an interview by Meghan Kelly and Sarah Weiskittel:
Lighthouse on the Soul
Meghan Kelly and Sarah Weiskittel sat down with Irish poet Michael Longley in October 2013 when he visited Boston University. In the following edited transcript of their discussion, Meghan and Sarah ask the poet about his lifelong relationship with the classics, about the influence of social turmoil on his writing, and more. A video of Longley's poetry reading can be found at BUniverse.
SW: Why do you draw so much upon the classics? Is it just a personal interest or do you think it's a good way to understand the present world?
ML: It's one of my ways of making sense of life. Homer, for instance, allowed me to write lamentations for my mother and father, and to explore some of the complexities in the Northern Ireland situation, and to look back at the Great War, which obsesses me because my father fought in it. And windows into all of those areas of concern are opened especially in Homer.
And, I enjoyed the sexual complications of Ovid. That was a major movement in my writing, when I wrote about five or six Ovid versions and immersed myself in the Metamorphoses. In a way you could say that the classics have enlightened me with regard to my own experience and to my own reaction to episodes like the Troubles, the Great War. You know if you look at the great tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, they are machines for helping us make sense of our own confusions, and our confusions can sometimes be terrible. So in my life, the classics have been like a lighthouse, illuminating darker areas of my own soul.
SW: Your version of Ovid's "Baucus and Philemon" was fairly literal until you added in lines of your own invention at the end. How much of your work is literal translation, and how much is more loosely inspiration, reshaping the source material and making it your own?
ML: It depends on the context. There was a poem called "The Flowering," a fairly loose improvisation on an Ovid story, explaining the mythology behind two flowers, anemone and hyacinth I think. And the "Baucus and Philemon" was really quite truthful-no, truthful's the wrong word, let's say faithful-to the original Latin. The bold thing was to see if I could divide it into five-line stanzas. The story in a way proceeds in pulses that last around five lines, and that was fairly good luck. I dedicated it to friends who'd lost a son in a fire, and that in a way inspired the last two lines. When I improvised, and put in a little bit of my own at the end of that poem. But that's how I began; I began at the end and worked backwards. And I hoped to Jesus that the first stanza would be five lines long because if it was four lines long or six lines long, God, I would have scrapped the whole bloody thing.
That kind of luck is a kind of endorsement that proves something. It's one of the bonuses of working formally. The form has its own laws, and if the piece of writing you've embarked on-and you don't know what you're going to do, you don't know what the shape of it's going to be-if the piece of writing you've embarked on fulfills those laws, you realize you've been right. The poem tells you. It's a great mystery.
You look very skeptical.
MK: No, I'm interested! When I was looking over your poetry, one of the things that stood out to me was that I was not sure how the stanzas worked, but obviously they were up to something. It's not that there's a rhyme scheme followed strictly, but you're concerned with the shape of the poem.
ML: Yes, I believe in form. Stanley Kunitz has said form is a way of conserving energy. The energy soon leaks out of a badly-made thing, and jeepers, that's true.
SW: What about transformations of form. what's the special challenge of translating the portions of Homer's epics into lyrical poems?
ML: That's the whole thing, that's my enterprise. You read through the Odyssey and the Iliad to find out what happens next, don't you? They're page-turners. And so what I do is go through all that narrative and I pick out a lovely little moment or episode and I stop the action and I convert that moment into a lyric. It's a question of knowing when to do it, having an eye for the moment.
If you look at Greek vases, Greek sculpture, or you listen to European music, you find the composer or the artist has done the exact same thing, haven't they? There are any number of wonderful works of art, carvings, painting, drawings on vases, that do this. For example, take that moment where Priam is casting himself at the knees of Achilles; what I do is freeze-frame it. Though, I'm doing something slightly different now, where I'm taking moments, just a few lines sometimes, and incorporating them into the poem, and not mak ing the entire poem out of them. There's one, "High Wood," I'm going to read it this evening: "I think of my gentle land at High Wood, lying wounded among the splintered trees and unburied dead. Some of them his mates, and some his victims, shot and bayonetted. " An d then to the end of Book 4, the Iliad: "Many Trojans and Achaeans fell that day, and lay side by side, faces in the mud." Now, that poem doesn't need to be any longer.
I don't know exactly whether I'd call that a translation or not, but it translates Homer for me. I personally believe if he was alive, he wouldn't mind too much.
SW: I don't think he would, either. Now, I got the impression, and correct me if I'm wrong, that instead of trying to read through all of your source material in the Latin or Greek, you look through translations and, when you find that moment that strikes you, then you go back to the original?
ML: Oh, I've got to go back to the original. And I've got to look up every word in Liddell and Scott. The other thing is, jeepers, the vocabulary in Greek is vast. (Sarah and Meghan laugh) And the vocabulary in Homer's vast. So I've got to go back to the original, I've got to hear that marvelous music.
