The value of poetry in political conflict: An Imagine Festival conversation with Michael Longley
by Alice HUTCHISON
22 March 2022
The Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics featured a conversation between Irish poet Michael Longley and journalist William Crawley, which explored the relationship between poetry and politics, including the artistic challenges of addressing these contentious issues.
Crawley started by asking how Longley, as a poet, functions in times like this, with the ongoing Ukrainian war, and the place of poetry when such gruesome events are happening. Longley replied, “You just get on with it,” explaining, “poetry is about all the things which happen to everyone, and unfortunately for a lot of people, it’s war in our own society.”
Speaking on the use of poetry, Longley is, “occasionally asked by aggressive people at dinner parties” what use poetry serves, to which he has responded, “There is no use, but that doesn’t mean to say it has no value. And it is of supreme value.” Elaborating on this, he explained how scraps of poetry were discovered from the ashes in Auschwitz, showing the solace that poetry provides people in their last moments.
In reference to the political implications of poetry and whether poetry takes sides, he sums up how, “When there’s shit on both sides of the fence, you sit on the fence.” Regarding the conflict and division of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he said, “None of the poets I know of personally took sides, because they were leading with two profoundly inadequate concepts — one is an Orange Ulster, which we can’t have; the other one, a great Ireland which we can’t have because of all the Protestants and unionists. So, what’s the point in taking sides?”
Following on from this, he spoke about the elasticity of poetry and how it searches for its own truth rather than serving as propaganda. He regards poetry as a way to remember the atrocities committed against individuals: “I think conservation is the oldest obligation of poetry and art. All of the poems about the Troubles are elegies, and it is because we must never forget about the victims.”
As an influence on Longley’s work, he references late Irish poet Louis MacNeice, who in 1938, similarly spoke about the truth value of poetry amidst chaos and war: “The writer today should not so much be the mouthpiece of a community, but only tell it what it knows already. The poet must maintain elasticity and refuse to tell lies. No one except the poet can give us [the] truth.”
Towards the end of the evening, after reading several poems, Longley finished with his own, ‘The Ice Cream Man’ from his collection, Gorse Fires. It speaks on the themes of truth, remembrance, and atrocities of war, by making reference to the murder of John Larmour on the Lisburn Road during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, twayblade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
Speaking on this poem, Longley compared it to a prayer: “I do believe in some mysterious way that poetry makes things happen.” In this way, his poem serves to put a ‘hex’ on the IRA gunmen, by making their act known and immortalized in words. More importantly, however, it commemorates the victims of such horrific violence and reminds us of what is lost in the tragedy that is war. Going forward, Longley’s poem can be seen as a non-violent means of protesting the conflict which previously occurred, and as a lament for the needless loss of human life, inspiring hope for a more peaceful future.