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Interviewing Michael Longley

Nuno Amado


Interviewing Michael Longley

Cambridge, 23rd March 2018


We met Michael Longley at Magdalene College (Cambridge University), during lunchtime. Longley had given a poetry reading the day before when he managed to make ‘everyone feel the hairs on their forearms’, which, as will be seen, is a valuable criterion for judging poetry. Whilst having a bite, we talked about orchids, long walks to see otters, poems about animals, patterns, kilts, Carrigskeewaun, and the difference between a translation and a poem. 



JF: Do you like poetry?

Like it?


JF: We always assume a person enjoys what he does, but it might not always be the case.

Well, I live for a poem. And I find it extraordinarily exciting when I discover an extraordinary poem by someone I have never heard of. I do feel that a good poem is quite a rare event. There is a kind of tsunami of mediocre poetry and it is in danger of smothering the real thing. But I think it is terribly important to think of the great poets of the past and tend to the young poets of today.


JF: Is there any young poet…?

Yes, there is a young poet in Belfast called Leontia Flynn.


JF: Oh yes, I have read her.

I think she is terrific. There is a woman from Northern England who writes in dialect called Liz Berry. I was at the Winchester poetry festival a couple of years ago and enjoyed some of the readings, but when she read… I felt the hairs on my forearm prickling and that is the only thing that matters.


JF: People often mention your classical references, but there are other references in your poems. For example, you mention Pavese.

Well, yes that is a poem called ‘Etruria’ (it is set in Tuscany). By a strange coincidence I happened to be reading a book of Italian poems in translation and I found these poems that Pavese had written in English, so it was a just a coincidence, I don’t read a lot of Pavese. There is this late 19th century, early 20th century writer called Pascoli, an Italian pastoral poet… people are rather rude about him, they say he is old-fashioned, but I think he is wonderful.

I don’t write with any pattern. Poetry is a series of accidents. I was talking to a very good Greek scholar. I was very flattered that she liked my versions of Homer. She referred to them as translations. I’m not interested in translations, I told her, I’m interested in poems.


JF: Yesterday at your reading you made that precise comment. Could you explain it better?

Well, a poem is a response to an experience. When I’m reading The Odyssey or The Iliad, which for me is our greatest poem about war and death, I come to a passage that really moves me, and that encounter is an experience which inspires a poem (rather than a mere translation). Yesterday, when I read the poems from my twenties, those slightly James Joyce versions of The Odyssey, I was just overwhelmed. I thought ‘Oh my God, those are pretty good’: ‘Your faces favourite landmarks always / Your bodies comprising the long way home’. Nowadays not many people in their twenties write like that! [Laughter]


JF: No. [Laughter]

I shouldn’t say that, should I?


JF: I can take it off, if you want. [Laughter]. People tend to ask you about Homer and The Iliad, but there are many other references in your poems: to flowers and animals, for example.

Well, it was my privilege, my good luck, to have among my friends a very great ornithologist. He is the greatest Irish ornithologist; his name is David Cabot and it’s his cottage we stay in. We have been going there since 1970. He writes for the Collins Natural History Series and his most recent book is The Burren; he wrote another called Ireland. As well as David, there was a rather eccentric botanist called Raymond Piper: he was a self-taught botanist and he travelled thousands of miles over the decades around Ireland looking for Irish orchids. It was my privilege to go with him on some of these trips, we were good friends. One afternoon in the field with David Cabot or Raymond Piper would be as good as six months or more in a library. I’m a good listener and a good thief.


JF: I also like orchids, which is perhaps why I paid attention to your poems about them.

My last poem is called ‘Wild Orchids’, I’ll send it to you.


JF: Please do.

It is a list of wild orchids and the places where I found them. I’ve seen beautiful orchids in Mayo and Clare, then in Tuscany and in Greece. Finding the flowers is more important to me than the resulting poem. Most people don’t notice the orchids; they don’t know what they are missing. I remember, even as a boy, I wanted to know the names of flowers, the garden flowers, though it’s the wild flowers I really love. I remember friends visiting us in Mayo in the cottage and asking where are all the flowers. They were surrounded by flowers! I think they were expecting gladiolas.


JF: Or roses, everybody likes roses.

[Laughter] Yes, or roses. But it’s the wild flowers that move me.


JF. What about animals and your poems about otters, but also about foxes?

Well, how many people in the world have seen an otter?


JF: Well, I’m afraid I haven’t.

