Causerie de John Montague

Michèle DUCLOS  Avec l`assistance de Josine MONBET  et de Michael SCOTT  (Université de Bordeaux Ill)  Depuis plusieurs étés constitutifs, ]ohn Montagne et sa famille passent  leurs vacances dans le village de Mauriac au nord de la région bordelaise. A  plusieurs reprises, le poète a été l`hôte de l’Université de Bordeaux lll et a  reçu un accueil chaleureux des étudiants et des enseignants. Nous proposons  ici la transcription d’une de ses lectures-causeries suivie de questions et d`une  conversation à bâtons rompus ; elle eut lieu en mars 1987.

JM: The first thing to say is that the lrish poet, the lrish Writer, is writing in a language which is not the language of his country. In the 1850s there were three famines. In 1840 the population of Ireland was eight  million. By 1850 it had been almost halved. Some had died in the three famines, and a good many had gone into exile, in America, in Canada…  Sometimes they died when they arrived. So the whole country had  changed. But what was clear was that the people who stayed, especially the young people, would have to learn English. We were inside an English-speaking world. So we have got after the great famine the great silence – the silence that fell upon Ireland as it tried to relearn its conquerors’ tongue. We’ve learnt this conquerors’ tongue with a special method : at school a tally stick was placed around your neck,  and every time you used a word of the old language you had a nick on  the stick. In the end you got (il tape sur la table avec le plat de la main) as many as there were on the stick. So the children leamt English. They  learnt the language of Queen Victoria. Not the most rich English that was ever invented. Now this is to me essential to the Irish experience in literature. It is a language that they had to learn. lt was our  conquerors’ language. It is a language that we will conquer. On va les avoir dans leur langue. C’est peut-être notre seule victoire : Monsieur  Joyce, Monsieur Yeats et les autres. Hein ? Voilà… (lit)       



Bloodied, the severed

head now chokes to

speak another tongue –

As in

a long suppressed dream,

some stuttering, garb-

led ordeal of my own)

An Irish

child weeps at school

repeating its English.

After each mistake

The master

gouges another mark

on the tally stick

hung about its neck

Like a bell

on a cow, a hobble

on a straying goat.

To slur and stumble

In shame

the altered syllables

of your own name ;

to stray sadly home

And find

the turf cured with

of your parents’ hearth

growing alien :

In cabin

and field, they still

speak the old tongue.

You may greet no one.

To grow

a second tongue, as

harsh a humiliation

as twice to be born.

Decades later,

that child’s grandchild’s

speech stumbles over lost

syllables of an old order.

  l was brought up in the Clogher Valley, in the North of lreland, in a  country post-office. And the people used to come down to collect their pensions and the small boy that l was waited for them to get a bit of their  pensions (rires). And also there was a passage grave that stood at the birth of our civilization. Anyone who has been to Brittany has seen those great stones. We also have them with lovely designs on them. There were at least two nearly by. And we had one on our land. I was fascinated by their curlicues, these strange signs – « l’art celtique”, on l’appelle, mais c’est longtemps avant  l’”art celtique”. So l joined these dolmens, those stones, ces pierres, with my  own childhood, and with all this association of old people, in a very rhythmic  poem. l think l was thinking of Mr Yeats. I knew more about the Irish countryside than he did, whatever about our “standings”…     


                              THE OLD PEOPLE

Like dolmens round my childhood, the old people.

Jamie MacCrystal sang to himself,

A broken song without tune, without words ;

He tipped me a penny every pension day,

Fed kindly crusts to winter birds.

When he died, his cottage was robbed,

Mattress and money box torn and searched.

Only the corpse they didn’t disturb.

Maggie Owens was surrounded by animals,

A mongrel bitch and shivering pups,

Even in her bedroom a she-goat cried.

She was a well of gossip defiled,

Fanged chronicler of a whole countryside :

Reputed a witch, all l could find

Was her lonely need to deride.

The Nialls lived along a mountain lane

Where heather bells bloomed, clumps of foxglove.

All were blind, With Blind Pension and Wireless,

Dead eyes serpent-flicked as one entered

To shelter from a downpour of mountain rain.

Crickets chirped under the rocking hearthstone

Until the muddy sun shone out again.

Mary Moore lived in a crumbling gatehouse,

Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable.

Bag-apron and boots, she tramped the fields

Driving lean cattle from a miry stable.

