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20th-Century French Poems
edited by Stephen Romer
Faber (2003), £10.99
ISBN 0571196837


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The epigraph to Romer's anthology is from Apollinaire's "The Pretty Redhead":

Between ourselves my friends and for ourselves
I shall judge this long quarrel between tradition and invention
Between Order and Adventure
Order and adventure; tradition and invention: this anthology helps us to chart the movement of French poetry in the twentieth century between these two poles. Yet adventure/invention and order/tradition have diverse implications, different valencies at different periods during the century. The French have been most adventurous in their exploration of metaphysics through poetry. Yves Bonnefoy, in particular, has devoted his life to a continuous exploration, through his poetry, essays and translations, of what it means to exist. He has made for himself a poetics of rigorous clarity and lucid deliberation, but to achieve this he had to overcome the obstacle presented by surrealism.

Like its precursor Dadaism, surrealism made an attempt to sever the bonds prescribed by tradition. But while Dadaism revelled in the aftermath of a true break from its precursors, in so-called 'anti-art', Surrealism took its cue from the cubist poets. The cubists and their contemporaries were intoxicated by the possibilities offered by the train: 'The first time I felt all the douceur de vivre / Was in a compartment on the Northern Express, between Wierballen and Pskow,' wrote Cendrars. The rapprochement of formerly distant cities corresponded to the abrupt juxtaposition of disparate imagery in the cubists' poetry, which led some to compare it to the work of Picasso, Braque and Gris. The surrealists intended more than a dislocation of images: they sought to effect a cultural and psychological revolution. Their focus was on perception, psychology, the relationship of the mind to the world, a relationship that could take unexpected forms. As Apollinaire wrote in the Preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias: 'Quand l'homme a voulu imiter la marche, il a crée la roue qui ne ressemble pas à une jambe. Il a fait ainsi du surréalisme sans le savoir. [When Man wanted to imitate walking, he invented the wheel, which looks nothing like a leg. He was thus a surrealist without knowing it]'. Yet eventually the strictures of a manifesto hobbled true invention, and the movement, as Bataille complained, was formally and linguistically conservative.

It was this semantic complacency, coupled with a suspicion of surrealism's aims, which led the poet Yves Bonnefoy to abandon the movement and search for a way to express himself by which 'we might not lose contact with any of the polysemy of our language'. It was Bonnefoy's intention to recover the existence of things obscured by the quotidian abuse of language:
Décrucifiée. Chanvre de l'apparence
Enfin rouie.
                     "La Terre"
Uncrucified. Hemp of appearance
Retted at last.]
                     "The Earth", trans. John Naughton
In his poetics, circumspection takes on the highest importance: a distrust of what is on the surface of language goes hand-in-hand with the notion that there is some deeper level of being, or of meaning, occluded by mere appearance. It is this suspicion of the homogenising influence of the powers-that-be that Roland Barthes identified as the hallmark of literature. Yves Bonnefoy, like his friend Paul Celan, though perhaps for less urgent reasons, felt he had to go back to the essential images (Dupin's 'library of stones'). Verbal asceticism and the stripping of all linguistic luxuriance is allied to a more general concern with the destruction of the old order and the beginning of a new, confirming, as Romer has put it in one of his own poems, 'the bitter grounds for gladness':
C'est d'un bois ténébreux que la flamme s'exalte.
[It is from the dark wood that the flame will leap.]
                     Untitled, trans. Galway Kinnell
Jaccottet verifies the trajectory from destruction to creation:
Comme le feu, l'amour n'établit sa clarté
que sure la faute et la beauté des bois en cendres
[Love, like fire, can only reveal its brightness
on the failure and the beauty of the burnt word]
                     "Ignorance", trans. Derek Mahon
This verbal asceticism is also consonant with the subversion of which Edmond Jabès wrote: 'Subversive, the page where words believe they will find a foothold; subversive, the word where the page opens onto its whiteness.' So adventure or subversion again shows itself as a defining trait, this time at the level of the word itself.

'Parole / Décrucifiée', wrote Bonnefoy in "La Terre": 'Speech uncrucified'. As Christ is condemned to be crucified by the public authorities, so language is rendered inert, bloodless on the rood of common use and abuse. To uncrucify speech is to vivify it, to resurrect it. Perhaps to be uncrucified is also to enter the underworld, the realm of the dead. A common element to the medieval English mystery plays was Christ's harrowing of hell; and his descent into Hades in order to liberate the righteous souls contains parallels to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It also resonates with the story of Aeneas conversing with the dead: speech in the underworld takes on a preternatural importance, has clairvoyant power. Bonnefoy seeks to sustain this tradition of poetic strength, to drag, like Orpheus with his lyre, the dead and inert back to life.

