John Montague: in Heaney’s shadow

Poet John Montague was 10 years older than Seamus Heaney and a good friend to the fellow northerner, whose gifts and good fortune overshadowed him and others

John Montague and  Elizabeth Wassel

John Montague and Elizabeth Wassel


Irish poet John Montague (85) is a white-haired giant with perpetually smiling slits for eyes. He towers over his wife, American novelist Elizabeth Wassell, as they guide me through their neighbourhood in Nice. With her red hair and high forehead, Wassell (57) looks like Elizabeth I as painted by Nicholas Hilliard.

Since 1998 Montague and Wassell have spent half of each year on the Côte d’Azur, alternating with stays in their West Cork farmhouse. Their quartier near the train station teems with shopkeepers, artists and immigrants, Arabs and a recent influx of Chechens and Roma.

Even in this colourful environment, Montague and Wassell stand out. Despite their ages, they exude an almost childlike wonderment and curiosity. There is something endearing about the way they cling to one another, inseparable loners.

We settle at a table at the Cave Romagnan, their local on the rue d’Angleterre. They are on first name terms with a former paratrooper, an actress, a painter, a photographer and others who crowd around the bar.

Arab clients play cards or chess in the back room and drink coffee. “The harkis worked for the French in Algeria,” Montague says. “Some of them were on the rebel side. They don’t talk about it; they can’t talk about it. It reminds me of Northern Ireland.”

Montague was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He was sent to live with spinster aunts in Northern Ireland at the age of four and has spent the intervening decades in Ireland, the US and France. His first two wives were French. All told, he’s lived nearly a quarter of his life in Paris and Nice. He freelanced for The Irish Times in Paris during the Algerian War covering press conferences by Charles de Gaulle – “the great giraffe himself” – at the Élysée Palace. Montague typed up his reports and posted them to Dublin.

Books of French poetry pile up in the garret he shares with Wassell. They are inspiration for French Leaves , his “work in progress” of translations and adaptations of French poems that have excited him, to be published by Gallery Press.

Wassell elaborates on Montague’s statements, finds the poems we allude to within seconds. “I am not always sure where my phrases end and hers begin,” he wrote in the preface to the second volume of his memoirs, The Pear i s Ripe . In a poem titled Landing , he writes of heading home “towards you, beside whom I now belong . . . my late but final anchoring”.

Wassell was a lecturer at City College in New York when a friend asked her to serve wine at a poetry reading in Manhattan in 1992. “I had no idea who he was,” she recalls. “It sounds mawkish, but when John walked in, I felt I’d seen my destiny. He was surrounded by admirers and acolytes, but I had the bottles. ‘I’ll be your Ganymede,’ I told him.”

Montague’s memoirs read like a Who’s Who of 20th-century cultural celebrities in Ireland, France and the US. During his teaching stint at the University of California, Berkeley, he met the poets of the Beat Generation and witnessed California’s crazy 1960s sex and drugs scene. Poet Gary Snyder accused Montague of being “an uptight, prudish Irishman” because he wasn’t interested in group sex. “I found this systematic exploration of the erotic mysteries distinctly American,” Montague wrote. “Also American, it seemed to me, was the absence of the personal, the romantic, in these sexual adventures. You engaged in them for self-improvement; love was not the point.”

Montague says his relationship to Catholicism is “near belief”. Yet he felt no guilt over marital infidelity. “The part of me which remained a pious Ulster Catholic, a chaste ex-altar boy, collided, in the 1960s, with both the French style of extramarital sex and the free-love movement of that decade,” he wrote.

Montague’s magnificent poem Don Juan’s Farewell evokes the “Ladies I have lain/with in darkened rooms,” their “warm mounds of/ breathing sweetness/young flesh redolent/of crumpled roses” but lucidly confronts “the alluring lie/of searching through/another’s pliant body/for something missing/ in your separate self”.

In Paris in the early 1960s, Montague observed Samuel Beckett in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching children sailing toy boats on the pond. He wrote Salute, in Passing, for Sam and posted it to his fellow Irish writer. “While the water/Parts for tiny white-rigged yachts/He plots an icy human mathematics -- /Proving what content sighs when all/Is lost, what wit flares from nothingness”.

Beckett wrote back – his note now belongs to the University of Buffalo library – and the two became drinking buddies, often joined by two other Irishmen, AJ ‘Con’ Leventhal of Trinity College Dublin and Peter Lennon, who was Paris correspondent for the Guardian .

“Sam was a walker and I was a walker. He lived just around the corner in the rue St Jacques. We were neighbours; we couldn’t avoid each other,” Montague says. The Falstaff, La Coupole, Le Select, the Rosebud and Scottie’s Bar were their haunts.

