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This interview is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.in Conversation with Michael Longley
It is often observed that the number of fine poets from Northern Ireland is out of all proportion to the region's size. The achievement is sometimes credited to the Troubles: good poetry - so the argument runs - tends to emerge under pressure. Less often noticed is the fact that few of the poets concerned are political by temperament. It is the strength of Michael Longley's work, for instance, that the political enters it somewhat against the grain. Even in its absence, as in much of his most recent book Gorse Fires, it gives an edge to the personal and the particular.
That period in the 1960s when you were working with Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon: was that a very exciting time for you?
It was very exciting. Derek Mahon and I had become friends at Trinity College, Dublin, in the early 60 and were already battling with each other and showing off and flexing our muscles. Then I went back to Belfast. Philip Hobsbaum had been running 'The Group' (as it was called) for some time then and the two star-turns were Seamus Heaney and the playwright Stewart Parker. I came in rather late in the day and was immediately dismissed as a kind of campus dandy. My hero in those days was Richard Wilbur. Another was Wallace Stevens, and e.e. cummings. So I consorted rather oddly with the Seamus Heaney who was writing 'Digging' and 'Follower' and all his rather beautiful agricultural poems in the first book. But there was a great sense of competition. What Philip gave us was a sense that we weren't on our own. Belfast in those days was really something of a cultural Siberia. Philip gave us the sense that Belfast might matter and that we mattered and that poetry mattered. It was all done with enormous electrical intensity, these workshops, these discussions. The sheets were cyclostyled beforehand and you had a week or so to read the poems. When your own poems were being dissected, you went there with enormous butterflies in your stomach.
I sometimes think that you are still rather different from Seamus Heaney and that possibly you suffer a little in the comparison from your own particular virtues not being adequately recognised. It seems to me for instance that form is a much more important thing for you than for him, that it's a more absolute and final kind of thing.
I think we're both formalists. I've probably in the past carried it to greater extremes than Seamus Heaney. I think it's a very good thing for poetry that its most popular poet is such a good poet. I would hasten to add that I don't write in his shadow and, to be honest with you, that I quite like my position. I mean, if (as you imply) I am underrated, I think it's better to be underrated than overrated. I would hate to be going around thinking I was overrated. As it is, I've had far more success than I ever dreamed of when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and I regard my friendship with Heaney and with Mahon as a central part of my experience.
Longley was born in Belfast in 1939 and studied Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. He has been lucky in his friends. In Dublin he got to know Derek Mahon, a fellow-Ulsterman, and the two began discussing each other's poems. Shortly afterwards, back in Belfast, he made friends with Seamus Heaney, whom he met at a now-famous writers' workshop that was run by the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum. These literary friendships have been a vital ingredient in the growth of Longley's work.
Gorse Fires is his first book for twelve years but, in spite of the long pause, he is a poet of some substance. His Poems 1963-1983 is quite a bulky collection and maturity is the keynote to Gorse Fires: it is fluent and lyrical, yet at the same time economical. You feel he is a poet who has learnt to say only what is essential and who is quite sure of what can be left to inference.
Could you talk a little bit about the way you see form? For instance, in your new book, there are very few poems that are rhymed, and yet the poems stand on the page in a very balanced, often symmetrical manner.
I find form one of the mysteries. In my first book, which in many ways is still my favourite book, I think every line rhymes. At that stage I did enjoy taking advantage of all the things that words do: that is to say, arrange themselves in rhythmic patterns and rhyme. Part of the inspiration was in setting myself difficult tasks. I mean, when Yeats was asked where he got his ideas from, he said: 'Looking for the next rhyme'. He wasn't being altogether glib; there is some truth in that. But for some reason, I find it difficult to rhyme now. I'm interested in forms that are, if you like, more organic. I wouldn't want to think that the forms in my earlier books are inorganic but I have now to let the poems happen. There's very little deliberation in what I do. It's the difference between trimming a hedge and building a wall. I think with the earlier poems there's a certain amount of wall-building. I get a rush of feelings and emotions and I reach for the most spontaneous and natural form, but obviously old habits die hard. I write my poems out in long-hand and I think: My God. This is going to be a marvellous bit of Frank O'Hara/Raymond Carver free splodge. Then I go to the typewriter and it's the same old squares-and-oblongs (as Auden says). So I can't help it. It's obviously in my genetic make-up, that poems are for me, perhaps, still a little too tidy.
