John Montague, 'The Impact of International Modern Poetry on Irish Writing’ (1972)

Irish Poets in English: The Thomas Davis Lectures on Anglo-Irish Poetry, ed. Sean Lucy (Cork: Mercier Press 1972) [Chap. X], 144-58; rep. in Montague, The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, (Syracuse UP 1989), pp.208-20 [here Mercier text].


portes ouvertes sur l’exil, / doors open on exile.
St -John Perse, translated by Denis Devlin.

Let us begin this lecture with a simple geographical fact. Ireland is an island off the coast of Europe, facing, across three thousand miles of ocean, towards America. Anything grown there, whether animal, vegetable, or mental, is bound to be affected by its geographical position and consequent climate. An Irishman may travel, but the memory of his maternal landscape persists. So Denis Devlin, the most resolutely cosmopolitan of recent Irish poets, and the one whose name will be most invoked in this essay, can begin one of his finest love poems - “Renewal by Her Element” - with an image of

The hawthorn morning moving
Above the battlements

and end with a cadence like Austin Clarke’s “Pilgrimage”:

My landscape is grey rain
Aslant on bent seas.

Although the poem between owes more to modern French love poetry, Aragon or Eluard, than to anything in the English or Irish traditions. it curves back to these primal, very Irish images.

But while accepting that they are marked by Ireland, our countrymen have a long habit of exile, most often through necessity, but also through curiosity. It seems to me significant that the first two poets whose names are recorded in our literary history (after the mythical Amergin, the bard of the Milesians) were both exiles. Columcille’s only real subject [144] matter was his native country but he might not have described it with such longing if he had been able to return.

Clamour of the wind making
music in the elms;
gurgle of the startled blackbird
clapping its wings.

I have lost the three settled places
I loved best
Durrow, Derry’s ledge of angels,
my native parish.

And then we have Sedulius Scottus, who was in charge of the cathedral school at Liege in the middle of the Ninth Century, together with four other “charioteers of the Lord, lights of the Irish race”. I am not competent to judge his position in Medieval Latin poetry, but what strikes one in the poem on his patron, Bishop Hartgar’s palace - “ Testri tecta nitent luce serona ” - is the ease with which he moved against this international background. And why not, when the most original philosopher of the period was an Irishman, John Scotus Erigena, and a scholar-poet like Sedulius could establish himself, as Professor James Carney, his translator, says, as “a social personality, the friend of emperors and high ecclesiastics”:

Your halls are gleaming with a light serene
and latest style in art adorns the scene
with beauteous forms to populate your home
And many merry colours in your dome. ...

All this may seem far removed from the problems of contemporary poetry but what I am trying to show is that while Irishmen often have to leave Ireland to learn, there was a period when they went to teach as well, when they formed a natural part of European civilization. The decline of the Irish Church, and successive invasions, may have obscured this [145] relationship, but it could be of relevance again today. For in the first half of the twentieth century, Joyce in prose, and Synge and O’Casey in the theatre, re-established Ireland as a presence in world literature, a proud tradition still maintained by Beckett. The only literary art in which we have not made our presence felt is the one in which we are supposed to excel; this is, poetry. Yeats apart, there is no Irish poet who is accepted as an international figure, in the way that Pablo Neruda is, or Octavio Paz, or Ungaretti.

I place Yeats apart because his position is, as always, a richly ambiguous one. In my only conversation with Auden, I remember wondering how Yeats had managed to live and work in Dublin, enduring “the daily spite of this unmannerly town”. Auden dryly remarked that, if one looked at the career of Yeats, it was extraordinary how often he was out of Ireland. The years in Woburn buildings we know of, and his association with the Rhymers’ Club. But we should also remember that, despite his poor French, Yeats had not only read Mallarmé (from whom he got the title “The Trembling of the Veil”) but visited Verlaine, and attended, however reluctantly, the first night of Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