A by-word for fierceness, she fell asleep

Over love stories, Red Stat and Red Circle,

Dreamed of gypsy love rites, by firelight sealed.

Wild Billy Eagleson married a Catholic servant girl

When all his Loyal family passed on :

We danced round him shoutíng ‘To Hell with King Billy`,

And dodged from the arc of his flailing blackthorn.

Forsaken by both creeds, he showed little concern

Until the Orange drums banged past in the summer

And bowler and sash aggressively shone.

Curate and doctor trudged to attend them,

Through knee-deep snow, through summer heat,

From main road to lane to broken path,

Gulping the mountain air with painful breath.

Sometimes they were found by neighbours,

Silent keepers of a smokeless hearth,

Suddenly cast in the mould of death.

Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,

The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,

Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud.

Gaunt figures of fear and of friendliness,

For years they trespassed on my dreams,

Until once, in a standing circle of stones,

I felt their shadows pass

Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.

Now a love poem, a more metaphysical poem, not a poem of << pierres  ancestrales ›> but a poem about the more intimate problems of life which I  have spent a long time trying to explain in my poetry – so long that I cannot  possibly enter into the subject now :


My love, while we talked

They removed the roof. Then

They started on the walls,

Panes of glass uprooting

From timber, like teeth.

But you spoke calmly on,

Your example of courtesy

Compelling me to reply.

When we reached the last

Syllable, nearly accepting

Our positions, I saw that

The floorboards were gone :

lt was clay we stood upon.

I’ll now read a poem which is in a sense a kind of love poem called “The Trout”. As a boy l was not accustomed to something as << classy ›> as a fishing-

rod. l used to tickle trout —  in some way this is a very sensuous action. In a way a kind of preparation for other forms of tickling… So in a sense it is a love poem : it’s about having to touch some other body, with great delicacy.  So this poem is called “The Trout”: and as befits it is a very watery poem :


Flat on the bank I parted

Rushes to ease my hands

ln the water without a ripple

And tilt them slowly downstream

T0 where he lay, tendril light,

In his fluid sensual dream.

Bodiless lord of creation

I hung briefly above him

Savouring my own absence

Senses expanding in the slow

Motion, the photographic calm

That grows before action.

As the curve of my hands

Swung under his body

He surged, with visible pleasure.

l was so preternaturally close

l could count every stipple

But still cast no shadow, until

The two palms crossed in a cage

Under the lightly pulsíng gills.

Then (entering my own enlarged

Shape, which rode on the water)

l gripped. To this day I can

Taste his terror on my hands.

We live in a very, very changing age, and somebody who comes through the North of lreland quite often is astonished by the rate of change. I remember once travelling down from Belfast on a bus –  tranquillement –  I came and had changed buses in Dungannon which is a town l know. I had thought l would go off to see a friend of mine Who owns a public-house – a pub. l went down to see the pub – the pub was gone. And then I came back to catch my bus – and the bus was on fire (rires). So my view of all these things has become almost a kind of surrealism. Somebody that you are talking to might suddenly disappear – phuitt… lt’s not all the lRA… they have got modern methods, they’ve got  technology ; they can transform you  into a plastic bag… So as l think about these things and as l deal with  them – after all there were two people killed in the Champs Elysées  yesterday… This is not just an Irish problem, not just an Ulster problem…  it is now easy to reduce people to nothing. So I made a poem, which l called  “ Ratonnade, The Dance of the Rats”. lt is about the end of all civilization. This is what possibly we face, our << lovely ›> civilization to be dismantled :


Godoi, godoi, godoi!

Our city burns & so did Troy,

Finic, Finic, marshbirds cry

As bricks assemble a new toy.

Godoi, godoi, godoi.

Humble mousewives crouch in caves,

Monster rats lash their tails,

Cheese grows scarce in Kingdom Come,

Rodents leap to sound of drum.

Godoi, etc.

Civilisation slips & slides when

Death sails past with ballroom glide :

Tangomaster of the skulls whose

Harvest lies in griefs & rues.

Godoi, etc.

On small hillsides darkens fire,

Wheel goes up, forgetting tyre,

Grudgery holds its winter court,

Smash and smithereens to report.

Godoi, etc.

Against such horrors hold a cry,

Sweetness mothers us to die,

Wisens digs its garden patch,

Silence lifts a silver latch.

Godoi, etc.

Mingle musk love-birds say,

Honey-hiving all the day,

Ears & lips & private parts,

Muffled as the sound of carts.

