Six French Poets of Our Time: A Critical and Historical Study

Six French Poets of Our Time: A Critical and Historical Study

by Robert W. Greene


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During the last sixty to seventy years avant-garde poetry in France has evolved in two directions: one toward poetry conceived as a means to an end, the other toward poetry as an end in itself. Focusing on Pierre Reverdy, Francis Ponge, René Char, André du Bouchet, Jacques Dupin, and Marcelin Pleynet as the modern French poets who most faithfully reflect these directions, Robert Greene's chronological study allows us to follow the two-pronged evolution of French poetry since 1910.

Situating his argument in a detailed historical context and basing it on comparisons with artistic movements and the poets' own writings on art, and on extended analyses of selected representative poems, the author is able to establish a new intellectual-historical perspective on contemporary poetry.

Professor Greene finds that whereas Reverdy, Char, du Bouchet, and Dupin all embrace a conception of poetry as quest, as a search for the absolute, as the Way of beauty or truth, Ponge and Pleynet hold to a view of poetry as jête, as a celebration of the relative, as the play and display of language in action. What knits them together, he concludes, is the way in which each poet sums up his era as a stage in the development of twentieth-century French poetry.

Originally published in 1979.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691614212
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Essays in Literature
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Six French Poets of Our Time

A Critical and Historical Study

By Robert W. Greene


Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06390-4


Pierre Reverdy

To situate Pierre Reverdy in the general picture of twentieth-century French poetry, one must examine his relationship to Symbolism, Cubism and Existentialism. Linking a single figure to all of these movements might perhaps seem inappropriate since to do so in effect runs together three distinct if slightly overlapping historical periods, as well as three quite different forms of human expression: poetry, painting and philosophy. Nevertheless, Reverdy's roots in Symbolism's ambience if not its esthetic, his formative encounter with Cubist art and theory and his early (and then recurrent) use of themes and images later to haunt Sartre and Camus, conspire, as it were, to structure his identity as a poet. Furthermore, in my view, it is precisely this conjunction of forces at work in his poetry that makes Reverdy an exemplary transitional figure between the "Banquet Years," as Roger Shattuck has aptly rechristened la belle époque, and our own era's bleak beginnings.


By 1910, when at the age of twenty-one Reverdy arrived in Paris, Symbolism was in a moribund state as a source of poetic style and aspiration. Yet Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, the two poets who were to become Reverdy's literary mentors and who themselves must be classed among our century's most innovative writers, both bear Symbolism's impress on their work. This is particularly true of Apollinaire, whose in many ways revolutionary collection Alcools, published in 1913, exhibits not a few traces of Symbolist poetics — an overall elegiac tone reminiscent of Verlaine, a Baudelaire-like celebration of the redemptive powers of memory, Laforgue's notational style if not usually his irony and Mallarmé's skillful manipulation of harmonies and dissonances of sound and sense. Nevertheless, as Marie-Jeanne Durry and others have observed, already in Alcools Apollinaire was perfectly in tune with the 1910's, free of Symbolism's philosophical idealism with its attendant turning away from harsh reality and its implicit quest for unity. In Professor Durry's words, Apollinaire was "amoureux de la diversité, et des choses, ... du multiple, du discontinu, de la surprise." In short, aside from a continued reliance on narrative development in most of his verse, Apollinaire was by temperament more Cubist than Symbolist, and this turn of mind utterly transformed his literary origins.

Reverdy's debt to Symbolism is more problematic and hence harder to summarize than Apollinaire's. As I have already noted, Reverdy reached Paris too late to come under Symbolism's direct influence. Ostensibly, moreover, he rejected this influence. In March 1917, when the first issue of his review Nord-Sud appeared, it contained an anti-Symbolist manifesto, "Quand le symbolisme fut mort," written or at least signed by Paul Dermée, Reverdy's assistant on Nord-Sud. Later Reverdy himself would speak of Symbolism's shortcomings in Le Gant de crin (1927). Yet he greatly admired the three giants of the Symbolist era, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and more than once in his theoretical writings he contends that in art and literature one moves forward by building on the achievements of the past, not by ignoring them. Also, although his theoretical writings are heavily indebted to the Cubist revolution in the plastic arts, Reverdy the theorist, not unlike Valéry, clearly aligns himself with the pure poetry tradition emanating from Baudelaire via Mallarmé. Furthermore, his exaltation of art in Nord-Sud and elsewhere places him closer to Proust than to Max Jacob.

