Poet of exile and return

Mon, Feb 23, 2009, 00:00

In the week of John Montague's 80th birthday, fellow poet Thomas McCarthylooks at the career and life of a man who has produced a body of work that has a national grandeur. Always mischievous at readings and in company, Montague plays down the brilliant circle of scholars from which he emerged.

THERE WAS DORIS LESSING, just four years ago, walking briskly through the English Market in Cork, surrounded by a phalanx of minders. When the poet Theo Dorgan pointed to a young woman at the olive stall and remarked that she was the daughter of Montague, Doris Lessing immediately stopped and addressed her: “Please tell your father I was asking after him,” and again, she commanded: “You will not forget! I wish to be remembered to your father.”

Just the other day, I fell into conversation in a local cafe with an elderly woman who was reading The Pear is Ripe: A Memoir from Liberties Press. This midday gourmet, who had recently enjoyed The Collected Poemsfrom Gallery Press and Company, Montague’s earlier autobiography, was a devoted fan, a 70-year-old cheerleader. For her, who went on to quote extensively from All Legendary Obstacles, The New Siegeand Border Sick-Call, this Ulster poet is bigger than Bono. “Isn’t he a mighty man?” she quipped, “And a mighty poet!”

It is always difficult to estimate the impact a writer makes. A poet’s reputation is not fame, it is more subterranean, more the slow application of the red-hot, searing brand. It lives in a circle of admirers. With Montague, the smell of that burning brand is unmistakeable: a poet of love and politics, of exile and patria, his books remain in print, bought and borrowed and argued over. His life is very much like that of Elytis, the Greek. His greatest work, The Rough Field, has been constantly reprinted, rather like Elytis’ national book, The Axion Esti. Since Poisoned Lands, where Montague found his stride – a personal angle and rhythmic signature – his work has had an expansive fluency and national grandeur.

Many critics have argued against his definition of the national range, his assumption that Ireland and Irishness are accomplished and completed facts. In recent years a number of young scholars have attempted an assault on Montague’s Tyrone Gaelic towers only to come away diminished and covered in a green froth. He cannot be diminished; his work has a splendid, exceptional integrity: it ebbs and flows and shimmers like the tide, but contains beneath the surface many crystals of post-modernism and awkward splinters of white magic:

They sparkle beneath our wings;

spilt jewel caskets, lights strewn

in rich darkness, lampstrings of pearls

And then the plane tilts, a warm

intimate thrumming, like travelling within

the ambergris-heavy belly of a whale.

The abstract beauty of our world;

gleams anvilled to a glowing grid,

how the floor ofearth is thick inlaid!

(Landing)

Montague’s work is never poetry for the innocent. He is always much more than the nostalgic Irish child born in Brooklyn and reared by spinster aunts. Always mischievous at readings and in company, Montague likes to play down the brilliant Roger McHugh circle of UCD English scholars from which he emerged, that circle who were trained in late 1940s Ireland to be patrician Catholic editors and teachers, taciturn diplomats of a neutral country and lugubrious government ministers.

HIS MOTHER’S MILKwas indeed Ulster milk, but he trained in the Dublin playgrounds and his work resonates with the authority of a Dublin viewpoint; the Dublin of Anthony Cronin and Con Leventhal, of Liam Miller and Garech Browne. His early theatre criticism, firm and solid like Leventhal’s theatre work for Ireland Today, was written for Peadar O’Donnell at the Bell. It has a confidence born of many seminars: “I don’t think we adequately realise the extent to which the influence of the cinema and newspaper has corrupted drama proper; there is not merely the loose plots with a hint of social comment . . . but also the unconscious attempt at nonchalant acting, the swallowing of lines as though they were sawdust in the mouth . . . None of the plays at present running commercially in Dublin have any resemblance to the real thing.” (May 1952).

