- Selected Poems by John Montague
Oxford, 189 pp, £5.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 19 211950 8
- Ghosts at my Back by Tom Rawling
Oxford, 55 pp, £3.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 19 211951 6
- A Late Harvest by John Ward
Peterloo, 48 pp, £3.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 09 146960 0
John Montague’s Selected Poems reinforce the impression left by his individual volumes: that of a great talent growing increasingly apprehensive at the conditions in which it must be exercised. Since 1958, when his first volume Forms of Exile appeared, he has been renowned for a certain elegance and formality of phrasing, and for a nervous delicacy of rhythm: these bestowing upon his poems an air of fragility which has to survive the often desperate occasions which initiate them. This discontinuity between the form of the poems and their environment can be partially understood as a product of modern Irish conditions. There are two main versions of contemporary Ireland in his work. The first is that of the dilapidated Republic of the Fifties and Sixties, first clerical, then commercial; the second is that of the broken North of the last two decades, violent and bitter, but touched by the promise that crisis can bring. Beyond these are other, vanished Irelands which nevertheless retain a considerable force in his imagination: the Ireland of Yeats and the Revival, the Ireland of his childhood in the North, the old Gaelic Ireland of Tyrone. All of them are finally disappointing. They encumber his art, although he struggles to make them liberate it. The problem is deepened by the fact that these territories do give release to many of the contemporaries whose presence in these domains shadows his own – Kinsella in the South, Heaney, Mahon, Longley and others in the North. A pathfinder who discovers that the territories he broke into have been settled by others, he is left to forage where others feed.
Yet this may have been Montague’s good fortune. From the beginning his poetry has been concentrated around images which determine its procedures. The logic of story has usually been slight. Few poets make less use of connectives. One can read several poems in succession before encountering the copula: indeed, in ‘The Rough Field’ he often diminishes its presence by converting it into an ampersand. Instead we are given a series of cinematic frames, as in ‘Wild Sports of the West’:
The landlord’s coat is tulip red,
A beacon on the wine-dark moor;
He turns his well-bred foreign devil’s face,
While his bailiff trots before.
The stanzas are built in pleated phrasing, one folding over the other, their connectives hidden, the images probing the story for its secret:
She was a well of gossip defiled,
Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside:
Reputed a witch ...
The images would not overlap so gracefully did they not remind us of the mutualities they discover between the worlds of nature and culture. The stylised sadness of a landscape repeats the intimacy and separation of lovers or of neighbours. In ‘O’Riada’s Farewell’, the image of fire is tested against a series of other images and references – ice, music, light, desire, race, death – in a ballet of dainty interchanges for which the narrative provides a stage. The language is purged of its customary aids – punctuation, capitalisation of the initial letters in the line. The line itself is reduced at times to a single stress. The voice becomes disembodied, then is relocated again in the ‘I’ of the narrator. The whole poem, and many others like it, refuses the restful incarnation in the actual which is characteristic of Seamus Heaney. It harnesses energy but does not convert it into something else. its force remains pure, does not become weight. In that respect it is closer to modern French poetry (like that of Bonnefoy or Supervielle or Frenaud) than to poetry in English.
It is this phosphorescence of the image and the accompanying ghostliness of syntax which distinguish Montague from his contemporaries and allow one to say that it is his good fortune to have been left to forage rather than to feed. He seeks to endorse his loneliness by imagining a community in which it would be healed. Culturally, the home ground is Gaelic Ireland; politically, it is Irish Republicanism; privately and personally, it is marriage. All of these, save marriage, are residual communities.
Even marriage, as he tells us in The Great Cloak (1978), has broken once, and the keenest poems in that volume show the pain of a man who, in Montague’s own words, ‘discovers that libertinism does not relieve his solitude.’ Even when a new marriage restores him, the lovers find themselves isolated in each other’s arms while Belfast falls to pieces around them. Isolation brings out the aristocrat in Montague. In that guise, he achieves his finest effects. Yielding to the community creates a sentimentality, a plebeian togetherness, which robs him of control and demolishes the distance which his connoisseur’s sensibility needs for contemplation.
‘The Rough Field’ is the poem in which these conflicts are most pronounced. There he brings all of the past and all of the present, all the public and all the private languages together. Yet he is compelled into blank assertions which have a baldness (offered as candour) far removed from the process of feeling which gives the poem its life and distinction. After a beautiful opening stanza, ‘Sound of a Wound’ turns to:
a civilisation died here;
underfoot where I walk these
small, sad hills:
it rears in my blood stream
when I hear
a bleat of Saxon condescension;
to hell, it is less than these
five thousand year resisting stones,
that lonely cross.
Although I find the sentiment agreeable, I also find the music mutilated to accommodate its anger. The moment John Montague moves towards his community, he suffers a loss of linguistic grace. The myths of race and nationality are will o’ the wisps, leading him astray, convincing him that he can dislodge the spear of isolation.
