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An Interview with Margaret Mills Harper
Sligo is a busy port town in the middle of lovely countryside in the northwest of Ireland. Guarded by two mountains, flanked by the sea, it now seems the perfect place for mythologizing, though that impression is largely due to W. B. Yeats, who spent idyllic summers there as a child and chose it for his mythical home. Every August now the town seethes with readers, writers, actors, musicians, and talkers for the Yeats International Summer School. Last summer, on the occasion of his sixty-fourth birthday and in the wake of a broad stream of honors for his recent work, including Gorse Fires (1991), The Ghost Orchid (1995), and The Weather in Japan (2003), Michael Longley opened the school. When I interviewed him there last July 28th, Longley spoke about how the poets of his generation saw Yeats, his own love for Carrigskeewaun, County Mayo, his own chosen home in the west, and his sense of the changing shape of his own career. Longley's own poetic voice, attuned to the complexities of his native Belfast, is known for its classical precision, Zen-like attentiveness, and ability to show simplicity infused with depth in patterns of quiet beauty. I wanted to talk with him at a moment that seems the start of a new phase. It's appropriate that the last poem of The Weather in Japan is a knowing “Invocation”:
Begin the invocation: rice cakes, say, buckwheat Flowers of temple bells, bamboo, a caged cricket Cheeping for the girl who plants the last rice seed. I have a good idea of what's going on outside.
Harper: Yesterday was your birthday. I thought I would ask you about the sense of time passing, where you are, your birthday, and you here talking about Yeats, a poet who famously remade himself after his mid-fifties.With your last book or two, you seem to be hitting a new stride. The last one particularly strikes me as being settled into something new, as the other ones seemed the start of something new.
Longley: I think that makes sense. I have thought for some time that poetry is written by young people and then by pensioners. When you think of what Hardy and Yeats achieved in old age, when you think, too, in the world of music, of Janácek and Verdi-Verdi wrote his great Shakespearean operas in his eighties. Janácek didn't really write much of significance until after his fifties. The problem is the middle stretch, which is bad for poets. I think it is bad for artists: I think that's when things go seriously wrong, when there are all sorts of inner emerging crises, when some of your artistic friends take to drink, or get a divorce, or have mental breakdowns or commit suicide, or, indeed, die . . . the important thing is to get through that. In the 1980s-from 1979 until 1991-I didn't publish a book, not for twelve years. It wasn't that I didn't write anything; I wrote stuff that wasn't very good. I took early retirement from my job, took my freedom in 1991, when I was 51. My fifties-and so far, my sixties-have been my best decades. So if there's any middle-aged poet out there who's feeling down in the dumps, I say, just hold on there . . . stick it out. I do feel that I'm writing my best stuff.
Harper: I think so.
Longley: I mean, I wouldn't want to disown the earlier “me's,” the earlier versions of me, and, in some ways, I would very much like to go back to the way I was writing when I was young, which was formally and elaborate. I think, too, and this might be true of life generally, that as you get older, you discover some quite simple things which take a long time to discover, like what you like and who you are. And up until then, you're trying on faces and you're trying things out, and this self-knowledge leads to a kind of insouciance, not giving a fuck, right? this is the way I'm going to do it, this is what I've got to say, this is who I am, and like it or not, I'm just going to be natural, let it all hang out. It takes a while to learn how to scratch yourself in your poetry, how to scratch yourself, and so forth. I was saying to Moira on the bus, as you get older, you get the hang of things. And just when you're getting the hang of everything, it's time to die!
There's a fourth book coming out in March, 2004, called Snow Water. I have an addiction to symmetry. My Poems: 1963-1983, which was a premature “collected,” really, consists of four books. Then there was the pause, the crisis, the silence, whatever you want to call it, and then four books, which I'm fond of because they came out of nothing. They came out of silence, they resolved crisis and tensions, and those four books are The Ghost Orchid, Gorse Fires, The Weather in Japan, and this new one, Snow Water. So I hope I'm not talking myself into another kind of crisis. I hope that there won't be some deep urge to avoid upsetting that four-by-four symmetry. Is it time now to think in terms of phase three, and the book after Snow Water? I hadn't thought of that until now, when I was talking to you, so I have something else to do!
