No 12 - Winter 1998/9
An Interview with Michael Longley
“Au Revoir, Oeuvre”
Michael Longley was born in Belfast in 1939, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he read Classics. He published his first collection, No Continuing City, in 1969. More recently, his collections include Gorse Fires, which won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry, and The Ghost Orchid, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Prize. Cape has just published his Selected Poems.
This interview with Peter McDonald took place in Belfast on the night of the referendum about the Good Friday Agreement (22 May 1998).
PMcD: You retired from your post in the Northern Ireland Arts Council in 1991, and have been prolific since then; is retirement, in whatever sense, something you find beneficial?
ML: First of all, I didn’t retire: I quit my job which I had done seriously for two decades. I now think that, apart from the privilege of working with artists, ninety per cent of the time I spent in the office was a waste of time, a waste of my life. I quit when I was fifty-one. I don’t think I could write now in the way I do if I had a nine-to-five job. It’s an interesting question. Mind you, I wouldn’t call myself prolific exactly.
PMcD: Retiring, or quitting, seems like a kind of youthful rebellion.
ML: Middle-aged rebellion. Every Monday morning I try to remember to say “Thank you, Lord. I’m not at the Senior Staff Meeting.” I do feel that a poem needs not just space, but, ideally, space around that space – space for meditation, reverie, subliminal link-ups. I sense that poetry happens at a level above or below intelligence. It doesn’t come into being at a purely rational level. Of course, when a poem is being born, the reasoning part of the brain throbs away at full throttle, but all the other areas are overlapping and interacting as well, the emotional, intuitive, animal areas. For that interaction to blossom, space is required and freedom from silly distractions like committee work and agendas and review papers. For me, now, poems sometimes occur in clusters, in a way that they never used to. Thanks to the job, there’s a continuing sense of release. I feel like an ex-prisoner. If what I write now has any rigour, that rigour owes something to my having stuck it out in the crucible of a job and faced up to the difficulties. The job has left me with a healthy disregard for what you might call Public Life. I have no desire now to go to receptions, to be seen at gatherings of the great and the good, to stand and be bored to death by men in grey suits. Public Life is pretty rubbishy. I’ve had first-hand experience of all that. I retired when I was relatively young. I still feel young. I look forward to my next collection as though it were my first book. Partly because of the break, the big change in the pattern of my life, I feel in my late fifties like a young poet who is just beginning.
PMcD: It’s an age when writers sometimes give in to various kinds of flattery or blandishments. Do you think that many people at that stage want to feel like they’re just beginning, or beginning again?
ML: I suppose that as you grow older some sense of an accumulating oeuvre is unavoidable: but the very word sounds so pompous – you know, those people who talk about “my work”. The funniest line I can think of comes from Robin Williams in a film I watched on a plane: he’s an unsuccessful writer; he throws everything he’s written into a waste-paper basket, and says “Au revoir, oeuvre!” There’s always a danger of writers believing their own publicity. We live in a world of puff and solicited blurb, a world of favours and backscratching. In America, where you’d have thought the country’s so huge it couldn’t happen quite so cosily, everyone’s giving his imprimatur to everyone else. You line up three or four well-known poets and a couple of eminent academics on the dustjacket, and the rest of academe follow like sheep. That’s death really, if you take pleasure in it. Mind you, the occasional puff’s hard to resist, but you shouldn’t inhale.
PMcD: You’ve published a new Selected Poems this year, the first since the more capacious Poems 1963-1983 thirteen years ago. Has your post-1985 output influenced the way you now look at your earlier poems?
