The Bag Apron: The Poet and his Community’ [inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry given at QUB Nov. 1998],
in Fortnight [‘Literature Special’] (Jan. 1999), pp.19-22.

[Montague discusses ‘finding your voice’. ...]

‘What Myles called the “gentle art of Kafka-ing and Rilke-ing” was necessary for survival in literary Dublin. Or as my friend Brendan Behan said of our generation: “only a few hours out of the bog, and they’re up to their arses in angst”’. (p.20); further speaks of his father, home from America, building shelves to accommodate books lie Andre Gide‘’s Journals that he did not dare [20] open, for fear that they would offend his Catholic purity.’ Quotes: ‘il faut cultiver nos obsessions.’

‘Sometimes that intense feeling for the Ulster and Irish landscapes trembles towards an ideal patriotism, what one calls tir grá in Irish, or love of country. […] In this connection, I recall a fierce discussion I had with Ted Hughes in Listowel, County Kerry, before he accepted the laureateship. I maintained that no one could be a simple patriot anymore, and quoted his own poem, “Out”: ‘Let England close / Let the great sea anernone close’. He suggested that I was misreading the poem, which was really about the abomination of war, and began to speak of the British crown as a symbol of the unity of the tribe, like some ancient British chieftain: Arturus, Dux Britanorum [...]. As Ted Hughes was the Merlin of the lost kingdom of Elmet.

More simple than tir grá, or love of the land, was grá itself, the effort to love. While not subscribing to the muse theory of Robert Graves, even under tonight’s full moon, one can still recognise that there is an affinity between love and the Iyric, though that love need not be limited to the chivalrous impulse of courtly love. It can be domestic love, between husband and wife, it can be directed towards the old mine workings of W. H. Auden, the hovering falcon of Hopkins, or the battle-weary comrades of David Jones - even an old steam-engine - anyone or anything cargoed with feeling. Milton surprisingly declared that poetry should be “simple, sensuous, and passionate”, and it is this intensity which makes lines of Yeats ring in our ears, the most singable poet since the Elizabethans. Love of place, love of another - whether companion, child, or parent - love is the charge behind the lyric, technical mastery its muscle.

And there are deeper, underlying, almost inchoate concerns. Clio or History, for instance, is one of the Muses, but in this age of individual consciousness, public themes cannot be asserted, as in the Aeneid’s account of the founding of Rome, or the violent glory of war chronicled, as in the Illiad [sic]. My training as an historian in UCD helped, but I came to realise that for me as a poet history could only be “his-story”, what I knew about what had happened to my people, as I will explain later./ Then there are truly primitive and pre-historical powers working. Stones and water are among the enduring images in my work. Even when I translate, I instinctively turn to poems like the “Carnac” of Eugene Guillevic, who was born beside those ancient stones. […]

And then there is the central irony of my career: the effort to be fluent about speechlessness. Being here in Belfast has for me the haunting quality of the road not taken. Omagh and Armagh were my two towns, but in my last year at school, as the wars ended, I began to come regularly to Belfast for speech therapy. My therapist was a lively young woman who taught me breathing exercises, placing a professional but distracting hand on my diaphragm. She had a passion for both opera and war poetry, introducing me to Penguin New Writing, and poets like Alan Rook and Alun Lewis. I still went to see her through the summer, cycling to now-closed railway stations, like Beragh and Sixmilecross, spending a crammed day in Belfast, often taking in a film, as well as dirty pictures of the Smithfield Market.

I was becoming dimly aware of something called Ulster Regionalism, but it seemed to deal mainly with matters east of the Bann, the Northern Pale, and was already fading. I called upon a gruff John Hewitt at the Ulster Museum, but he would soon go into exile, and it was in London or Dublin that I would meet MacNeice and Rodgers. So my poetic stirrings had to take place against the background of Dublin and UCD, where a new generation was beginning to emerge, not post-war, but post-a civil war which would take me years to understand. I did not know their provenance, but their passion for poetry was a prod in the right direction. Anthony Cronin from Enniscorthy spouting Auden, Ben Kiely singing MacNeice to MacNeice, John Jordan intoning Lorca, Pearse Hutchinson reciting everything! Despite the introverted gloom of post-Emergency Dublin, a new generation was cracking the egg, with the iconoclastic figure of Kavanagh as a goad. With such a cast of characters, my ambitions to be a best-selling novelist crumbled, although now I am glad to transfer them to my partner, Elizabeth.

My loneliness as a marooned Northerner and apprentice Southerner still kept me slightly apart. Gawky, red-haired, stammering in a Tyrone accent, I must have stood amongst them: to the children of the new Free State, the North was a foreign country. And there was a further complication: my American birth. In due course, I would leave to explore that great country from end to end, meeting easier, less fractious contemporaries, like Snodgrass and Bly in Iowa, Ginsberg and Snyder in San Francisco.

