When he talks — in a gentle, measured tone — it’s as if his life depended on it.
Longley’s latest collection, A Hundred Doors, is his first in seven years. The title came to him a few years back, when he was in Greece with his wife, where he visited one of the oldest Byzantine churches in the world.
The name of the church, A Hundred Doors, inspired Longley to write a poem with that title, and as inspiration came, that poem eventually turned into a collection.
The concept of doors opening is one of possibility and mystery he says.
“There are the doors of perception, the door of music and art, the door of love and friendship, the doors of the womb, coming out of darkness into life, the door of darkness that lets one into the afterlife.”
Despite talk of the afterlife, Longley is, to borrow a phrase from one of his poems, “a sentimental atheist”.
“I’m quite profoundly anti- clerical. I find the notion of organised religion unattractive, I’m a one-man religion as far as I’m concerned, poetry is the main way I make sense of life really. I believe in something divine: when I hear a bird singing, when I see a beautiful flower, when I hear a beautiful piece of music, when the muse visits me and I write a poem — and I don’t write very many poems — I feel something way beyond myself, which, for the sake of argument and convenience sake, one could call divine.
“I believe one can be religious without believing anything.”
Coming into the autumn days of his life, Longley says the notion of mortality is one that continues to haunt him on a daily basis, and poetry is a way of broaching this delicate subject.
“The shadow notions of mortality are right the way through this book, and of course I think about death. I think I should step up the composition rate so that I have another book before I die.
“My friends and contemporaries are dropping off the end of the branch, so of course it’s a concern, and a theme.”
If death is a subject that is touched upon in this collection, so too is subject of love, which Longley says are intricately interrelated.
“The two main poles of my own imagination would be the love poem and the elegy, there is a huge overlap between these two things; in that the love poem always has an elegiac tinge to it, because the moment of passion won’t last, and the relationship may not last, the evanescence of human emotion are lamented at the same time as they are being celebrated.”
A theme that Longley has repeatedly returned to, after nearly half a century of writing poetry, is that of the relationship between him and his father. It was, sadly, after his father’s passing that he finally began to try and understand the man, he says.
“My father died before I was 21, before I made my peace with him, and I’m haunted by that incompletion, I wish I had told him how much I admire him and how wise and civilised and complicated, I now realise he was. I didn’t realise how much he knew about life, and I’d no idea he had been so courageous — it was like something out of the Iliad. I also write about him not just because he is my father, but because he is a representative of all the soldiers who suffered in World War I, a period which I’m haunted by.”
One of Longley’s greatest attributes — is his ability to make links with literature and the subject he writes about. He says the Iliad is a text he has repeatedly found solace in — to try and make understanding of things that have caused him pain in the past.
“The Iliad is the greatest poem there is I think. It’s the greatest poem about war and about death, and it allowed me to talk about The Troubles. In August 1994 when there were rumours that there might be an IRA ceasefire, I was reading The Iliad at this time; and the core of the Iliad — which is the moment where the old King of Troy, Priam, visits the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of Hector — and I thought wouldn’t that be wonderful if I could concentrate that into something like a sonnet, and I did, and it emerged the same week as an IRA ceasefire, so I was very pleased with that.”
“From The Odyssey I was able to write about the pain of losing my mother and father. I wrote about when Odysseus is reunited with Laërtes, and when Odysseus in the underworld unexpectedly meets his mother. So I think I wouldn’t have been able to get through the pain of losing my parents, or deal with the anguish of The Troubles, without Homer.”
Although a native and resident of Belfast, it’s the landscape of the West of Ireland, in Carrigskeewaun — a place that Longley writes about with great affection in his latest collection — the landscape of his soul.
“Every year I go and write poems I think, I can’t possibly find any more poems in this townland, but there are always poems, it’s bottomless. I feel that after 40 years of going there I’m just beginning to understand it. There are ghosts of human habitation there, the lazy beds, which date back to the famine. When I can’t sleep and I’m suffering from insomnia, I walk around Carrigskeewaun in my imagination.
“When I am dead, I want my ashes scattered from a headland, at the edge of Carrigskeewaun, and for the wind to take my ashes and mix it up with the sand.”