French Poetry since 1950:
by Jean-Michel MAULPOIX
- Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder
My purpose is to run again along the poetical space of this
half-century, « pointing » out the most significant tendencies that have emerged in the course of the most recent
decades. In order to be clearer and offer a far better educational perspective, I will grant each of them a verbal determiner to sum it up, though I am well aware that it may not be sufficient enough to account for the complexity of tendencies taking place during each
1950 : Dwelling
¨ I can delineate the first regrouping around the verb « to dwell ». I apply it to a family of poets, born around the twenties, who may be gathered around the heading of a common quest for place and presence, as well as for a decisive relationship to the elementary. The latter began publishing in the fifties, just after the War, right in the midst of the « era of suspicion », in an epoch stamped both by the exhaustion of surrealism as well as by the « involved » poetry which had come out of the Resistance. As Marie-Claire Bancquart observes : « the exhaustion of surrealism and that of resistance poetry left room, at the onset of the fifties, for vast interrogations and quests carried out with uncertainty ». Such anxieties and research will be part and parcel of what Yves Bonnefoy calls « the act and seat of poetry ». They will follow on at the heart of writing itself, but also in its persisting dialogue with the landscape or with other art forms.
¨ The four most representative poets of this first family are Yves Bonnefoy (born in 1923), André du Bouchet (born in 1924), Philippe Jaccottet (born in 1925), and Jacques Dupin (born in 1927). The latter will indeed bring to its maturity the new poetic tendency that henceforth leads to a revival of the sensible world. As early as 1947, Jean Tortel had written in the N° 123 issue of the Cahiers du Sud that « after the surrealist fireworks », poets wanted to lay the stress on the thorough observation of the universe. Such a desire was illustrated in several ways, notably by the bias of a plain poetry, often of a bucolic tinge, present among the members of the Rochefort School, but it was these four authors, whom I have just quoted, who carried this wish to its fullest intensity and who found out how to articulate it into a deeper analysis of the very meaning of their art.
Without ever coming together to creating in their turn whatever « school », the latter poets were nonetheless associated for a while with the Journal L'Ephémère (published from 1966 to 1973). They became close friends to several painters and sculptors such as Giacometti or Tal Coat. With these artists, they took lessons in the perusal, acquired a sense of « lyrical abstraction », perceived space as a site of confrontation, rediscovered matter and light, pondered upon illegibility and dissonance. Hence, Dupin speaking of Tapiès : « Raw, lapidary, blurred, over-hanging signs, they only open onto their present illegibility and incongruity of silent traces ». The latter authors will, in their turn, be specified by its lack of ornamentation, its tension, its dwindling and frugality, in the manner, for example, of Giacometti's sculptures. Fascinated by the material immediacy of the work of art, its haughty muteness, its independence towards readability, these poets' writings « attempt desperately to rediscover the abrupt access which nostalgia saps away ».
Like Follain or Guillevic, all differentiate themselves from surrealism. They reject automatic writing, and the rapture of imagination, all that may have anything to do with ideology and « romanticism » in surrealism. They no longer believe in the future solution, as heralded by André Breton « of both these states apparently so contradictory : i.e. dream and reality mingling into some kind of absolute reality, of surreality. From this movement, however, they accept its power to wreak havoc with received ideas, clichés, ready-made phrases. If they inherit surrealism's inaugural violence, they break up with with its bias for images. The concern for dwelling, erecting themselves through poetry in a rightful relationship with the sensible world leads them to being involved in a harsh criticism of images.
Yves Bonnefoy does not fail to recall it : poetry, if one is not careful enough, may become a game for dupes, a way to purchase, at bargain rates, a metaphorical infinite within the language itself. It willingly offers its service to he who were to try and attempt to fly like Icarus, because the impossible is his domain. It is easy for a poet to organize and settle a few chimaeras with words, to build up a dazzling catalogue of metaphors which would allow one to believe that the infinite is our real homeland : « every single image », he writes, » is a specificity shrivelling itself for fear of finiteness ». The far too sought-after presence quells itself within the image which entails duplicity for unity. So far as to allow Yves Bonnefoy to conclude : « I did voice the truth of words without eschewing the war against the image"; i.e. the image world &endash; for the sake of presence". And yet the latter is ready to accept that poetry can't wholly bypass the use of images. After having precisely developed criticism he ends up in exempting it and recognizing in it some natural form of desire. He reintegrates it within the living, having assessed its risks. He asserts that the powerful love of presence, leading to composing poems, must also know how to love « this first web of naiveties, chimaeras in which the will of presence had become ensnared ». The work of the poet consists henceforth in relativizing, then requalifying the image, as likewise it compels to loving language as well as suspecting it. Writing means knowing one's own finiteness, sizing up the tricks of language, learning how to distinguish between the possible and the impossible, but it is also experiencing the impossible and thus starting again and again to try and regain some kind of hope Ö
« A surging state of impossible fullness », such would be, when all is said, Yves Bonnefoy's definition of poetry :
« Our words no longer look for other words but wander along the latter ones, they simply side along with them, and if ever one skims one, they unite. It won't be but still your light, our brevity scattered. Could we say it's writing dispelling itself once it's task's achieved. »
The image is that creation of the mind upon which it falls to brighten fleetingly man's finiteness, nay to scatter it, spilling its fruitful figures. As for André du Bouchet, he will advocate, with a similar reservation, a poetics of the image « having reached its end full of concern ». As for Philippe Jaccottet, he sternly takes over criticisms voiced by Bonnefoy and, with regards to images, says : « children do invent some of them at a certain age and every day ; the surrealists have satured them with modern poetry. If one just about yields to such an inclination, a profusion of rather odd and weird relationships take place between things that may entail one to believe rather cheaply that one has found out the hidden structures of the world whereas one has only derived a maximum of a stir from the inaccuracy of an expression. »
Confronted to this risk, Philippe Jaccottet wishes a new transparent language which does not yield to the mirages of « being lucky enough as to find the accurate expression » and « verbal coinage » but which bind man to the world in ties of plainness and weirdness. The Haiku is one of this pattern, i.e. a « poetry without images » : « a poetry which only yielded to establishing relationships without any reference to any other world, nor to any explanation. » The main quality of this glass language would be to let light through and offer a furtive access to meaning when it skies away.