So you wander round the world to discover the self you were born with. But I had already made a start. I heard two of my poems being read out on Austin Clarke’s poetry programme; another prize-winner was John Hewitt, which prompted my call on him in Belfast, when I was up to see my father in the Royal Victoria Hospital. And after my long American hegira, I began to publish poems, this time with an Ulster accent. Austin Clarke rang me up after he’d read “The Sean Bhean Bhocht” in The Irish Times, a poem not about a national symbol, but a real poor old woman whom I had known: “As a child was frightened by her / Busy with her bowl of tea in a farmhouse chimney corner, / Wrapped in a cocoon of rags and shawls”. I had travelled far in order to write about homely things.

One grew up slowly then, through a clamour of influences. My first wee book was called Forms of Exile (1958), something my generation specialised in, trying to escape the restrictions imposed by oppressive religio-political systems, both North and South, mirror-images of each other. But things were looking up. In 1960 a poem of mine won one of the first poetry prizes in this part of the world: the May Morton, and it was read by Sam MacCreedy [sic] in the Assembly Rooms of the Presbyterian Church in Belfast, though later it was docked a stanza in its transmission from the BBC North of Ireland. I was so pleased, I had it printed by my new pal, Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press, and sent one to Patrick Kavanagh. He stopped me in the street, to offer me a compliment: “I see you got in the bag apron; I could never manage it meself”. Now that the bag apron has travelled all the way from Friel’s Ballybeg to Broadway to Hollywood, it may seem a small matter, but it was a big step at the time.

Authenticity is the holy grail of the artist. To achieve “Like Dolmens”, my experience of life in a country post office in County Tyrone and my dim sense of the deep archaeological past of the Clogher Valley came together under the influence of poems as diverse as the early Anglo-Saxon, Alan Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead”, and the bruised gloom of Wilfred Owens’ “Strange Meeting”. There is a line in my early work through Poisoned Lands, 1961, Death of a Chieftain, 1964, to The Rough Field, an exploration of the hidden Ulster west of the Bann which, except for Ben Kiely, had not found expression since William Carleton’s Traits and Stories.

In his study of the short story, Frank O’Connor argues that the strength of the storyteller often comes from the pressure behind him of a community which has not achieved definition, a submerged population: Lawrence’s coal miners, Joyce’s mean Dubliners, Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia grotesques. In the pre-literate Tyrone of my past, there was a primitive respect for the poet, a kind of laughter and fear aroused by the idea of the local bard. I had a cousin, Tommy Montague, who was known as the Bard of Altamuskin, and whose verses appeared in the Ulster Herald. He had harps inset on the walls of his house, and a glass-walled study where he wrote old-fashioned novels. People thought he was a bit cracked, but, God bless him, he lent me Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, while he wallpapered our parlour. Then there was Michael Mullen, the Bard of Foremass, and the Farrells of Glencull, one of whose songs is included in The Rough Field: “Glencull Waterside”. There were also the slightly more sophisticated voices of Matt Mulcahy and Barney MacCool of Coolaghy, in the Tyrone Constitution. And of course the Reverend Marshall’s excursions into the Ulster dialect haunt me still:

Concerning wimmen, sure it was a constant word of his
Keep far away from them that’s thin
Their temper’s easy riz.
An’ Margit she was very wee
And Bridget she was stout
But her face was like a jail dure
Wi’ the bowlts pulled out.

- and here comes the epic simile -

[...] her face was like a jail dure
Wi’ the bowlts pulled out.

Both sides of the house had retained some dim respect for the idea of verse, if not poetry, and occasionally somebody would raise the old canard that we in mid-Tyrone still spoke the language of Shakespeare (John B. Keane has a marvellous piece arguing that Shakespeare’s knowledge of country lore shows that he was a Kerryman!) The satirical side of the bard would now be best expressed by comics, like the deadpan ironies of Kevin MacAleer. The truth was that Tyrone had not known a professional poet since the days of the O’Neills, and through my long literary apprenticeship I was harnessing an artesian energy from many silent centuries. These hushed, orphaned voices whispered partly in another language, emphasising the ironies of my own name: Tadhg or Tague transformed into the more stylish Montague. The journey into this reservoir of silence was all the more ironical because I was born not in Ballygawley but Brooklyn, yet that distance may have made me listen more closely, like Sam Hanna Bell transported from Glasgow to the rural County Down of December Bride.

Among the welter of the world’s voices, in the streets, on the airwaves, in the press, you find your own voice, yet this does not isolate you, but restores you to your people. Across the world, the unit of the parish is being broken down by global forces, and from Iniskean, to Garvaghy, from Bellaghy to Ballydehob, to the Great Plains of America, an older lifestyle, based on the seasons, is being destroyed. But it can still be held in the heart and in the head. Although I know I will never be able to satisfy the Man from Keady, I have (echoing Nennius, the early British historian, as quoted by David Jones) “made a heap of all I could find”, a cairn of the heart’s affections.’

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