A poet in his prime

Poetry The first "Irish revival" (1891-1939) was, as far as great poetry is concerned, really only Yeats

PoetryThe first "Irish revival" (1891-1939) was, as far as great poetry is concerned, really only Yeats. In the revival of Irish poetry from the 1960s onward, however, it is not just Heaney. There is wave after wave of important poets, still in their primes, including one of the first, John Montague, now 75, and author of a new collection, Drunken Sailor.

Not only is there a new book by him, but, not long after the Montague issue of Agenda, there is a new book about him. Well Dreams, a collection of 22 essays, is a sign of his status in the US as a major poet. It represents scholarship that gathers around canonical writers, not criticism such as periodically appears on living poets. In part, this academic work is only possible because university libraries are investing in the long-term fame of contemporary Irish poets by buying up their past and future papers. Several contributors to the volume draw upon these recently-opened archives in Carbondale, Emory, Texas, and Buffalo to document Montague's role in the Irish revival of the 1960s.

The letters of the young Montague are those of an intellectual (double first at UCD, scholarship to Yale) very much on the move and on the make. After spells at Yale (1953), Iowa Writers School (1954-55), and University of California Berkeley (1956), he settled into a job with Bord Fáilte and tried to get something going in Dublin. Montague, Kinsella, and Richard Murphy gave joint poetry readings in 1961. Liam Miller of Dolmen Press and Tim O'Keefe of MacGibbon and Kee were swept along by Montague's urgency. The Dolmen Miscellany trumpeted the new generation of writers in 1962. Forging an ancestry, Kinsella and Montague organised a tribute to Austin Clarke on his 70th birthday, published by Dolmen.

From Paris in 1963 - where he was an Irish Times correspondent - Montague anonymously collected Kavanagh's poems for MacGibbon and Kee. With Guinness heir Gareth Brown, Montague had founded Claddagh records in 1960, and this became a base for the revival of traditional music and the recording of young poets in 1966. By the spring of 1970, Montague toured the north with John Hewitt in a friendly duel of poets entitled "The Planter and the Gael". Throughout the decade he was periodically issuing the poems later gathered into The Rough Field, and performed by various readers to music by the Chieftains at the Peacock in 1972.


What makes possible the exercise of creative power in the production of great works in one epoch rather than another is a mystery - the power of the man or the power of the moment? Certainly, many material conditions came momentously into alignment for young people of literary potential in that era - a great modernist tradition, international scholarship highlighting its Irishness, emergence of local publishers, the post-War Education Act in the North, the Troubles, the oxygen of publicity, the rapid passing away of a traditional rural way of life, the absence of rival media for self-expression. But "the power of the man" counts too, and it must be said that Montague invented not only verses but forms in which others expressed themselves and a movement in which they found collective courage.

The Rough Field opened literary doors through which others walked: contemporary but formal poems about ancestors, lost rural ways, neighbours, place and language ("the whole landscape a manuscript"), the journey west, postcolonial disappointments in the Republic, and traditional music as both a subject and an inspiration.

It is strange fact that this book was not a Poetry Book Society Choice, or even a Recommendation (Stewart Conn's Ear to the Ground was the winner). But Montague, though endowed with a professional appetite for fame, was to be starved of it by English hands. In one of the best essays here, Dillon Johnston shows how extensive, and in retrospect, how unjust that dismissal has been. It was not, he suggests, that Montague was too republican, Catholic, or Irish, but that he was too American in his influences (William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and so on).

Less strict than British verse, more formal than American, Montague poems take a great variety of forms - imagistic description, dramatic monologues, elegies, litanies, quest romance all appear in Drunken Sailor - but generally they follow W.C. Williams in breaking the iambic pentameter and using instead a "variable foot", which, like "elastic inch", is a paradoxical concept. It is easier to make a mess of such variation than to boggle a sonnet in strict pentameters, but Montague is a virtuoso of the technique. His taste runs to feminine line-endings, and not primarily to end-rhyme and rhyme schemes, the standard framework of English verse. Finally, originality of metaphor, the privileged trope in the tradition of Shakespeare, is not Montague's favoured figure of speech. In his optics, the glass is not coloured but clear, as he describes an event with reverent, hyper-realistic lucidity, setting in motion symbolic possibilities. For instance, in the first poem of Drunken Sailor fish landed into the bottom of a currach are described so as subtly to depict the nature of the death experience - frenzied, luminous, and part of the elemental storm.

Thomas Dillon Redshaw's essay examines Montague's preparations to write a (never completed) book on Camus during his Paris years, and the impact of the French existentialist upon the stories in Death of a Chieftain (1964). The existentialist influence went deep. It emerges later in poems untypical of English verse and sentiment, such as 'Process' - philosophical, diagrammatic - that define poetry itself as a way of living without absolutes: "swaying ropeladders/across fuming oblivion". The same philosophical position governs the first section of Drunken Sailor, seven poems threaded together by images of the Cork seascape, tides, decomposition, and creation. The sequence at once mourns and praises what must be in "a psalm, a threnody of decomposition".

Watching how people meet their death was the ultimate moral theatre in the antique world; now it is through poets we bear witness, as they give their lives as well as their words to the criticism of the world. Montague's brave sequence comes to closure in a mood of acquiescent beauty: "Our houses, our loves;/ sheets of water glint/ on a white sandy shore,/ dissolving with the tide,/ renewed again/ with the waxing of the moon".

The best poem in Drunken Sailor is 'Last Court', an elegy in 17 subtly-rhymed six-line stanzas to his "lawyer brother". One of the strange virtues of Montague's work is that he does not protect himself; he does not try to make himself look good. Like the American "confessional poets" Lowell and Berryman (a similarity explored in an excellent essay by Elizabeth Grubgeld), Montague can mourn beloved family members in the midst of unstable moments of anger, guilt, and dreadful intimacy. What boils up in 'Last Court' is a memory of his brother at the end of his life lecturing the always-five-years-younger poet on his "'great mistake,/ repeated, twice' of choosing a wife/ from the wider world outside", and scolding John for giving their mother grief in The Dead Kingdom. Having chosen not to make the trip from Florence to his brother's funeral in Tyrone, the poet remembers something perhaps at the bottom of all this bullying hurt, his older brother knocking him to the kitchen floor when he was just 16.

The last words of the poem are a spirited repudiation of the lawyer's "patriarchal views". The failure of reconciliation is part of what makes 'Last Court' a successful 21st-century elegy, and a poem that should see out the test of time. There are many measured and measuring allusions to the late, great Yeats in Drunken Sailor, but this best poem is simply great late Montague.

Adrian Frazier is editor of Playboys of the Western World: Production Histories, which was published earlier this year by Carysfort Press

Drunken Sailor By John Montague Gallery Books, 88pp. npg Well Dreams: Essays on John Montague Edited by Thomas Dillon Redshaw Creighton University Press, 443pp. $24