Where we go is otter country, but I haven’t seen one in three years. You can hear them, though. They make a whistling noise. Well, God gets ten out of ten for the design of the otter, doesn’t he? I remember an English painter called Jeffrey Morgan, he wanted to do my portrait, so he came to stay with me at coastal Carrigskeewaun. We went for a walk along this wonderful strand, the white strand. (You can actually see it on this big satellite photograph of Ireland: you can see its shape like a fingernail). We were walking along the strand and I said: “Jeff look!” And there were dolphins surfacing out in the bay. I told him: “If you’re up for walking to the end of the strand, we’ll sit on a rock and if you’re prepared to wait for an hour or two, I know we’re going to see an otter”. So we walked, there was sand and there was wind, it was quite taxing, and we sat on these very uncomfortable rocks. We sat quietly and within ten minutes a bitch otter came up. She was as close to us as you are to me. I think she must have heard our hearts beating. Boom, boom, boom. Anyway, she lingered, we could see the sea water dripping from her whiskers, and then she left. As we stood up to stretch, a family of white swans circled overhead on their way from Iceland to Carrigskeewaun. Jeff was terribly funny, he said: “What’s next then?” [Laughter]. I was tremendously pleased that he had been there, because if I had told that story …


JF: Nobody would believe you. [Laughter]

Nobody would believe me. I was asked by one of my children: in the next life what I would I like to be and the two animals that I chose were the otter and the badger. I love the badger and I feel pained by the persecution of the badger and I tell my farmer friends that sheep and cattle give the badger tuberculosis, it is not the other way around. Squirrels are also wonderful.


The weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox

Move hand in glove across the equinox.

I can tell how softly their footsteps go -

Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.


JF: Lovely.

It’s from my first book.


JF: I know. [Laughter]

I had a cataract operation. I only had local anaesthetic and I kept saying that poem to myself.


I see as through a skylight in my brain

The mole strew its buildings in the rain,

The swallows turn above their broken homes

And all my acres in delirium.


Straightjacketed by cold and numskulled

Now sleep the well-adjusted and the skilled -

The bat folds its wing like a winter leaf,

The squirrel in its hollow holds aloof.


The weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox

Move hand in glove across the equinox.

I can tell how softly their footsteps go -

Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.


I wrote that when I was 24.


JF: You do seem to remember poems by heart.

Some of them.


JF: Only some of them?

I know them by heart in a way that if someone was reading them and they made a mistake I would know.


JF: And do you know other people’s poems by heart?

Yes. Bits and pieces of them. A bit of a poem by Heaney, “Mossbawn  Sunlight”:


And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.


I also know some Derek Mahon: there is a poem dedicated to Edna and me in his first book called “An Unborn. Child”: “I have already come to the verge of / Departure; a month or so and I shall be vacating this familiar room. (…) I begin to put on the manners of the world / Sensing the splitting light above / My head, where in silence I lie curled”. And so on. 


JF: You also have many poems about poetry itself.

One of my favourite poets when I was your age was Wallace Stevens. Most of his poems are about poetry, about writing poetry. I now find that a bit limiting, you know. I think poetry should be about everything that happens to you and me. My daughter, who is a painter, paints everything. I would like to be like Courbet: he painted seascapes and landscapes, skyscapes, nudes, portraits, still lives, animals, every damn thing.  


JF: In interviews, people frequently ask you about your poems on Ireland, but while reading your complete works I was thinking that you do write about everything, and that the poems about nature, for example, are as important as the other poems.

I think there was pressure on the poets of my generation, at the time of the Troubles, around 1969. I talked about that in the lecture I gave when I was awarded the PEN Pinter prize. The poetry of the latest atrocity. I hate that. There was awful lot of voyeuristic poetry which we dismissed as Troubles Trash. We took our time and the poems about the political situation eventually arrived. I was enabled to write some of my poems about the Troubles through a refracted view, through a lens. In 1994 there were rumours that there might be an IRA ceasefire. I thought I could make a contribution to the peace process by translating the episode of The Iliad where the old king Priam goes to visit the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of Hector whom Achilles has killed in combat. I compressed a couple of hundred lines into a sonnet about the ceasefire. It’s probably my best poem and I yet I am getting a bit fed up with it. [Laughter].


