In 1958 John Ashbery sailed for Paris to gather materials for a thesis he intended to write about Raymond Roussel, who at the time was an all-but-forgotten French poet, playwright and novelist. Ashbery discovered Roussel in 1951, when his friend Kenneth Koch shared with him a souvenir from a yearlong sojourn in France. It was a faded copy of Roussel’s Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1928), a poem comprising four cantos, each written in a single sentence that expands to an epic length through a system of nested parentheses. Not one of the cantos contains a single impression of Africa, which helps account for why, several years before taking his own life in 1933, Roussel had been called “the Proust of dreams.” It was in part by immersing himself in those dreams that Ashbery learned to manufacture exotic realities in a matter-of-fact way. Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manual,” for instance, written in the mid-1950s, could very well have been titled “Nouvelles Impressions de Métal.” The speaker of the poem is at his job and must write an instruction manual about the uses of a new metal; instead, he blithely conjures up a vivid and precise travelogue about Guadalajara, a place he has never visited.
Shortly before embarking for France, Ashbery informed Koch that he was reading Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, which he found to be a revelation. “Locus Solusis the greatest thing I’ve read in years,” he told his friend in a letter. “It’s like a bouquet of cast-iron forget-me-nots.” At the heart of that bouquet is a knot impossible to untangle, not least because the bouquet is an extravagant and mysterious image–what must we not forget?–that seems to have been gathered from Roussel’s own scrupulously cultivated French garden. There’s also the matter of cross-pollination. By the time Ashbery arrived in Paris in 1958, many American poets had already found in French poetry a grand license to experiment. The trail Ashbery followed had been blazed by William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane and other poets who had discovered Dada in American and British little magazines in the teens and traveled to Paris during the Roaring Twenties to plunge into the city’s mélange of Cubist paintings and Surrealist poems.
But no predecessor was as important as T.S. Eliot, who was the first modern American poet to read French poetry critically, seeking not to mimic its styles but to absorb its lessons in order to rejuvenate poetry in English. As a young poet Eliot was captivated by the opening lines of Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Sept vieillards,” in which ghosts swarm a city sidewalk and accost pedestrians in broad daylight: “Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,/Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant.” “I knew what that meant,” Eliot recalled in 1950, “because I had lived it before I knew that I wanted to turn it into verse on my own account.” From Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal Eliot learned how to transform the sordid streets of a modern metropolis into the stage of his own suffering. And from the little-known poet Jules Laforgue, Eliot learned how to create a confessional persona for that stage by amalgamating the voices of a mocking commentator and a droll sufferer. Impressions culled from the streets of Boston and London fill “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Preludes” and The Waste Land, but each poem’s splenetic tone is French.
Eliot and Ashbery are among the American poets whose translations of French poems Paul Auster chose to include in The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. Until the appearance of Auster’s book in 1982, American readers had to make do with a hodgepodge of anthologies of French poetry in translation–period collections like French Poets Today (1971), which focuses on poetry published since 1950, school primers like Modern French Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1975) and movement chronicles like The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology (1974) or The Négritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French (1975). The convenience of having poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy and Aimé Césaire in one volume was one of the strengths of Auster’s anthology. Another was the inclusion of dozens of translations by American poets: Eliot, Pound, Williams, Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur, Richard Howard, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, W.S. Merwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Wright, Charles Simic, Clayton Eshleman, Michael Palmer and Auster himself. Auster’s accomplishment was to dramatize, as no anthologist had before, how the histories of American and French poetry became intertwined during the twentieth century, growing into a knot impossible to untangle.
