'I wish I could appear more tormented, more Byronic'

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: MICHAEL LONGLEY:Beyond the benign persona of the domesticated poet is a voice of formidable commitment and determination who is prepared to battle for what he believes in, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

THE MAN in the navy coat is looking furtively about him. His companion, an irritated-looking terrier-type dog intent on lifting a leg against the shiny red mailbox, is pulling against the frayed leash. The man wants to walk on; the dog wants to pee against the metal box. The same structure, “a pillar box”, had featured in poet Michael Longley’s elaborate directions. It is the landmark – find the red pillar box and you have found his house, just off the Lisburn Road, Belfast, in a calm, leafy suburb touched by a tentative hint of rain.

“Your Spanish omelette will be cold,” he warned – but it wasn’t.

Longley, who has just completed his three-year stint as Ireland Professor of Poetry, has the gift of making a visitor feel immediately at home. His conversations begin as if they are merely completing a sentence, even if he hasn’t seen you for a week or a year.

Friends, family, books, a movie, the Co Mayo coastline, populate the rich asides and cross-references. His sensitive, subversive mind must be an exciting place to inhabit.

“Aren’t cats just wonderful creatures,” he says, pointing to the several family pets immortalised in a lively painting on the wall above the kitchen table. The picture is the work of his artist daughter, Sarah, whose paintings and drawings, lush and exuberant, decorate the house.

“We live in Sarah Longley’s art gallery,” remarks Edna Longley as she crosses the hall.

The picture on the kitchen wall is a celebration of Longley’s life, and was painted for the Longleys’ 40th wedding anniversary in 2004. It is an assembly of small scenes: the three children, the grandchildren, scenes of Longley in the countryside, and a moment frozen in time, the day Michael Longley, student, fell in love with Edna Broderick, scholar. They are sitting at desks; the smitten Longley gazes at his beloved, hearts floating around his head. She has a cold. In a place of honour are the many cats.

“Every one we’ve had came to us to be rescued,” says Longley, pointing to an elegant brown shape. “He was a Burmese. I loved him. He was with us for five or six years, but he was older than we had first thought. I remember the day he came to us . . .”

Even a passing remark uttered by Longley contains a story. He is a terrific storyteller, possesses an instinctive sense of narrative and understands the vast history of a life, be it that of a man or a cat.

On cue, their cat walks in; a large, fluffy female. She surveys the kitchen.

“Have you seen Up?” Longley asks. “Isn’t that the most marvellous portrayal of a dog?” The dog-lover in me tenses slightly, as Doug (in the film) is abject, servile and none too bright – but Longley quickly adds how much he would have liked to have had a dog. He is, however, a cat person and admits to being able to watch them for hours.

“They’re very opinionated, you know,” he says, and he stretches like a cat and his face assumes a quizzical expression.

He has been working on a new collection, A Hundred Doors, due to be published next year. It is dominated by beautiful poems addressed to his grandchildren – “I want them to remember me” – elegies and meditations on death. “It’s almost finished, there’s maybe four or five poems and then it’s done,” he says. “You get that feeling, you know they’re there and they will come.”

He sighs. He sighs often. It is a sigh of realisation – Longley is alive to the moment, he sees the wonder in the ordinary. The simplest thing intrigues as much as the most profound. His poetry is both vocation and art:

Forty years I’ve been at this, working hard,

A poetic pro, no longer the neophyte.

I’m standing near the metal worker’s yard

And can’t find the words for this starry night.

Fragment, from The Weather in Japan(2000)

It is not a hobby. He knows this, yet succeeds in allowing his own playful personality to stand between the world and his art.

“You take your poems seriously,” he said in 2006, “but you don’t take yourself seriously. What the muse hates more than anything is self-importance.”

So here he is, one of the major poets of our time, a great poet, “haunted by Homer for fifty years”, who slowly sits down, admitting openly to often feeling tired. “It’s the diabetes, it’s . . .”

He pulls a face, making it clear that he doesn’t like it. He is not so keen on being 70 either and wonders where the time has gone. “The other day we were talking about something and Edna said: ‘Was that 10 years ago?’ You wonder how it goes by so fast.”

Longley is consummately human, he will tell you how he actually feels. If he is annoyed, he shows it. His sense of justice makes him a formidable voice and a champion who will go into battle.

His Homeric voice has plotted the story of the Northern conflict. Ceasefire, first published in the books pages of The Irish Timesin the summer of 1994, seemed almost prophetic: “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/ And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.”

