Another high tree felled: Irish poets salute John Montague
Paul Muldoon, Eavan Boland, his publisher Peter Fallon and a host of poets and academics pay tribute to a great Irish writer
John Montague speaking at his 80th birthday and the launch of his Chosen Lights: Poets on Poems at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2009. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
John Montague and Elizabeth Wassell at home in west Cork. Photograph: Alan Beltson
Some books by John Montague. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Benedict Kiely and John Montague (seated) at a reception in the Riverrun Gallery, Dublin, in 1989 to mark the publication of The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, New Selected Poems and The Rough Field. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
I remember John with affection as a humorous, unpretentious person and as a poet of enormous talent and humanity. He had a kind of concentration that made him able to be public and personal at once, but especially to hold the things he saw in a tight frame however disjointed they might seem, so that they had a total impact as poems, from All Legendary Obstacles to Border Sick Call.
Macdara Woods and I are reading here in Granada today and we will each read a poem in his memory
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's latest collection is The Boys of Bluehill
There is a line of Montague’s, at the end of The Rough Field, that has haunted me since first I read it: “With all my circling a failure to return”.
Born in Brooklyn, sent at the age of four to be brought up by aunts on a small farm in Tyrone, Montague’s sense of his place in the world is perpetually threatened by physical and psychic uncertainly. In almost every poem he writes, there is the anguish of displacement, actual or potential.
What he desires, I think, is the near-impossible return to the primal home - and it is this unassuaged, unassuageable longing that sifts beauty into his poems of love and place, puts steel in his backbone when he considers our human state.
If I am haunted by that line of his above, I am also aware of how in so many of the poems, as so often in the life itself, he found haven and home in love, in friendship, in fatherhood and in the blessed natural world.
He was cosmopolitan, urbane, technically gifted, deservedly feted and honoured at home and abroad, a smiling public man, a wise and mischievous friend to many - but if he carried always the secret wound of his childhood, he had also the grace and the gift to make imperishable and salvific poems out of the actual life he was granted.
Theo Dorgan's latest work is Nine Bright Shiners
Every bit as much at home in Iowa as Omagh, Paris as Pomeroy, John Montague was a poet who sought to combine the imagistic clarity of William Carlos Williams with the narrative complexity of William Butler Yeats. He succeeded. The best of his lyrical descriptions of Irish country life are no less fresh and freighted than the best of Kavanagh and Heaney, while his long poems raised the bar for political and social commentary on the bloody matter of the North. As for the man himself, I will miss his beautiful combination of the caustic and the cherishing, his exemplary dedication to the idea that the life of the poet is as relevant – and requisite – as that of the plumber, the politician, the philosopher, the pastry chef, the psychoanalyst.
Paul Muldoon’s latest work is Selected Poems 1968-2014 (Faber)
John Montague’s death takes away a powerful and always genial presence. It leaves behind his signature achievement as an Irish poet.
Like many others I began to read his poems more attentively in the early 1970s. I read them both as a present event and a future promise of new spaces in the Irish poem.
This was especially true of The Rough Field, published in 1972. Many poets have a lyric sense of place; some have a narrative bent for displacement. But here the two are dashed together, subverting the melody of belonging with the squawk of dispossession.
It seemed to me then, and does now, that the work was particularly scalding when the powerless world of the individual confronted an equally dispossessed history. In a beautiful piece called A Lost Tradition he writes of the erasures of his own region: “The whole landscape a manuscript/We had lost the skill to read”.
So much of what is admirable and permanent in John’s achievement is here and in other poems and always will be: the work of an artist fitting losses and generations together, making a bleak inventory of what cannot be retrieved. And thereby, of course, retrieving it.
Eavan Boland’s latest collection is A Woman without a Country – Poems (WW Norton)
Little might we have imagined when we met what would unfold. It was June 1968 on The Late Late Show. He (39) was home from Paris and on the panel. I (17) had been invited to read a poem. We hardly spoke. Little might we have imagined then that within a decade I’d publish some of his poems in a limited edition and within another 10 years become his editor and publisher. Since 1988 we worked together on 10 or a dozen titles including Collected Poems (1995) and New Collected Poems (2012). He listened when I counselled that he not publish certain poems for the hurt they would cause. Recently we agreed that we’d publish a new collection, Second Childhood, on what would have been his 88th birthday next February.
