MICHAEL LONGLEY Biography - Famous Poets and dancers


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Poet Michael Longley was born in the suburbs of Belfast on 27th of July 1939 to           
London parents who had settled in the city in 1927. His early background is well           
described in the autobiographical chapters of Tuppenny Stung (1994) where we               
read of his childhood: his twin brother, Peter, and his sister, Wendy; his                 
mother's volcanic temperament and its influence on the household; his father's             
wartime experiences and peacetime activities; his primary education in a city             
ravaged by sectarianism; his grammar school education with its lack of Irish               
history on the curriculum. His background was non-literary; he has spoken of the           
"consternation and embarrassment at home" when he chose Yeats's Collected Poems           
as a school prize in his teens.                                                           
In 1958 he went to Trinity College in Dublin to study classics where he found "my         
already half-hearted hold on Latin and Greek was further enfeebled by a now all-consuming 
desire to write poetry." After college he worked as a teacher in Dublin, London           
and Belfast. Back in his native city, he became a member of Philip Hobsbaum's             
famous "Group" of poets which included Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney and James               
Simmons. It was there he formulated the aesthetic which was to characterise all           
his work: "I believed that poetry should be polished, metrical and rhymed;                 
oblique rather than head-on; imagistic and symbolic rather than rawly factual;             
rhetorical rather than documentary." These ideas were expressed more bitingly,             
recently, when he observed, "If many of the talented careless folk who call               
themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they would be dead."                             
And this concern with craft, technique and formal assurance was evident from the           
beginning of his publishing career which, in Longley's case, was a slim                   
collection entitled No Continuing City (1969). In his debut collection, poems             
which express a deep and far-from-sentimental love of nature merge with poems             
which explore the complex nature of human love. And dominating these poems is             
the formal precision of Longley's art. "I fight all the way for balance." What             
is insisted on, in the style of this poetry, is the capacity of art to formalise           
the feelings engaged and thereby to communicate their force. A poem about Emily           
Dickinson comments on her "dressing with care for the act of poetry." Longley's           
poems, in this first volume, are well-dressed, sometimes even fashionably so,             
but the cut of the cloth can, on occasions conceal the paucity of the material.           
Some of the poems, in other words, are merely clever or, as Thomas McCarthy put           
it more trenchantly, "idiotic verseplay".                                                 
Yet, towards the end of this carefully ordered collection, the poems become more           
sombre as they explore themes of death, madness, isolation and war. Here the               
formal assurance is put to chilling effect. One poem in particular, an elegy for           
his father, Richard Longley, a veteran of the First World War, has a depth and a           
sympathetic imaginative understanding which raises it far above the other poems           
in the book. "In Memoriam" mixes memory and desire, nostalgia and love, in                 
stanzas where the formality of the feelings are an aid to, rather than a                   
avoidance of, the clear expression of deeply felt emotions. Longley is often at           
his best when writing about his father who "died in 1960 when I was twenty and             
too young to appreciate his strengths or understand his weaknesses." Being                 
personally engaged is what gives the poems their power.                                   
This personal engagement broadens in his second collection An Exploded View (1973)         
to encompass a more public response to the exploded myth of Northern stability.           
By this time Longley was living in Belfast and working for the Arts Council of             
Northern Ireland which he joined in 1970 and where he remained until his                   
retirement in 1991. Inspired and intimidated by "the stereophonic nightmare / Of           
the Shankill and the Falls," many of the poems are an attempt to reflect first a           
provincial, then a national identity. "We are trying to make ourselves heard,"             
he writes and the plural pronoun acknowledges a group effort to write poetry               
while "our province reels."                                                               
Other poems attempt other options, particularly an increasing fascination with             
the Irish landscape and the lore associated with it. What he writes of one poem,           
"Poteen" - "it speaks of the violence which lurks under the apparently peaceful           
surface of our civilised life" - could be related to many. The best poems build           
on that obsessive concern with love and death so craftily pursued in his first             
collection. Two, in particular, stand out: "Swans Mating", another love poem,             
where the natural world provides images to reflect the contiguity of the human             
world; and the celebrated "Wounds", another elegy for his father, where Longley's         
uncanny ability to note the gruesome banality of death is given a tragic pathos.           
The technique of linking his father's war experiences to the "troubles" in the             
North was one Longley constantly refined: "the fact that my father was a soldier,         
for instance, in both World Wars led me to ask the simple question: if he were             
alive now, what on earth would he make of the Troubles?"                                   
A third collection Man Lying on a Wall (1976) continued Longley's exploration of           
conjugal love but with a more circumspect and self-conscious awareness of its             
place in the artistic process. Another significant theme - Longley's attachment           
to the West of Ireland - is developed in this collection. With his family, he             
had begun to spend many holidays in Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo. "Carrigskeewaun         
changed my life radically. It changed my poetry." Discussing this in an                   
interview with Clive Wilmer, he said, "When I go to the West of Ireland I don't           
go there to have colourful talk with the natives. I go there to look at birds             
and flowers and the beautiful countryside....I think our relationship with the             
natural world and with the plants and animals is the major issue now."                     