Now Yeats may have learnt from the symbolist movement, but even his long friendship with Ezra Pound did not make him part of the international movement in modern poetry. He might learn from his juniors how to make his language more active but he remained faithful to what he regarded as the great traditional themes of poetry. “We were the last romantics”, he said grandiloquently. This is part of the ambiguity I spoke of; there is also the significant fact that he is very little read in Europe; Eliot, and more recently, Pound, are much better known. This is partly due to the absence of good translations, a situation which is being remedied, but also the seeming archaism of his subjects. It may well be that the later Yeats, the great meditations on politics and history, will only enter the European consciousness as the great wheel dips down towards the end of the century. I met a brilliant Yugoslav poet recently, who explained how his translation of the Byzantium poems had created a whole new school of [146] poetry in Serbo-Croat. As we are sadly learning again, few writers have given better expression to post-revolutionary disillusion:

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Louis MacNiece is the only Irish poet to form a natural part of the English literary scene; after Auden he was the most gifted poet of the Thirties. Their collaboration in Letters from Iceland is an example of poetry confronting the trouble of a period as they arise. The precedent of Byron a capital for both of them (MacNeice pays homage to him in “Cock of the North”) with his wide ranging, almost novelistic gift. But Byron was much more of a European phenomenon than MacNiece or even Auden, ever succeeded in being, and those who present him as a corrective example to more locally based Irish poets tend to forget this. So far as I know, Louis MacNeice has rarely been translated into another language, and even in America, his reputation has never been high.

I am not denying his sensibility, nor the obsession with transience and death which is his most moving central theme. I am just saying that his work is very much in the nonexperimental tradition of English modern poetry, and, as such, nearly unexportable. Paradoxically though, the one aspect of his influence which seems to me particularly healthy is his diversity of landscape: the ease with which Northern poets, like Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, seem to move in the outside world may well derive from MacNeice’s restless photographic eye. Few American poets, for instance, could equal his description of New York in “Refugees” where the skyscrapers

. heave up in steel and concrete
Powerful but delicate as a swan’s neck [147]

and the trains (it was before the destruction of Penn Station) leave “from stations haughty as cathedrals”.

To sightsee, though, is not necessarily to accept the influence of another culture: for MacNeice Spain, Greece, India are backgrounds against which he defines his personal problems.

This year, last year, one time, ever,
Different, indifferent, careless, kind,
Ireland, England, New England, Greece
The plumstones blossom in my mind.

It is interesting to compare his Indian poems with one by another Irish poet of the same generation describing a great Buddha head at the Cambodian temple of Ank’Hor Vat:

The antlered forests
Move down to the sea.
Here the dung-filled jungle pauses.

Buddha has covered the walls of the great temple
With the vegetative speed of his imagery
No Western god or saint
Ever smiled with the lissom fury of this god
Who holds in doubt
The wooden stare of Apollo
Our Christian crown of thorns:

There is no mystery in the luminous lines
Of that high, animal face
The smile, sad, humoring and equal
Blesses without obliging
Loves without condescension;
The god, clear as spring-water
Sees through everything, while everything
Flows through him ...

The great interest of Denis Devlin is that he is the first poet [148] of Irish Catholic background to take the world as his province. The initial influence on his work was French; there was that extraordinary project he formed, with Niall Montgomery, of translating modern French poetry into Gaelic. And in his first volume the aesthetic is a blend of poesie pure and surrealism, with the poem as a sequence of images, without reference to anything outside itself, without an obvious plot or story. This passage, for example, joins the spray of a fountain, with the memory of someone playing the spinet, the connection being, not so much in the mind as the senses of a hidden observer, perhaps the poet:

The tendrils of fountain water thread that silk music
From the hollow of scented shutters
Crimson and blind
Crimson and blind
As though it were my sister
Fireflies on the rosewood
Spinet playing
With barely escaping voice
With arched fastidious wrists to be so gentle.

Samuel Beckett has compared this passage to a late poem by Holderlin, which was heady praise for a young poet. And Devlin had studied German romanticism, from Goethe through Novalis to Holderlin, as well as a good deal of Italian and Spanish poetry. The plangent opening of “Meditation at Avila” shows the influence both of St Teresa and St John of the Cross:

Magnificence, this terse-lit, star-quartz universe,
Woe, waste and magnificence, my soul.
Stand in the window.
Fountain waters
Bloom on invisible stems.

