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.

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. …

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