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Object Lessons

The Voice of Things

by Francis Ponge, translated by Beth Archer Brombert
Herder and Herder, 190 pp., $5.95


by Francis Ponge, translated and selected by Cid Corman
Grossman, 120 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Printanier et merveilleux,” René Char called him. Ponge himself can imagine being ranked with Chardin and Rameau. He is seventy-three. The two books under review are selections from his writings, which fill a dozen volumes. While practicing “pure and simple abstention from themes imposed by ideologies of the time,” Ponge has been embraced by the existentialists in their time, and by the structuralists in theirs. Only human, and French, he too has devoted his requisite pages to the Absurd. Still the bloom does not wear off. This genial life’s-work will outlast the ideas by which it is judged.

If ideas disappoint me, give me no pleasure, it is because I offer them my approval too easily, seeing how they solicit it, are only made for that…. This offering, this consent, produces no pleasure in me but rather a kind of queasiness, a nausea.

How one agrees.

No thoughts, then, but in things? True enough, so long as the notorious phrase argues not for the suppression of thought but for its oneness with whatever in the world—pine woods, spider, cigarette—gave rise to it. Turn the phrase around, you arrive no less at truth: no things but in thoughts. Was the apricot any more real without a mind to consider it, whether this poet’s or that starving goat’s? We’ll never know.

What is more engaging than blue sky if not a cloud, in docile clarity? This is why I prefer any theory whatever to silence, and even more than a white page some writing that passes as insignificant.

So Ponge, in 1924, restores l’azur and le vide papier que la blancheur défend, all that rare, magnetic emptiness so prized by Mallarmé and Valéry, to a backdrop for something common, modest, real.

And elsewhere: “It’s a question of the object as notion. Of the object in the French language (an item, really, in a French dictionary).”

For a thought is after all a thing of sorts. Its density, color, weight, etc., vary according to the thinker, to the symbols at his command, or at whose command he thinks. One would hardly care so much for language if this were not the case.

One of the ideas that most solicit a poet’s approval is that of meter. Ponge naturally distrusts it. His prose arrives now and then at a diffident mise en page resembling verse, but only very seldom, as in “The Mimosa,” at overt numbers. Unlike Valéry, who could instruct and no doubt surprise himself by recasting his decasyllabic “Cimetière Marin” into alexandrines, Ponge is not absorbed by conventional formal problems. Which of course only helps him again and again, since he is Ponge, to achieve a form, a movement, a kind of poem enchantingly, unmistakably his own.

A tone first of all. Of moss he writes: “Patrols of vegetation once halted on stupefied rocks. Then thousands of tiny velvet rods sat themselves down cross-legged.” In a related key Gautier describes the interior of a coach in Spain, and Michaux the actions of a Chinese prostitute. With Ponge, the object being closer to home, the result is more importantly light, more detachedly involved.

The Crate (1932-1934)

Halfway between cage and cachot (prison) the French language has cageot, a simple openwork case for the transport of those fruits that invariably fall sick over the slightest suffocation.

Put together in such a way that at the end of its use it can be easily wrecked, it does not serve twice. Thus it is even less lasting than the melting or murky produce it encloses.

On all street corners leading to the market, it shines with the modest gleam of whitewood. Still brand new, and somewhat taken aback at being tossed on the trash pile in an awkward pose with no hope of return, this is a most likable object all considered—on whose fate it is perhaps wiser not to dwell too long.

The frailty of the crate induces un faible in the poet, a weakness for—the weakness of—his subject. Where certain later poems will expose the elaborate nervous system beneath their transparent phrasing, here the form remains suitably minimal, a simple openwork conceit. To read something else into these lines—some lament for untimely death, or statement about form’s adaptation to content—would be excessive. Not to read it into them would be no less so. The sacrifice of overtones, whether for the sake of a more concrete image or of a more purified idea, is distasteful to Ponge, unhealthy, inhumane. Thoughts and things need to be the best of friends.

A more explicit poem (“Blackberries,” 1934-1937) begins and ends:

On the typographical bushes constituted by the poem, along a road leading neither away from things nor to the mind, certain fruits are formed of an agglomeration of spheres filled by a drop of ink….

…With few other qualities—blackberries (mûres) made perfectly ripe (mûres)—just as this poem was made.

That first sentence, with its provocative sidelong glances (at thoughts, at things) contained by words that stress their place in a black-and-white, two-dimensional composition the more vibrant for not aspiring much beyond design, can stand for what is best in French art old and new, and suggest the extent of Ponge’s lifelong debt to Braque. Consciousness of his trade saturates the work. The snail exudes a “proud drivel.” The dinner plate is manufactured in quantity by “that benevolent juggler who now and then stealthily replaces the somber old man who grudgingly throws us one sun per day.” The y of “Gymnast” “dresses on the left.” The è of chèvre becomes the note of the bleating goat. Meadows “surge up from the page. And furthermore the page should be brown.” And man? He too is “one of nature’s decisions.” He secretes language.