“Sam was an Irish werewolf,” Montague continues. “He started with beer and moved on to whiskey. He was a polite Protestant – it took a lot of drink to make him loquacious. The Sam who would not say a word out of place was transformed, became almost voluble. He was amused by things he wasn’t ordinarily amused by. I think he needed to have Irish company. His French self was quite serious.”

In a moving chapter at the end of The Pear is Ripe , Montague pays a last visit to Beckett in the “old crock’s home” in Montparnasse to which Beckett has summoned him. “And now that it’s nearly over Sam,” Montague says, “Can I ask you, was there much of the journey you found worthwhile?”

“Precious little,” Beckett replies. “For bad measure, I watched both my parents die.”

Over a glass of wine in the Cave Romagnan, I ask Montague the same question: Has he found much of the journey worthwhile?

Montague seems caught off guard, pauses for a long moment. “There was a great deal of it I enjoyed,” he finally replies. What, specifically? I ask.

“Obviously, love has meant a great deal to me. Also, I think I’m lucky that there’s a natural competition between people with the same craft, and I seem to have got rid of jealousy.”

I interpret this as an allusion to Seamus Heaney who was, like Montague, a Catholic who grew up in Northern Ireland and wrote poems about rural life and the Troubles. “I was there before him,” Montague says, reminding me that Heaney was 10 years his junior.

Montague has known success and honours. The University at Buffalo awarded him an honorary doctorate. In 1998, he was the first Ireland professor of poetry. France made him a chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. But Heaney’s gift and good fortune were so enormous as to overshadow other poets. “I think that Thomas Kinsella was also left in the shade,” Montague sighs.

Montague recommended Heaney for a teaching post at UC Berkeley and urged Claddagh Records, which he had co-founded with Garech Browne, to record Heaney reading. Montague and his second wife Evelyn used to baby-sit the Heaney children in Belfast. The Heaneys visited the Montagues when John taught at UCC.

Now Montague often rings Heaney’s widow Marie.

There was, he admits, “sibling rivalry perhaps” between them. Montague emphasises the differences, not similarities. “He was the eldest of nine children. I was given away at the age of four.”

One has only to compare their poems to realise how maternal love shapes a life. In Clearances , the series of poems he wrote in memory of his mother, Heaney recalled peeling potatoes together, “her head bent towards my head,/Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives --/Never closer the whole rest of our lives”.

By contrast, Montague wrote of his mother in A Flowering Absence : “Year by year, I track it down/intent for a hint of evidence,/seeking to manage the pain --/how a mother gave away her son . . . Mother, my birth was the death/of your love life, the last man/to flutter near your tender womb:/a neonlit bar sign winks off & on,/ motherfucka, thass your name.”

Heaney, Montague says, “was the right man at the right moment – a young Catholic writer in Belfast as the bombs started”. Whereas Montague had been “going upstream, against the current. I was coming from the North before the North had broken”.

They adopted a different tone in writing about the Troubles. “I wrote more directly; Seamus more obliquely,” Montague says. “My family were more politicised. My uncles on the Carney side had all been in jail.”

In The Sound of a Wound, from his 1972 volume The Rough Field , Montague wrote of “This bitterness/I inherit from my father, the/swarm of blood/to the brain, the vomit surge/of race hatred”.

“The English couldn’t read The Rough Field ,” Montague says.

“You spoke about anguish and rage and a sundered province, and it made the establishment uncomfortable,” his wife explains. “You always told me you were a little British boy. You lived over the post office and the post boxes were red.”

The saintly Heaney was an exemplary husband and father; Montague a rogue who married three times. The “old regime of the Catholic church” objected to his book Time in Armagh , about corporal punishment and sexual frustration in a Catholic boys’ school.

Now Montague and Wassell “live frugally,” he says. She quotes Oliver Goldsmith: “Authors, like running horses, should be fed but not fattened.”

If he had it to do over again, Montague says, “I’d like it to be a bit easier.”

Nonetheless, Montague sums up: “I’ve had a full life.”

He’s proud of the work he did to re-establish Patrick Kavanagh’s reputation and of the flowering of a new generation of Northern Ireland poets. “I imagine my existence helped,” he says. He’s quietly confident of his place in literary history. “We’ll see how these questions are thrashed out in the future – if anyone continues to read poetry . . . These things get rectified.”

Montague will give a rare public reading on April 5th at the Franco-Irish literary festival at Dublin Castle. The festival runs from April 4th to 6th. See for details.