John Montague: Commentary


Geoffrey Grigson
Maurice Harmon
Terence Brown
Frank Kersnowski
Michael Allen
Gerard Dawe
Patrick Crotty
Seamus Heaney
Mary O’Donnell
Theo Dorgan
Stan Smith
Steven Mathews
John Goodby
David Wheatley
Bernard O’Donoghue
Kevin Kiely
Peter Reading
John Greening

Geoffrey Grigson, review of Montague, ed., Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974), in The Irish Times (1 March 1974), [q.p.]: ‘Sticking my neck out and in, from my outsider position, I consider John Montague’s choice of Irish verse a small disaster […]. John Montague has done such a slushy job and such an irresponsible one vis-à-vis (and I would say as an outsider) life-in-Irishness.’ Grigson questions the value of translation, and calls Frank O’Connor’s translations from Old Irish ‘chirpy doggerels’; he refers also the misidentification of the hermit poet off the Kerry Coat [Skellig Michael] as Colum Cille [sic] in the 6th c., when it is actually 12th c.; speaks of ‘the special debasement via Mr Montague’s selection of the achievement of Anglo-Irish verse’; calls Mangan ‘that blatant versifier’. Further: Montague ‘fails to be ruthless’; praises Pearse Hutchinson’s ‘Malaga’, about the scent of jasmine, ‘The senses, after all. I felt as much in that poem, enveloped by it, as I felt myself enveloped by some of the stricter tropical poems of Leconte de Lisle such as Le Bernica or Le Merichy.’ (See also Grigson’s remarks on “Meaning of Landscape” in Places of the Mind, Routledge 1944; under Sir Robert Boyle, infra.)

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Maurice Harmon, &1#45lNew Voices in the Fifties’, in Seán Lucy, Irish Poets in English (Mercier Press 1973), pp.186-87: quotes in full Montague’s poem “The Siege of Mullingar” which relates the events at a Fleadh Cheoil and marks an epoch of Irish society by means of its a variation on W. B. Yeats’s refrain in from “Sept. 1913” [viz., ‘Romatic Ireland’s dead and gone ...’], rendered here: ‘Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone / A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain’ (from “Patriotic Suite”). Harmon later cites “Like Dolmens round my childhood, the old people” in the same spirit: “Ancient Ireland, indeed! […] I felt their shadow pass // Into that dark permanence of ancient forms’. (p.194.) Quotes further poems from The New Siege (1970) [broadsheet].

Maurice Harmon, ‘Making a Tricky Transition’, review of A Fall of Fire: Collected Stories, in The Irish Times (14 March 2009), Weekend, p.13.: ‘When a lyric poet turns to writing short stories, he moves from a kind of writing that is lyrical and tightly controlled to one that is more open and expansive. John Montague makes the transition well. Early stories have a directness of expression that deprives them of subtlety but the later and longer stories give him the kind of scope he requires. The preoccupations found in the poetry are also present in his short stories: sexual relations, Irish inhibitions, the politics of Northern Ireland, and the need to experience life elsewhere in the interest of self-discovery. Speaks of “The Three Last Things”: ‘One of the many satisfactions of this story is a style that is fully adequate to its complexity of thought and feeling, of history and culture being worked through in the narrative. John Montague is deeply engaged. He confronts issues that have often been present in his work but never articulated with such transcendent power. Here he goes beyond irritation with Irish society, beyond poignant memories of old women who raised him, to this depiction of a woman who faces extinction with exemplary courage, clarity, and dignity.’ [End; for full version, [... &c.’; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.]

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Terence Brown, ‘John Montague, Circling to Return’, in Northern Voices, Poets from Ulster (Dublin 1975), pp.149-70; citing various modernist obiter dicta by Montague, incl. remarks to Serge Fauchereau on the universality of reference of his treatment of the Irish rebellion in The Rough Field (Les Lettres Nouvelles, Mars 1973), Brown remarks, ‘[…] the reader of Montague’s work must suspect, I feel, a good deal more commitment to the rural past and confused ambiguity of response to the urban present than his self-conscious avant-gardeism and these efforts towards objectivity would suggest […] the loyal tradition Montague espouses […] is a Gaelic “hidden Ulster”.’ (p.155). Further: ‘But the poem (The Rough Field) does little to clarify how the new order will contain the old civilisation of Garvaghey, to which I feel the poetry gives his primary allegiance in this work […] “the rough field / of the universe / growing, changing […] an new anarchy / always different / always the same’ […] an almost touchingly naive example of historical faith.’ (p.167) […] a work which imaginatively possesses a region’s past and present, cannot easily serve as a symbol of its future without encouraging an act of romantic faith whic later sections of the poem suggest we make […] so I would read the poem’s Epilogue “Driving South” as an escapist journey, not a voyage into [that] new experience […].’ (p.168). [Cont.]

