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Playing Football in No-man's Land - Paul Keen speaks with Michael Longley
by Paul Keen

Born in Belfast in 1939, Michael Longley is a member of an exceptional generation of poets who came of age in Ireland during the violence of the 1960s. His poetry has been praised for its lyrical craftsmanship and its ability to convey a sense of tragic intensity-what the poet, Douglas Dunn, described as "a release into gentleness and into an affection which seems bewildered but always benevolent, always strange, always at an imagined angle to reality". He is the author of several collections of poetry, including No Continuing City (1969), An Exploded View (1973), Man Lying on a Wall (1979), The Echo Gate (1979), Gorse Fires (1991), and The Ghost Orchid (1995). In 1991, he was awarded the Whitbread Poetry Award for Gorse Fires. The Ghost Orchid was named the Poetry Book Society Choice.

I spoke with Michael at the Arts Club on Granville Island after his reading at the 1998 Vancouver Writers' Festival.


I have heard of an island

With only one house on it.

The gulls are at home there.

Our perpetual absence

Is a way of leaving

All the eggs unbroken

That litter the ground

Right up to its doorstep.

(for Michael Allen & Paul Muldoon)

PK: During your reading today you suggested that good poetry occupies a middle ground between vision and craft, and that the writing suffers if it strays too far in either direction.

ML: Poetry has its roots in ceremony and in celebration, but part of that is the shape of the poem. A poem has an almost biological cellular inevitability, and that applies to the great freewheeling sounds of Walt Whitman as much as it does to the tight stanzaic shapes of George Herbert. They must both have that element of spontaneity and freedom. The image which really sums up what I think of as poetic form is the image of a fountain where the nozzle through which water is forced is like the form of a poem. What happens is something that is shapely like a fountain but also free-flowing and spontaneous. But I don't think of form as a jelly-mould, I don't think form is something preshaped. Many of the poets of Northern Ireland have been criticized for the "well-made poem", which to me is a tautology. A poem has to be well-made. It can be free in its style or richly formal, but to talk about a well-made poem is as tautological as to talk about a well-made chrysanthemum or a well-made snowflake.

PK: Do you think of yourself as an Irish writer? And if you do, what does that involve for you?

ML: Well, I think of all of the adjectives that are usually applied to the Irish-ebullient and sociable and jolly and full of song and stories. And I feel really that none of those adjectives apply to me. I hate the stereotyped Irishman, the image of the Irish poet, especially in Irish America, where after a reading they get out the bottle of Bushmills, and it's expected that I'm going to get drunk and garrulous and sing and behave like Brendan Beehan. Whereas really what I feel like is a cup of English Afternoon Tea. But as much as Ireland is where I was born, where I live, of course I'm Irish. I'm more Irish than I'm anything else. I think that the new peace agreement, the Good Friday agreement, has allowed me more honestly and vociferously and spontaneously to say what I've always felt, that with English parents, being brought up in Belfast, some of the time I feel Irish, some of the time I feel British, most of the time I feel neither. I'm interested in the possibilities of multiple cultural affiliation. In Paris I heard French intellectuals talking about how spiritual the Irish are, and I wanted to say, what racist nonsense. Are the Irish really more spiritual than the Welsh, or the Finnish, or the French for that matter?

PK: I noticed that one of the sessions in this Writers' Festival is called "Around an Irish Hearth".

ML: (Laughter) Yes, I mean, it's all summed up for me by a badge my wife brought back for me from New York where she was over St. Patrick's Day five or six years ago: "Kiss me, I'm Irish".

PK: The Scottish dimension in Northern Ireland is another aspect of the cultural complexities that you were just referring to.

