Biography of John Montague
John Montague is an Irish poet. He was born in New York and brought up in Tyrone. He has published a number of volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories and two volumes of memoir. He is one of the best known Irish contemporary poets. In 1998 he became the first occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry.
John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 28, 1929. His father, James Montague, an Ulster Catholic, from County Tyrone, had gone to America in 1925 to join his brother John. Both were sons of John Montague, who had been a Justice of the Peace, combining his legal duties with being a schoolmaster, farmer, postmaster and director of several firms. John continued as postmaster but James became involved in the turbulent Irish Republican scene in the years after 1916, particularly complicated in areas like Fermanagh and Tyrone, on the borders of the newly divided island. Molly (Carney) Montague joined her husband James in America in 1928, with their two elder sons. John was born on Bushwisk Avenue, St. Catherine’s Hospital, and spent his earliest years playing with his brothers in the streets of Brooklyn, putting nickels on the trolley lines, playing on a tenement roof, seeing early Mickey Mouse movies.
Return to Garvaghey
Although Uncle John ran a speakeasy, where he employed his brother, James Montague did not find life in New York easy during the Depression years. So the three boys were shipped back to Ireland in 1933, the two eldest to their maternal grandmother’s house in Fintona, Co. Tyrone, where they had been born, but John was sent to his father’s ancestral home at Garvaghey, then maintained by two spinster aunts, Brigid and Freda, who welcomed the boy of four.
From New York to a farm on the edge of the Clogher Valley in County Tyrone was a significant step backwards in time. John did all the usual farming chores. He became a normal Ulster farm child, though haunted by the disparity between what the house in Garvaghey had been, in the days of his grandfather and namesake, and the reduced present.
John went first to Garvaghey School and then to Glencull, three miles away, where he was coached by a young and ardent master. Scholarships brought him to St. Patrick's College, Armagh, the junior Diocesan Seminary and the place where his Jesuit uncle, Thomas Montague, had gone.
The teacher he remembers most from Armagh was Sean O Boyle, one of the leading experts on Ulster folksong and Irish poetry. From him John imbibed, almost against his will, a strong sense of the long tradition of Irish poetry. John studied at University College Dublin in 1946. He found an extraordinary contrast between the Ulster of the War Years and post-war Dublin, where the atmosphere was introverted and melancholy. Stirred by the example of other student poets (including Thomas Kinsella) he began to publish his first poems in The Dublin Magazine, Envoy, and The Bell, edited by Peadar O’Donnell. But the atmosphere in Dublin was still constrained and Montague left for Yale on a Fullbright Fellowship in 1953.
John had already met Saul Bellow at the Sazburg Seminar in American Studies and now he worked with Robert Penn Warren as well as auditing the classes of several Yale critics, like Rene Wellek and W. K. Wimsatt. He extended his sense of contemporary American literature, attending Indiana Summer School of Letters where he heard Richard Wilbur, Leslie Fiedler, and John Crowe Ransom, who like the Irish poet Austin Clarke, encouraged Montague, finding him a job at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1954-55.
Life during the 50s and 60s
From Iowa to Berkeley, a year of graduate school convinced Montague that he should return to Ireland. He sailed back to France that summer, to marry his first wife, Madeleine, whom he had met in Iowa, where she was also on a Fullbright; they settled in Herbert Street, Dublin, a few doors down from Brendan Behan. Working by day at the Irish Tourist Office, Montague at last gathered his first book of poems, Poisoned Lands (1961).
That year he also moved to Paris, to a small studio a block away from Samuel Beckett, with whom he slowly became on good drinking terms. There, he also met another neighbour, the French poet Claude Esteban, with whom he became friends — Montague recently translated into English and published some of his poems. A regular rhythm of publication saw his first book of stories, Death of a Chieftain (1964) after which the musical group The Chieftains were named, his second book of poems, A Chosen Light (1967), Tides (1970), the latter both also published by Swallow in the U.S.
All during the sixties, Montague continued to work on his long poem, The Rough Field, a task that coincided with the outbreak of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland. A Patriotic Suite appeared in 1966, Hymn to the New Omagh Road and The Bread God in 1968, and A New Siege, dedicated to Bernadette Devlin which he read outside Armagh Jail in 1970. In 1972, the long poem was finally published by Dolmen/Oxford and Montague returned to Ireland, to live and teach in University College Cork, at the request of his friend, the composer Seán Ó Riada, where he inspired an impressive field of young writers including Gregory O'Donoghue, Sean Dunne, Thomas McCarthy, William Wall, Maurice Riordan, Gerry Murphy, Greg Delanty and Theo Dorgan. In a birthday tribute for his 80th, William Wall wrote: "It would be impossible to overestimate his influence on the young writers who went to UCC (University College Cork) at that time." The Rough Field (1972) was slowly recognized as a major achievement.
