John Montague: A Memorial Sampler

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[This is the second of a pair of posts celebrating the life and work of Irish poet John Montague.  The first can be found immediately below this one, and I recommend reading them in sequence.]
Like many Americans, I encountered Yeats for the first time in a “British Literature” survey and found him both mystifying and mesmerizing.  The Byzantium poems, “The Second Coming,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Among School Children,” “Leda and the Swan,” the standard anthology pieces, which my professor explained in scrupulous detail, formed my private syllabus, but Yeats’ poems were examined more for their high modernist method than for their Irish political and cultural context and implications.

Even in graduate school, where Yeats was one of four modernists I studied in a seminar, I was never encouraged to much consider his national identity or ask if there were Irish poets after Yeats.  Clearly the misleading “English Lit” concept was too broad and robust, but about 1978 Kay Byer started telling me about Heaney, whose close connection to the work of the earth and the vernacular echoed with my studies of the poetry of the American South and who was suddenly well on the way to becoming my favorite poet.

I eventually managed to discover County Monaghan’s Patrick Kavanagh, author of The Great Hunger in the early forties, a poet whose harrows and horses, country dances and sexual repression balanced Yeats’ myths and intricacy in their contribution to the rough rural and yet cosmopolitan poems of Heaney.  What I didn’t discover for another dozen years was the exciting work of John Montague, both lyrics and sequences like The Rough Field, which Heaney knew intimately and admired.  It took me a trip to Ireland in the late eighties to understand how fundamental Montague’s work had been to the formation of Heaney’s aesthetic, and probably Michael Longley’s, as well.

Born in the U. S. of Irish Catholic parents but sent back to Northern Ireland as a child, then fostered away from his brothers, Montague began his life as a divided person, an explorer of thresholds and liminal emotions.  Catholic in a protestant plantation, Irish speaker in a landscape of imposed English, he displayed deep Irish roots even as he cultivated an international perspective.  His wives were French and then American, his voice was prominent in the Irish traditional music revival, yet he taught for much of his life at SUNY-Albany, as well as University College Cork, somewhat mirroring his own education at University College and the University of Iowa,  Deeply private in many of his poems, he unleashed Irish history and myth to intensify and complicate his verses.  Also at home in Paris and Nice (where he died), he was appointed Ireland’s first national Chair of Poetry, comparable to a poet laureate position.

One hears two primary camps, not always at odds, in the discussions of Montague’s poetry.  Some celebrate his lyric gift, especially as it explores the nuances of romantic love and of romantic and family loss.  The other voice brings forth “the authenticity of his anger” over sectarian and brotherly conflict, and that faction is divided over the question of how hope and sorrow interact.  Glimmers of the former and shadows of the latter strive and interlock in his poems.  One need only scan the titles of his books (The Rough Field, The Great Cloak, The Dead Kingdom, Poisoned Lands, Forms of Exile, but also and always A Chosen Light) to realize that subjects of such great pitch and moment, no matter how locally and personally they are addressed, are his obsession, and the bone of Irish animosity draws him away from the shuddered satisfactions of passion long after the marrow is gone from the bone.

Christopher Ricks wrote of The Rough Field in The New York Times Book Review, “In Mr. Montague’s fine, firm poems . . . loving force is always made real by being threatened by the angers of Ireland.”  Heaney called it “an utterance from the underworld of love and bitterness.”  Of Collected Poems Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin said, “John Montague’s poetic gift is for elegance and clarity; his voice is austere and musical, his vision is of sharp gleaming perspectives, his mentality international and modern.”

Although I enthusiastically recommend his book-length sequences where the personal and the political braid and snake and shimmer, I offer here just a sample of the shorter pieces with the urging that readers acquire the American version of John’s 1995 Collected Poems (Wake Forest, from the Gallery Press edition) and consume them till they return the favor.

I have heard many interpretations of this poem: it’s about sexual predation; about masturbation, about composition of a poem, about satisfaction and guilt; about two dozen lines, about seizing the ineffable, about being fishers of men.  Maybe all of them, but for me it is about wildness and capture, beauty and the desire to touch it.  It’s a species of early catch-and-release, but it is the prey that will not release, the angler (or guddler) who cannot shake free.  Kidding aside, it is terse and precise and radiant, from “tendril-light” to “lightly pulsing gills.”  It is a fine, firm poem.

for Barrie Cooke

Flat on the bank I parted
Rushes to ease my hands
In the water without a ripple
And tilt them slowly downstream
To where he lay, tendril-light,
In his fluid sensual dream.

