On Poetry

Poetry is probably one of the most ancient human enterprises. And precisely one of the few that sets man apart from beast. It is not unconceivable, then, that such an antique should have received multiple definitions, each of them incompatible with the others.

I would not run the risk of suggesting one more. Not with so many experts present! Moreover, a scruple is holding me back, and I shall not conceal it: I am far from convinced that poetry is one; I mean, that the status of its discourse is unique, that there should be only one possible Code of lyricism; I am of a contrary sentiment: I believe, quite to the contrary, that poetry is multiple.

*

This is not exactly a certainty for contemporary poets, at least for the most famous of them, nor is it one for the best established critics. After they all agreed that poetry is indefinable, they refer, as often as not, without any formal explanation, to the same implicit concept.

It is as if they believed in the existence of one true poetry, the only authentic and orthodox one, to the exclusion of all others, which would be heretical or false: they praise poetical meaning and poetical truth in the works of those authors who revere their dogmas, while condemning as “prosaic” or “versified prose” all other works — the works of the idolaters.

Take the “Diaries” of Jean Cocteau. Cocteau’s judgment is severe against his, shall we say, “competitors”? It is as if he was sure to hold discriminating criteria authorizing him to pass judgment on the poetical value of a poet.

And behold! Without wavering he sets himself as a yardstick. Against the false poetry of Carne’s film “Les visiteurs du soir,” he pitches the true poetry of his own picture: “L’Eternel retour.”

He is not the only one to rely on his own self.

In an old issue of Les Temps Modernes, Nathalie Sarraute quotes a few lines from a famous poet who has just died. She labels them “pompous and flat.” The lady feels no hesitation! She does not introduce the slightest touch of relativity.

She might have said: “according to my taste,” Well, she does not! She pronounces, she condemns, she executes. She is sure of herself. She is one more guardian of the absolute standard; because she adheres to that “established” ideology dominant for half a century. (I have used the word “ideology”; to be in the trend, I should have said “doxa” or “vulgate”.)

Nothing has changed since; the almost official creed of that time still prevails, almightily, on the Republic of Letters. Let us linger a little over that persisting doctrine.

In a paper titled “Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves” (swarming city, full of dreams), and devoted to Baudelaire, Philippe Soupault praises “the revolution that was prompted by the renaissance and liberation of French poetry at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th.” (Doubtless poetry had been both dead and enslaved at the time.)

Soupault assures us that Baudelaire’s admirers “have always wondered at the difficulty he had to free himself from the formulas, the rules, the interdicts that, since Ronsard, had always thwarted the lyrical impetus of French poets.”

Quoting the dedicatory lines of Les Fleurs du Mal, Soupault presents Gautier as “the representative of those so sterile aesthetics called “art for art’s sake,” the definer of prosody and versification at their most rigid,” who “renounced the conquests of romanticism in the field of poetry.” And Soupault insists: “Baudelaire fights more or less consciously to free himself. He will not succeed until he begins writing poems in prose” — those of “Le Spleen de Paris.”

Peremptory tones. So, poor Baudelaire would have only suffered setbacks, before writing “Le Spleen.” Are you charmed by “L’Invitation au Voyage”? Well! You are wrong! “L’invitation au Voyage” is a flop of impotence. The true Baudelaire is in “Le Spleen de Paris.” A recent anthology gives more space to his poems in prose than to his versified poems; it does not even consider “L’Invitation au Voyage”! In his Golden Book, Seghers himself ignores “La Vie Antérieure”. I have chosen Baudelaire deliberately because, in a “Projected Foreword to Les Fleurs du Mal he is clearer than anyone could be: “Poetry touches music by prosody, whose roots plunge more deeply into the human soul than has been shown by any classical theory.” He goes even so far as to write: “A poet, who does not know exactly how many rhymes a word comprises, is incapable of expressing any idea whatsoever.”

I owe you a confession: despite Philippe Soupault, I have not burnt my copy of Les Fleurs du Mal.

*

So, we must believe that, around the end of the 19th Century, the Poets solemnly broke their chains, to enter, leading the procession of Muses, in the dazzling Era of FREE poetry.

