The poetic ‘soul' of Michael Longley

Poet Michael Longley is finalising his latest collection which he says is his best to date. He tells Joanne Sweeney why nothing beats the feeling when the words of a poem come together

Poet Michael Longley pictured at home in south Belfast  
Poet Michael Longley pictured at home in south Belfast  

WHEN someone like Michael Longley describes his work as being better than food or sex, then you know that he is in the right job.

Belfast born and bred, the poet is still more than happy with what he describes as a "sacred calling" as he prepares his eleventh collection for publication next June.

He's also a most generous man, as I was allowed to have first sight and feel of the collection's proofs, the arrival of which he was clearly eagerly anticipating on the morning we met to chat about his life and work at the Longley family home in south Belfast.

Dr Edna Longley, renowned Irish literary poetry critic and commentator and Michael Longley's wife of 52 years, popped her head into their sitting room to confirm that the package which had just been delivered was indeed the proofs of Angel Hill.

"It's my best to date," quips the 77-year-old who has won nearly every major poetry prize over his long career, including the international Griffin prize last year for 2014 collection The Stairwell.

"The only thing that really matters to me is a new poem, the next book of poems coming out. It's very exciting."

Angel Hill will soon be followed by a new book of his selected prose, as well as his memoirs.

Watch: Michael Longley discusses how he's Irish and British

For a poet who has won the biggest poetry prizes in the world since he first was published in 1965 – The Whitbread, the TS Eliot prize, the Hawthorden – he's a bit laid back about the honours.

"I don't really approve of prizes, until I win one, of course," he says mischievously.

Other honours include a CBE in 2010, and the Freedom of Belfast in 2015, no doubt all well received – but Longley adds: "I suppose if you live long enough, people start to say nice things about you and nice things happen."

It seems fitting that we are sitting in a room with walls covered by beautiful paintings and self-portraits all done by his daughter Sarah Longley, as her home in the Isle of Sky has inspired this work.

She, partner Stewart and their young daughters live in the village Kyle of Lochalsh, a place that has become as important to Longley as his Co Mayo family bolthole Carrigskeewaun, which has featured in much of his poetry.

"Angel Hill is a collection about a new landscape that I'm exploring, it's what I call my new soul-landscape," Longley explains.

"My other soul-landscape is Carrigskeewaun, where we took our three children since 1970."

"Angel Hill is a little mountain or hill behind Sarah's cottage and is obviously a Neolithic burial site and used as a graveyard in Victorian times.

"It's a haunting place and I wrote a number of poems that mention it which is why I have called the book Angel Hill.”

He continues: "Now this exciting thing has happened to me in my 70s, where in a reciprocal way, Sarah is sharing her soul-landscape with me."

While Longley and Sarah share a love of art, he makes it clear that he's equally attuned to his elder daughter Rebecca and son Daniel; the former a successful business owner in Edinburgh, his son a professor at Queen's University who spearheads oncology research.

Despite this being a house where some lofty literature has doubtless been written, analysed and critiqued, it feels like a real home for its three generations.

Amid the original art and framed pictures of Michael's and Sarah's unique Christmas cards of poems and art, a framed Derek Mahon poem to Longley's former prowess on the rugby field, frames showing his wedding to Edna in 1964 and the obligatory pictures of their seven grandchildren, a little girl's doll buggy is neatly tucked away in the porch and a bright plastic peddle car sits abandoned smack in the middle of the garden.

"I feel my life is blessed, you know," Longley tells me. "I've had a blessed life, my friendships with [Seamus] Heaney, Derek Mahon, [Paul] Muldoon and the younger poets Frank [Ormsby] and Sinead [Morrissey].

"I knew the artist Colin Middleton when I was younger and got to know the painter Gerard Dillon as well as Solly Lipsitz, who sold me my first ever jazz record – what more could anybody want?

"And then to marry one of the most intelligent women in the world, as well as a great literary critic, and then to have three children, my cup is full and brimming."

The son of English parents Richard and Constance, whose father served in both World Wars and inspired the poem Wounds, Longley is equally comfortable with his Irish and British nationalities.

"I've ways felt both, Irish and British,” says the former RBAI pupil, who will soon apply for an Irish passport.

"Ireland, Belfast and Dublin, has provided me with most of the data out of which I make sense of myself in poetry, so I'm Irish.

"But on the other hand, I have to be true to my dear, gentle English parents and my father's very interesting life as he served in both World Wars, so part of me is Britannic.

"What I like about the Belfast Agreement is that it has allowed me to be both, which is what I am."

It's heady to think of Longley with the acclaimed Belfast poet Derek Mahon at Trinity College Dublin and the creative "jousting" that went on between them – an integral part of their "demanding" friendship – and then meeting with the late Seamus Heaney through Queen's University in what became a creative 'rat pack' that produced world-class poetry from this tiny part of the world.

Despite his lifetime devotion to poetry, he says he can't find it in himself to call himself a poet quite yet.

"I can't, as it would be very bad for my soul, to go thinking of myself as a poet because it's a sacred calling I think.

"And one mustn't take it for granted," he adds.

However, the buzz the former teacher and Arts Council of Northern Ireland administrator gets from writing poetry is all-important to him.

"There comes an exciting moment when your realise that you are not going to screw it up, that it's going to happen," he says of the process.

"You are at your most alive and for me, it's far more exciting than food, or drink or sex or anything else. I live for those moments when the muse visits me."

He no longer cares what anyone thinks of his poetry as long as he gets when he calls the thumb-up and "the Good Housekeeping seal of approval" from Edna.

Longley cites Tall Nettles by Edward Thomas as his favourite poem, adding: "The thing about a good poem is that you can read it again and again.

"Tall Nettles which says everything, as far as I'm concerned, about poetry and it's about dust on a clump of nettles and the raindrops washing the dust away.

"It's unbearably beautiful. It's almost unendurably beautiful and I've read it hundreds of times."

:: Michael Longley's new collection Angel Hill will be published by Jonathon Cape next June.