¨ Among these four poets, poetry thus becomes some kind of a precarious ethics in action. It determines how one should behave, move about in the world without reference or props to any belief. It means recapturing speech in its most rigorous, righteous, and elementary dimension. It wishes to be the seat where man, confronted to the infinite, sizes his finiteness. Hence Bonnefoy &endash;thus unfolds his production against the neo-platonic gnosis which makes the promised plenitude pay the price of the refusal of the mortal body. In one of his earliests texts, Anti-Plato, he writes :
« All things from here, the country of wickers, of dresses, of stones, i.e. the country of water on the willows and stones, a country of stained dresses.Tthat laughter covered with blood, indeed I tell thee, dealers of eternity, symmetrical faces, void of looks, is heavier in man's head than perfect Ideas which but run and come off on his mouth. »
¨ The corollary of such a search for presence is a questioning on place, nay on what Yves Bonnefoy calls the « true place ». It is no abstraction but a fragment of concrete territory where all of a sudden some kind of profane revelation takes place. The « true place » is that place wherefrom the infinite suddenly declares itself and allows itself to be read in the finite. It represents only in fact a « waste away instant ». Thus one sees poetry attempting to reach a new feeling of the universal which, according to Bonnefoy's words in Les tombeaux de Ravenne (Ravenne's tombstones) « is not the abstract certainty which for being everywhere the same is almost worth nowhere. The universal has its seat. The universal is everywhere in the way one looks upon that place and how one will handle it ». « True immortality », he adds, « is simply a taste of the everlasting », and not « the healing of death ». He repatriates within the heart of the sensible world and of the clear-sighted human consciousness what religion formerly fed on.
Words like « glade », « orchard », « rockface » will thus refer, in French poetry of the fifties, to some kind of a chancy geography of the Being and the meaning. They become essentialized. they erect a protected landscape poles apart from the city. Poetic language looks like what it describes and becomes in its turn like an archipelago of overdetermined sites and places of resistance. Almost as if modernity, in front of the ephemereal and contingent of which it is the conscience and the voice needed to erect some points of reference where the feeling of eternity were to come and seek shelter, without, for all that, obscuring the precariousness of the creature who experiences it.
¨ With Philippe Jaccottet, the orchard represents the poetic space par excellence,
« I do believe that in every orchard one may see the perfect dwelling : a place whose layout is flexible, whose walls are porous, whose roof is light ; a room so well set in order to house the marriage of shadow and light that every human wedding should be there celebrated, rather than inside those tombs into which so many churches have turned ».
