledged professional grandfather' now and he has written poems for each of his six grandchildren - despite humorously threatening to resign from the post of grandfather-laureate unless a little girl came along, which luckily she did.
He describes how he has been 'dumbfounded by the depths of the tenderness' he feels for these children, and the poems themselves reflect that deep, wondering love, without mawkishness or sentimentality.
But Longley's great heart extends to many other creatures and people and places, from the wild animals of Carrigskeewaun in his beloved County Mayo to his late friend, the artist Gerard Dillon. Remembering how Dillon used to paint on the blinds of his little terraced house in Belfast, making the house a marvel at night when the gas lamps were turned on, Longley muses, 'I don't think I've known anyone who mattered more to me.'
Reading a poem about his father, Longley says he is thinking of Ronan Kerr, the police officer 'murdered by banal thugs a few weeks ago.' Longley has never shied away from his responsibilities as a Northern Irish poet.
In the past, he has said that 'though the poet’s first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations - and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively.'
In that spirit, he reads 'The Ice-Cream Man', the poem he wrote for his daughter when the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road was murdered during the Troubles, reciting the names of the wildflowers of the Burren – 'thyme, valerian, loosestrife, meadowsweet, tayblade …' - as a powerful litany against the forces of death and hatred.
As Derek Mahon wrote of Louis MacNeice, he brings 'the all-clear to the empty holes of spring, / Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new.' The same is true of Longley. His words form the antidote to everything that is crass and ignoble and deadly about this country; they are a choice in favour of beauty and life.
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