Godoi, etc.

Moral is of worsens hours,

Cripple twisting only flowers,

One arm lost, one leg found,

Sad men fall on common ground.


We’ll end on a quieter note. l’m beginning to look at the world from  a higher level. Not necessarily mystic – l don’t like to use the word mystic.  One shouldn’t call oneself a mystic. Well now look at two poems, one called “ Mount Eagle”.  –

  Question : Are you the Eagle ?      : Am l the Eagle (rit) ? And Yeats “the Tower”…       



The eagle looked at this changing world ;

sighed and disappeared into the mountain.

Before he left he had a last reconnoitre :

the multi-coloured boats in the harbour

Noddecl their masts, and a sandy white

crescent of strand smiled back at him.

How he liked the slight, drunk lurch

of the fishing fleet, the ride hoist-

ing them a little, at their ropes’ end.

Beyond, wrack, and the jutting rocks

emerging, slowly, monsters stained

and slimed with strands of seaweed.

Ashore, beached boats and lobster

  pots, settled as hens in the sand.


Content was life in its easiest form ;

another was the sudden, growling storm

which the brooding eagle preferred

bending his huge wings into the winds

wild buffeting, or thrusting down along

the wide sky, at an angle, slideways to

survey the boats, scurrying homewards,

tacking against the now contrary winds,

all of whom he knew by their names.

To be angry in the morning, calmed

by midday, but brooding again in

the evening was all in a day’s quirk

with lengthy intervals for silence,

gliding along, like a blessing, while

the fleet toiled on earnestly beneath

him, bulging with a fine day’s catch.


But now he had to enter the mountain.

Why? Because a cliff had asked him?

The whole world was changing, with one

language dying, and another encroaching,

bright with buckets, cries of children.

There seemed to be no end to them,

and the region needed a guardian —

so the mountain had told him. And

A different destiny lay before him :

to be the spirit of that mountain.

Everyone would stand in awe of him.

When he was wrapped in the mist`s caul

they would withdraw because of him,

peer from behind blind, or curtain.

\When he lifted his wide forehead

bold with light, in the morning,

they would all laugh and smile with him.

lt was a greater task than an eagle`s

aloofness, but sometimes, under his oilskin

of coiled mist, he sighed for lost freedom.

One last poem, “The Well Dreams”, which is also part of my new work.  If one has the mountain, standing up there, one also has the water. Water and stones are two great verities, two great, lasting truths. There is a great deal of water running through my work : you heard “The Trout”. At the centre of the Rough Field you climb up to the source of a river. And at a crucial point in The Dead Kingdom you have” The Well Dreams” which urges you to a kind  of a silence. Let’s concentrate on the well, and see what the well teaches us :


The Well dreams ;

liquid bubbles.

Or it stirs

as a water spider skitters across ;

a skinny legged dancer.

Sometimes, a gross interruption :

a stone plumps in.

That takes a while to absorb,

to digest, much groaning

and commotion in the well’s stomach

before it can proffer again

a nearly sleek surface.

Even a pebble disturbs

that tremor laden meniscus,

that implicit shivering.

They sink towards the floor,

the basement of quiet,

settle into a small mosaic.

And the single eye

of the well dreams on,

a silent cyclops.


People are different.

They live outside, insist

in their world of agitation.

A man comes by himself,

singing or in silence,

and hauls up his bucket slowly –

an act of meditation –

or jerks it up angrily

like lifting a sliver of skin,

sweeping a circle

right through his own reflection.


And the well recomposes itself.

Crowds arrive, annually, on pilgrimage.

Votive offerings adorn the bushes ;

a child’s rattle, hanging silent

(except when the wind touches it)

a tag fluttering like a pennant.

Or a tarnished coin is thrown in,

sinking soundlessly to the bottom.

Waters alchemy washes it clean :

a queen of the realm, made virgin again.


Birds chatter above it.

They are the well’s principal distraction,

swaying at the end of branches,

singing and swaying, darting excitement

of counting and nesting,

fending for the next brood,

Who yet seem the same robin,

thrush, blackbird or wren.

The trees stay stoically silent.

The storms speak through them.

Then the leaves come sailing down,

Sharp green or yellow,

betraying the seasons,

till a flashing shield of ice

forms of the well’s single eye :

the years final gift,

a static transparence.


But a well has its secret.