Terence Brown, ‘John Montague, Circling to Return’, in Northern Voices, Poets from Ulster (1975), cont. - Bibl. cites Montague, ‘The Seamless Garment and the Muse’, in Agenda, Vol. 5, No. 4-Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn-Winter 1967-8); c.p.34 [on Hugh McDiarmuid; Montague writes here of ‘the original tradition ... of these islands’]; Letter in the Seamus O’Sullivan Collection, TCD Library [addressed from Fintona, Co. Tyrone, and expressing admiration for Rilke, Pound, Clarke, and Stevens]; John Montague, ‘D’une conversation du 4.iv.72 avec Serge Fauchereau’, in Les Lettres Nouvelles (Mars 1973), c.p.237; interview with Eavan Boland, ‘The Tribal Poet, John Montague’, Irish Times (20 March 1973); John Montague, ‘The Rough Field’, The Spectator (26 April 1963), p.531 [view of traditional Ulster life at Garvaghey]; John Montague, ‘A Primal Gaeltacht’, ‘An Ghaeltacht Inniu, A Seacht’ (Irish Times, 30 Jul. 1970). Also Thomas Kinsella, ‘Note on John Montague’ in Contemporary Poets of the English Language, ed. Richard Murphy (New York, 1970), c.p.765 [‘excessively wary of excess’]; Sean Lucy, ‘Three Poets From Ulster’, in Irish University Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn 1973), 187 [long review of The Rough Field]; Lucy, ‘John Montague’s The Rough Field, An Introductory Note’, in Studies, Vol. LXIII, No. 249 (Spring 1974), pp.29-30; Thomas Dillon Redshaw, ‘John Montague’s The Rough Field, Topos and Texne’ Studies (Spring 1974), pp.31-46; Douglas Dunn in Encounter (Dec. 1973).

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Frank L. Kersnowski, John Montague [Irish Writers Series] (NY: Bucknell UP 1975) ‘[...] One of the most basic difficulties for the Northern poet is that for him and for almost everyone else until recently, Irish poetry has meant that written in Southern Ireland. A young man, such as John Montague, would be sent to U.C.D. if he showed interest or ability in the arts. There he would, in his writing, replace referrents of the self he had always had with ones of Georgian Dublin, the values of which had been pretty well set by the time he came along. [17]. Some writers from the North remained within the bounds of decorum, neglecting the wildness of the later Years, and wrote in words appropriate to the Shelbourne lounge, which with its hotel has been the center of the Anglo-Irish society for more than a century. But even in the early writing of Montague, the colloquial is heard The very early “A Footnote on Monasticism: Dingle Peninsula” begins, “In certain places, still surprisingly, you come / Upon them, resting like old straw hats set down / Besides the sea. ...”. Quite likely, his interest in a conversational diction was increased by his visit to the United States. / Whether or not Montague matured into his own style during the three years he was in the United States or whether he expanded his understanding of poetry by meeting poets from another tradition seems inconsequential. He did, howvever, meet Robert Bly and W D. Snodgrass at Iowa and Allen Ginsberg and [Gary] Snyder at Berkeley. Though few, the poems he wrote about this period indicate a new understanding of poetry. Even "Soliloquy on a Southern Strand" has a glitter to it not to be found in the earlier poems. The glitter in the poems specifically about the United States, however, is that of a sloganed world, as in “Downtown, America”:

“NEWS OF THE LATEST TRIAL - THE
WINNING HORSE - TROOPS HAVE LANDED - COMMISSION’S
REPORT IS THROUGH
These are normal things and set the heart at rest.

Intending to condemning the brashness of the culture, Montague in his quotations has considerably expanded the technique of his poetry by including the brash, colloquial writing of the journalit. In later poems, such as The Bread God, the technique will return to add complexity to the more mature poems.’ (pp.17-19.) Further [Kersnowski]: ‘At the back of his mind are centuries of conditioned moral responses and a weight of cultural/literary tradition that must regard what he sees in the United States as worth only censure. In Europe, the centuries have established a hierarchy of art and life, neither of which has often enough had much relevance for the majority of the population." (pp.19-20.) [Kersnowski here discusses Montague’s ‘moment of disloyalty’ to ‘his European structure’ faced with the ‘frenzy of life’ represented by the mixture of Roman sculpture, Catalan crucifixes, Japanese and Mexican artefacts on display there.]

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Michael Allen, ‘Provincialism and Recent Irish Poetry: The Importance of Patrick Kavanagh’, in Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, ed. Douglas Dunn (Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet Press 1975), pp.23-36: ‘[…] After [A Chosen Light], the cosmopolitan point-of-vantage as such disappears from [34] Montague’s poetry. And his next book, The Rough Field (1972) returns to rural Tyrone for its subject matter, reprinting several earlier poems in the search for some kind of new locally-rooted perspective. / How are we to explain this reversal? Kavanagh’s Come Dance with Kitty Stobling was published in 1960, his Collected Poems in 1964. And in 1966 Heaney was widely praised for his first book, Death of a Naturalist about which he said: “I have no need to write a poem to Patrick Kavanagh; I wrote Death of a Naturalist”. But the possibility of being a “parochial” poet in Kavanagh’s sense was clearly there in Montague’s early poetry too. A selection of his poems appeared in an anthology Six Irish Poets in 1962; and the editor, Robin Skelton, praised in his introduction, the way Irish poetry could still base itself firmly on “natural resources ... the sense of belonging” and thereby gain a “real vitality’”. It was about this time, Montague says, that he began to plan The Rough Field.’ [Cont.]

