Peter Sirr, ‘Always travelling, meeting, parting’, review of Special “John Montague” issue of Agenda, in The Irish Times (7 Aug. 2004), “Weekend” [q.p.]

[Poetry: John Montague has been part of the Irish poetry landscape for so long now it’s easy to take his distinctive achievement for granted. Public and private, internationalist and intensely focused on Ireland, lyric and narrative, Montague’s achievement is the result of a complex and troubled journey and the poetry it has produced is haunted, edgy, and constantly in search of framing structures to make sense of its different worlds, writes Peter Stirr.]

He has always been a determined orchestrator, interested in weaving together the strands of experience and perception to form cohesive shapes - as in The Rough Field and The Great Cloak. The need to unify the different levels of experience, the recognition that the personal and the political are necessarily meshed, are part of what makes Montague valuable.

It’s good to see his achievement celebrated in this special Irish issue of the English poetry magazine Agenda, in the form of a special 75th Birthday Supplement for John Montague.

A useful resource, the supplement combines reprints of earlier material such as a 1988 interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, a memoir by Thomas McCarthy from 1989 and a review of The Rough Field by Hugh McDiarmid with new essays and memoirs by, among others, Seamus Heaney, Martin Dodsworth, Maurice Harmon, John Greening, Gerald Dawe, David Wheatley and Peter Denman.

The pieces illustrate the different facets of Montague and consider the range of his work. Thomas McCarthy’s memoir shows the poet as a presiding figure and influence in Cork and reminds us of his influence on younger poets. Martin Dodsworth is very good on the complexity of the relationship between public and private in Montague and the sense of absence and loss in the relationship with his own past and tradition. He quotes a passage from Montague’s note in Contemporary Poets which perfectly captures how the different strands relate to each other: “... 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 ... 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”.

Dodsworth also nicely contrasts Montague and Heaney: “One thinks of the Edward McGuire portrait of Heaney at his desk, great feet on the ground, looking straight out at the world. Montague’s posture is more nervy, his relations with the muse more complex, more open to question”. Part of that restlessness and complexity is precisely the poet’s wrestling with his own gift in his ambitious reaching for epic forms to house it. Poets very often need elaborate apparatuses and accoutrements to sustain their work.

How much of Montague’s epic structures, as opposed to the individual poems, will survive is among the questions tackled by John Greening in his personal response to Montague’s poetry. Again and again we are reminded of the compulsive travelling, the circling which is “a failure to return”, the disabused dinnseanchas. “In the mountain of John Montague’s work,” writes Greening, “the eagle of inspiration is always looking for a nest ... He is always travelling, meeting, parting.” In terms of the encounter with other poetries, he is one of the most hospitable Irish poets, and he is a significant translator of 20th-century French poetry, notably Char, Ponge, Frénaud and Guillevic.

“Who else among contemporary Irish poets has learned so much and so variously from American poets ... Who else’s contractile and expansive range spans the quill-tip precision of early Irish lyrics and the modernist over-reachings of MacDiarmid and David Jones?” asks David Wheatley. This issue is a timely invitation to explore that range.

Apart from the Montague supplement, this issue features new work by more than 50 Irish poets, essays on Patrick McDonagh, Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly and reviews of recent books by, among others, Harry Clifton, John F. Deane, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Pearse Hutchinson, Pat Boran, Kerry Hardie and Sinead Morrissey.

The net is cast pretty widely and not all of the poetry or prose is particularly interesting, but the issue is an an accurate snapshot of some of what is happening in contemporary Irish poetry at the moment.

The fact that it is a triple issue means that there are almost 500 pages of text. All in all, an indispensable resource, marred only by a number of unfortunate typos, and enough to whet the appetite for the forthcoming issues of this enterprising magazine, on Australian and US poetry. Let’s hope the bookshops will give those some houseroom too.

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