What makes the poems in his second volume more accessible is their increasing case both in line and language, something [149] he certainly learnt from his American contemporaries. During his period as first secretary in Washington he made friends with Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, who subsequently edited the American edition of his Selected Poems, and he could hardly help but be familiar with the great generation that preceded them, poets like Stevens, Eliot, Hart Crane (whose dense style resembles Devlin’s), and Cummings. The result is this new kind of colloquial vigour:

“No, we can’t get a licence for liquor, being too near the church,”
Said the waiter The church looked friends enough
On its humble, grassy hillock. So I said: “Excuse me,
I must have a drink.” And I rambled on down West Street,
To eat and drink at Socrates the Greek’s.

It is when this case is matched by an important theme, often a religious one, that Denis Devlin nears greatness. We may not have produced a Catholic novelist in Ireland, but in certain poems of Austin Clarke and Denis Devlin our racial drama of conscience smoulders with intellectual passion:

All is simple and symbol in their world,
The incomprehended rendered fabulous.
Sin teases life whose natural fruits withheld
Sour the deprived nor bloom for timely loss:
Clan Jansen!

I have preferred to concentrate on Denis Devlin as the most dedicated poet of his generation, and one whose work suggests possibilities for the future. In ways that are difficult to define (perhaps because the imperial habit dies hard, and the British Council is a more subtle version of the Pax Britannica) an Irish writer has a better chance of being a European than an Englishman. Samuel Beckett’s first poem, for example, was a monologue on Descartes, and we know where that led him. And his friend Brian Coffey’s translation of Mallarmé’s greatest poem has never received the attention it deserves, as [150] a possible example of non-iambic structure, of the use of the page in a kind of musical notation, all this before Charles Olson was pupped:

waking
          doubting
                       rolling
                               shining and musing
                                           before halting
                                at some latest point which crowns it

Because of the potent example of James Joyce, the Dublin poets of the early Thirties tended to be French - influenced and apolitical. The long career of Ewart Milne, now that he has turned to anti-Communism, seems only to illustrate the savage little epigram of Robert Frost:

I never dared to be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

But he was one of the few Irish poets to assume a revolutionary Marxist position, and to strive for a kind of popular poetry, derived perhaps from the example of Lorca. He has travelled widely and his vision of “The Martyred Earth” is a moving piece of rhetoric:

Rivers empty chemical wastes into the seas,
On their ocean feeding grounds the fish cannot feed,
The herrings die and the herring fleet is disbanded .

The apocalyptic vision is carried even further in “A Place of Testament”

When mountains were oceans I sat down to warn
For I couldn’t believe all our tribe was gone. ...

And his rebuke of his contemporaries in “Deirdre and the Poets” could be a light-hearted version of my present theme:

Though they leap for the lights of the great continents
And cry from afar like the lapwing guarding his nest,
Though they talk to the wall in their towns and villages
And strive to clothe my bones in the ivy of the arch;
Yet their voices are not heard among the hall of the
                                                                     nations
It’s time I got me a new set of poets;
There’s never one of all the lot I’d pardon,
Said the sore-tried woman of the roads.

The most genuine political poet of the Thirties was Charles Donnelly, who died in Spain at the age of twenty-three. Clearly he owes a lot to Auden’s clinical style, but he was not playing with the idea of “the inevitable increase in the chances of death”, but preparing for it, in case it should be his own. I must confess that I find his last poem, which was posted up for the Lincoln Battalion on what they called The Lincoln Wall Newspaper, after he was killed on the 27 February, 1937, exceedingly moving, the most mature expression we have of that martyr’s urge which lies at the heart of revolutionary action. Especially Irish revolutionary action; it is the kind of poem Pádraic Pearse should have written -

Between rebellion as a private study and the public
Defiance, is simple action only which will flicker
Catlike, for spring. Whether at nerve-roots is secret
Iron, there’s no diviner can tell, only the moment can
                                                                   show.
Simple and unclear moment, on a morning utterly
                                                                   different
And under circumstances different from what you’d
                                                                  expected.
Your flag is public over granite. Gulls fly above it.
Whatever the issue of the battle is, your memory
Is public, for them to pull awry with crooked hands,
Moist eyes. And villages’ reputations will be built on
Inaccurate accounts of your campaign. You’re name for
                                                                  orators,
Figure stone-struck beneath damp Dublin sky. [152]

Donagh Mac Donagh, who knew Charles Donnelly at the University, wrote an elegy for him. He also wrote poems on modern European history, like “Fontainbleau”:

The surging power of war and of words
Springs out of some dark fissure
Varnish of culture cannot touch ...