Michael Allen (‘Provincialism and Recent Irish Poetry: The Importance of Patrick Kavanagh’, 1975) - cont.: ‘Despite the affectionate re-creation of the locale, there is, throughout Montague’s book, a careful, ruefully hesitant poetic voice to be heard conceding, movingly, an alienation, a lack of ultimate direction, summed up in the refrain-line: “for all my circling, a failure to return”. One is reminded of the central preoccupation of Kavanagh’s later poetry, “return in departure”. But Montague is unable to achieve that kind of vitally ironic point-of-vantage, formally vindicated, which distinguishes Kavanagh’s best last poems. And the selfconscious attempt to construct an over-all viewpoint for the book, using historical quotations, woodcuts, and verse-reportage to universalize the poet’s local materials by reference to the “Ulster Crisis” is no substitute.’ [Cont.]

Michael Allen (‘Provincialism and Recent Irish Poetry: The Importance of Patrick Kavanagh’, 1975) - cont.: ‘That it is intended to be a substitute, and to remind us in an underhand way of the poet’s cosmopolitanism is clear from the back cover: “… the New Road I describe runs through Normandy as well as Tyrone. And experience of agitations in Paris and Berkeley taught me that the violence of disputing factions is more than a local phenomenon.” One is reminded of Kavanagh’s primary stipulation for the “parochial” writer: that he should never show “any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish”. The importance of this stipulation, his definition implies, is that any concession to genteel cosmopolitanism in the context of such writing would devitalize the poetry. This would be my complaint about The Rough Field. Whether from the nature of his gifts or because of an accident of timing, Montague has not shown himself so far to be capable of following and profiting from Kavanagh’s achievement. Heaney, on the other hand, has never shown any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish.’ (pp.34-35.) [For longer extracts, including further remarks on Kavanagh and Heaney, see RICORSO, Library, “Critics”, infra.]

Seamus Heaney, ‘The Sense of Place’ [1977], in Preoccupations (London: Faber 1980), pp.131-49, compares Patrick Kavanagh and Montague]: ‘Kavanagh’s eye has been used to bending over the ground before it ever bent over a book but we feel with Montague that the case is vice versa …. Kavanagh’s place-names are used here as posts to fence out a personal language. But Montague’s are rather sounding lines, rods to plumb the depths of a shared and diminished culture. They are redolent not only of his personal life but of the history of his people, disinherited and dispossessed. What are most resonant and cherished in the names of Montague’s places are their tribal and etymological implications. / Both Kavanagh and Montague explore a hidden Ulster, to alter Daniel Corkery’s suggestive phrase, and Montague’s exploration follows Corkery’s tracks in a way that Kavanagh’s does not. There is an element of cultural and political resistance and retrieval in Montague’s work that is absent from Kavanagh’s. What is hidden at the bottom of Montague’s region is first of all a pagan civilisation centred on the O’Neill inauguration stone at Tullyhogue. The ancient feminine religion of Northern Europe through which he looks and the landscape becomes a memory, a piety, a loved mother. The present is suffused with the past … [141] At the bottom of Kavanagh’s imagination there is no pagan queen, no mystique of the national, the mythic or the tribal; ‘instead there is the childish piety of the Morning Offering prayer … I believe the spirit of this prayer, the child’s open-eyed attention to the small and the familiar, is fundamental to Kavanagh’s vision, as is the child’s religious belief that if each action, however small, is offered up for love, then in the eyes of God it is as momentous in its negligible, casual silence as the great, noisy cataclysmic and famous acts that make up history. [… &c.] (pp.141-42.) Further: ‘When Montague asks who he is, he is forced to seek a connection with a history and a heritage; ‘before he affirms a [142] personal identity, he points to a national identity, and his region and his community provide a lifeline to it. Whereas Kavanagh flees the abstractions of nationalism, political or cultural. To find himself, de detaches himself rather than attaches himself to the communal. (pp.142-43; for longer quotations, see under Heaney, supra).