ML: First of all, the 1963-83 book came into being simply because Tom Fenton, who produced such beautiful books under his Salamander imprint, reminded me that all of my four volumes were out of print, and he asked would I like to publish them together with some new work. That seemed like a good idea, but it was risky to bring out what amounted to a premature Collected Poems. I had been fairly severe on each of the books, so there wasn’t a lot to excise (except from the third volume, Man Lying on a Wall, which I really did prune down). While putting my Poems 1963-83 together I thought too long and hard about “my work”, my oeuvre; it made me self-conscious, and that was unhealthy. In every respect – from contents to binding and design – the book was exactly what I wanted. But with regard to form I seemed in some mysterious way to have come full circle. It was difficult to step outside that circle, to look beyond the book. I would advise against assembling a volume like that in your forties. In my first four books I had indulged a tendency to write short intense lyrics and then arrange them in sequences. Something different began to happen in Gorse Fires – some kind of involuntary denial of that urge to string poems together in rosaries. The book emerged like a big patchwork. I wanted any given poem to draw resonances from other poems ten or twenty pages in front or behind. I was aiming for a deeper cohesiveness. In more confident moments the book looks to me like one big poem, although each piece has its own title and independence. This process was taken further in The Ghost Orchid. As a result, there are fewer showpieces, anthology pieces, if I may be so bold. So it was harder to select poems from Gorse Fires and The Ghost Orchid. Both awoke in me affection for my very first collection, No Continuing City, the poems I wrote in my twenties. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to control the later big splodgy pieces like ‘The Butchers’ if I hadn’t set myself those formal challenges in my young days.
PMcD: A lot of contemporary poetry is keen on size, often producing a kind of gigantism, but you seem as devoted as ever to the art of the miniature.
ML: I’ve suggested somewhere else that miniature is not necessarily the same as minor. How many contemporary long poems have you actually finished, let alone enjoyed and re-read a few times? Why are we all so polite about the tedium and dead trees they cause? I suppose it’s not unreasonable to want to take back from the novel narrative sweep and a cast of characters. The other side of the argument is that the novel has set poetry free to do what it does best, the intense lyric. I would love to write a long poem, something like the Intimations Ode, something spacious as well as concentrated. Gigantism is the word you used; I would use elephantiasis, which I gather is a medical condition. I’m not against ambition and reach, but if you can say it in four lines, why waste your time saying it in more? Challenge the world by all means, but it’s bad for your poetry to take steroids.
PMcD: I’m interested in what the formal discipline is that makes it possible to write a good four-line or two-line poem. You served your own apprenticeship to poets like George Herbert.
ML: Well, I cogged some of his stanza patterns. I’d quite like to end my days exploring Herbertian shapes. It would be nice to return to writing poems like ‘A Personal Statement’ and ‘The Hebrides’ in my sixties and seventies. I don’t know where the shape of a poem comes from. I certainly don’t impose it. I write out of a jumble of emotions and vague notions and scraps of knowledge. At some stage a form or, rather, a shape mysteriously emerges. Was it Tennyson who said that a perfect lyric inscribes the shape of an S? That sense of a gesture, you know, the way you use your hand if you’re bowing, if you’re reaching out to shake somebody’s hand, if you’re going to stroke a cat, if you’re holding a woman’s hand to take her on to the dancefloor – all those gestures that are made in a couple of sweeps, the wave shaping up and then the wave collapsing, suggest two stanzas. Arranging the Selected, I realised how many of my poems are two stanza jobs. Quite a few sonnets, for instance. The stanzas can be very long as in ‘Wounds’ or ‘Company’, but that’s unusual. The single four-line poems and lone couplets are meant to be just as roomy in their own way. In my youth short poems tended to be longer poems cut down, the results of pruning. Now my short poems more or less happen like that. I know instinctively that they are complete. Capturing a moment of inspiration and just leaving it at that. The poem has to fill the page, even if it’s only two lines long. Sometimes the brevity is a kind of tact, the only way I have of dealing with momentous subject matter without being offensive or impertinent – a touch and no more. For instance, my two-line poem, ‘Terezin’, was inspired by a photograph of a room in Terezin filled with hundreds of violins which had been confiscated from Jews and stored for handing out to young future Nazi Mozarts. I wanted my poem to approach the condition of silence:
No room has ever been as silent as the room
Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.
My next collection will take its title from a two-line poem, a new form I’ve invented and am trying to impose on the world in the belief that the haiku is garrulous and overweight. Should I call it the low-ku? The title runs into the first line, and the couplet has to be as short as possible, and it has to rhyme: ‘The Weather in Japan’ (that’s the title) “Makes bead curtains of the rain,/ Of the mist a paper screen.” That’s my near-silent way of suggesting what poetry might be. And in naming the book after such a brevity I might be making a point about scale and importance.
