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Edmond Jabs

Yves Bonnefoy

Philippe Jaccottet

Jacques Dupin

Lorand Gaspar

Michel Deguy

Jacques Roubaud

Bernard Nol

Claude Esteban

Marie-Claire Bancquart

Jacques Rda  

Dominique Fourcade

Emmanuel Hocquard

Claude Royet-Journoud

Guy Goffette

Alain Duault

Benot Conort

Antoine Emaz






French Poetry since 1950 :

multifariousness and perspectives

by Jean-Michel MAULPOIX

Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder

1950:Dwelling 1960 :Figuring 1970 :Settling 1980 : Articulating 1990 : Aggravating Bibliography

 Contemporary French poetry is as lively as it is multifarious.

Despite reiterated remarks about the so-called « crisis » impinging on it, it remains underground and traces a hardly visible path both at the heart of the literary experience and on the margins of its diffusion.

Not only multifarious, French poetry also reveals a very contrasted landscape to him who reads anthologies. It is almost as if he found himself all of a sudden confronted to every possible « styles » of writings where the most apparently contrary forms were to be met alongside each other. Regular or free verse, lyrical or literalistic prose, minimalism or maximalism, orality or spatialism, displayed militant modernity or play with fixed forms inherited from tradition, questionings on the notion of genre or narrowing on that former distinctive sign which is the line...

Contemporary poetry may be read in all its states.

Both multifarious and fluctuating, poetry gives a striking account of the present. Not more than with philosophy or arts, is there to be found any dominant group or school in literature today. The days of great federative neologisms (e.g. romanticism, symbolism, surrealism) seem well over, together with their ramifications or outbursts into more restrained clusters (such as unanimism, romanism, naturism, futurism, letterism, and the like). The days of doctrines, systems and ideologies are gone. Even if, apparently, the spirit of coterie has not in itself disappeared.

Thus it becomes rather difficult to talk of elaborated poetics : rather, it is more appropriate to recognize more or less drastic positions, and more or less diverging practices. Poetry can hardly ground itself on anything but the very work one carries on within it. No theory precedes writing. No « system ». If any kind of « poetic art » may come into being, it will be at random, within the very text itself .

Such a multifariousness may at first appear as a symptom of weakness, in so far as poetry does not any longer appear to emerge from any articulation of some grand ideological project taking into account the totality of the aspirations of a community at a given moment in its history. Since the middle of the XXth century, we are aware that French poets have been withdrawn in the demanding singularity of their art and relatively no longer involved in History. Only quite a few and exceptional periods, such as the Resistance, during W.W.II, were able to link them temporarily closer to being « involved » and to action. But their task remains first and foremost discrete and barely visible, consisting in questioning reality within the language rather than being directly involved in the debates of their time.

Should we therefore speak of a « post-modern » poetry ? Such a notion would adequately refer to the unexpected situation of being «heirs », which is precisely the position of contemporary poets. They received from the past a vast array of works and forms vis-à-vis which it is difficult for them to assert any new originality. Such a legacy, to quote once more René Char, « is preceded by no will ». in this does it indeed differ from the legacy of the Classics (i.e. both Greeks and Latins), for example, such as had been highlighted by Renaissance poets : there would they ground themselves together with the very programme they were inventing. Far larger and more multifarious, the contemporary legacy enables traditional and new works from all over the world to merge together in a great disarray. It entails some kind of vertigo and often leads authors to give more than their due to quotation games and witty remarks. The venture of forms may thus be shut up at present. The contemporary poet may experience the feeling of having reached something close to the limits of language, or even the end of whatever belief in the powers of poetry. He keeps in mind Adorno's message stressing the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. He is tempted to repeat with Denis Roche that « poetry is inadmissible ».