But that was when he was young, and here we strike against a dismaying aspect of our literature, our tendency to regress from an advanced position. Thus Mac Donagh’s early work was intellectual and urban (he wrote his M.A. thesis on Eliot) but he gradually retreated to a simplified version of the Irish tradition. Again I am not saying that Ezra Pound is necessarily more important than Egan Ó Rahilly for an Irish poet (one has to study both) but the complexity and pain of The Pisan Cantos are certainly more relevant than another version of “Preab San Ól”.

Another false trail, from the point of view of this lecture, is the work of W. R. Rodgers, the parson poet from Co. Armagh. His Awake! and Other Poems appeared in 1941 and its cascade of language might almost have been a warning to other Irish poets, caught in a neutral backwater:

Always the arriving winds of words
Pour like Atlantic gales over these cars ...

And sure enough, there were poems with Audenesque titles like “Directions to a Rebel”, “War-Time”, and even “End of a World”. According to those close to him, however, Rodgers had not read Auden, or even Hopkins, which is astonishing: can one imagine a physicist, however remote, who had never heard of Neils Bohr or Schrodinger?

The scientific analogy is always partly false, but does illustrate my point: if one is going to be influenced by contemporary poetry outside Ireland, it should be at first hand and not [153] by hearsay, years after the event. Having participated in one of the early readings of Howl, I found it depressing when the Ginsberg wave broke over Ireland a decade later, drowning many potential young poets. There are always those writers, like Dylan Thomas or even Patrick Kavanagh, who are so possessed by a private vision that their only real task is to protect it. But we increasingly move in a world which is both local and international, and in poetry, as in science, there is nothing so irrelevant as repeating someone else’s experiments.

The best work of W. R. Rodgers, therefore, seems to me to be in his second book, a handful of religious and love lyrics which are colloquial in diction, but traditional in imagery. But the necessary task of providing Ireland with a contemporary poetry still had to be continued. Now that Austin Clarke has blossomed in his seventies, one tends to forget how reactionary his critical position was in those years, anything experimental being gloomily described as “modernism”. The main opposition to the new-Gaelic lobby during and after the war years was Valentin Iremonger, whose jazzy rhythms and use of urban slang can be seen in “Icarus”:

But star-chaser, big-time-going, chancer Icarus,
Like a dog on the sea lay and the girls forgot him
And Daedalus, too busy hammering another job,
Remembered him only in pubs ...

More effective, because less programmatically modern, was his beautiful adaptation of John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” to record another, very Irish death:

Elizabeth, frigidly stretched,
On a spring day, surprised us
With her starched dignity and the quietness
Of her hands clasping a black cross.

And then, in the late Fifties, 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 [154] climate, history and language) but also modern. If I say that Auden was the liberating example I may seem to be contradicting myself, but by then he was no longer a contemporary, but an established phenomenon, looming over the English scene like a latter-day Dryden. Besides, the subject matter was so different: when Thomas Kinsella adapted one of the master’s most typical stanza forms for his love poems, “A Lady of Quality”, it became both a homage and a comparison:

“Ended and done with” never ceases,
Constantly the heart releases
         Wild geese to the past.
Look, how they circle poignant places,
Falling to sorrow’s fowling-pieces,
         With soft plumage aghast.

Kinsella’s success encouraged others, and by the middle of the following decade, Irish poets had begun to filter into most modern anthologies; particularly those edited by American critics, like Untermeyer and Rosenthal: the latter devoted a whole section to Irish poetry in his study, The Poets. A climate had been created in which the rediscovery of Austin Clarke had almost become inevitable; in July 1959, I wrote in Poetry that his “general subject, Irish Catholicism and its emotional malformations, is no longer a local phenomenon, as modern American and Australian politics surely indicate. Technical interest is not lacking; Clarke’s adaptation of techniques from Gaelic verse to encompass the Irish Catholic subject parallels modern experiment elsewhere. A collected volume of his later work from “Pilgrimage” onwards, would, I think, reveal a talent as considerable as that of Tate, Ransom, or Muir.”

