Pierre Reverdy, who was close to Picasso and Braque and was enormously admired by the surrealists, is one the greatest of modern French poets and one of the most elusive. His work is at once impersonal and intimate, crystalline and opaque, simplicity itself and mysterious as can be. Paul Auster has described his poems as combining an “intense inwardness with a proliferation of sensual data…. The poet seems to evaporate, to vanish into the haunted country he has created…as if Reverdy had emptied the space of the poem in order to let the reader inhabit it.”
Auster is only one of many American writers to be drawn to the mystery of Reverdy’s unsettling world. There is also Frank O’Hara, who carried Reverdy’s poems in his pocket and wrote (in lines that don’t just mention but echo Reverdy):
and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything
continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is
possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
And John Ashbery has shown himself to be no less devoted than his friend O’Hara to Reverdy, whose poems he has translated throughout his career.
The strength of this new selection of Reverdy’s poetry, which includes both translations that have been specially commissioned for this volume along with a range of outstanding earlier ones, is not only to provide a sampling of Reverdy’s finest work in all its variety but also to document the appeal it has had for so many of America’s best writers and translators. Reverdy is represented by work early and late, from the pioneering Prose Poems of 1915 and Roof Slates of 1918 to his violently conceived, brutally worded war-haunted poems of 1946 to 1948, entitled The Song of the Dead (originally illustrated by Picasso) to his final Freedom of the Seas of 1960. The twelve distinguished translators involved are John Ashbery, Dan Bellm, Mary Ann Caws, Lydia Davis, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Howard, Geoffrey O’Brien, Ron Padgett, Mark Polizzotti, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth, and Rosanna Warren.
Reverdy, with Paul Eluard … is the purest of the writers of his time.