Saturday, April 11, 2015

20th Century French Poems edited by Stephen Romer

The first poem in this anthology was written in 1903 the last in 1999 and with around 200 poems in the collection it provides an interesting overview of 20th century French poetry. The editor happily admits in the preface, that it can be no more than that & the collection should be seen as though it were a wine tasting, with the idea that a little of each can go a long way to inspiring you to try those you like in greater depth, to explore them further.

 A personal example of this would be my recent discovery of the writer Jules Supervielle, a writer I liked but knew nothing of beyond a couple of poems, this lead me to investigating more & writing a post about him, purely as a way of learning more about this individual. Stephen Romer also goes on to say that the emphasis in this anthology is on the poems not the poet, meaning that there is no significance into how many poems a particular poet is represented by. Another point raised in the preface is that this is not a bilingual edition.
 Romer’s reasoning on this is lack of space, and that to have made it so would have doubled the size of the anthology, so he chose to concentrate on the quality of the translation, following Antoine Berman’s criteria for evaluating translation of éthicité and poéticitè, that is, faithfulness to the original and the poetic quality of the translation. Stephen Romer follows this criteria by seeking out versions that work as poems in English and where he couldn’t find then commissioned them, he also states that the majority of the translations were made by practising poets.

The Man of Glass ~ Paul Valéry (1871- 1945)

“So sharp is my vision, so pure my senses, so pathologically
complete my knowledge, so clear and clean my image, so
keen my expertise that I know myself from the ends of the
world to my innermost speech: and from that inchoate
“thing” to the rising desire, I follow my progress along
familiar fibres and ordered centres – self-answering,
self-reflecting, self-echoing – I quiver in the infinity of
mirrors – I am made of glass.”                   (Trans: Stephen Romer)

In the introduction to 20th Century French Poems, Romer uses Paul Valéry’s diminutive & amusingly titled “Complete Poem”(1903)* as his starting point  and then goes on to chart the rise and fall of the different movements in French poetry of the twentieth century. Ranging from those that he sees as heralding in the century such as Valéry, Jarry & Roussel, who he deems as the precursors through fourteen categories such as the “Modern Age” Apollinaire, Cendrars & Reverdy through the likes of “Dada” Tzara, Breton and the “Surrealists” Eluard, Aragon, Desnos, Artuard & Prévert, and onto those he defines as “Poets of being & presence” Char, Bonnefoy, Jacottet & Dupin, working his way through the century & the schisms that developed during that period.

Features and Shapes ~ Pierre Reverdy (1889 – 1960)

A break in the clouds, with blue in the sky; in the forest,
The clearings all green: but in the city where the design
Holds us prisoner – the semi-circular arch of the porch, the
Rectangles of windows, the lozenges of roofs,
   Lines, nothing but lines, for the commodiousness of
Human buildings.
   And in my head, lines, nothing but lines; if only I could
put a little order there.                            (Trans: Martin Bell)

The last poet featured in this anthology, Valérie Rouzeau was born in 1967 & the last poem (I put on my walking shoes*) was written in 1999 which nicely rounds off the century & also, according to the editor, is seen as a “return to the lyric” or even as a return to the world, an idea that had been considered remote and attenuated during the intellectual severity of the 1970s. The group defined as “The New LyricRéda, Kaddour, Rouzeau, Goffette, Ortlieb, & Le Jéloux, although a diverse bunch, owe their prominence to one man, Jacques Réda, who during this period was editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française (1987-96) and who in rejecting “textuality” sought for  the wonderful, the magic in the face of passers-by or in the change of light reflecting off surfaces. He saw in this idea a return to the earlier ideals of the “flânerie” whose greatest exponents were Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

Breakfast ~ Jacques Prévert (1900 – 1970)

He put the coffee
In the cup
He put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the café au lait
With the coffee spoon
He stirred
He drank the café au lait
And he set down the cup
Without a word to me
He lit
A cigarette
He made smoke-rings
With the smoke
He put the ashes
In the ash-tray
Without a word to me
Without a look at me
He got up
He put
His hat upon his head
He put his raincoat on
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without a look at me
And I  _.  I took
My head in my hand
And I cried.         (Trans: Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

As stated previously the editor sees this anthology as no more than a wine tasting, merely a small representation of French poetry in the 20th century, making this post at most, a quick trip round the French wine section of my local supermarket. There are many big names, important poets that I’ve not included due to this being a post on a small poetry blog, hence no Genet, Césaire, no Beckett, Jacob, or Queneau, these and many more are represented in this collection and as such serves it’s ambition admirably & serves it with a passion that is almost asking you to argue the selection, knowing that it has the subject well and truly covered. In fact my only query is minor as I don’t speak French &  Stephen Romer, has already answered it & that is this is not bilingual, minor quibble, in what is a great introduction to a fascinating subject.

The Offended ~ Anne Hébert (1916-2000)

By rank of hunger, the indigents were lined up
By rank of anger, the seditious were examined
By rank of good conscience, the masters were judged
By rank of offense, the humiliated were interrogated
By rank of mutilation, the crucified were considered
In this extreme misery the mutes came to the front lines
A whole nation of mutes stayed on the barricades
Their desire for the word was so urgent
That the verb came through the streets to meet them
The burden it was charged with was so heavy
That the cry “fire” exploded from its heart
Disguised as a word.              (Trans: A. Poulin. Jr)

Stephen RomerFRSL is an English poet, academic and literary critic. He was born in Hertfordshire in 1957 and educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Since 1981 he has lived in France, where he is Maître de Conferences in the English department of Tours University. He has been three times Visiting Professor in French at Colgate University, New York. Stephen Romer has four published collections of poetry with the Oxford Poets imprint of Carcanet.

* Complete Poem ~ Paul Valéry

The sky is bare. The smoke floats. The wall shines.
Oh! How I should like to think clearly!   (Trans: Stephen Romer)

*I put on my walking shoes - Valérie Rouzeau

I put on my walking shoes
I had shown you with the soles retreaded
from old tires.
In pilgrim boats I floated to you
petals stuck to the leather as proofs
of my wishes on the way.
I know you've a good pair too
on your cold feet I know that
better than you and how does it help you.
I wanted to see you to empty
the sand eternally in my shoes to be your
little sand girl for a bit but you have
shut your eyes too tight.


Brian Joseph said...

I think a sampler like this can be very enjoyable and enlightening for someone like me who does not know much about French poets.

A Bilingual edition of this would have been something that I could have used. Though I am not, my wife is fluent in French and we could have explored the poems together with added dimension.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Brian , I think that was the editors intention, as such it is a success as you get an overview of French poetry during this period with the idea that you can take it further if you want. As to it being bilingual it would have been a better book but it would have been a lot larger & a lot more expensive.