Montague has championed two Irish writers, Kavanagh and Goldsmith, because they are both examples of the artist surviving almost impossible conditions. His sponsorship reveals something about himself, for he belongs with these two. The various writers to whom he refers or by whom he has been influenced – French, American, English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, South American – are the more attractive to him for the oppositions they encounter and the adversarial positions they adopt towards official and established forms. This is a version of community similar to but distinct from those other personal or specifically Irish ones, for Montague feels the need to be relieved of intimacies that can become too stifling. Thus, in his introduction to the Faber Book of Irish Verse, he envisages an international poetry which has national roots, a definition of Irish which arises from a negotiation between English and Gaelic traditions. Here again we have a gesture that is matched in the poetry – a seeking for a conciliated community, a refusal to accept the burden of solitude. Goldsmith’s deserted village, Kavanagh’s hungry hills, Montague’s dilapidated Tyrone are all abandoned places that have been repossessed in poetry. They are none the less lost, for all that. This Montague will not accept. His poetry must be active in renewing them. He does not have the irony that allows for a duality between literature and life. Thus he will not keep the opposition between them in abeyance but must seek to resolve it by pitting one against the other. ‘The Rough Field’ is full of the noise of that collision.
Nevertheless, Montague’s bondage to an idea of community has the paradoxical effect of establishing the unique and lonely nature of his own freedom. A poetry so resistant to its own nature is constantly refining itself, avoiding the placatory instinct, breaking off its relationships with myth and politics in order to renew them (and itself). The conditions of life and the condition of poetry may not be reconcilable, any more than death is reconcilable with love, experience with words. In resisting such oppositions, Montague risks a mandarin language’s infection by the language of the daily round.
I heard the floorboards creak
as, cloudhuge in his nightgown,
he prowled the house, halting
only when, gnawed by the worm
of consciousness, disappointment
at disappointment, he stood
on the porch to inhale
the hay and thistle scented
air of a Normandy harvest;
piss copiously in salutation
towards a shining moon.
The Selected Poems define the achievement of a poet whose attempts to come to terms with communal values clarify the loneliness of the artist in contemporary conditions. The failure of his ideal communities is not the cause of failure in the poetry itself. More truly, Montague’s work reminds us of the force of John Crowe Ransom’s precept that the object of a proper society is ‘to instruct its members how to transform instinctive experience into aesthetic experience’. In that light, John Montague is, in the Irish tradition, powerfully instructive.
At a first reading, Tom Rawling’s Ghosts at my Back might seem nothing more than the evocation of a nearly vanished way of life in which activities like sheep-shearing, fishing and gardening, and the vivid dialect of Northern England, are commemorated. A closer reading reveals much more than this. The detail and precision of these poems amount to more than displays of professional skill glossed as nostalgia. The ancestral, more particularly the parental, burden weighs heavily on the inheritor, and his skills and preoccupations are transmuted into idioms of feeling.
The sheep’s flinch as the shears seek the rise
Where new wool pushes off its past
In order to repeat it
is redolent of the poet’s flinch at the waste and renewal, the imprisonment and the freedom, that is in memory and relationship. The celebration of things, places, words that are packed with the force of experience leads to a distancing of the human figure in these poems. The parents, grandparents, uncles, the poet himself, never have the presence of the natural world. They are imaginary people with real skills, slightly sinister, pathetically transient. In ‘Hands’, one of the finest poems in the volume, Rawling does direct the poem to the figure of his mother. But it is her hands, their skills, their nervousness, their expressiveness with flowers and animals, and their comparative failure of expressiveness with husband and son, that the reader sees. Domestication of the world can only go so far – beyond that, there is grief, wildness, man the permanent alien:
Where I stand
Anent the wild fish
And the tree.
John Ward is, like Tom Rawling, well into his sixties, and he, too, is concerned with the retrieval of a North Country past. Perhaps Geoffrey Hill has given the English North the imaginative status which the Irish Revival gave to the West of Ireland. There is the same attribution of authenticity, the same regret for its loss or dilution, the same sense of a past miles deep. There are three sections in A Late Harvest, ‘Family Tree’, ‘Inheritance’, ‘Habitat’, and their titles indicate the kind of poetry we might expect. It is far from being sanctimonious in its piety, but there is nevertheless a marked degree of indulgence in these verses toward the notions of northernness, inheritance, continuity, antiquity. In a poem called ‘A Roll Call of Places’, there are 43 proper names in 22 lines. The names are beautiful indeed, but there is no poem as such. This is not the case with the remainder of the volume, but it does give something characteristic of its tone and attitude. Roots and reminiscence are all very well: John Ward is gifted but he could learn from Tom Rawling something about the transmutation of history and lore into that species of power we call poetry.