In the closing sentence of “Blackberries” we glimpse a most suspect device, the pun.

A pity about that lowest form of humor. It is suffered, by and large, with groans of aversion, as though one had done an unseemly thing in adult society, like slipping a hand up the hostess’s dress. Indeed, the punster has touched, and knows it if only for being so promptly shamed, upon a secret, fecund place in language herself. The pun’s objet trouvé aspect cheapens it further—why? A Freudian slip is taken seriously: it betrays its maker’s hidden wish. The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter) “merely” betrays the hidden wish of words.

It betrays also a historical dilemma. If World War I snapped, as we hear tell, the thread of civilization except where it continued briefly to baste the memories of men like Valéry and Joyce, the next generation’s problem was to create works whose resonance lasted more than a season. A culture without Greek or Latin or Anglo-Saxon goes off the gold standard. How to draw upon the treasure? At once representing and parodying our vital wealth, the lightweight crackle of word-play would retain no little transactional power in the right hands. But was it—had the gold itself been—moral? Didn’t all that smack of ill-gotten gains? Even today, how many poets choose the holy poverty of some second-hand diction, pure dull content in translation from a never-to-be-known original. “There is no wing like meaning,” said Stevens. Two are needed to get off the ground.

Ponge, to be sure, forfeits no resource of language, natural or unnatural. He positively dines upon the etymological root, seasoning it with fantastic gaiety and invention:

You will note…to what tools, what procedures, what rubrics one should or can appeal. To the dictionary, the encyclopedia, imagination, dreams, telescope, microscope, to both ends of the lorgnette, bifocals, puns, rhyme, contemplation, forgetfulness, volubility, silence, sleep, etc., etc….

This preamble, complete with disclaimers about the “poetry” that will follow, and reading like the afterthought it may well be, introduces “L’Oeillet” (“The Carnation”), a particularly attractive kind of Ponge poem. The text proper takes off from a glossary, words that may or may not figure later on. He looks up déchirer, jabot, festons, connects dents with dentelles. Bouton (bud) needn’t, he observes, be used together with bout (end, butt), bouton (button) or déboutonner (unbutton), since each stems from bouter (to push or butt). Scruples like these discourage banality. Ponge makes one fleeting, never repeated, allusion to the boutonnière, and knows better than to spell out even once the second meaning of oeillet: eyelet, little eye. With words, then, at his fingertips, the writing can begin. Has begun—already we’ve been given: “At stem’s end, out of an olive…comes unbuttoned the marvellous luxury of linen.” And: “Inhaling them you experience the pleasure whose reverse would be the sneeze.” Now to consolidate the findings of “these first six pieces, night of the 12th to 13th of June 1941, amidst the white carnations in Madame Dugourd’s garden.”

Ponge may be the first poet ever to expose so openly the machinery of a poem, to present his revisions, blind alleys, critical asides, and accidental felicities as part of a text perfected, as it were, without “finish.” (No other serious poet asks less to be reread; this work is done for us by the number of alternate readings left standing. The technique will be put to narrative use by Robbe-Grillet.) One meets a mind desiring and deferring, both, according to the laws of baroque music, solution and resolution, the final breaking of an enchantment that may already have lasted weeks, years.

The next day he begins again:

At stem’s end comes unbuttoned from a supple olive of leaves a marvelous frill of cold satin with hollows of virid snow-shadow where a little chlorophyll still resides, and whose perfume excites within the nose a pleasure just on the verge of the sneeze.

Which doesn’t wholly satisfy him, not to be satisfied being the point. Whereupon he sets about disheveling phrases, breaking up lines:

Deluxe cold satin duster
Deluxe beautifully toothed rag
Frizzed duster of cold satin….
At stem’s end bamboo green….
Multiple fragrant sachets
From which the whipped robe spurts

—a quickened pace, a heightened foreplay, reminding us that the sneeze is a minor ejaculation. Some 100 lines, over the next two days, repeat, vary, modulate, improvise upon these and other motifs (the sneeze presently elicits “trumpets of linen”) with the self-reflexive energy of Bach. When this toccata of conceits reaches a crescendo, the subject is sounded again, note by note, letter by letter:

O split into OE
O! Bud of an energetic haulm
split into OEILLET!…
ELLE O youthful vigor
with symmetrical apostrophes
O the olive supple and pointed
unfolded in OE, I, two Ls, E, T
Little tongues torn
By the violence of their talk
Wet satin raw satin

—yielding precisely here to an organ point:

Wet satin raw satin

(My carnation should not be too much of a thing; one should be able to hold it between two fingers.)