Reverdy's conception of the role of dream in creativity, which calls to mind not the relative passivity of the Surrealists' "récits de rêve" but rather Nerval's avowed desire to exploit the dream by directing it, points to what is probably the most important aspect of his debt to Symbolism. In language that anticipates Gaston Bachelard's notion of "la rêverie poétique," Reverdy affirms in 1924:

Ce que j'appelle rêve d'ailleurs, ce nest pas cette conscience totale ou partielle, cette sorte de coma que l'on a coutume de désigner par ce terme et où semblerait devoir se dissoudre, par moments la pensée.

J'entends au contraire l'état où la conscience est portée à son plus haut degré de perception....

Le rêve du poète c'est l'immense filet aux mailles innombrables qui drague sans espoir Ies eaux profondes à la recherche d'un problématique trésor.

For Reverdy the poet's dream is thus an extremely receptive but not passive mode of consciousness, it is a harking to the inner self that never shades off into self-absorption. Somehow, the poet maintains a difficult, two-way vigilance that is indispensable to the creative act:

Le poète est dans une position toujours difficile et souvent périlleuse, à l'intersection de deux plans au tranchant cruellement acéré, celui du rêve et celui de la réalité. (Le Gant de crin, p. 15)

Reverdy was in fact obsessed by the notion of a creative consciousness at once oneiric and actively engaged in the real world, a consciousness in which distinctions between self and other tend to blur without, miraculously, any loss to either. He is perhaps at his most lapidary on this matter in his 1923 essay on Picasso, where he asserts, with obvious admiration, that the artist "imagine d'après nature." This apparent contradiction in terms (How does one imagine from nature?) gives us an insight into Reverdy himself, including his Symbolist lineage.

Over much of late nineteenth-century French poetry there hovers an atmosphere of dream. Thematically, moreover, the dream permeates this poetry. Guy Michaud, A. G. Lehmann and other students of French Symbolism have pointed out that the dream was the ideal state for the poet of this era to exploit and still remain insulated from an all too palpable and increasingly threatening outside world. As early as Baudelaire, a perfect elsewhere exists in an imagination that has virtually severed its moorings in everyday, waking existence: "Là tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté/Luxe, calme et volupté." Not long after Baudelaire's death, Verlaine would both advocate and practice in his poetry vagueness, indirection, nuance, muted cries and the subtlest blends of melody and meaning. Mallarmé increasingly avoided the particular in his verse, preferring instead universalizing terms such as verbs in the infinitive form, abstract or functionally abstract nouns, few and generalizing adjectives, all set in poetry that is astonishingly dramatic by virtue of its endless internal antitheses but lacks the rough referential texture of, say, Lecomte de Lisle's earlier "Le Rêve du jaguar" or Apollinaire's later "Zone." All three Symbolist poets, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé, flee the world of ordinary things, events and relationships for the imaginary, the idealized and the shimmer of words becoming poems. In this perspective, Impressionism in music and painting, that quintessence of artifice and delicacy, seems but an extension of Symbolism in poetry.

But just as Braque and Picasso step forward from the secure purchase of Cézanne's pictorial innovations and in the process literally pull Cubism out of Impressionism, Reverdy does not reject Symbolism but transcends it. He profits from its gains by tapping the polyvalent potential of words linked primarily to one another rather than to sharply delineated referents. At the same time, he discards the dreamy, nebulous quality of much Symbolist verse, and he plumbs the depths of his subjectivity without falling into solipsism. His poems, in his own words, are like so many "cristaux déposés après l'effervescent contact de l'esprit avec la réalité" (Le Gant de crin, p. 15).