However it is from within the very folds of this impossibility, or at least the feeling of its impossibility, that poetry today may be granted its meaning. Let us not forget that the history of modernity is lined by landmarks of failures : Baudelaire who ended up in aphasia, Rimbaud who abandoned his work, Mallarmé who was strangled by his own art. Modern poetry never gave up being initiated, since 1850 at least, into the awareness of its own impossibility. As Michel Deguy would say, « it learnt how to make do within its expectations, to internalize its failures in order to turn them back into paradoxes. » Today's poet is a poet despite it all.

Writing, however, keeps on despite all this, being the place wherefrom a new relationship to the world and to meaning is constantly being reworded. It becomes a new space for writing, both anxious and « in quest », where man places himself most directly in a struggle within his own language. All at once the seat of invention and awareness. Hence at the same time the expression « post-modern poetry » is absurd, since poetry is first and foremost a knowledge according to the mode of both tension and conflict. If its history is land-marked by quarrels, it is because it is in itself fundamentally by essence a quarrel. It is a trade « at the leading edge of progress ». It stands in the forefront. Post-modernity is no longer its field but, rather, the « contemporary extreme ».

Its own vertigo is thus also some kind of opportunity for poetry. For example, it gives rise to an unprecedented extension of the field of the contemporary. Michel Deguy's Journal, Po&sie, founded in the seventies, offers the most striking example of this : Gongora is side by side with Jacques Roubaud, John Ashbery, Thomas de Quincey, Keats, Pindar, Leopardi or Kozovoï... which means that contemporary poets may mingle their voices with those from the past, that creation may collate with philosophical musing and that translation is there to assert itself as first-rate poetical activity. The poetical is everywhere at home and in all its states. It is prosperous, highly respected. It doesn't care about places, times, genres and categories. One of the most recent publications of Michel Deguy's is entitled once more significantly : « Poetry is far from being alone ». Nothing is healthier and more profitable to it but its identity crisis when it aims at multiplying the opportunities and very forms of writing.

Formal diversity

As inevitably required by tradition, working on verse remains. Regularly, it becomes once again the object of renewed interest. This is for example the case of such poets as Jacques Réda or Jacques Roubaud, or those writing in the Journal entitled Action Poétique. Such a recourse to versification is sometimes understood according to the « post-modern » perspective as an interplay, often quotational, within the mould of traditional forms. But it continues above all to impose itself in a resolutely « modern » perspective, in the lineage opened at the turn of the century by Apollinaire's « Zone », i.e. as a kind of sismographic line and quarrelsome speech in which contemporary rhythms and disjunctions would be stamped in manifold ways. The line form would thus become the most urgent, swift, caesuraed form of writing. One comes across it, standing the test of the prosaic, where prose now falls short (as one says of a car whose brakes have given up on you), when the lyrical subject is assailed by far too many perceptions and sensations all at once, when too many things jostle together and too quickly both within him or around him, when division has the upper hand over standardization. The distinction between prose and verse matches up with a difference in rhythm, object speed and linking.

More than ever poetry today is grappling with prose. Not in order to poeticize it (as had been the case at the end of the eighteenth century) but in order to tackle itself against its own platitude. Next to the already classical, but always ill-defined « poetry in prose », we have been witnessing for over half a century all kinds of unclassifiable texts developing themselves. Now we witness the dilution the poetry into prose, now its flattening, now its self-criticism .. With Francis Ponge, prose became « Proême », with Yves Bonnefoy, poetical prose comes closer to a narrative. With Philippe Jaccottet, it frames itself in the filiation of meditations, or « rêveries » of a solitary rambler. More recently, with Emmanuel Hocquard, it asserts itself as the seat of a literal and tabular writing.

