Montague, John (Patrick)

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MONTAGUE, John (Patrick)

Nationality: Irish. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 28 February 1929. Education: St. Patrick's College, Armagh; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and History 1949, M.A. 1952; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (Fulbright scholar), 1953–54; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1955. Family: Married 1) Madeleine de Brauer in 1956 (divorced 1972); 2) Evelyn Robson in 1973 (separated 1993), two daughters; 3) Elizabeth Wassell in 1993. Career: Film critic, Dublin Standard, 1949–52; worked for Irish Tourist Board, 1956–59; Paris correspondent, Irish Times, 1961–64; taught at the Poetry Workshop, University of California, Berkeley, spring 1964 and 1965, University College, Dublin, spring and summer 1967, and spring 1968, and the Experimental University of Vincennes; lecturer in poetry, University College, Cork, 1972–88; writer-in-residence, State University of New York, Albany, 1990; 1st Ireland Professor of Poetry, 1999. Awards: May Morton memorial award, 1960; Arts Council of Northern Ireland grant, 1970; Irish American Cultural Institute prize, 1976; Marten Toonder award, 1977; Alice Hunt Bartlett memorial award, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship, 1979; Hughes Irish Fiction award, 1988; Irish American Foundation award, 1995. Member: Irish Academy of Letters. Agent: Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group Ltd., 5th Floor, The Chambers, Chelsea Harbour, Lots Road, London SW10 OXF, England.



Forms of Exile. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1958.

The Old People. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1960.

Three Irish Poets, with Thomas Kinsella and Richard Murphy. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1961.

Poisoned Lands and Other Poems. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1961; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1963; revised edition, Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1977.

Six Irish Poets, with others, edited by Robin Skelton. London, Oxford University Press, 1962.

Old Mythologies. Privately printed, 1965.

All Legendary Obstacles. Dublin, Dolmen Press, and London, Oxford University Press, 1966.

The Rough Field. Dublin, Dolmen Press, and London, Oxford University Press, 1972; Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1979.

Patriotic Suite. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1966.

Home Again. Belfast, Festival, 1967.

Hymn to the New Omagh Road. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1968.

The Bread God: A Lecture, with Illustrations in Verse. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1968.

A New Siege. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1969.

A Chosen Light. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1967; Chicago, Swallow Press, 1969.

The Planter and the Gael, with John Hewitt. Belfast, Arts Council ofNorthern Ireland, 1970.

Tides. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1970; Chicago, Swallow Press, 1971.

Small Secrets. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1972.

The Cave of Night. Cork, Golden Stone Press, 1974.

O'Riada's Farewell. Cork, Golden Stone Press, 1974.

A Slow Dance. Dublin, Dolmen Press, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1975.

The Great Cloak. Dublin, Dolmen Press, London, Oxford University Press, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1978.

The Leap. Dublin, Gallery, and Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, Deerfield Press, 1979.

Selected Poems. Dublin, Dolmen Press, Oxford, Oxford University Press, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1982.

Deities. New York, At-Swim Press, 1982.

The Dead Kingdom. Dublin, Dolmen Press, Oxford, Oxford University Press, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1984.

Mount Eagle. Oldcastle, County Meath, Gallery Press, 1988; Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1989.

New Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990.

Time in Armagh. Oldcastle, County Meath, Gallery Press, 1993.

About Love. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York, The Sheepmeadow Press, 1993.

Collected Poems. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, and Oldcastle, County Meath, Gallery Press, 1995.

Smashing the Piano Gallery. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1999.

Recording: The Northern Muse, with Seamus Heaney, Claddagh, 1968.


The Rough Field (produced London, 1973). Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1984.


The Lost Notebook (novella). Cork, Mercier Press, 1987.

Short Stories

Death of a Chieftain and Other Stories. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1964; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1967.

An Occasion of Sin. Fredonia, New York, White Pine Press, 1992.

A Love Present. Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 1997.


The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, edited by Antoinette Quinn. Dublin, Lilliput, and Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1989.

Editor, The Dolmen Miscellany of Irish Writing. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1962.

Editor, with Liam Miller, A Tribute to Austin Clarke on His Seventieth Birthday, 9 May 1966. Dublin, Dolmen Press, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1966.

Editor, The Faber Book of Irish Verse. London, Faber, 1974; as The Book of Irish Verse, New York, Macmillan, 1977.

Editor, Bitter Harvest: An Anthology of Contemporary Irish Verse. New York, Scribner, 1989.

Translator, A Fair House: Versions of Irish Poetry. Dublin, Cuala Press, 1973.

Translator, with Evelyn Robson, November, by André Frénaud. Cork, Golden Stone Press, 1977.

Translator, with C.K. Williams, Ponge. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1994.