His next collection The Echo Gate (1979) celebrates the power of the imagination           
to animate and integrate the natural world by creating, sustaining and                     
suspending it in sound: "I slow down the waterfall to a chandelier." There is a           
deep well-spring of imaginative sympathy for the human condition at its most               
desolate extremes. That desolation is given its finest expression in the book's           
masterpiece, "Mayo Monologues", a gaunt, unsparing rendition, in four superb               
monologues in blank verse, of the great hunger of an impoverished peasantry               
smouldering fitfully in the "purgatory of the windy gaps." As Longley put it               
correctly, "This is poetry as plain as it gets."                                           
That desolation is also evident in the treatment of war. Longley is, in many               
respects, a war poet and two wars dominate the poems in this collection: the               
First World War, in which his father fought, and the sectarian war conducted on           
the streets of his native city, Belfast. In him, as in Wilfred Owen, the poetry           
is the pity. It is also the imaginative power with which he confronts violence.           
Writing about "Wreaths", one of the best of these poems, he has said, "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." The             
other side of that coin is a longing for peace, a sentiment that is treated in a           
plaintive yet playful manner in a loose adaptation of a poem from Tibullus                 
entitled, quite simply, "Peace":                                                           
But punch-ups,                                                                             
Physical violence, are out, you might as well                                             
Pack your kit-bag, goose-step a thousand miles away                                       
From the female sex. As for me, I want a woman                                             
To come and fondle my ears of wheat and let apples                                         
Overflow between her breasts. I shall call her Peace.                                     
The eighties were a bleak period for Longley. He published no new work for                 
almost twelve years. "I thought I was finished. I didn't think I was going to             
write any more poetry and it was like having an enormous itch which I couldn't             
scratch." However, that drought ended with the publication of Gorse Fires (1991)           
which won the 1991 Whitbread Poetry Award. A new strain enters the poetry as               
seven distinct adaptations from Homer's Odyssey enable Longley to pursue                   
familiar themes in a new and classical light. The book was "a belated                     
lamentation for my mother and father. I was able to express my feelings of                 
tenderness for my father through Laertes and Odysseus." The poem "Laertes" is             
another typical tour-de-force, "a mixture of lines freely translated from Homer           
- all in one sentence to try and get the headlong emotion." The love theme is             
well represented by "An Amish Rug", the war theme by poems on the Spanish Civil           
War and the Holocaust and an over-riding theme of homecoming reaches its finest           
expression in a plangent and precise account of the route for his funeral                 
procession, "Detour". The autobiographical themes evident in the poetry were               
augmented for the general reader by the publication of a Tuppenny Stung (1994) a           
collection of prose reminiscences that ends with a poem beginning "I am walking           
backwards into the future like a Greek."                                                   
The Greek influence is evident again in The Ghost Orchard (1995) with its                 
continuing echoes of Homeric epics. ("What Homer did for me was open up areas of           
my own experience which I found difficult to write about hitherto.") The most             
celebrated poem in the collection has become "Ceasefire" a transposition of a             
large swathe of book 24 of the Iliad into a sonnet which was first printed in             
the Irish Times two days after an IRA ceasefire was announced. But this is far             
from being a one poem book. An interest in Japanese culture leads to many brief           
delicate imagist poems, the poetic equivalent of water colours or perhaps                 
pastels. The craft may have become terse but the vibrancy and the humour is               
still as powerful as before.                                                               
A later collection, developing these themes, The Weather in Japan (2000), won             
the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Hawthornden Prize and the Irish Times Poetry Prize.             
Fellow Northern poet Paul Muldoon wrote of that collection: "These are poems               
which at first glance may seem small-scale, but which always expand our sense of           
history, be it of ancient Greece, Second World War Germany or Northern Ireland.           
Longley is a skilled lyric poet of compassion and grace." Many of the themes               
dealt with in the prescribed poems on the right hand side of this page are                 
revisited and refined. The image of the patchwork product, first introduced in "An         
Amish Rug", is developed in many fine poems in the collection. The flora and               
fauna noted in Carrigskeewaun continue to be explored in short, descriptive               
epiphanies with titles like "The Lapwing", "Pale Butterwort", "The Flock", The             
Seal", "The Fox", "The Rabbit" and "The Hare". Homeric themes are re-invigorated           
by being cast in a colloquial Ulster dialect. And the theme of war, past and               
present, particularly his father's involvement in the First World War, flits               
through the book like birds on a battlefield. The dominant mood is elegaic. The           
greengrocer, commemorated in "Wreaths", is recalled in a heartfelt plea for               
civilisation called "All of these People". Seventeen of the poems are elegies,             
mainly for friends of the poet, which were originally published in a chapbook             
entitled Broken Dishes (1998). One ends with a lovely line:                               
He is the snow poet and he keeps his snow shoes on.                                       
That image, that impression of snow, a new dimension in Longley's poetry, is               
further developed in his most recent collection, Snow Water (2004) which                   
contains, among many gems of poetic snowflake, an amazing one-line poem called "Lost":     
"my lost lamb lovelier than all the wool." Concision and creativity mingle in             
another engrossing collection of poems which endorses, in the best possible way,           
Longley's view of the poetic art: "I write poetry because of an inner compulsion.         
Deep down I believe it's very important, but I think I'm rather shy about saying           
how important I think it is, not just for me but as an important way for                   
humanity to redeem itself."