John Montague (b.1929, New York), the author of many books of poetry, stories, memoirs and essays, has been called “the greatest Irish poet of his generation” by Derek Mahon. Born to Irish parents in America, he returned to Ireland at the age of four to be raised by aunts, and was educated at a school where the folksong and Irish poetry expert Sean O’Boyle was an influential teacher. Montague has since travelled the world as poet, teacher and journalist, keeping always a literary and emotional anchor in Ireland.

It is no surprise, then, that Ireland is a recurrent theme in his work. In some poems – ‘Like Dolmens Round my Childhood, the Old People’, ‘The Trout’ or ‘The Water Carrier’, for example – we hear of remembered childhood experience; others deal with the history and politics of the country, from the effect of enforced language change in the nineteenth century in ‘A Grafted Tongue’ to the recent violence that informs ‘A Response to Omagh’.

Other themes that animate the poems in this reading include water, nature, death and love – the last so important a theme to Montague that his book The Love Poems is devoted to the subject. ‘The Same Gesture’, in this reading, shows love in its centrality to human life – and is introduced wryly by the poet as “a unisex love poem.” There are lighter moments too, such as ‘The Family Piano’ being destroyed with a hammer, and an attempt to rectify a gap in the canon in ‘Landing’, which provides a rare poem about aeroplanes arriving.

While there are few inherited forms in the poems Montague chose to read here, all draw on the resources of rhyme, metre and assonance. ‘A Courtyard in Winter’, for example, underlines the tragedy of a suicide through the repeated refrain in which “snow curls in on the cold wind”. In recognition of the heightened music of the language, he reads with an appropriate sonority; it is easy, on listening to him read, to agree with the opinion of the Malahat Review that “John Montague’s voice will always be raised in the ranks of the great poets of our literature.”

In 2010 Montague was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in France, for services to poetry. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne, as well as University College, Dublin, his own alma mater.

His recording was made on 1 October 2008 and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by John Montague

The Same Gesture - John Montague
The Water Carrier - John Montague
A Grafted Tongue - John Montague
A Response to Omagh - John Montague
John Montague in the Poetry Store

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Books by John Montague



First occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry

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honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Ulster, Coleraine

Prize website

Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur in France, for services to poetry

Prize website

Honorary Doctorate from the Sorbonne

Prize website

Honorary Doctorate from University College, Dublin

Prize website