Yet, an early poem, published in the Dublin Magazinein 1949, when he was 20 years old, does already contain a rhythm and a locale that would blossom into his mature Ulster voice: “I sat in a staid country bus/ Soft moving through road cut fields.” His is a poetry of movement, of journeys, arrivals and encounters. From Bus Stop in Nevada, published in Threshold in 1957, to Like Dolmens Round my Childhood, winner of the Morton Prize and published in Thresholdin 1960, he established a pattern of exile and return that persists in his work to the present day. For the Bell he also wrote Fellow Travelling with America, an account of his participation in one of the famous postwar Salzburg Seminars at Max Reinhardt’s Schloss Leopoldskron; from which he came home believing that an Irish writer had “no active sense of European culture, but a kind of self-conscious, isolated bravado with the artist in the invidious position of spiritual director to the intelligentsia”.

A Fulbright Fellowship at Yale removed him from the Dublin scene in 1953 before he could become either a spiritual director or the scourge of local theatre. From Yale he moved to Iowa city where he became part of Paul Engle’s famous writing programme, submitting his first, unpublished collection The Mad Priest and Other Poemsas a required MFA thesis. It was in Iowa that he met “a titled young Frenchwoman with an eager grin and golden-brown eyes, called Madeleine de Brauer” who became his first wife. America, his birthplace but not his mother country, rushed into his consciousness with its campus rhythms and social habits, rhythms that would be reinforced by a sojourn in California in the mid-1960s:

Lines of protest

lines of change

a drum beating

across Berkeley

all that Spring

invoking the new

Christ avatar

of the Americas

(A New Siege)

That American strain, a playfulness and delicacy of line that comes from Snyder and Robert Duncan, permeates even his most traditional poems. The tension between deeply embedded Irish myths and archetypes and a Dave Brubeck-like twist and turn in the line is at the heart of his personal music. His 1961 book Poisoned Landscarries the weight of the British Movement in its verse structure, but his ideas and experiences are too well-travelled and complex to be deceived by a small ambition.

Montague’s years in America were followed by his sojourn in that basement flat at 6 Herbert Street, where the younger Doris Lessing played with her coloured notebooks. He worked for Bord Fáilte and began to assemble a tyro collection, Forms of Exile, for the Dolmen Press. These were the intense years of Thomas Kinsella, Seán Ó Riada, Liam Miller, Garech Browne and Brendan Behan’s late-night visits in search of comfort. Miller, printer and founder of Dolmen Press, and Garech Browne, a true Irish patriot and latter-day Douglas Hyde, were the two pivotal figures of Montague’s early adult years. Montague and Kinsella would spend many hours going through Dolmen Press proofs and submissions while Montague and Browne would spend days and nights driving through the Irish countryside in search of music and voices for Claddagh Records.

The Dolmen days of the 1950s and of the late 1960s combine in his two books of memoir to make a golden commonwealth of Irish music and poetry. Yet, between those two Dolmen phases Montague spent a crucial spell in Paris, at 11 rue Daguerre, where the poet Claude Esteban and the painter-engraver Bill Hayter filled the chasm created by the absence of Miller and Kinsella. Paris and its political ferment energised Montague’s poetry and flooded his love lyrics with a particular light:

There is a secret room

of golden light where

everything – love, violence,

hatred, is possible;

and, again, love.

Such intimacy of hand

and mind is achieved

under its healing light

that the shifting

of hands is a rite

like court music.

(The Same Gesture)

That poem is from Tides(1970), an exquisitely printed book from the Dolmen Press. Tides, in its structure and language, was a refinement of the style in A Chosen Light, published by MacGibbon Kee in 1967. Both collections are a successful marriage of art and literature, a seamless dance of Louis Le Brocquy in 1967 and Bill Hayter in 1970. Both books still stand as portals to a new kind of Irish poetry. Their importance has never been diminished. Young Dublin-based poets such as Richard Ryan, Hugh Maxton and Thomas Dillon Redshaw slipped through that Montague portal for several years. In those days Montague was also the Paris correspondent of The Irish Times, filing his reports from a city that reeled from student protests and post-colonial angst. It was in that ferment of Paris, then a vast political street theatre, that John met the second great love of his life: “And now I was confronted by a representative of this new class war; she was also beautiful, and beauty, along with fiery youth, can be a powerful potion,” he wrote in The Pear is Ripe.