Bodiless lord of creation,
I hung briefly above him
Savouring my own absence,
Senses expanding in the slow
Motion, the photographic calm
That grows before action.

As the curve of my hands
Swung under his body
He surged, with visible pleasure.
I was so preternaturally close
I could count every stipple
But still cast no shadow, until

The two palms crossed in a cage
Under the lightly pulsing gills.
Then (entering my own enlarged
Shape, which rode on the water)
I gripped.  To this day I can
Taste his terror on my hands.

This next poem is child-delicate, but also a testament to the indelible nature of love.

for Una

A firefly gleams, then
fades upon your cheek.
Now you hide beneath
everything I write:
love’s invisible ink,
heart’s watermark.

And then there is the sorrow when loves fails, regret sets in, the pain is not distributed equally.  One reviewer has suggested that the signature of Montague’s love poetry is that he does not protect himself, which is a rare stance.


Two fish float:

one slowly downstream
into the warm
currents of the known,

the other tugging
against the stream,
disconsolate twin,

the golden
marriage hook
tearing its throat.

Anticipation of nostalgia and an attempt to remember one of the monumental small moments appear in the following poem.  It should be no surprise that a poet of Montague’s stripe would eventually sour on love, only to be rejuvenated later in life.  This poem echoes Pound and his sources a little, but the narrator’s vulnerability makes it a more valuable poem to me than the elder poet’s famous Metro poem.  The address, without the source of the speaker’s hypersensitive state kept far in the distant shadows of the poem, resonates with the early photographic process but makes it livelier than any one sense can.


  1. 11 rue Daguerre

At night, sometimes, when I cannot sleep
I go to the atelier door
And smell the earth of the garden.

It exhales softly,
Especially now, approaching springtime,
When tendrils of green are plaited

Across the humus, desperately frail
In their passage against
The dark, unredeemed parcels of earth.

There is white light on the cobblestones
And in the apartment house opposite –
All four floors – silence.

At that stillness – soft but luminously exact,
A chosen light – I notice that
The tips of the lately grafted cherry-tree

Are a firm and lacquered black.

“A Grafted Tongue” is a small narrative with a large wallop.  An Irish-speaking boy in an English-speaking school is humiliated when he says a word in Irish.  The impact continues for generations.  This is surely an easy poem for Americans to grasp, now that children whose cultural identities don’t fit the “norm” are suffering so much in the current wave of bullying.


bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue –

As in
a long suppressed dream,
some stuttering garb-
led ordeal of my own)

An Irish
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake

The master
gouges another mark
on the tally stick
hung about its neck

Like a bell
on a cow, a hobble
on a straying goat.
To slur and stumble

In shame
the altered syllables
of your own name;
to stray sadly home

And find
the turf-cured width
of your parent’s hearth
growing slowly alien:

In cabin
and field, they still
speak the old tongue.
You may greet no one.

To grow
a second tongue, as
harsh a humiliation
as twice to be born.

Decades later
that child’s grandchild’s
speech stumbles over lost
syllables of an old order.

Finally, I recommend to American readers the body (and the blood and spirit) of Montague’s work, among others of his countrymen, because the United States is, quite astonishingly, now divided in a way reminiscent of the times of the Troubles in Ireland, a division that is revealing us to be as parochial and bitter as we once feared the Irish were.  Seeing such animosity through the prism of Montague’s wounded, wounding poetry may bring clarity and recommend charity to us in a time when we so desperately need it.  I close with John’s poem on the 1998 car bombing in Omagh, County Tyrone (29 fatalities, hundreds of injuries] which I can testify nearly rent his spirit in two.  It is not a poem to be memorized, but to be learned by heart.

A Response to Omagh

All I can do is curse, complain.
Who can endorse such violent men?
As history creaks its bloody hinge
and the unspeakable is done again.

With no peace after the deluge,
no ease after the storm,
we learn to live inside ruin
like a second home.

What we, too, can find in Montague’s poems over and over is simply to “learn to live.”  Not a small thing.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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One Response to John Montague: A Memorial Sampler

  1. John Brotman says:

    Dear R. T. Smith,
    Many years ago I copied out a poem by John Montague. I think it was called The Snake. I remember being struck by its understanding of the natural world, but it had an edge too.
    Now that he has died, I’ll be on a renewed hunt for his poetry. My regret is that I never did think to pursue his work earlier. Thank you for your article.

    John Brotman

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