¨ For Jaccottet, the ultimate task of poetry consists in transcribing a singular experience that carries within itself its own
necessity. In the manner of the Rêveries of a Solitary
Rambler, he carefully describes the frame and the
circumstances. He grants writing the concern of recuperating the echoes wherefrom the sensible world springs and of which man is both at once witness and
echo. Here is an example of an « encounter », taken from the first pages of one of his latest works « Cahier de Verdure » (« A Copybook of green ») :
« This time it was a cherry tree. Not a cherry tree in full bloom, referring to some kind of clear approach, but a cherry tree loaded with fruits, caught sight of one evening in June, on the other side of a huge cornfield. It was once more as if someone had appeared there and were talking to you without really talking to you, without even pointing at you : someone or, rather, somebody, and a 'beautiful thing' indeed ; but whereas as if it had been a human shape, a wanderer ; in which case my joy would have been mingled with some embarrassement and need to run towards her, to join her, first being almost incapable to speak, but not only for having run too fast, then to listen to her, to answer, to catch her in my net of words and be myself caught in hers &endash; and then might have begun, if I'd been lucky enough, quite another story, in a more or less settled mixture of light and shadow; then a new love story would have precisely there begun like a new brook, springing from a new source, in Spring &endash; for that very cherry tree, I had indeed no urge to meet it, to conquer it and to possess it ; or, rather, it had been done, I had been met, conquered, I had absolutely nothing to wait for, I had none to ask more for ; it was another kind of story, of encounter, of talk ; even more difficult to catch. »
« A cherry tree loaded with fruits, caught sight of one evening in June, on the other side of a huge cornfield », such is the very simple and plain example of « rapture ». An experience of the invisible takes place in the midst of the visible. Nothing apparently more down to earth, more humble, nor less relying on the society of men. The quiet presence represents some kind of ever asked question to which no one will ever answer for it carries within itself its own answer :
« Always on these abysses of water does the ephemeral sparkle ; and that's the very thing I wish I could voice now »
¨ As for André du Bouchet's
poetry, it meanders between the present and the
immemorial. The very first experience of such a writing is that of a way out : « one should leave the limited space of the
inside, get out of oneself, try to escape from the fixed representations of the real, from the grasp of both culture and language ». Getting out means going where man is not, to direct oneself towards an open
space, a « free space », where the being « has no name ». Writing reproduces this production of movement : « I write as one
walks, i.e. blindly ». It gives an account of elementary experiences and carefully keeps avoiding diversion in the very space it
confronts. Thus it will not saturate the page, but attempt there to transcribe this « carrying void » which is the very basis of poetic
experience. Hence the fragmentary and very spatialized disposition of the poem : it
is, on the sheet of paper, a rhythm set in space, « the weird expression of simplicity ». This pre-reflexive and seismographic writing almost constitutes what I would call a « feeling of writing ». Du Bouchet shows that poetry almost bleached by the speed with which it moves away from the circumstance that had bestowed on it a fake justification. Careful to remain in the truth of
incompletion, he refuses to fill in, with any kind of ancient rhetorical or lyrical
paste, the whites that separate immediate experiences from the sensible world. Writing coincides with the surge always to be recaptured from the present instant :
« Enlarged to the white, the epoch, the piece of earth on which I slide, like a beam of cold in the jolting day ».
¨ Lastly, Jacques Dupin, born in Ardèche, i.e. that rocky solar area of the South of France where du Bouchet had chosen to live and near to where Bonnefoy and Jaccottet came close on various moments of the existence. A stony
earth, in the image of a poetry that distrusts words that are too shiny as much as it does with landscapes that would be too
humanized. With Jacques Dupin, as with André du Bouchet, writing is experienced as a very « physical » journey to the heart of a dry land. It speaks of itself in terms of
landslides, loose stones, drought, fissures and furrows. The first figure of this effort is the ascent of a dry country, completely opposite to the peacefulness of
horizontality. Here, for example, is the poem « Grand Vent » (« High Wind ») which opens the collection Gravir, published in 1963 :
« We only belong to the mountain path
meandering under the sun between sage and lichen
rising at night, a borderline path
we have enabled tops to come close to each other
the limit of arable lands
seeds burst in our fists
flames into our bones
Let manure rise all the way to us on men's backs
Let vine and rye answer
to the volcano's old age
the fruits of pride, the fruits of basalt
will ripe under the blows
that make us visible
Flesh will endure what the eye suffered from
what wolves never dreamt
before flowing on to the sea. »
The fundamental movement of the poem is to move painfully towards the highest which is also the emptiest, to direct onself towards the scarce, the rare, nay, the unbreathable. The purpose is to climb towards an « air burrow » or a kind of « open sky deposit » where the inside of man himself up there, very high, becomes a landscape where the obscure and the secret unfold in light.
Jacques Dupin's poetry is fiercer than Bonnefoy's or Jaccottet's. Its landscapes are less humanized. It imposes an experience of the abrupt and expresses a stronger negativity. For this poet, it is a matter of unweaving the web of perceptions, knowledge and everyday common facts. Far from seeking any plenitude, it values deficiency. The central motif of his work is the crack : « In everything that dispels us outside the world », he writes, « there lies its heart ». Altogether hurried and brisk, peremptory and bare, writing is an experience of unbinding, « an abrupt and infinite birth ». Like the Ardechian landscape, it is a place of bedazzlement and shining stones. The titles of his collections clearly evidence such a violence : « Les brisants » (breakers) (1958), « L'Epervier » (casting net?) (1960), « Saccades » (jerks) (1962) , « Gravir » (struggling up the slope) (1963)). Close to Michaux for his bias towards confrontation, Dupin is equally close to Giacometti in his emaciated poetics. About the latter sculptor, he writes a few sentences which might very well characterize his own poetical approach : « Giacometti is hardly giving in to digging things and play with their outward qualities, the light wrapping them, the colour diversifying them (Ö) He does not revolve around appearances, but he tears them, breaks in ». Thus writing takes on the coat of a fight hand to hand : « Nothing alive will ever go through but through our body » : the poet stresses the necessity of a physical ordeal which alone stands surety for the living, allows one to thwart the tricks of language.
But this far more physical, far more vehement conception of writing leads us to the threshhold of the second step-over of our journey, i.e. of the sixties Ö
Next page : Figuring, 1960