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Seamus Heaney, ‘Northern Star’ [Montague at 70], in Magill (Feb. 1998), ‘Review’, p.44. Heaney writes, ‘In the course of a lifetime, John Montague’s fidelity to his vocation and his fulfilment of its publica demands have been ready, steady and characteristically vigorous. There has been a sustaine creative issuing in an oeuvre of epic sweep and lyric intensity. We here are honouring much else: his acuity as a critic and commentator upon poetry; his long and passionate involvement with the land of Ireland, north and south, with the significance of its landmarks and the meaning of its names, from the Glen of the Hazels in Tyrone to Mount Eagle in Kerry; his experience as a teacher in universities in France, Ireland and the United States; his international standing in the world of letters; his record as an active witness and committed participant at those moments of historical crisis which we each and every one of us lived through - all this makes John Montague the ideal holder of this uniquely important office. / I began to read John’s poetry in what was for me the annus mirabilis of 1962-63, the year when I came alive to the excitements of reading contemporary Irish and British poetry and was overcome by the strong desire to write poems of my own, a desire that both ravishes and frustrates you at one and the same time. I felt an almost literal quickening in my bones in those days as I read for the first time poems that brought me to my senses and to a renewed sense of myself in marvellously invigorating ways. / These were poems that would stay with me for a lifetime, such as Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”, Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox” and “View Of A Pig”, R. S. Thomas’s “Evans” and “Iago Prytherch” and John Montague’s “The Water Carrier” and “Like Dolmens Round My Childhood The Old People”. These were also the years when John Montague’s essays and reviews were appearing and establishing a home-based critical idiom that was bracing and clarifying, as in his important early review essay (in Poetry Ireland) on the poetry of John Hewitt and his reappropriation of Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” as an Irish poem in the famous “Dolmen Miscellany of Irish Writing”. / Here was somebody sketching out a way of “bringing it all back home”, prefiguring the Hibernocentric re-reading of Anglo-Irish literature which the academic critics would be engaged upon in the decades to come. / This was also when I first met John, under the sponsoring eye of Mary and Pearse O’Malley in Derryvolgie Avenue, and felt for the first time also the reach of that long bony arm across my shoulder and felt in my mind the test and flush of his giddy, goading intelligence. Ten years older, farther travelled, cooler headed, he arrived on the scene like a combination of talent scout and poetic D.l., a kind of government inspector from the government of the tongue sent in by the government in exile, the aos dana of the day, unacknowledged perhaps but legislating for all they were worth from Monaghan to McDaids, from Rue Daguerre to Baggot Street Deserta. / There is no need here to wax nostalgic about those days. There was intensity and energy and edge, a combination of circumstances that has continued through the decades and has done us all good as individual poets. It has been deeply moving and concerning for me to re-read John’s own era-defining collections over the past few months and to encounter in the magnificent “Collected Poems”, so admirably produced by Gallery Press, an oeuvre that both inheres in and extends an Irish poetic tradition that began with the magical invocations of the Ur-poet Amergin and was reconstituted for our time by the transformative vision of W. B. Yeats. / Montague’s poems and individual lines in his poems have attained for many of us “that dark permanence of ancient forms” uiich shadowed his own imagination as he grew up in Garvaghey. There he became aware of lines of history, lines of power in the rough field of the universe, aware of the sound a wound makes, of the stress of violence. / But there too he became capable of surmounting all legendary obstacles, of discovering the only possible way of saying something as luminously as possible, of expressing the small secrets of childhood and the life-anchoring memories of erotic experience. / Montague’s poetry has been fit to take the strain of the great historical and political difficulties we have faced in common and to register with honesty and delicacy the most intimate felicities and desolations which we all know (and can only know) alone. The poems have become part of the memory of who and where we have been. They are a “source, half-imagined and half-real”, and what John once said in an early poem about his musician uncle can now be said about himself: he is one of those through whom succession passes.’ [End.]

Gerald Dawe, ‘Invocation of Powers’ John Montague’, in Neil Corcoran, ed., The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland (Brigend, Mid Glamorgan: Seren Books; Dufour 1992): These two persistent directions of Montague’s writing - one autobiographical, the other explicitly cultural - can find themselves insufficiently sustained by a distinct imaginative raison d’etre. This lack means that some of Montague’s poetry has a conventional air of being written to a prefabricated formula, with certain stock images and characters guaranteeing the ‘Irish’ authenticity of his work. This may be linked to an awareness of what Stephen Spender outlined in the introduction to his study of Anglo-American sensibilities, Love-Hate Relations.’ (p.25.)

Patrick Crotty, ed., Modern Irish Poetry (Belfast: Blackstaff 1995), Introduction: ‘Montague’s erotic lyrics deploy a taut, unemphatic line derived from Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Creeely to challenge th sexual glumness of mid-century Ireland. Their temptation towards bardic commentary on the social and economic changes of the Lemass era reveals the confidence of these poets [inc. Murphy and Kinsella] in their audience.’ (p.4.); further cites Montague’s disapproval of ‘the limiting British mode’ (p.4).

