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 New Horizons of Contemporary Lyricism in France

by Jean-Michel Maulpoix.

Excerpt from La poésie comme l'amour, Mercure de France publisher, 1998.

Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder


Terminologiquement, cela vacille encore, j'achoppe, j'embrouille. De toute manière, il y aura toujours une marge d'indécision; la distinction ne sera pas source de classements sûrs, le paradigme gincera, le sens sera précaire, révocable, réversible, le discours sera incomplet. --Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte

Since its appearance in the French language, at the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the word "lyricism" has been divided between a positive and a pejorative sense . On the one hand, the sublime, on the other, bathos. On the one hand, the enthusiasm (enthousiasmos) of poetical transport, on the other, displaced affectation. Such a cleavage is not simply a matter of reception. It proves to be consubstantial with this neologism, and constitutes a part of its originality. This double notion does not function as a sure concept in the field of literary criticism. If it is today the object of some attention, after having been neglected, this is perhaps paradoxically because it does not contribute much to the theoretical project; somewhat more faithfully than any other notion, it lights our incapacity to rationalize the poetical experience, which proves to be as definitively contradictory as this word.

Associating the vague with excess, the notion of lyricism would designate that unquantifiable surplus of meaning which is said to be at play in poetry. It falls to this notion to convey that from which conceptual discourse can only turn away. Lyricism designates not only a state of excess (enthousiasmos) marked by a particular disposition of the subject with regard to language, but also an elevated style which tends to dilute the written word in the sublimity of song. In whichever sense one takes it, it proves to be overflowing because it states the overflow. It is by that, to begin with, that it is suspect. The idea of a exaggerated confidence in language confronts a word which surpasses limits, which loses sight of the reality of things, and which lets itself be taken in by its own deceptions.

Francis Ponge denounced the 'romantico-lyrical cancer'. A contemporary poet, Christian Prigent, accuses lyricism of being nothing but the "béance baveuse du moi." It is indeed easy to ironize on this subject. It expresses itself, it risks naïveté or turgidity. Poorly perceived, poorly discerned, it is gladly interpreted as regressive: it appears to rashly overactualize the erring ways of subjectivity. A sluggish tradition identifies it, in a simplistic manner, with the most sentimental lyrical poetry, that which cultivates "fleurs bleus du style" and repeats with Musset "frappe-toi le coeur, là est le génie".

Issuing from the same root (the lyre, emblematic instrument of Apollo), "lyricism" and "lyrical" are in effect hardly close synonyms. Whereas the former refers to a state, the latter designates, above all, a genre. "Lyrical" applies to all personal poetry, while "lyricism" entails the quality of the sublime which surpasses the person. Lyricism is not reducible (neither, for that matter, is the lyrical) to the simple expression of the self . . . If this word gives us pause, it is precisely in as much as it disturbs the harmony of lyrical poetry, such as it is defined by Hegel, as well as any theory of the subject. Rather than to subjectivity, it draws attention to alterity. For lyricism, as Michel Deguy writes, "that which is most precious is most altering, the most altering is the most identifying." Proof of alterity, the alteration of the subject, the being's thirst for alteration: such would be lyricism, definitively more remarkable in its distancing and decentering of the self than its "expression" thereof.

Let us recall that Apollinaire celebrated 'visual lyricism', that Flaubert called for 'lyricism of style' and that Breton advocated a 'lyrical comportment. These diverse uses of the word concern, certainly, the relation of the subject to language, but according to a logic completely different from a simple outpouring of interiority. It reveals the wish for that which might call an 'objective lyricism', which rests a great deal upon the exaltation of the prosaic and which departs to seek, in the material of the world, the substance of its song.

* * * *

If lyricism reappeared with some insistence in French poetry, at the start of the eighties, this was at first principally in the catalogue of Gallimard editions, under the influence of editorial choices by Jean Grosjean, Jacques Réda and Charles Roy. Such poets as James Sacré, André Velter, Jean-Pierre Lemaire, Guy Goffette, Hédi Kaddour, Richard Rognet, Philippe Delaveau and, more recently, Christian Bobin, for the most part born in the fifties, were qualified as "nouveaux lyriques." Then, at the same editor, were authors slightly younger, like Jean-Pierre Chambon, Hervé Micolet and Dominique Pagnier. Finally, one saw a blossoming, at diverse editors, of a great many texts by new poets: Francois Boddaert, Jean-Claude Pinson, Christian Doumet, Marie Etienne, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Emmanuel Moses, Olivier Barbarant...

