Poetry and the Common Work

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JOHN MONTAGUE is one of the true elder statesmen of Irish poetry. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929, he returned at age four to his family's farm in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He believes he was destined to have this double perspective on Ireland, both as an outsider with fresh eyes and as a native spirit. ``There's been no Ulster poet of Catholic background since the loss of the Irish language,'' comments Montague, and so his early books did much to pioneer a rebirth in Irish poetry. Among the nine collections of his poetry are his ``Selected Poems'' and ``Mount Eagle,'' both from Wake Forest University Press.

Along with Seamus Heaney, Montague is responsible for a good deal of the recent popularity Irish writing has achieved in America. He edited Macmillan's ``Book of Irish Verse'' and the recent ``Bitter Harvest'' (Scribner's), an anthology of contemporary Irish poetry.

For years as a professor at the University of Cork, he nurtured a younger generation of Irish writers. Recently he was made a Distinguished Professor at the Writers Institute at the State University of New York at Albany.

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A special reading tour brought Monataque and a handful of the best Irish poets to Boston last May. I talked with him, after that event and in a later phone interview, about the difference between the climate for poetry in America and Ireland. The following is excerpted from those discussions.

Ratiner: The American audience for poetry has become a good deal smaller in the last few decades and much more centered in academia. Poets write with a curious sense of isolation - from each other as well as the general reader. Do contemporary Irish poets have a different place among their people?

Montague: Yes, it's true, especially in the last 25 years. There are several reasons for this. One, Ireland is a small country, it's compact. The circle of poets is smaller. We all know each other and we're very public figures. Charles Olson argued a long time ago that the great thing in America and American literature is space.

While space and your country's size is an awesome thing ... [it means] poets and people who want to practice an art are spread out across the country. Today they tend to be isolated inside the universities as if they were monks in medieval sanctuaries in time of plague. Perhaps the plague now is American politics and the culture produced by industrial capitalism since the Second World War.

But does that mean the poets have cut themselves off from the people - what Whitman called the wellspring of poetry?

Yes, but Whitman's America was not so vast, not so impersonal. He actually thought the poets could speak to the people on the streets. But which streets? Today, does that mean Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit or where?

Are you suggesting that America is so large, so diverse, it is impossible for our poets to really speak to a mass audience?

Well, it seems to be hard. In the 1960s you had a drive toward a poetry that broad. You had people like Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder who had an almost Whitmanian appeal. But I don't necessarily think that isolation today is a bad thing. You've got a regional poetry in America, and they are attached and in tune with their places....

A second difference with Irish poetry is time. Irish poetry is a long tradition that even the young poets can lean on. And a third difference is purpose: which is to recover the English language for ourselves. We've got a long history that's occurred in a small geographical space. And the larger part of that history, from our point of view, was expressed in the Irish language. Yet the majority of our people from the time of the famine in the 19th century on only learned the English language.

It's as if the Irish writer - and I think Joyce is a crucial example - had decided that the only victory to which we can aspire is to take over the English language. [Poetry] becomes a turning of the tables, a counterrevolutionary endeavor - to use the language of the conqueror to secretly conquer him.

That's probably not very easy for an American to understand - that when your language is `stolen' from you, your culture, and your power are eventually surrendered. And how successful do you think Irish writers have been in taking back control?

I think it's quite noticeable if you look for the finest poets writing in English. If you look after my generation - which had [Thomas] Kinsella and Richard Murphy and others - you have good poets in America, people like Galway Kinnell, and Ted Hughes in England. But when you come to Seamus Heaney, Seamus is clearly the best poet of his generation writing in the English language - except perhaps for Derek Mahon who has a pure lyric voice....

In the next generation, you see a poet like Paul Muldoon who is very gifted. Are there any poets now who are able to write the way he writes? He has, I believe, five books now and he's only about 40.

I think ``The Troubles'' ... provides some impetus for these voices. We're like a people who are living inside a Greek tragedy. There is something terrible which is happening to our family and we all try to speak about it in our various ways.