Under the drifting leaves,

the dormant stones in

the whitewashed wall,

the unpredictable ballet

of waterbugs, insects,

There the spring pulses,

little more than a tremor,

a flickering quiver,

spasms of silence ;

small intensities of mirth,

the hidden laughter of earth.


Maintenant, les questions…

Question : Vous êtes actuellement professeur à l’Université de Cork, dans  le sud de l’lrlande, mais vous vous dites très concerné par ce qui se passe en  Ulster, la terre de vos ancêtres, et aussi par ce qui arrive dans le monde  entier…    :

JM : I always try to understand what is happening in the world, yes I do.  I read The Herald Tribune every day. I am not easy if l don’t understand what is happening in… let’s say in the Middle East even. We are all implicated in this world drama ; we are now members of a global village. And through television we have this global village – television of course is both a curse and a blessing. The blessing is that you can try to understand more people and understand more how they work. So I keep my eye, my eagle eye, on certain facts of the world. Trying to understand it, trying to divine what happens, what might happen. Therefore l think that anything l write does have a sense of that spirit in it. For instance if I write about Belfast I am always thinking of Beyrouth, I am not just thinking of Belfast. lreland is a  third-world country, an extremely poor, << potato >> Republic which shows all the signs of post-colonial trauma. We are a poor, third-world country which has lost its language, placed between two highly industrialised countries, and still keep blathering on…

Question : When you say << we >>, do you mean Ulster, Eire or the whole  island ?

J.M. : Oh I mean the whole island ; this kind of nationalism is definitely  a nineteenth century notion. Ireland should have become a nation round about by 1880 with Gladstone’s Home Rule bills and maybe even have joined with England. l don’t give a damn about that. But nationalism was not allowed to work: and we had the reactions of the Ulster protestants to the Home Rule bills ; and we still have this reaction one hundred years later. And now with the Anglo-Irish agreement which is meant to catch them out, to expose Ulster protestants for what they are … It seems the only operation which can be done – to expose them. I think of the Ulster Protestants, of the extreme Ulster Protestants, l also think about the American South. Protestant Paisley had his degree from Bob Jones University in South  Carolina. l also think of the Brudderkind in South America. I do think South Africa is the last ditch where they hold up and they always think their neighbours are inferior. And there are the Ulster protestants basically the   extreme Ulster protestants. According to what is called the Westminster Confession, they do believe that the Church of Rome is the Scarlet Whore, and that the Pope is anti-Christ. That’s why they can’t associate With us. it’s a very strong, very old fashioned belief. I don’t know whether john Paul the  Second is anti-Christ (Rit), lt certainly makes him sound more glamorous  (rires). But if you have this primitive Protestantism, you have to understand it. So l always read the world news and travel the world ; trying to understand  all the better my own little area.

  Question : You’ve lived in France for a long time and lectured at Vincennes ;  your name points to a French origin ; your first and your second wives are  French. How do you feel about the country, particularly its Celtic fringe in Brittany, and about French poetry ?    :

JM :  Complicated question. i was born the same day as Michel de  Montaigne – same day, same signs  (dans la salle : not same  year – Rires). Well, I could be a reincarnation (Rires). I have always, for  some extraordinary reason, been quite at ease with the French. i like their  wit, l like their joie de vivre. I sometimes don’t like the way they play rugby (Rires, commentaires dans la salle : we’ve beaten you). No, no, you need not be rough. I find perhaps that France is my own opposite. It helps me to put my thoughts in order. Where there was chaos, I can bring some kind of semblance of shape. You ask about Brittany. It is true there is a profound connection between the old stones I was speaking of, and the stones in Brittany. Now you have got a very strange situation in France which is rarely explored, something that you may be afraid to explore. France has got a grafted tongue. French is as Robert Graves said rather cruelly, bad Latin which has been learned at the ‘whips of slave owners. It is not the oldest language in this country ; it is a form of Latin. And there was a language here before. And there was a civilization here before. But the French ignor it, they don’t want to know about it. And they don’t want to know about that ancient Celtic civilization which was up the Rhone valley. They don`t want to know about that. So, there is a grafted tongue here. The Breton civilization is of course based upon the exiles of Wales ; they were all Britons. l don’t feel as  much sympathy with them as I would have with – let’s say the Scots who speak a different form of Gaelic. So, really it’s quite complicated. l am curious  as to why the French have buried their Gaulish past and yet when they are  looking for a great national leader, they choose somebody callecl Charles de  Gaulle (Rires).    (Dans la salle : this is a Flemish name).    : Why, do you think he is a fraud too ? (Rires).