Settled in Cork with his second wife, Evelyn Robson, Montague published an anthology, The Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974) with a book of lyrics, A Slow Dance (1975). Recognition was now beginning to come, with the Award of the Irish American Cultural Institute in 1976, the first Marten Toonder Award in 1977, and in 1978, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award for The Great Cloak, “the best book of poetry in two years” according to the Poetry Society of Great Britain. A Guggenheim in 1979-80 enabled Montague to complete his Selected Poems (1982) and his second long poem, The Dead Kingdom (1984) both co-published by Dolmen (Ireland), Oxford (England), Wake Forest University Press (U.S.) and Exile Editions (Canada).
In 1987, Montague was awarded an honorary doctor of letters by the State University of New York at Buffalo. Governor Mario M. Cuomo presented Montague a citation in 1987 “for his outstanding literary achievements and his contributions to the people of New York.” Montague serves as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for the New York State Writers Institute during each spring semester, teaching workshops in fiction and poetry and a class in the English Department, University at Albany.
In 1995, Montague and his second wife, Evelyn, separated, and he formed a partnership with American student Elizabeth Wassell (later to be author of The Honey Plain (1996)).
In 1998, Montague was named the first Irish Professor of Poetry, a three-year appointment to be divided among The Queen's University in Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and University College Dublin. He held this title from 1998 to 2001, when he was succeeded by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.
In 2000, Montague was awarded The Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize.
In 2008 Montague published A Ball of Fire, a collection of all his fiction including the short novella The Lost Notebook.
Montague's poems chart boyhood, schooldays, love and relationships. Family and personal history and Ireland's history are also prominent themes in his poetry.
Montague is noted for his vowel harmonies, his use of assonance and echo, and his handling of the line and line break. Montague believes that a poem appears with its own rhythm and that rhythm and line lengths should be based on living speech.
John Montague was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Ulster, Coleraine on 29 June 2009.
John Montague's Works:
Forms of Exile (poems) The Dolmen Press, 1958
A Chosen Light (poems) MacGibbon and Kee, 1967
The Rough Field (poems) The Dolmen Press, 1972
A Slow Dance (poems) The Dolmen Press, 1975
A Slow Dance (poems) Wake Forest University Press, 1975
The Great Cloak (poems) The Dolmen Press, 1978
The Great Cloak (poems) Wake Forest University Press, 1978
The Dead Kingdom (poems) Oxford University Press, 1984
The Rough Field, 4th Ed. Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 1984
The Lost Notebook (a novella). Mercier Press, Cork, 1987
Mount Eagle (poems). Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 1989
The Rough Field,5th Ed. (poems). Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 1989
Bitter Harvest (an anthology of recent Irish poetry). Scribners, New York, 1989
The Figure in the Cave (essays). Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1989
Born in Brooklyn (selected American writings). White Pine Press, Buffalo, 1991
An Occasion of Sin (short stories ). Exile Editions, Toronto; White Pine Press, Buffalo, 1992
The Love Poems. Exile Editions, Toronto, 1992; Sheep Meadow Press, New York, 1993
Time in Armagh (a sequence of poems). Gallery Press, Dublin, 1993
Collected Poems Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 1995
Smashing The Piano Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 2001
Drunken Sailor Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 2005
The Rough Field, 6th Ed. Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 2005
The Pear Is Ripe (Memoir) Liberties Press, 2007
Speech Lessons (poems) Gallery Press, 2011
Speech Lessons (poems) Wake Forest University Press, Winston Salem, 2012
A Ball of Fire
Time in Armagh
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John Montague Poems
I'll tell you a sore truth, little understood It's harder to leave, than to be left: To stay, to leave, both sting wrong.
A feel of warmth in this place. In winter air, a scent of harvest. No form of prayer is needed, When by sudden grace attended.
The Golden Hook
Two fish float: one slowly downstream into the warm
There Are Days
There are days when one should be able to pluck off one's head like a dented or worn
My love, while we talked They removed the roof. Then They started on the walls, Panes of glass uprooting
The light, tarred skin of the currach rides and receives the current,
Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old...
Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people. Jamie MacCrystal sang to himself, A broken song without tune, without words; He tipped me a penny every pension day, Fed kindly crusts to winter birds. When he died his cottage was robbed, Mattress and money box torn and searched. Only the corpse they didn't disturb. Maggie Owens was surrounded by animals, A mongrel bitch and shivering pups, Even in her bedroom a she-goat cried. She was a well of gossip defiled, Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside: Reputed a witch, all I could find Was her lonely need to deride. The Nialls lived along a mountain lane Where heather bells bloomed, clumps of foxglove. All were blind, with Blind Pension and Wireless, Dead eyes serpent-flicked as one entered To shelter from a downpour of mountain rain. Crickets chirped under the rocking hearthstone Until the muddy sun shone out again. Mary Moore lived in a crumbling gatehouse, Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable. Bag-apron and boots, she tramped the fields Driving lean cattle from a miry stable. A by-word for fierceness, she fell asleep Over love stories, Red Star and Red Circle, Dreamed of gypsy love rites, by firelight sealed. Wild Billy Eagleson married a Catholic servant girl When all his Loyal family passed on: We danced round him shouting 'To Hell with King Billy,' And dodged from the arc of his flailing blackthorn. Forsaken by both creeds, he showed little concern Until the Orange drums banged past in the summer And bowler and sash aggressively shone. Curate and doctor trudged to attend them, Through knee-deep snow, through summer heat, From main road to lane to broken path, Gulping the mountain air with painful breath. Sometimes they were found by neighbours, Silent keepers of a smokeless hearth, Suddenly cast in the mould of death. Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside, The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head, Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud. Gaunt figures of fear and of friendliness, For years they trespassed on my dreams, Until once, in a standing circle of stones, I felt their shadows pass Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
"Mother, mother," I whisper, over the years we had won to a sweet intimacy together. She would come with me often to Fintona's first picturehouse, rigged out like a girlfriend in her evening finery, snug in the best seats, munching soft centred chocolates. Naturally we chose romances, Sir Laurence stalking the cliffs in Rebecca, Leslie Howard defending the South, courteous through cannonsmoke, and I thought I might bring her to some sad story of Brookyln, the bridge's white mirage shining over broken lives like her own, but she wept, and dabbed her eyes: "I hate films about real life." Melancholy destiny, indeed. Young love, then long separation. After our drive across Ireland, my father stood in the kitchen, surrounded by his grown sons and the wife he had not seen for almost two decades, spirit glass in hand, singing ‘Slievenamon' or Molly Bawn, why leave me pining, his eyes straying in strangeness to where she sat, with folded hands, grey hair, aged face, Alone, all alone by the wave washed strand, still his Molly Bawn, wrought by time to a mournful crone. Six years later, he was gone, to a fairer world than this, and we sat in television darkness, searching from channel to channel while the badmen came riding in, guns glinting in the prairie sun, or the pretty nurse fell in love with the subtle handed surgeon as the emergency was wheeled in - tho' lonely my life flows on - and she laughed, reaching down for the brandy by her side, or excitedly darting snuff, dust settling on her apron . . . .
A FLOWERING ABSENCE
How can one make an absence flower, lure a desert to sudden bloom? Taut with terror, I rehearse a time when I was taken from a sick room: as before from your flayed womb. And given away to be fostered wherever charity could afford. I came back, lichened with sores, from the care of still poorer immigrants, new washed from the hold. I bless their unrecorded names, whose need was greater than mine, wet nurses from tenement darkness giving suck for a time, because their milk was plentiful Or their own children gone. They were the first to succour that still terrible thirst of mine, a thirst for love and knowledge, to learn something of that time Of confusion, poverty, absence. Year by year, I track it down intent for a hint of evidence, seeking to manage the pain - how a mother gave away her son. I took the subway to the hospital in darkest Brooklyn, to call on the old nun who nursed you through the travail of my birth to come on another cold trail. "Sister Virgilius, how strange! She died, just before you came. She was delirious, rambling of all her old patients; she could well have remembered your mother's name." Around the bulk of St Catherine's another wild, raunchier Brookyln: as tough a territory as I've known, strutting young Puerto Rican hoods, flash of blade, of bicycle chain. Mother, my birth was death of your love life, the last man to flutter near your tender womb: a neonlit bar sign winks off & on motherfucka, thass your name. There is an absence, real as presence. In the mornings I hear my daughter chuckle, with runs of sudden joy. Hurt, she rushes to her mother, as I never could, a whining boy. All roads wind backwards to it. An unwanted child, a primal hurt. I caught fever on the big boat that brought us away from America - away from my lost parents. Surely my father