This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Michael Longley performed on 15th August 2014.
by William Bonar
Before the start of this reading, I found myself sitting behind the Gaelic poet, Aonghas MacNeacail (Angus McNicol), who was concerned about possibly blocking my view – he is taller than me and has much more hair on his head. He said he felt a particular connection with Longley because he (MacNeacail) had also been a member of one of the legendary Philip Hobsbaum’s writers’ groups. In MacNaecail’s case, it was the Glasgow version alongside Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and the late Jeff Torrington. Longley, of course, was famously part of the earlier Belfast group, which also included Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Bernard MacLaverty. Hobsbaum, who was also instrumental in instituting the MLitt Creative Writing course at Glasgow University in 1995, is therefore a crucial link between most of the finest of Irish and Scottish creative writers of the late twentieth century. The ongoing relationship between these two closely related literatures was confirmed by ‘Walsay’ (from A Hundred Doors (Cape, 2011)), Longley’s opening poem of this reading and his tribute to his “great hero”, Hugh MacDiarmid. Longley introduced the poem by explaining that it had been written after visiting MacDiarmid’s tiny cottage on the Shetland island of Walsay, where MacDiarmid had lived in penury from May 1933 until January 1942. Longley praised MacDiarmid’s early lyrics as “amongst the greatest poems I have ever read”, and I wholeheartedly agree with his judgement. The poem itself acknowledges MacDiarmid’s brilliant, wholly original use of Scots: “he — / Ravenous, insomniac — beach — / Combed the exact dialect words”.
The first half of this reading drew on poems from the first part of Longley’s new collection, his tenth, The Stairwell (Cape, 2014), interspersed by others from A Hundred Doors, The Weather in Japan (Cape, 2000) and Snow Water (Cape, 2004). The Stairwell is heavy with elegy but it also contains poems in celebration of Longley’s grandchildren, and he followed his homage to MacDiarmid with three of these read together: ‘Amelia’s Poem’, ‘Birth Bed’ and ‘Fetlocks’. These were followed by ‘The Leveret’ from A Hundred Doors, written for his eldest grandchild, Benjamin. This poem is set in Longley’s beloved Carrigskeewaun, by the Owennadornaun, a landscape that, with its flora and fauna, has become symbolic, almost mythic, in his work. The poem welcomes the new-born to his first night in the seaside cottage where he was conceived a year previously: “a fire seed in the hearth”. This is an initiation into the mysteries and wonders of Carrigskeewaun; to its harmony, its unity and its transcendence. The child is urged to “hear the wind in the fluffy chimney” and “the rain” and “a shore bird calling from the mussel reefs”; and to see “the sea” and a “a tufted duck on David’s lake / With her sootfall of hatchlings” and the “scabious / And centaury in a jam-jar of water /That will bend and magnify the daylight.”
With ‘Ashes’, from The Stairwell, Longley turned around the generational telescope to focus on the foreshortened view of his own diminishing time:
Looking for a second marsh helleborine
Takes me along the perimeter fencing
To where I want my ashes wind-scattered.
The poet is out on the edge, still alert for the next wonder but aware his “lifetime [is] adrift between stepping stones / With the badger drowned”.
The new collection features Longley’s familiar approach of using his profound knowledge of Homer’s Iliad to enhance elegiac themes around loss and warfare. Longley’s father was a survivor of the Great War who joined the London Scottish regiment at 17 in 1914 and had been made a captain by the time he was just 20. Longley related that some of the young men his father commanded had barely begun to shave, hence they became known as “Longley’s Babies”. Lest anyone be tempted to conclude that Longley is simply jumping on the Great War centennial bandwagon, it is important to emphasise, as his reading selection demonstrated, that he has been writing about that conflict and his father’s role in it, and mediating this through Homer, for a very long time.
‘The War Graves’ from The Weather in Japan is untouched by Homer but it does display Longley’s predilection for an imagery of wild flowers and birds:
In mine craters so vast they are called after cities
Violets thrive, as though strewn by each cataclysm
To sweeten the atmosphere and conceal death’s smell
With a perfume that vanishes as soon as it is found.
Old pals in the visitors’ book at Railway Hollow
Have scribbled ‘The severest spot. The lads did well.’
‘We came to remember’, and the woodpigeons too
Call from the wood and all the way from Accrington.
How that “The severest spot. The lads did well”, selected so precisely by the poet, resounds with modest understatement and camaraderie; while the long /o/ sounds of “book”, “Hollow” “woodpigeons”, “too” and “wood”, and the multiple liquid /l/ sounds, beginning with “Old pals”, which come together in “Hollow”, echo the mournful, haunting call of the woodpigeon, so that we have a ‘hollow call’ across the no man’s land of time and history, all the way from Accrington, from home. This is elegy of the highest order.