ML: I think that's an important point. There's this awfully Serbian simplistic way, a crude binary way, of seeing it all as an England versus Ireland match. It's not. That whole approach fails to take account of the Scottish dimension, which is huge. The space between the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland and northeast Antrim is very small. They used to row in boats and Presbyterians would have celebrated communion -or the Lord's supper as they would have called it-after rowing to Scotland, and then they would row back. There would be all kinds of migrant temporary labour, with the potato season or whatever. The thing about Britain and Ireland-even Britain is too simple a word-is that it's a very intricate cat's cradle of interrelationships. So it's wonderfully mixed up, and anything which tries to simplify that gives me great offence.

PK: Is that, for you, where the importance of poetry comes from, that it's about exploring those complexities without trying to reduce them into easy oppositions?

ML: What makes Northern Ireland interesting is the cultural mix. It's a whirlpool of cultural influences, and they haven't quite melded. That produces agitation and tension and self-awareness, and out of that level of self-awareness and imagination and tolerance and receptivity and curiosity comes art. But further down, at the gut level of ignorance and superstition, it generates violence. It's a very alarming thesis, that in some ways the creativity and destruction are related, and one is very reluctant to even air it. But to some extent, I think there's truth in it. The cultural complexities of the North mean that it's a kind of volcanic area that hasn't decided exactly what it wants to be, and the volcanic eruptions produce poems and they produce violence.

PK: You've been concentrating on the simplifications embraced by many Irish nationalists, but in some ways hasn't the Protestant community-partly from the feeling of being besieged-fallen back on those same simplifications?

ML: Oh yes, each is the mirror image of the other. Each follows the modus operandi of the other. I mean, which came first, the Hibernian banners or the Orange banners? It's all become enormously sophisticated and symbiotic. I think the one thing that the Protestant paramilitaries didn't learn at Drumcree this summer was that violence really doesn't work, which is what Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have discovered-that after thirty years it just hasn't worked. So I hope the Protestant paramilitaries, the irreconcilable Unionists, will learn from that.

PK: Was the groundswell of popular protest against violence, led by people who are non-politicians, also an expression of frustration with the simplifications that you've been talking about?

ML: Yes, I think there is a real weariness with all of that. But I think that at this stage one of the things that needs to be done is to salute the role that women played in the whole movement. I think that in the ghetto communities on both sides, where part of the problem is that they've become echo chambers where all they hear are their own voices, the people who have done a lot to break that stalemate and to bring in people from the other side have been the women. Unsung heroines, many of them, and unofficial social workers, and creative forces who have made a huge contribution. And then I think that some of our churchmen and some of our politicians have done a much better job than we give them credit for. And I think that the art that has come out has made a tiny contribution too.

PK: In one of your poems you describe yourself as "a pagan and one of those awkward Protestants".

ML: I'm anti-clerical, full stop. And I'm also an atheist, or certainly an agnostic. The spiritual part of life has got to be do-it-yourself. However, I am interested in what it could mean to write religious poetry, particularly at the end of this godawful century. I like some American poets, the way they've made it possible for themselves to write poetry which is devout without being masturbatory or embarrassing. It's more difficult if you come from hard-boiled Europe. But for me, poetry is my way of making sense of life and of the world, and of celebrating it. I like Horace's phrase, "Priest of the Muses". The poet must never forget that in other societies he's the shaman and the witchdoctor whose rhythmic intonations of words stop an outbreak of measles or help to end the drought. There's a magical dimension to poetry, which is why I hate to see it confined to an agenda.

PK: In his introduction to his section of the Field Day anthology, Seamus Heaney pointed out that a poem is very different from a political document. Can you talk a bit about the role of the poet or of poetry?

ML: Poetry is the opposite of propaganda. Poetry is a correction to totalitarian emphases, and church and state are forever eager to tell us what to think, and what to feel, and how to feel. The poem encourages you to think or to feel for yourself. Inasmuch as it does that, it's bound to make a health-giving contribution, but as you say, it's immeasurable. One of my favourite images is that art in the community is like a small gland in the body, like the pituitary gland. It's so small it seems unimportant but when it's removed the body dies. It's the totalitarian forces that always want to remove it. When the Hitlers and the Stalins move into power, among the first people in chains are the poets. The Russians say that the poet outlives the czar. And so he does. Who was Prime Minister when Keats was writing? Who was Leader of the House when Whitman was writing?