A little later, to consecrate this admirable act of emancipation, Dada and Surrealism launched a cultural Revolution, after which the Chinese one was to be only a small matter; and from then on we have KNOWN what is the true poet: he is that libertarian repudiating the whole lot of structures regulated by “fixed forms,” of those traditional types that are cadenza, rhythm, rhyme, and every metrical or strophic arrangement, as so many restraints unbearable to a MODERN muse.

Since we have been subjected to Freedom, the manner prevails of a particular style, which I will call “oraculous” or “oracular” and which, according to its admirers, would be the style of the eternal “Orphism.” It is obvious – and mostly strange – that its advocates or eulogists refuse the traditions, challenge the proof of centuries, neglect or deny the results of an indefinitely confirmed experience and the reasonable capitalization of its assets. They regard as crippled or annihilated the long and universal history of “regulated” poetry and will have the adventure of lyricism start with the birth of “free verse.”

Oyez, Oyez! The Avant Garde execrates formalism.

Outside this school, no one shall be saved! There is none other to be heard. Am I deaf? Open your ears: listen by yourselves. Browse the recent “anthologies” – I have just bought one: it presents forty contemporary poets. I refrain from pronouncing over their mastery: I observe only that all of them, without a single exception, serve the cult of free verse.

This dogma, exclusive and immutable, has ruled for such a long time that I wonder at its inertia. How can it be that no one ever dares to criticize the poets of this persuasion? Nor jeopardize the glory of the most famous of them? Theatre and cinema critics have no qualms about denigrating, as “dated” or out of fashion, shows that were born only a short time ago. At a very recent rerun at the theatre, a chronicler declared: “Let sleeping classics lie.” The slumbering classic was none other but Ionesco!

Could we imagine such inertia in painting? Imagine that painters should have had to bear six decades of immobility, as we do today. Van Gogh, for instance, would have had to paint like David! Absurd, you think. But what else are we doing if we are, in our days, unable to get away from Eluard or Char? I see there a bad omen. There is always an audience for the theatre or the cinema, but what about poetry? The theatre moves; it is alive. Poetry is inert; could it be dead?

*

As it condemns classical prosody, the dogma I am questioning is all but uninvolved. Keeping the rules is hard: you cannot just follow the Muse with a flowing pen. One must forever search.

And be criticized! For nothing is easier to ridicule than a fixed form poem: the weaknesses, the borrowed stuff, the contradictions, the padding, jump to the eye. It is trickier to judge a text of random writing, of which one must first query and grasp the meaning.

Claudel dedicated a beautiful poem to Verlaine, bowing to his art and talent. About his own work, he is quite sincere: he frankly confesses that rhymes are a nuisance to him. He recognizes their virtue: that of discovering unexpected beauties. But they entangle him; he gets off by falling back to fixed forms. Thus does he make his work easier; perhaps too easy. Sometimes I wonder if such a plenitude of sublime verses does not reveal more prolixity than concentration in his mind.

Now Verlaine is the complete opposite! Already the Poémes Saturniens show that he has all the vocabulary and syntax he needs, better than anyone, the most subtle resources in the play of rhythm and rhyme.

Les sanglots longs
Des violons…

 

(The long sobbing / of violins)

The shorter the metre (and here it is at his shortest), the more imperious is the rhythm, the more sensitive the rhyme. Change a word, only one word, to a synonym: the charm vanishes.

How wonderful, too, is the breaking of the division playing on the words:

Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la.
Feuille morte.

(Hither, thither/ as a falling leaf)

The metre forces the voice to a slight suspense after ” Deçà, delà ” and after “Pareil à  la” that he moves away from “Feuille morte.” The effect is in this short rhythmic pause, in this rejection that suggests so well the emotion of wandering, by representing the flight, vagrant, balanced and as it were hesitating, of a falling leaf. You shall have guessed that I am inordinately fond of those lines.

*

Above all, above all, the charm, that is, the magic, of classical verse, is that it will persist in haunting the memory: a beautiful line strikes the mind; it inscribes itself into it — we memorize this strange combination of syllables and reproduce it without any effort. We know it by heart, as the saying goes so aptly. I shall suggest this counter-evidence.

A writer – I forget which – tells that as a prisoner in Germany during the war he filled his forced leisure by reciting to his fellows in captivity all that he remembered of French poetry. He was annoyed to discover that, if he did master the essential classical poems, he was on the contrary unable to remember those verses, surely very beautiful, but “free,” too free, of his poet friends. Free verse is mostly free to desert memory!