One of the joys of being older, when one's sixty-four, late middle age, I suppose, is that you know people and artists who are much younger and who are much older. The people writing at the moment whom I most admire are really rather old, like the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan, who's in his eighties and dealing with prostate cancer, very heroic, and Stanley Kunitz, who was recently your poet laureate in his nineties, who I think is still a wonderful poet. So, we'll see what happens. Part of me feels that I'm only beginning. Despite the fact that I've methodically named all of my books, I don't really think the notion of an oeuvre is a healthy one. I suppose I might get inklings of where I will be going by looking at where I've been, but I don't have any feeling of self-importance as a result of what I've written, which I think is to be avoided. Self-importance is one of the things that's lethal for art.
Harper: Yes, although Yeats seems to have managed to spend a fair amount of time thinking about “this thing called Yeats,” a kind of a corpus review while adding to it. Funny how he managed that.
Longley: Yes, that's all rightly so. But I'm purposefully putting off any notion of a collected poems. Three poets I admire the most, Heaney, Mahon, and Muldoon, have all produced a “Collected Poems.” I want to wait a little while, for what I'm really more interested in than any sense of my oeuvre is the next book.
Harper: Yes, well I think that makes you a different poet from any of those three. I don't know, maybe it's that I've been reading some Buddhist texts recently, but there's a sense that you don't work on a persona; that is the first thing I see in your poems, as much as any other distinguishing characteristic. This is not bad or good, of course, but a Heaney poem, you know it's a Heaney poem from the first line. And it's not that you don't know a Longley poem is a Longley poem, but it doesn't raise a flag with your name on it and wave it.
Longley: No, I wouldn't want to do that . . .
Harper: I don't quite know why that is, but that's not the feeling I get when you read your recent poems.
Longley: That's an interesting thought. What you're talking about to some extent has got something to do with idiosyncrasies, doesn't it?
Harper: Yes, perhaps so.
Longley: Of those poets I suppose the most idiosyncratic is Paul [Muldoon]. Heaney, Seamus, writes in a kind of . . . his own dialect in some strange way, which is very rich like clotted cream.
Harper: It's aural.
Longley: Mahon and I are closer . . .
Harper: You are . . . I think of the two of you as being closer also, especially in this later work, to those urbane Latin poets. You sound almost Horatian in some of these later things.
Harper: . . . which may be a little bit of that “Here's who I am” business. It's an aimed-for urbanity, isn't it?
Harper: It's a studied way of sounding.
Longley: On the other hand, Meg, I'm interested in getting simpler. I think that's the real challenge: to be polite and graceful and simple. The drift is towards being less and less “artistic” and simpler, and rising to, you know, the directness of the late self-portraits of Rembrandt or the last string quartets of Beethoven. I don't mean to say they aren't complex, in their conception and execution, but the effect is direct and simple.
Harper: Something else you said yesterday struck me as being an interesting topic: the topic of civilization. You were talking about the opposite of war being civilization. What relationship does that kind of simplicity have with civilization? Because one of the things that struck me is that there's lots and lots of nature in your work, wild things, but it's nature that's named. It's subjective nature, nature as seen, nature through art. And I was wondering if that sense of the civilized had anything to do with what you're trying to do in your poetry . . . is that a clear question?
Longley: I'm interested in decorum and manners, and I think that form in poetry is a kind of decorum. [Noise from outside interrupts.] This is one aspect of civilization: I'm going to shut that door.
Harper: [Laughs as Longley shuts the door.]