There is in fact remarkable continuity between Reverdy's theory and his practice with regard to the dream. Paralleling his theoretical poetics, his working esthetic synthesizes dream-like, intermittent self-observation and the barest transcription of external phenomena. In its ensemble his poetry constitutes a kind of inventory of his outer and inner worlds. Yet thanks to Symbolism's lesson, his poetry is neither hard-edged in its fragments nor lacking in expressivity. Following Symbolism's example, Reverdy is totally concerned with bodying forth a highly subjective vision, but going beyond Symbolism, his vision is not in the slightest autistic, locked inside only his imagination. Rather, it is brought to expressive form in bits and pieces of perception that belong to the common storehouse of human experience. This fusing of inner and outer, of the private and the shared, gives Reverdy's poetry a pure, impersonal poignancy, a spare lyricism that one critic has dubbed "le lyrisme de la réalité." The sustained self-auscultation of Symbolism cohabits in Reverdy with Cubism's steady gaze on the world outside.

A poem entitled "Le Soir," from Les Ardoises du toit (1918), illustrates, among other things, how important elements of the Symbolist heritage inform Reverdy's work:

    Jour à jour ta vie est un immeuble qui s'élève
    Des fenêtres fermées des fenêtres ouvertes
       Et la porte noire au milieu
    Ce qui brille dans ta figure
         Les yeux
       Tristes les souvenirs glissent sur
       ta poitrine
    Devant part vers en haut l'espoir
    La douceur du repos qui revient chaque soir
    Tu es assis devant la porte
       Tête inclinée
         Dans l'ombre qui s'étend
    Le calme qui descend
    Une prière
    On ne voit pas Ies genoux de celui qui prie

By its line-fragments "Le Soir" recalls the notational style of Rimbaud and Laforgue, while the shifting left margin suggests, in a general way, the Mallarmé of "Un Coup de des." The half-stifled, abortive theme of quest for some absolute, especially in the poem's last three lines, echoes French verse from Baudelaire to Valery. The title is nuance itself (evening being neither day nor night but something in between), and it sets the stage upon which a kind of décadent weariness can play itself out.

But the Symbolist residuum of "Le Soir" shows itself most clearly by the manner in which details of observed reality, while specific, are bathed in an atmosphere of daydream or bemused wonder and, what is more telling, subordinated to the exigencies of an unnamed but pressing malaise. A single, mysterious hunger or need is adumbrated in a series of seemingly discontinuous utterances. Together these utterances form a cluster of explicit imagistic oppositions (rising/falling, open/closed, light/shadow) that intertwine with a group of implied thematic oppositions (hope/despair, security/anxiety, faith/unbelief). These mutually reinforcing antitheses, reminiscent of Mallarmé, revolve through the poem around the gradual spread of darkness. The result, a spinning movement within a descending one, that is, a downward spiral or vortex, triggers indirectly, hence in true Symbolist fashion, a whole complex of feeling, something akin to, even while exceeding, quiet, agonizing desperation. The correlation between feeling and form, between finely shaded emotion and delicately wrought expression, seems perfect. Only a poet steeped in late nineteenth-century French poetry could have written "Le Soir."


As is no doubt already obvious, it is difficult to speak about the Symbolist aspect of Reverdy's poetry without at the same time making reference to its Cubist dimension. The two are in fact inextricably related (as indeed are its Cubist and Existentialist components). Michel Décaudin, who in this respect typifies most historians of French Symbolism, maintains that philosophical idealism originating in Germany a century before constitutes a kind of common ideological backdrop for the otherwise heterogeneous poets of France's Symbolist period. Ironically, however, it would seem that the essentially anti-Symbolist Cubist generation of poets, Apollinaire and Reverdy in particular, under the impact of advances made in the plastic arts by their friends Braque, Picasso and others, managed to assimilate and exploit Kantian idealist thought far more successfully than did their predecessors. In February 1912, the young critic Olivier Hourcade published an article in which probably for the first time in print the name of Kant was linked to Cubism. Specifically, Hourcade notes a parallel between, on the one hand, the Cubist painter's desire not to represent objects but rather to conceptualize them, and on the other, Kantian idealism. In drawing this parallel, Hourcade makes an implicit but crucial distinction between representational art and non-representational art, between two painterly goals which Apollinaire a few months later would term, respectively, "la réalité de vision" and "la réalité de conception." More recently, Gérard Bertrand has noted a similar distinction in Reverdy's theoretical pronouncements between "réalités visibles" and the "réel, dans ce qu'il a de permanent et de général." Of particular interest in the present circumstances is the fact that Bertrand couches the appeal Cubism held for Reverdy in philosophical terms and that he identifies the lesson Cubism offered Reverdy as that of a safe passage between the Scylla of descriptive poetry and the Charybdis of Symbolism:

Pour Reverdy, le Cubisme répresente la tentative la plus audacieuse d'une appréhension, par les moyens de l'art, des réalités essentielles du monde. Instaurant un nouveau type de connaissance, le Cubisme devient un modèle pour la poésie: il lui enseigne comment concilier sa légitime aspiration vers le monde des essences avec le souci constant de ne pas se séparer définitivement du réel, il lui permet d'éviter le double écueil de la poésie descriptive et du symbolisme.

What is most significant here is that Hourcade, Apollinaire and Reverdy (via Bertrand's paraphrase) are alluding to the technique of conceptualization, one of Cubism's most important contributions to the ongoing evolution of painting.

Reverdy was an intimate of the major Cubist artists throughout his sixteen years in Paris, 1910-1926. From 1912 onward, moreover, he was one of their most articulate defenders and explicators. Thus he was ideally situated to absorb some of the tenets of painterly Cubism into his own literary esthetic, and in a sense was encouraged to do so by Apollinaire's example. During his first eight years in the capital, Reverdy witnessed at close range and was profoundly impressed by Apollinaire's multifarious avant-garde activities. In 1912-1914, Apollinaire and several of his friends edited a magazine called Les Soirées de Paris. It was here that Apollinaire first published sections of Méditations esthétiques: les peintres cubistes, as well as "Zone," his longest "Cubist" poem and his first poem without punctuation, a device Reverdy was to employ in all of his verse poetry. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 put an abrupt end to the "heroic" period of Cubism. Apollinaire died (of complications from a war injury) two days before the Armistice in 1918, but well before his death he had urged Reverdy to found another Cubist-oriented review, one that would continue the work of Les Soirées. Reverdy was only too happy to accede to his mentor's wishes, and on March 15, 1917, he brought out the first issue of Nord-Sud, the one review of the 1910-1920 decade which, even more readily than Les Soirées de Paris, might conceivably be thought of as the "official" organ of literary Cubism.

Nord-Sud, No. 1, is a central document in the development of literary Cubism. Its first three items are a brief homage to Apollinaire, Dermée's anti-Symbolist manifesto and Reverdy's essay "Sur le cubisme." The second two items form the heart of the issue. Reading both essays in a single sitting, one is struck by the significant amount of similarity, even overlap, between them. Together, they suggest that for Reverdy and the Nord-Sud group, as far as ideological assumptions are concerned, there is no fundamental distinction to be made between painting and poetry. As Reverdy makes plain in "Sur le cubisme" and elsewhere in his theoretical writings, he particularly admires the Cubist painters because of their non-mimetic stance vis-à-vis nature. They do not try to copy or imitate nature, but seek instead to add to it with their works. Their paintings, consequently, are autonomous, that is, they have no slavishly dependent relationship to nature. A Cubist painting is a synthesis of many elements which the artist has refined from the raw materials that nature offers him. In Reverdy's words, as we have seen, Picasso does not paint from nature, he imagines from nature. With the goal of imitation done away with, perspective, the means traditionally employed to achieve that goal, is dropped. What folly anyway to attempt to create the illusion of three dimensions on the two-dimensional plane of the canvas. What disappears in the process is, of course, the traditional subject of the painting. To paraphrase Wylie Sypher, the "figure" in the Cubist painting has disappeared into the "ground" of the painting. A leveling process has occurred. No one element has an independent or superior role. The canvas is an ensemble or a structure of equal and interdependent elements.


Excerpted from Six French Poets of Our Time by Robert W. Greene. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Contents, pg. xi
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • I. Pierre Reverdy, pg. 23
  • II. Francis Ponge, pg. 59
  • III. René Char, pg. 99
  • IV. André du Bouchet, pg. 124
  • V. Jacques Dupin, pg. 140
  • VI. Marcelin Pleynet, pg. 159
  • Afterword, pg. 177
  • Notes, pg. 181
  • Index, pg. 197

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