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The SRB Interview: Edna and Michael Longley – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Edna and Michael Longley

October 19, 2009 | by SRB

PROFESSOR EDNA LONGLEY has had a powerful influence on the literary culture of Northern Ireland though her teaching at Queen’s University, and through the English Society she ran, which in part led to the creation of The Seamus Heaney Centre. She was born in Dublin in 1940, and educated at Trinity College. A leading critic of modern poetry, she has written on W.B. Yeats, Louis Mac-Neice, Edward Thomas and the Great War poets. She is married to the poet Michael Longley. He was born in Belfast in 1939, and read classics at Trinity College. He joined the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 1970, working in literature and the traditional arts before taking early retirement from the post in 1991. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2001. In June, the Longleys gave a rare joint interview to the Scottish Review Of Books. Colin Waters met them in their home in a south Dublin suburb. In a study with walls as lined with books as you’d expect and hope, and decorated by paintings by their daughter, an artist, the Longleys spoke at length, Here they share their thoughts on poetry in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the legacy of Louis MacNeice, and why Scottish Studies has never taken off in the way Irish Studies has.

SRB: One often thinks – or at least one thinks so after reading certain writers’ interviews – that the relationship between author and critic is often one of suspicion. You have a long enduring marriage; what has been the creative balance between you?

Michael Longley: Edna’s the first person I show my poems to. She’s such a good judge that if she likes it, if she gives it the thumbs up, I don’t really care too much what anyone else thinks. She is very good at spotting weaknesses in a poem. I’ve found it stimulating and refreshing to have this completely honest voice under the same roof. Likewise, Edna shows her criticism to me. I don’t resolve things intellectually the way Edna does. But I can follow the movement of her argument and the sound of the words. I can make suggestions such as, “It would be better if you inverted your ultimate and penultimate paragraphs”. I’ve found it a challenge and a comfort to have her critical intelligence about the place. Edna Longley: I think my relationship with Michael’s poetry as a critic is very different from my relationship with anybody else’s poetry. I don’t often mention it in my own writing. I only do so if I’m writing some survey of Northern Irish poetry when to miss him out would be to produce a distortion. But I’ve never written an evaluative piece on him. It’s also because if I thought about him in an academic way or a more self-conscious way, that might be to the detriment of an intuitive reaction to a poem when he’s written one.

SRB: So when Michael shows you a new poem for the first time, you’re very consciously trying to judge it using a part of your mind separate from the critical part you bring to bear on your own writings?

EL: Absolutely. It basically boils down to “I like that” or “I don’t like that”, or “there’s something wrong there”.

ML: We try to avoid what we’re doing now, the Astaire and Rogers double act. We’re not a duet. We operate separately. There are various unwritten rules that Edna has alluded to. She doesn’t write about my poetry, and when I give readings, if Edna is in the audience, I don’t read love poems and I don’t talk about her. But if she’s not there, there’s a gag I like to crack about how I’m the only poet who has written love poems to a critic.

EL: Obviously all writers, all artists, have their own internal critics; as they write they are being self-critical. I possibly help to speed up Michael’s own internal critical processes. But I think he would always get there in the end.

SRB: I’ve always wondered if in many cases what makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer is a significant partner who can offer good advice.

EL: I think it’s true for many writers that there is some ideal reader who prevents him or her making big mistakes. As we know, there are some writers whose critical faculties appear to atrophy and if they can’t see where they’re going wrong, somebody else should be telling them.

ML: As you get older and establish a reputation, your affectionate readers are less inclined to say, “Oh, come off it.”

EL: You can end up believing your own publicity.

ML: It’s very important not to believe your own press. In your youth, you’re friendly with other young writers. I was friendly with an extraordinary group of poets. We would meet for a drink and show each other poems. There was a healthy knockabout atmosphere. And then of course we all became – inverted commas – distinguished. You drift apart after your twenties. You have to find your own bush in which to sing. I’m fortunate to have had Heaney and Mahon with whom to exchange poems, though it’s not the rough and tumble it used to be. Edna is exactly the same as she always was.

SRB: We tend to think of poetry and fiction as the primary thing, with comment and criticism as secondary. But can criticism be regarded as literature in its own right?

