Launch of Michael Longley’s The Stairwell

There was a thud and a fizz and white foam sprayed all over the crowd around the wine table.  There was no champagne to mark the launch of “32 County Poet” Michael Longley’s tenth collection, The Stairwell – this was a toppled two-litre of 7UP – but the accident was in the spirit of cork-popping and it set the tone for the rest of the night.

With Yeats Society President Damien Brennan as Master of Ceremonies of the 7pm reception, things were bound to get bubbly.  He began by acknowledging Michael’s wife Edna Longley, who that morning had delivered a lecture at the Hawk’s Well on Yeats, Joyce, and the 1890s.

“Can you imagine the bedtime thoughts they have together?” he asked.  And I suppose we couldn’t help but wonder.

Brennan also referenced Postscript, Saturday night’s tribute to Seamus Heaney, at which Longley spoke.  Brennan was hardly the first to note, then, that Heaney was born in 1939, the Year William Butler Yeats died, at the age of 74.  Heaney died in 2013, also at the age of 74.  Last week, Longley turned 75.

“You’ve made it past the post,” he told Longley, to shocked and not-so-shocked guffaws.

Brennan’s is always an interesting act to follow, but Longley earned more laughs.  He told about his father, about meeting the British Queen, and about “Lauren Bacall, who had a walk-on role in my fantasies.”  (Perhaps he was thinking about the unforgettable line from To Have and Have not?)

Though he has made it past Brennan’s “post,” Longley didn’t seem to be counting.  His new poems in The Stairwell dwell on death – his own and the deaths of close friends and relatives – but they aren’t “last words.”

“The next poem is what matters,” he said.  “It’s the only thing that matters.”

 

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At 8pm, at the Methodist Church, summer school Assistant Director Matthew Campbell re-introduced Michael Longley with a selection from his new book – the one phrase that makes any new volume of poetry worth the price of admission.

Bone shapes out of our gloomy womb-tangle,” Campbell recited, a line from “The Feet,” a poem about Longley’s late twin brother Peter, dedicated to Peter’s widow Catherine.  “An experience that has found its words,” he called it – something Longley’s been giving the poem-reading public with regularity for the past fifty years.

Many of the poems were somber and elegiac (though Longley asserted that elegies were balanced by “birth poems”), but not matter the subject, the laughs didn’t stop.

Longley read a poem “For my granddaughter, Amelia, who’s 11 … No, it’s on page 11 … She’s only one … Where would I be without you, Edna?”

He read through a brisk selection of poems from The Stairwell as well as three unpublished poems,
“only a few weeks old.”

“A lot of my poems are short.  I think most poems are too long, really,” he said later, in his dry, clipped deliver, something like a Belfast Dumbledore.  “ I have a one-line poem,” he said, and read it.  “They’re making a movie adaptation.”

Longley, like Yeats, has a mixed poetic, political, and familial heritage, both Irish and Anglo, sometimes both, often neither.  Longley claimed Yeats as the greatest English-language poet after Shakespeare, and of course had to qualify this: “He could be so foolish and silly, and that moves me too.  A great man making a fool of himself.”

“It’s amazing writing poems at 75 … and feeling that I’m only beginning, you know,” Longley told his audience as he began to wrap up.

After fierce applause for what could have been Longley’s final poem, Campbell took the podium and coaxed him into an encore – not a task, given the crowd, and given the poet.

“I forgot a poem,” Longley said, and after the applause died down, he began again.

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Yeats Society Summer School, Two Days In

Graffiti kitty corner to the Sligo Cathedral

Graffiti kitty corner to the Sligo Cathedral

I’ve been in Ireland almost five days now, and I’ve barely had time to answer my emails.  I spent the first two days in Carrowduff, County Clare, visiting what’s left of the old Ryan farm, and a day in and around Limerick and Ennis – but more on that later.  For now I’ll skip to the good work of the folks behind the International Yeats Society Summer School in Sligo, Ireland.

Edinburgh’s hopping, getting ready to hold arguably the world’s biggest literary festival; hep cats are cooling their heels in Copenhagen; Glasgow just said goodbye to world class actors in for its own arts celebration; but I can’t think of a single European town that rivals Sligo in per capita hipness.  It seems like nine out of ten people here are semiprofessional actors who moonlight with trad bands in the local pubs and write poetry as a hobby.  Everyone’s preparing for an exhibition or a reading; and of course everyone reads W. B. Yeats.

Last week Sligo played host to Christian Scott, headliner of this year’s Sligo Jazz Festival.  He anchored a week of nightly concerts, daily masterclasses, and many, many midnight jams.  The whole thing buzzed, banged, danced, and howled to a close Sunday night at 5th on Teeling, a cool little joint with two stages and an embarrassment of craft beers.  (I didn’t order a Guinness the entire night.)  By chance, Sunday also marked the official start of the Yeats Society International Summer School.  After a bus tour and opening ceremony (which I missed) and a dinner at the Sligo City Hotel (which, of course, I caught) the students – a group of undergraduates and newly minted PhDs, scholars and critics and dilettantes (like myself), from Ireland and the UK, the US, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Japan, and the Philippines – found their way to 5th on Teeling, where one of their number, also a member of the Sligo Jazz Project, was taking part in the Jazz Fest wrap-up party and jam.  The Yeatsians watched from a cozy wood-paneled room, pocked with ineffectual and entirely superfluous wall lamps, as Tropicana Musica, a smooth Afrobeat band visiting from the Congo, got everyone dancing on the floor below.  The space seemed made for such cultural cocktails: the dark lounge stepped off into a bright purple dance floor, in a room lined with flat and ocular mirrors and covered in a dusty shag fur.  Septuagenarian tattooed Irishmen shuffled next to slick women in pixie cuts and halters that halted at the navel.  There were roving packs of local adolescents well below Ireland’s alleged drinking age of 18, and as many languages bubbling and percolating as one might hear in Grand Central Station.

