Selected Poems 1961-2017

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John Montague

 

 

 

 

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Poems by John Montague, admired and loved, long ago etched themselves in the consciousness and culture of Ireland. At once prophetic and taking the measure of his family’s, his province’s and his country’s travails, they introduced an international breadth to Irish poetry in the middle of the 20th-century. Selected Poems 1961-2017 draws on each of John Montague’s collections, from Poisoned Lands (1961) and his major orchestrations (The Rough Field, 1972, The Great Cloak, 1978, and The Dead Kingdom, 1984) to the books which followed the publication of Collected Poems (1995) including his posthumous Second Childhood (2017). It isolates the solos from the larger musical arrangements and exalts a poet of enduring value.

Chosen by Peter Fallon, his editor for more than thirty years, Selected Poems 1961-2017 displays the highlights of what Seamus Heaney described as ‘an oeuvre of epic sweep and lyric intensity’.

Montague’s long-time editor, Peter Fallon, who knows this work better than anyone, has done a wonderful job in sifting out the essence of Montague’s. . . Montague’s collections were not just accumulations of work but careful orchestrations, sometimes symphonic, sometimes almost operatic. But the essence of him is here and will win him new readers. — Brian Morton, PNReview

John Montague’s Selected Poems 1961-2017 reinforce the impression left by his individual volumes: that of a great talent growing increasingly apprehensive at the conditions in which it must be exercised. London Review of Books

John Montague: Selected Poems, 1961-2017, Ed. Peter Fallon

If Seamus hadn’t become so famous, John Montague, who was a decade older, would be considered the premier Ulster poet of the last sixty years. There are close parallels between the two but Montague’s republicanism and strong attraction to American and European models – he studied at Yale and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and died in Nice in 2016, a knight of the Legion d’honneur – tended to complicate his reputation.

America was a kind of return. Montague’s father had gone there from County Tyrone in 1925, followed three years later by his mother and two older brothers. John was born in Brooklyn, but sent home to Ireland at four, in 1933. In ‘The Locket’ he confesses a sense of profound betrayal and rejection, softened only by the discovery, after her death, that Molly had worn his infant portrait next to her heart for most of her life. A yet more profound division afflicted young John, separating him from the language he had begun, as he says in ‘A Flowering Absence’ ‘to dolphin delight in’. Mocked by a teacher for his Brooklyn slum vowels, he develops a stammer: ‘my tongue became a rusted hinge / until the sweet oils of poetry // eased it and grace flooded in.’

A good deal of the poetry, and a high proportion of the poems selected here by Montague’s long-time editor, Peter Fallon, are concerned with the aegis and nature of poetry itself. There are other poems, notably ‘A Grafted Tongue’, devoted to the sense of severance and shame young John felt at not being able to speak like his peers, but others again make use of impediment – distinctive line­lengths and stanza-breaks – to actualise the emergence of a poetic voice. In ‘A Bright Day’, addressed to John McGahern, he talks of ‘a slow exactness // Which recreates experience / By ritualizing its details -‘. In ‘Hearth Song’, this time dedicated to Heaney, he likens the emergence of poetry to the song of a cricket in the flags beneath his feet, ‘Composed for no one, a tune / dreamt up under a flat stone, / earth’s fragile, atonal rhythm’, with a boy’s glimpse of the alien creature, a ‘minute, manic cellist’ down in the stones. And there’s a further shared parallel in ‘The Country Fiddler’ with Heaney’s signature ‘Digging’ that poetry is a displaced inher­itance; Heaney’s father digs potatoes while upstairs and in apparent comfort his son delves in language; a fiddle left by a Montague uncle, once celebrated for song, rots away in the rafters until the boy again finds relief in verse.

Returning to Ireland propelled John back into an earlier state of being, almost primeval compared to Brooklyn’s trolley lines and electrici­ty. This wasn’t just a generic juxtapo­sition of urban and rural, but something written to a far longer scale. The characters that people the poems are distant and monumental. ‘Like dolmens round my childhood’, solitaries who live with animal familiars or hereditary blindness or the foolishness of Billy Eagleson, who married a Catholic servant girl ‘When all his Loyal family passed on’ and suffered the noisy ostracism reserved for those who cross such lines. ‘The Hill of Silence’ from Mount Eagle is a shared ascent of stony terrain, the ‘slope of loneliness’ where wounded myth-warriors might have their wounds tended. Ireland is full of such places.

Shamed for his vowels as a boy, Montague has been praised for them ever since. His poetry has a distinc­tive music, built round open-mid and close-mid back vowels, Irish diphthongs and stresses. Less often remarked, though, is the rhythmic accenting of consonants and a steady use of alliteration, which tends to highlight the atavistic monumentality of his landscapes and their population. In ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’, he follows ‘Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud’ with ‘Gaunt figures of fear and friendliness’ which sounds like it might be reaching for Old English epic effect.