ML: A good poem is not completely a poem until it has received a critical response that grows out of the poem in an almost biological way. There’s always the criticism that poets write, like Edward Thomas. Seamus Heaney’s criticism I read with a pleasure akin to the pleasure I get from his poetry. The American poet-critic Randall Jarrell. Edna is inclined to take a rather modest view, but I see good criticism as part of the creative process.

EL: There is a very dominant criticism or literary theory at the moment which sees itself as autonomous, and tends to relegate literature if it talks about literature at all. I’m not in favour of those pretensions. I do see the kind of criticism I do as serving literature and helping to advance its reputation in the world. I think criticism can do that. It can spot a poet earlier than he might otherwise have been spotted. Or it can rescue poets who have been neglected for various reasons. For instance, I’ve just produced an annotated edition of Edward Thomas who was killed in the Great War. Now Thomas actually has a high reputation. Poets have always looked to him. But academics haven’t always seen him as being so significant. Through my career as a critic, I’ve worked on Thomas a lot. This book that has just appeared should take his reputation further. I’ve worked on Louis MacNeice. I chaired the organising committee of a centenary conference for Mac-Neice that ran in Belfast last September. Now again, Louis MacNeice has a high reputation but in some respects he’s fallen between Irish and British stools, in that he is from the north of Ireland but spent most of his career in England. The poets of Northern Ireland of the 1960s helped to position MacNeice in his complexity in ways that hadn’t happened before because he was put in the category of a British Thirties poet, which wasn’t the whole truth. I’ve always been interested in rescuing certain aspects of poetry from oblivion rather than writing the umpteenth piece on ‘The Waste Land.’

SRB: Edna, you’ve written on MacNeice extensively, and Michael, you’ve edited a collection of his poetry. What draws you both so to MacNeice?

ML: For me in my youth, coming from Belfast, which used to be called “the armpit of Europe” or “a cultural Siberia”, there was-n’t very much you could call cultural. And it was a refreshing shock to realise that Northern Ireland could produce a Louis MacNeice.

EL: Derek Mahon has talked about reading MacNeice in Belfast as a schoolboy, and described the experience as “a familiar voice whispering in my ear”. It’s not subject matter, but the sounds, rhythms, tunes of his poetry that Mahon particularly picked up. At this centenary conference, poets here and from Scotland – Don Pater-son – and from England all came to pay different kinds of tribute to MacNeice, and that was very interesting; throughout the archipelago, there was a wonderful range of responses which confirmed our sense of his qualities.

ML: MacNeice provided a bridge between my generation and Yeats and the poets of the First World War and back through them to Hardy. Auden and MacNeice reminded the world in its Eliot-Pound drunkenness of a type of poetry that was endangered, thought of as old fashioned, old hat.

EL: I’ve been writing an article on the critical response to Yeats between 1939 and 1970. MacNeice and Auden at that time preferred Yeats and preferred his forms – which were traditional although revitalised forms – partly because Yeats seemed to them to have a particular hold on the public world, and as poets they were concerned to engage with contemporary history. For all Yeats’ reactionary ideas. Auden and MacNeice found he was a better model for them than Eliot’s ‘modernism’. People often ask why the poetry of Northern Ireland is in many ways quite formalist. Yeats and MacNeice may account for that difference from Scottish poetry. Scottish poetry has been more successfully interested in avant-garde forms. Edwin Morgan, for example, or Ian Hamilton Fin-lay.

SRB: You spoke there of Northern Ireland in this period being described as a cultural Siberia but I wonder if such a dismissive description can’t in its way be useful. One, in terms of not having an overbearing artistic ancestry to wrestle with; and two, in providing you with a preconception to wrestle with.

ML: I think a philistine environment should be bracing for young artists. You have to make your own enjoyment, you’ve got to make your own art.

EL: I think in some ways that image was never entirely accurate as there were always writers and painters in Belfast, though, as from other parts of Ireland, they left too. But the image of Belfast, as of Glasgow, is particularly prone to stereotype and cliché.

