Michael Longley

The Belfast poet contemplates mortality at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Anyone who has had enough of the crowds, the chaos and resultant fatigue of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August should seek out Charlotte Square Gardens.

The Spiegeltent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is the perfect place to spend a relaxed, cosy and comforting hour listening to the likes of Michael Longley read from his work over coffee and croissants.

Longley visibly enjoys his visit to the book festival, cheekily peeking under and around the speakers that obscure his audience’s eyeline of the stage. He knows his audience too, and opens with a few Scottish-inspired poems from his newest collection, A Hundred Doors. He is particularly influenced by the coastal islands such as the Orkney Islands, Shetland and the Hebrides.

‘Whalsay’ is a salute to the Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who lived on the island from 1933 to 1942. ‘On the Shetlands’ is an acknowledgment to a ‘hobbling, diminutive Pegasus’ which Longley stumbles across on his travels there, an iconic Shetland pony.

A Hundred Doors revisits familiar Longley themes, such as his cottage retreat at Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo, birds and wildlife like curlews and pipistrelles, with a peppering of classical references popping up throughout.

But the over-arching theme focused on at this event is Longley’s own place in the cycle of life. He returns time and again to the era that he most associates with his father, World War I, and as a famed elegist Longley’s poetry touches on the subject of death frequently.

It’s familiar ground for anyone who attended the poetry reading given by Longley’s Belfast Group contemporary, Seamus Heaney, in Edinburgh last year. His parents’ lives and dedications to his grandchildren were strong themes in Heaney’s The Human Chain too.

It could be said that ‘the human chain’ is also a timely preoccupation of Longley’s. He is concerned with ancestors, descendants and the temporality of passing generations.

Perhaps the most overt reference to a sense of the poet’s personal contemplation on mortality is ‘The Lifeboat’, where the poet envisages his own death on a bar stool, ‘head in hand, without a murmur’, as pub manager Charlie Gaffney pulls Longley his last ‘pluperfect pint’. As it turns out, this is an elegy to Charlie, for it is he who has died.

Longley’s father signed up to fight in World War I at the age of 16, and by 20 had been made a captain and awarded the military cross. Longley reads from ‘Citation’, a poem partly made up from the exact wording of his father’s citation as it appeared in The Times in 1918.

The poet’s awareness of his father’s bravery and his awe and gratitude towards him is powerfully conveyed: ‘Kept alive by his war cry and momentum / I shiver behind him on the firestep.'

Other poems from the new collection that show the poet’s interest in the Great War are merely a few lines long. ‘Volunteer’, ‘Trenchfoot’, ‘Vimy Ridge’ and ‘Into Battle’ are all so short that Longley tells us they all fit together on the same page.

He talks about the increasing brevity of his poetry, what he calls a developed ‘compression and condensation’. Referring to both his physical and professional longevity, Longley jokingly says, ‘When I write a poem that reaches the top of the next page, I feel like going to bed for a couple of hours.'

The most tender moments of this very matter-of-fact acceptance of the beginning and endings of the life cycle emerge from the poems dedicated to his grandchildren, which he describes as being ‘central’ to A Hundred Doors. There are many to choose from; ‘The Leveret’ is for Benjamin, ‘Lullaby’ is for Eddie.

Longley’s delight when reading these poems is contagious. They are straightforward poems of joy and love, perhaps more sentimental than some of his other pieces. They contribute to the warm atmosphere of the event, allowing us the audience to share in the obvious pleasure of a grandfather’s tales of the new youngsters in his life.

‘A Mobile for Maisie’ best demonstrates the life link between generations, her mobile likened to a ‘Carrick-a-rede bridge that stretches far back’. The poet’s grandchildren are clearly a rich source for further inspiration, and we hear a preview of the first poem that Longley hopes to include in his next collection, ‘Maisie at Dawn’.

The event closes with a few questions from the audience, and we return again to the subject of the pithiness of Longley’s later poetry. Longley defends the brevity of his work beautifully: 'If prose is like beer, poetry is like whiskey: and there's something quite off-putting about a pint of whiskey.'