The Poet Speaks

Some comments by Michael Longley on his own poetry.





Topics Discussed
His Own Poetry His Father Mayo and Nature
Homer Love War


On his Poetry

If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.

I freeze frame moments, like a painter.

I have written a few inadequate elegies out of my bewilderment and despair. I offer them as wreaths. That is all.

I fight all the way for balance.

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.

I would insist that poetry is a normal human activity and its proper concern all the things that happen to people.

The patterns of poetry are a way of finding, echoing mirrored shapes in patterns in the world around us.

Poetry's origins are in ceremony. Poetry commemorates.

The major task for the poet is to find fresh rhythms. To make fresh music and not to repeat himself or anybody else for that matter, and the only way one is going to find new vital rhythms is being vital and alive and alert and responsive oneself. To live life with all of one’s pores open.

And that, you see, is what the art I love the most does - it transforms the everyday and shows the divine, something divine in everyday objects.

I'm interested in decorum and manners, and I think that form in poetry is a kind of decorum.

So much contemporary poetry lacks propulsion. It's a tedium of staccato stutters - oblivious to the complexities that can be created by angled clauses. In poetry a sentence can be made to do far more than in prose. A long sentence need not be a mere container. Rather, its facets and angles imply everything that cannot be contained. Yeats said: "As I altered my syntax, I altered my thoughts."

If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain.

Anyone who begins a sentence "As a poet I" is probably not a poet. It's like calling yourself a saint. It's what I most want to be. Since I favour intensity of utterance and formal compression, you could say that I am trying to be a lyric poet.

Yes, the poet is musarum sacerdos, priest of the muses, or he is nothing. With its deepest roots in ceremony, poetry is sacerdotal: it commemorates and celebrates.

I live for those moments when language takes over the enterprise, and insight races ahead of knowledge. Occasionally I have things to say, or there is something I want to describe. But these are not my main reasons for writing.

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On his Father

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?

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.

I was able to express my feelings of tenderness for my father through Laertes.

My father was a representative of a generation, the remnants of a generation that survived that nightmare of the First World War.

Somehow, my father's existence, and his experience, the stories he passed on to me, gave me a kind of taproot into the war.

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On Mayo and Nature

Carrigskeewaun changed my life radically. It changed my poetry.

I fell in love with Carrigskeewaun the first time I saw it more than thirty years ago from the turn in the road above Thallabaun - the great sandy arena with its meandering channel, the dunes, the duach, the cottage and its stony fields against the backdrop of Mweelra. I'm still only scratching the surface. Carrigskeewaun provides me with the template for experiencing all other places and keeps me sensitive, I hope, to the nuances of locality.

The most urgent political problems are ecological: how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals. My nature writing is my most political. In my Mayo poems I am not trying to escape from political violence. I want the light from Carrigskeewaun to irradiate the northern darkness. Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.

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.

...the purgatory of the windy gaps.

Carrigskeewaun is unbelievably beautiful, it's the most magical place in the world for me. It's the Garden of Eden and I often think about it. If I am depressed I go for a walk in my mind up the path to the cottage around the little ruined out houses and I stand taking in the view even though I am in Belfast or London or New York.

As soon as I had learned to talk I had this urge to know the names of the flowers and the insects in our suburban garden, and in a way that urge has stayed with me.

I'm Irish, inasmuch as Ireland has provided me with most of the data out of which I make sense of experience and I feel most at home in Ireland.

...the violence which lurks under the apparently peaceful surface of our civilisation.

My poems about the west of Ireland are meant to refract my concern for what's happening at the other end of my island - that is, in Ulster.

I have been going with my wife and children (and now grandchildren) to Carrigskeewaun for more than thirty years. It opens my eyes and keeps me alert, I hope, to the nuances of locality. I view all other places through the Mayo lens.


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On Homer

I am walking backwards into the future like a Greek.

What Homer did for me was open up areas of my own experience which I found difficult to write about hitherto.

I have snatched from the narrative flow moments of lyric intensity in which to echo my own concerns, both personal and political.

Moments in the Odyssey chimed with emotions that I would have found almost impossible to deal with otherwise: heartbreak, paranoia, bitterness, hatred, fear. Homer gave me a new emotional and psychological vocabulary.

I read Homer at school and was taught by W.B. Stanford, a great Homeric scholar, at Trinity. I didn't work very hard as a classicist. I spent more time exploring Dublin and James Joyce. I was inhaling Ulysses and got some early sense of Homer from him and from Bloom's wanderings.

I try very hard to capture in English that's alive the texture and feel of the Greek.

In middle age I rediscovered Homer and, a little later, Ovid.
Passages in the Odyssey enabled me to write belated lamentations for my parents and to broach nightmarish aspects of the Troubles. The Iliad is the greatest poem about war and death. Deep emotion and intellectual excitement draw me to certain passages which I feel compelled to respond to
in an English version that “feels” like Homer (or Ovid).

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On Love

...the love poem is the most important thing I do - the hub of the wheel is love - love of a person, love of Ireland, love of Japan or Italy, love of music.

Generally I approach love poetry as another way of looking at the wide world. The "you" and "I" are like two posts holding up a clothes-line. Any image can be hung out there to dry - everything except your dirty washing.

I suppose that my love poetry is addressed to what I grandiosely call the female principle...

The central experiences in my life have been marriage and fatherhood and a few lasting friendships...

My concerns continue to be Eros and Thanatos, the traditional subject-matter of the lyric.

I still think that love poetry is of crucial importance, it seems to me to be at the centre of the enterprise.


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On War

…I do believe that poetry is about all of those things that happened to people and war is one of the most huge and one of the most horrible things that happens to millions of people.

Somehow, my father's existence, and his experience, the stories he passed on to me, gave me a kind of taproot into the war.

My father was a representative of a generation, the remnants of a generation that survived that nightmare of the First World War.

And in reality some of the time I feel British and some of the time I feel Irish. But most of the time I feel neither and the marvellous thing about the Good Friday agreement was that it allowed me to feel more of each if I wanted to.

I’m obsessed with the Great War – it really did shape a literary generation.



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© The photograph on this page was taken by Robert Simko in October 1995.








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Michael Longley

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Michael Longley