SRB: But regardless of whether it’s actually true or not, I think there’s a creative aspect that can arise from feeling neglected. I think Scottish writers have benefited from that; Alasdair Gray’s Lanark was written out of that feeling. Perhaps something similar happened with Belfast and yourself, Michael, when you were starting out.

ML: We’re talking about a group of poets here – James Simmons, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and myself – I don’t think we felt neglected. We were vying for each other’s attention and respect. There was a healthy combination of competition and mutual support. A huge blessing.

EL: I think that literature quite often emerges from areas where there has been a lack of articulation, like women’s writing. Ulster is actually a place of extraordinary micro-cultural complexity. Now thanks to the Troubles, there’s probably been more books about Northern Ireland, proportional to its size, than about anywhere else in the world. But think back to when Northern Ireland was an occluded place, occluded owing to Unionist politics, but also through a kind of turning away on the part of the Republic and Britain.

ML: And no questions about Northern Ire-land in Westminster.

EL: It was a secret locked-up place and not just in terms of political oppression. Poetry draws on those previously unarticulated reservoirs.

SRB: Edna, in one of your books, you make a very interesting observation: “In an abiding contradiction, they [critics and artists] exhibit the double desire to create a local living metropolis and to impress London. Instances of Dublin and Edinburgh preferring to impress one another are rarer”. Why is that?

EL: The structure of the old Union is vestigially maintained. I think historians of nineteenth-century Britain would say competition between the Scots and the Irish was very strong in mercantile and other ways. And perhaps literary competition endures. Earlier, in the Rhymers’ Club in London, which was a sort of coterie where Yeats and other poets met in the 1890s, Yeats succeeded in getting John Davidson, a Scottish poet, thrown out; two other Scots as well. Yeats was annoyed that their aesthetic principles differed from his. ML: Heaney, Mahon and I have been friendly with Douglas Dunn since the Sixties. I would name among contemporaries we admire MacCaig, Crichton Smith, Mackay Brown, and, in my case, Hamilton Findlay, who had a subtle influence on me. I am aware of what is happening now in Scotland with people like Robert Crawford, Don Paterson, and Kathleen Jamie. Poetry in Ulster received attention because it was good, but it also received attention because of the Troubles. Now whether that was good or bad I don’t know. I think it was resented for a while by people from Scot-land and from Wales.

EL: Even someone like Edwin Morgan once implied that Irish poets were getting too much.

ML: I would like to say that I revere the short lyrics written in Scots by MacDiarmid. There’s something deeply mysterious about them. We had him over here in his old age to read. We’ve also invited Iain Crichton Smith, Norman MacCaig, Mackay Brown, and the younger generation of Scottish poets. There has been a rich interchange between Scottish and Northern Irish poets.

SRB: In Scotland we’re familiar – overfamiliar – with the subject of the ‘cultural cringe’, particularly with reference to the regard we give (or don’t) to our native languages and traditional music. From what I read, Michael, you went some way to overcoming a local disregard for traditional Irish music with tours of Ulster that you put on.

ML: It seemed to me extraordinary that the Arts Council should be spending most of its money on orchestra music and opera (both of which I love), but none on traditional music. The money I got for it wasn’t huge but was of symbolic importance. I was the first Arts Council official in the archipelago to do something for what you might call indigenous music.

EL: I suppose there was the idea that culture can bandage violence, which it can’t do, but nonetheless, it can contribute to a movement of cultural self-consciousness, of mutual consciousness between people from different traditions.

ML: We added words to the political vocabulary like ‘heritage’ and ‘cultural tradition’. I occasionally regret this when reformed paramilitaries who are now practicing artists or social workers start to talk about their ‘heritage’, but sooner that than…..

That was an exciting time. It used to be thought that most traditional Irish music was produced by Catholics, that Protestants were tongue-tied. But in somewhere like county Antrim, because of the interchange between Scotland and Ireland, the usual stereotypes don’t work at all. Through the cultural traditions programme it became clear that the some of the best exponents of traditional music were Protestant. That helped break down the old binary, crude, dangerous, death-dealing simplicities. Really, what we’ve all been trying to illustrate is that the concepts of a Green Ireland and an Orange Ulster are both dangerously inadequate.

