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Michael Longley: A Biography


A brief account of the life and works

 
     

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Poet Michael Longley was born in the suburbs of Belfast on 27th of July 1939 to London parents who had settled in the city in 1927. His early background is well described in the autobiographical chapters of Tuppenny Stung (1994) where we read of his childhood: his twin brother, Peter, and his sister, Wendy; his mother's volcanic temperament and its influence on the household; his father's wartime experiences and peacetime activities; his primary education in a city ravaged by sectarianism; his grammar school education with its lack of Irish history on the curriculum. His background was non-literary; he has spoken of the "consternation and embarrassment at home" when he chose Yeats's Collected Poems as a school prize in his teens.

In 1958 he went to Trinity College in Dublin to study classics where he found "my already half-hearted hold on Latin and Greek was further enfeebled by a now all-consuming desire to write poetry." After college he worked as a teacher in Dublin, London and Belfast. Back in his native city, he became a member of Philip Hobsbaum's famous "Group" of poets which included Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and James Simmons. It was there he formulated the aesthetic which was to characterise all his work: "I believed that poetry should be polished, metrical and rhymed; oblique rather than head-on; imagistic and symbolic rather than rawly factual; rhetorical rather than documentary." These ideas were expressed more bitingly, recently, when he observed, "If many of the talented careless folk who call themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they would be dead."

And this concern with craft, technique and formal assurance was evident from the beginning of his publishing career which, in Longley's case, was a slim collection entitled No Continuing City (1969). In his debut collection, poems which express a deep and far-from-sentimental love of nature merge with poems which explore the complex nature of human love. And dominating these poems is the formal precision of Longley's art. "I fight all the way for balance." What is insisted on, in the style of this poetry, is the capacity of art to formalise the feelings engaged and thereby to communicate their force. A poem about Emily Dickinson comments on her "dressing with care for the act of poetry." Longley's poems, in this first volume, are well-dressed, sometimes even fashionably so, but the cut of the cloth can, on occasions conceal the paucity of the material. Some of the poems, in other words, are merely clever or, as Thomas McCarthy put it more trenchantly, "idiotic verseplay".

Yet, towards the end of this carefully ordered collection, the poems become more sombre as they explore themes of death, madness, isolation and war. Here the formal assurance is put to chilling effect. One poem in particular, an elegy for his father, Richard Longley, a veteran of the First World War, has a depth and a sympathetic imaginative understanding which raises it far above the other poems in the book. "In Memoriam" mixes memory and desire, nostalgia and love, in stanzas where the formality of the feelings are an aid to, rather than a avoidance of, the clear expression of deeply felt emotions. Longley is often at his best when writing about his father who "died in 1960 when I was twenty and too young to appreciate his strengths or understand his weaknesses." Being personally engaged is what gives the poems their power.

This personal engagement broadens in his second collection An Exploded View (1973) to encompass a more public response to the exploded myth of Northern stability. By this time Longley was living in Belfast and working for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland which he joined in 1970 and where he remained until his retirement in 1991. Inspired and intimidated by "the stereophonic nightmare / Of the Shankill and the Falls," many of the poems are an attempt to reflect first a provincial, then a national identity. "We are trying to make ourselves heard," he writes and the plural pronoun acknowledges a group effort to write poetry while "our province reels."

Other poems attempt other options, particularly an increasing fascination with the Irish landscape and the lore associated with it. What he writes of one poem, "Poteen" - "it speaks of the violence which lurks under the apparently peaceful surface of our civilised life" - could be related to many. The best poems build on that obsessive concern with love and death so craftily pursued in his first collection. Two, in particular, stand out: "Swans Mating", another love poem, where the natural world provides images to reflect the contiguity of the human world; and the celebrated "Wounds", another elegy for his father, where Longley's uncanny ability to note the gruesome banality of death is given a tragic pathos. The technique of linking his father's war experiences to the "troubles" in the North was one Longley constantly refined: "the fact that my father was a soldier, for instance, in both World Wars led me to ask the simple question: if he were alive now, what on earth would he make of the Troubles?"

A third collection Man Lying on a Wall (1976) continued Longley's exploration of conjugal love but with a more circumspect and self-conscious awareness of its place in the artistic process. Another significant theme - Longley's attachment to the West of Ireland - is developed in this collection. With his family, he had begun to spend many holidays in Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo. "Carrigskeewaun changed my life radically. It changed my poetry." Discussing this in an interview with Clive Wilmer, he said, "When I go to the West of Ireland I don't go there to have colourful talk with the natives. I go there to look at birds and flowers and the beautiful countryside....I think our relationship with the natural world and with the plants and animals is the major issue now."

His next collection The Echo Gate (1979) celebrates the power of the imagination to animate and integrate the natural world by creating, sustaining and suspending it in sound: "I slow down the waterfall to a chandelier." There is a deep well-spring of imaginative sympathy for the human condition at its most desolate extremes. That desolation is given its finest expression in the book's masterpiece, "Mayo Monologues", a gaunt, unsparing rendition, in four superb monologues in blank verse, of the great hunger of an impoverished peasantry smouldering fitfully in the "purgatory of the windy gaps." As Longley put it correctly, "This is poetry as plain as it gets."

