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John Montague: Literature has lost a true giant, a poet who broke new ground

Damian Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, on the life and legacy of Tyrone's John Montague, who died on Saturday

In the company of the poet John Montague, who died in Nice on Saturday, aged 87, one was immediately in touch not only with the forbidding tradition of Irish letters from Thomas Moore to James Clarence Mangan, Thomas Davis, Samuel Ferguson; through Yeats and Austin Clarke, one of his early encouragers, through Beckett and into our own mortal era; and in touch also with monuments of American letters such as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Saul Bellow; but also with what can be safely described as 'a great poet' with a body of work of the first order and a writer of both artistic and historical import.

But the impossible glamour of that biographical denouement - 'died in Nice' - is in itself something of a miracle, for a boy who was born on February 28, 1929 in Brooklyn, given away by his mother, was returned at the age of four to the townland of Garvaghey (meaning 'rough field' in Irish) in Co Tyrone to be reared by his aunts, carrying a childhood stammer into his adult life of readings and broadcasts, ultimately maturing into a cosmopolitan figure respected on several continents.

It is to that tiny acre that the remains of the great poet will return later this week.

Montague was of monumental stature himself, as a man and as an artist.

His first collection in 1961 was Poisoned Lands, which immediately transferred all those rural signposts nailed up on trees into the street-talk of poetry.

"Poisoned Lands, Trespassers prosecuted, dogs shot" was a legend familiar to many.

Less well known is that his collection of short stories, published in 1964, and entitled Death of A Chieftain, was a truly groundbreaking volume.

The rumour is that a newly-formed folk ensemble of the time took their name from the title story - and it wasn't The Clancys.

The long poem The Rough Field, as it emerged in its parts in the 60s and fully in 1972, walked hand-in-hand with the eruption of civic unrest and then catastrophic violence.

Its very architecture, layout, and omnivorous daring was a structural departure in Irish poetry, in the fashioning of a collection or single long poem which brought it closer to the American moderns than to the truisms of traditional Irish verse. It has to be said that it was not a volume universally acclaimed at the time.

The section 'A New Siege' was read aloud outside Armagh gaol in 1970. A radical work, treating with alarm and a breathtaking daring in phrasing and structure, the very vexed issues of that day, it was read by some as unduly partisan and unseemly in its framing of the context.

Happily, it can be recorded that the work is both triumphantly guilty and innocent of all those charges, in the way only poetry can be.

But it must be remembered that this poet felt the chill wind by virtue of the courage of his imagination.

In November that year, he embarked on a reading tour with the self-styled 'Planter' poet John Hewitt under the rubric The Planter and the Gael - an adventure which has acquired legendary status and which epitomised again Montague's humane concerns which transcended tribal allegiance.

Decades later, his 'A Response to Omagh' (1999) came from an anguished and damaged place: "With no peace after the deluge, no ease after the storm; we learn to live inside ruin, like a second home."

Montague's poetry was built in what he called three 'orchestrations' - The Rough Field (1972), The Great Cloak (1978) and The Dead Kingdom (1984). Individual poems, such as 'The Trout', 'All Legendary Obstacles' and 'Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, The Old People', will endure in anthologies of English for ever.

The vast array of lyrical attention he lavished on his native place and of love, bawdy and sacred, he lavished in his poems, make his a distinctive poetic voice in Ireland, irreverent, blunt at times, always elegant and with considerable elan.

His generosity of spirit extended to all generations, both to his elders - he was instrumental in securing a publisher for Hewitt's Collected Poems in 1968 - and towards his younger contemporaries, whose work he felt had benefited from better historical timing than his own.

But Montague's place in the literary culture of the island is secure.

Moreover, this is a poet who was honoured by Mayor Mario Cuomo in 1987 "for his outstanding literary achievements and his contributions to the people of New York".

He was the obvious choice as the inaugural Ireland Professor of Poetry in 1998, a post established to honour Ireland's contribution to poetry in the wake of Seamus Heaney's Nobel Prize.

It was fitting that the first recipient be drawn from the same province and from a secret townland within hailing distance in every sense of Heaney's own. He was appointed Chevalier de la Legion d'Honeur in 2010, France's highest civilian honour.

His personal life too was in three orchestrations - his first two wives were French, Madeleine and Evelyn, who survive him, along with two daughters, Oonagh and Sibyl.

His last love, the Brooklyn-born novelist Elizabeth Wassel, on whom he leaned both metaphorically and literally in his last balletic years, was by his bedside at the hospital when he died.

Through the persistent delivery of volumes of verse such as Drunken Sailor (2004), Speech Lessons (2011), Time in Armagh (1993) and Smashing the Piano (1999), which show him also as arguably our greatest love poet, operating at a high altitude of achievement, and through an astonishing memoir, The Pear Is Ripe (2007), Montague grew into one of his own orchestrations. In a way, we remain too close to it to see around it or through.

We can only see by means of it.

Our generous advocate, our maker of poems which will be read as long as there are readers, our friend in print from childhood, our humane companion, our bard in the old sense, "that wavering needle, pointing always North".

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