Michael Longley. Photo © Bobbie Hanvey
To close our series on Irish literature this month, I thought it fitting to bring you the un-rhyming words of the Irish poet who was the 2015 International Winner of Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize, Michael Longley. The Stairwell (2014), is his tenth collection of poetry and comes in the aftermath of the death of his twin brother, Peter. Hence, we have a set of poems (in two parts) informed by doubles, echoes, and universal twinnings. Longley returns to the Classics with Homer’s Iliad, a text on which many of the poems lie. His father, too, features heavily in the first part of the collection, the poet wondering about his experiences of The Great War, a conflict with which Ireland had a tense and reluctant relationship until long after many of its veterans had passed away.
The Irish have been infiltrating this most prestigious, valuable, and Canadian poetry prize since its inception in 2001 when Paul Muldoon served as a judge. Muldoon later won the international award in 2003 and Longley was a judge that year too. In 2009, Derek Mahon was nominated and Dennis O’Driscoll judged. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin was awarded the international honour in 2010, Seamus Heaney was a nominated poet in 2011 with Colm Tóibín joining the judging panel that year and in 2012, Seamus Heaney received the Lifetime Recognition Award. Tóibín was named a trustee of the Prize in 2014.
Michael Longley was born in Belfast in 1939. He has published ten collections of poetry including Gorse Fires (1991) which won the Whitbread Poetry Award, and The Weather in Japan (2000) which won the Hawthornden Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Irish Times Poetry Prize. In 2001 he received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and in 2003 the Wilfred Owen Award. He was awarded a CBE in 2010 and was Ireland Professor of Poetry, 2007-2010.
Longley is a poet of war, of peace, of memory, of family, of love. He says later in this interview, “Poetry is about all of the things that happen to people.” In growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1940s and 50s and witnessing the horrific events of The Troubles as well as the Peace process of the 1990s (which culminated, miraculously for many of us, in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998), Michael Longley’s oeuvre is now the chronicle of a people embroiled in war, politics, natural beauty, languages, and history. There is always more than just the obvious event taking place, however, and that shift from courage to fear, from bafflement to clear-eyed pursuit, from then to now, from living to dying, is where we find his moments of insight and, perhaps, truth. Longley’s poetry will echo for generations to come.
Aoife Walsh: Congratulations, Michael, on your 2015 International Griffin Poetry Prize. What does this Canadian award mean to you?
Michael Longley: I shall always treasure the excitement and the surprise. I feel honoured. I feel inspired to write more poems. I like and admire Scott Griffin, and that adds to my pleasure.
Aoife Walsh: Homer’s Iliad is a constant subtext in The Stairwell, and I’ve enjoyed glimpsing, and then feeling, that presence in poems like “The Boxers,” “The Wrestlers,” and “The Dove.” Can you speak about some of the other texts that ghost through this collection: the songs of the Great War and the poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti, for example?
Michael Longley: My very first elegy for my father (who joined up in 1914 as a boy-soldier and survived the trenches) was partly inspired by Great War songs. With their roots in folk song, music-hall, and vaudeville they continue to captivate me. They are poems in their own way. With “Private Ungaretti,” I merely break up into lines a beautiful passage from Mark Thompson’s masterly history of the war in the Alps, The White War. I release the poetry in his words. It is what we call a found poem. He approved.
Aoife Walsh: There is a serious consideration of doublings or couplings throughout these poems—the Trojan War and the Great War; your relationship with both your father and your brother; the bog and the trenches; animal and human; physical and poetic journeys in “The Alphabet”—right down to the order in which some poems occur (“Another Wren” with “Maisie at Dawn” and ”Face” with “The Tin Noses Shop”). Was this unique to writing this collection, resting as it does in the shadow of your twin brother’s passing?
The Stairwell by Michael Longley
Michael Longley: From the beginning I have gone in for pairings and a search for different angles. I do this sometimes if the poems are very short (though, ideally, even a two-liner should fill the page on its own). This pairing tendency did, as you imply, come into its own when I was trying to commemorate my twin brother Peter. At his deathbed I hoped that I would be able to write an elegy for him. In the end I produced twenty-three. They all echo and chime.
Aoife Walsh: Courage and total annihilation are familiar subjects in The Stairwell (I’m thinking of “Mud Turf,” “Boy-Soldier,” “Second Lieutenant Tooke,” “Ronald Colman,” “At High Wood,” “The Horses of Rhesus,” “Face,” and “The Tin Noses Shop” specifically here) and, indeed, in war poetry across millennia. How useful is poetry in bringing these experiences (that for certain generations exist far off in history or space) home?
Michael Longley: Poetry is about all of the things that happen to people. War is one of them. The miraculous poems which Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves brought back from the front line have challenged and inspired me (and many others). If poets are unable to look into the blackness, there is no future for poetry.
Aoife Walsh: “The Birthday” feels like an ending of sorts, carrying with it redemption, a hint of humour (“Will your pee be pink in heaven?”) and perhaps even acceptance (“Thank you for visiting Carrigskeewaun.”). And yet, there are three more poems subsequent to it, including the pragmatic “The Fire.” Can you speak about your sense of death or the passing of a loved one as an ending, a beginning, or a nothing?
Michael Longley: Death and sex are poetry’s great themes–life’s tug-of-war. Elegies are often full of love and life, while love poetry usually laments the passing of joy. Elegies can be happy, love poems miserable. Of course I feel sad when a loved one dies, but then I rejoice if I am able to compose an elegy. I find it all rather confusing!
Aoife Walsh: I noticed, happily, the abundance of Irish place-names (Carrigskeewaun, Lackakeely, Owennadornaun, Mweelrea, Avernish, Dooaghtry, and Allaran) and I savoured the feel of them in my mouth. The same for the flora and fauna which appear in your poems almost as characters themselves. To what extent are place and “home” constructs of language, myth, and history (individual or national)?
Michael Longley: I feel that I would appreciate the Irish landscape more if I could speak Irish. But I don’t. So the glorious Irish place-names are a compensation. In my poetry all the flower names and the names of birds and other animals are pure English. In Ireland we are blessed to have two great languages at our disposal.