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,…

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