I have a friend, who's a very, very good Greek scholar, and she knows what I've never mastered, and she goes along the lines and can see her picking out the noun and it's adjective, and recites it for me. So although sometimes Homer-the only begetter-isn't evident, he's there all the time, between the lines.
SW: Do I have it right, that when you were studying classics as an undergrad at Trinity, you called yourself a 'lapsed classicist'?
ML: (laughs) Pleased with that?
SW: I liked that! Did you always feel a strong connection to the classics, but you didn't come back to it more intensely until you were in your fifties? Was it something where you always loved it, or that when you were studying it you had a moment when you found a connection?
ML: Well, I can remember as a schoolboy, reading Homer, very slowly, in Greek class. And we would do about six, fifteen lines a lesson. And you'd translate a few lines, and then the old teacher would have you read them aloud, which I think was very important. I did love that. And then when I went to Trinity, I can remember sitting beside Stanford in the one-to-one, and we were reading together the Nausikaa episode, which is a very sweet little episode when Odysseus comes out the water and there's this girl beholding him.
I can remember everything in the room, so vivid; Greek was so vivid. I can remember everything in the room: the smell of his gown, the view out the window, the texture of the desk, and it entered my system at quite a profound level. But the implications of it didn't open up, didn't flower, you know, like a Japanese paper flower, where you put it in water and it opens up. The opening up didn't quite happen until I was older. I sometimes think that it would be better to go to University when you were 45. How could you read King Lear at nineteen? I don't think you can, you haven't suffered enough. Haven't been through the mill enough.
Likewise, it was various events in my own life, looking out the bathroom window on this little Italian window and seeing old Cesare tending the vines, and seeing not just Laërtês but my own aged father. Watching a father grow old and then die enabled me to appreciate what happens in that scene, when Laërtês is in mourning for his son who's been away for so long, and he doesn't realize that the man standing in front of him is his son. Then Odysseus gives him all sorts of clues and the penny drops, and the old man is so overwhelmed with love and relief that he faints. Jeepers! I think you need to have had an old dad to really connect here. I don't mean to say you need to have, of course-a profound sixteen-year old would be moved-but nevertheless, having known an aged father helps one. And that's why that was my first lamentation, for my father.
SW: What you said about going back to school later in life; I think I get that. I'm in classes now, and I'm feeling it's all so great, and I get a lot out of it; but sometimes I feel like there's something about this I'm not going to understand for another couple of decades.
ML: Well, also, things become easier. That's one of the things about getting older. You get to know what you like. You're not actually kidding yourself. You can sit down and listen to a whole symphony, and just feel your way around it, because you're not trying to impress yourself or other people. In a way, I'd quite like to go back to Trinity. On the other hand, I couldn't sit an examination. Not if you gave me a million bucks! (laughs) That's not the way my mind works.
I remember interviewing a very great man, Frank O'Connor, who did very good translations from the Irish. And since I don't have Irish, it was through Frank O'Connor that I found out about early Irish poetry. And I interviewed him, the way you're interviewing me, with what they were called a tape recorder. So I had to sit and take notes and rush back. He was very pleased with the interview. I always remember him saying, "I have a very slow mind, but a very good one." (laughs) And I'd like to think the same thing about myself, deep down.
MK: I'd like to ask a little bit more about your life. You were born and grew up in Belfast, and went to Trinity at age 18. Was there tension? At what point was it clear that the Troubles were going to have the impact they did on your writing and your life?
ML: Well, that was '58. It wasn't really until ten years later that the Troubles erupted. So I left Trinity, you know. That was 1969. But, one just sleepwalked through that nightmare. I was taken by surprise by the ferocity of it, I really was. I remember my first slim volume came out in 1969, No Continuing City, and a Welsh bloke called Danny Elsie reviewed it, and he was more or less criticizing the book having no references to the Troubles (which didn't really erupt anyway until 1969-70). There was a certain amount of pressure on us, on the poets of my generation, to comment on the Troubles. But we chose not to hitch a ride on the headlines. We waited, and adopted what you might call an oblique approach.
I've written some, where, you know. it's not like a journalist reporting everything as it happens. He or she has to have the raw material of experience settle, where it's transformed and can come out as art. We had this term, 'Troubles Trash', novels that came out that were very shallow responses to the grim details. We hated that. Eventually each one of us wrote a few good poems each. But, most of the art produced by the Troubles was not very good, in the same way that most of the art produced by the Vietnam War was not very good. How many good Vietnam War poems are there? You don't see very many.
Take a really great poet, like Emily Dickinson, who in my mind is in the top twelve, top ten poets in the English language. I really do think she's great, breathtaking. She lived through the American Civil War: but how many references are there to the war in her work? I don't think any. But who's to say that the electric charge that you get from her poetry hasn't been, to some extent, generated by the Civil War? She doesn't deal with it directly, or so far as one knows, even obliquely. But I'm sure it's there somewhere between the lines.
