Company: a chosen life by John Montague

Confessions of a poet in perpetual motion
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The Independent Culture

The Irish poet John Montague has led a rich life and known many interesting people. This memoir is devoted to a number of them. The subtitle, "a chosen life", echoes his 1967 collection, A Chosen Light. In both titles, the adjective places emphasis on freedom of choice – something especially important to an author whose childhood, even more than most people's, was deficient in this quality.

Montague, born in Brooklyn in 1929, was dispatched at the age of four to his father's sisters in Co. Tyrone to receive a rural upbringing. For six years he suffered the repressive atmosphere of St Patrick's College, Armagh (recreated in 1993 in a pungent sequence of poems, Time in Armagh). After this, he understandably relished the power to decide things for himself and gravitate towards people and places he found congenial, from the unrefurbished glamour of 1950s Dublin to the spicier surroundings of 11 Rue Daguerre in Paris.

Company celebrates good company wherever it is found, whether in Dublin at McDaid's or the Mount Street offices of Liam Miller's Dolmen Press, the Paris quartier that sheltered Samuel Beckett or the American West Coast of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.

The time sequence of the book is a bit confused, jumping backwards and forwards, as memory does. You can work out that Montague was back in Dublin briefly before 1953 (since Maud Gonne was still alive), when he met Mrs Yeats, the poet's window, whose oomph impressed him. Women do not loom large, but we see Doris Lessing looking askance at Dublin intemperance, while Olivia Manning berates Beckett at a Paris reception.

And Montague's first wife, Madeleine, makes a good-humoured presence in the background. A young Frenchwoman of exalted lineage, whom he met in Iowa and married in Normandy, she seems to have exuded a wry tolerance in the face of all the alcoholic antics, elated backbiting and literary skirmishes around her. The "roar from the pubs", just beginning to drown out the staider murmurs of an earlier Dublin, was augmented by one raised voice in particular: that of Brendan Behan.

Part of Montague's purpose is to rescue his Herbert Street neighbour and friend from the sottish persona imposed on him later. This version captures "trilingual bisexual" former house-painter Behan in his gaily anarchic days, before booze and befuddlement had done their worst. Boisterous Behan, austere Austin Clarke and cantankerous Patrick Kavanagh are here, along with early Dolmen poets such as Thomas Kinsella.

Poetry was making a comeback, a process in which the young John Montague had a large part to play. He isn't joking, he has said elsewhere, when he describes himself as "the missing link" – that is, the first major poet of Ulster Catholic background to emerge between the death of Cathal Buidhe MacGiolla Ghunna in 1756 and the advent of Seamus Heaney (10 years Montague's junior).

No wonder that one of his most resonant poems proclaims: "All around, shards of a lost tradition" – some of which shards reside in the Gaelic place-names of Co. Tyrone. "The Lost Tradition", from his ambitious and historically charged 1972 collection The Rough Field, appears in a new edition of Montague's Selected Poems (Penguin, £8.99), which makes a capital introduction to his work.

For all his local attachment, though, Montague's cosmopolitan instincts are well to the fore. They fuel his enthusiasm for the literature of America and France and direct him unerringly, in his personal life, to the choicest of literary compeers. Company – the first volume of a very selective autobiography – marshalls its troupe of luminaries (Beckett, Roethke, Marianne Moore and so on) with verve and amiability. It's an energetic and resourceful account that should entertain most readers. As for those it doesn't – well, Brendan Behan had a word for it: "Hump the begrudgers."

The reviewer's biography of Brian Moore will be published next year

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