Of course 'Speech uncrucified' could also imply a reversal, a negation of the crucifixion, and a yearning for a pre-Christian era. The Christian concept of a second world, in comparison to which this world is a shadowy antechamber, is fundamentally opposed to Bonnefoy's poetics, in which he seeks to prove, in all senses of the word, our inheritance here, in this world. This inheritance, the 'terre seconde', or 'vrai lieu' is to be established through the act of speech itself. In a kind of transubstantiation simple, plain words like 'le pain' or 'le vin' will shed their conceptual skins, and incarnate the 'second earth', the 'true place'. Perhaps the phrase 'Speech uncrucified' signals a desire to rehabilitate the intimate relationship with nature felt by the pagans, while at the same time dissolving the metaphysical contract with the afterlife.

As a translator of Shakespeare and Yeats, Bonnefoy is particularly sensitive to the problems engendered by the differences between the two languages. The reductive vocabulary and intellectual stringency that mark much French poetry often tastes strange to the English palate, and the reader might detect an insubstantiality, an absence of the tactile, weighable texture of the English line. Bonnefoy has written, 'English concerns itself naturally with tangible aspects. It accepts the reality of what can be observed and does not admit the possibility of any other kind, of another order of reality; it has a natural affinity with the Aristotelian critique of Platonic ideas.' The invocation of Aristotle, that great taxonomist, sheds light on the essential difference between the list-making, object-worshipping poetry of English-speakers, and the metaphysical Francophone lyric. Yet Bonnefoy meant something that goes deeper than poetic utterance: he was referring to the very nature of the two languages, opening the door onto the relationship between language and the way we perceive and order the world.

This adds an ontological weight to the translator's already considerable burden. Bonnefoy said: 'The confrontation of two languages in a translation is a metaphysical and moral experiment, the "testing" of one way of thinking by another'. In transferring a poem from one language to another, the translator needs to preserve intact, so far as he can, not only the work's poetic value, the poem qua poem, but also, if possible, the dense Weltanschauung implicit in the words of the source language. No wonder Bonnefoy also wrote: 'You can't translate a poem'. What the translator can do, though, is try to construct a work in the target language that will carry some of the freight of the original, and which, importantly, will be a poem in its own right. This requires a translator who is also a practitioner of poetry in his or her own language. Bonnefoy again: 'if [the translator] is himself a writer he will be unable to keep his translating separate from his own work'. Dryden corroborates this: 'to be a thorow Translatour, he must be a thorow Poet.' Perhaps the happiest marriage of translator and translatee occurs where both parties share similar occupations. Compare this, by John Montague:
To be
a rock down
which rain pours,
a granite jaw
slowly discoloured
with this, from his translation of Guillevic's Carnac:
You dream of rocks
To fashion yourself a skeleton.

Go on, go on,
Caress them with your waves

And remain invertebrate.
Or compare Saint-John Perse's mandarin utterances with those of his translator Eliot; or Jaccottet's poetry, 'made,' as Romer says in his introduction, 'of patience and of modest observance and of small events' with that of his translator, Derek Mahon. The chief failing of this otherwise useful anthology is the absence of parallel texts: without them, the refractive influence of the translator is emphasised at the expense of the original.

As a poem crosses the threshold between two languages (though how to locate that threshold with any precision?), something immeasurable is lost, and if we're lucky, something is gained. Bonnefoy's fourth collection, Dans le leurre du seuil (In the lure of the threshold), has an epigraph from The Winter's Tale (translated by Bonnefoy in 1994). A witness is describing the appearance of Leontes and Camillo when Perdita is discovered:
They look'd as they had heard of a world ransom'd, or one destroyed.
For Bonnefoy, the epigraph incorporates concerns regarding his work which go beyond the scope of this essay, but the situation provides an appropriate analogue for the process of translation. A translation, in one respect, redeems the original, in that it propagates it abroad, lends it life, while at the same time dismembering it. When the word returns from its sojourn in the underworld, it is legitimate to wonder what has been ransomed, and what destroyed.


© Signals 2004