‘Be­ing 77 is the best time of my life’

Belfast poet Michael Lon­g­ley on his lat­est col­lec­tion and the ‘click­ety-click­ety-click’ thrill of writ­ing

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Rosita Boland

Michael Lon­g­ley is stretched back in an arm­chair in his Belfast home, his cloth­ing as colour­ful as the many bright paint­ings in the room by his artist daugh­ter, Sarah. Blue ging­ham shirt. Green waist­coat. Green trousers. Tan slip­pers. And of course, the dis­tinc­tive thicket of bog­cot­ton- white beard, that arcs around his chin like an in­verted pas­toral halo.

Lon­g­ley, as he re­minds me sev­eral times dur­ing the in­ter­view, is “77 and three-quar­ters”. It’s usu­ally small chil­dren who are so anx­ious to count up the ad­vanc­ing months to their next birth­day, and there is some­thing play­ful, even mis­chievous, about some of the things Lon­g­ley says dur­ing the in­ter­view.

The non-se­quiters, for in­stance. Out of nowhere, he announces: “Ea­van Boland has be­come very queenly. I don’t see very much of her any more.” “Queenly? In what way?” “You know, like a queen,” is all he says by way of ex­pla­na­tion, and then he’s done with the state­ment.

Thought­ful and el­e­gant

Lon­g­ley’s 11th col­lec­tion of po­ems, An­gel Hill, has just been pub­lished. Among the thought­ful, el­e­gant po­ems that cel­e­brate fam­ily life, grand­chil­dren, and a long mar­riage (to his wife, the critic Edna Lon­g­ley), are sev­eral po­ems cel­e­brat­ing the nat­u­ral life of the Mayo town­land of Car­rigskee­waun, where he has vis­ited over many decades. There are also po­ems that travel back in time to the Belfast he lived in as young poet.

In Book­shops, Lon­g­ley writes about the first col­lec­tions writ­ten by him­self and his peers – Sea­mus Heaney, Derek Ma­hon, James Sim­monds – vy­ing for the read­ers’ at­ten­tion in Belfast book­shops.

Our f i rst pam­phlets j ostli ng f or at­ten­tion,

Then first slim vol­umes ( if no­body’s look­ing

I’ll move mine to the front. No­body’s look­ing.)

Are poet’s egos more frag­ile that those of other writ­ers? I ask him. “Per­haps be­cause the re­wards are so slim, we are all squab­bling over the same spoils,” he says. “I know that at 77 and three- quar­ters, praise still mat­ters to me far too much. I gave my daugh­ter Sarah the fol­low­ing ad­vice, ‘When some­body praises your paint­ing, pre­tend not to have heard, so that you get it re­peated.’ I find my­self do­ing that. Some­one will say, ‘ I re­ally liked your last book,’ and I’ll say, ‘What was that?’”

Lon­g­ley is laugh­ing as he’s re­count­ing this to me. He’s fully aware that it’s not the done thing to be seen to be so ea­ger for praise. “But when you’ve sur­vived to 77 and three- quar­ters, I don’t care so much any more. I don’t re­ally give a f**k.

“But of course one is vul­ner­a­ble. I feel vul­ner­a­ble now with this book on the slip­way, about to be launched into a sea of in­dif­fer­ence.”


We’ve moved from the sunny front room with its wall of po­etry books by other po­ets – “I haven’t opened some of those for years” – to the cosy back kitchen for lunch. Lunch is sar­dine sand­wiches, which come out of the fridge, al­ready neatly cut in halves, and bis­cuits in a posh tin, “a gift from Edna’s publisher”. Over lunch, I ask Lon­g­ley about be­ing a con­tem­po­rary of the late Sea­mus Heaney, to whom one of the po­ems in his new col­lec­tion, Room to Rhyme, is ded­i­cated.

“Sea­mus once thanked me for the way I dealt with what he called ‘ the N Thing’,” Lon­g­ley says, mak­ing tea.

“The N thing?” I ask, half­way through my sar­dine sand­wich.

“The No­bel,” he says. “That I kept it in pro­por­tion – the way most of the world didn’t. But I have had to be very ju­di­cious an­swer­ing ques­tions about Sea­mus since he’s been turned into a kind of saint.”

I wait.

“The No­bel prize used up all the oxy­gen in the room and it made Sea­mus a celebrity,” Lon­g­ley says even­tu­ally. “In other words, it’s a bit like the Im­pres­sion­ists. One wouldn’t dream of say­ing the only Im­pres­sion­ist was Claude Monet. What about De­gas and Cezanne and Manet and Van Gogh?

“In a way, Sea­mus’s huge rep­u­ta­tion has been a dis­tor­tion to po­etry. I think he wrote great and im­mor­tal po­ems, but so did Derek Ma­hon. So did Paul Mul­doon. But I have to be very care­ful about what I say.” “Care­ful about what?” “Be­cause peo­ple are al­ways look­ing out for signs of jeal­ousy and re­sent­ment.”

I point out that Heaney is dead, and thus long past any­one’s jeal­ousy, whether real or per­ceived.

World of celebrity

“I want to be ac­cu­rate about it,” Lon­g­ley says. “I my­self wouldn’t want the amount of at­ten­tion Sea­mus got when his life stopped be­ing his own. Wher­ever he went, he was sur­rounded by a shoal of bar­racuda. Peo­ple are very crude when they move into the world of celebrity.