Some of these authors are turned toward spirituality, others are resolutely profane. Some write in prose, others in verse. Yet all revive a certain attention to articulation, to phrasing, to emotion-- indeed, to melody.

A few issues of reviews (La NRF, Le Débat, Action poétique), a few militant anthologies, sustained a climate of polemical agitation around the question of the return of lyricism. These reviews opposed the new lyricists to those from whom they distinguished themselves the mostly clearly, in order to discern the tenants of literal poetry: Emmanuel Hocquard, Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, Jean-Marie Gleize, and, more recently, Olivier Cadiot, Pierre Alferi.

After having been rather poorly posed (because polemical confrontation gives way to an exchange of clichés) this debate seems presently to take a more interesting turn, thanks to the appearance of theoretical essays which directly tackle the question. These are, for the literal camp, A Noir (subtitled "Poetry and literality") and Le Principe de nudité intégral, by Jean-Marie Gleize, and, for the camp of lyricism, Habiter en poete, by Jean-Claude Pinson, sub-titled "Essay on Contemporary Poetry".

The quarrel turns out to be productive, in that it participates in a renewed questioning of the meaning of today's poetic experience. Witness several other recent titles like "La poésie n'est pas seule," by Michel Deguy, La Poésie comment dire? by James Sacré , Poésie etcetera : ménage by Jacques Roubaud , or the large collective volume, directed by Bernard Noël, Qu'est-ce que la poésie? or A quoi bon des poètes? by Christian Prigent.

This is why I do not attempt the characterize the work of those said to be wrongly or justly "nouveaux lyriques" (as there are "nouveaux romanciers", "nouveaux philosophes", or "nouveaux cuisiniers"), but endeavor to inscribe my remarks within a larger perspective... It is to interrogate both a present state of poetry and the sensibility of an epoch: as much as by new authors, the question of a new lyricism is obviously posed as well by their elders who continue to publish today.

* * *

Rather than the emergence of a new lyricism at the turn of the eighties , I believe that it would be best to observe a permanence and a resurgence of lyricism. Numerous are the poets who have assured the continuity of lyricism, throughout the century: from Saint-John Perse to Michel Deguy, from Aragon to Lionel Ray, from Salah Stétié to Lorand Gaspar, from Pierre Emmanuel to Jean-Claude Renard, from Bernard Delvaille to Franck Venaille, from Jude Stéfan to Jacques Réda -- we might multiply the names, the works, the nuances... If a renewal of lyricism occurred in the eighties, it reveals, in the first place, the persistence of a certain type of rapport with poetry, for which the scene of writing is less important than the human experience which it precedes or prolongs. This concern is in part reaffirmed by the notion of écriture textuelle inherited from the sixties. Between 1960 and 1970, one witnessed the development, in the proximity of human sciences, of poetical works concentrating the essential of their attention upon the production of the literary object, its literalism or its literality. In the orbit of structuralism, a confrontation thus arose between the objectivity of the real and the objectification of the text, the accent placed upon the caesura, the reversal or the discontinuity between words and things. In this perspective, the "lyrical" status of the poetical text was re-examined, inasmuch as it offers an imaginary continuity between words and things.

If lyricism reappears, it is thus at the moment when this scientism ebbs, when the "critique de la critique" begins, when Barthes slips from S/Z (1970) to Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977). Lyricism then redevelops the notion of poetic experience against the telquelien affirmation of Denis Roche, according to which all revolution can only be grammatical or syntactical ("toute revolution ne peut être que grammaticale ou syntactique"). This return from/to lyricism is partly situated within a shift of attention from the blank page (or the writing table) towards the world . Lyricism can only take flight by disengaging from preceding theories, as they tend to isolate writing in detaching it from other human activities. It implies the renewed affirmation of a direct interdependence between writing and life. This rapport reveals itself initially in a new rhythm, a new regime, signifying the recommencement of movement for poetic discourse.