Translations by some of these American poets are reprinted in The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, but their presence wasn’t enough to quell my frustration with Mary Ann Caws’s book, which samples from work by hundreds of well-known and lesser-known French and Francophone poets. (Like Caws, by “Francophone poets” I mean poets who write in French and live in former French colonies in Canada, the Caribbean and Africa, including the Maghreb.) The anthology opens with lush poems written in the shadow of Baudelaire and Mallarmé amid the riches of empire and the industrial metropolis. But that era ended with the Great War, when the reign of the machine was obliterated by machines raining down bombs. Dadaists reacted by launching an assault on reason and civilization while Surrealists probed the revolutionary unconscious. In the aftermath of World War II, some poets pared the lyric of music and metaphor to explore essential questions about the nature of language and existence; others used Surrealism to smash or rejuvenate the literary legacy of French in colonial and postcolonial times. More recently, poets have taken up Mallarméan language games with great fervor.
These general dimensions aren’t the problem with Caws’s anthology. The problem is that the anthology only has general dimensions. Caws has sacrificed selectivity for comprehensiveness. Reading Auster’s anthology is like stumbling into a large, long-running block party where some poets cluster in the middle of the street while others mingle near the curb. Reading Caws’s book is like wandering through a vast trade fair.
In 1975 Auster translated a selection of contemporary French poems for Triquarterly, which he prefaced with a robust polemic against, of all things, anthologies. “An anthology is not merely a gathering of poems,” he explained. “It is a statement, an instrument of literary categorization and cultural assimilation. Its implicit motive is coherence. It does not merely offer poems, but says: this is the kind of work that best represents what is happening today. The poem is given to us as an example of something other than itself, and in extreme cases it is allowed to disappear altogether.” Auster is right. No matter how benign its editor’s designs, any anthology is susceptible to certain problems, the most dangerous being the illusions of coherence and comprehensiveness.
Not all anthologies succumb to these problems. In The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, Auster presents generous selections from the work of forty-eight poets. He includes five or six poems for the majority of the poets, while allotting between ten and fourteen poems to key figures such as Blaise Cendrars, whose “Prose du Trans-sibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France” is as hallucinatory as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. There’s also René Char, who joined the Maquis during World War II and wrote concise, fragmented lyrics amid the ruins of postwar France. Auster’s samples of a poet’s work are large and varied enough to allow a reader to appreciate each poet on his or her own terms; the selections gently push back against the coherence of the anthology. Moreover, Auster rejuvenates familiar poems by presenting them in a new light, as in the case of Samuel Beckett’s vibrant translation of Apollinaire’s internationally influential “Zone,” which begins the book: “From the midst of fervent flames Our Lady beheld me at Chartres/The blood of your Sacred Heart flooded me in Montmartre/I am sick with hearing the words of bliss/The love I endure is like a syphilis/And the image that possesses you and never leaves your side/In anguish and insomnia keeps you alive.” Auster is a judicious editor, and the overall effect of his method is subtle yet unmistakable. His book is less an anthology than a collection of individual voices.
Caws’s anthology, by contrast, is encyclopedic. Whereas Auster apportions 326 poems among forty-eight poets, Caws scatters 297 poems among 120 poets. A majority of the poets in Caws’s anthology are allotted no more than two or three poems, and a handful are given just one; only a very few poets are represented by six or seven poems. One reason Caws has chased the dream of comprehensiveness is to redress imbalances of past anthologies. Anne-Marie Albiach, whose État (1971) is a landmark of contemporary French poetry, is the only woman in Auster’s roster of forty-eight poets. Caws has included poems by a number of notable women, such as Albiach, Marguerite Yourcenar, Joyce Mansour, Claire Malroux and Michelle Grangaud. Like Martin Sorrell, who edited Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry by Women (1995), and Liliane Giraudon and Henri Deluy, who edited Poésies en France depuis 1960: 29 femmes (1994), Caws has selected some poems in which women continue to wrestle with the legacy of écriture féminine, an idea that emerged during the first wave of French feminism in the mid-1970s. Is poetry by women inherently feminine or beyond gender? If it is inherently feminine, what are its unique linguistic qualities?
