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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.