PMcD: The ‘Terezin’ poem’s “hung in unison” seems to relate to the hanging of the maidservants later in Gorse Fires, in ‘The Butchers’, the short poem prefiguring something in the longer one. Is this deliberate?
ML: No, I hadn’t thought of that. I’m pleased though. One hopes that a book has such echoes and connections. But I wouldn’t plant them deliberately. I’m not the kind of poet who arranges treasure-hunts to please the academics and keep them busy. Poetry should be surprising in deeper ways.
PMcD: Your most extreme short poem is ‘The Parting’, where you compress the whole episode of Hector’s farewell to Andromache into a couplet:
He: “Leave it to the big boys, Andromache.”
“Hector, my darling husband, och, och,” she.
There’s something almost aggressive in that, almost violent in its relation to the original. How did you come to that point in your relation to Homer?
ML: It’s formally extreme, yes, but rather tender, I’d have thought. Did you notice that there’s a six-syllable off-rhyme? My little Muldoonian moment. The good luck of that licensed the risk of sentimentality in “och, och” – you know, the way we say that in Ulster with a sense of sorrow and impatience. So many tones. Och. 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. That was the heady brew that generated my early Homeric poems, ‘Circe’, ‘Odyssey’, ‘Nausicaa’ (who is really Gerty McDowell). Years later various shocking things happened in my life: my mother’s painful death in 1979, which reminded me of my father’s death when I was young and unprepared – I’m still coming to terms with that – and then a sense of betrayal in my job, in my professional life, and all of the time for thirty years the poison of the Troubles. Somehow or other, reacquaintance with the Odyssey in my late forties allowed me to give expression to sorrows. The great grace was realising that I could make poetry out of my own impurities. 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. The last poem in Gorse Fires, ‘The Butchers’, was a cleansing, a catharsis. I was purging feelings of distaste – distaste for Northern Ireland and its filthy sectarianism, for the professional career I’d pursued for twenty years, for Public Life and its toxins.
PMcD: Ovid joins Homer as a presence in The Ghost Orchid, partly owing to the happenstance of your being approached to contribute to Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun’s After Ovid anthology. Writing the Ovidian poems must have been a more deliberate process.
ML: The happenstance is rather alarming, isn’t it, how much of what you write depends on chance? Hofmann and Lasdun asked me to do the Baucis and Philemon story which I took on initially in the spirit of a commission, but then I fell in love with it. And I was overwhelmed by other stories which I just had to try. There was nothing deliberate in the process. I was flailing around in the dark as I usually do. ‘Spiderwoman’, the Arachne story, is half Ovid and half me (or David Attenborough in a toga). ‘Ivory & Water’ takes two of the stories, the woman changed into a fountain and the woman changed into ivory, the Arethusa and Pygmalion stories, and splices them to see if they might illuminate sexual neurosis. With ‘Baucis & Philemon’ I set myself a formal challenge – five-line stanzas, proper stanzas. I didn’t see the point in simply dividing the flow into five-line units just for the look of it. I wanted each stanza to have some kind of internal logic. That’s what I did in my fourth book, The Echo Gate, with ‘Peace’, my version of a Tibullus poem, where I used ten-line stanzas. The formal restraint of the stanza or, say, something like Dryden’s couplets helps to control self-indulgence. So much contemporary translation is self-indulgent and reads like cut-up prose. For me the form, the stanzaic shape, is an endorsement, proof that I’m engaged with the Latin or Greek at an original level, that my versions are explorations.
PMcD: The Ovidian material is obviously all about changes from one thing into another, about things failing to stand still. On the other hand, your poetry has often been attracted to stasis, or to leaving things poised, suspended – sometimes using lists, sometimes in a kind of rhythmic suspension. In that sense, aren’t you a very conservative, rather than metamorphic poet?
ML: God, you make me sound like a still life – and me thinking I was into nude studies and battle scenes. If I’m as immobile as you suggest, then Ovid turned up just in time. If things are poised or suspended – your words – then they’re in danger of toppling, breaking, changing, aren’t they? Perhaps I’m obsessed with the way things come and go, the way they fade, the way nothing lasts. There’s a poem in Gorse Fires about the brief mark an otter’s tail makes in wet sand. Those are the moments that move me. Poems give them a second chance. There’s a danger of being paralysed imaginatively and emotionally, mesmerised by such fleeting mysteries. Therefore the invitation to the Metamorphoses party was good for me, it stopped some pores from closing, corrected certain mannerisms, and forced me to attempt again a young man’s poetry. I got a kick out of the humour and surrealism, the high jinks. It was healthy to tousle the slightly Japanese, Chinese, feathery, leafy, butterfly-wingy side of my imagination.
