There was a time in this country when every poet and student of literature read some French poetry. To both sophisticates and provincials, Paris was the eternal capital of everything that was new and exciting in the arts. Modern poetry was unimaginable without Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and many lesser figures whose poems were imitated and continued to be read. Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and other modernists, one learned, owed an immense debt to French poets. Fifty years ago, almost everyone one met in literary circles had some familiarity with the work of Apollinaire, Saint-John Perse, and Paul Valéry. Young poets read Wallace Fowlie’s Mid-Century French Poets, where they encountered the poems of Max Jacob, Jules Supervielle, Andre Bréton, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and Henri Michaux. New translations kept appearing. I recall a volume of poems by René Char that came out in 1956, which listed W.C. Williams, Richard Wilbur, William Jay Smith, Barbara Howes, W.S. Merwin, and James Wright as translators. Yves Bonnefoy’s own poems came soon after. In 1968, the Ohio University Press published On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, his first book in English translation.
Later all that changed. In the 1960s, American poets discovered Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, and South American poetry and stopped reading the newer French poets who were nowhere as interesting as Neruda, Vallejo, Parra, Milosz, Herbert, Brodsky, Enzensberger, Ritsos, Holan, Szymborska, Celan, and good many others. While history and the fate of the individual human beings caught in its turmoil mattered for these poets, the same cannot be said for the French. Preoccupied with the very act of writing, convinced that words only speak themselves and have no hold on reality, their anxieties had more to do with the theories of language then in fashion among literary critics in France, for whom the study of poetics was more fascinating than the finished poem.
To think of writing as merely a game of language may seem like a bleak prospect, and yet the delightful poems by Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, and other members of the experimental group Oulipo demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be. Still, a view that regards poetry as a closed system, a private language, and an autonomous reality, is not only extremely limiting, but mistaken. The surprise is that so many French poets in the generation after René Char were attracted to academic theories that reduced their mother tongue to little more than a dead language. Not Bonnefoy. For him, poems do take us beyond words in their capacity to recall to us the life we share and the experiences we have in common.
Bonnefoy was born in 1923 in Tours. His father was a railroad worker whose job involved assembling locomotives and his mother was a teacher, as her own father had been. Although he started to write at an early age, he went on to study mathematics and philosophy at the University of Poitiers and the Sorbonne. In Paris, after the war, he became involved with Surrealist circles, met André Breton, and published his own work in their reviews. His first important collection of poems came out in 1953, and ten more have appeared since. In 1967 he founded, with André du Bouchet, Gaëtan Picon, and Louis-René des Forêts, L’éphémère, a journal of art and literature. Among his books are studies of Rimbaud, Miró, and Giacometti, a scholarly two-volume account of mythologies of the world, which he edited, and a spiritual autobiography. The Lure and the Truth of Painting (1995), a collection of his essays on classical, modern, and contemporary art, is a great book. Like Baudelaire and Pierre Jean Jouve before him, Bonnefoy reads paintings with the eyes of a poet and the mind of a philosopher. Immensely learned and beautifully written, the essays on Mantegna, Morandi, Giacometti, Hopper, Balthus, and on such subjects as humor and the shadows in the work of Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico and Byzantine art, often read like prose poems.