loved me, teaching me to croon, Ragtime Cowboy Joe, swaying in his saddle as he sings, as he did, drunkenly dropping in from the speakeasy. So I found myself shipped back to his home, in an older country, transported to a previous century, where his sisters restored me, natural love flowering around me. And the hurt ran briefly underground to break out in a schoolroom where I was taunted by a mistress who hunted me publicly down to near speechlessness. "So this is our brightest infant? Where did he get the outlandish accent? What do you expect, with no parents, sent back from some American slum: none of you are to speak like him!" Stammer, impediment, stutter: she had found my lode of shame, and soon I could no longer utter those magical words I had begun to love, to dolphin delight in. And not for two stumbling decades Would I manage to speak straight again. Grounded for the second time my tongue became a rusted hinge until the sweet oils of poetry eased it and grace flooded in
A SMALL DEATH
My daughter, Úna, wanders off to play in the forest, unafraid, her new rag doll clutched under one arm: a small fairy queen, trail- ed by her elderly knight. At the centre, I find her beneath black hemlock, red cedar, halted on a carpet, a compost of fallen leaves, rusty haws and snowberries, knobbly chestnuts: decay's autumnal weft. She has found a dead bird which she holds up in her other hand; eyes, bright beads, but the long beak spiky, cold, twig legs crisped inwards. Why not fly? she demands And as I kneel to explain (taking the retted corpse away) dead, she repeats, puzzled. So we bury the scant body under a mound of damp leaves, a gnome's pyre, a short barrow: Her first funeral ceremony. Home now, I nudge gently, past the slapping branches, the shallow Pacific rain pools she loves ploutering through in her diminutive wellingtons. Beyond the tall woods, lights of Victoria are flickering on: yellow flares of sodium under dark coastal clouds crossing Vancouver Island; dream cattle swaying home.
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.
I She wakes in a hand-painted cot, chats and chortles to herself, a healthy small being, a happy elf, sister to the early train whistle, the bubbling dawn chorus along the wisteria of Grattan Hill. No complaints as yet, enjoying through curtains the warm sunlight, until she manages to upend herself. Then the whine starts. Is it anger or lust for the bottle? Lift her up, warm and close or held at arm's length - that smell, like a sheep pen, a country hedge steaming after rain. As the bottle warms, the decibels increase, the scaldie's mouth gapes open; head numb, coated tongue, cotex ends squealing, no thirsty drunk at a bar, nursing a hangover, manages such concentration. Daughter, dig in, with fists like ferns unfurling, to basic happiness! Little one, you are now nothing but the long music of the gut, a tug of life, with halts for breathing, stomach swelling. II On your throne afterwards bang your heels, examine your new and truly wonderful hands, try out, warm up, your little runs of satisfaction. Day be day, they also grow, sound experiments in the laboratory of the self, animal happiness, the tonal colour of rage, cartoon attempts to communicate, eyes beaming, burbles rising. Best of all when like any bird or beast waking, you wail to yourself, with whoops, finger stuffed gurgles, and my reward for the morning, your speciality (after the peristaltic hiccup) when you smile and squeal with sudden, sharp whistles - O my human kettle!
for Elizabeth 1 Poetry is a weapon, and should be used, though not in the crudity of violence. It is a prayer before an unknown altar, a spell to bless the silence. 2 There is a music beyond all this, beyond all forms of grievance, where anger lays its muzzle down into the lap of silence. 3 Or some butterfly script, fathomed only by the other, as supple fingers draw a silent message from the tangible.
We had two gardens. A real flower garden overhanging the road (our miniature Babylon). Paths which I helped to lay with Aunt Winifred, riprapped with pebbles; shards of painted delph; an old potato boiler; a blackened metal pot, now bright with petals. Hedges of laurel, palm. A hovering scent of boxwood. Crouched in the flowering lilac, I could oversee the main road, old Lynch march to the wellspring with his bucket, whistling, his carrotty sons herding in and out their milch cows: a growing whine of cars. Then, the vegetable garden behind, rows of broad beans plumping their cushions, the furled freshness of tight little lettuce heads, slim green pea pods above early flowering potatoes, gross clumps of carrots, parsnips, a frailty of parsley, a cool fragrance of mint. Sealed off by sweetpea clambering up its wired fence, the tarred goats' shack which stank in summer, in its fallow, stone-heaped corner. With, on the grassy margin, a well-wired chicken run, cheeping balls of fluff brought one by one into the sun from their metallic mother —the oil-fed incubator— always in danger from the marauding cat, or the stealthy, hungry vixen: I, their small guardian. Two gardens, the front for beauty, the back for use. Sleepless now, I wander through both and it is summer again, the long summers of youth as I trace small paths in a trance of growth: flowers pluck at my coat as I bend down to help, or speak to my aunt, whose calloused hands caressing the plants are tender as a girl's.
The Golden Hook
Two fish float:
one slowly downstream
into the warm
currents of the known
the other tugging
against the stream,
tearing its throat.