Longley: It's how we interact with one another, civilization. On the one hand, I'm interested in how we avoid tearing one another to pieces. Peace is not that, peace is the absence of that, peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization. Civilization is custom and manners and ceremony, the things that Yeats says in “A Prayer for My Daughter.” We have a vocabulary of how to deal with one another and how to behave, a vocabulary of behavior, as well as things to say to one another . . . and out of that come laws and agreed ways of doing things . . . and that in daily life are a bit like form in poetry. The other thing I think we have to do is to avoid being parochial in a human way, thinking only in terms of ourselves. The huge issue facing us as a species is how we get on with the other animals. I write about them, I hope, with reverence and wonder as a way of giving them space in my poems. I'm saying we have to give them space in our lives and share our space on the globe with them. We're not civilized unless we look after them, the animals, which is why I like to write about them and celebrate them. I think we can judge a culture by how it deals with the vulnerable, those creatures and those people who are indeed less fortunate than we are, children and animals. The two great crimes against the light, in my book, are cruelty to children and cruelty to animals, and then after that, men being cruel to women. So I've said elsewhere that I think a poet's mind should be like Noah's ark with lots of room for creatures. So I'm thinking of civilization as much more than the word that's derived from the Latin, civis, meaning “citizen.” I think we should be citizens of the whole world, as well as citizens within our societies. How this all ties in with artists is complicated. But I feel offended, I must say, by Damien Hirst's cut-up cow, the cow halves in formaldehyde and his shark. That is, to me, a desecration. So, I would hope, that in my poems, that I am encouraging people to feel reverence and wonder in the natural world.
Harper: Yet it strikes me that one of the dangers about art, of course, is that if you're just depicting something else and specifically animals or another person or a type of person, you really are running a risk, always, aren't you, of appropriating their space . . . you become the one who's in charge of saying who they are and what they're doing.
Longley: Yeah, that's an unavoidable danger, I think, but I would hope that anything I write about would have the vitality and fear of, say, the cave paintings in southern France, or the Aboriginal paintings in Australia.
Harper: You use a lot of catalogues, and that recalls the first book of Genesis, with Adam naming everything. There's a touch of that problem in that. Adam is in charge of naming everything and then given dominion; we have used that passage to justify all kinds of horrible things.
Longley: I think naming can do that, appropriate and obtain and own, but I think really good art releases the potential of the other and reveres the other and sets it free. I do think that. There isn't that much poetry about animals that I like all that much.
Harper: No, I agree with you.
Longley: I think some of Ted Hughes's best poems are really magical, and D.H. Lawrence I like; and some poems by Theodore Roethke-I'm thinking of American poets-and James Wright. But you're right, there's something a bit birthday card-like about animal poetry, so it has to be a kind of domesticated wildness, which it seems to me a loathsome thing to do, and I hope very much I avoid it. I'm sure I don't avoid it all the time, but I try to.
Harper: What about Marianne Moore and animals?
Longley: Yes, I do like her . . . I love that poem-is it “The Pangolin”?
Longley: But she does construct syllabic cages for her beasts. Or do you think that they roam free within her poems? She's not somebody I've read a great deal recently, and I think, finally, that I don't quite hear her constructions, though she seems to me wildly intelligent.
Harper: I think of her in an American tradition that goes back to somebody like Dickinson, somebody who wrenches things around in order to keep things wild, you know. She squeezes the language in order to let something go behind it, I suppose. But it's definitely compression and not expansion that she does.
Longley: That's right. I think some of my favorite poems are by Dickinson . . . I love the “fly” poem, that's really great, and the little worm poem, those are extraordinary. They run the risk of being dainty, don't they?
Harper: They do, on first reading, anyhow.
Longley: But, on the other hand, they're just so terror-struck. There's a lovely poem by Thom Gunn called “Considering the Snail,” in syllabics, off-rhyme syllabics. It's, for me, a huge achievement, huge and very quiet. I'm especially obsessed by birds. My daughter, Sarah, has done a drawing of a heron for the new book, and I have a poem in it which is dedicated to the memory of Kenneth Koch, the New York poet. There's such a timing, I realized he died late last year, on the afternoon we were driving down to Carrigskeewaun, and because he was very tall and thin like a heron, I think of him as a guardian spirit. “The Heron” brings together Carrigskeewaun and Central Park, and that was all I could offer him, really.