Before the appearance of The Curved Planks, there were seven other collections of his poems in translation. This book of his most recent poetry comes with an astute foreword by Richard Howard and two valuable essays by the translator, Hoyt Rogers, who found himself with an arduous task. Bonnefoy, who is renowned in France for his translations of Shakespeare’s plays, describes, in an essay on the poet, the problems a translator encountering two such distinct and philosophically incompatible poetic vocabularies faces: one which tends to tone down and dim the particular reality and another which seeks to describe what consciousness perceives:
If, as I have tried to show, every language has an individual structure and the linguistic structure of French poetry is Platonic while that of Shakespeare’s English is a sort of passionate Aristotelianism, then every true translation—and this quite apart from accuracy of detail—has a kind of moral obligation to be a metaphysical reflection, the contemplation of one way of thinking by another, the attempt to express from one’s own angle the specific nature of that thought, and finally a kind of examination of one’s own resources…. Translation becomes a language’s struggle with its own nature, at the very core of its being, the quickening point of its growth.1
The essay from which this quote comes, “Shakespeare and the French Poet,” was first published in France in 1959. In it, Bonnefoy confidently predicts that French poetry today will be much better prepared than it has ever been to wage this struggle with its own language. He writes:
…There is another, more recent poetry which aims at salvation. It conceives of the Thing, the real object, in its separation from ourselves, its infinite otherness, as something that can give us an instantaneous glimpse of essential being and thus be our salvation, if indeed we are able to tear the veil of universals, of the conceptual, to attain to it.
I imagine it must have seemed that way at the time with poets like Francis Ponge around who had already made that discovery.2 A poem of his would consist of a meticulous description of an oyster, a candle, a loaf of bread, a cut of meat, a bar of soap, a snail, a potato, or a cigarette. For Bonnefoy, the fundamental error of Surrealism was its lack of faith in the real, preferring the marvelous to the ordinary, the peacock’s fan to the stones on the threshold. There were other poets in France, like Jean Follain and Guillevic, who in their own distinct way also sought the ordinary, but that is not the direction French poetry, or even Bonnefoy’s own, would take, despite eloquent passages in his essays about the need to pay attention to the rough, coarse reality of life. Here is how he sounded in his first major collection, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, in Galway Kinnell’s translation:
I saw you running on the terraces,
I saw you fight against the wind,
The coldness bled on your lips.
And I have seen you break and rejoice at being dead—O more beautiful
Than the lightning, when it stains the white windowpanes of your blood….
It was a wind stronger than our memories,
Stupor of clothing and cry of rocks—and you moved in front of those flames,
Head graphlined, hands split open, all
Bent on death on the exulting drums of your gestures.
It was day of your breasts:
And you reigned at last absent from my head.
I awaken, it is raining. The wind pierces you, Douve, resinous heath sleeping near me. I am on a terrace, in a pit of death. Great dogs of leaves tremble.
The arm you lift, suddenly, at a doorway, lights me across the ages. Village of embers, each instant I see you being born, Douve,
Each instant dying….
White under a ceiling of insects, poorly lit, in profile,
Your dress stained by the venom of lamps,
I find you stretched out,
Your mouth higher than a river breaking far away on the earth.
Broken being the unconquerable being reassembles,
Presence seized again in the torch of cold,
O watcher always I find you dead,
Douve saying Phoenix I wake in this cold.3
Notwithstanding the ambiguity of the poems, the book was well received. The most obvious question was: Who or what is Douve? In The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy, John Naughton enumerates some of the possibilities: a mysterious feminine category; the poetic process itself; death.4 The epigraph to the book provides the best hint: “But the life of the spirit is not frightened at death and does not keep itself pure of it.” This comes from Hegel. The idea that the poems attempt to work out poetically is that the life of the spirit does not flee from death but, rather, maintains itself in death. The voice in the poems often sounds like that of a bereaved lover lamenting the loss of his beloved. It’s all very poetic, very theatrical and mystifying. We have no clear sense where any of it is happening, or what it is all about. Some of the imagery is surrealist and kind of wonderful. “Great dogs of leaves tremble” is my favorite. Bonnefoy will not write like that again. He will denounce the cult of images, even going so far as to say that he defines truthfulness of speech as the war against the image. Why? Because, images are delusions, he will say, a veil which hides the true reality. Philosophically, one can agree with that view, but can one be a poet and believe that? Bonnefoy’s answer is that poets must both accept and refuse the image.