A vest array of fragmentary or fragmented writings may be added to this anthology of unclassifiable prose. One comes across them for example quite significantly with those who read the PreSocratic philosophers, or haikus, or with the heirs to René Char or Maurice Blanchot (e.g. Roger Munier, Michel Camus, Frank-André Jamme ). The latter are poets of discontinuity and juxtaposition. they are given to writing a sententious writing but often aiming at the enunciation of problematical and temporary truths. The latter do not close in an authoritarian way upon themselves, as was the case with the ancient Maxims. They say the minimum rather than the maximum. They are words carrying in themselves their own uncertainties, gropings, sometimes their surge for more supleness and deletion. They assert the value of the very precariousness at the core of a speech reinforced by its short-circuits, snatches, assertions, allegations and repeated questions, by, as you might as well say, many knockings at the door of the unknown. According to Edmond Jabès, « the quality and price of something said is not the certainty that it would impinge by being voiced, but rather the loss, the void, the uncertainty against which it struggles. »

Finally, when reaching the limit of such a movement by which poetry overwhelms itself, suspects itself, leaves itself and sometimes denies itself, we must stress a vast array of definitely fringing forms or practices, such as tract letterism, tract poetry, collages, sound-track poetry of the « Polyphonix » band, performance poetry... The second half of the XXth century, both in poetry as in the other forms of arts, witnesses formalistic or the most unexpected deconstructivistic attempts trying to proliferate. Such « attempts » belong to experimental labs in which adventure overrides writing. Such or such aspect of the poetic « medium » becomes thus more praised and valued : hence, e.g. the visual or the phonetical ...

 Discrepancies and points of convergence

An important discrepancy seems to make out contemporary poets in their more or less marked confidence in the powers of the poetical wording. On the one hand, among the elders, people like Paul Claudel, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, René Char or Saint-John Perse maintain their belief in the powers of poetry and through it celebrate a coherence of the world, of the being and of language. « O ! I have grounds to praise ! », Saint-John Perse exclaims in Eloges. On the other hand, people like Antonin Artaud, George Bataille or Henri Michaux write « against ». this discrepancy, infinitely relativized and modified, constantly since 1950, has found itself dividing the poetical territory between the camp of refusal and that of agreement, so that one may detect for example, in the filiation of the first family, the lineage of poets of presence and place (Yves Bonnefoy, Philippe Jaccottet, André du Bouchet) as well as the spiritualistic lineage, marked by religious feeling (Pierre Emmanuel, Jean-Claude Renard, Jean-Pierre Lemaire), and a family of lay lyricists (Jacques Réda, Jacques Darras, Pierre Oster) or of positive materialists (Francis Ponge, Eugène Guillevic). Conversely, in the camp of poets of the « nay », most audacious formalists rather enroll, and among the latter those who put the blame on the very coherence of language or on the prennial subsistence of poetry (Denis Roche, Christian Prigent).

But this opposition between the poets of the « yea » and poets of the « nay », poets of « support » and poets of the « refusal » is neither satisfying nor sufficient. It is complicated for example by the fact that among those who celebrate the world (I keep to this formula, however far too reductive a one, in order to refer to a positive relationship with the real) some distrust more than others the vanities and glamours of speech. Only with an infinite care should one try and find out those who do care for the exercize of language as being a fundamental experience in life, whereas for others it should be sought in terms of a « truth of speech ». On the present day scene, I would thus oppose Yves Bonnefoy's side, marked as it is by the desire for the silent word and by the search for a truth of the word in the very obliteration of words, with Michel Deguy's side acknowledging language as the most proper property of man requiring from it the capacity to say everything, to link everything, to think everything, to take care of everything. Within Yves Bonnefoy's filiation, I would locate all those who are worried to the point of being aware of all the illusions and vain glories of lyricism and metaphor. On Michel Deguy's side and tradition, I would locate all those who stick to language in full awareness, knowing its tricks, its illusions, its pernicious lures but playing the game enthusiastically in spite of it all without being able however to reach the oracular dimension of Paul Claudel's or René Char's poetry for example.

Some of these distinctions I have just mentioned are evidenced in editorials regroupings, above all noticeable in the realm of Journals, reviews, magazines who remain militant sites as is the case with anthologies. The catalogue published by Gallimard is the site of a « modern tradition » and of an innovation resting upon the presence of a « collection » : at present, it constitutes a space where quite a few « new lyricists » are reunited. Conversely, P.O.L.'s catalogue or Flammarion's are far more turned towards whiteness, minimalism, and various forms of breaking down.

