Michael Longley (b.1939, Belfast) is a central figure in contemporary Irish poetry. A forceful figure within the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, where he founded the literary programme, he is one of the 200 distinguished artists who are members of Aosdana. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the Wilfred Owen Award. In addition, he has won the Whitbread Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Poetry, a Poetry Now Award and the Librex Montale Prize. He was made a C.B.E. in the Queen’s Birthday honours 2010.

Having been a Classics scholar at Trinity College seems to have infused Longley with the cadences of classical metres and with the stories and characters from Greek and Roman mythology. However, even when the poems make a direct reference to incidents from Homer, they bear witness to the contemporary moment: for example, the retrieval of Hector’s body in ‘Ceasefire’, which was published just days after a ceasefire was called in Northern Ireland. Longley is also an expert at presenting the small pure moments of peace that are the opposite of violence, sometimes alone, as in ‘Snow Water’, sometimes in parallel, as in ‘The Ice-cream Man’. Even when paralleled, his links are oblique and lightfooted; the murder of ‘The Ice-cream Man’ is surrounded by the attentive litany of flavours and flowers that demonstrate respect for each individual thing, but the difference is not remarked upon.

His respect and his eye for nature provide a group of beautiful nature poems, often set in West of Ireland, such as ‘Remembering Carrigskeewaun’, (having said of his beloved Carrigskeewaun, ‘it’s the most magical place in the world for me’). And a last theme is love; Longley is married to Edna Longley, an excellent and seemingly strict critic – ‘if it wasn’t for her, my oeuvre would be three times the size it is now’ – who can be found in a (still oblique) love poem such as ‘The Pattern’.

Sean O’Brien notes how Longley’s work has evolved from ‘classically educated formalism towards conversational intimacies’. Such intimacy is present in ‘Fifty Years’, a poem of calmness and companionship celebrating his golden wedding anniversary, which recalls an adult life sharing language, ways of looking, moments of reflection, ‘silences and syllables’. Often his landscapes harbour and reflect much of the poems’ warmth of feeling: ‘The Owennadornaun is so full of rain’, as Carrigskeewaun brims with anticipation for the first night’s stay of just-born Benjamin; and Amelia’s ‘newborn name / Combines with the midwife’s word / And, like smoke from driftwood fires / Wafts over the lochside road’. And yet, elements of the classical word still live – unthreateningly – within these poems: Benjamin is a ‘little hoplite’ taken ceremoniously seaward, and the feet of Longley’s twin brother are reimagined as Poseidon’s, as the god carves his way through sea.

Critics have acknowledged his work’s mnemonic qualities; and, as with much of Edward Thomas, W.B. Yeats, and Keats from whom Longley takes much influence, his poems lend themselves to the ear and to memory. His reading style, when he is using rhyme, does not allow its ring to overpower the sense; his metrical effects are delivered equally subtly in his gently inflected voice. The priority is, appropriately, always given to the clear presentation of what he has described as ‘those moments when language itself takes over the enterprise, and insight races ahead of knowledge.’

His first recording was made on 25 March 2001 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington. A second recording was made on 14 January 2015 at The Soundhouse, London, produced by Anne Rosenfeld.

His first recording was made on 25 March 2001 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington. A second recording was made on 14 January 2015 at The Soundhouse, London, produced by Anne Rosenfeld.

Poems by Michael Longley

Fifty Years - Michael Longley
The Feet - Michael Longley
Amelia’s Poem - Michael Longley
Harmonica - Michael Longley
A Hundred Doors - Michael Longley
The Leveret - Michael Longley
Snow Water - Michael Longley
Between Hovers - Michael Longley
Remembering Carrigskeewaun - Michael Longley
The Ice-Cream Man - Michael Longley
Ceasefire - Michael Longley
The Pattern - Michael Longley
Michael Longley in the Poetry Store

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