Michael Longley was born in Belfast in July 1939. His parents had moved to the city from London in the late 1920’s and between the wars his father had worked as a furniture salesmen. The son of English Protestants, growing up in a city riven by sectarian tensions between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, he negotiated those tensions with great skill in his early poems. He has arguably, and it would be my argument, written some of the best poems to come out of the “Troubles”, poems such as Wounds, Wreaths and The Ice Cream Man.
Although he has written long poems, such as the superb sequence, Mayo Monologues, he is drawn again and again to much shorter forms. When asked in a 1998 interview about the formal discipline that helps him produce four- and two-line poems, Longley replied, “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 dance floor…”
The poems chosen below reflect some of the central concerns of his poetry. He has written extensively about the First World War and of his father’s role in that conflict. “Somehow, my father’s existence, and his experience, the stories he passed on to me, gave me a kind of taproot into the war.” Poems like High Wood and Into Battle (see below) reflect that concern. And a poem like Terezín extends that concern into the second world war. He has applied a classical scholar’s eye to modern conflict. His Homeric sonnet Ceasefire, ostensibly about the Trojan Wars, was printed after an IRA ceasefire and has had a seminal impact on Irish politics and poetry. “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.” We can see this reflected in such short poems as Paper Boats and The Parting. And then there are the love poems (“The love poem is the most important thing I do – the hub of the wheel is love…”) and the nature poems like those brief italicised poems that are placed at the end of many of his collections like mini-codas. (“I think our relationship with the natural world and with the plants and animals is the major issue now.”) That lovely little alliterative one-line poem Lost is a testament to the power of his compression. “I freeze frame moments, like a painter.”
Michael Longley continues to garner awards for his collections of poetry, produced on a regular basis. And many of these poems, as you can see below, are short, snappy and insightful. I hope you like them.
Brief Poems by Michael Longley
THE WEATHER IN JAPAN
Makes bead curtains of the rain,
Of the mist a paper screen.
No room has ever been as silent as the room
Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.
my lost lamb lovelier than all the wool.
Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.
The wind-farmer’s small holding reaches as far as the horizon.
Between fields of hailstones and raindrops his frost-flowers grow.
Love poems, elegies: I am losing my place.
Elegies come between me and your face.
He: “Leave it to the big boys, Andromache.”
“Hector, my darling husband, och, och,” she.
When I was young I wrote that flowers are very slow flames
And you uncovered your breasts often among my images.
Without moonlight or starlight we forgot about love
As we joined the blind ewe and the unsteady horses.
after the Irish
she is the touch of pink
on crab apple blossom
and hawthorn and she melts
frost flowers with her finger
Homage to Ian Hamilton Finlay
fold paper boats
for the boy Odysseus
and launch them
in the direction of Troy
Have you fallen asleep forever, Corinna?
In the past you were never the one to lie in.
feathers on water
a snowfall of swans
Old poets regurgitate
Pellets of chewed-up paper
Packed with shrew tails, frog bones,
Beetle wings, wisdom.
My father is good at mopping up:
Steam rises from the blood and urine.
The Hampshires march into battle with bare knees.
Full of shrapnel holes are the leaves on the trees.
at the end
of my days
forty two whoopers call
then the echoes
as though there are more swans
over the ridge
Your intelligence snoozes next to mine.
Poems accumulate between our pillows.
If I were inside you now
I would stay there for ages
Until the last migrating
Monarch butterfly had left.
haiku beginning with a line of Barbara Guest
The way a cowslip bends
Recalls a cart track,
Crushed sunlight at my feet.
I have lost my way
At last somewhere between
An extensive educational resource on Michael Longley’s poetry.
A feature article from The Guardian newspaper about Michael Longley.
A recent BBC interview with Michael Longley to celebrate his 70th birthday.
Michael Longley reads six of his poems on the Poetry Archive site.