It was Longley who made a case for the classics at Queen’s University. “The so-called academic planners who would close down Latin and Greek are wiping out a crucial part of the map by which we know ourselves and find the way,” he argued recently. “Have the barbarians arrived? Yes. But worse, they are in charge.”

He defends fellow writers and campaigned against the interpretative centre at Mullaghmore in the Burren, a landscape he loves. Behind the soft, fatherly, now grandfatherly image lies a determined character who survived the politics of the Northern Ireland Arts Council.

“I have many dear male friends, but I’ve always preferred women,” he says. He is most obviously a woman’s man, kindly and funny, very direct. “I enjoy a bit of gossip.”

Although there is no performance and, as he agrees, “interviews are a bit ridiculous, artificial, yet they can be useful for setting the record straight, but you know all this, I told you it before”, he enjoys playing the slightly absent-minded dreamer. This persona is the perfect foil to shy, intense Edna Longley, professor emerita at Queen’s University and an internationally respected literary critic, whom he married in 1964.

“She has many important things to say that should be heard,” he says, aware that she should have a higher profile in the South. He is proud of her and recalls the day when his friend, poet Paul Muldoon, in the middle of a sentence, broke off and remarked that her annotated anthology of war poet Edward Thomas “was ‘a bloody great book’ – which it is”. It was recently re-issued, and Longley eases carefully up out of his chair to fetch a copy. He says wistfully of Thomas: “The war made him a poet – he wrote a lifetime’s work in two and a half years.”

The Great War, always the Great War. It is a major theme in Longley’s poetry. His father fought in it, and won the Military Cross. He never spoke about it, but was hero material: handsome, jolly and not obviously scarred by the experience. Fathers and sons recur in Longley’s poetry, often as classical figures. The poet recalls his father once showing him the gas-burns on his shoulders. He was close to his father?

“Yes, but I am closer to his memory,” says Longley with some regret, praising his father’s “secret heroism”. His father’s presence is a constant in the poems:

I waken you out of your nightmare as I wakened

My father when he was stabbing a tubby German

Who pleaded and wriggled in the back bedroom.

He had killed him in real life.

The Kilt,

from The Ghost Orchid(1995)

Longley senior volunteered for action when the second World War was declared, starting all over again as a private.

“I’m obsessed with the Great War – it really did shape a literary generation,” says Longley.

It produced great poets but also some fine fiction, such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first part of her Ghost Road trilogy – “yes and Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way; I loved that book”.

MICHAEL LONGLEY WASborn in Belfast in July 1939, the son of English parents who had left London’s Clapham Common 12 years earlier to settle in Belfast. Almost a decade after giving birth to a daughter, Wendy, Longley’s troubled mother, Constance, had twin boys, Peter and Michael. The twins eventually became known as The Boys. Years later, when she was dying, she admitted to Longley that she had tried to abort the babies.

The story made him empathise with her. His childhood was dominated by his love for Lena, the Fermanagh girl who minded him. Growing up as the son of English parents compelled him to “recreate” himself twice a day, between school and home. Always an outsider, who has had to work at realising his Ireland, he negotiated the two traditions.

Nevertheless he grew up as a middle-class Protestant in Balmoral Avenue, about a mile from where he now lives. The house, built in 1919, is comfortable, not lavish, but solid, loved, full of books and pictures, the memorabilia of lives interested in and connected to the arts.

“Have you seen this?” he asks, handing me a volume. It looks like a book of poetry but is an engaging Festschrift, honouring Longley at 70 and edited by his poetry editor, Scottish poet Robin Robertson. It describes itself as a celebration of the celebrant, and Longley is that – he celebrates the beauty in life, love and nature.

In the sitting room, the music is stacked: classical on one side, jazz on the other. “I listen to music every day,” he says. “At the moment it’s Glenn Gould, Bach. I love Bach. Chopin, Schubert . . . I used to love Beethoven more than I do now. I think it’s because I listened to him so much when I was young and didn’t know enough about music to appreciate what I was listening to.”

Longley the schoolboy responded to nature and, although a city boy, it only took five or 10 minutes on his Hercules bike to get him to the Lagan towpath and the countryside. He taught himself the names of the wildflowers – “I got teased about that” – and all his life he has had to know the names of plants and birds. What is the poetic impulse?

“I think it is a heightened sensitivity. You see things, or feel them, and have to respond,” he says, then smiles. “I wish I could appear more tormented, more Byronic, but . . .” He waves his elegant hands and looks happy with his lot in life.

But there is a great deal to Longley. He is a committed artist, a master of form who merges lyric grace with profound truth. Too honest to pretend to have forgotten his outrage when he was described, or more accurately dismissed, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, as having “more in common with the semi-detached suburban muse of Philip Larkin and postwar England than with Heaney or Montague”, he still grimaces at the memory of it. “It was very unfair,” he says.