Then silence. A silence that lasts more than two years, during which the poem’s fate hangs in the balance. Other subjects have come to hand, one of them, “Le Savon,” allowing for a far more elaborate treatment. That finished text* will run to 128 pages. Presented as an (imaginary?) radio broadcast to a German audience, it is a complex account—hymn, analysis, charade—of the “toilette intellectuelle,” the mind’s ebullient autocatharsis, typically embodied in the humble cake of soap which, whenever obtainable during the Occupation, was of some ersatz variety that made no suds (Ponge’s italics). One small passage (July 1943) illustrates, without bearing on “The Carnation,” the turn of mind that helped Ponge to resolve the shorter poem:

THEME (dry and modest in its saucer) AND VARIATIONS
(voluminous and nacreous) upon
SOAP (followed by a paragraph of rinsing in plain water)

And indeed, when Ponge returns to “The Carnation” in 1944, his concern is for some rinsing of his hands in a plainer idiom. “Though you should invent,” he had written on that distant evening at Mme Dugourd’s, “a pill to dissolve in the vase’s water, to make the carnation eternal”—éternel with its echo of éternuer, to sneeze—“it would still not survive long as a flower.” Neither, perhaps, would it have survived long as a poem had Ponge been content to leave it tossing in a high rhetorical fever. But now, to end it, he sets down a few pages describing the carnation’s root-system:

…horizontally underlining the ground, a long, very stubborn willing of resistance…a kind of very resistant string which baffles the extractor, forces him to alter the direction of his effort….

In France of 1944 these were charged words. (Ponge himself had underground contacts during the war.) Yet “resistance” is no more the buried issue here than “faith” is, or “style,” or the relation between what one knows deep down and what one utters—all mildly, glancingly apparent through Ponge’s own altered effort in these concluding paragraphs. The poem ends with one last, abstracted, decasyllabic blossoming:

Let us emerge from earth at this choice spot….
So, here is the tone found, where indifference is attained.
It was indeed the main point. Everything thereafter will
flow from the source…another

And I too can rightly be silent.

The covenant between maker and carnation has been observed.

Words and silence, things and thoughts, excitation and detumescence: no opposites but brought into peaceful coexistence. One remembers those two fingers between which the flower must be held.

Ponge keeps insisting that he does not write poetry. “I need the poetic magma, but only to rid myself of it.” He means “demonstrative outbursts,” “beauty…all dolled up in an illusion of destiny,” “gods and heroes.” His Athena is a shrimp with “weapons now wilted and transformed into organs of circumspection.” His pine woods are “Venus’s beauty parlor with Phoebus the bulb inserted into the wall of mirrors.” Such imagery, he remarks, would please a poet minor or epic. “But we are something other than a poet and we have something else to say.” Whether this other thing ever really gets said, or said so memorably as in the ravishing passages Ponge shrugs off, is for each reader to decide according to his lights. Those who wonder if the “poetic abcess” doesn’t leave less of a scar than the programmatic one will have to gauge, from the major and minor triumphs that come through unscathed, how close to life and how essential to art the entire process is.

By major triumphs I mean (to mention only pieces available in the two selections under review) poems too novel and rich to be patronized by any brief account of them—poems such as “The Meadow,” “The New Spider,” “The Pebble,” “The Goat.” Mme Brombert provides for the last of these a helpful context in which “gods and heroes” abound, and starry shapes. Among them, not identified as such by her, we can make out that absolute cogitator who in Mallarmé wore “the lucid and lordly aigrette of vertigo on his invisible brow,” and in Ponge becomes a characteristically verifiable emblem of himself:

Magnificent knucklehead, this dreamer…whose thoughts, formulated as weapons on his head, for motives of high civility curve backwards ornamentally.

Well and good; but Ponge remains—it is one of his strengths—open to understanding without apparatus. His words are “conductors of thought, as one says conductors of heat or electricity.” One understands, at every blessed turning, why he turned, why he wrote, for what delight, for what beautifully envisionable end. “The poem is an object of jouissance (enjoyment, gratification, use) offered to man,” he says; and elsewhere, “to nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle”—item by item, in a lifelong application of sure, brilliant touches (cosmos and cosmetic sharing a single root). And yet again, with simple justice, “I have given pleasure to the human mind.”

Ponge, one discovers soon enough, is very hard to translate. Bless him also for that. (And may I not be damned for somewhat tampering with Mme Brombert’s and Mr. Corman’s English in my quotations. To refrain, in most cases, would have been to leave well enough alone.) I prefer Mme Brombert’s clear, unobtrusive versions. Mr. Corman, out of long practice, does more with the “line,” but his lines, in turn, are more apt to err and omit. (Why does he leave out the phrase about resistance in “The Carnation”?) Or else he will follow the original syntax so doggedly that I had the eerie impression of reading an actual French text, not necessarily Ponge’s. Both selections are worth owning. If Mme Brombert’s seems a shade more generous and representative, no one who cares should miss “The Notebook of the Pine Woods,” “The Wasp,” and “The New Spider” in Mr. Corman’s.

  1. *

    Jonathan Cape/Grossman published (1969) an English version by Lane Dunlop, Ponge’s best translator.

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