Michael Longley: ‘Brexit is a monumental disaster promoted by bare-faced lies’

Q&A: The poet reflects on his latest collection, The Slain Birds, and his literary life

Tell me about your latest collection, The Slain Birds. What were its various influences and inspirations?

I have no idea where poems come from. They certainly can’t be willed into existence. Probably lockdown-induced concentration played a part, as well as environmental anxiety, the Mayo landscape, my obsession with birds and of course Dylan Thomas’s genius-line “for the sake of the souls of the slain birds sailing”.

Nature and violence appear to loom large, not least in the title. Would it be fair to say they are recurring themes in your life’s work?

I have been writing about animals all my life, about “nature red in tooth and claw”, about the violence humans inflict on the natural world (of which we are a part). I think my nature poems are my most political. The Slain Birds, like previous collections, also contains poems about the Holocaust and the Great War in which my father fought as a boy-soldier.


A Lifetime’s Reading and Reckoning: the headline on your review of critic Patricia Craig’s Kilclief in The Irish Times last year could just as easily have referred to you, for it marked your seventh decade reviewing for The Irish Times. Your first review was on June 1st, 1963. Your first of many poems in the paper was on February 10th, 1962. What has this long association meant to you? And would you care to reflect on what you feel have been the literary highlights in that time?

When I began writing poetry as an undergraduate at TCD, Terence de Vere White was the Literary Editor of The Irish Times. He was first to publish me (£5 for a poem called The Flying Fish), and he took me on as an opinionated apprentice poetry-reviewer. Highlights would include my writing reviews of Seamus Heaney’s and Derek Mahon’s first collections. He took a real interest in our work and made room for us.

You recently won the Feltrinelli Poetry Prize, the latest of many awards. What value do you place on prizes? More vulgarly, how will you spend the €250,000?

I disapprove of literary prizes – until I win one! The Feltrinelli Prize came out of the blue and mercifully without the usual shortlisting circus. It matters to me that it is international and awarded only every five years – and awarded by Italy, a country I love. It comes at a good time for this octogenarian. My children and grandchildren will be the chief beneficiaries, I guess.

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Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage?

Edna and I have been on six pilgrimages to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Great War in France and Belgium. We have stood in sorrowful bewilderment at the graves of Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and Francis Ledwidge. The whole landscape is a cemetery.

What is the best writing advice you have heard? Or, what advice would you give to your younger writing self?

Forget about reputation. John Hewitt once said to me: “If you write poetry it’s your own fault.” And Plato says in the Crito Kala ta Chalepa – the beautiful things are difficult.

Which of your books are you proudest of, and why?

You’re not supposed to have a favourite child, but I always care most intensely for the newest arrival – now, The Slain Birds. I hope it shows that I am still haunted by themes and images from the earliest days, that the well is deep.

Whom do you admire the most?

Edward Thomas and WB Yeats would be my desert island poets. DH Lawrence’s poetry means more and more to me.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I would erase Brexit: a monumental disaster promoted by barefaced lies and frivolous politics.

What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

The BBC’s Promenade Concerts are a cultural Everest which even Pericles would have envied. I listen to Radio 3 all the time.

Which public event affected you most?

The Good Friday Agreement. It allowed me to feel both Irish and British (and neither).

The most remarkable place you have visited?

New Orleans. I have loved jazz since my teenage years. Born out of slavery’s evil, its redemptive radiance is more than we deserve.

Your most treasured possession?

My father’s compass which survived the trenches of the Great War.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

Any one of the five chapbooks on which I have collaborated with my painter daughter Sarah.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Homer, Sappho, Edward Thomas, WB Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Emily Dickinson, Edna O’Brien.

The best and worst things about where you live?

Belfast is a witty, self-renewing place. Unfortunately, the Irish Sea separates me from Scottish and English friends and from family members.

What is your favourite quotation?

John Clare: “Poets love nature and themselves are love”.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Any one of Jean Rhys’s heartbreaking heroines.

A book to make me laugh?

Anything by Flann O’Brien.

A book that might move me to tears?

If This is a Man, Primo Levi’s devastating Auschwitz memoir.

Michael Longley’s new poetry collection, The Slain Birds, is published by Jonathan Cape

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times