Michael Longley, one of Northern Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, is born in Belfast on July 27, 1939. He is educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and subsequently reads Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he edits the student literary magazine Icarus.
Longley is renowned for the quiet beauty of his compact, meditative lyrics. Known for using classical allusions to cast provocative light on contemporary concerns, including Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” his poetry is also marked by sharp observation of the natural world, deft use of technique, and deeply felt emotion. His debut volume, No Continuing City (1969), heralds the arrival of a new talent from a region which has already produced recognized talents like Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. However his early influences are English poets like Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice, and the First World War poets, as well as masters from the classical tradition. The critic Langdon Hammer describes Longley’s poems as masterpieces of “lucidity, economy, sincerity…by means of meticulous, unpretentious technique.”
Longley’s work engages diverse subjects, including Homeric literature, the landscape of Carrigskeewaun, jazz, Walter Mitty, and the politics of Northern Ireland. On the public and political responsibilities of being a Northern Irish poet, he says, “Though the poet’s first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations, and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively.” Reviewing his Selected Poems (1993), critic Fran Brearton praises in particular Longley’s more political poems, noting his “use of a compassionate yet unsentimental voice, and an attention to detail which restores specificity at a point in history when it is most in danger of being lost in abstraction – numbers, dates, death-tolls counted beyond comprehension.”
After a 12-year publishing silence, Longley’s 1991 return, Gorse Fires, wins the Whitbread Poetry Prize. Subsequently, The Weather in Japan (2000) wins The Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry, the Hawthornden Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Other publications include Snow Water (2004) and Collected Poems (2006). In 2001 Longley is awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Longley is Professor of Poetry for Ireland from 2007 to 2010, a cross-border academic post set up in 1998, previously held by John Montague, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Paul Durcan. He is succeeded in 2010 by Harry Clifton.