That desolation is also evident in the treatment of war. Longley is, in many respects, a war poet and two wars dominate the poems in this collection: the First World War, in which his father fought, and the sectarian war conducted on the streets of his native city, Belfast. In him, as in Wilfred Owen, the poetry is the pity. It is also the imaginative power with which he confronts violence. Writing about "Wreaths", one of the best of these poems, he has said, "You have got to bring your personal sorrow to the public utterance. Otherwise you are in deadly danger of regarding the agony of others as raw material for your art, and your art as a solace for them in their suffering. Atrocities of the mind." The other side of that coin is a longing for peace, a sentiment that is treated in a plaintive yet playful manner in a loose adaptation of a poem from Tibullus entitled, quite simply, "Peace":

But punch-ups,
Physical violence, are out, you might as well
Pack your kit-bag, goose-step a thousand miles away
From the female sex. As for me, I want a woman
To come and fondle my ears of wheat and let apples
Overflow between her breasts. I shall call her Peace.

The eighties were a bleak period for Longley. He published no new work for almost twelve years. "I thought I was finished. I didn't think I was going to write any more poetry and it was like having an enormous itch which I couldn't scratch." However, that drought ended with the publication of Gorse Fires (1991) which won the 1991 Whitbread Poetry Award. A new strain enters the poetry as seven distinct adaptations from Homer's Odyssey enable Longley to pursue familiar themes in a new and classical light. The book was "a belated lamentation for my mother and father. I was able to express my feelings of tenderness for my father through Laertes and Odysseus." The poem "Laertes" is another typical tour-de-force, "a mixture of lines freely translated from Homer - all in one sentence to try and get the headlong emotion." The love theme is well represented by "An Amish Rug", the war theme by poems on the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust and an over-riding theme of homecoming reaches its finest expression in a plangent and precise account of the route for his funeral procession, "Detour". The autobiographical themes evident in the poetry were augmented for the general reader by the publication of a Tuppenny Stung (1994) a collection of prose reminiscences that ends with a poem beginning "I am walking backwards into the future like a Greek."

The Greek influence is evident again in The Ghost Orchard (1995) with its continuing echoes of Homeric epics. ("What Homer did for me was open up areas of my own experience which I found difficult to write about hitherto.") The most celebrated poem in the collection has become "Ceasefire" a transposition of a large swathe of book 24 of the Iliad into a sonnet which was first printed in the Irish Times two days after an IRA ceasefire was announced. But this is far from being a one poem book. An interest in Japanese culture leads to many brief delicate imagist poems, the poetic equivalent of water colours or perhaps pastels. The craft may have become terse but the vibrancy and the humour is still as powerful as before.

A later collection, developing these themes, The Weather in Japan (2000), won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Hawthornden Prize and the Irish Times Poetry Prize. Fellow Northern poet Paul Muldoon wrote of that collection: "These are poems which at first glance may seem small-scale, but which always expand our sense of history, be it of ancient Greece, Second World War Germany or Northern Ireland. Longley is a skilled lyric poet of compassion and grace." Many of the themes dealt with in the prescribed poems on the right hand side of this page are revisited and refined. The image of the patchwork product, first introduced in "An Amish Rug", is developed in many fine poems in the collection. The flora and fauna noted in Carrigskeewaun continue to be explored in short, descriptive epiphanies with titles like "The Lapwing", "Pale Butterwort", "The Flock", The Seal", "The Fox", "The Rabbit" and "The Hare". Homeric themes are re-invigorated by being cast in a colloquial Ulster dialect. And the theme of war, past and present, particularly his father's involvement in the First World War, flits through the book like birds on a battlefield. The dominant mood is elegaic. The greengrocer, commemorated in "Wreaths", is recalled in a heartfelt plea for civilisation called "All of these People". Seventeen of the poems are elegies, mainly for friends of the poet, which were originally published in a chapbook entitled Broken Dishes (1998). One ends with a lovely line:

He is the snow poet and he keeps his snow shoes on.

That image, that impression of snow, a new dimension in Longley's poetry, is further developed in his most recent collection, Snow Water (2004) which contains, among many gems of poetic snowflake, an amazing one-line poem called "Lost": "my lost lamb lovelier than all the wool." Concision and creativity mingle in another engrossing collection of poems which endorses, in the best possible way, Longley's view of the poetic art: "I write poetry because of an inner compulsion. Deep down I believe it's very important, but I think I'm rather shy about saying how important I think it is, not just for me but as an important way for humanity to redeem itself."

In the spring of 2008, Michael Longley was appointed Ireland Professor of Poetry. In his inaugural lecture, A Jovial Hullabaloo (2008), subtitled "an autobiography in poetry," he writes movingly and entertainingly about how he discovered poetry and celebrates some of the poems and poets who have mattered to him, from childhood memories of the King James Bible, which saturated his mind with its evocative words, and the discovery, as a teenager, of Keats, de la Mare and Yeats, and then of living Irish writers such as Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice. Descriptions of his first attempts to write poetry - 'a combination of hormonal commotion and aesthetic awakening' - lead on to his meetings with Derek Mahon and Seamus Heaney, their mutual encouragement and shared interests, and to Longley's lasting enthusiasm for poetry of the past and poets of his own and younger generations. In July 2009, he celebrated his seventieth birthday and the Enitharmon Press published a Festschrift, with contributions from sixty writers and artists, a testament to his enduring popularity.


 

 

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An RTE interview, a biography and some poems