BORD GÁIS IRISH BOOK AWARDS – LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD PRESENTATION TO JOHN MONTAGUE
When I was a teenager, every Saturday afternoon after playing football in what we called – appropriately enough given the lives we led - The Complex, I’d walk home through the town of Enniskillen – through the Control Zone where I’d get my bag searched in case it carried something rather more incendiary than the NME and I’d check out the new LP’s in Woolworths. After that I’d make my way to the end of the wonderfully named Darling Street where there was a bookshop called Hall’s – and there down the back, in the bottom right hand corner there was a poetry section. And that’s where I found John Montague.
And so, as it got dark outside, I’d stand there in the bright lights of the shop, reading poetry. And in the case of John Montague, I was reading poetry about the very ground I was standing on. Yes, he was from Tyrone but even so – here was someone writing about a world I sincerely hoped, at that stage, I was just passing through – this almost utterly dysfunctional place called the North. But here, in these poems, I could see that there might be more to it, and I found in them a history that was perhaps no longer valued, or known, or supposed to be known. The poems were an education, an amplification and a pleasure.
“Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people” was the first line that stuck.
And there was none of that folksy hokum you might get on the local BBC. This was powerful and unsentimental stuff. In some ways it seemed simple but I could see that it was multi-layered and complex. It was forthright, it was hard, it was sharp – it was very Tyrone. And yet it was also exotic and international because this poet Montague was born in Brooklyn – and maybe that’s what, for me, gave the whole thing an air of mystery. For all the references to Garvaghey, Fintona and St Pat’s in Armagh, there was an otherness about it too. It was visionary.
As I got older I realised that John was connected to writers all around the world. Brendan Behan, The Beats, John Berryman, Samuel Beckett – and that’s just the B’s. And I recall that when Beckett was coming towards the end of his life, some of us reassured ourselves by saying – even though we knew neither man – Montague has been to see him. Like he was our man in Paris.
He was the poet whose connections were true – but more importantly his poems also connected and led right the way back through Patrick Kavanagh to Cathal Buí – which brings me back to where I started - John’s poems about the very ground I was standing on.
Quite recently I was lucky enough to spend some time with John and Elizabeth at their home in Nice. This was for The Works Presents and John was great company and a generous and mischievous interviewee. Poetry, he told me, is a weapon. I asked him what he meant by that. And if you want to know what he said you need to watch the programme. It’s on the Player.
A lifetime achievement award if it’s to mean anything must surely be given to someone who has done the work and lived the life – a life of dedication – of total commitment, in this case, to poetry. Now, I know that John’s a Chevalier in France, but in my part of the world, he’s the great and necessary poet from the neighbouring county. And tonight here in the Pale, it’s my honour, on behalf of all of us to express our gratitude and our respect. It’s my great privilege to present the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award to John Montague.
© John Kelly