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Time in Armagh: Montague & Wassell

LOOK, I'M not here to do literary criticism and I'm not here to be a barrier between you and the readers this afternoon.

But it has to be said that strange things happen when you are asked to contemplate John Montague. I couldn't help but be struck yesterday by one of the elements in one of the short presentations given by the Armagh Project. The vision of W B Yeats taken to his bed after Sean O'Casey had chosen publish his private correspondence over The Silver Tassie fiasco and various faery folk who visit the poet and his long-suffering wife Georgie.

I always thought Yeats got a bad deal out of that dispute. Looking at O'Casey's output after Tassie, as he followed his muses into both Marxism and the big houses of England, can we say Yeats was entirely wrong about that play? Its rarity in production tells a tale of its own.

I was struck because of how deeply the character of that partnership has become embedded in to our understanding not only of the poet and his work, the growing security of his imagination as it undertook seismic recalibrations in his last two decades, but also how remarkably that able woman managed to maintain a sense of her own self and her own public integrity in the face of all those wanton paeans to Maud Gonne. That partnership was profoundly intimate, intellectually sustaining, publicly satisfying.

Now, these of course are perspectives one arrives at after the passage of many years, when embarrassment is less of a risk, the ethics of privacy are less immediately binding, and entirely inappropriate categories can be applied to that old saw we call love.

Nonetheless, it is in that context I believe - and with the greatest respect to the principals happily here present - that the stunning partnership of Elizabeth Wassell and John Montague can begin to be understood in a forum such as this, where their individual aesthetics are to be showcased and how, certainly, the extraordinary flourishing of both their creative lives will come to be placed by those who come after us and who won't perhaps have enjoyed the especial grace of their company.

We know Elizabeth was born in New York and is the author now of five novels and numerous short fictions. But it is important to say that hers is a considerable imagination, right from her first novel, The Honey Plain in 1998 through to Sleight of Hand in 1998 and The Thing He Loves in 2001, she was edging towards and engaging with dark elements of human experience, from deception and fraud, to the grip of the past (both personal and public) on contemporary lives attempting to be lived.

Her most recent novels, Dangerous Pity and particularly last year's extraordinary Sustenance, show a writer completely at home with her themes and with a writing style which has all the skills across character, cultures and the punches of experience.

Of course, it should be said that, in some ways, these novels are also narratives of the half-fictional, half-actual and - because I am talking about fiction where anything is possible, let's also say half-spectral, character which comprises those moments of epiphany in her own biography which have had such a high wattage impact on the literary culture we all share.

Which is to say, this is a considerable artist and as unlike George Yeats in that regard as it is possible to be!

So I say 'Attend carefully and mindfully'.

Which is something I know her partner will continue to do this afternoon, if he knows what's good for him!

Introducing the poet John Montague is a ridiculous task to set anyone.

At this very moment, in this room, right now, we are in touch not only with the thrilling and forbidding tradition of Irish letters from Moore to James Clarence Mangan, Davis, Ferguson; through Yeats to 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, principally, at first and at last, with what can be safely described with absolute accuracy as 'a great poet' with a body of work of unquestionably the first order and a writer of both artistic and historical import.

So much of what we in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole consider to be poetry, its categories, its signals, its strategies and behaviours in the modern era, has been shaped and moulded by this writer, tested on the world stage and not found wanting.

Also born in New York, reared by his aunts in Garvaghey Co Tyrone, maturing into a cosmopolitan figure respected on several continents, it is impossible to summarise his life and I won't try to. Suffice to say that all those elements are, in the manner of the great artist, retained whole in his work, amplified and augmented through poetry and vision by their proximity within one consciousness, one capacious imagination.

At the Hewitt spring school in May, I was asked to contribute to a mock debate on the Great Scottish Novel and plumped for Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. As an aside, it can be said of Stevenson that he invented staple genres - the split personality, the abduction, the lure of buried treasure - and nailed them down with their definitive narratives.

John Montague is of that stature. His first collection in 1961 - and the first I came across at school in the 1970s - was Poisoned Lands, which immediately transferred those rural signposts nailed up on trees into the Doric of poetry.

"Poisoned Lands, Trespassers prosecuted, dogs shot" was a legend familiar to many. What may be less well known is that John's collection of short stories, published in 1964, and entitled Death of A Chieftain, was a truly ground-breaking volume, playing out many of the great themes of his verse to come in elegiac and, with the title story in particular, epic style, genuine prose also and not the often rhapsodic ram lings some poets who write fiction lapse into. 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 alongside and hand-in-hand with the eruption of civic unrest and then catastrophic violence in what was and is, in spite of peregrinations, his native place. The very architecture, layout, and omnivorous daring of its mechanisms was a structural departure in Irish poetry, in the fashioning of a collection or single long poem which brought it closer to William Carlos Williams in Paterson ...

It doesn't HAVE to be said; but I will say it. This was not a volume universally acclaimed at the time. It was a radical work, treating with alarm and a breathtaking daring in phrasing and structure, the very vexed issues of that day and all days in our corner of Ireland. It stripped bare, exposed, broke down narrated and renewed, the forces and themes of our conflict. It took part in those vexations and was read by some as unduly partisan and unseemly in its framing of the context. It is, happily, superfluous now to record that the work is both triumphantly guilty and innocent of all those charges, in the way only poetry can be.

It is always salutary to see how a work of what is now such obvious power and humanity and skill and sustained intellectual rigour does indeed come in to its own, as if it had always been so. I want to say: it was not always so. This poet felt the chill wind by virtue of the courage of his imagination.

The section ‘A New Siege’ was read aloud outside the very gaol here in this city which we heard about yesterday afternoon in 1970. 1970! That is a function of letters which even Stevenson did not broach - the language of the heart and of the tribes articulating on the very street. His reading tour of the north with John Hewitt under the rubric 'The Planter and the Gael' has acquired legendary status, as one of those very few moments of artistic and tribal commerce which managed both to articulate the deep mythical strains and psychic geology of our populations in the teeth of bitterness and recrimination, while gently eluding the easy categories of identity and allegiance, without seeking, as Hewitt said, "the false truce of the renegade".

But this is also 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". The inaugural Ireland Professor of Poetry. Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur. Remember too that it was this man who brokered the publication of John Hewitt's collected poems in 1967 at a time when that poet's work was languishing in notebooks unread by any but himself and Ruby.

Through the persistent delivery of volumes of verse such as The Great Cloak, The Dead Kingdom, Time in Armagh, Smashing the Piano, which show him also as arguably our greatest love poet, operating at a high altitude of achievement, Montague himself has grown into one of his own orchestrations and we remain too close to it to see around it or through. We can only see by means of it.

Our bard in the old sense, our maker of poems which will be read as long as there are readers, our friend in print from childhood, our generous advocate even of the work of his elders, our humane companion, our chieftain.

Please welcome this extraordinary partnering ... which matches art with love.

This is an edited version of remarks made by way of introduction to John Montague and Elizabeth Wassell at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh in July, 2014.

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