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Patrick Crotty, ‘Cunning Ampersands’, review of Collected Poems, in Irish Review (Winter / Spring 1997), pp.136-43. The appearance of this hefty collected - if not quite complete - edition of John Montague’s poems makes it possible to assess on the basis of a single volume the full scope of one of the most deliberately constructed poetic careers of the post-war period. [136] ... The taut alertness of style [of] Montague’s first full collection suggests a young poet’s wariness of putting a foot wrong in his painstaking, meticulous search for an individual idiom ... The product of a schooled intelligence, in the academic as well as the broader senses of that word, the signature of the early work is recognisably American ... Montague’s localism is more emphatic - because more particularised - than Kavanagh’s. His concern for the slumped life of middle Ireland is continuous with the work of the older poet, but rendered in the light of cosmopolitan experience. The self-aware treatment of the rural scene anticipates early Heaney ... / Unlike Kavanagh and the young Heaney, the poet of Poisoned Lands measures present conditions against past ideal ... And yet the sense that the present is the product of the past, so bleakly articulated in The Rough Field and The Dead Kingdom, and which can at times betray Montague into reading history as myth, is already at work in poems like ‘The Sean Bhean Bhocht’, ‘Wild Sports of the West’, and ‘The Mummer Speaks’ [...; 137] It is Montague’s tragedy, where the fortunes of his reputation are concerned, that the nationalist and erotic themes round which his ambitions for major poetry began to crystallise became, within a decade or so of his adopting them, the most fiercely contested sites in Irish literary criticism. [138] Occasionally a more Romantic poet break cover as Montague seeks to offset his Joycean meanness with a Yeatsian resonance. These more sonorous moments can be problematic [Crotty goes on to criticise the use of ‘imaginary’ in the second line of “All legendary objects [sic for ‘obstacles’] which he sees as an inaccurate substitution for ‘imagined’ for effect rather than sense] After the 1960s, as his poetic reach widens, his verse grows abstract, with clichéd or otherwise flaccid phrases liking passages of concretely achieve detail. [139] The Rough Field is the most frankly ambitious item in the Montague canon […] in length and conscious modernity [... ...] The idiom of The Great Cloak approaches the platitudinous [140] The Dead Kingdom pictures the poet and his wife on the same edge of Ireland, Roche’s Point in Cork Harbour. The fact that the book recounts a journey from there to the heart of familial and political darkness in Tyrone might suggest […] a sequel to The Rough Field. Yet [it] is substantially different from the earlier work, less grand in aspiration, more intimately autobiographical in tenor and more unified in procedure. […]. The dropping of [thirteen] very minor pieces […] strengthens rather than weakens the claim of A Slow Dance to be considered the richest and most diverse volume in the Montague canon. [1141] Mount Eagle appears an interim gathering of miscellaneous pieces and Time in Armagh a sort of marking time for the more interesting Border Sick Call, a 12pp. poem at the end of the book ... announced as long ago as 1974 on the back of the pamphlet version of The Cave of Night, revisits the territory of ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood ...’ and other very early lyrics by recounting of the poet’s experience in accompanying his doctor brother on his rounds along a border that straddles not only the North and the Republic, but ancient and modern Ireland, indeed life and death. / One of the more notable features of Montague’s work in the last decade and a half has been his development in a handful of poems of a low-key but capacious lyric style which risks prose in its attempt to communicate a wise passivity just short of resignation ... exercises in a hard-won, middle-aged version of negative capability all the more remarkable in a poet whose work has typically erred on the side of assertiveness. [142] Collected Poems bears witness to the grace of phrasing and insistent sense of the actual, which mark John Montague’s poetry at its best, and give it its place among the significant achievements of contemporary Irish writing.’ [End.]

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Mary O’Donnell, ‘Montague’s Love Poems’, review of Love Poems (Exile Editions [1992]), 185pp., in Poetry Ireland (Winter 1992-93), pp.51-59; speaks of ‘largely magnificent poetic talent whch as always strained against the limitations of Irish life and history, intent on breaking from the hoops of narrow ideology through ambitious, sensitive and truthful recreations of the distant past, recent past, the personal, the historical, and the mythical; suggests that Montague ‘narrows the focus of his own artistic freedom by repeating, repeating and repeating, in description after descripton, tales of conquests, quarrels, reconciliations, before, durig or after which physical love [55] takes place in an imaginative terrain in which the feminine seems to be the source and sum of all things. [Quotes:]”The paleness of your flesh. / Long afterwards, I gaze happily / At my warm tracks radiating / Across that white expanse.’ (”Snowfield”); ‘All the cruelty and all the tenderness which life has to ofer would sem to have been meted out to the younger Montague by women’; quotes, “Year by year, I track down / intent for a hint of evidence, / seeking to manage the pain - / how a mother gave away her son.” [57]; ‘Thus the generous contemplative journeyings made by montague in The Dead Kingdom, the utterly beautiful whisperings of a fine mind brought to bear on the terrains of the dispossessed, are rooted, despite their sense of history and cultura diminished and ravished, in his own life.’; notes that the poems are taken from The Dead Kingdom, Mount Eagle, and other collections.