Translator, Carnac, by Guillevic. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1999.


Critical Studies: The New Poetry by M.L. Rosenthal, New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1967, and The Modern Poetic Sequence by Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983; by John MacInerney, in Hibernia (Dublin), 15 December 1972; by D.S. Maxwell, in Critical Quarterly (London), summer 1973; by Derek Mahon, in Malahat Review (Victoria, British Columbia), July 1973; by Thomas Dillon Redshaw, in Studies (Dublin), spring 1974; John Montague by Frank Kersnowski, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1975; "John Montague, Seamus Heaney, and the Irish Past" by Graham Martin, in The Present (New Pelican Guide to English Literature), edited by Boris Ford, London, Penguin, 1983; Hill Field: Poems and Memoirs for John Montague on His 60th Birthday edited by Thomas Dillon Redshaw, Oldcastle, County Meath, Gallery Press, and Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1989; Redeeming Pattern of Experience: John Montague's Text and Tradition, 1949–1989 (dissertation) by Carolyn Margaret Meyer, McMaster University, 1991; "Matriarchs, Mothergoddesses, and the Poetry of John Montague" by Elizabeth Grubgeld, in Etudes Irlandaises (Sainghinen en Melantois, France), 18(2), December 1993; interview with Nancy Gish, in her Hugh MacDiarmid: Man and Poet, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1992; "Embodying the Past: History and Imagination in John Montague's 'The Rough Field'" by Elmar Schenkel, in Anglistentag 1992 Stuttgart: Proceedings, edited by Hans Ulrich Seeber and Walter Gobel, Tubingen, Niemeyer, 1993; "John Montague and William Carlos Williams: Nationalism and Poetic Construction" by Paul Bowers, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 20(2), December 1994; "'Campaigning against Memory's Mortmain': Benjaminian Allegory in John Montague's 'The Rough Field'" by David Gardiner, in Notes on Modern Irish Literature (Butler, Pennsylvania), 8, 1996; Northern Exposures: Politics, Pressure and Tradition in the Poetry of Montague, Heaney, and Muldoon (dissertation) by Kevin Brady, Drew University, 1996; "John Montague: Passionate Contemplative" by Augustine Martin, in Irish Writers and Their Creative Process, edited by Jacqueline Genet and Wynne Hellegouarc'h, Gerrards Cross, England, Smythe, 1996; "Lost, Unhappy and at Home: The Robinson Crusoe Complex in Contemporary Irish Poetry" by Michael Faherty, in The Classical World and the Mediterranean, edited by Giuseppe Serpillo and Donatella Badin, Cagliari, Italy, Tema, 1996; "A Second Tongue" by Eamonn Wall, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), 46(3), fall 1996; "'Bog Queens': The Representation of Women in the Poetry of John Montague and Seamus Heaney" by Patricia Coughlan, in Seamus Heaney, edited by Michael Allen, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997; "To Do Penance and Rejoice" by R.T. Smith, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 34(1), winter 1998.

John Montague comments:

I am usually classed as an Irish poet, and that is true insofar as I am deeply involved with the landscape and people of Ireland, particularly Ulster. In Gaelic poetry Ireland appears both as a maiden and a hag, a sort of national muse, and her hold is still strong, especially now that her distinctive culture is being submerged. But underneath these tribal preoccupations beats a more personal struggle, the effort to affirm lovingly, to salvage some order, in the face of death and change. The technique is a blend of postmodern (Williams and Pound) and old Gaelic poetry, which could also be regarded as an aspect of nationality, for an Irish poet (following Joyce, Yeats, Beckett) has a better chance of being international than an English writer. But my effort to understand as much of the modern world as possible serves only to illuminate the destruction of that small area from which I initially came, and that theme in turn is only part of the larger one of continually threatened love.

*  *  *

There is something tight-lipped about John Montague's poetry. It is revealed even in the terse titles of his volumes and in the repeated use of a short, abrupt line in which enjambment projects the reader into sudden peripeties and reversals and the shifts of pace and meaning have the effect of a clipped, curt rebuff. Yet within these constraints the poetry can flower into an unexpected lyric generosity. Not many poets, for example, could carry off successfully the Anglo-Saxon bluntness of "Love, A Greeting" (Tides):

a lifetime's 
struggle to exchange
with the strange
thing inhabiting
a woman—
breasts, buttocks,
the honey sac
of the cunt...