MK: The way the tension in Ireland manifests in your work or in the work of those around you, like Seamus Heaney, or the other poets of your generation. How long does it take to manifest, and do you think that it produces good poems?
ML: Well, as I've just said, it can produce bad poems. But, culturally, my little neck of the woods, Northern Ireland, is complicated. I like to think of it as a whirlpool, and into the whirlpool, the currents that make up the whirlpool are Irish culture, English culture, Scottish culture, Anglo-Irish culture, and that all swirls together. And at the bottom of the whirlpool, there's street violence and mayhem and murder. At the top of the whirlpool, there are works of art, artists, artistic expression. I think those tensions keep the ordinary citizen on his toes. More than that, the artistic ones-whichever of the ordinary citizens are artistic-are on their toes. One's alert, and attentive, and receptive in that society. I think that's good for art.
You mentioned Heaney, who's written some lovely, very good poems. I'd name Derek Mahon too, and Paul Muldoon. Some of the younger women, they all chipped in. Sinéad Morrisey, Ciarán Carson, Medbh McGuckian. What we call the Northern Troubles has colored, to some extent, the works of those writers.
MK: It's interesting that you say that people, despite the tension, are receptive to art. I would have thought you'd see people become fearful and closed off during times of uncertainty.
ML: It works both ways. Some people can be consumed with hatred. I like to think that with art, poetry undermines certain things, certainties, these tribal certainties. There are two main things, two main notions that are so inadequate and wrong, and they're lethal. One's the notion that we can have a Green Ireland. You can't: too many Prods around. The other is that we can have an Orange Ulster. You can't: too many Catholics around. Isn't that obvious? So, poetry can point that out, and confuse those people who are certain even in the face of that obvious contradiction.
Those two notions, to my mind, are absurdities, just on the population count. Voltaire said this wonderful thing: "Those who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities." Terrific, isn't it? And, God, you see that in the Middle East, don't you? In Pakistan. That beautiful young girl, with a sky-high IQ is shot in the head because of that patriarchal absurd notion that girls couldn't be educated. So they believe that absurdity, and the absurdity leads to the atrocity of shooting her.
MK: Yeats I think struggles with that failing of human beings to confront those kinds of contradictions. I've been reading, studying his work, for the past couple of months. How do you feel about him?
ML: I think he's the greatest poet since Shakespeare. I think he's the bee's knees. Goodness. I think of the things he did. He wrote great political poems, great love poems, lovely nature poems. He advanced on a number of fronts all the time. I really love him. You tell me what you like about him.
MK: I do like his breadth. He's astonishing. From a classic major's perspective, I do like what he does particularly with comparing Maud Gonne to Helen. He does a lot of very interesting work in these generally pining sort of poems to Maud. In comparing her to Helen, he makes her very powerful and very beautiful, but also very intelligent, which is something you don't often see in the 'loving from afar' kind of poem. You don't see that in Dante or Petrarch, but you see a level of respect that comes out of their closeness and the relationship they had, sexual or otherwise. I like that he transcends the normal 'Muse' poem.
ML: He transcends most things. I see him as a great example. And people talk about writing in the shadow of Yeats, but I don't think he casts a shadow. I think he casts a great bright light. I like what he does. He's a formalist, and his forms are varied and very subtle. He's a great stanzaic and metrical artist, and I see him as somebody to learn from and be inspired by. I envy you doing Yeats.
MK: Well, I came to him not knowing much, and I've learned a lot about Ireland and classics, the way words work.
ML: Do you have any more questions for me?
MK: No, I'm done with you.
ML: You're done with me? (laughs)You're going to have a thrilling time. The classics are so extraordinary and wonderful that you wonder why everyone isn't studying it, don't you? (laughs)
Notes. "Liddell and Scott": A Greek-English Lexicon, edited by Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, is a standard lexicographical work of the Ancient Greek language, well known to undergraduate students of the classics. \\ "High Wood": Longley's father joined the London-Scottish Regiment in September 1914 and was wounded at High Wood, a small forest which was the scene of intense fighting for two months during the Battle of the Somme. It earned an evil reputation among the British soldiers; the stench of corpses in the wood was overwhelming in the summer heat. \\ "Stanford": William Bedell Stanford (16 January 1910 - 30 December 1984) was an Irish classical scholar and senator. He was Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin between 1940 and 1980 and served as the twenty-second Chancellor of the University between 1982 and 1984. \\ "girl, with a sky-high IQ": Malala Yousafzai, a student and activist from the Swat District of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In 2012, she was shot in retaliation for her advocacy for the education of women in her country. In 2013, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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