At the same time, it’s hard to determine just what kind of imbalance Caws has tried to redress by including one poem each by Pablo Picasso and Michel Houellebecq. “Ses grosses cuisses” (“Her Great Thighs”) reveals that Picasso cranked out bad automatic writing: “Her great thighs/Her breasts/Her hips/Her buttocks/Her arms/Her calves/Her hands/Her eyes/Her cheeks/Her hair/Her nose/Her throat/Her tears.” “Dans l’air limpide” (“In the Limpid Air”) shows that Houellebecq, besides being France’s most caustic and capricious contemporary novelist, can also write mediocre prose poems. Caws is fond of such curios. Here are a couple of poems by the erotic novelist Georges Bataille; here’s a poem by Greta Knutson, who was married for a time to Tristan Tzara. While mildly intriguing, these poems could have been excluded, if only to allot more than a poem or two to the Algerian novelist Mohammed Dib, the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor and the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire, whose idea of négritude owes much to the poems written by James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer and Claude McKay during the Harlem Renaissance.
Caws is to be commended for selecting Dib and Senghor (neither of whom appears in Auster’s anthology). As it is, hardly any of Dib’s poetry is available in English translation. But Caws underplays their work by allotting it just a tad more space than the curios she has included. It’s editorial decisions like this that show why the dream of comprehensiveness is just that, an illusion. After all, comprehensiveness is something of a trick, since the ideal reader of an anthology is someone who knows little about the literature being presented but is eager to learn more. Comprehensiveness can only be judged by an expert like Caws, someone who would be the least inclined to pick up an anthology. And an anthology comprehensive enough to satisfy the curiosity of such an expert would be unreadable for a novice (and unmarketable for a publisher). An anthology has a better chance of becoming indispensable if an editor focuses on selecting poets whose work it would be inconceivable not to include, and justifying those selections, as well as the exclusions, in the introduction.
Why might translations of French-language poetry arouse the interest of a reader who isn’t a Francophile or a poetry nerd? Caws doesn’t ask this question, although the sprawling format of her anthology offers an answer of sorts: The work of Francophone poets is something to be honored from afar–look, what a vast array of riches!–instead of read closely and selectively. The question may be obvious but it needs to be asked, since much of the work in Caws’s anthology, with the exception of Surrealist poetry, may strike a newcomer as bizarre. After all, the basic materials of much contemporary American poetry are colloquial language, an intimate speaking voice and quotidian social details; as for a poem’s subject, naked emotion often commands center stage. Even American poets who shy away from escorting their inner lives into a reader’s living room often write poems in an intimate voice that invites the reader into an imagined dialogue.
Since Surrealism’s collapse after World War II, many French poets have been deeply suspicious of voice, metaphor and song. There are the poets affiliated with OULIPO (an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), who write according to elaborate formal constraints that downplay the drama of speaking in favor of the drama of language playing itself out in an unpredictable way. In her 1995 collection Formes de l’anagramme, the oulipean Michelle Grangaud includes poems in which each line contains a different anagram of a thirty-two letter title like “Isidore Ducasse comte de Lautréamont.” To make matters more elaborate, each poem is a sestina. Or, beyond OULIPO, there’s Christophe Tarkos, whose intense use of repetition, which echoes the work of Gertrude Stein, stems from his belief that meaning lies in constantly reworking what he has called “worddoh,” or the malleable stuff of language. In Sign= he writes:
There are no words. Words mean nothing. Words have no meaning. There are no words because there is a meaning, meaning has emptied words of all signification, has emptied them completely, nothing remains to the words they’re empty emptied sacks that have been emptied, meaning has taken all meaning, left nothing for words, empty shells, meaning debates by itself, doesn’t need words, meaning wants everything, has its go, is related to nothing, words are related to nothing.
Nothing indeed. The poet Adam Zagajewski complains that for several decades the typical French lyric has been “a methodological monologue, an endless meditation on the question of whether poems are possible at all. It’s as though some introspective tailor had stopped making clothes, ceaselessly pondering instead the marvelous Arabian proverb ‘The needle that clothes so many people stays naked itself.'” This assessment is accurate but uncharitable. What Zagajewski doesn’t mention is that during the past several decades a number of French poets have sought alternatives to a home-grown hermeticism by translating poems, often for the first time.