“I re­mem­ber the open­ing of Trans­la­tions in Derry [ this was in 1980] and the Guild Hall was packed. There was a huge crowd–I’ ve told this story a few times – there was this young woman swim­ming to­wards me through the hu­man­ity. She came to­wards me and said, ‘ Are you Michael Lon­g­ley?’ and I said yes. I thought, I’ve got a fan! And she said, ‘ I’ve al­ways wanted to shake the hand of the man to whom Sea­mus Heaney ded­i­cated Per­sonal Heli­con’.”

He snorts. “That kind of non­sense has got noth­ing to do with po­etry. But the im­por­tant thing is his im­mor­tal po­ems, and you must write that down.”

We fin­ish our sand­wiches and go look­ing in the tin for cho­co­late bis­cuits. I’m ask­ing Lon­g­ley what fic­tion he likes to read.

“I loved The Sea. John Banville is a won­der­ful writer. I re­mem­ber Sea­mus say­ing when The Sea came out, he said to me, ‘ Isn’t it won­der­ful to be part of a cul­ture that pro­duces prose as good as that?’ I told Banville what Heaney had said. Do you know what Banville said to me? ‘Did he re­ally say that? Did he?!’” He munches on a bis­cuit, and re­flects. “We’re all like school­boys, re­ally.”

Lon­g­ley is a mem­ber of Aos­dána, and I ask him about his views on the re­cent con­tro­versy about the ex­pec­ta­tion of artists to be con­sis­tently seen to be “pro­duc­tive” in or­der to re­tain their mon­e­tary cnuas.

“The treat­ment of Pa­trick Pye seems to me crass, un­for­giv­ably crass,” he says. “This is what hap­pens when you have bu­reau­crats run­ning things that have never tried to pro­duce any­thing. I don’t un­der­stand the lan­guage these peo­ple use; their bu­reau­cratic shit.

In­vis­i­ble safety net

“I don’t take the cnuas and I don’t get in­volved in the pol­i­tics. But I think the thing about Aos­dána, is that it saved some peo­ple’s lives.” He says he would never con­sider re­sign­ing his place in Aos­dána so that it could pos­si­bly open up to an artist who would take the cnuas. “I wouldn’t re­sign my right to claim­ing the cnuas just in case in the fu­ture I fall on very harsh times,” he says. “It’s a kind of in­vis­i­ble safety net.”

“In some ways, be­ing 77 and three-quar­ters is the best time of my life,” Lon­g­ley de­clares. “The books are be­hind me. I have writ­ten my new book, which is my 11th col­lec­tion, and ‘they can’t take that away from me’. Do you know that song?” “Who’s the ‘they’?” I ask. “The bas­tards,” Lon­g­ley says firmly. “One’s foes. You can’t be an arts ad­min­is­tra­tor in North­ern Ire­land with­out hav­ing made some foes.” (Lon­g­ley worked in the Arts Coun­cil of North­ern Ire­land for many years.) “No; ‘they can’t take that away from me’.”

Be­fore I leave, Lon­g­ley signs a copy of An­gel Hill for me and tucks a new poem, Matisse, writ­ten since the book was pub­lished, into the end­pa­pers as an ex­tra gift. His Se­lected Prose will be pub­lished in the au­tumn, which will in­clude book re­views he wrote for this news­pa­per, in ad­di­tion to a piece of me­moir, some writ­ing on jazz, and the three lec­tures he de­liv­ered while Ire­land pro­fes­sor of po­etry.

But it’s po­etry that he clearly finds most sat­is­fy­ing to write. He de­scribes what writ­ing a poem is like.

“You’re con­cen­trat­ing, and all of you is gath­ered up, deeply at­ten­tive, and that con­cen­tra­tion is like a drug, and you re­alise you’ve been at a sheet of pa­per for four hours. I love that. I love the in­ten­sity of that. It’s such ex­cite­ment. I don’t know how peo­ple do with­out it, but most peo­ple do. The big­gest thrill of all is the Ru­bik’s Cube mo­ment when t he poem goes cl i ck­ety-click­ety- click and you know you can’t f**k it up – I love that,” he says, his whole face alight, a small gorse fire.

An­gel Hill, by Michael Lon­g­ley, is pub­lished by Cape Po­etry. It has been short­listed for best col­lec­tion for the For­ward Prize for Po­etry (best col­lec­tion). On June 1st, Michael Lon­g­ley was an­nounced as the re­cip­i­ent of the £1,000 PEN Pin­ter prize

‘When some­body praises your paint­ing, pre­tend not to have heard, so that you get it re­peated.’ I find my­self do­ing that. Some­one will say, ‘I re­ally liked your last book,’ and I’ll say, ‘What was that?’

The treat­ment of Pa­trick Pye seems to me un­for­giv­ably crass. This is what hap­pens when you have bu­reau­crats run­ning things that have never tried to pro­duce any­thing. I don’t un­der­stand the lan­guage these peo­ple use; their bu­reau­cratic shit

Poet Michael Lon­g­ley in his Belfast home: “Sea­mus [Heaney] once thanked me for the way I dealt with what he called ‘the N Thing’. PHO­TO­GRAPH: STEPHEN DAVISON

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