PMcD: You have recently brought out a chapbook of elegies, Broken Dishes.
ML: Used to be pamphlets of love poems! “Love poems, elegies: I am losing my place./ Elegies come between me and your face.” Those are the final (hidden) lines in The Ghost Orchid. It’s a commonplace to suggest that elegies are love poems, love poems elegies. Love poems are full of the sadness of time passing. Elegies brim with the remembered liveliness of the dead. Elegies are a celebration as well as a lamentation. Weddings and funerals have so much in common (except that in Ireland funerals are more fun – better food, better drink): at both, our senses are sharpened and we register much more than usual – a striking face or hair-do, the wind’s behaviour, a bird singing. And we’re reminded that all of us have made the same double journey from our parents’ naughty bits; that the journey continues in the general direction of decrepitude and death. Death and sex. What else is there to write about?
PMcD: You aren’t much given to revision of poems after they have been published.
ML: No, I work hard to make the poems as good as they can be, and if they’re not good enough I scrap them. I find it difficult after a gap of a few years to tinker – I’m more likely to destroy. A different person wrote them two years ago – certainly twenty years ago. Most poets’ revisions are disastrous. They buckle and dent what was originally forged at a red-hot heat. In any case, you shouldn’t be obsessed with your oeuvre, we agreed. When I’m assembling a book I concentrate as though I were writing a poem. A truly imagined arrangement will indicate gaps and generate new poems. I re-read the new poems in my folder in the hope that this might happen. I hardly ever look at my published books. Au revoir, oeuvre. I believe in letting your subconscious look after things. After my experience with Poems 1963-83 I’m suspicious about being too self-aware. When I was last in the States I heard about a reading which was followed by a distinguished critic giving a lecture on that poet’s work. Jesus. Even giving an interview...how many interviews did Beckett or Yeats give, or George Herbert? You live your life and you write your poems. If you do one dishonestly, the other will suffer.
PMcD: This sense of honesty must relate somehow to your sense of how what you call Public Life actually impinges on your poetry. Despite all you say, do you still feel yourself in some way publicly accountable as a poet?
ML: I wrote an elegy for an ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road who was murdered by the IRA; I read it on the radio, and I got a letter some time later from the murdered man’s mother, a very beautiful letter. My poem ends with a list of twenty-one flowers – I’d never counted them – and it begins with a shorter list of ice-cream flavours. She said, I wouldn’t have noticed, but there were twenty-one flower names in my poem and there were twenty-one ice-cream flavours in her son’s shop. She signed herself The Ice-Cream Man’s Mother. When I published my poem ‘Ceasefire’ in the Irish Times I got a letter from the father of Paul Maxwell, the sixteen-year-old boy who had been blown up with Lord Mountbatten. Those letters matter more to me than any amount of criticism I might receive in literary journals or attention in the public world. I do mean that. I also believe in that wartime slogan, ‘Careless talk costs lives’. To write carelessly and self-indulgently in a place like Northern Ireland could have terrible consequences. I do speak occasionally on radio and television in a measured way, mindful of how much some fellow-citizens have suffered. If you look at the work of the poets from this part of the world – Hewitt, Heaney, Mahon, Carson, Muldoon, McGuckian, Ormsby – they have all behaved in much the same way. Unavoidably, the poet’s role here has been more public than the role of a poet living in a more settled society. I don’t think that has made any of us feel self-important – the reverse probably. In its language the Good Friday Agreement depended on an almost poetic precision and suggestiveness to get its complicated message across. The good poetry that has emanated from here is like that too, and for exactly the same reasons.
- 10th Muse
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- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
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- French Literary Review, The
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- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
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- Modern Poetry in Translation
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- New Welsh Review
- North, The
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
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- Second Aeon
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- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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- Ugly Tree, The
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