Pierre Reverdy (1889–1960) was born in Narbonne in the south of France. At age twenty-one he moved to Paris and became close friends with the artists and writers around Montmartre, particularly with the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire and the painter Juan Gris. During this time, he converted to Catholicism, founded the seminal literary magazine Nord-Sud, married the seamstress Henriette Charlotte Bureau, and began a deep and intimate friendship with Coco Chanel that would last for the rest of his life. In 1926, after publishing several books of poetry that included collaborations with Gris, Picasso, and Georges Braque, he moved with his wife to the village of Solesmes to be near the Benedictine monastery at St. Peter’s Abbey. During the Nazi occupation, he joined the Resistance, refused to publish anything, and wrote the excruciatingly brutal Le Chant de morts (Song of the Dead) that was eventually published in 1948 with illustrations by Picasso. Besides a few trips around Europe and Greece, Reverdy remained in Solesmes for the rest of his life, ever more estranged from society and from his own faith.
As Frank O’Hara once wrote in a poem, ‘My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ A Catholic who lived much of his life in quasi-monasticism after an intense relationship with Coco Chanel, Reverdy has remained one of the most singular poets of his generation, and was described by André Breton as “The greatest poet of the time.” Here is a life-spanning selection of the French modernist’s work by the most revered translators of the language.