IT WAS WITHEvelyn, his new young wife, that Montague settled in Cork as a lecturer in UCC’s English department. A youthful Montague was also at the height of his powers, having finally assembled The Rough Field, and begun work on The Faber Book of Irish Verse. Seán Lucy, the affable and charismatic Cork poet, arranged Montague’s sojourn at UCC. The two poets had been united by Seán Ó Riada’s death and funeral; indeed, Ó Riada became a shadowy but permanent presence in Montague’s poetry for the next 10 years; the early loss of the composer became a motif and symbol, a prophecy of worse things to come in 1970s Ulster: “Beyond the flourish of personality, peacock pride of music or language: a constant, piercing torment!” ( Ó Riada’s Farewell). I can still remember the evening that Montague read the newly written Farewellto Theo Dorgan, Evelyn and me, as we sat by his fireside in Grattan Hill. The Montagues had a bevy of devoted literary students who haunted their house in Cork, students who included Gregory O’Donoghue, Dorgan, Maurice Riordan and the scholar-poet Patrick Crotty.

In his lectures at UCC Montague also had two brilliant women who would go on to great things, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Fifi Wilson, now better known by her stage-name, Fiona Shaw. It was easy to be devoted to the Montagues; the poet with his tall, graceful stride and Evelyn with her breathtaking beauty and Gallic brilliance. Montague communicated an uncompromising view of the poet’s life to all his students and would-be poets – to be a poet was not something to be taken lightly; it was not a hobby, it was a serious way of being. But, exiled so far south, he also embodied the glamour of Ulster poetry, its world-beating and globe-trotting nature. Through him we discovered that Ulster poets stood no nonsense, and that they were the true inheritors of Yeats. He was extraordinarily generous with his time while he taught at UCC: and generous in practical ways too, dispatching his best student-poets on Canadian PhD trails and introducing our manuscripts to Liam Miller. It was no accident that Seán Dunne, Greg Delanty and I were first published by the Dolmen Press.

In the late 1980s Montague moved to SUNY, Albany, where he became writer-in-residence at its famous Writers’ Institute; in 1998 he became the first Ireland Chair of Poetry. In these recent years he also published a series of powerful collections, including Mount Eagle(1989) and Smashing the Piano(1999). His energy, power and belief in the poet’s vocation grows in intensity with every passing year. Along with that energy is a familial delicacy, an ability to capture microcosms of love:

In my sick daughter’s bedroom

The household animals gather.

Our black Tom poses lordly on

The sun-warmed windowsill.

A spaniel sleeps by her slippers,

Keeping one weather eye open.

( Guardians)

Now he contemplates the ebb and flow of Irish reputations from the warm perch of a Nice apartment, with his beloved Elizabeth Wassell, the American novelist, writing shrewd reviews for The Irish Timesand assembling new collections. On the evidence of his recent memoirs his belief in the poet’s life is undiminished and unbowed: “For now it seemed I had found a haven”.


All Legendary Obstacles

All legendary obstacles lay between

Us, the long imaginary plain,

The monstrous ruck of mountains

And, swinging across the night,

Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,

The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting

Nervously from station to bar

As I saw another train sail

By, the San Francisco Chief or

Golden Gate, water dripping

From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale

Above the negro porter’s lamp.

I was too blind with rain

And doubt to speak, but

Reached from the platform

Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days

With an old lady, who marked

A neat circle on the glass

With her glove, to watch us

Move into the wet darkness

Kissing, still unable to speak.

- John Montague

From Collected Poems(The Gallery Press) and reprinted in Chosen Lights: Poets on Poemsby John Montague (The Gallery Press), which is published this week in honour of the poet’s 80th birthday. All Legendary Obstacleswas first published in The Irish Timeson February 19th, 1966


The Gallery Press and Poetry Ireland present a reading by John Montague tomorrow at 6.30pm in the Albert Theatre, Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin, followed by the launch ofChosen Lights: 30 Poets on Poems by John Montague. Admission free.