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Michael Longley - Poet

Friday 24th May 2013 at 10am

- Video: One of Northern Ireland's great living poets. Michael Longley reads his favourite John Hewitt poem

Michael Longley is a central figure in Northern Ireland poetry, renowned for his use of classical allusions to bear witness to contemporary concerns, including the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Michael Longley (b. Belfast, 1939) read Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and the stories and characters from Greek and Roman mythology are infused in much of his poetry. In one of his best-known sonnets, ‘Ceasefire’, published in 1995 just days after a ceasefire was called in Northern Ireland, this use of classical allusion catches the dilemma facing victims’ families in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, which made provision for the release of paramilitaries convicted of murder:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Longley has said that “though the poet’s first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations - and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively.”

The interweaving of diverse themes in his work is also evident in his nature poems. For instance, in ‘The Ice-Cream Man’, Longley responds to a brutal sectarian murder in Belfast by creating a litany of the wild flowers from the west of Ireland, “thyme, valerian, loosestrife, meadowsweet, tayblade …”

Michael Longley was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2007 to 2010. Of his individual volumes, Gorse Fires (1991) won the Whitbread Poetry Prize and The Weather in Japan (2000) won both the TS Eliot Prize and the Hawthornden Prize. Other volumes include No Continuing City (1969), An Exploded View (1973), Man Lying On A Wall (1976), The Echo Gate (1979), The Ghost Orchid (1995) and Snow Water (2004). His Collected Poems appeared in 2006.

He holds honorary doctorates from Queen's University Belfast (1995) and Trinity College, Dublin (1999) and was the 2001 recipient of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. He was appointed CBE in 2010 and, in 2011 he won a 2011 London Awards for Art and Performance.

His most recent collection, A Hundred Doors, won the Poetry Now Award in 2012.

Watch the short video of Michael Longley reading his favourite poem by Belfast poet John Hewitt (1907-1987).