|Language||Tone||‘Like Dolmens round my Childhood’
|‘her lonely need to deride.’
‘The least happy man I have known’
‘Your cocoon of pain’
|Character sketches||‘Like Dolmens round my Childhood.’||‘ Jamie Crystal sang to himself’ Maggie Owens was surrounded by animals’
‘fanged chronicler of a whole countryside.’
|‘All my father’s songs couldn’t sweeten the lack of money.’
‘When he came back we walked together across fields of Garvaghy’
|Cinematic style||‘The Cage’||‘Lost years in Brooklyn’ to ‘fields of Garvaghy’
|‘my double blunder’
‘Then you gave me away’
‘The least happy man I have known’
|Imagery||Evocative||‘A Welcoming Party’
‘Like Dolmens round my childhood’
|‘nests of bodies like hatching eggs’
‘your cocoon of pain’
’Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside’
‘where heather bells bloom’
‘dead eyes serpent-flickered’
|Childhood||‘Like Dolmens round my childhood’||‘For years they trespassed in my dreams.’
‘gaunt figures of fear and friendliness’
‘He tipped me a penny every pension day’
|‘Memories of these eccentric people remained with him for many years’
Complex natures of these isolated and often lonely people’
Typical child’s reaction – remembers the kindness.
|‘The Locket||‘The worst birth in the annals of Brooklyn’
‘you gave me away’
‘an old picture in it, of a child in Brooklyn’
|Difficult start to life and relationship with mother.
Brutal truth about mother’s attitude.
Symbol of mother’s buried love?
|Unhappiness||‘The Cage’||‘my father, the least happy man I have known.’
‘drank neat whiskey’
‘we did not smile in the shared complicity of a dream’
|Father’s misery with marriage and emigrant life
Escape into alcoholic haze. Violence?
Time could not heal the unhappiness
|Rural Ireland||‘Like Dolmens Round my Childhood.’||‘Gaunt figures of fear and friendliness’
…forsaken by both creeds’
…a by-word for fierceness, she fell asleep over love stories
|Complex personalities of these eccentric figures shows the different sides of rural Ireland
Prejudice present in the North.
Superficially – and necessarily tough – to survive the hardships of rural Ireland but people are often misjudged by the community
(*NOTE: Key words are marked in bold to assist in observing exam technique)
“Montague makes effective use of language to confront personal, intimate and often very painful memories in an open and honest manner”
Write your response to this statement, supporting your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of John Montague on your course.
It seems to me that all poets, by their nature, are inclined towards producing work that probes their inner thoughts; and in many cases draws from the well of personal experience in order to assemble words of beauty and poignancy. For John Montague, this is particularly the case; with carefully crafted language, his body of work delves deeply into the intimate aspects of his life story. Poems like ‘The Cage’, ‘The Locket’, and ‘A Welcoming Party’ are typical of the personal– and in some cases deeply painful experiences – that Montague chronicles in his work. The poet himself has said that ‘the urge to comprehend is so deep,’ and this thought seems to have cast a shadow over so much of his occasionally brutal – but to me beautiful – poetry.
The poem that best highlights the openness of Montague’s approach is probably ‘The Locket’. I was deeply moved by this heart-breaking account of an intimate relationship gone tragically awry. Here, in clear and accessible language, the poet reflects on his dysfunctional bond with his mother, ‘a fertile source of guilt and pain’, who seemed to never accept him from the moment he ‘came out the wrong sex and the wrong way around.’ I was amazed how calmly Montague conveys this tragic tale of hurt and pain. What particularly stayed with me was the irony of how willingly Montague seemed to be to forgive her for her failures, even though she never failed to remind him of his ‘double blunder’. In the end, he travels to ‘court’ ‘lovely Molly’, now advanced in years, in her home – even though she rails against it. To me, he displays extraordinary empathy; using the metaphor of a ‘cocoon of pain’ to describe how damaged she herself was. I thought the tone was admirably sympathetic when he describes the ‘harsh logic’ she employed. In the end, after being absorbed in this deeply personal poem, I was left with a similar joy to Montague as the image of the ‘oval locket’ with a picture of a ‘child in Brooklyn’ brought a dramatic close to this poignant poem.
In ‘The Cage’, we again find Montague mining the intimate wreckage of his dysfunctional family background. Here, in vivid precise language that creates an almost cinematic effect, we hear of his father, ‘the least happy man I have known,’ whose misery is accentuated by his employment in the metaphorical cage of the underground subway station. I felt that the reference to the ‘neat whiskey’ ending in ‘brute oblivion’ was an oblique but typically personal reference to the trauma of growing up in a household with an aggressively unhappy alcoholic. What I really liked about this poem was the honesty, best illustrated by Montague’s depiction of their rapprochement many years later, ‘across fields of Garvaghey’. The fact that they ‘did not smile’ perfectly captured for me the sad reality that a chaotic and destructive path cannot be papered over so easily; it served as an important reminder to me that positive relationships must be nurtured in the here and now. The alliterative line in the final stanza, as Montague leaves us with the image of his father’s ‘bald head behind the bars of the small booth’ is a fittingly unromantic image to close this deeply personal poem.
The final poem that I also feel confronts a painful memory of Montague’s is ‘A Welcoming Party.’ Although it moves away from his more typical themes of relationships, love and family, it again dips into his childhood for inspiration. For me, this was as memorable a poem as I have come across throughout my school years – as Montague uses typically accessible phrasing to bring a powerful and dramatically disturbing period of history to life. The clever use of language, with the play on words of the ‘dead Sunday’ allows Montague to convey the graphic horrors of the Holocaust to us through the eyes of the young horrified poet. Images of ‘insect like hands,’ and the unforgettable simile of a ‘mouth like a burnt glove,’ I can safely say will remain seared on my consciousness permanently. However, what lent this poem its powerful impact is the simple yet desperately disturbing image of “children conjugating the verb ‘to die.’” This juxtaposition of the innocent daily rituals of the young poet at his ‘Christian school’ and the horror of ‘one meaning of total war’ is a line that really exemplified to me the raw power of a line of poetry. In this poem particularly, Montague’s perfectly crafted language brings a particularly pathos filled and personal memory to life for us.
I feel that there is much to love about John Montague the poet. The cinematic style and clear, evocative language make him a poet for all. But for me what makes him a writer that I was immediately enchanted by is his ability to confront those issues of family, identity and history that we are all ultimately consumed by from the cradle to the grave. The openness of his poetry, despite the raw pain simmering within, served to me as a reminder that from times of great suffering can come things of great beauty.