translated by C. F. MacIntyre
University of California Press ($18.95)

edited by Mary Ann Caws
Yale University Press ($30)

by John Herbert Cunningham

French poetry, with its many movements from Symbolism to the Oulipo and beyond, has had a profound influence on North American writing: Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and countless others have been attracted by the vivacity of French verse. These two volumes, offering the history of French poetry from the period immediately preceding the twentieth century up to the present, amply demonstrate the range and vitality of their work.

“To speak of the symbolist movement,” as critic Kenneth Cornell states,

is almost invariably to conjure up the names of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud and in so doing to group as precursors men who were born thirty-three years apart, yet who, by reason of their greatness, as well as by certain original attitudes of spirit, determined the destinies of poetry during the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.

C. F. MacIntyre, in French Symbolist Poetry, expands beyond the four names mentioned to include Gérard de Nerval, Tristan Corbière, Paul Valéry, and Jules Laforgue, but we are still left with the question as to what binds these individuals into a movement. Charles Chadwick’s Symbolism succinctly defines it as “an attempt to penetrate beyond reality to a world of ideas, either the ideas within the poet, including his emotions, or the Ideas in the Platonic sense that constitute a perfect supernatural world towards which man aspires.” MacIntyre further emphasizes that these writers

had revolutionized French poetry. Rhetorical flourishes, factual descriptions, neat statement of moral dicta, were banished; rules of prosody were fractured, vocabulary opened to all comers, syntax squeezed like an accordion. Music was brought in for its own sake, to achieve effects that could not be had from logical arrangements of words. What the poet wished to say, he expressed in terms of something else.

The final death knell of romanticism had been heard and the way opened for the "isms" of the twentieth century.

French Symbolist Poetry was originally published in 1958 but was rereleased in 2007, in preparation for its fiftieth anniversary. A bilingual edition, it gives the original French on the left page and the English translation on the right, the difficulties of translation from one language to another to be clearly seen. For example, Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences,” which carried an abba rhyme structure in the French, has been translated with an abab rhyme structure in the English. This format does create limitations and problems, especially in the poems selected to represent Mallarmé. His most famous poem, “Un coup de dès” (“A Throw of the Dice”), could not be included as it requires facing pages of French; the only possible way of representing this poem in translation is through the format that Henry Weinfield used in his 1995 translation of Mallarmé’s Collected Poems, which essentially doubled the usable space of each page.

MacIntyre may also be criticized by some for including Nerval and Laforgue or for neglecting Théophile Gautier, but these would be minor complaints. The inclusion of Nerval represents the last gasp of German Romanticism, MacIntyre stating that he “was a Romantic poet who almost saved himself” whereas Gautier would have represented the transition from Parnassianism, the poetic style that reigned in the mid-1800s. Laforgue, much respected by the surrealists, represents the transition of French poetry into the twentieth century. Another minor criticism is the placement of notes. MacIntyre does an exceptional job of providing a brief note on each poet and extensive explanations of each poem. However, these are placed in a "Notes" section at the back of the book. While the notes on each poem belong there, the notes on each poet would have been better placed at the start of each poet’s respective section. These minor inconveniences aside, this is an excellent introduction to the poetry of the symbolists and an effective introduction for the twentieth century and its poetry, as represented in The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry.

Mary Ann Caws preempts any complaints regarding selection of poets and poems in her editor’s note:

Compiling a major volume such as this one is, of necessity, a highly subjective process. In considering the many poets writing in French in the twentieth century and just after, I have given less attention to the number of poems and pages per poet than to the more important goal of including as many poets from as many countries as a single volume permits. My aim has been to create a truly international anthology, one that represents the diversity and changing nature of French poetics during the century just past, giving sufficient space to the voices of the living, while not letting them overwhelm those of the past. Every effort has been made to include poets that seem to have been most crucial to their own time as well as those from the present that demand to be read.

