John Montague: a bright day dimmed

Montague and his poetic idiom were shaped by his childhood in Tyrone

 

John Montague was a poet who gave history a voice, a voice informed by his Northern background and origins. He did so in early poems of remarkable insight and perception that looked to the past, but he also became a key poetic witness to the divisions and conflicts created by that past and what he refers to in The Sound of a Wound as “the vomit surge/of race hatred”. The poems and sequences of historical inquiry and discourse in The Rough Field established him as a poet well equipped to decipher that conflict and the destructive forces behind it.

In one of his lectures as Ireland Professor of Poetry he declared that the poet’s task was “to achieve authenticity”. In his own work – much of it concerned with the craft of poetry itself – he not only achieved authenticity but, as Seamus Heaney remarked, “extended the tradition in Irish poetry”. Heaney in an ecomium for his fellow Northerner extended this praise to suggest that his first encounter with Montague’s poetry “brought me to my senses in a new way”.

Montague and his poetic idiom were shaped by his childhood in Co Tyrone, the place he referred to as the landscape of his upbringing. That childhood landscape became his country of memory, and his experiences there bequeathed to him all the touchstones his imagination needed.

It was also where he developed a sacramental sense of the natural world. He wisely shared Kavanagh’s trust in what comes out of the local, the value of staying particular, and in doing so he became a custodian of “an older Ireland”. That led to an acute awareness of what he called the “primal hurt” that can rupture relationships, families, communities. Hurt became one of the recurring themes of his writing.

As a poet he was open to the possibilities of moving in new directions; the techniques of his art were learned from the wider world of poetry, especially on his sojourns in America, the country of his birth, where he absorbed the muscular qualities of the American poem.

He was in the vanguard of those seeking to sharpen the Irish lyric but remained loyal to Milton’s dictum that poetry should be “simple, sensuous and passionate”.

Montague was a master of the love poem, always gesturing towards the erotic, and a number of his most luminous lyrics belong to that genre. In book after book – A Chosen Light, A Slow Dance, Tides – he distinguished himself as an evocative image-maker.

Montague’s other great legacy is his influence as a teacher, and this legacy lives on in a generation of poets who came under his spell in University College Cork. Through his nurturing of those talents he became a seminal and lasting influence on contemporary Irish poetry as it stands today.

What the American poet C K Williams called “his really quite remarkable achievement” is almost an understatement. He brought to his work the “slow exactness” he speaks of in the marvellous and succinct A Bright Day, and has left us poems of grace and gravitas that have deepened and renewed the Irish canon – a poetry that came from the heart and the head and is guaranteed a place in the afterlife that awaits the work of true poets.

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