Becoming the Living Poet

One Dead French Poet & One Living French Poet

Posted on: July 8, 2009

In my experience it’s always best to start a blog post with something completely off topic, so I’m pausing to brag. Way back in April I mentioned that I was applying for a scholarship and that the personal essay the scholarship required was not turning out well.

Well, update: I got the scholarship! And I almost didn’t send in the application at all because I originally thought the date it needed to be in the committee office was the postmark date, but after much angst I decided I’d gotten the letters of rec and written the essay so I might as well send it and take my chances.

Lesson learned: If you let your best be good enough, you give yourself a chance of succeeding, so don’t let thoughts of this isn’t going to work out stop you from trying.

So I recently got back from a marathon two week sight-seeing trip to Barcelona and Paris, which I haven’t yet fully processed, but one thing I did realize in my travels is that I know absolutely nothing about French poetry.

So now that I’m home (for a given value of home, I’m still in Denmark), I thought I’d take some time to do a little research on French poetry and at least give myself a starting point to fill in this gap in my poetic education.

I should mention that I’ll be reading these French poets in translation since my French is abysmal almost to the point of non-existence.

So without further adieu, here is one dead French poet and one living French poet:

One Dead French Poet: Paul-Marie Verlaine

A friend of my S.O.’s who I was staying with in Paris pointed out Paul-Marie Verlaine‘s place of residence and was confused when I confessed that I’d never heard of the guy.

Paul Verlaine is apparently one of France’s most famous poets, as much for his poetry (he was part of the symbolist movement), as for a disastrous affair with another renowned French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. The affair transitioned from minor scandal to legend when, in a drunken rage, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist and was imprisoned for two years where he took up Catholicism to accompany his alcoholism.

While wit and eccentricity, have always attracted me to writers more than blatant excess (he beat and then abandoned his wife and child, meh), I can’t deny Verlaine writes beautifully. The images he uses produce such potent melancholy, such bitterness at the emptiness of hedonism strained to its breaking point. The tone of his poetry perfectly fits the definition I discovered of Fin De Siecle, whose values Verlaine is said to embody: a period in French history marked by decadence, the perception of degeneration, and renewed hope for a brighter future.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Verlaine was inspired to begin writing poetry after reading Les fleurs du mal (translated: The Flowers of Evil), the once-banned book of highly sensual poetry written by another famous French libertine, Charles Baudelaire.

Four years before his death, Verlaine wrote a poem titled For Charles Baudelaire (if you click on the link, it’s the last poem on the page).

The last two lines intrigue me:

In art-contorted doubts, weeps its chagrin.
A simple death, eh? we, brothers in sin.

Here are some more links to poems by Verlaine:

The Young Fools
What Sayest Thou, Traveller
The Song of the Artless Ones

This was my favorite of all the Paul-Marie Verlaine poems I discovered:

The Innocents by Paul Verlaine
(Fêtes Galants: Les Ingénus)

High heels fought with their long dresses,
So that, a question of slopes and breezes,
Ankles sometimes glimmered to please us,
Ah, intercepted! – Those dear foolishnesses!

Sometimes a jealous insect’s sting
Troubled necks of beauties under the branches,
White napes revealed in sudden flashes
A feast for our young eyes’ wild gazing.

Evening fell, ambiguous autumn evening:
The beauties, dreamers who leaned on our arms,
Whispered soft words, so deceptive, such charms,
That our souls were left quivering and singing.

One Living French Poet: Yves Bonnefoy

Wikipedia says that Yves Bonnefoy is regularly mentioned among the prime favorites for the Nobel Prize, which makes me smirk a little because it makes the Nobel Prize in Literature sound as arbitrary as the Oscars (which maybe it is, I confess I’ve never given much thought to their selection process). Bonnefoy is the chair of comparative study of poetry at the prestigious, Collège de France in Paris. The previous chair was apparently none other than the renowned postmodern scholar, Roland Barnes. Bonnefoy is also one of the major translators of Shakespeare into French and a prolific literary art critic.

But stepping away from Bonnefoy’s almost caricaturishly long and prestigious list of literary achievements, I chose Bonnefoy as my living French poet because his work is nothing short of haunting in a way that feels both profound and ineffable.

Read his 10 poem sequence, The House Where I Was Born one after another in order and you’ll feel as if you’ve learned something profound about the poet that you can’t quite put it into words. You’ll wonder if you imagined the intense visceral impact the words had upon your emotions and general nervous system and have to start the sequence again from the beginning.

Here are some lines from the work:

And yet I give up this ground that stirs
Beneath the body waking to itself, I get up,
I go from room to room in the house,
They are endless now,
I can hear the cries of voices behind doors,
I am seized by these sorrows that knock
Against the ruined casings, I hurry on,
The lingering night is too heavy for me,
Frightened, I go into a room cluttered with desks,
Look, I’m told, this was your classroom,
See on the walls the first images you looked at,
Look, the tree, look, there, the yelping dog,
And the geography map on the yellow wall,
This fading of names and forms,
This effacing of mountains and rivers
By the whiteness that freezes language.
Look, this was your only book. The Isis of the plaster
On the wall of this room, which is pealing away,
Never had, nor ever will have anything other
To open for you, to close on you.

I feel the way one should feel after discovering a new poet whose work stirs something in the belly and the soul. I feel a little more complete than I did a day ago or even an hour ago. Le sigh of contentment.


2 Responses to "One Dead French Poet & One Living French Poet"

I have read a good bit of Baudelaire but nothing by Verlaine and I had not heard of the other poet but I very much like the poem you posted. I always mean to research poets and writing before I travel but it always seems to fall of my to do list. The only thing I picked up in France was a collection of Sylvia Plath poems in English and French so it is fun to look at the translations along with the original 🙂

I didn’t think to do any research before, but traveling definitely exposed me to sources of literature I hadn’t considered. The other place I visited was Barcelona. I never realized Catalonia had such a rich culture. Might do a post about that some time in the future. Thanks for commenting!

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