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Theo Dorgan, ‘But in What Country Have We Been?’, review of Collected Poems, in Sunday Independent (31 Dec. 1995), Living, p.8L; sees reading of Montague as Catholic Nationalist as misguided, finding him instead a poet of world class (as American poet Carolyn Kizer says); begins with love, love of sex, and the quivering drama of sexual relationships, love also of the uncelebrated home place, with its freight of history, its flints and shards of a beaten-down civilisation’; In Forms of Exile and A Chosen Light he straddles the worlds of Carleton and T. K. Whitaker; suited and polo-necked visionary of the Irish Sixties; eye and ear still for the Formorian fierceness of Tyrone; quotes, ‘For there is no sea / it is all a dream there is no sea / except in the tangle / of our minds: / the wine dark / sea of history on which we all turn / turn and thresh / and disappear.’ (‘Wine Dark Sea’); The Rough Field telescopes the Plantation of Ulster into the dawn of the dance-hall era; in The Great Cloak and The Dead Kingdom he sounds the ‘lost cry / of the yellow bittern’, finds with all his circling there is ‘failure to return’; finds the last section ranking with the best of what has been written in Ireland this century and transfigures everything Montague has so far written; refers to triumphant close call of ‘Border Sick Call’.

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Stan Smith, review of Collected Poems, in Irish Studies Review (Spring 1996), p.53; quotes ‘To be always at the periphery of incident / Gave my childhood its Irish dimension; drama of unevent’; ‘this island, at the sheltered edge of Europe’ (Forms of Exile, 1958); ‘A stranded community / haunted by old terrors ... neither Irish nor British .. its natural hinterland severed by the border’ (‘Northern Lights’, The Dead Kingdom, 1984); ‘this narrowing world / Of bigotry and anger’; ‘our dark island ... our sad land’; ‘the embittered diaspora of dispossessed Northern Republicans ... / a real lost generation’; The Great Cloak’s terrible requiem for a broken marriage, where an adulterous carnal lyricism joins an unlovely floundering self-pity, to exorcise the shade of an faithless mother by abandoning a faithful wife; ‘to learn something of that time / of confusion, poverty, absence / Year by year I track it down ... / seeking to manage the pain - / how a mother gave away her son’; ‘There is an absence, real as presence ... All roads wind backwards to it. / An unwanted child, a primal hurt.’; ‘To grow / a second tongue, as / harsh a humiliation / as twice to be born’ (‘The Grafted Tongue’, in The Rough Field); ‘longs for honey’s ease ... [where] ‘streets will receive its viaticum / in the fierce release of a bomb’ (‘Cassandra’s Answer’, in Mount Eagle); ‘Roots are obstructions / as well as veins of growth’; [quotes ‘a circling (&c.)’; notes that Montague uses Donne as epigraph to ‘A Flowering Absence’ [‘I am rebegot / Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not’; ‘on the edge is best’ (‘Edge’, concluding poem of The Great Cloak).

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Steven Mathews, ‘On Family Ground’, review of Collected Poems, in Times Literary Suppliment (2 Aug. 1996), p.25.; quotes from Montague’s prefaces [as above], and remarks on his deep eclecticism, and also ‘a steely modernity matched in Ireland only by that of Thomas Kinsella from the South’; characterises Montague, in contradistinction to the ‘beautiful pieties of a Heaney or a Longley’, as a ‘modern poetics of failure, of failure to return to those roots and origin which inspire the romanticism of some of the younger poets’; cites lines on a dancehall, ‘this stone idol / can house more hopes than any / verse of mine’; remarks that sexual experience continues to evoke for Montague both the historical hurts of Ireland (‘her piled strands / of auburn Irish hair ... / A king’s treasure / of roseate flesh’, from ‘Deer Park’) and the possibilities of fruitful union which might stand as a model for a broader reconciliation (‘There is in such exchanges a harvest, / A source of wellspring or sweetness’, from ‘Matins’’ both in Mount Eagle); yet it is a union ... which must continue to be under threat (viz., ‘Discords’); reviewer notes a weariness in the most recent sequences, ‘Time in Armagh’ and ‘Border Sick Call’; regrets disappearance of the Derricke woodcuts. (TLS, 2 Aug. 1996, p.25.)

Bernard O’Donoghue, review of John Montague, Smashing the Piano, in The Irish Times, Weekend (15 Jan. 2000): ‘Montague’s descriptive powers have never been stronger, and line after line stays in the reader’s head ... There are wonderful poems of family piety ... The rarest of all Montague’s technical gifts is the capacity to write hulorous poems which can be taken seriously and don’t sound arch’. Notes recurring emphasis on the origins of art, as in the Lascaux cave drawings; cites ‘‘Still Life, with Aunt Brigid’’, ‘‘Time Off’’ (the first of ‘‘Kindertotenleider’’), ‘‘Paths’, ‘‘Poor Noll’’ (shades of Goldsmith and Austin Clarke); ‘‘Response to Omagh’’, ‘‘Civil Wars’’, ‘‘Flowers, Stone, Sea’’ (trans. of Gullevic, who was a neighbour in Montparnasse).