It's a cliché to say that there are no borders in the imagination, but it's true. Imagination is one of the key ingredients for a lasting political settlement, along with tolerance and patience, and the crucial act of imagining-the sort of thing that happened during the first Christmas in the trenches. The huge leap of imagination which the ordinary soldier made was that the chap on the other side was exactly the same as he was, which then had to be outlawed. There was an edict from high command against that ever happening again. I think they were poets. Those soldiers who exchanged schnapps and Scotch whiskey and Christmas pudding and played football in no-man's land were behaving like poets. What they did was a kind of poetry, which is why it had to be banned.

PK: If creativity and violence are connected, will the peace agreement, if it holds, have an effect on the arts in Northern Ireland?

ML: In August 1994 when the IRA declared their first ceasefire, I got a lot of phone calls from reporters asking, now that there's a ceasefire, what are the poets going to write about? To which there are a number of answers. One was that most poetry is about the things we experience in the ordinary run of our lives. But from a political point of view, the poets were going to try to explore the complications which produced the troubles in the first place. I think the poetry that's been written in Belfast, especially in the sixties, was very, very good, and it would have gotten attention anyway. But there's absolutely no doubt that it got more attention because it was what you might call a troubled area. And some of the attention was resented, particularly in Dublin.

PK: You came out of such a remarkable generation of poets, with Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon and Brendan Kennelly. That must have been an amazing time.

ML: Except we didn't realize at the time that it was amazing. (Laughter.)

PK: Because you were having so much fun?

ML: It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of pain as well. We were very competitive. Mahon was already as a schoolboy writing extraordinary poetry. I think that there are four bodies of undergraduate work that are breathtaking-Auden's, Geoffrey Hill's, Keith Douglas's, and Derek Mahon's. It was painful for me as a fledgling poet to see how good he was. I think the first step I took to being a good poet, if that's what I am, was to say, this guy's so good I want to be in his company, rather than this guy's so good I have to run away. And then a couple of years after Trinity College we got to know Seamus who was not as far along the road as we were, but he dug his heels in and said I'm going to stand and fight my ground with these two. I know that we can't have been comfortable company for him, but that's what made it a good moment in poetry, the edginess and the unease and the pain as well as the solidarity of the imagination and the friendship of other poets. Art very seldom happens in a vacuum, there are very few Emily Dickinsons. By and large it comes with a cluster of people, meeting like this over drinks, exploring ideas and arguing, exchanging poems or drawings. But I feel that that's still happening with the younger poets who are coming up.

PK: One of the things that seems to have changed about that whole community has been the explosion of gender issues and the recognition of women's writing in the wake of the Field Day controversy.

ML: I think that's because those members of the sisterhood who we might have thought were rather extreme in the sixties made it possible. One looks back and sees that that was important. And it's partly that the women have got themselves organized. Among the best poets writing in Ireland today would be about half a dozen women: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eavan Boland, Meidbh McGuckian, Paula Meehan. But I actually don't think of poets as men or women, in the same way that I don't think of them as Catholics or Protestants. Poetry is about something happening with words that is beyond that poet's personality, way beyond that poet's prejudices and beliefs in a way that is completely out of control but formally perfect. No one can control it, it has a life of its own, and it's going to last. It's going to go on upsetting people and confusing people for years to come. I think that if poetry's not revolutionary it's lost. And by revolutionary I mean the Latinate sense of the word, of just turning things over. If you're not taking people's prejudices, our lazy ways of seeing and responding, and giving them a great shakeup so that we see the world and our circumstances anew, then it's not really poetry. That's what it's about, it's a revolution, and that's why it's dangerous. 

Paul Keen teaches English at Simon Fraser University, and has published poetry and essays in various journals and magazines. He has a special interest in Irish writing and spent a year in Dublin in 1993, where he first met Michael Longley.


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