By Longley’s standards, ‘The War Graves’ is a long poem of 48 lines. His poems are usually much shorter, indeed he mischievously remarked at one point that, in his opinion, most poems are too long, which is ironic given his surname. He resisted this obvious joke, but one of the marvellous aspects of Longley’s performance was his charming, grandfatherly manner and quiet wit, which was in contrast to the intensity with which he read, marking the stresses with down strokes of his right hand. It is impossible to deny his deep seriousness, his heft, his grace.
The next four poems read continued the Great War theme. ‘Harmonica’, from Snow Water, invoked the poet’s father playing a harmonica Longley had brought home from school one day, revealing a previously unsuspected skill. Longley’s classical education shows through the reference to Anaxamines, who taught that “Our souls are air”. Longley was at his succinct best in these seven deft lines that suggests an eternal spiritual brotherhood of the quick and the dead from the trenches.
The sonnet, ‘Boy Soldier’ from the new collection, begins in the Iliad: “The spear point pierces his tender neck.” A beautiful boy is cut down like “a sapling” in a “spring blizzard”. He is “the son of Pantheus” but could just as well be “the London Scottish” or “The Inniskillings”, “killed and despoiled”. ‘High Wood’, from A Hundred Doors, is two lines of pure imagery of countless slaughter.
Longley introduced ‘Lunch’ by talking about Homer’s use of homely metaphors to make descriptions of battle scenes more harrowing. Thus we have in this poem the Greeks making a breakthrough at the time of day “When the woodcutter / His arms exhausted / From chopping trees / […] / Prepares his lunch.” This scene then transmogrifies into “Field kitchen smells / Memories of home / Between explosions”. The final two lines of this poem are a wonder of transcendence that I will leave the reader to discover.
Longley concluded his reading with six poems from the second section of the new collection, which is an elegiac sequence for the poet’s beloved twin brother, who was a marine engineer, and is dedicated “For Peter, My Twin”. Again Homer is invoked extensively throughout this sequence.
In ‘The Trees’, Longley tells his brother that if he hides in the cypress, “I’ll never find you”. Of course, the cypress, in many cultures, is associated with death and mourning but there is also a boyhood echo here in that it contains the word ‘press’, which is Scots (and Ulster Scots) for ‘cupboard’. We can imagine both a domestic game of hide-and-seek and the ‘press’ as a sort of coffin.
“The Feet” is dedicated to Peter’s widow, Catherine, who, “when he was dead”, showed Longley her “sailor-husband’s feet” in a shared moment of poignant intimacy in grief. ‘The Boxers’ records the formalised fraternal scrapping of twin boys who “were combatants from the start.” ‘The Birthday’ is the occasion of the twins’ first birthday after Peter’s death: “I’ve boiled organic beetroots for supper / Will your pee be pink in heaven?” Finally, ‘The Duckboards’ invokes “Our father’s ghost, as though at Passchendale / […] / As we follow behind in the rain.”
The brief Q&A, chaired by the poet, Jennifer Williams of the Scottish Poetry Library, elicited two questions from the audience. The first questioner was keen to hear Longley speak about his relationship with Homer. It was clear from Longley’s answer that this relationship is, in fact, a love affair: “Nothing compares [with] or surpasses Homer for an account of war and death”. Longley admitted not being as diligent as he might have been at his classical studies, being enamoured instead of ee cummings at the time. Now he reads and re-reads Homer again and again because “it’s bottomless”. He remarked on the wonder that, in his view, “the first European masterpiece is the best”.
The second question, incidentally from the aforementioned, Aonghus MacNeacail, was more challenging in that it concerned the pressures on poets and other writers that must have arisen during, what the questioner called “the Wee War”, that raged in Northern Ireland for more than a quarter of a century from the late 60’s. This can hardly be the first time Longley has been asked such a question and as you might expect, his answer was full, considered and frank. He mentioned “growing-up” with Heaney and Mahon and them all experiencing pressure to write about The Troubles. They did not have a manifesto but they all knew “they did not want to ride on yesterday’s headlines”. Eventually, of course, “poems did emerge”, often mediated, for instance, by the Danish archaeological peat-bog discoveries that so fascinated Heaney. In order to illustrate the pitfalls of reactive, political writing, Longley cited a novel by an American author (I think he said the book was called “Unity”) that was circulated as samizdat amongst republican prisoners during the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. This was a book that the hunger strikers drew inspiration from but that Longley and his fellow poets disdained at the time as “troubles trash”. They were appalled that the hunger strikers “based their sacrifice on bad art”. At the same time, the poets agreed that it was important that they “didn’t say nothing”. Longley, for instance, wrote a poem at the time about a man named Latimer, who had been an ice-cream seller and who was killed by the IRA (‘The Ice-cream Man’ published in Gorse Fires, (Cape 1991)). This poem begins with five ice-cream flavours and ends with 23 flower names and drew a letter of gratitude from the dead man’s mother. There can be no finer endorsement of the poet’s elegiac art.