MILESTONE OR TOMBSTONE? by John Montague
(PI News July/August 2012)
I approached with some apprehension the prospect of another Collected Poems, a follow-up to my first, published in 1995. A Collected is, of course, a harvesting, and can therefore seem dauntingly final, a last statement or a eulogy to oneself. But after some dithering, I decided to go forward for three reasons. The first: Peter Fallon, my publisher, had a clear vision of what this book should be, in termsof both its content and design. The second: my wife, Elizabeth, suggested I was confusing a milestone with a tombstone. And the third: I was curious myself as to what a new Collected would look and feel like, since I had produced three new volumes of poetry since the previous one.
The first Collected Poems I ever wandered through was a light blue volume of Shelley belonging to Deirdre O’Donovan, a fellow student at UCD. She loved Shelley, and she liked me, which fostered in my callow mind a vague appreciation of how a poet’s life might be gathered into one volume. In the now defunct Greene’s Bookshop (above which, unbeknownst to me, Beckett’s father had his office), I bought a Byron Collected, a big red volume, for a shilling. I scoured it for scandal, but met only a bewildering fluency, as in Don Juan. Nevertheless I brought it down to my aunt’s house in Co Longford, to continue my earnest search for evil against the clang of the chapel bell and the braying of the donkeys.
But I had never associated a Collected Poems with an Irish author; Yeats, who had died in 1939 when I was ten, seemed more a monument than a man, and the Second World War had interrupted our absorption of his marvellous dream. Young poets are hungry for writers they can admire or dislike; so it was only when I discovered a copy of Kavanagh’s A Soul for Sale in a bookshop corner that I experienced the thrill of reading somebody alive and in harm’s way. But this grumpy monster (who one could glimpse shambling along the streets of Dublin while muttering to himself), was no longer in print. And neither was our other chief poet, Austin Clarke, with his dark clerical clothes and Latin Quarter hat.
Shocked by this literary desert, it was no wonder that I developed an obsession with poets having their proper audience. So when Timothy O’Keefe of MacGibbon & Kee asked me to help assemble a Patrick Kavanagh Collected, I piled in, although I knew only too well I would incur the poet’s wrath. And while I was at it, I suggested that John Hewitt should have his work gathered into a Collected, both for its own sake and so that Ireland would have a proper terracing of generations.
And now here I am myself, preparing for the launch of yet a second Collected. Harvesting my own crop of poetry presented challenges I had not encountered when championing my elders like Kavanagh and Hewitt. The first of these is that I have written a number of book-length poems, including The Rough Field, which is probably the best known of all my work. While I was composing it, certain poems from earlier volumes seemed to cry out (in the mysterious anthropomorphic way of poems) for inclusion, and so I plucked them from their original context and used them to advance and enrich The Rough Field. One can appreciate how this would create problems for a Collected. If we presented the poems in conventional, chronological order, the early books (Forms of Exile, Poisoned Lands and A Chosen Light) might seem meagre, shorn of some of their strongest poems which had been absorbed into The Rough Field.
At the time of my first Collected, Peter Fallon and my then American editor, Dillon Johnston, came up with the idea of placing my three book-length poems (or, as Peter describes them, ‘orchestrations’) at the start of the book, to be followed by the lyrics. We have retained that structure in the New Collected. Therefore, in defiance of chronology, the volume opens with The Rough Field (1972), continues onwards with The Great Cloak (1978) and finishes with The Dead Kingdom (1984), before presenting the lyrics from my earliest work, Poisoned Lands (1961) until my most recent, Speech Lessons, published last year. Generally, readers have found this design felicitous, although one senior Irish poet grumbled, ‘Chronology is your only man.’ In any case, quite a few poets have experimented with form in their Collected Poems. Auden, for example, flouted chronological order in his first Collected much more pronouncedly than me, presenting his poems alphabetically. And our own Derek Mahon eliminated book titles from his Table of Contents so that the poems seem to flow without interruption.
Editing one’s own Collected is a moving, sometimes harrowing experience, especially when choosing – always reluctantly – to eliminate a poem from the collection for this reason or that. Peter and Jean Fallon, and myself and Elizabeth, worked doggedly, reading and re-reading and occasionally revising more than fifty years of poetic effort. Recently, over dinner, an eminent scholar of Irish poetry lamented that so many poets continue to cobble away at previously published work, changing a word here or a line there, when they should simply let the poem go, since after publication it no longer belongs to them but to the world. In general, I would agree, and yet... For years I was troubled by a line of my own, which describes a trout lying ‘light as a leaf’ in the water. ‘The Trout’ was reprinted several times before the proper description, ‘tendril-light’, emerged into my consciousness (a bit like a fish breaking the surface of a stream). And this same experience occurred again and again while we were editing the New Collected, a word or phrase suddenly springing to mind and feeling ‘right’, as I hope they are.
The launch of John Montague’s New Collected Poems, co-hosted by Poetry Ireland and The Gallery Press, took place on Thursday 28 June at the Keough-Naughton Notre Dame Centre, O'Connell House, 58 Merrion Square, D2. The book is available from Gallery Press (www.gallerypress.ie) and all good bookstores.