Even in On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, there are poems that anticipate the mise-en-scène of his later work. “One must picture everything in the world as an enigma,” de Chirico writes.5 An ambiguous, elusive something that cannot be named is a constant presence. Bonnefoy’s untitled poem awaits its guest. Who is this visitor, but the reality outside the poem. Every poem is a house made ready in anticipation that the world beyond it will pay it a call:
Let a place be made for the one who approaches,
He who is cold and has no home.
He who is tempted by the sound of a lamp,
By the bright threshold of only this house.
And if he stays overcome with anguish and fatigue,
Let be uttered for him the healing words.
What needs this heart which was only silence,
But words which are both sign and litany,
And like a sudden bit of fire at night,
Or the table, glimpsed in a poor man’s house?
“I should like poetry,” Bonnefoy has written, “to be above all a ceaseless battle, a theater in which being and essence, form and formlessness wage strenuous war.” This is a fine sentiment, but as a prescription, it is dangerous if it leads to a single-minded pursuit of that and nothing else. All poets repeat themselves, but Bonnefoy more so than others. Without too much exaggeration, one can say that all his life he has written the same few poems. In his new book, there are nine with the identical title “A Stone.” In an earlier collection, Words in Stone (1965), he has many more named “Stone.” He is like a painter of serial still lifes, one who paints from memory the same pitcher, bowl, and wine bottle. For him poetry is not an account of the world. He is a poet of a small number of experiences which he endlessly mulls over, puzzled by their subtle variation in his remembrance. Here is how Bonnefoy explains his narrow range of subject matter and vocabulary:
It will seem perhaps obvious to remark that not all the words of a language lend themselves in the same degree to poetic intention.
Wind, stone, fire, Rimbaud’s “mazagran coffee,” Baudelaire’s “train carriages” and “gas” or any other name for the most banal realities can become radiant with light—as long as, through these realities, we have experienced in some small way our attachment to the world. But from this very fact it follows that the call will be heard all the more intensely when words will speak more clearly of “essences”—and by that I simply mean those things or creatures that seem to exist per se for the sake of our naïve consciousness in ordinary life. Thus the word brick speaks less clearly to the spirit of poetry than stone, because the calling to mind of the manufacturing process prevails, in the reality of this word, over its own being as “brick”—and all the more so because it is the opposite of stone in verbal structure….
Poetry desires words that one can make part of one’s destiny.6
This is a view with a precedent in French poetry among the Parnassians and in Mallarmé, who sought to give purer meaning to the words of the tribe. In the United States and England, it never had any serious appeal. Actually, much of our poetry for the last hundred years has been a rejection of the idea that certain words are more poetic than others. Certainly, a word like “stone” is bound to have more symbolic value and a deeper resonance for the reader than “brick,” but can one really hope to write a remotely believable poem in a language purified of words that the poet claims speak less clearly to the spirit of poetry? Bonnefoy seems to think so. I have grave doubts about this “spirit of poetry.” Poetry that matters has been as impure as soles of the shoes we wear. I have the utmost respect for many of Bonnefoy’s ideas about poetry and art, but find this particular notion of his about poetic language completely wrongheaded and culpable for the many weak poems he has written.
At its worst, this outlook is a recipe for poetry of noble sentiments and glittering generalities, stones that never remind us of a single stone we held in our hand, homes where there is never a smell of cooking, women who lack all sensuality even when they are stark naked. In his foreword to The Curved Planks, Richard Howard is aware of this. He warns the reader that
Bonnefoy is not a poet of natural objects but of natural energies—of wind and waters, of falling rock and burning wood, and that he focuses less on the necessity of things seen than upon the power of things felt. At times he is like Swinburne, nearly a blind poet, all tongue and ear and touch. His verse moves away from the art of painting (that is where his prose works its way in) toward a condition of music—we retain from Bonnefoy’s lines not an image but a tonality and a rhythm.
