Selected Poems


194 pages
ISBN 0-920428-42-8





Reviewed by Charles R. Steele

Charles R. Steele was Associate Professor of English at the University of Calgary.


John Montague is a contemporary Irish poet of substantial reputation, touted by some reviewers as the successor to Yeats. That judgment is over-sanguine in my estimation, but the poetry in this volume, a selection of Montague’s work (seven published volumes) from the 1950s to the present, indicates that he is a very fine poet. There is here a clarity and coherence of voice, an intensity of thought and emotion, and a precision of image and detail, of structure and presentation which belong only to the accomplished writer.

Selected Poems is divided with almost exact symmetry into two parts — between his fourth volume, Tides (1970), and his fifth, The Rough Field (1972). The division is largely an arbitrary one; it is not clearly paralleled by any dramatic development in Montague’s poetic powers (considerable from the outset), or by any abrupt switch in his subject matter, style, or poetic focus. This is not to say that the selections of work covering three decades are unrelentingly consistent. Perhaps the most readily distinguishable feature of the early poems, for instance, is their self-conscious concern with language as theme. “Country Matters” (pp. 38-39), for example, concludes

For lack of courage

Often equals lack of a language

And the word of love is

Hardest to say.

Even here it is immediately evident that Montague’s concern with language is not merely the stuff of structuralist or post-structuralist reflexive self-consciousness. The question of language for an Irish writer is an inescapably social, cultural, and political one, as it is for Montague here and elsewhere.

One of the constant elements of Montague’s vision, in fact, is its socio-political concern, which can be felt as an uninsistent but nonetheless suffusive context even in his many personal poems about Irish landscape, about childhood experiences, about family, about personal relationships. He himself excellently articulates the pervasiveness of Ireland in his poem “Windharp”:

The sounds of Ireland,

that restless whispering

you never get away

from, seeping out of

low bushes and grass,

heatherbells and fern,

wrinkling bog pools,

scraping tree branches,

light hunting cloud,

sound hounding sight,

a hand ceaselessly

combing and stroking

the landscape, till

the valley gleams

like the pile upon

a mountain pony’s coat. (p. 133)

And, less affirmatively, he locates the seeds of his own Irishness, not in nature but in the social character of his own childhood when “To be always at the periphery of incident / Gave my childhood its Irish dimension” (“A Welcoming Party,” p. 30). Though Montague himself has lived a good portion of his life outside Ireland, and the French and American locales and experiences are represented in his poetry, nowhere does he create beyond his Irish perspective or speak with other than an Irish voice. Nor need he.

Whatever his subject matter, political or general, narrative or lyric, Montague consistently creates the atmosphere and landscape of memory. True Irishman that he is, he places the past in the forefront of his vision. The myth, love, and legend of Ireland permeate his poetry; people from his own past, family and otherwise, persistently capture his attention. He seems to have defined his poet’s robe as that of public voice:

All around, my

Neighbours sleep, but I am

In possession of their past

(The pattern history weaves

From one small backward place)

Marching through memory magnified.

(“The Source,” p. 117)

Montague’s is a refreshing poetic stance in our present age of egocentricity. But best of all, at least by this writer, it has produced some very good poetry. His Selected Poems is a commendable volume in every respect.


Montague, John, “Selected Poems,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,