SRB: The AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen University is currently running a large research project whose aim is to add significantly to our knowledge of Scotland and Ireland. I was wondering, Edna, whether you could explain what part you play in the project?

EL: With colleagues at Queen’s University, Fran Brearton and Peter Mackay, I’m running a project on relations and comparisons between modern Irish and Scottish poetry. The project involves academics and critics from both Ireland and Scotland. We are now bringing together a book which will be the culmination of the project. It’s an obvious project in a way because it links the Seamus Heaney Centre For Poetry at Queen’s and the Aberdeen Institute.

SRB: What have your findings been so far?

EL: It’s about similarities and difference, and about interchange: cases of mutual influence. Also, about occasions when the poetic traditions of both countries have drifted far apart. We have a couple of chapters on Yeats and MacDiarmid, because MacDiarmid’s Scottish Renaissance took a lot of its cues from the Irish literary revival. My own contribution is a comparison of Scottish and Irish poetry magazines in the period. And quite often what that brings out is that poets of both nations were really living in different worlds. There are Scottish poets agonising about writing in Scots in a quite introverted way. Or Irish poetry magazines having forgotten that Scotland exists. At the same time, comparing critical articles as well as poems in these magazines, you get a sense of shared concerns emerging in different guises.

SRB: In an earlier essay, you wrote, “When Ireland and Scotland misread one another’s textual nuances, the misreading may repress awkward commonalities”. What are these “awkward commonalities”?

EL: There’s a good book by Graham Walker called Intimate Strangers: Political and Cultural Interaction Between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times. One obvious issue in common is the sectarian issue, which we can look at historically but also at how it might feed into literary culture. There’s the question of how religion affects poetry in both countries. Poetry is often very critical of the culture from which it emerges. Quite often literary critics of a nationalist bent talk up the national culture, in a way that the literary texts don’t. Poetry can bring out areas of denial and repression.

SRB: From your writings, Edna, I got the impression you believe Scotland has in the past overlooked the culture of Northern Ireland, chiefly because they preferred what they perceived as the more positive role model of the Republic of Ireland: “Work on Scotland’s devolutionary self-hood or self-image makes the Celtic Tiger a more attractive beast that the neighbouring monster of sectarianism”, as you put it.

EL: They’re aware of Northern Irish poetry but there’s also this attraction to the Republic as a model for Scotland. They miss in some ways the complex relations between both parts of Ireland, and how you talk about that in terms of culture or reading poets from both parts. In another way though, they tend to ignore the poetry from the South. Even if Scottish writers and critics want to disown the sectarian monster on their doorstep, in many ways the cultural ties, the intimate strangeness, are such that the connections are there in ways they’re not with the Republic. I find Scottish critics don’t write very much about poetry from the Republic compared to the way in which they do about poetry from the North.

SRB: You have more intimate Scottish connections than just an appreciation of Scottish poetry, Edna.

EL: My mother was Scottish. My father was an Irish Catholic professor at Trinity. It was seen as an Anglican, Protestant institution. Everything has changed now, it’s wide open, but up until 1970, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin banned Irish Catholics from attending Trinity. My father objected to this. My father and mother’s marriage had been opposed by both families in Ire-land and Scotland, so even though we were brought up in Dublin, actually we were Church Of Ireland rather than Catholic or Presbyterian. Not that any of us were very religious. My mother’s brother Matthew MacDiarmid was for many years an academic at Aberdeen University and very much in the forefront of Scottish literary studies in his day. Both my parents were mathematicians, but my uncle might have contributed to my following a literary path.

SRB: During WW1, Michael, your father enlisted with the London Scottish regiment.

ML: My father was a Sassenach. My father was English. He enlisted near Buckingham Palace in September 1914, where he joined the wrong queue. They took him into the London Scottish. He wore a kilt. The Ger-mans called them “the ladies from hell”. He thought the Ulster and Scottish soldiers were extraordinary.

SRB: Has your English parentage ever led to people questioning your credentials as an Irish poet?

ML: I think my credentials have been questioned, yes.

EL: Now and again.