A lyricism of movement

The literalism of the sixties is largely an arrested literature. Disconnected from the world, the text exists in opposition to it. With Denis Roche, we are in the arrest of the image; with Ponge, in the arrest of the object; with Emmanuel Hocquard, in the arrest of the syntagm. Confronted by this literal stasis, lyricism does not aim at ecstasy, but rather to re-establish metaphorical transport and develop a poetics of displacement. To rhetorical stasis, it opposes poetical fluency. For the framing of isolated objects, it substitutes a new sentiment for the affluence of the sensual world. (This is notably stated in a title by Michel DeGuy : Aux heures d'affluence). It is about abandoning the rhetoric of arrest for a poetics of "arrêts frequents" (frequent stops) -- which does not suppose a forgetting or rejecting of stasis, but a new punctuation. With Dominique Fourcade, the image of the "trot" imposes itself in "Outrance Utterance" as a motif of displacement in an alternative regime of poetic writing. In the work of Jacques Réda, poetry is located in urban, or railway, mobility and in the garnering of circumstances and of prosaic details. Thus new figures are born in the pursuit of poetry itself. If there is lyricism, it should be understood as a renewed mobilization of poetic energies. As Georges Perros writes in his Papiers collés, "there is lyricism while there is circulation; nothing is more lyrical than blood". This movement of language, renewed in poetical transport, develops -- across the play of metaphors -- a poetics of relationship and of entanglement.

A lyricism of entanglement

Literal writing proceeds by simplification, subtraction, compression, condensation. It looks for "segments de langue nue," or "petite langue," a line of "langue claire." It tends towards a minimalism completely contrary to lyrical maximalism. The latter proceeds by expansion, addition, correlation, complication, the weaving of a network of numerous threads. It is through entanglement of the self and the real, of imagination and thought, that lyricism develops its fluency. It does not separate the poetical from the theoretical. It is the power of continuity, there where the literal is the power of separation. On the philosophical map, it plays in a sense Merleau Ponty against Wittgenstein: the joint against the cleavage, relation against separation, the link against the break. In entangling the world of its creatures, it affirms being is found everywhere within it and outside of it. For the lyrical poet, "la poésie n'est pas seule" -- it is the language of the indivisibility of the perceptible and of meaning.

If it is necessary to find an illustration of this entanglement, one would perhaps discover it in the motif of flesh. Lyricism dreams of language as body and the world as flesh. All substance is meaning, perceptible and perishable. Whence, doubtless, its taste for "matière sonore" (resonant material). It endeavors to move beyond the opposition between surface and depth, as between materialism and mysticism. The idea is neither to rejoin an ideal depth where meaning resides, nor to take the part of the surface in the name of what Jean-Marie Gleize calls "le principe de nudité integral" (the principle of integral nudity), but to seek a poetics of incarnation which situates the work of the conscience as nearly as possible to reality, to sensation and to the imaginary. In this connection, one may observe that even in the work of a Christian like Jean-Pierre Lemaire, religious faith is continually challenged in the prosaic. His poetics does not develop any theological lyricism founded on amplification or celebration: above all, it is a lyricism of incarnation, concerned by all to which this obliges one -- which is to say, an acknowledgment of the limits and contradictions of the human condition. This lyricism witnesses a truly Christian faith, one not in favor of the expression of general divinity.

A critical lyricism

Lyricism today is criticism, in that it expresses a critical state of the subject, interrogates the properly articulatory capacity of language, directly links desire and its defeat, the postulation of dissatisfaction, and inscribes interrogation beside exclamation. Together, it constitutes a space of quest, of interpolation and of questioning. Unable to continue defining itself as a power of celebration, it tends to become a power of examination. It challenges the entirety of reality. It pursues it in study, researches its shortcomings and observes its interconnections. It turns back upon and against itself. It subsists in conflict, in action. It is the space of unstable meaning. Therefore, it is an active participant in the work of re-evaluation and reconfiguration of poetry. There is, in its return (or returns), the quest for a social meaning -- or further, a politics of the activity of writing. It is this lyricism, in spite of all, which explores a critical state in order to intensify it and aggravate it, and in order to find a resolution in euphonic aporias .