The closer to home the characters, the more modestly scaled. James Montague’s return to Ireland is a long dying fall. Molly’s death is the end of a stoic self-denial. There is poignancy in father and son break­ing journey in a pub in order to hear John’s broadcast voice win eventual acknowledgement – ‘Not bad’ – from the father, ‘at ease, at last’. More striking still are the erotic poems and the taxonomising of a failed relationship that gather most prominently in The Great Cloak, where he draws on a trouvere spirit in ‘Tearing’ to actualise the pains of a modern relationship, its physicali­ty unshirked. Heaney never man­aged anything of the kind and stumbled when he attempted it. There are few poems that more brilliantly capture the intensities of reunion than the transcontinental journey and meeting captured in ‘All Legendary Obstacles’ from the earlier A Chosen Light:

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady who marked
A neat circle in the glass

With her glove to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

That might be said to be the key Montague moment, the half-beat before articulacy returns. It happens often in the verse, even when not explicitly referenced. The impedi­ment wasn’t just a reaction to shame. It was a cultural one, too.

Peter Fallon, who knows this work better than anyone, has done a wonderful job in sifting out the essence of Montague’s. There’s a lot from A Chosen Field, published in 1967 when he was newly confident in his voice, surprisingly less from 1972’s The Rough Field, which remains the most personally revealing collection in terms of Montague’s relations with his native/ not-native country, and a goodly amount from the collections that followed 1995’s Collected, including the posthumous Second Childhood, which saw him going back to the riddle of having a mother and father but being motherless and fatherless, standing in a field alone and unable to express. Inevitably, these are all excerpts from a larger music.

Montague’s collections were not just accumulations of work, but careful orchestrations, sometimes symphonic, sometimes almost operatic. But the essence of him is here and will win him new readers.

— Brian Morton, PN Review

 


 

John Montague’s Selected Poems reinforce the impression left by his individual volumes: that of a great talent growing increasingly apprehensive at the conditions in which it must be exercised. Since 1958, when his first volume Forms of Exile appeared, he has been renowned for a certain elegance and formality of phrasing, and for a nervous delicacy of rhythm: these bestowing upon his poems an air of fragility which has to survive the often desperate occasions which initiate them. This discontinuity between the form of the poems and their environment can be partially understood as a product of modern Irish conditions. There are two main versions of contemporary Ireland in his work. The first is that of the dilapidated Republic of the Fifties and Sixties, first clerical, then commercial; the second is that of the broken North of the last two decades, violent and bitter, but touched by the promise that crisis can bring. Beyond these are other, vanished Irelands which nevertheless retain a considerable force in his imagination: the Ireland of Yeats and the Revival, the Ireland of his childhood in the North, the old Gaelic Ireland of Tyrone. All of them are finally disappointing. They encumber his art, although he struggles to make them liberate it. The problem is deepened by the fact that these territories do give release to many of the contemporaries whose presence in these domains shadows his own – Kinsella in the South, Heaney, Mahon, Longley and others in the North. A pathfinder who discovers that the territories he broke into have been settled by others, he is left to forage where others feed.

 

Yet this may have been Montague’s good fortune. From the beginning his poetry has been concentrated around images which determine its procedures. The logic of story has usually been slight. Few poets make less use of connectives. One can read several poems in succession before encountering the copula: indeed, in ‘The Rough Field’ he often diminishes its presence by converting it into an ampersand. Instead we are given a series of cinematic frames, as in ‘Wild Sports of the West’:

 

The landlord’s coat is tulip red,
A beacon on the wine-dark moor;
He turns his well-bred foreign devil’s face,
While his bailiff trots before.

The stanzas are built in pleated phrasing, one folding over the other, their connectives hidden, the images probing the story for its secret:

 

She was a well of gossip defiled,
Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside:
Reputed a witch  …

 

The images would not overlap so gracefully did they not remind us of the mutualities they discover between the worlds of nature and culture. The stylised sadness of a landscape repeats the intimacy and separation of lovers or of neighbours. In ‘O’Riada’s Farewell’, the image of fire is tested against a series of other images and references – ice, music, light, desire, race, death – in a ballet of dainty interchanges for which the narrative provides a stage. The language is purged of its customary aids – punctuation, capitalisation of the initial letters in the line. The line itself is reduced at times to a single stress. The voice becomes disembodied, then is relocated again in the ‘I’ of the narrator. The whole poem, and many others like it, refuses the restful incarnation in the actual which is characteristic of Seamus Heaney. It harnesses energy but does not convert it into something else. its force remains pure, does not become weight. In that respect it is closer to modern French poetry (like that of Bonnefoy or Supervielle or Frenaud) than to poetry in English.