You studied Classics as a young man, didn't you? I wonder if that had anything to do with it. I notice for instance in the new book that you have a number of poems which are based on passages from the Odyssey. There's something very appropriate in this feeling of general formality with absence of rhyme.
Yes, I enjoyed Classics, although I maintained my amateur status throughout my studies and I regard myself as a lapsed classicist now. I mean, I have very little Latin and Greek, but one of the things the Classics taught me was 'the beauty of things difficult' (or whatever Yeats's phrase was): tracing a long sentence in an Aeschylean chorus, hunting around feverishly for the main verb - that sort of challenge. I think one of the things I picked up from Latin and Greek was syntax: the power of the sentence: how you can release energy by measuring the sentence against the metrical unit and that you can build up enormous pressure if you keep the sentence going on for some time. But that requires a knowledge of syntax.
Can you give an example of that?
Well, in 'Laertes' and in 'Anticlea' I have sustained the sentence from the first word right the way through. I've done it in such a way that I hope nobody will notice that that's what I've done, but that was part of the challenge. The difficult syntax of the poem was a formal substitute for the rhyme-schemes and stanzaic shapes which I used in my earlier work.
Throughout your collected poems there are intermittent love poems - very sensual, often very moving. How central are they to your whole enterprise?
If I was going to be remembered by anything, I would hope it would be by a few love poems. It seems to me the hub of what I do and, if I may pursue the wheel image, out from the hub branch the spokes of other concerns, but they're related to the love poetry: children, landscape, places I love, my friends, and so on. If I'm not writing the occasional love poem, I don't feel that I'm in top gear.
In your second book, An Exploded View, you begin to talk about public concerns - presumably under the impact of the Troubles. This was in theearly1970s, I think. Was it a deliberate decision that you made or did the political circum stances force themselves upon you?
Yes, they did force themselves upon me and my friends. The Troubles erupted in 1969 and a cry of 'Where are the War Poets?' went up. I mean: 'We've all these poets in Belfast and not one of them's mentioned the Troubles.' It took time for the raw experience of living through the Troubles to settle to an imaginative depth where they could be dealt with. We were quite self-conscious about avoiding rushing in and hitching a ride on yesterday's headlines and cashing in, as it were, on the suffering of our fellow citizens. So the poems, when they emerged - my poems, Derek Mahon's, Heaney's, Simmons's-emerged after marinading for some time. I think that's only right and proper, because a bad poem is bad enough, but a bad poem about something as big as the Troubles is an impertinence and an offence.
The whole question of how the personal and the private on the one hand relates to the public on the other is a very difficult matter. I think a lot of people don't really understand how it is that an art which can be so personal at one stage can become so public at another. That must have been very important for you throughout your career but particularly in the early seventies.
Yes, I've chosen in a way to mix the two and to feel my way into public crises by exploring private concerns. 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? And that simple question allowed me to write three or four poems, which I like to think are tactful poems. For instance our greengrocer, who happened to be a prosperous Catholic, was shot dead by UVF gunmen and I wrote an elegy for him. But I felt obliged to show it to his widow before I published it and she said that she liked it and was grateful for it. In a sense one has to do the equivalent on a larger scale with anything one writes about the troubles of one's own community.
After the period in which the Troubles featured quite prominently in your poetry, you moved into something of a silence. You haven't published a book in twelve years, and now we have this new collection Gorse Fires. Was that period of silence painful for you?
Yes, it was agony really. 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. I think most good poetry is written by young people or by old people. I think of the artists who've crowned their careers with marvellous work - like Yeats and Hardy, or in music, Janacek and Verdi. But it's the bloody middle stretch that's difficult. I mean, I was, until very recently, an officer in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and one's responsibilities are at their optimum round about middle age when one's children are growing up and one's parents and in-laws are getting older. The male meno-pause. It was an agony. With regard to the Troubles - the new book is, I suppose, relatively speaking more private. But the Troubles and my personal turmoil as a result of not being able to write and as a result of ceasing to enjoy my job - all of that suffuses the poems, even the private ones. For instance, the last poem in the book is called 'The Butchers' and it's an account of Odysseus destroying the suitors when he returns home to Ithaca. Now, one of the roots of that poem is in the kind of tacky, sticky tribal violence which we get in Northern. Ireland and, reading through that passage at the end of Odyssey, what I was reminded of was Northern Ireland and a particularly bloody case, the Shankill butchers. So it's about the Shankill butchers and it's about Northern Ireland. Even the poems about the West, the beautiful 'coast of Mayo, are meant to refract my concern for what's happening at the other end of my island.