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David Wheatley, ‘Still in the Swim’ [interview with Montague in rooms in the TCD Rubrics], in Books Ireland (Feb. 2000), pp.5-6: Wheatley remarks that Montague was ‘free to start all over again’ after the stock-taking of Collected Poems; Smashing the Piano covers several decades with themes ranging from adolescent sexuality to the raw wound of Omagh; title derived from incident when Montague returned home to find a cousin demolishing the family piano, here called ‘the instrument’s death-rattle’ which Wheatley compares to ‘John Cage serenading Stockhausen’ remarking that Montague’s music is ‘never less than sweet in comparison’; centrally involved in Claddagh Records; Montague talks enthusiastically about Robert Creeley and ‘how American models helped him rein in his Irish loquacity and hone the short line that has been such a feature of his work’ also ‘One particularly Irish feature of his work he has never reined in is his fondness for the love poem’; discusses with Montague his representations of the feminine; Montague asserts that what he was doing in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ was the opposite of the objectification of the feminine as nationalist icons which feminist critics attacked, showing instead the real woman imprisoned behind the objectification; Montague has moved from Gravesian sense of poetry as high romantic calling towards Wallace Stevens’s approach to idealisation in “The Palm at the End of the Mind”; the Northern Irish elegy is something he looks forward to decommissioning; recounts the fracas surrounding Beckett’s copying out the early poem “Da Tagte Es” for The Great Book of Ireland and getting the text wrong, causing on critic to accuse the editors of laying fraudulent claim to an original poem; speaks of his attraction to the poet Guillevic, whom Montague has just translated in Carnac; also trans. French poet Francis Ponge, a Communist like Guillevic; Montague calls them ‘mystical materialists’; mentions currently writing a memoir; contribution to anthology Watching the River Flow; asked what makes him angry as a writer today, Montague ‘rails gently against the concentration on Northern Irish poetry and wonders why British poerty isn’t producing anyone to match Basil Bunting any more.’

John Goodby, Irish Poetry Since 1950: From Stillness into History (Manchester UP 2000): ‘The US poet-critics were clearly models for Montague [..] who had been taught by Blackmuir, Ransom and Jarrell in the USA in the 1950s, and became a lecturere at UCC in the 1973. Mutual regard is reflected in Robin Skelton’s essay in Critical Quarterly and his Six Irish Poets (both 1962) and confirmed in M. L. Rosenthal’s inclusion of a section on Irish poetry in The New Poetry in 1967, demonstrating Irish reincorporation with the international academic mainstream (Kinsella’s The Pen Shop (1997) is dedicated to Rosenthal’s memory.’ ([Notes,] p.130.)

See further [Goodby] - “From Eire to Modernity” [Chap. 2; Sect. 1:] ‘Out of Stasis”- ‘“In the late fifties,” John Montague claimedin 1973, “Irish poets began to write, without strain, a poetry that was indisputably Irish (in the sense that it was influenced by the country they came from, its climate, history and linguistic peculiarities) but also modern” [Montague, 189, p.124.) He concluded: “an Irish poet seems to me to be in a richly ambiguous position, with the pressure of an incompletely discovered past behind him, and the whole modern world around him”, claiming that, used to straddling different cultures, the contemporary Irish writer “at his best, is a natural cosmopolitan.” Montague’s stance involved rejection not ony of the English Movement peots, whose insularity was linked to the British post-war decline, but also the Americanised Auden who had previously serves s the chief model for younger Irish poets.’ (Montague, 1989, 198). (Goodby, op. cit., p.69; see for more extensive remarks on pp.87-92.) [available at Google Books - online; accessed 30.08.2016.)

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Bernard O’Donoghue, review of John Montague, Company: A Chosen Life (London: Duckworth 2001), in The Irish Times, Weekend (23 June 2001): Montague has avoided the traps of memor, ‘gifted as he is with an incomparably lucid prose style and an inclination towards mockery that doesn’t spare the writer’; centres on Dublin, Paris and America (espec. California) in the 1950s and 1960s (‘those hopeful days); those mentioned are Eddie Windsor; Ionesco; George Yeats; Behan said by Myles na Gopaleen to be ‘the sole proprietor of the biggest heart that has beaten in Ireland in the last forty years’, while Montague writes that ‘his generosity was as outsize as his burly physique’; Garech Brown, who co-founded Claddagh with Montague (”Claddagh Raga”); Denis Murphy; Julia Clifford; O’Donoghue notes that almost every quotation from Irish is ‘horribly garbled’. Note that an extract from Company, dealing with Brendan Behan and recounting his treatment of a priest who visits the Montagues in company with Tom Parkinson and Donal Barrington is also printed in ‘Writing Now’.

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Kevin Kiely, review of John Montague, Company: A Chosen Life (London: Duckworth 2001), in Books Ireland (Dec. 2001), p.324: Madeleine de Brauer, inspiration of “All legendary obstacles”; upper-class Norman French; settled at 6 Herbert St., and latter at Gloucester Diamond; worked with Bórd Failte; Behan trashes Doris Lessing verbally and berates Montague for not keeping company with French ouvriers; praises Flann O’Brien’s laudatory and loving obituary for Behan in Telegraph, and casts doubt on the spirit of Cronin’s and Higgins’s memoirs of him (‘lack both generosity and compassion’); Behan’s severe beatings in Walton Gaol; Liam Miller; Timothy O’Keeffe (to whom he recommended Heaney); turned down Stuart’s Black List Section H in early version; Garech Browne portrayed; Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker; 11 Rue Daguerre, Paris; friendship with Beckett; Con Leventhal; Rough Field turned down by Gallimard and Edition de minuit (‘mais, c’est de la poèsie! Ça [ne] vend pas’). Berkeley, California; Kenneth Rexroth, Louis Simposn, Allen Ginsberg, and Kerouac; Marianne Moore; takes Ted Roethke to meet Mrs Yeats.

