Michael Longley’s Life of Poetry

In a series of The Essay on BBC Radio 3, Northern Ireland’s most eminent contemporary poet, Michael Longley, talks to Olivia O’Leary about his life and reads a selection of his poems.

The Essay: Michael Longley’s Life of Poetry

Broadcast nightly on BBC Radio 3 at 21:45 from Monday 8th to Friday 12th July 2024

Marking his 85th birthday on 27th July 2024, Belfast poet Michael Longley looks back, in conversation with presenter Olivia O’Leary, on a life of poetry.

This series of The Essay takes the form of an extended interview, over five episodes, presented by acclaimed Irish broadcaster Olivia O’Leary. The conversation ranges from Longley’s love of jazz and the classics and the influential group of poets that emerged in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, to poems of World War 1 and the Northern Ireland Troubles, to poems of nature, love and ageing. This engaging and enlightening conversation is anchored by readings of Longley’s masterful poetry from Ash Keys: New Selected Poems (Cape Poetry), published to commemorate his birthday, and earlier collections.

Episode 1: The Early Years – listen back here

Michael Longley talks with presenter Olivia O’Leary about his home town of Belfast and his love of jazz, saying that, ‘Good poetry for me combines two things: meaning and melody.’ He also loves the classics, which he studied at Trinity College Dublin, where he met his wife, Edna, a distinguished literary critic. He was one of a group of young poets that emerged from Northern Ireland in the 1960s and he describes the mutual support, rivalry and excitement of that time.He reads his poems Elegy for Fats Waller and an extract from his poem River and Fountain from his collection Ash Keys: New Selected Poems, Bookshops from his collection Angel Hill, and Poem from The Slain Birds.

Episode 2: Poems of World War I – listen back here

Belfast poet Michael Longley talks with Olivia O’Leary about his First World War poems, many of which were inspired by his own father’s experience of having fought in the war, although he rarely talked about it. He reads his poems Citation, Harmonica, The Sonnets, and Wounds from Ash Keys: New Selected Poems.

Episode 3: Poems of the Troubles – listen back here

In 1968, violence erupted in Northern Ireland, the beginning of 30 years of The Troubles. In the third episode of this series of The Essay, Michael Longley talks about writing poems that remembered some of those who were victims of the the violence and about his most famous poem, Ceasefire, which looks to Homer’s great epic poem The Iliad as it reflects on the cost of peace. As well as Ceasefire, he reads his poems The Troubles, The Ice-cream Man, and All of these People from Ash Keys: New Selected Poems.

Episode 4: Poems of Mayo – listen back here

Michael Longley’s refuge from the city streets of Belfast is in County Mayo, in one of the most remote and beautiful parts of the west of Ireland. He has been writing about its nature and landscape for over 50 years and it has provided endless inspiration for poems. In more recent years he has recognised the threat of climate change and he expresses the hope that younger generations will take greater care of the world. He reads his poems The Leveret, Remembering Carrigskeewaun, Stonechat and The Comber from his collection Ash Keys: New Selected Poems and Merlin from his collection The Slain Birds.

Episode 5: Poems of Love and Ageing – listen back here

In recent years, Michael has been writing more than ever. He is recognised as a very fine love poet and in this episode he reads poems that address the gift of a decades-long love and marriage and the inevitability of ageing. After a lifetime dedicated to poetry, he says, ‘I can’t imagine that I would be alive now, if I hadn’t had poetry propelling me forward.’ He reads his poems The Pattern, The Linen Industry and Age from Ash Keys: New Selected Poems, and Foam from his collection The Slain Birds.

Producer: Claire Cunningham
Executive Producer: Regan Hutchins
Michael Longley’s Life of Poetry is a Rockfinch production for BBC Radio 3.