By the way, what could be more disconcerting that this present proscription of rhythm and rhyme when they conquer everywhere else? They are in jazz, in dance music, particularly that sort of rocking, racking, rapping stuff that batters our eardrums with its deafening tattoo—Rhyme and rhythm you find also in commercial advertisements. Even the political slogans, bawled in the streets, are cadenced and assonant…

How could poets be the only ones to refrain from using this most powerful of their means?

This nefarious ideology has been imposing its hold for so long that I am surprised not to have heard it denounced yet as “single-thought,” “dictatorship,” or “intellectual terrorism.” Our times like those sorts of big words.

*

The vice of a “creed” is to blind the believer. Woe to him who deviates! The sentence does not wait! Poor Baudelaire knew something of it, having his own vision. Sainte-Beuve had the vision of his time, as is amply shown by his own poems; as a result, this so highly respected critic did not see who Baudelaire was. This was unfortunate.

Anatole France, himself a poet, was also heavily in the wrong when he refused to publish Mallarme’s “Faune” in the third number of his “Parnasse Contemporain.” Are not such instances of blindness scary and saddening?

Are we safe from them? Are we ourselves lucid and pure? Are our disdains and our praises better founded? It is a strange thing that it should be unseemly, not only to disparage, but even to express a doubt about our fashionable writers and artists, while, taught by the experience of centuries, we know that glories pass.

*

I shall dare more: on which side are the baroque, the mannerisms and the precociousness?

Tes yeux sont si profonds que me penchant pour boire,
J’ai vu tous les soleils y venir se mirer,
S’y jeter à mourir tous les désespérés

(Thine eyes are so deep that on bending to drink
I have seen all the suns gazing at their image
And bending to their death all the hopeless souls.)

I like those lines of Aragon, but this does not hold me from judging that they are precious. I do not detest, far from it, all “precious” poetry. However, I call “precious” a text of which the images are so far-fetched that they become unbearable on reflection; how natural is it to imagine eyes such as one could drink out of them or, even worse, drown oneself in them as one could in a pond? Is this not aggravated baroque? I should greatly fear a Moliere reviving in our days; I can hear from here the bitter railings of his Alceste!

Valery passes as precious, but is he really so, in comparison? It happens that in one alexandrine in his “Narcisse,” desperate souls also plunge into water; but it is into a river, not in anybody’s eyes.

Similarly, it seems to me that “La mer, la mer toujours recommencée” is an unexpected expression, but a simple and natural one; almost a naïve one. On the contrary, if the term of “preciousness” has any meaning, “La terre est bleue comme une orange,” that line from Eluard that I have so often heard quoted in delight, is in my guilty eyes an eminently precious line. Here, also, I can see the face that Moliere would pull…

I am that I may shock. Yet I do not look forward to being provoking. On that point, I am only challenging an invincible, though implicit, reasoning that works in the shadows of our conscience: it is indeed to their great honour that the poets from the years immediately after the war should come from the Résistance. But this militant origin persuades us, as if it were self-evident, that men of action, brave men, fighting men cannot be precious poets. Well! For me, a precious poet who has been a great Résistant, nevertheless is a precious poet!

Precociousness, mannerisms, the baroque…it is high time to revise some judgments. Well! Shall we dare decide by ourselves? Shall we forget what was inculcated into us, for many decades, by two literary reviews of great prestige, friends of a powerful political Party?

*

Everyone must think with one’s own mind. I have a rebel mind, extremely attached to historical relativity.

Sceptic as I am, I cannot bear that anyone whatsoever should decree what is Truth, in literature as in all things. In consequence, I resist the idolatry of believing that there should be only one poetry, good poetry, poetry of a settled type, with neat and demonstrable characteristics, while all the other kinds of poetry would be bad. I object to such authoritativeness. The nature of poetry is neither unique nor exclusive. Poetry presents as many different types as there are different types of sensitiveness (or insensitivity). Thus several types of poetry have always coexisted.

As any individual, every epoch, every civilization, and even every social group has its own tastes, and its own momentary idea of TRUTH.

Preferences and ideals substitute each other as time flows. From there come the changes, disappearances and revivals, that make the versatile History of Letters and Arts.

Along the centuries, many a golden mouth has lost its glitter, and found it again subsequently.