A prosaic lyricism

Lyricism today is a lyricism of daily life. It engages poetry in prose. It declares its preference for the real, as opposed to the unreal. If it discovers meaning in the bosom of reality, this will be in an apparently accidental manner. Poetry is the contour of the ordinary, the humble, the familiar and the daily. Human territory is not a utopic space, but geographically and socially defined. In French poetry from the second half of the twentieth century, there seems to operate a shift towards a 'here' always more radical. It is a question of a historical present, prosaic and political. We have thus moved from the Rilkian "Ouvert," from the glade or the orchard, to the wastelands of Jacques Réda. As Antoine Emaz writes: "à l'étroit dans ce qui est possible / on est / debout / encore."

The encounter, formerly exhalted to the point of mysticism by the surrealists, still retains a dimension of epiphany amongst post-war poets like Yves Bonnefoy or Philippe Jaccottet. At present it is reduced to the sole status of notation, notes taken of "miniscules événements" that relieve "un tant soif peu dans la banalité des jours." With Réda, the walk has become a wandering. It constitutes a sort of gleaning: the melancholy harvest of a light provision propitious to the continuation of works and days. Jean-Claude Pinson affirms: "J'écris comme on herborise / en amateur un peu futile." This lyricism is thus, in a sense, an anti-lyricism in that it impugns verbal heights and distrusts amplification. The lyrical subject emerges and articulates as nearly as possible to its own precariousness.

A lyricism of precariousness

Rather than the expression or the "diction d'un émoi central," lyricism constitutes a wandering in the peripheries of the subject. A "destinerrance" Derrida would have said. An intellectual nomadism, ontological and affective. Contrary to the classical vision, the circumference here is everywhere and the center in nowhere. Classed "hors des murs," the subject evolves "entre centre et absence." It proves to be defeated, divided, decentered, roving with regard to the self. The poet has definitively lost his aura: "homme / de si peu poids / dans l'incertitude / qui dure. " Subject to the heart's intermittencies, he seems to have for a task to endlessly repeat the ordeal of contradiction and rift. Poetry does not offer him a home. It does not permit him even to repose against some true place or homeland. Doomed to an indefinite departure, the lyrical subject continues rather to watch the face of man dissipate in himself "comme à la limite de la mer un visage de sable," yet looking to find, this time, new links, whereby to recover a face.

This precarious subject has renounced an assured mastery of language. He pretends to neither theoretical sovereignty, nor to the administration of the self's wanderings by some agency of signs. He knows that language founds the subject and not the inverse . The experiment which he makes of it opens upon a beyond or a this side of individuality. Rather than the possession or the triumph of subjectivity, lyricism accompanies its defeat. It puts the word to the test of the impossible and the illogical. It refutes all transcendance when litteralism maintains that of the letter. Rather than a powerful subject, the lyrical subject is a potential subject: "l'être le plus propre de l'homme, c'est d'être sa propre possibilité ou puissance. "

A lyricism of alterity

Passenger, the poet is also ferryman. Recognizing himself as transitory, he renders transitiveness both his condition and his duty. The "moi" becomes the site of passage. The lyrical gesture is thus par excellence one of offering and of sharing, without hope of return. "La poésie s'adress à tous en particulier," the poet says je "comme tout un chacun," because he has, properly speaking, "rien à transmettre, nul savoir, nulle vision du monde, nulle certitude." ( . . . ) "Ecrire s'adresse à quelqu'un en pui on ne croit pas, mais qui nous parle avec des mots qui cherchent nos lettres, qui prennent notre voix." Lyricism consists in welcoming the anonymous in oneself, to attain that which Jacques Réda calls "la crête de l'impersonal" by "épousant la singularité de sa propre cadence." But alterity is not reducible to impersonality: it is also the discovery in others, by the subject, of its own incomprehensibility. This is formulated, for example, in the work of James Sacré , for whom the je is the "noeud de l'intime avec l'autre." He writes: "L'autre : c'est-à-dire la figure incompréhensible de ce qui est incompréhensible en l'expérience aliénée que je fais de ma propre intimité. " Lyricism discovers the self by the detour of the other and thus oscillates ceaselessly between the strange and the familiar, the peculiar and the anonymous. Even when articulated with words of love, it causes the voice of the subject to fall into the public domain. And if it announces an occurence, this can only be that of an unknown other who is at once someone and anyone: "L'être qui vient est l'être quiconque. " It is the subject as such, exiled from the universal and exposed to the world. In the decentered expression of the self and the weaving of relations, in taking the part of entanglement, lyricism is in search of a community. It is thus nothing other than the voice itself of that which Michel Deguy calls the "comme-un des mortels." I will here cite Philippe Jaccottet:

Je suis comme quelqu'un qui creuse dans la brume

à la recherche de ce qui échappe à la brume

pour avoir entendu un peu plus loin des pas

et des paroles entre des passants échangées . . .

A lyricism of the voice

Thus offered and addressed, this new lyricism is a matter of the voice rather than the Parole or the Verbe. It remains closest to the idea of a difficulty inherent in language. Less "proféré" (uttered) than interrogating, it attempts to articulate the presence and defect, the desire and loss, celebration and disgrace. The "nouveau lyrique" is a lyric that seeks its song, its voice, indeed its own outlines in the disconnectedness of prose. The poem itself is a site of apprenticeship. As the title of the recent collection by Claude Esteban puts it "quelqu'un commence à parler dans une chambre." Someone endeavors to finish with grief, seeks an orientation outside of melancholy, attempts an exit, wants to take on language. Such a lyricism of the voice has nothing to do with the phonocentrism of the Dict. Because the voice that implies addressing others is at once presence and evanescence. No sooner emitted than it "se perd et se dissout dans les bruits du monde" (loses itself and dissolves in the noises of the world). The poem constitutes a home for the voice; it arrives "tenter de soustraire la voix aux menaces de l'indifférence," it "l'exalte dans la différence." To the litteralist principle of integral nudity one might thus oppose a lyricism of the naked voice, a lyricism for which "il n'y a pas d'autre abri que la voix," articulating song and thought in their non-coincidence. It is thus not a matter of uttering meaning , but of giving up the ghost. To open a progression which the reader will pursue...

A sober lyricism

For this "lyrisme dégrisé" of belief, of utopia, and of the sublime, upon which flowed the acid of the human sciences and which dismissed ideologies, the nearly impossible is to maintain song in the face of disillusion or wonder in the absence of the marvelous. Between song and disillusion, one attempts to raise a brief song. For Antoine Emaz, the poet "maintient une langue de terre / aussi commune que possible / et sans orgueil." Neither discourse nor bathos, but a word which attends to the most urgent things first. Instead of verbal escalation, a rendering of direct relations. Instead of terracing and hierarchization, the rebellious promotion of detail manifesting the absence of an All. Lyricism is no longer a principle of elevation. The romantic icarian movement reversed itself since Mallarmé in a swell of verse: lyricism in its turn turns towards the humble, the page, silence, finitude. It returns the tongue in order to show its doubling. Today's lyrical retains from the textual adventure of its predecessors the idea that the poem is first of all a landscape of words. It knows the wantonness of work upon signs.

When religious sentiment persists, it too is found sobered of sublime and of belief. Philippe Delaveau oscillates between presence and absence and, in this unstable space, develops that in the poem which seeks a sort of peace. Jean-Pierre Chambon launches a kind of empty prayer:

Je progresse vers l'étendue

l'idée du royaume reste obscure

l'espace de la conciliation, inaccessible.

Between verbiage and derision, lyricism today expresses consent to finitude, doubled in an unchannelled tendency to the sublime. It speaks human life as it is given and as it is suffered, literally in all of its nonsenses. For this sober lyricism, which leaves the marvelous in the cloakroom and lays off the sublime, the poem is hardly more than "une manière d'arranger temporairement les choses." Is it still lyricism?

Translated from La Poésie comme l'amour, Mercure de France, 1998.

© Mercure de France, 1998 - All rights reserved.