  When l began to read poetry l was very conscious of the great achievements of the French during the nineteenth century : Charles Baudelaire, Arthur  Rimbaud jules Laforgue Tristan Corbiere, Gerard de Nerval… This  is great poetry. And. even during the last war there were still poets who could reach an audience. Poetry became the voice of France during the last war with  the call to arms of people like Eluard, René Char even André Frenaucl… and there is a generation of great French poets including Pong but they are not  known in this country. They are not read very much. are they ? They are not, not even the young poets – the French poets of my generation delight in being unreadable – lls prennent plaisir à être illisibles. Des hommes très  intelligents, comme Michel Deguy, Andre du Bouchet. You don’t bring them  to bed with you to read (Rires). You don’t bring them to read to your loved ones. They don’t rise off your tongue naturally. And l is that sad. French  poetry en face de la société de consommation has lost its nerve…

  After the great generation of Baudelaire, Laforgue, , the French  poets took example on Mallarmé and Valery and became very  “hermétiques” – and so they don’t reach out to the audience. I get along with them,  yes, l have great friends among them, Michel Deguy, Robert Marteau, Claude  Esteban, but they are not translatable easily into English. None of the major French poets – Jouve, Char, Ponge, Bonnefoy Guillevic _- have been  translated into English in any serious way. The great exchange with France  took place With TS. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but they were interested mainly  in the French poets of the late nineteenth century. They had few exchanges with living French poets. TS.Eliot puhlished some Valery in The Criterion, but that is not to be regarded as a living contact. It’s only David Gascoyne  and myself who have tried to undergo the French experience. l enjoyed it,  but l was always aware it was almost a handicap. The English distrust the French mind, they do not wish to hear about poetry. They regard it as a very wrong kind of poetry. You yourself say you would need some lectures to understand French poets to-day – and they are the poets of your own country ! They should be able to be read as they are. They are trop  << herrnétiques ›>. Leur écriture est trop travaillée. C’est pas fait pour être lu.  Si vous prenez les grands poèmes de Ted Hughes, comme « The Pike » ou ses  poèmes sur les saumons, un poète français n’écrira jamais  Parce que c’est  folklorique. C’est pas << intello ›>.On ne peut pas le publier dans Tel Quel,  les revues de poésie… There has been a << rupture >>, a break between the  French poet and his audience. He would have it that it’s his audience who  is to blame, et que dans cette grande société de consommation, les gens ne  sont pas intéressés par les choses de l’esprit. Le poète français est  complètement isole. Il écrit pour les autres poètes, pour << les intellos ›>. lls  sont intimidés aussi par tous ces grands critiques, Lacan, Chomski, Roland  Barthes Jakobson. Alors un poème semble très petit, très court, à côté de ces  grands messieurs. Pourtant C’est God’s Gift pour le département d’Anglais,  Lacan, les sémiologistes, les structuralistes, tout ça… Parce que la plupart cles  universitaires ont peur de la poésie. lit could bite them (Rit). So when they  see a poem, they place it into a straight-jacket. On l’analyse. Un poème pour  l’universitaire, c’est pas un poème, c’est un texte. Et dans la Nouvelle Critique,  le lecteur est aussi important que le poète. Il est créatif aussi. C’est de la  connerie totale.

  NOTES  Les poèmes cités figurent dans Selected Poems, OUP, 1982, à l’exception de << Ratonnade ›> tiré  de A Slow Dance, Dolmen Press et OUP, 1975.

  Deux éditions bilingues de poèmes de John Montagne ont paru au printemps 1988 :    La langue Greffée, Paris, Belin, Préface de Jacques Darras, Poèmes traduits par J. Darras,  C. Esteban, S. Fauchereau.-P. Paye, C. Hubin, P. Rafroidi, C. Vespeyen-Maestrini.

  Amours, Marée; (The Tide of Love), Bordeaux, William Blake and Co, Préface de John  Montague, Traduction par le collectif du Groupe d`Etudes et de Recherche Britanniques de  l’Université de Bordeaux3  (J. Briat, M. Duclos,_J. Monbet, N. Ollier, A. Perez, M. Scott).  ×

Publié dans ÉTUDES IRLANDAISES, no XIV-2, Décembre 1989, 89-101.