ML: I hope I extend the notion of what an Irish writer might be. When the Belfast Agreement was signed, I wrote a letter supporting it to The Irish Times, in which I said, because I was born and bred in Belfast, I’m Irish. Because my mother and father were English, I’m British. I have been both British and Irish all my life. Why should one have just the one cultural allegiance? It is in fact an enrichment. But it was obviously different for me writing in Ireland with English parents. Different from, say, Mahon, whose father worked in the shipyards in Belfast. Or from Seamus Heaney who was brought up on a farm in a large Catholic family in the countryside. Bound to be different.

SRB: Did the Troubles affirm a need for art, a need from yourselves and the public, regardless of the political climate or did it unsettle your notions of art and what it’s for?

ML: I’ve never felt that way, that art should be a consolation, that art should do anything. When my first volume of poetry came out in 1969 with no reference at all to the Troubles, Dannie Abse reviewed it and remarked that as a young Ulster poet I was surrounded by extraordinary raw material. Which was a little bit like in the Second World War, when the cry went out, where are the war poets? I think we did feel we should address the Troubles. But it was some time before anything I would call a Troubles poem was written. Experience has to go through an emotional or spiritual journey before it can be transformed into art. It took time and because it was a civil war it was painful. The good art that was produced was oblique. We were very aware that we shouldn’t hitch a ride on yesterday’s headlines. John Hume had a phrase about “the politics of the latest atrocity”and it was important for us not to produce the poem of the latest atrocity. If you look at the work the Ulster poets produced, there aren’t that many Troubles poems, and they all tend to be oblique and sensitive. We hate exploitative writing and dismiss it as ‘Troubles trash’.

SRB: Interestingly there is one character that links just about the same generation of writers in Belfast and Glasgow, and that’s Philip Hobsbaum. I never met him but I believe he could be a galvanising force.

ML: He worked as a catalyst in exactly the same way in both places. He brought together people who hadn’t yet made their reputation. He encouraged rigorous close reading and criticism. That was valuable. I myself got less out of it than Seamus Heaney. Derek Mahon who has been lassoed into membership of The Group only attended it once. So it’s all been mythologized, with much of the writing on it inaccurate. I didn’t get on particularly well with him, but he was very important to Seamus. I know some of the Scottish writers had reservations about him.

EL: In both places there were pro-Philip and con-Philip people. This was due to his own explosiveness; the image of a gentle nurturer is completely wrong. He was very combative. In some ways I learned to be more combative as a critic myself by standing up to Philip. The point the Scottish writers make, and Michael makes it too, is that Philip introduced writers to each other who might have met eventually but would-n’t have met so soon.

SRB: I interviewed Robert Crawford recently and he spoke with friendly envy of the way in which Irish Studies have spread across the globe, particularly as a way of exporting the native culture abroad. He wanted to do something similar with Scottish Studies. Has the spread of Irish studies been an unmitigated good. Have you any tips on where Irish Studies went right while Scottish Studies remained a non-starter?

EL: The reason why Irish-America is more visible than Scottish-America has something to do with the Catholic Church, with the visibility and the continuity the Catholic Church has given Irish America. There is in fact a Protestant Irish-America – ‘Scots-Irish’ – hidden alongside the Scottish-America. Scottish culture was much more prominent or Americans were more conscious of it in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century than today. The Scots and Scots Irish inheritance has largely been absorbed by WASP America. This can make it hard for Scottish studies to establish a distinctive focus there. When for instance the American Conference for Irish Studies began it was in some ways an ethnic as well as an academic grouping. As a result they were very successful in promoting Irish Studies in America. The international reputation of Yeats and Joyce was crucial too, though Joyce and Yeats scholars won’t go anywhere near Irish Studies. In some ways it’s only really built up since the 1960s. The Troubles too were an incentive to get the British Association of Irish Studies going. The downside of Irish Studies in America is that you get some really bad critical writing on Irish literature. And Scottish critics probably have more authority in Scottish literary studies than Irish critics do in Irish literary studies.

From this Issue

A Life of Loose Ends

by Rodge Glass

Hammer of the Scots

by Karl Miller

Boosters and Begrudgers

by Graham Walker

A Critics’ Orgy

by Patrick Crotty

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