There's an earlyish poem of yours called 'The West', which I was reminded of in reading Gorse Fires. I mean, the title reminds me of 'Western civilization' as well as 'the west of Ireland'. It seems to me that, in Gorse Fires, you are preoccupied with the idea of home - in all senses of the word: from civilization to Ireland to the house you happen to be living in.
Yes, one of the themes is home. But not in a cosy sense. Home, as you sense it, when you have a home from home, which is the West of Ireland for me. Home as one senses it reading the Odyssey: nostalgia, that marvellous word - which is misused-means the ache for the journey home and really what drives Odysseus is the urge to get home. And home, when I talk to my friend Helen Lewis in Belfast, who's a survivor of Auschwitz and who talked to me about leaving the ghetto and looking around with an hour or two to go and thinking: 'What shall I take with me? What bit of home, of my life, will I take with me?' So it's an enormous concept, 'home', and it's menaced and threatened wherever one looks.
It strikes me that some of the violence and cruelty that you're talking about, which threatens home, seems in those later poems in the book to come out of home itself. I'm thinking particularly of how Odysseus in 'The Butchers', in order to come home, has to perform these terrible acts of violence.
That's one of the terrible ironies that I'm trying to explore in the book. When the idea of home coincides with an idea of territory, when there are power struggles within home, that's when the whole thing can explode dangerously. And it's the corruption which the search for power brings about that concerns me and the way it menaces home.
So this home from home that you're talking about, this natural world, is it an innocent world?
I wish it was an innocent world. It's increasingly menaced as well. I don't quite understand why it's the West of Ireland that I use to embody my themes. I think a gap in my work is Belfast. I really just have not written about the city in which I live. Now why that should be I don't know Perhaps it's just because I find birds more inspiring than aeroplanes, and trees and shrubs more inspiring than lamp-posts and telegraph poles. Perhaps in future work I shall try to write about the streets of Belfast.
Your answer implies that it's not so much Belfast as the urban that's the problem?
Yes. I hate the term but I suppose in some ways I'm 'a nature poet'. Everyone ducks when the notion of nature poetry's mentioned, but deep down I suspect that cities will disappear. I love looking at holes in the roads when the workmen are digging up gas-pipes or whatever and you see the soil that's been buried for generations and realise that cities are as evanescent as anything else.
You're implying something about civilisation, aren't you? I think your poems are ambivalent about the whole meaning of civilisation - in the sense that civilisation depends on 'the city' and yet somehow the way we use the word 'civilised' seems to apply much better to the way we inhabit with birds and flowers.
Yes, civis meaning 'citizen' and I don't think being a citizen comes all that easily to me. When I go to the West of Ireland, I don't go there to have colourful talks with the natives. I go there to look at birds and flowers and the beautiful countryside. I am to some extent a disappointed solitary, a failed hermit. Ultimately, though I would hate to be putting over any glib green message, I think that our relationship with the natural world and with the plants and animals is the major issue now.
Why do you think it is that birds figure so prominently in your poetry?
Well, when I see birds, my heart stops and my stomach churns over. I could rationalise by saying that, as I'm an irreligious man or somebody who doesn't have any formal religion, they're a symbol for me of the human soul, of spiritual aspiration. I was amazed when I read through Gorse Fires to realise that practically every poem mentions birds. They obviously go very deep with me and perhaps it's better if I don't ask: 'Why birds?' There they are and I hope they don't fly away.
Talking of birds makes me wonder about your sense of the role of the poet. Obviously in Romantic poetry the bird to some extent stands for the poet and I don't think it would be true to say that that was the case in yours. Nevertheless, one has a feeling in some of your poems of a consciousness of what the poetic role is, sometimes a kind of scepticism. Is that something you think about a great deal?
No, I don't think about it a great deal, but I'm divided in two. Part of me believes that the poet's the shaman, the musarum sacerdos - the priest of the Muses: part of me, as well as being a failed hermit, is a failed priest. But then having gone so far I think: Come off it-this enterprise doesn't matter at all. It's completely unimportant who reads poetry.·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.
This interview was recorded in London on 23 May 1991. It was broadcast as part of the Radio 3 series, 'Poet of the Month', on 3 June 1991 and is here transcribed by kind permission of the BBC. It was edited by the producer, Fiona McLean.
This interview is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.