Michael Longley was born in Belfast in July 1939, the eldest of twin boys. His parents, Richard and Constance Longley, were both from England, and moved to Belfast in the 1920s. Longley was educated at Belfast’s Royal Academical Institution, and then, from 1958-1963, at Trinity College Dublin, where he studied Classics. He returned to Belfast in 1964 where he has lived ever since. At Trinity he met other young poets – among them Derek Mahon and Brendan Kennelly – and on his return to Belfast developed literary friendships with Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. He is one of a generation of poets in Ireland who brought about a new ‘renaissance’ in Irish writing from the 1960s onwards.
Longley’s father, Major Richard Longley, served in the London-Scottish regiment during the First World War, and his military service has been a long-standing inspiration for his poet-son. Longley’s first collection, No Continuing City was published in 1969, and contains the powerful elegy for his father, who died in 1958, ‘In Memoriam’. In the poem, Longley links his father’s wartime career with his later suffering (‘your old wounds woke / As cancer’); at the same time he projects himself as a metaphorically born out of his father’s survival of the Great War battlefields. That First World War inheritance is both familial and literary, given the extent to which Longley’s poems are haunted not only by Richard Longley’s wartime experience, but also by the poet’s own absorption of the work of twentieth-century soldier poets – notably Edward Thomas, for whom Longley has written several tribute poems and elegies.
With the onset of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in 1969, Longley’s poetry took on a new political resonance. His poetry is distinguished by the way it draws imaginative links between conflicts past and present, and in doing so probes some of the most difficult ethical questions thrown up by the experience of the poet’s home ground. His versions and adaptations from Homer, for instance, obliquely connect the Trojan War with some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, as well as with the Northern Irish Troubles. In one of his best known poems, ‘Wounds’, from 1972, his father’s death in World War I is linked to sectarian killings in Northern Ireland, in a complex exploration of victimhood and sacrifice. His poems are also, as Paul Muldoon has observed, emblematic of ‘an imaginative domain in which we can all move forward’. The poignant and thought-provoking 1994 Homeric poem ‘Ceasefire’ addresses the difficulty of overcoming the past, of trying to break a cycle of violence: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son’.
One of the outstanding elegists and war poets of the last four decades, Longley is also preoccupied with love – that ‘No Man’s Land’, as he calls it, ‘between one human being and another’ – and with the beauty (sometimes savagery) of the natural world. Those themes – as with such predecessors as Robert Graves and Edward Thomas – are entwined throughout his writings, expanding what we understand by the term ‘war poet’. In the inter-linked modes of love poet, war poet and nature poet, Longley is, as Heaney described him, a ‘custodian of griefs and wonders’. He has been the recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, the Wilfred Owen Medal, the Whitbread Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. He was elected to a three-year term as Ireland Chair of Poetry in 2008.
WoundsHere are two pictures from my father’s head – I have kept them like secrets until now: First, the Ulster Division at the Somme Going over the top with ‘[****] the Pope!’ ‘No Surrender!’: a boy about to die, Screaming ‘Give ‘em one for the Shankill!’ ‘Wilder than Gurkhas’ were my father’s words Of admiration and bewilderment. Next comes the London-Scottish padre Resettling kilts with his swagger-stick, With a stylish backhand and a prayer. Over a landscape of dead buttocks My father followed him for fifty years. At last, a belated casualty, He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt – ‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’ I touched his hand, his thin head I touched. Now, with military honours of a kind, With his badges, his medals like rainbows, His spinning compass, I bury beside him Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone. A packet of Woodbines I throw in, A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Paralysed as heavy guns put out The night-light in a nursery for ever; Also a bus-conductor’s uniform – He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers Without a murmur, shot through the head By a shivering boy who wandered in Before they could turn the television down Or tidy away the supper dishes. To the children, to a bewildered wife, I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'
Longley Talking about the Poem "Ceasefire"
Normally the poems I write make their occasion in private; this poem had some public impact. That was a refreshment for me and it pleases me that I have made a very tiny contribution to things being better in Ireland. I do believe that poetry makes things happen, I sent it to the Irish Times in the hope that they would print it, in the hope that if they did print it somebody might read it and it might change the mind of one ditherer on the IRA Council. And by coincidence the IRA did declare a ceasefire.
I don't put "after Homer," because they're my own.
...there are extraordinary things happening in that episode (of the Iliad by Homer) where Achilles goes to Priam to beg for the body of Hector. And it strikes me as modern...that's what appeals to me, rather than the heroic clang and clatter of swords and shield.
I have snatched from the narrative flow moments of lyric intensity in which to echo my own concerns, both personal and political.
I try very hard to capture in English that's alive the texture and feel of the Greek.
Homer's Iliad is the greatest book in the world, one of the earliest books, and one of the greatest meditations on death.
...in some ways I love The Odssey more, but The Iliad is altogether darker and deeper - a huge lamentation, really, a painful exploration of war, a gigantic poem about death.
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.
The Civil Servant
He was preparing an Ulster fry for breakfast
When someone walked into the kitchen and shot him:
A bullet entered his mouth and pierced his skull,
The books he had read, the music he could play.
He lay in his dressing gown and pyjamas
While they dusted the dresser for fingerprints
And then shuffled backwards across the garden
With notebooks, cameras and measuring tapes.
They rolled him up like a red carpet and left
Only a bullet hole in the cutlery drawer:
Later his widow took a hammer and chisel
And removed the black keys from his piano.
He ran a good shop, and he died
Serving even the death-dealers
Who found him busy as usual
Behind the counter, organised
With holly wreaths for Christmas,
Fir trees on the pavement outside.
Astrologers or three wise men
Who may shortly be setting out
For a small house up the Shankill
Or the Falls, should pause on their way
To buy gifts at Jim Gibson's shop,
Dates and chestnuts and tangerines.
The Linen Workers
Christ's teeth ascended with him into heaven:
Through a cavity in one of his molars
The wind whistles: he is fastened for ever
By his exposed canines to a wintry sky.
I am blinded by the blaze of that smile
And by the memory of my father's false teeth
Brimming in their tumbler: they wore bubbles
And, outside of his body, a deadly grin.
When they massacred the ten linen workers
There fell on the road beside them spectacles,
Wallets, small change, and a set of dentures:
Blood, food particles, the bread, the wine.
Before I can bury my father once again
I must polish the spectacles, balance them
Upon his nose, fill his pockets with money
And into his dead mouth slip the set of teeth.
Michael Longley Writes about Wreaths
I have written a few inadequate elegies out of my bewilderment and despair. I offer them as wreaths. That is all.
Elegies brim with the remembered liveliness of the dead. Elegies are a celebration as well as a lamentation.
I wrote a lament for our local greengrocer who was murdered by the Ulster Volunteeer Force...You have got to bring your personal sorrow to the public utterance. Otherwise you are in deadly danger of regarding the agony of others as raw material for your art, and your art as a solace for them in their suffering. Atrocities of the mind.
It was a friend of mine who was murdered by paramilitaries and I didn't want to identify him, so I gave him the title 'The Civil Servant.'
…when somebody walks into a home where there is a smell of cooking and where BBC Radio is playing music and takes out a gun…. they are offending the gods really… They are desecrating civilisation. They are disrupting far more than they probably thought about.
Though the poet's first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations - and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively... In the context of political violence the deployment of words at their most precise and suggestive remains one of the few antidotes to death-dealing dishonesty.