The "Tender Gesture" of Georges Perros and the Lessons of Contemporary French Poetry

By Taylor, John | The Antioch Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The "Tender Gesture" of Georges Perros and the Lessons of Contemporary French Poetry


Taylor, John, The Antioch Review


Once upon a time, American (and British and Irish) poets read French poetry in the original; or at least desired to do so, even if they could not really understand the language. Or am I wrong? In any case, such was one linguistic and poetic duty passed on--the debts and borrowings go back to Chaucer--by Pound and Eliot, however quaint some of their likes and dislikes seem today. These two modernists and several other expatriates, as well as others who stayed at home, enjoyed this profitable partnership, the Anglo-Americans taking both poetic forms and encouragement (with respect to certain kinds of subject matter) from the French, and--a little less often--vice versa. This being said, I have the impression that a gulf between American and French poetry has opened, indeed widened considerably over the past three or four decades--especially from the American standpoint. An American poet might peruse a translated volume or two by Yves Bonnefoy or Philippe Jaccottet (and let us hope that curious readers have une arthed the recent British version of Jacques R[acute{e}]da's invigorating Les Ruines de Paris, or a much earlier American rendering of Jacques Roubaud's poignant Quelque chose noir), but it is doubtful that Americans who are not also book-sleuths and avid journal-browsers have even heard of Andr[acute{e}] du Bouchet, Lorand Gaspar, Charles Juliet, Silvia Baron Supervielle, or Jude St[acute{e}]fan--to mention only five other names from among France's leading living poets. What's more, I suspect that many American poets are not even especially curious to learn about them.

Whenever I ponder the reasons that might underlie this growing indifference, I inevitably first turn to the nearly-four-centuries-old Cartesian-empiricist rift between French and Anglo-American philosophy. However risky generalization can be, it is tempting to assert that, in parallel fashion, French and Anglo-American poets tend to view the real world, and notably its "objects," in deeply different ways; and that these long-standing opposing philosophical orientations seem to have been exacerbated since the Second World War. These fundamental differences of perspective perhaps explain--if we turn to the specific case of contemporary poetry--that many French poets writing today would initially be attracted to yet ultimately knit their brows at William Carlos Williams's oft-cited line, "No ideas but in things," a dictum still representing a pervasive stylistic aesthetic engrained in many American poets. This is not to say that the French prefer the logical alternative--a poetry of ideas ungrounded in reality- -but rather that they are troubled by the philosophical rapidity of Williams's statement. Williams simply moves too fast--he leaps--between the self and whatever "things" are presumably located outside the body and the mind. In contrast, many French poets (and writers) since the Second World War have devoted their efforts to the entire thorny question of autobiography (taken in its strictest etymological sense), to the "self" (and its potential "effacement"), and thus, insofar as "things" are concerned, to all the philosophical ambiguities of perceiving and feeling. French poets (notably Bonnefoy, Jaccottet, R[acute{e}}da, Gaspar, Baron Supervielle, or du Bouchet) might thus be oriented toward the same "things" that interested Williams (Jaccottet similarly searches for the essence of natural phenomena, and R[acute{e}]da is a sharp-eyed, tongue-in-cheek, metaphysically inclined stroller of Parisian side streets), but they will probably also chart or suggest the arduous path taken to get to those things.

More often, contemporary French poets will not be sure to have arrived. The poem might describe the detours made during the journey and thus lose track of the initial goal, or evoke the narrators' "hope" of arriving one day, or record their discouraging failure to attain the thing, or suggest a "presence" hauntingly emanating from or backdropping or transcending it. …

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