There are few American poets who could say that and be genuine - that they are writing as if they are members of a family and they're speaking to this family's joy or pain, so that a reader will feel they are confronting their own language and their own story on the page.

I think that's the reason [Irish poets] get along so well - as you can see by our public performances. We don't think our poems will quickly change the struggles, but we provide clarity to the situation, to edge toward some solution. Poetry focuses the eyes of the world on the problem but from a surprising point of view.

When you read many Irish writers, you can almost hear the voice of history speaking through the contemporary poet. Do you feel that in American poets as well?

Americans seem almost to want to get away from history. You see that idea in [William Carlos] Williams for example, ``In the American Grain,'' the desire to do away with European history, to start again in order to create a new American way of looking at the world.

In the poets you've selected for ``Bitter Harvest,'' I feel they are not only speaking from the personal but the communal imagination.

I think they do - but they achieve a kind of communal presence by using the old axiom about being true to themselves. If you take a poet like Nuala N'i Dhomhnaill, who writes in the Irish language, a mixture of Kerry Irish and school Irish - she cannot help but incarnate some of the problems of the Irish because she is writing in the language and she is also a woman. So this brings up the long tradition of Irish women poets and the subjugation, not only of Ireland, but of our language. All these things she has to tackle. She doesn't mean to - they're just there, directly in front of her.

I think of somebody like Paul Muldoon who is from Armagh and is not particularly interested in history. He lives up close to the border and his poems contain that sense of menace. For a lot of us, history isn't something separate. It's all around you and it's in your family and it's in your bones ....

In school, we'd take walking trips all through the ruins of Irish history and through the countryside that is rich with stories. But all this is now disappearing from the landscape with the bulldozers and the rush of modern development. So it's all coming out in a last wave into the poetry.

As if to preserve it by words?

Yes, indeed. The place names have been changed, the roads have been driven through them, the quarries are being torn from their sides, the hills and rivers are being polluted.

The poets of the south are especially involved on the ecological issues. After years of great poverty, the south of Ireland is turning with great speed into submission to the disease of the European Community.

In striving toward prosperity, in a sudden and drastic way, our whole landscape is threatened.

In the older Irish poetry, the land is revered as a spirit, a presence. Does that tradition reach the younger poets today?

That's right. We say that any good Irish poet would have to have what we call dinn shenchas or ``place wisdom.'' If he's going to write, he'd have to really know the spirit of a place and all that's gone on there, what gives it meaning. The older people here would have the same sort of attitude toward the countryside and the landscape as the Indian probably had here in America - and that is reverence. The mountains and rivers were like deities, and that feeling still goes on....

In America we are beginning to see once again a poetry that is rooted in the poet's sense of place and community. But our poetry is still so tied to the university and the network of creative writing programs. Do you see that as healthy for young poets?

A young poet who goes from college into graduate school writing programs and then maybe into a PhD program and then on to teaching creative writing - now where in all this does he gain his experience? There's danger in this. You have poets writing for other poets.

Poetry about language, not the world. Isn't that a difference between the situation of the poet in your country and mine? In America, poets and artists are hardly the predominant makers of images. Television fills that role. My feeling is that in Ireland, perhaps, poets play a larger role.

What you are saying is that you're not ``the uncreated conscience of your race,'' as Joyce put it. It sounds like arrogance, but I think the Irish writer feels he is playing a public part - at least partly a conscience of his people - even if he doesn't set out to be.

And that adds a certain force to the work when you know you are speaking into that listening instead of into a vacuum.

And you know you're going to be read by the polity ... the people and the politicians will read you and the newspapers will quote you. It's changed a great deal in Ireland, even from, let's say, the time of Patrick Kavanagh. We've regained a sense of ourselves.... And the country is quite proud of its literature once again, we realize how central it is to us. I think it's good for a poet to be respected in your own community as a craftsman. If you spend all day writing in your studio, people approve of this. It is seen as something that should be done and part of the common work. Wake Forest University Press - currently a major publisher of Irish poetry in the United States - was started in 1975 by Dillon Johnston. Johnston was an expert on Irish literature in the English Department at Wake Forest, and with not even a single paid employee, launched the respected small press.

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