It is the puritanical tautness of his speech that can bring off such large gestures. Constriction is Montague's native ground, as "Home Again" admits. Narrowness runs as a theme throughout his work, an expression of the bare past and "bleak economic future" shared, as he has written, by all such peripheral and remote areas of Europe as Ulster, Brittany, and the Highlands. It is this that marks him out clearly as one of the Ulster school of poets, despite the casual displacement of his Brooklyn birth. The "narrow huckster streets" of Belfast, "all this dour, despoiled inheritance," together with the heritage of sectarian hatred in "a culture where constraint is all," have a precise economic origin: "narrow fields wrought such division." "Rough Field," which gives the title to one of his major collections, is not just a translation of the Gaelic name for his native village but, in the words of an Afghan proverb that provides his epigraph, the summary of a historical destiny: "I had never known sorrow, / Now it is a field I have inherited, and I till it." In "The Bread God" he sees this in turn reproduced in "the lean parish of my art." Deracination is a major theme for Montague from his first volume, Forms of Exile, through his later work.

"A Lost Tradition," in The Rough Field, laments the physical expropriation that goes with the loss of the Gaelic, which no amount of "school Irish" can compensate for: "The whole landscape a manuscript / We had lost the skill to read, / A part of our past disinherited." The whole volume explores the consequences of this uprooting, spanning several hundred years of Irish history, while always relating the public events to the particular lives of individual men and families, including Montague's own forebears. "A Grafted Tongue" sees the linguistic loss not just as a metaphor for this larger dispossession but also as its key event: "To grow / a second tongue, as / harsh a humiliation / as twice to be born." "Lament for the O'Neills" and "Stele for a Northern Republican" indicate that the loss is one lying close to the heart of both communities in the North. The latter poem unsentimentally, but with bitterness, acknowledges his own father's "right to choose a Brooklyn slum / rather than a half-life in this / by-passed and dying place."

In A Slow Dance Montague moves away from history into the shadowy realms of Celtic myth to explain the modern violence of Northern Ireland, resurrecting that ancient "black widow goddess" whose "love-making / is like a skirmish" and who wears "a harvest necklace of heads." The move brings with it a loss of precisely that kind of acute historical particularity that distinguishes his best verse, but it remains nevertheless an impressive volume. The "slow dance" of the title unites human and elemental cycles and pagan and Christian Ireland in a ritual return to origins, where fertility and massacre are intimately linked. But it is finally the "sad awkward / dance of pain" of all the living upon the graves of all the dead, and perhaps its most moving sequence is the intense and personal elegy for his close friend the composer O'Riada, who died in 1971.

The love poems of The Great Cloak return to the lucid, melodic airs of Tides and A Chosen Light, but the atmosphere has been darkened by the intervening public violence, which now finds its correlative in personal life. These poems are as much concerned with loss, jealousy, marital breakdown, and its humiliation and shame as with the lyric celebration of love, "that always strange moment / when the clothes peel away / (bark from an unknown tree)" ("Do Not Disturb"). The violence spoken of as inseparable from love in such a fine early poem as "The Same Gesture" (Tides) is now felt more urgently and as a greater threat. Only briefly, in the sequence of poems that explore the consciousness of the estranged wife, is any connection explicitly acknowledged between personal disintegration and the larger violence of the North ("She Writes"). But throughout Montague is groping toward a new understanding of the interdependence of the personal and the political and of their common roots in a harsh and sour history. Such a quest can bring him desperately close to the unspeakable, to silence, shamefaced and appalled, as "No Music" recognizes:

To tear up old love by the roots,
To trample on past affections:
There is no music for so harsh a song.

The Dead Kingdom charts a journey north along "minor roads of memory" from Cork to Fermanagh when the poet is summoned by his mother's death to traverse a landscape dense with personal, historic, and mythic associations. The volume itself is a "dead kingdom," preserving in print "things that are gone" and sardonically accepting its own ultimate disappearance like the library of Alexander before it and later "substantial things / hustled oblivion" down the maw of Spenser's "goddess Mutability, / dark lady of Process, / our devouring Queen." When individuals die, a unique "world of sense & memory" vanishes with them. Races and nations alike are "locked / in their dream of history," subjective realms as "fragile / as a wild bird's wing," bulldozer and butterfly alike ephemeral forms. Even the archaeological relics of ancient Ireland are now torn up by the mechanized peat cutters that destroy the bog wholesale. Yet as "A Flowering Absence" suggests, the poet's own childhood experience of exile and fostering compels him to fill this emptiness, urged by a "terrible thirst" for knowledge and love "to learn something of that time / Of confusion, poverty, absence." This accounts for the journey upstream to the source, which is also, as the last poem, "Back," indicates, a journey to his own death. "There is no permanence," an epigraph from The Book of Gilgamesh tells us. But another speaks of the need to discover the "source of lost knowledge," and in the penultimate poem it is the impulse to name that provides those "frail rope-ladders / across fuming oblivion" that offer "a new love, a new / litany of place names" and allow the poet to return home to "a flowering presence."