This effort can certainly be commended, as can the fact that this volume is again bilingual. “As in all bilingual editions,” Caws plainly states, “the translation is meant to draw attention to the original on the facing page.” But there is a statement in the introduction that might cause some concern. “This anthology is divided into six chronological parts, reflecting major trends in French poetry during the twentieth century. Within the division, poems appear under an alphabetical listing by poet. Poets’ dates of birth, not the dates their first books were published, determines the placement of their work.” Does this mean that the major schools such as cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism are going to be ignored or dealt with in a cursory manner? Fortunately, Caws senses the concern that will be triggered and addresses it immediately by including these movements in her chronology.

The first section, “1897–1915: Symbolism, Post-Symbolism, Cubism, Simultanism,” opens with Apollinaire, as does twentieth-century French poetry itself. We are immediately confronted with the difficulty of translation: Apollinaire’s “Miroir” (“Mirror”) is part of his Calligrammes series, in which the poems are written in a visual manner. In “Miroir,” Apollinaire’s name appears surrounded by words broken into their respective syllables, which form a border around the name. The translator, Roger Shattuck, realizing the inability to translate this into English, merely puts it as “In this mirror I am enclosed living and true as one imagines angels not as reflections are. Guillaume Apollinaire.” [emphasis is original] It could be argued that this poem should not have been included due to its inability to be adequately represented. However, as the Calligrammes were such an important component of Apollinaire’s oeuvre, they could not simply have been ignored, so the least complicated of them was translated in order to represent all.

Blaise Cendrars, the other great cubist poet, is represented by one of his most famous poems, “The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeane of France.” Pierre Reverdy, who “inspired the Surrealist movement and its leaders, in particular through his theory of the image as constituted by two elements from widely differing fields, forming a vitalizing explosion upon their meeting,” was also the founder of the extremely important literary journal Nord-Sud in which the Dadaists would come to publish. The specter of surrealism can be seen in his “The Web”: “A hand, with a rhythmic and thoughtless motion, / was throwing its five fingers up towards the ceiling / where fantastic shadows were dancing.” This section ends with a poem by Renée Vivien (Pauline Tarn), “one of the last to show allegiance to the symbolist movement,” who, along with her lover Natalie Barney, scandalized Paris as “leading proponents of the ‘lesbian-chic’ movement in Paris in the 1890s.” Her “Ransom” consists of rhymed couplets that have been translated into English unrhymed: “Come, let’s find the secret of the clear waters; / I’ll adore you, as a drowned person does the sea.”

The second section, “1916–1930: Dada and the Heroic Period of Surrealism,” contains the work of Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, Francis Ponge, Raymond Queneau, Philippe Soupault, Tristan Tzara, Marguerite Yourcenar, and others. These are probably the most influential to North America—can we conceive of the New York School without those poets having lived? Or Wallace Stevens? These short fourteen years, interrupted by war and depression and poverty, were responsible for the essence of world poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century. As the brief note on Aragon that opens this section states, his work “has exercised an enormous influence on literary theory and encompasses most of the primary literary trends and ideas of the twentieth century—from Surrealism through Social Realism.” We see in Aragon’s “Pièce á grand spectacle” or “Big Spectacular Play” the influence of Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dès” with its spatial innovations:

The Director believed in André’s love
Curtain                                              rises
The bird         flies off
We had forgotten to plant the sets
The puppet sheds wood tears
To Take Leave

Those who don’t know what surrealism is need look no further than André Breton’s “Free Union”: “My love whose hips are wherries / Whose hips are chandeliers and arrow feather / And the stems of white peacock plumes / Imperceptible in their sway.” But in addition to prominent poets, Caws has unveiled some very obscure ones—particularly women. For example, Claude Cahun, whose real name was Lucy Schwob, who was the original flower child: she and her lover, Suzanne Malherbe “tried to inspire German troops to mutiny by pinning butterflies on their tanks.” One poem, “Sadistic Judith,” recalls the 1929 film by Dalí and Buñuel Un chien andalou in its graphic portrayal of sadism: “Watch out for this mouth, this nape, these ears—for everything that can be bitten, torn, sucked until your foreign blood is exhausted—delicious.” This is one of the milder passages.