The early Christians believed that pagan literature was the work of the Devil: their zealots threw thousands of rolls into the pyres.

Isidore (I mean Saint Isidore) of Sevilla (560-636) had little taste for Horace, Virgil and Ovid, whom he belittles under “sweet, nimble-tongued PRUDENTIUS” and “eloquent AVITUS”. As we happen to have different criteria now, we have lost for Prudentius and Avitus the loving eyes of the holy bishop. How many ancient works only survived through the fragments quoted by Christian authors wanting to refute them? Happily, the Swan of Mantua, not being deemed demonic, survived more or less in the scriptoria of monasteries, while Lucretius, a victim of religious prejudice, disappeared until the 15th Century. At least he was lucky not to end entirely in cinders! Not to mention sceptical Empiricus, of whom many scripts are gone. The fire got the better of him.

Dominating standards follow each other, reacting against each other. Sceve appears, disappears, appears again. “At last MALHERBE came”, who treated so ill DESPORTES; yet we read perhaps this one more than the former. Yes! Malherebe did come. But he went away! And now he is coming back in our time, and even, he might be our greatest lyric poet, according to Ponge. Boileau enjoyed an immense authority: now we hardly quote more than three or four of his aphorisms. The abbé Delille does not move us much, nor should we dare subscribe to the judgment of Voltaire, venturing in 1773 to say that Saint-Lambert’s “Les Saisons” would be the only work of his century to be remembered by posterity. Posterity forgets.

Posterity has not been more indulgent in other times for many other famous people: in 1890, for instance, Mallarme was small fry, but Jules Janin, Arséne Houssaye and Catulle Mendes were considerable persons. And so much for so many Masters, whose names got lost in time. The scholar is reduced to delving into the cellars of libraries, to dig out some of these forgotten glories, so forgotten they are!

*

When I started in poetry, six decades ago, the dogma of free verse was triumphant. Aragon and Genet were two respected exceptions, but they had no followers. Apprentices would rather follow Eluard and Char.

I experienced this very soon. Having founded, with a few fellow-students, a tiny literary magazine, I submitted a sonnet to our very first board of readers, a frank and honest sonnet: A sonnet! Fie! At the following meeting, I submitted another one in disguise: to disarticulate the form, I broke the text into periods, stopping before or after the rhyme, but most emphatically not on it. That hoax went unperceived. (By the way, I do not think such a trick could be played on me now: my ear would hear the cadenza.)

At the time, I wondered if the amateurs were really endowed with sensitivity and I measured, on those who lacked it, the power of fashion.

I had already noted, during my college years, that few professors had a real taste for poetry. How many in our days would be able to teach a minimum of prosody?

In the garrets that we inhabited at the time, poor students that we were, we declaimed poems together; who reads any nowadays, under the roofs?

I saw dwindle gradually the prestige of poetry and poets in the public mind; the last event that made any sort of noise was the publishing of “Le Fou d’Elsa.” Aragon again, prince of Communism, had, as the saying goes “a captive audience.” After that: nothing, or almost nothing.

I was discovering mass civilization. This is not the place to discuss it; however I shall tell you coarsely that I see in it “The glorification of the yob and the hussy”.

Those tawdry forms of entertainment I reproach mainly for contaminating and polluting the more elaborated forms of cultural activity. But in our days, ivory towers are not airtight anymore. A kind of contagion imposes the most popular standards and models, that are also the less refined.

I find it rather sad to read in “Le Monde” dated August 29, that “A work by a German artist, Gustav Metzeger (76 yrs old) was thrown in the garbage can by a cleaner of the Tate Britain in London, then recuperated in extremis.” The masterpiece was a dust bag, filled with bits of cardboard and old newspapers.” Of course there have always been impostors and clowns. But it passes understanding that so many of them should parade to-day upstage, in front of intimidated elites.

*

This is the demoralizing climate in which I began – a long time ago – to believe I had a lyrical vocation, and to follow it. I was not twenty. Yet I felt confused, discouraged.

In consequence, I opted for silence and became an activist, an angry activist, of what I called PRIVATE ART.