Harper: You have a couple of very painterly poems.
Longley: Well, paintings's one of the things that really interests me, painting, and art and the artistic process. By and large, I choose not to have golden birds singing on the perch. I have much preferred the blackbird, the meadow pipit, the skylark . . .
Harper: We talked briefly about traditional art. You're interested in the arts . . . I mean, I know there's a grave danger in Ireland talking about Irish traditional art . . . you end up with the shamrocks on the bodrán, before you can blink, probably.
Longley: With the Arts Council in Northern Ireland-I worked there for twenty years-I started a program for what we called the traditional arts, mainly Irish music, though I knew nothing about it . . . It seemed to me ridiculous, that you could spend hundreds of thousands on opera, and nothing on Irish music . . . one of the strengths of Irish poetry at the moment is that it has its roots, it knows that it has roots in song and dance and story. In America, there's a real danger of that being forgotten. People there think that their poetry has its roots in their word processors, and it certainly looks like that on the page. You see, if you look at the most ancient forms of poetry, the prayer, and the curse, and the song, and the riddle: these are all folk-to use that awful phrase, “folk art”-these are forms that have their roots in the community. Good writing pulses with life from those ancient forms and helps the blood to circulate.
Harper: Were you conscious of any form you meant yesterday, at the opening of the school, when you quoted your poem “Ceilidh”?
Longley: There was a huge surge of emotion behind that poem, and it's called “keening.” My elder daughter and her husband were leaving Carrigskeewaun-it's such a long way to the cottage that I was watching them for about twenty minutes or more through the binoculars, then they passed a stone wall and I could see them no more-I was overwhelmed with sorrow. Somehow that tied in with my sense of the people who had lived in the cottage. I've always regarded certain people from the west of Ireland as among the most sophisticated and civilized people that I know. They may be rough diamonds-they would be rough diamonds if they turned up at the Yeats Summer School-but you're talking about people of many accomplishments. They know how to fix an engine; they know how to sharpen a scythe; they know the practicalities of building a house with a stone wall; but as interesting as that is, they also know, a lot of them, two languages. They can play an instrument; they can sing songs. Now, compared to them, I feel like a simpleton. The Carrigskeewaun cottage was at one time a music box. They had very very little, except, in another awful bloody phrase, oral culture. These were people who sang the songs, who told the stories, who played the tunes that they'd learned from their parents and grandparents. So even if people like us don't have immediate access to that ourselves because of our personal histories or where we come from, we must acknowledge it as a primary source of light and life.
Harper: I find that the direct value of playing traditional music is this. There's a tune, and I can learn it, and then I play it the way it's played, and I add the amount to it that each new player adds to it, and I pass it on, and I'm inside it when I play it. And then the tune is played and passed and it goes on to the next place that it goes. I love coming back to the labyrinths of what is art and what is poetry, and why am I teaching it, and how does it fit into the context of the modern world. I love to come back to that complexity having done this seemingly very simple thing. That art is direct, self-explanatory at least, though the discipline of playing is endlessly deep, I think. It's not easy, it's very disciplined. It has combinations of originality and tradition that fit together, and it makes an immense amount of sense to me somehow.
Longley: Originality and what was the other word you used? Tradition? You've hit on something very deep here. I think I believe that art is communal as well as individual. What you've described, when you pass the tune on, that's what tradition is-that's what tradition means, tradere, to hand over, literally to give over, to hand over. The simple farming folk who lived in that cottage, whose relatives lived in that area, my feeling for them and the sense of tradition that I get from them runs parallel to the sense of tradition I get when I read Homer or Ovid. If everyone's saying alive, saying vital and true, things, then we're all communicating, and there's a tradition.
Harper: That strikes me relevant to the things you write that are from The Iliad. They're very alive. I guess part of that is that you use vocabulary that is direct.