It was also wrong. He had been described as a British postmodernist, but Longley knows that he is an Irish poet, “not even an Ulster poet, but an Irish poet – or simply a poet”.

His concept of history owes far more to the natural world of birds and animals, flora and landscape, than it does to politics. A squirrel darts across the garden. “Ah yes, him, he lives here,” says Longley.

Is life better in the North at the moment? Longley, who has always been open in commenting on the madness and what he has referred to as the tribal choreography, pauses and says with weary irony: “At least we’re not killing each other.”

Influenced by Auden, John Clare, Keats, Edward Thomas and the war poets, but also by Louis MacNeice, as well as Homer and Ovid, his first four collections – No Continuing City (1969), An Exploded View (1973), Man Lying on a Wall (1976)and The Echo Gate (1979)– established him as a love poet. He laughs at how it all began. As an aspiring poet, he had a thorn in his side, the even younger Derek Mahon, who, like Longley, attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Longley had been dabbling tentatively in poetry; Mahon, small, confident and driven, was also publishing accomplished verse in School News. Longley was writing prose pieces.

Off he went to Trinity in 1958. Why not Queen’s? “The classics department in Trinity was far superior. There was also the appeal of going ‘down there’. It was an adventure,” he says.

Just as Longley was beginning to settle into being a romantic figure – good-looking, charming, the college poet – along came Mahon. It was 1960, and Mahon walked up and asked, “are you Longley?”. Prepared to hear his work praised, Longley instead heard Mahon ask to borrow his typewriter. It is a great image, of the two young poets taking their first steps.

Flash forward a few years, and there is another young Northern poet, though this time a bit different. Instead of being a middle-class Belfast Protestant, Seamus Heaney is the son of a Catholic farmer from Co Derry. The three poets go and stand at the graveside of Louis MacNeice. Elegies are vowed to be written and the one that first appeared, Derek Mahon’s In Carrowdore Churchyard, is so definitive that the other two decide not to compete.

More than 40 years later, on September 15th 2007, as part of a conference celebrating the centenary of MacNeice’s birth, two of the three poets stood at the graveside again. Heaney and Longley had returned. Mahon did not arrive, “so I read the poem”, recalls Longley.

The conversation moves on. Many of the friends Longley mentions are now dead, such as his friend, Helen Lewis, the remarkable Czech who had survived the Holocaust and who, at Longley’s urging, wrote the memoir, A Time to Speak. “She died on New Year’s Eve. She wanted to go, she had had enough. It was snowing. It was a perfect moment to die. I miss her.”

His memories of another friend, artist Raymond Piper, are tender and moving. Describing how they hunted for orchids together, “he was the orchid man and, you know” – Longley’s face brightens – “I would love to see Raymond’s orchid paintings gathered together and put on permanent display in the Linen Hall Library. I also love the work of Susan Sex. These are great artists and they should be honoured, and Wendy Walsh. Beautiful, beautiful work.”

A vivid triptych is currently hanging in the Longley dining room. It is one of Sarah’s works. “I’m going to donate it to the Mater Hospital,” says Longley.

The three children, Rebecca, Daniel and Sarah, all have children now. On the day we sit in the kitchen there are five grandchildren, “with another one just about due”, according to Edna.

The next day, the sixth swan arrives. “I’ve written a poem for Maisie,” says Longley, “Sarah’s Maisie.”

While listening to some Chopin he had become aware of a strange sound. “I knew it wasn’t the CD.” It was my phone. He met me in a hotel outside Newry and wrote his new poem for Maisie into the proof copy of his new collection.

What makes a poet? “Well, I think poems are written by young men who are dreaming and by old men who have lived; the men in between are busy surviving and worrying.” He smiles the smile that says much of his middle years were spent in the toughest period of his Arts Council career, an experience that was only fully banished with the publication of Gorse Fires,the collection that broke a 12-year silence.

“I was writing all the time, but not publishing. It’s important to write a poem when it’s ready,” he says. “I was once on a train and a poem was starting to come. But people were speaking to me. I wasn’t really listening. When I got home, the poem wrote itself.”

BORN

Belfast, July 27th, 1939

EDUCATION

Royal Belfast Academical Institution, then read classics at Trinity College Dublin

FAMILY

Three children – Rebecca, Daniel and Sarah – with his wife, Edna

DEFINING MOMENT

Gorse Fires, published in 1991 after a 12-year silence, won the Whitbread Poetry Prize and consolidated his place as one of Ireland’s greatest poets