A brief chronology of translations from English: In 1968 Denis Roche translates Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos. That same year Serge Fauchereau publishes his important critical survey of twentieth-century American poetry, Lecture de la poésie américaine. In 1969 Emmanuel Hocquard establishes Orange Export Ltd., a small press that publishes the work of American poets in translation. During the 1980s Yves di Manno translates Pound’s Cantos as well as William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous and Primitive. In 1996 Hocquard translates Michael Palmer’s Sun. In 2000 Claire Malroux translates a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems and in 2002 she translates Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium.
What has intrigued di Manno about this wave of translation is that in many cases French writers have found in the poems of Americans what American writers had found in the poems of the French. Di Manno explains that the qualities that have drawn him to Oppen, Williams and Pound–a rejection of the gauzy rhetoric of symbolism, the cultivation of a more prosaic verse line, the use of primary source materials–are also prominent in the poems of Blaise Cendrars, such as “Kodak.” But Surrealism, with its emphasis on dream and romance, overshadowed Cendrars’s poetry in France even as it was being embraced by Americans like John Dos Passos. Consequently, di Manno argues, if French poets are to escape the stifling legacy of the avant-garde salon, which has become an official anti-Academy, they must continue to look beyond themselves.
Reading the final grouping of Caws’s anthology, “1981-2002: Young Poetry at the End of the Millennium,” it’s hard not to conclude that di Manno’s argument has fallen mostly on deaf ears. But then again, Caws’s sample is skewed, since many of the poets she has included pursue the Mallarméan path of prizing poetry as a pure exercise or game. There is a short excerpt from a long poem by Tarkos that reeks of the salon. There are also several poems by Pierre Alferi–elegant lyrics that quiver with a nimble verbal wit reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All. Caws includes Alferi’s alluring “quand rien n’entraine rien,” but instead of reprinting an earlier translation, “when nothing gathers nothing,” which appeared in Cole Swenson’s translation of Alferi’s book Natural Gaits in 1995, she has commissioned a new translation by Chet Weiner, “When Nothing Entices Nothing.” Weiner’s version is an English translation of a French poem. Swenson’s version is a new poem in English, as are her translations of the two other Alferi poems in the anthology.
One interesting young poet Caws has omitted is Sandra Moussempès. The author of three books, Exercises d’incendie, Vestiges de fillette and Captures, Moussempès has attracted attention on this side of the Atlantic, with translations having appeared in The Germ, Circumference, Metamorphoses, Raddle Moon and the French/American web magazine double change. Moussempès’s work is unlike any of the contemporary poetry included in Caws’s anthology. Laconic, caustic and haunting, the poems in Vestiges de fillette (Traces of a Little Girl) are laced with quasi-reportorial details of troubled social and psychological lives. Moussempès uses several different forms (lyric, prose poem, catalogue) to portray women drifting between infancy and adulthood, beguiling inertia and disoriented passion. Here, from a translation by Carolyn Shread published in double change, are the last two stanzas from “Penny Prose,” the final poem of Vestiges de fillette.
I stand in front of the hearth, I look at myself in the mirror.
On the other side, Penny smiles at me, she tells me to come and join her.
Her lips articulate inaudible words.
I draw a red circle on the mirror, I place my hands on hers.
We both slip down the glass surfaces.
Light enters the room, I must hurry.
Penny looks happy.
Her hair twirls in red curls behind the silvering
She keeps moving her lips:
COME! CROSS THE MIRROR AND COME JOIN ME!
Her voice grows thin. She needs me.
I glance at her, I want to kiss her.
Little Penny, alone far away in my room.
I shout with all my might:
“HERE THE WORLD IS UNDER A SPELL!”
The fire in the hearth goes out, I cross the frontier.
The drama of reflection, attraction and seduction that ends Moussempès’s poem is also a fitting analogy for the history of correspondences between French and American poetry. What do French and American poets hear when they read or translate each other’s work? The murmur of confirmation or the thunderclap of revelation?