I read a poem last night which is a Troubles’ poem called ‘The Butchers’. There was this psychotic group of Protestants who roamed Belfast torturing and murdering innocent Catholics. I saw a chance to comment on that that through The Odyssey – when Odysseus slaughters the suitors and the disloyal maid servants. It’s an overwhelming episode. We were in the Mayo cottage and I had brought with me a cardboard  box of Homer books and I started around seven o’clock in the evening and I continued for twelve hours. I was shaking, you know? Something strange and frightening had happened. I woke up Edna who was asleep, and read ‘The Butchers’ to her. She told me at once that it was a terrific poem. That was one of the profoundest moments of my life.


JF: What about the other poems, where you choose to speak about life itself, but also about places like Carrigskeewaun?

Carrigskeewaun is just so beautiful, it is very remote, and we have it to ourselves, really. It’s us, the birds of prey and the beautiful wild flowers. We are blessed, you know? I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. Every time I leave I think there are going to be no more poems about Carrigskeewaun, but there are always two or three.


JF: You also have poems about clothing, a bridal dress pattern, or a kilt.

I’m interested in the female side of me. My anima. I’m very interested, very deeply interested in craft produced by women. You know the practice of quilting, when women got together and produced quilts as part of everyday life, the daily round of eating and conversation. Now, when you see their quilts hung on a wall you realise that they are works of art.  We don’t even know the names of the people who were produced them. All of that has fascinated me for years. I feel reverence for such activities.


JF: Are these patterns like those which appear in a poem? Is there anything you dislike in poetry?

Yes. I dislike confessional stuff which… I used to joke with my students that if most of the people who call themselves poets were tightrope walkers they’d be dead. I don’t like the shapeless stuff. I don’t like the Cambridge poets, Prynne and so forth, who have completely disregarded the audience. They are so obscure. There’s quite a lot that I dislike, but I prefer to speak about those I like.


JF: People speak about your four-line poems, but I also like your couplets.

[Laughter] They couldn’t get much shorter than that. There is one called “The weather in Japan”:


The Weather in Japan


Makes bead curtains of the rain,
Of the mist a paper screen.


It’s written in the belief that the haiku is too wordy! The book is called after that wee poem as a way of saying that two lines, four lines is long enough. A lot of people who call themselves poets have not even written two lines. I have written a one-line poem: ‘My lost lamb lovelier than all the wool’. My next book (I have written about a fifth of it) is provisionally called The Candlelight Master. There was a painter known as the candlelight master. That poem is four lines: ‘I am the Candlelight Master /  Striking a match in the shadows. / A smoky wick, and then radiance. / I am the candlelight master.’


JF: Painting seems to be important for you.

I love it. I have a new poem called ‘Matisse’. I worship French painting. My daughter Sarah is a wonderful artist. We enjoy a very deep rapport and talk a lot about painting. Again, I’m interested in female painters like Gwen John, Winifred Nicholson.


JF: What about music?

I live for music. I listen to music everyday. I’m quite old-fashioned. I like Bach and Schubert, but also Chopin, Schumann, and many 20th century composers. I listen seriously for about an hour a day to cleanse my mind – classical music and jazz mainly. Jazz was born out of slavery, degradation, exploitation and misery, and yet the music has illumined the whole world. That’s the greatest of artistic gifts. Louis Armstrong and New Orleans Jazz, the white musicians of Chicago Jazz. I have been listening to that glorious noise since my twenties. I just love it.


JF: Do you listen to music when you write?

I might, but I usually turn it off. My favourite singer is Billie Holiday. She just takes hold of my brain.


JF: What about lyrics? Do you think about them when you’re writing? You sang “Maria” [Leonard Bernstein e Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story] to me a while ago.

No, I don’t really. I was only doing that to make you feel at home. [Laughter]. Lyrics are interesting, aren’t they? If you take a song like “Tea for two”. The words are banal. The music is banal, but the two together are immortal - very strange. A good poem leaves no room for music, really, because the music is in the words. For a good song to exist there must be space between the words for music. Do you know Rodgers and Hart? They wrote a great, great song and they were asked which came first, the words or the music, and Franz Hart said, the contract. [Laughter].


JF: You have helped to set up the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry.

I worked in the Arts Council for many years and I established fellowships, writer-in- residence posts. What I was aiming for was something like the Heaney Centre. I would say that for me the Heaney Centre represents most of what I believe in. I just hope it survives University bureaucracy. It was shaped in part by my wife in conversation with Seamus and they stressed the importance of the critical aspect.  I feel that the best criticism is a continuation of the work of art.


JF: And your favourite critic is:

Edna Longley of course! Her shit-detector is always in tune. She knows a good poem when she sees one. Where would I be without her?