Tuesday, 4 December 2018


Winter sounds - an irritated blackbird in my garden (he disputes my ownership), gulls and corvids scavenging the ploughed field opposite my house, the occasional buzzard.  The wind in the Scots pine, sounding like an oncoming vehicle when there is none.  The sycamores, oaks, rowans and ash trees sound differently with their branches open to the sky.  The scrubby gorse bushes along the field banks delight me - their yellow flowers are a welcome burst of colour in the dark days of the year.

I've been playing catch up during the long evenings and have particularly enjoyed some binge listening - to RTE Radio 1's The Poetry Programme.  I recommend it to everyone who is interested in contemporary poetry - it is the best poetry programme I have found on the air waves.  It's introduced by Olivia O'Leary, a journalist who has a life-long love of poetry and has the ability to get poets to open up about their work and their lives.  There is nothing formulaic about the programme - it covers a diverse range of poetry.

I recently caught up with the wonderful two-programme extended interview with Michael Longley, who won the inaugural Yakamochi international poetry award earlier this year.  Michael Longley's work has been a favourite of mine, ever since I heard him read from his Collected Poems at Grasmere in 2006.  It's a volume that is now incomplete - the poet has been quite prolific in his later years.  I introduced his book, Snow Water, to my students and they all loved it.  It's probably one of the most popular poetry collections I have ever taught on a course.

The Poetry Programme was a retrospective of Michael Longley's work and included him reading (beautifully of course) a selection of poems from his long writing career.  The poet talked about various aspects of his writing - here are a few snippets:

Carrigskeewaun (the remote cottage where he writes): it is 'my special place', my 'home of poetry', 'my soul landscape'.  'It's how I explain myself'.

About the Troubles:  I felt 'inarticulate, confused, angered, heart-broken'.  He vowed to avoid 'Troubles trash', hitching a 'a ride on yesterday's headlines'.  His Troubles poems are about the victims, including the death of the local ice-cream man. The last four and a half lines of the poem 'The Ice-cream Man' consist of a list of wild flowers - 'I named for you the flowers of the Burren/I had seen in one day'.  After he had written the poem the poet received a letter from the ice cream man's mother, thanking him for remembering her son in the poem, who had sold 21 flavours of ice cream, and pointing out that there were 21 flowers in the poem.

The dedications to female friends and relatives: 'I've learned most of what I know from women' and 'from the feminine side of my men friends.  He praised the important role played by women's groups during The Troubles.

'The best poetry is written by youngsters and pensioners!'  Michael Longley is 80 next year and has written more poems in the last year than in any of the previous years of his life - 'I've just got the hang  of it'.

'Anything, however small, may make a poem.'

You can listen again via The Poetry Programme on the RTE Radio 1 website. 

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