Naturally, I joined the action.  While Tropicana Musica hummed steadily away in the back room, local and visiting musicians assembled in the front room for one last jam.  A jerry-rigged drum kit, a couple congas, a piano and a stand up bass stayed on the small stage, while the cats came and went carrying their own horns, harps, and gitfiddles, breaking often to take a craft brew to their friends in the booths.  Because of space constraints, a Swedish man played the trumpet from his seat in a booth by the stage, smiling mildly to wild applause.

Brian Devaney, an actor and fellow student at the Yeats School, beckoned to me from his congas on the stage.  I hopped behind the kit for two songs, what one Irish pianist shruggingly dubbed a “slow, slow blues … wi’ a bit of funk,” and the night’s second rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago,” led by a searing harmonica.

Somehow I made it to the first lectures at the Hawk’s Well Theatre at 9 the next morning.  Immediately I was impressed.  Margaret Mills Harper and Matthew Campbell, Director and Assistant Director of the summer school, opened with lectures that brought all present into close communion with the poet, a spiritual-intellectual state that will no doubt sustain through the next two weeks.

Seminars followed, mine led by Herbert Tucker, who told us to abandon metaphor and theme and imagery and even historical or biographical context in favor of metrics – the charms woven through the warp and woof of Yeats’ poetry.

After so much close reading (which I have to say I haven’t practiced to this extent since Jack Kenny’s and Tom Zabawa’s classes at St. Joe’s) I had to relax with a Syrah (and my homework) at the Osta cafe on the banks of the Garavogue, with a view of the stately, subtly dilapidated Yeats Memorial Building to the right of Hyde Bridge and the aggressively modern Glass House Hotel thrusting itself like some deconstructed postmodern Titanic through the old buildings on the left.

Left, the Yeats Memorial Building.  In between is the Hyde Bridge over the Garavogue River, and the Glasshouse Hotel on the right.

Left, the Yeats Memorial Building. In between is the Hyde Bridge over the Garavogue River, and the Glasshouse Hotel on the right.

Later that night the Young Yeats division of the society hosted a social at The Harp Tavern, on Quay Street, in easy view of Ben Bulben on a clear enough day.  The bar provided finger foods while we Yeatsians spread out and acquired the requisite pints of Guinness.

The trad band was supposed to start at 9, so naturally they all found their way to the stage at about 10 to 10.  Sean, the guitarist and bandleader, had been forced by some snafu to recruit two exceptionally talented (and exceptionally young) girls from the local pool to play fiddle and concertina.  As with seemingly everything in Sligo, the performance was collaborative – Sean invited a fiddler from D.C. to take the stage, and thrice called on a large group of reelers and jiggers to whirl in madcap fashion before the stage.  They, in turn, sucked an Austrian undergraduate by the name of Elizabeth into their circle.

I, likewise, found myself pulled in by irresistible charms, in this case the charms of a vacationing family from Charlotte, N.C.  Quite by accident the patriarch, a lawyer, had run into a colleague and a friend of mine, who happened to be studying at the Yeats School.  For over two hours the band played and every time I tried to rise to buy a round of drinks, the patriarch waved me down and bought the round himself.  Southern hospitality, it seems, knows no borders.

A group of dancers joined the trad musicians at The Harp Tavern on Monday night.

A group of dancers joined the trad musicians at The Harp Tavern on Monday night.

 I don’t plan on getting much sleep for the next two weeks.  Unrelenting 9 a.m. lectures follow on the heels of evening reading bleeding into loud and cozy mornings in the pubs.  A night not spent listening to “The Rose of Tralee” and “Finnegan’s Wake” is a night wasted.  This morning I listened to Lucy McDairmid give a lecture blending Yeats’ revolutionary poems and the memoirs of women close to the 1916 rebels, followed by Wim Van Mierlo on Yeats’ Creative Impulses, drawing on the Romantics and the often indecipherable early drafts of W.B.’s poems.  I ended the afternoon again on the banks of the Garavogue, committing to memory “No Second Troy,” – a homework assignment – before heading off to the Donal Ryan reading at 8.  Then, of course, music in the pubs, maybe The Swagman this time, where, so a colorful cartographer named John the Map informed me, I can find an even wider selection of craft brews.

Two days I’ve been in Sligo.  I know already it isn’t a town you visit once.

[Check out my Flickr Gallery of Ennis, Ennistymon, Limerick, and Galway here andmy Sligo gallery here.]