The penultimate poet in this section is Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism. His placement near the end of this section highlights the problem that the alphabetical listing creates: although Dada preceded surrealism, it is inadvertently represented as coming after. Having said that, we still have some magnificent poetry by Tzara. The African influence and the use of nonsense syllables in his work is readily seen in “White Giant Leper of the Countryside”:

salt groups itself in a constellation of birds on the cotton tumor

in its lungs starfish and bedbugs swing
the microbes crystallize in palms of muscles swings
goodmorning without cigarette tzantzantza ganga
bouzdouc zdouc nfounfa mbaah mbaah nfounfa

Likewise, Tzara’s long poem “Cosmic Realities Vanilla Tobacco Wakings,” included here in its entirety, uses an innovative typography and testifies to the permission Dada bestowed on all who came after.

The third section, “1931–1945: Prewar and War Poetry” again contains many familiar and important names: Aimé Césaire, René Char, Michel Deguy, Jean Grosjean, and Edmond Jabès among them. It is from this point on that women poets also begin to make their presence felt. In addition to the previously mentioned are Claude de Burine, Anne Hébert, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Meret Oppenheim, etc. One of the most important poets during this period is Césaire from Martinique who, in an “article against assimilation that incorporated his term négritude helped to launch post-Colonial literature.” Négritude “would come to describe a movement of black writers and intellectuals interested in preserving a positive racial identity.” In “New Year” we read:

Out of their torments men carved a flower
which they perched on the high plateau of their faces
hunger makes a canopy for them
an image dissolves in their last tear
they drank foam rhymed monsters
to the point of ferocious horror.

It is astounding that, after stating his “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” “inspired a major current of Francophone expression in poetry and prose,” Caws fails to include this poem in the anthology.

The three remaining sections are “1946–1966: The Death of André Breton, the Beginning of L’Éphémère,” “1967–1980: The Explosion of the Next Generation,” and “1981–2002: Young Poetry at the End of the Millennium.” Anne-Marie Albiach’s poetry is the French equivalent of Language writing: in “The Hermitage Road” is the inscription “Parallel life of corporeal horizons already lived – the ties loosen along a trajectory, leaving to silence a dynamic of power or of destruction.” Nicole Brossard, a prominent Quebecois poet, is “at the center of feminist and postmodernist writing in Canada.” She intermixes French and English along with other innovative techniques. In “I Want to Revise This Sequence,” she writes:

in this tournament I cultivate the singularity
of love and symptom therefore
I accost/si proche
dans ton __________ cerveau
with no translation/dans le Temps/I remember
and come in one rush: excited landscape

Michelle Grangaud is an adherent of Oulipo and an anagrammatist who, in her “Isidore Ducasse comte de Lautréamont,” uses anagrams based on that 32-letter title to create a sestina in which each line must be 32 letters long and must use the letters found in the title: “I am more cursed at close a dent outside / a sluice meet roused a distracted moon / some toadies direct moat clause under . . .” Besides the increase in women’s voices, another trend in the latter half of this anthology is that most poets are represented by only one, perhaps two, poems. Jacques Roubaud, another Oulipo poet, is an exception, with several of his poems translated. Here is “The Past”:

She said to him: “It is very nice out.”
it was nice out.
If it is nice out, it is not necessarily very nice out.
If she had said “it is nice out”
could he have understood that she had, as it were,
“It is nice out, but it is not very nice out”?

There is so much more that could be, and should be, said, but even a review three times this length would be inadequate. These two excellent anthologies capture a century and a half of French poetry, a monumental task. One may quibble that this poem should have been included or excluded, more should have been offered from this poet or that, and so on—but, in the end, MacIntyre and Caws deserve the enduring adulation of the writing world for their achievements.

Click here to purchase French Symbolist Poetry at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009