Return is also a motif of Montague's volume Mount Eagle, which opens with the image of one salmon that "returns, / a lord to his underwater kingdom" and of another dying, abdicating a polluted planet. This ecological lament runs through the volume, providing some of its most powerful writing. But the book closes in another, more hopeful return of the salmon in "Survivor," where the old, bare earth reappears, promising that "life might begin again" after all the human poison has been purged, and where Fintan, a recurring presence, finds himself turning into a salmon that returns from the ocean bottom to reclaim its own. (The poem recalls the legendary Finn who tasted of the salmon of knowledge.) The returns of this book are not merely nostalgic trips back to the origins. On the contrary, in a volume that is shot through with the hope of renewal it is the past that returns to the present, sustaining and vivifying it. The cricket in "Hearth Song" strikes up again as in his childhood. A boyhood friend from across the religious divide turns up in a Belfast pub to save the embattled poet from "a swirl of trouble" with two off-duty men from the Ulster Defence Regiment. A childhood memory of a squat, coarse Jim Toorish caught splashing naked in a pool returns redeemed, cleansed of giggling prurience, in "a satyr, laughing in / the spray at Florence." In a sequence of sensually charged love poems celebrating the conjunction of May and September, memories of youth's glad animal movements restore the aging man, disclosing "secret wellsprings / of strength,"

those long, lovely
Leaps in the dark
returning now to steady
my mind, nourish
my courage as
No longer young
I take your hand.

"Someday I will exorcise it enough to forget and forgive, but at the age of sixty, images from that little hell on the hill haunt me, too harsh for long contemplation." So Montague wrote in the title essay of The Figure in the Cave of his time from 1941 to 1946 at Saint Patrick's in Armagh. Time in Armagh (1993), the title punning on the notion of imprisonment, attempts an exorcism and a contemplation of the poet's peculiarly life-denying education in a Roman Catholic boarding school. The themes—sexual repression, bullying, caning, religious zeal—are familiar in Irish writing about adolescence and schooling, but Montague makes them new and his own through an economical style capable of straight talk ("A system / without love is a crock of shite" is the way the title poem ends), wry sarcasm ("Father Roughan, all too rightly named"), and a strain of subdued lyricism sharply refusing to make amends for the past yet implying an alternative and a better set of values. In "Peephole" the poet writes, "Besides, alas, / The only opening left was our imagination," and the openings created by imagination are continually explored by the volume, which has something of a Dantean flavor as it reenters the "hell" of the Senior and Junior Rings. Montague's characteristic eye for the larger implications of his subject is evident throughout. World War II is a menacing presence at the edge of the child's existence. The prose poem "The Bomber's Moon" notes how "the stain on the Eastern sky was growing, like a bloodshot eye" as the German bombers moved over Belfast. Elsewhere Montague writes with laconic sympathy about "the camp where German / Prisoners were kept," and he finds a place in the collection for a slightly revised version of the much earlier poem "The Welcoming Party," about watching newsreels of the concentration camps. Time in Armagh is an impressive example of difficult personal experience shaped into disciplined, unsentimental poetry.

Montague's Collected Poems (1995) allows the reader to take the measure, within a single volume, of a major poetic achievement. The book shapes itself round what its editors, Peter Fallon and Dillon Johnston, call "his three major 'orchestrations'"(The Rough Field, The Great Cloak, and The Dead Kingdom), followed by lyrics and concluding with Time in Armagh and the impressive Border Sick Call. In this last sequence, as he describes a journey taken by himself and his brother along the Fermanagh-Donegal border, Montague often works with a short, crisp line and an idiom alert both to the "solid, homely detail" of this world and to intimations "glimpsed uneasily in dream." Undertaking their "Ulster border pilgrimage / where demarcations disappear," the two men confront rural life and suffering and Ireland's past and present. Montague meditates on memory, poetry, history, and the possibility of an "unexpected affirmation," an affirmation that does not dispel disquiet or questioning.

Affirmation is an eloquent and convincing impulse in Smashing the Piano (1999), a volume that is "heart-sick for harmony." Acutely conscious of suffering, Montague is always on the lookout for evidence of what is finest about others, even as he refuses to idealize. If the title poem records destruction, it begins to set against destruction—rather as though it were an updated version of Hardy's "During Wind and Rain"—a series of family memories, and "Sunny Jim" signs a truce with the poet's father. "Remission" captures the pathos but also the courage of a friend "paralysed from the waist down" who behaves as though "beyond death's encroaching ruin, / there dwelt some final, lasting sweetness." Throughout, Montague adjudicates the rival claims of "encroaching ruin" and "lasting sweetness," the subject of some fine love poems, with a persuasive, balancing artistry.

—Stan Smith and

Michael O'Neill

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Montague, John (Patrick)

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Montague, John (Patrick)