Peter Reading, review of John Montague, Company: A chosen life (London: Duckworth), 190pp., ill., with Augustus Young, Light Years (London Mag. Edns.), ends with condescension: ‘These acounts of the formative years of two intersting literary Ersemen contain much entertaining reading.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 12 April 2002, p.22.)

John Greening, ‘The Glitter of Decay’, review of Drunken Soldier, in Times Literary Supplement ( 21 Jan. 2005 ), p.9: ‘[…] Montague’s interest in “place wisdom” is again evident here, not least in his poem (one of several from the Irish) based on Gearóid Ó Crualaoich’s Dinnscheanchas, “ Heart Land”: At the same time, Montague’s increasing restlessness, something that the “old man’s frenzy” of the opening poem hints at, is beginning to give his landscapes a fractured look. In “First Landscape, First Death”, he is a “displaced / child, wandering these lanes, break- / ing a stick from these hedges”; elsewhere he writes of “the hectic glitter of decay”. The very layout of “ Heart Land” (and the centre-aligmnent, the split-word enjambment, in other poems) suggests fragmentation, even decomposition, and while not an entirely new feature - ‘Balance Sheet” from The Rough Field (1972) does as much - this sense of “Demolition Ireland” is made more potent by the poet’s consciousness of his own mortality. [...’; &c.; for full text, see infra.]

[Shirley Kelly,] ‘Don’t Knock Cork or Else’ interview with John Montague, in Books Ireland (Oct. 2007), pp.206-07 - quotes extensively, viz., on Berkeley in the mid-sixties: “It seemed to me that America, or at least California, was becoming a vast sexual laboratory, where surgeon and patient were equally ignorant, and where matters were not leavened by tenderness.” On going to UCD in 1946: “I had no notion of becoming a poet,” he says, “but I knew I could write. My elder brother advised me to go to Dublin because there were more outlets there for people who could write - newspapers, theatres and so on. I thought I would become a journalist and for the first year I continued in the same vein as before, getting a first in every subject. That wasn’t down to my own brilliance. It was just that I’d had a better education in the North than my contemporaries in the South. / Even the boys from Clongowes and Belvedere weren’t up to the same standard. So I began to relax and look around me and I noticed there were quite a lot of poets. They seemed to be having a very good time and they also seemed to be very popular with the brighter girls. I began to drift into their company and met people like Pearse Hutchinson, Anthony Cronin and Thomas Kinsella, who was a night student. I hadn’t even tried to write poetry at this stage, but I began to think about it. The challenge, as I saw it, was to transform myself from a star student who passed exams to the point where I could actually be a question on the exam! I could see that even a poet of Kavanagh’s stature was very poor and that I would need to do something else in order to get by, so after college I worked as a journalist, a film critic and reviewer and then as a teacher, which is how I ended up in Berkeley.”’ [Cont.]

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[Shirley Kelly,] ‘Don’t Knock Cork or Else’ (Oct. 2007) - cont.: On returning to teach in Cork, in 1972: “Cork seemed to be fertile ground for poetry at that time […] You didn’t have the political tensions of the North, which provided obvious writing material for the Northern poets, but it was still the favoured form. I think it’s because you can be ambiguous about people in poetry, people don’t recognise themselves as easily in a poem as they would in, say, a novel, and that’s a kind of security measure in a place like Cork. I remember being in Henchy’s [206] pub one day, writing, when one of the Crosbys [owners of the Cork Examiner newspaper] came up behind me and said “Are you writing about us? Don’t knock Cork or we’ll tear you to pieces’!” Asked by Father Burke-Savage, a jesuit friend in Dublin. if he did not wish to be faithful to his wife, he replied: “No, Father. If I am to be honest, I must admit that I enjoy my liaisons. Sex is a path to knowledge, a way to know someone else in more than the biblical sense, one of life’s most exciting adventures, which I don’t wish to give up, especially as there was so little pleasure in the Ireland I grew up in.” […] Of his childhood: “At the age of four I was forsaken by my mother, a trauma which must have reverberated through the ensuing years of childhood and into my adult life. Finally, after having been abandoned by the one woman who mattered most, I desired and was desired by many women, and this multiplicity was comforting, a kind of love insurance.” On autobiographical writing: “In writing memoirs you have to careful not to hurt people,” he says. I was conscious of it in writing this book and I would be slow to write another volume while the people who would feature in that story are still alive. But the story of my early childhood is one I would like to tell in some way. I was born in the twentieth century and sent back to the nineteenth century at the age of four. I lost everything and everyone I knew at that point and it probably made me a poet.”’ [End.]

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