John Montague helped broaden the range of Irish poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, in particular with his openness to America and to the poetry of France. He found in his family’s fracture a parallel in Ulster’s. By exploring what he’d inherited he embraced and articulated a destiny. Lines and phrases have imprinted themselves on generations of readers.
Justly celebrated for the ambition and accomplishment of long poems and sequences, John Montague could write with an economy few poets risk. A poet out of the bardic tradition, with what you might call a Gael force behind him, he trusted his vocation and recognized the responsibility to honour it. His is the work of a poet both of a tribe and of a wider consciousness.
He was lucky in his late love. It was touching to observe his and Elizabeth’s constant companionship. John’s final contribution to the new book was the dedication – “to Elizabeth, my wordfount”. I’ll miss his abundant gift and his mischievous ways.
Peter Fallon is a poet and publisher of Gallery Press
Christine Dwyer Hickey
John had – as they say – a good innings, a full and eventful life but even so, his work here was far from finished. He was not ready to leave the life he so enjoyed and he certainly was not ready to leave his beloved Elizabeth. But gone he is, and we will just have to find the courage to accept that. There will be no more John. No more New Year’s Eve and birthday celebrations at home or abroad. No more sporting bets with my husband (John was an astute gambler and more often than not, won). No more hearing his gentle voice on the telephone asking – what news from Ireland? He brought light into our lives and brightened our table. He was loved by all who knew him and remembered, always remembered, even by those who had only met him once. At my daughter’s wedding four years ago, John was the star, teaching us how to do the twist and at the sing-song the following night, belting out Three Lovely Lassies from Kimmage, much to the delight of onlooking Italians.
He spoke to me from his hospital bed the night before he had surgery; we had a long chat and then suddenly he said, “Well, that’s it, they’ve just brought me my dinner, I have to go.”
Christine Dwyer Hickey’s latest novel is The Lives of Women
In September 1973 when I was a Trinity postgraduate I was being photographed by L’Umo in the Bailey (they spotted me as a typically Irish collegiate), when John Montague and Gareth Browne, two bucks on a lark, crowded into the frame. I happened to have with me the Chicago edition of Tides (1971), with the cover by Stanley Hayter. It was love at first sight for John: a serious reader from America! We were soon lost in conversation about poetry, from century to century, country to country, with spirited contentions about what was finest. A conversation with John was like a party, and often turned into a long and riotous night. John sometimes fancied his totem was the eagle in the mountain, but he was at heart a very funny and mischievous fellow.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s John was writer-in-residence at the State University of New York, Albany, I was just up the Thruway at Union College. John never learned to drive, but in America, you’d starve without a car. So I was often his weekend chauffeur. What did I get out of it? The most delightful long, literary conversations with a poet through and through, one with a mind as bright and flashing as his famously twinkling eyes. John had a lot of friends like me across the country, poets, editors, scholars, like Elizabeth Grubgeld, Tony Bradley, Dillon Johnston, Tom Redshaw, Sean Golden, Guinn Batten, Philip Brady, Frank Kersnowski, all sorry today that he will not be coming back, but we still have the books, and he managed to get a lot of himself into them.
Adrian Frazier is working on a biography of John Montague. He can be contacted at Adrian.Frazier@nuigalway.ie His latest work is The Adulterous Muse (Lilliput Press)
We pulled the car on to the side of the ditch and John, togs tucked under arm, stepped over a low stone wall, heading towards what I think was a mill race or maybe it was a river he knew of, for a swim. When he returned he beamed that mischievous, boyish smile and off we went again, my wife, John and I, towards Inistioge. That evening in Kyteler’s Inn, Kilkenny we shared supper and I didn’t see him again for years afterwards until the mid-1980s in Cork. Our paths crossed in Ireland in the remaining literary pub-life, at launches and readings; books were exchanged with signatures and the apt telling ambiguity of a dedication.
Beneath it all I sensed John did bear a “scar” – the disjunction of his early separation from family as a boy and which he wrote so much about as a grown man. But also the exposure of city-life seemed both to attract him and somehow unbalance him too. He was always to be on the lookout for fellowship and community within which the hurt would be dissolved. The sense of all this entanglement rarely broke cover in my company but the poems and correspondence say enough and reveal plenty. John had an “out in the country” look to him; a birdlike watching in the turn of his head and he carried a belief and praise, old-fashioned perhaps for today, of “his” place and the people he grew up with; but more than this, there was an implicit and incontrovertible conviction that making art was a magical thing to do and priceless.