If this is true—and it is—translating Bonnefoy’s poetry is not going to be easy. As Pound observed, tonality and music, what he called melopoeia, is practically impossible to transfer from one language to another, save by divine accident and for half a line at the time. If one subtracts Bonnefoy’s music, what the translator is left with is poetry of little specific detail, a vocabulary that is either simple or overly poetic, with many eloquent lines and an equal number of embarrassing ones. What is one to do when encountering a stanza like this in “Summer Rain,” an uneven but otherwise lovely poem:
The cloth of the rain clung to you.
You were the breast
A painter might have dreamed.
If Hoyt Rogers can be reproached for anything, it is perhaps for sticking too closely to the formal diction of the original, for not using a more idiomatic language here and there and being more adventurous with line breaks. That, of course, has its dangers, so I can understand his reluctance to do so. As it is, most of Bonnefoy’s translated poems, in both his earlier books and this one, end up sounding flat and rarely make us forget that they are translations:
Let this world endure,
Let the shining dust of summer eve
The empty room,
And the water of an hour’s rain
In the light
Along the path…
Let this world endure
Just as time stands still
While we clean the cut
Of a weeping child.
And then returning
To the darkened room,
We see he sleeps in peace:
Night that is light
The task of a poet, Bonnefoy has written, is to separate being from representation. Whatever one thinks of the idea, whether it is possible or even desirable that poetry should strive to do that, one is bound to be disappointed, since language can retain nothing of the immediate. The unique instant, what Breton calls “the delirium of absolute presence,”7 our words cannot convey. The moment one opens one’s mouth to speak, it is gone. One will never see it twice:
The essential thing we must bear in mind is the demand it makes on language—to be open to this most remote kind of object: the being of things, their metaphysical thereness, their presence before us most remote from verbalization, and receive them in their pure existence, their stubborn atomicity, and their opaque silence. While it continues to exclude the complexity of phenomena, this poetry is an attempt to lose its identity, to go beyond its own nature, to the point where the universal becomes the particular (the ontologically unique), an ecstatic plunge into what is. This pursuit of otherness, of absolute exteriority, is surely not so far from Shakespeare.8
How to make the words say the unsayable has been every mystic’s problem—and so it is Bonnefoy’s. Like the Surrealists, who sought to reduce poetry to one immutable essence (the unconscious), Bonnefoy, too, has a single fixation: the inadequacy of language to represent reality of the moment. Again, one wants to say, yes… true…but…on the other hand…is chronic powerlessness to depict reality a truly credible description of our experience of literature? Reading Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” doesn’t one experience being there, leaning on the rail, looking at the river and the sky? What about imagination, that faculty which helps us to stand in someone else’s shoes? Doesn’t it bridge the gap of what language cannot say? Of course, it does.
“Poets,” Gaston Bachelard said, “convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting over again.”9 The most moving poems in The Curved Planks have that quality of slow reverie. Bonnefoy strives to recall the house where he was born, the faces of his parents, some other fading memories, or merely the way the light fell on a particular day. The mood throughout is elegiac. It is the sadness of a pensive child with his forehead against the windowpane, who has just grasped that he will never see this moment again. To recapture the ephemeral is what all lyric poetry aims for, since forgetfulness, as Bonnefoy reminds us, devours all:
I remember, it was a summer morning.
The window was half open. As I came closer,
I saw my father there in the garden.
He stood motionless. Where he was looking,
Or at what, I couldn’t tell—outside everything.
Stooped as he already was, he lifted his gaze
Toward the unachieved, or the impossible.
He had laid down the pickaxe, the spade.
The air was cool on that morning of the world.
But coolness is impenetrable, and cruel
Are the memories of childhood mornings.
Who he was, who he had been in the light:
I did not know, I still do not know.
But I also see him on the boulevard
Slowly walking forward, so much tiredness
Weighing down his gestures of former days.
He was going back to work. As for me,
I was strolling with some classmates
In the early afternoon, timeless as yet.
To his passing by, observed from afar, let me
Dedicate these words that don’t know how to say….