The rest is literary history, but the comedy of Mr Clarke, the most implacable opponent of modernism. in Ireland, being accepted, like Yeats, as a late recruit to international literature should not escape us. The argument was always a false one, since the terms are not exclusive, and the wider an Irishman’s experience, the more likely he is to understand his native country. So Pearse Hutchinson’s translations from the Catalan, [155] as well as being good poetry, directly illustrate the problems of a minority culture. And in the image of “The Dying Gaul”, Desmond O’Grady, who lives in Rome, finds a point of entry into our racial history. I have already mentioned the naturalness with which Northern poets respond to the outside world, I am thinking of Derek Mahon’s Canadian poems, Seamus Heaney’s lovely poem about driving through France:

Signposts whitened relentlessly.
Montreuil, Abbeville, Beauvais
Were promised, promised, came and went,
Each place granting its name’s fulfilment.

And in “Conversations in Hungary, August 1969”, John Hewitt finds himself discussing the problems of Belfast in a modern context:

Our friends at Balaton, at Budapest
days later also, puzzled, queried why,
when the time’s vibrant with technology,
such violence should still be manifest
between two factions, in religion’s name ...

The attentive reader will have noticed that, with the best will in the world, I have began to equate international travel and international poetry; it is a measure of my ambivalence about my subject. Although Irish poetry seems to me in a more healthy state than at any time since the beginning of the century, it is still in many ways a conventional, non-experimental poetry. Ironically enough, our freest metrist is Austin Clarke, but his high spirits show more in his mastery of forgotten stanza forms, than in any creation of new ones. The majority of Irish poets write as though Pound, Lawrence, Williams had not brought a new music into English poetry, as though the iambic line still registered the curve of modern speech. Thus the powerful midsection of Thomas Kinsella’s Nightwalker is muffled by the old-fashionedness of its form, and what should have been a cautionary parable for all emerging nations (for [156] nothing resembles one post-revolutionary civil war more than another) remains too heavy in movement and reference; he has discovered a new subject, but not, I feel, a new metric to energize it.

And this is where the example of Denis Devlin seems to me important. He was not completely successful in his efforts (because he did not publish enough his language lacks ease, and there is a vein of sentimentality in poems like The Heavenly Foreigner) but he wanted to write a poetry that would be as good as the best anywhere in the world. Like a composer or a painter, an Irish poet should be familiar with the finest work of his contemporaries, not just the increasingly narrow English version of modern poetry, or the more extensive American one, but in other languages as well. In his Envoy Diary Patrick Kavanagh declared that, as far as he was concerned, Auden was an Irishman. Less extravagantly, I would say that my contemporaries are not just the Irish poets I admire, but those with whom I feel an affinity elsewhere, Ponge in France, Octavio Paz in Mexico, Gary Snyder and Robert Duncan in San Francisco. I seem to be advocating a deliberate programme of denationalization, but all true experiments and exchanges only serve to illuminate the self, a rediscovery of the oldest laws of the psyche. For years I had been trying to find the rhythm in which to write a public poem, something that I could place beside Robert Duncan’s great meditations on contemporary America, and not feel ashamed. When it finally came, it took the shape of a broken line, with two beats on either side of the caesura. Like the explorers of the Northwest Passage, I had gone round the world in order to discover the oldest metric in English, the only public one, the Anglo-Saxon line. And the poem contained one of the most personal passages I had ever written; I will end with it now because it is about exile and return, and my earliest awareness of the relationship between the outside world and Ireland [157]

Lines of leaving
         lines of returning
the long estuary
         of Lough Foyle, a
ship motionless
          in wet darkness
mournfully hooting
         as a tender creeps
to carry passengers
         back to Ireland
a child of four
         this sad sea city
my landing place
         the loneliness of
Lir’s white daughters
         ice crusted wings
forever spread
         at the harbour mouth.


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