Longley: Well, that's partly a reaction against the polystyrene versions that exist. I try very hard to capture in English that's alive the texture and feel of the Greek. It was a very important moment in my life when I returned after a long absence to Homer's world. I had been a very poor scholar when I read classics in Trinity. I rediscovered them, Homer and Ovid, in my forties and fifties and that enabled me to say things that I couldn't otherwise say-about my parents' deaths, about the Troubles. I think, too, there's a tendency in this very, very busy, hectic and elaborate century, for us to think in terms of fashion and to think in terms of decades or even years. It's healthier to think in terms of centuries, or millennia, even.Under the gaze of eternity, Homer didn't write that long ago.
Harper: No, he didn't!
Longley: He's only a blink ago. He does sometimes seem strange. On the other hand, he continues to appeal to us because he's so familiar. Really he's no stranger at all.
Harper: Yes, that's true. When you do something that's from Latin, do you feel differently-formally, stylistically-then when you do something from Homer? Homer seems to be your favorite among the Greeks.
Longley: Yes, well he is. If Homer seems just like last week, then the Latin poets seem like yesterday. Or today. You know, they're so much more, in a sense, modern and civilized. Homer is Bronze Age, and distant-well, I don't want to contradict myself: the Bronze Age was just last week. The language was taking shape when Homer was writing-the various dialects had not yet been fully amalgamated into any kind of “official language.” The different demotic dialects generate extraordinary, clashing, rich side effects, and clunking energy. And, well, that's what really warms me. The best version of Homer is Chapman, where the English language is in a state a little bit like the original Greek. And the next best is Pope, but he's almost too polished. He makes Homer sound a bit like a Latin . . .
Harper: Like a Silver Aged Latin poet, even.
Longley: . . . a bit too like Virgil . . . it's brilliant stuff, Pope.
Harper: I remember reading great gobs of that when I was in graduate school and thinking that I appreciated the heroic couplet for the first time. And I only got it after reading what felt like hundreds of thousands of lines. Finally, it sank in . . . just what those two lines could do.
Longley: [Laughs]. I've written in couplets, but very seldom cursively. I think the couplet is the ultimate stanza, you know, the two-line stanza. If you read enough Pope, the intensity of it all, as well as the urbanity, comes through.
Harper: You seem to like the sonnet or variants of sonnets.
Longley: Yes, the fourteen lines seem convenient or spacious enough. I've written some sonnets that rhyme, one about Sulpicia and another one about Grace Darling.What I do with the sonnet is very modest compared to, say, what Paul Muldoon achieves. It seems to me a natural length. To get a viewpoint going, to pause and consider it, and have a slight change of key, and then close. A bit like “the three minutes,” which I think were crucial in the development of jazz. The three minutes in the shellac record-I don't think jazz would have developed so potently and swiftly if it hadn't been forced to concentrate and compress itself, it might well have unraveled into one endless jam session. But when they went into a studio to record, they had to decide, what are we going to say? how are we going to say it? and how are we going to bring it to an end? And that raised all the artistic questions which had to be solved, which is one of the main reasons for the vitality and the paradox, the freedom, of that music. The sonnet works in poetry a little bit like that, the fourteen-liner. The other space that I have been subconsciously drawn to is twenty-four lines, the magic twenty-four: a large number of lyrics (and many of my own) are twenty-four lines, six quatrains or four six-liners or three eight-liners. Was it Tennyson who said that the perfect lyric moves like an “S.” With a sonnet you can do that with a break in the octet and the sestet: something similar happens, in a more leisurely way, over twenty-four lines. I don't see much reason why poems need to be much longer. That's partly because I'm a sprinter, or a middle-distance runner, not a marathon man. I sometimes feel, should I try to write a long poem? But it doesn't come naturally to me, and I don't really read them much, unless they have that lyric intensity right the way through, like for instance “Tintern Abbey” or the “Intimations” ode. When Yeats senses that, when he needs more space . . .
