Michael Longley in Context: A Symposium
Queen’s University Belfast, 11th June 2019
I was honoured and humbled to take part in a very special symposium to mark the 80th birthday of poet Michael Longley last week in Queen’s University Belfast expertly organised by Alison Garden. Seven invited academic critics (myself included) presented papers on a range of aspects of Longley’s work and the day was rounded off with a poetry reading in honour of the great poet himself. Here follows my own look back at the event based on scribbled notes I took as the day unfolded.
With a characteristically astute, sensitive, and nuanced reading of Michael Longley’s ‘The Linen Industry’ from The Echo Gate (1979), Peter McDonald set the tone for this rare and momentous event and began (also characteristically) by taking issue with the word ‘context’ of the symposium’s title and opening it out to the far more appropriate ‘contexts’. As the author of the 1991 study Louis MacNeice: The Poet in his Contexts, McDonald conceded the insuperable limitations of his own undertaking: ‘the plurality was far vaster than anything I could control’ and the succession of readings to follow at this event would amply demonstrate the similarly vast multiplicity of Longley’s own work. A masterclass in close reading, McDonald brought us through ‘The Linen Industry’ line by line to show how it, after John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘makes one little room an everywhere’ and how Longley’s ‘openness to a world that is real’ marks him out as a poet of deep and lasting significance. In this way his paper became a work of art in its own right as it impressed upon all present the way that the reading of a poem can create something of commensurate beauty and wisdom: ‘the imagination makes the reality it inhabits’, he reminded us to conclude.
Florence Impens then took to the floor to give her account of the importance of the Classics to Longley – a poet who has famously described himself as a ‘lapsed Classicist’. Beginning with Longley’s recent poem ‘The Alphabet’, from The Stairwell (2014), Impens showed how Longley selects from Classical sources to make his poems. Echoing Impens’ approach, Lucy McDiarmid began her discussion by looking at Longley’s ‘Homecoming’ alongside its source in a translation from Book XIII of Homer’s The Odyssey as she turned our attention to the recumbent or reclining figure in Longley’s work. This lively and wide-ranging talk inaugurated what McDiarmid has termed a ‘postural poetics’ and her readings of poems from Longley’s oeuvre such as ‘Detour’ and ‘Couchette’ (Gorse Fires, 1991) and ‘The Rabbit’ (2000) took us on a surreal and entertaining journey.
Focussing on Longley’s visual poetics, Jack Quin from Trinity College Dublin explored Longley in relation to his predecessor John Hewitt to show us how Hewitt as poet and art curator informs Longley’s work in important ways. It was particularly interesting to see how the poem ‘Forty Portraits’ shapes its material out of one of Longley’s own art reviews. Travelling westward, Adam Hanna took us to Longley’s ‘home from home’ Carrigskeewaun, that remote place in Mayo that Longley has written out of and back to for decades. ‘The important thing about that house is that it’s borrowed’, Hanna recalled Edna Longley telling him once, and the idea of ‘home’ as, to quote Longley, ‘a hollow between the waves’, is central to an understanding of Longley’s poetry in which, as Hanna described, the domus becomes the cosmos.
Just as Longley’s own poetry is replete with resonances, linkages between the papers became more and more apparent as the day’s conversation went on, and my own paper focused on three American women poets who also make the domestic cosmic. Although Longley only ever seems to cite male poets as influences on his work, my paper (part of a longer essay I have written for publication) argued for the vital presence of poets such as Emily Dickinson, Barbara Guest and Ruth Stone on Longley’s developing poetics – particularly through his intensifying interest in art and colour, and in his treatment of death in late career. Their voices lead him to new territories, as I see it, and so inspire and enable ‘widening vistas’.
Alan Gillis prefaced his fascinating paper on Longley’s poem ‘Flora’ by bringing us back to the event itself with a bracing and necessary statement on the importance of such an occasion that is dedicated to the close and considered reading of poetry. As Gillis observed, poetry needs readers of discernment such as were gathered in that room on that day – there is little point in creative writing programmes churning out poets if there are no readers to make critical and creative sense of the work. This reminded me of how Longley himself has joked about how he must be the only poet in the world who has written ‘love poems for a critic’ but even such a humorous quip deserves a moment’s pause. Why shouldn’t critics, who love poetry, and poets, have poems gifted to them as gratitude for their own work? Longley himself is a great poet of the love-poem-for-critic. There is his poem for Terence Brown (‘The Signal Box’) in which the critic’s love and attentiveness for his subject – and the poet’s admiration for the critic’s art – is made real to us and Longley has dedicated his recent volume of selected prose to the critic Fran Brearton.
After a quick detour to the pub (all of which stays in the pub!) we all reconvened at Queen’s for a poetry reading in honour of Michael Longley. Four poets – Peter McDonald, Alan Gillis, Leontia Flynn and Gail McConnell – read, and commented on, poems by Michael along with poems of their own. This was a revelatory and intimate experience which had poets talking back to a poet that they have cherished and learnt from and, in this way, it comprised a vibrant testament to poetic friendship and to the teaching of literature.
Peter McDonald bowed to Michael as the consummate performer of his own poems and acknowledged Longley’s guiding influence on him as a poet – particularly in recalibrating relations between men and women in his own work. By selecting ‘Snipe’ (a poem dedicated to the memory of his former teacher the late Sheila Smyth), McDonald also paid tribute to the fundamental importance of poetic mentors. Alan Gillis chose to read Longley’s ‘Pale Butterwort’ and remembered the ‘electric shock’ of his first encounter with it. Somehow, his recitation of this poem turned it into an Alan Gillis poem and so the circle in the air was completed.
In a wonderfully frank and insightful performance, Leontia Flynn also recalled the sensation of first reading Longley’s ‘Swans Mating’: ‘I went a little bit quiet afterwards’, she recalled, because of its ‘delicacy and complexity and troubling image.’ The stanzas were ‘perfect’, Flynn went on to say, praising Longley for his ability to ‘give good stanza’. Flynn read her own ‘The Peace Lily’ – a poem of Belfast in peace-time – and ‘The Vibrator’ which, she laughed, nodded to Michael’s ‘dirty’ side. ‘Kinky’ was the adjective Gail McConnell chose and she had fascinating things to say about Michael Longley as a poet of homoerotic friendship. Longley has clearly been important to her in negotiating same-sex parenting – she read his ‘In the Iliad’ to illustrate this – and her reading of her own ‘Untitled / Villanelle’ was touching and quietly powerful. (You can read it here.)
I came away from this event with lines by Longley in my head, wishing that such an event could go on and on, but, more than that, with an enlarged sense of his own life as a poet, the life of his compassionate and capacious mind, and the ongoing life he has given not only to language but to the poets around him and to his readers. If, to quote from a recent poem of his, ‘Poetry is shrinking almost to its bones’, then its bones are strong and durable and form lasting structures within which life, though fragile, will continue to happen. A poet of transformation, translation and transfiguration, the music and meaning of Longley’s words will long resonate into the unimaginable future:
The last day of the year:
Greylag geese are flying
In regular formation
Along the shoreline, sky-shapes,
An image of poetry.
Michael Longley, ‘Image’, from Angel Hill (2017)