The Curved Planks is the most autobiographical of Bonnefoy’s books. This moving poem comes from a cycle of equally moving poems called “The House Where I Was Born.” In this vast dreamlike house of countless rooms and dissolving walls, we meet, now and then, a boy, a girl, and some other children. The myth of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, is evoked. The story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ceres is looking for her daughter, Prosperine, who has been stolen by the god of the dead. Tired and thirsty, she sees a cottage thatched with straw and knocks on the low door. An old woman answers, and when asked for water, gives her a drink. While the goddess drinks, a hard-faced youngster, a callous country boy, stands watching, ignoring her beauty and mocking her thirst. The goddess, in anger, throws some barley grains in his face and turns him into a lizard-like creature, only smaller, which slips into a crack in some rocks. For Bonnefoy, that insolent punk is the poet:
Paths, O beautiful children
Who would come toward us—
One of them laughing, barefoot
In the dry leaves.
We loved his way
Of being late,
But as it’s permitted
When time stands still,
Happy to hear his simple
Syrinx from afar:
The child Marsyas, defeating
The god of mere numbers.
And quickly he would lead us
Where night falls,
Two steps ahead of us
And looking back,
Still laughing, catching
At branches, making
These fruits of weightless
Presence into light.
He was going where there’s nothing
We can know, yet the dazzled bee
Danced along with him,
Enamored of his song.
Ceres, all sweat and dust,
Who kept searching
Throughout the earth,
Should have waited for him.
He would have granted her
And what she lost
She would have recognized
In his bright penumbra—
Embraced it with a cry
And laughing, borne it away
In her vehement hands.
Instead, she still
Stops, at night
Under rustling trees,
And knocks at closed doors.
The title poem, “The Curved Planks,” is a short prose tale that again uses a Greek myth. An orphaned child attempts to persuade Charon, the ferryman of the dead, to become his father and give him a home. He refuses. Instead, the child and the ferryman are both swept in a current, the boat begins to sink, the curved planks start to give way. Even so, the boat doesn’t founder but seems to melt into the night. Charon clasps the small leg of the child in his hand and with his free arm swims in the limitless space of clashing currents, of yawning abysses, of stars. Even in “Still Blind” and “Faceless Gold,” two long poems that ponder the various ways we have imagined God, the most poignant passages again concern a child:
Of that other country
Deem that God does exist, but is blind.
That he searches, groping
Between the narrow walls we call the world
For a little body crying, floundering
With eyes still closed,
That will allow him to see—
With his clumsy hands from before time began,
He can open its eyelids.
The difficulty facing modern poetry, Bonnefoy has said, is that it has to define itself at the same time through Christianity and in opposition to it. He has no use for the blandishments of a “beyond.” He insists that we must face our mortality, that from our finitude comes whatever wisdom we have. His poems strive to remind us of our earliest experience of solitude, those moments of wordless feelings that shaped our identities. We must return again to that moment when we found ourselves for the first time in the presence of that most ineffable of realities. Poetry for Bonnefoy is a story of one subject, one great emotion. Not much else happens in his poems. There are no cities, no history, and almost no other people. He is a poet of small epiphanies: some long-ago summer evening when the night forgot to fall while a lone child played on the road and a distant voice kept calling him. This is the secret of his lyricism, the memory of a fragment of time touched by eternity that he cannot let go. Is this one obsession enough for a lifetime of poetry? In a few of his finest poems, Bonnefoy makes us believe that it is.
March 1, 2007
Yves Bonnefoy, The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays (University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 18–19. ↩
New and Selected Poems, edited by John Naughton and Anthony Rudolf (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 3–7. ↩
See John Naughton, The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy (University of Chicago Press, 1984). ↩
Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros(Exact Change, 1992), p. 185. ↩
Bonnefoy, The Act and the Place of Poetry, pp. 124–125. ↩
Michael Carrouges, André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism (University of Alabama Press, 1974), p. 212. ↩
Bonnefoy, The Act and the Place of Poetry, p. 19. ↩
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie (Orion, 1969), p. 105. ↩