I do not flatter myself that I invented the thing. I am far from being the only one to practise it! In all times, and especially in barbarous times, there have been men of the mind who reflected and worked, without caring about making themselves known. They toiled for themselves, for themselves only, and also, sometimes, for a few of their peers. In a letter to Duhamel, Valery mentions those convents of the High Middle Ages, where monks would compose, in hexameters of harsh darkness, immense poems for nobody, as civilization was crumbling around their cloisters.

Closer to us, admirable private letters and diaries have been exhumed from trunks in attics. As often as not they emanated from women, so there never had been any question of printing them! And now we discover how much these secret manuscripts are worth reading. And how much they outclass many a masculine novel. As “private art,” let us also think of those masterpieces that have not been executed in any lasting matter, writing, painting, bronze or marble. Nobody will ever know what wonders of delicacy some loves have been or what miracle of improbability the successful education of a child was.

Private art is art. I became an adept of it. A solitary by inclination, yielding to my tastes – particularly to my distastes – I have, for half a century, accumulated notes, research, sketches of all sorts. I “worked for my drawer.” (The formula is from Pierre Louis). In the same way, without bothering anyone, quiet in their corner, the “Sunday painters” daub on their canvas.

*

Fortunately, one can always change one’s mind!

First a suspicion came to me against the singularity of my refusal. I discovered that I was far from being alone. If a doubt came to me about some famous person, my doubt was shared. If I attempted some reserve against a popular poet, my reserve met with approbation; if I dared to criticize a fashionable critic, my criticism met with an echo. If I pushed the daring to call vulgar the genius of a famous painter, someone would exclaim: “At last! Here is a man who thinks as I do!”

I was meeting more and more people of my kind. And we wondered at our numbers.

Invited to join several cultural clubs, I discovered that many of their members were poets; and, more than that, classical poets, classical within all the rules! Moreover, I observed, against a current opinion, that a growing number of young people – I do say young – were cultivated. A simple statistical reckoning gives the reason for that. In any group whatsoever, the intellectual elite make up to a rather small percentage. Let us take the example of our country: under Louis XIV, only the nobility and part of the bourgeoisie had access to learning. In our days very French person passes through the education system. The proportion I was mentioning no longer bears on one hundred and fifty thousand people, but on sixty million.

So I left my despair; and I dare even say that I became an optimist. I had always wanted, flattering myself, to be a spiritual man, and today there are more and more of them around.

However, and this is a capital point, they are dispersed and do not know each other. Nothing links them, because the contemporary means of communication, having for their object to sell advertisement to a mass audience, adjust as exactly as they can to that audience and proceed with a systematic eviction of elites and their cultures. Literary publishing itself submits to the laws of profit. Fleeing the risk of difficult works, it only prints and circulates for the greater number. However, I make sure that some day it will discover, as television already does, the interest of targeted audiences.

Promoting the meeting of elites was in past times the office of reviews and drawing rooms—I trust that time will come back.

Durus est hic sermo! At the end of this talk, I feel some embarrassment:

Perhaps I have let you believe that I do not care much for the poetry that is called free. I swear to you this is not true. Free poetry offers many masterpieces, starting with “Le Spleen de Paris” of Baudelaire that I was mentioned a while ago. I like to read those poems. However, it is awkward that I cannot remember them by heart. They do not haunt me with their own strength. Their cantabile is too weak for my ear.

Perhaps, also, you will think that I have allowed myself to carp excessively at the most legitimate persuasions of our days.

Yet you will have guessed that I am not pleading for myself: it is for my gods that I preach. The believer is of no importance: only defending the cult matters. My purpose is not to attack whomsoever among the contemporary celebrities. I dare only suppose or suggest that their glory might well pale some day, as so many others did along the centuries.

Could our time be the only one when it would be indecent to shake up the established idols and the gods of the moment? I have resisted many beliefs; I can resist the judgments of my time; I can resist the Avant-Garde myths. I can resist Philippe Soupault. I have turned down better things! I do not propose to launch any kind of MANIFESTO (I lack the insolence for it). Yet I confess I do not mind dreaming of what could be POST-MODERN POETRY, if I may use such a hackneyed word.

A last word: the miscreant that I am does not refrain from dreaming to a strange and wonderful time, a time when it was modern to admire – and even to imitate – the Past. That epoch bears a beautiful name: the RENAISSANCE.

AGEN, October 17, 2004
(from a lecture given to the Académie des Jeux Floraux at Agen, France)

Translated by J. Pailler