It is this phosphorescence of the image and the accompanying ghostliness of syntax which distinguish Montague from his contemporaries and allow one to say that it is his good fortune to have been left to forage rather than to feed. He seeks to endorse his loneliness by imagining a community in which it would be healed. Culturally, the home ground is Gaelic Ireland; politically, it is Irish Republicanism; privately and personally, it is marriage. All of these, save marriage, are residual communities.

 

Even marriage, as he tells us in The Great Cloak (1978), has broken once, and the keenest poems in that volume show the pain of a man who, in Montague’s own words, ‘discovers that libertinism does not relieve his solitude.’ Even when a new marriage restores him, the lovers find themselves isolated in each other’s arms while Belfast falls to pieces around them. Isolation brings out the aristocrat in Montague. In that guise, he achieves his finest effects. Yielding to the community creates a sentimentality, a plebeian togetherness, which robs him of control and demolishes the distance which his connoisseur’s sensibility needs for contemplation.

‘The Rough Field’ is the poem in which these conflicts are most pronounced. There he brings all of the past and all of the present, all the public and all the private languages together. Yet he is compelled into blank assertions which have a baldness (offered as candour) far removed from the process of feeling which gives the poem its life and distinction. After a beautiful opening stanza, ‘Sound of a Wound’ turns to:

I assert
a civilisation died here;
it trembles
underfoot where I walk these
small, sad hills:
it rears in my blood stream
when I hear
a bleat of Saxon condescension;
Westminster
to hell, it is less than these
strangely carved
five thousand year resisting stones,

that lonely cross.

 

Although I find the sentiment agreeable, I also find the music mutilated to accommodate its anger. The moment John Montague moves towards his community, he suffers a loss of linguistic grace. The myths of race and nationality are will o’ the wisps, leading him astray, convincing him that he can dislodge the spear of isolation.

Montague has championed two Irish writers, Kavanagh and Goldsmith, because they are both examples of the artist surviving almost impossible conditions. His sponsorship reveals something about himself, for he belongs with these two. The various writers to whom he refers or by whom he has been influenced – French, American, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, South American – are the more attractive to him for the oppositions they encounter and the adversarial positions they adopt towards official and established forms. This is a version of community similar to but distinct from those other personal or specifically Irish ones, for Montague feels the need to be relieved of intimacies that can become too stifling. Thus, in his introduction to the Faber Book of Irish Verse, he envisages an international poetry which has national roots, a definition of Irish which arises from a negotiation between English and Gaelic traditions. Here again we have a gesture that is matched in the poetry – a seeking for a conciliated community, a refusal to accept the burden of solitude. Goldsmith’s deserted village, Kavanagh’s hungry hills, Montague’s dilapidated Tyrone are all abandoned places that have been repossessed in poetry. They are none the less lost, for all that. This Montague will not accept. His poetry must be active in renewing them. He does not have the irony that allows for a duality between literature and life. Thus he will not keep the opposition between them in abeyance but must seek to resolve it by pitting one against the other. ‘The Rough Field’ is full of the noise of that collision.

 

Nevertheless, Montague’s bondage to an idea of community has the paradoxical effect of establishing the unique and lonely nature of his own freedom. A poetry so resistant to its own nature is constantly refining itself, avoiding the placatory instinct, breaking off its relationships with myth and politics in order to renew them (and itself). The conditions of life and the condition of poetry may not be reconcilable, any more than death is reconcilable with love, experience with words. In resisting such oppositions, Montague risks a mandarin language’s infection by the language of the daily round.

 

I heard the floorboards creak
as, cloudhuge in his nightgown,
he prowled the house, halting
only when, gnawed by the worm
of consciousness, disappointment
at disappointment, he stood
on the porch to inhale
the hay and thistle scented
air of a Normandy harvest;
piss copiously in salutation
towards a shining moon.

 

The Selected Poems define the achievement of a poet whose attempts to come to terms with communal values clarify the loneliness of the artist in contemporary conditions. The failure of his ideal communities is not the cause of failure in the poetry itself. More truly, Montague’s work reminds us of the force of John Crowe Ransom’s precept that the object of a proper society is ‘to instruct its members how to transform instinctive experience into aesthetic experience’. In that light, John Montague is, in the Irish tradition, powerfully instructive.

— London Review of Books

Publication Date: 2019
Details: 160pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 91133 775 1
ISBN HBK: 978 1 91133 776 8

Cover: drawing by Barrie Cooke