Harper: I read something funny recently, speaking of Yeats, about the Irish temperament, connecting a short poem to the Irish landscape and saying how the English countryside is a more settled, slower-paced topography, slower, meditative rivers, so the English temperament can for longer poems but the Irish one doesn't . . .
Longley: Did I say that?
Harper: [Laughs.] No, Yeats did!
Longley: Oh, Yeats did? Oh, I thought that was a bit intelligent for me.
Longley: One of the things I don't like in art is what's known as the international style. I don't see in poetry, for instance, how someone like me, who lives among the little drummonds of County Down, can write the same way as somebody who lives in Ohio. Poetry born of the prairies is going to be different from poetry that's born of small fields. Eskimo art is going to be different from Bushman art. I think that's probably one of the dangers of mass communication. I mean, I read in translation a great deal of European poetry, and I see we're cousins. But I think somebody writing in the Mediterranean . . . there should be a different texture, a different feel to it. And on the Atlantic seaboard . . .
Harper: You have to breathe differently in places that have different air.
Longley: You have to breathe differently, yes. I'm interested, too, in kind of rootless art as well. I'm interested in poets who do things that I can't do. I'm interested in, say, Frank O'Hara-I've always been charmed by him, I think everybody is. But he's basically saying that the Hell is here on earth: I'm in New York, it's today, this is what I feel, I'm just going to jot it down.
Harper: Breathing the air in New York. That fits into your landscape theory . . . maybe.
Longley: Well, it's kind of a landscape. I find him enormously attractive and sophisticated, and funny. I like the D.I.Y., the do-it-yourself quality in American art. The greatest example of that, really, is jazz, where the black slaves picked up the musical instruments abandoned on the battlefields of the Civil War, taught themselves to play saxophones and trombones, took their own work songs and took hymns from the missionary churches, took a bit of opera from the New Orleans opera house-dozens of strands-and improvised and just did it themselves, and produced out of their spontaneity, out of degradation and terror, this life-enhancing music that has taken over the world.
One of my heroes is Charles Ives.
Harper: Oh, really?
Longley: That's what he does. He takes the noises down the street, and produces this devout cacophony . . . I think one of the huge masterpieces in his symphonic repertoire is his Fourth Symphony. And then I like a lot of other things that he's done. So I can't unshackle myself to some extent as a European. I'm drawn to people who are different.
Harper: I was going to ask you who some young poets are, whom you think are worth watching.
Longley: Well, the young poets I like I think are in their fifties!
Longley: Well, in Northern Ireland the generation that came after my generation is fairly extraordinary. Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson, and Muldoon-extraordinary. And then there seems to me to a gap. In the South there's, Connor O'Callahan, Wake Forest publishes him. And his wife Vona Grourke is also of interest. I feel real respect for Sinead Morrissey and Caitríona O'Riley. There's an even newer poet called Leontia Flynn, who is going to be published by Cape. They are all in their twenties still! When I was Writer Fellow at Trinity in 1993-I received sixty or so portfolios to read through, and I picked out about ten for my creative writing workshop. Caitríona O'Riley and Sinead Morrissey were a part of that group, and a young poet now who lives in Prague named Justin Quinn, who is very promising, and David Wheatley, who with Quinn edits the very best poetry magazine Metre. These are young people who are into editing magazines and creating their own buzz, as well as writing their own poems.
Harper: You spoke of custom and ceremony. Do you have a custom or ceremony or ritual for writing?
Longley: No, not really. Being a poet, although as you know I feel superstitious, you know, calling myself a poet, because it's what you most want to be. I think being a poet is different from being a writer. It's something special. I have no idea where poems come from. I have no idea why poetry goes away. Really I like to think I'm receptive, waiting. Like an ovum waiting for fertilization, that's as far as I can prepare. But if I were to talk about it as if it were a routine, I'd say I don't write anything for eight years, and then I write three poems in one day. No routine there, is there? That's just the way it happens.
Harper: Did it really?
Longley: I didn't write much for eight years. I thought I was finished. And then, it happened. The Muse returned.