But these divisions and regroupings must not overshadow some elements they share. the first of those would be « critical concern ». Since the middle of the XIXth century, French poetical modernity has turned itself into criticism. It ponders upon its practice and worries about what is poetical even if one scarcely nowadays writes about the « poetical arts ». This critical concern means some care for a correct speech. One meditates upon its conditions. One does not surrender oneself to them blindly as if inspired. One seeks a « lyrical simplification ». One distrusts bathos. One objects to « poeticism » and undresses from whatever old flashy rags that may have remained. One questions oneself about what is this strange task which drives one to put words on a sheet of paper, just one alongside the other and for no reason. Poetry thus becomes a poetry of poetry. In the worst of cases, this ends in its autistically tucking back to oneself, or to what Yves Bonnefoy calls « excarnation » : a word completely disembodied.

Another element in common rests in the increased importance of the relationship with the real. For some, it is a matter of simply priviledging reality as a primary substance of a poetical writing which will go and draw its fruits from the prosaic, the historical present, the daily chores. For others, it is a matter of aiming at - as already stated as such by Rimbaud himself &endash; an « objective poetry » or one of « absolute real », according to René Char's words, i.e. freed from the grip of subjectivity. For others, too, such as Yves Bonnefoy, the relationship with the « real » stresses a will to recapture in words the « feeling of a presence ».

Such a concern for the real is first defined negatively through the refusal of the surreal and of the unreal being more or less experienced as easy temptations, almost as the natural slope of a poetical discourse aiming always more or less at « making things easier » and dismissing those things that are in favour of what is not. What the poets would like to say is the real such as it remains outside language, or such as it defies language. Breton noted : « I never found out how to tell what the coulour of eyes were ». But most of the time, surrealism surrealism responded to this impossibility by the conjuring trick of images, whereas many contemporary poets don't trust the « analogical magma ».

As early as before the War, the concern for a writing less metaphorical, more discreet, closer to objects and to concrete situations, has emerged among such poets as Francis Ponge, Eugène Guillevic, Jean Follain or, after the War, among authors of the Rochefort School. René Guy Cadou thus termed one of the fundamental ambitions of French poetry from this half century by saying : « It is above all a matter of replanting a foothold on the earth where we are. »

In order to sum up these common features, I would therefore be tempted to resume Emmanuel Hocquard when he refers to a « negative modernity ». Which means a modernity that moves forward through new affirmations rather than through refusals : i.e. a suspicion towards images, a refusal of poeticism, a refusal of sentimentalism, a refusal of the edifying discourse and of the pathos... Poetry shrinks itself on to such specificities. It never stops questioning itself about what it may do and should do. It exists by means of seeking itself. One should never say poetry is this and not that : it's utterly contrary to itself. It is above all the very anxiety of language. Claude Royet-Journoud defines it as being some kind of « craft of ignorance ». To support such a formula, I will quote the first lines of Jean-Marie Gleize's A noir : « What remains for us is poetry. The ignorance of what it is. Writing it, doing, just for the sake of 'knowing'. In order to proceed forward within such an ignorance. In order to know the quintessence of such an ignorance. In order to elucidate it. »

Since it is the space of a new research, poetry is above all an experience. Its function is no longer to bring salvation or consolation, but rather to cross back over the human condition in all its nooks and crannies without recapturing its sins. Such is for example Jacques Dupin's true belief. In « Moraines », he writes : « As a boundless, infuriating, inexpiable experience, poetry never fulfills but, rather, ever more deepens the lack and the torment it entails. »
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Diversity 1950:Dwelling 1960 :Figuring 1970 :Settling 1980 : Articulating Bibliography

 © Jean-Michel Maulpoix and Catherine Wieder, 1999, all rights reserved.