Gerald Dawe has published eight collections of poetry with The Gallery Press, including most recently, Mickey Finn’s Air. He is currently Visiting Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge
John Montague came to give a lecture based on his poem A Grafted Tongue when I was an MA student at University of California at Berkeley back in 1985. The poem says much about the loss of the Irish language, but also his own struggle with a stammer that hampered his speech – but opened a seam of eloquent vulnerability in his work. I was honoured to claim him as my countryman amongst the tanned, urbane Californians. In the early 1990s he encouraged me as a fledgeling poet, and including two of my poems in an anthology he edited entitled Bitter Harvest, which was published in the US. He encouraged me to be more daring, more physical, in my work and introduced me to Sharon Olds.
When in 1995 his Collected Poems appeared from Gallery, I was sent by my then employer, The Irish Times, to interview him in Ballydehob. However, almost right away Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature and Montague’s thunder was very much stolen.
I don’t think he got the recognition he deserved for his multi-faceted, finely crafted, outspoken body of work; so local in theme, yet so cosmopolitan in delivery. Border Sick Call, a long poem dedicated to his doctor brother and included in the Collected Poems of ’95, is particularly fine: “a silent, frost-bright moon/upon snow crisp as linen/spread on death or bridal bed;/blue tinged as a spill of new/milk from the crock’s lip….Another mile, our journey is done..The snow-laden car/gleams strange as a space machine.”
Katie Donovan is a poet. Her latest collection is Off Duty (Bloodaxe Books)
In 1970s UCC John Montague, always just Montague to us, was a mythic figure. Even still, when I pass along the Western Road, I see him walking to work wearing a jumper with a huge phoenix design on the back. To us writers he was a poet of international reputation and that most miraculous of things in academia, someone who actually believed in literature as a living thing. He came to all our readings, for example – he and Sean Lucy often the only grown-ups present at the usual sententious student gathering. His words of praise were to be treasured. I still remember the exact moment and setting when he picked out a line of a poem of mine. One of my happiest memories of him comes from the night I was detailed to drive to Youghal and pick up Claud Cockburn and his wife and bring them to dinner at Montague’s house prior to a lecture. I remember Evelyn cooked roast chicken but served it with apple sauce. It’s a measure of my innocence that I thought it exotic, because everything about him was exotic for me. That warm kitchen with the big table, the books, the paintings, the conversation and the kindness.
William Wall is a poet and fiction writer
Clíona Ní Ríordáin
John Montague leaves an immense oeuvre. It is rooted in his own rough field of Garvaghey, yet is intensely cosmopolitan, and profoundly French. While living in Paris, on the rue Daguerre in the 1960s, he forged strong bonds with French poets, like Guillevic, Michel Deguy and André Frénaud. This resulted in a cross-fertilisation of his poetry through translations and versions, such as those in The Great Cloak. Montague was also a generous mentor to younger poets, particularly the generations of poets who studied with him and Seán Lucy in UCC during the 1970s-1980s: Seán Dunne, Theo Dorgan, Thomas McCarthy, Greg O’Donoghue, William Wall, Maurice Riordan, Gerry Murphy, Greg Delanty. He captures this moment in an affectionate poem, Rimbaud in Cork, where he imagines Arthur Rimbaud disembarking at Cobh and meeting his protégés. As Professor in UCC, he brought his poet comrades, Robert Graves and Hugh MacDiamaid, to Cork for memorable readings, recreating the excitement of his Berkeley years on campus in Cork.
France honoured him with the award of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He was a made a Doctor Honoris Causa of the Sorbonne Nouvelle in 2010. Today, both Ireland and France mourn the passing of a great man.
Clíona Ní Ríordáin lectures at Sorbonne University in Paris
I was lucky to be among the thousands of UCC students who sat before John Montague in the seventies. He taught us Yeats and brought to the table not only incisive analysis but insights and anecdotes but proved Harold Bloom’s belief that “the purpose of teaching is extend the blessing of more life”. Another course began with “Fr Hopkins’s dazzling windhover and Whitman’s barbaric yawp”. How marvellous that was; and marvellous too, his bringing to Cork Robert Graves and Hugh MacDiarmid, making poetry happen in a new way.
I spoke of John Montague and those heady days only last Friday before a full house in Luxembourg’s Chapter 1 bookshop when Aibhistín Ó Coimín, who teaches at the European School, curated an evening of Irish poetry, art and music. The painting on view was Roderic O’Conor’s rarely seen Ferme dans la Neige à Port Aven, the harpist and flautist played Irish tunes and the poetry was from Windharp, an anthology that was named for John Montague’s gloriously evocative lyric poem. The evening ended on an upbeat note with Windharp itself, as Maestro Montague gave us the sounds of Ireland. Hours later, on Saturday, Emily Dickinson’s birthday, the Carriage carrying Death and Immortality stopped for John Montague. Though his lonely, displaced childhood hurt him into poetry that powerful, honest work will live on. And it’s his smiling, gentle, mischievous self that I remember now. Another high tree felled but in my Collected Montague he wrote: “Cork in the seventies, let’s sing it!” That he did. That he does.
Niall MacMonagle is editor of Windharp: Poems of Ireland since 1916 (Penguin Ireland)
John Montague followed his instincts in both literature and love – from Dublin to Paris, back to the USA of his birth, to Cork, and lastly to Nice. As a student in UCC I loved how he would often spend most of a lecture reciting what he felt we needed to hear. His rendition of the The Wreck of the Deutschland was celebrated. Later, as his librarian, I felt a deep sense of responsibility in accepting the books and personal papers he transferred to UCC Library because of his obvious regret at parting with them. As a friend, I liked how he would link arms when walking, and talk so freely about poetry, from Goldsmith to Gary Snyder. Being with John at his house, in the aptly-named west Cork townland of Letter, was always a joy. As we left there together on my last visit, which I now know to have been his last, I sensed a great discharge of personal emotion as he carefully surveyed the place, looked up at Mount Gabriel and slowly shut the gate. On the drive back to Cork we said aloud all the townland names from Ballydehob to Durrus and named all the trees we could identify. A poet of extraordinary sensitivity and skill, and arguably Ireland’s most international poet of the twentieth century, John was always an Ulsterman at heart. In the poem First Landscape, First Death, about his childhood home in Tyrone, he wrote: “So, for myself, I would seek/no other final home, than/this remote country hiding place”. May he hide in peace.
John Fitzgerald is head librarian at University College Cork and winner of the 2014 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award
If what Randall Jarrell said is true, that a poet is someone who, after a lifetime of standing in the rain, is lucky to be struck by lightning three or four times, John Montague must have been continually afire. The early, assured collections that marked his arrival, the brilliant The Rough Field meshing the local and the political, the intimate and historical, the curlew and the severed head. This was his great gift, to be in several psychic places at the same time and to write, always, with such effortless clear-eyed accuracy, often in carefully orchestrated symphonic sets building in power and passion with every line. Maybe this is what made him such a brilliant poet of love. The Great Cloak is one of the great Irish poetry collections, not just his preparedness to give “that fiery/Wheel a shove” as politics failed and violence raged, but for his willingness to expose as well as celebrate, to write honestly of pain and hurt. Now that he has become his poems, everyone will have their favourites. The one I keep circling is the peerless Herbert Street Revisited:
A light is burning late
in this Georgian Dublin street:
someone is leading our old lives!
And our black cat scampers again
through the wet grass of the convent garden upon his masculine errands.
Peter Sirr’s latest poetry collection is Sway (Gallery)
A Picture of a Bittern
It came home as a bookmark
in a signed Collected Montague.
The bittern. An Bonnán Buí.
Bought at the Brocante in Nice
as I killed an hour before the flight.
A colour plate – all raggedy and foxed –
the head-up, booming bird
sliced from an 1890s tome –
the bird itself already flown
from its black Fermanagh lakes.
So this was Héron Grand Butor –
Ardea dates the thing –
for now you’d write Botaurus – Ox and Bull.
A bhonnáin bhuí, ’s é mo léan do luí,
’S do chnámha sínte tar éis do ghrinn.
I saw one stuffed in a poet’s house –
stuffed and Sandymounted, you might say –
a bog-bull in a bell-jar, bellowing,
marble-eyed in an airless afterlife.
What odds indeed about the end of Troy?
And while I’ve never heard its boom,
there’s talk now of return –
the whole extinction not so absolute at all.
North Leitrim no less. South Wexford.
And some day, maybe, Fermanagh and South Tyrone –
home to poets and the birds of golden rushes.
The Yellow Bittern and Cathal Buí – from own country –
and Montague in Nice, still there, walking by the prayer-halls
near Rue d’Angleterre. By Constantine’s halls a bittern calls
from a wineless place.
John Kelly is a writer and broadcaster