Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reverie de Reverdy

I. A Poem

The sun is only on the glass
and in the streams
Desolation moves
through empty cities
lifeless words

The morning gulls exhaling silent cries
The only sounds a dead train’s creaking bones
and machines exchanging tickets
for a giggle dig of dirt
Cemetery figures
keen their ears to silent poems

The leafless vines as shy as God
without the shadows knowing
The stones gleam on the other side

Light does filter in between the cracks
revealing frays
in the depiction
But people can’t escape
the gray they see
Despite their red caps

II. 1969 Essay on Pierre Reverdy by Kenneth Rexroth (heavily edited from this)

We still know almost nothing about how the mind works in states of rapture nor why the disjunction, the ecstasis, of self and experience should produce a whole range of peculiar nervous responses: vertigo, transport, crystalline and plangent sounds, shattered and refracted light, indefinite depths, weightlessness, piercing odors and tastes, and synthesizing these sensations and affects, an all-consuming clarity. These are the phenomena that often attend what theologians call natural mysticism. They can be found especially in the poetry of St. Mechtild of Magdeburg and St. Hildegarde of Bingen, but they are equally prominent in the poetry of Sappho, Henry Vaughan, Christopher Smart or the prose of Jakob Boehme.

I am inclined to believe that the persistence of this vocabulary among visionary poets is not an idioretinal and vasomotor defect caused by drugs, migraine, dissociations of personality, or petit-mal epilepsy, but a novitiate. Until rapture becomes an accustomed habit, a trained instrument of apprehending reality, the epiphenomena that accompany its onset will seem unduly important. Since only the intimations of rapture are all that most people are ever aware of, Henry Vaughan’s ring of endless light will always serve as an adequate symbol of eternity. Kerkele saw the same idioretinal vision as a very finite ring of carbohydrates.

We are dealing with a self-induced or naturally granted creative state from which two of the most fundamental human activities diverge, the aesthetic and the mystic act. This idiom of radiance becomes confusing today when art is all the religion most people have and when they demand of it experiences that few people of the past demanded even of religion. But even a visionary poem is not a vision. Unlike a poem, the religious experience is compelled and ultimate. Pierre Reverdy, for all his yearning for transcendence, knew this all too well. He is hardly, in most of his poems, a mystic poet. He simply uses a method which he has learned from his more ambitious poems, which is to distill the field to simple gestures laying bare the heart.

As cette belle époque recedes into perspective, and international literary taste has finally unmasked its shock to learn the idiom and syntax that seemed so new and strange in 1912, Pierre Reverdy stands among poets as the most Cubist of the Cubists, above Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, and André Salmon, as well as independents like Supervielle, Milosz and Léon-Paul Fargue.

Cubism in poetry is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture. In Apollinairian cubism, as exemplified by his “Zone” or by The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, Zukofsky’s A, J.C. MacLeod’s Ecliptic, or Sam Beckett’s early work, the fragmented and recombined elements of poetic construction are narrative, rhetorical or at least informative wholes. In verse such as Reverdy’s, they are simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction. Thus when subject, operator and object have been dismembered and restructured until the result is sufficiently piercing and tensile to cut through the reality it has reorganized, an invisible or subliminal discourse emerges which owes its cogency to its own strict, complex and secret logic.

Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself. Its restructuring of experience is purposive, not dreamlike, and hence it possesses an uncanniness fundamentally different in kind from the most haunted utterances of the Surrealist or Symbolist unconscious. When the ordinary materials of poetry are broken up, recombined in structures radically different from those we have come to accept as logical sequence, they are given an intense significance, closed within the structure of the work of art, and are not negotiable in ordinary contexts of occasion. Isolated and illuminated, they seem to assume an existential transcendence.

The revolution in sensibility that began with Baudelaire became a thoroughgoing syntactical revolution in the later work of Mallarmé, in curious still lifes like “Autre Éventail,” occult dramatic molecules like “Petit Air,” and above all in his hieratic metaphysical ritual, Un Coup de dés. In this tremendously ambitious poem the logical structure of the Indo-European languages was shown organically to be an inadequate vehicle for so profound a change in sensibility. Pierre Reverdy is the first important French poet after Un Coup de dés to develop the methods of communication explored by Mallarmé.

Such exploration was once the future of American poetry, but in hindsight only Walter Conrad Arensberg in his last poems, Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons and a very few other pieces, Laura Riding in her best work and the young Yvor Winters could be said to hew to the deliberate practice of the construction principles which guided Pierre Reverdy.

Yvor Winters went on, in fact, to condemn all verse of this kind as the deliberate courting of madness. What he objected to in essence was the seeking of glamour, what James Joyce translates "wholeness, harmony and radiance," that effulgence which St. Thomas called the stigmata of a true work of art, as an end in itself. I think what Winters meant was that intense hyperesthesia of this type, when it occurs in modern poetry without the motivation of religious belief, is pathological in its most advanced forms and sentimental in its less extreme ones. It is true of course that any work of art that coerces the reader or spectator into intense emotional response for which there is no adequate warrant or motive is by definition sentimental, but I do not think that this is exactly what happens in poetry like that of Reverdy, Mallarmé or Paul Valéry, who masks only slightly the same unanalyzable transcendental claim with seemingly ordinary syntactical context that can be negotiated through general experience.

The syntactical problems and possibilities of a language peculiar to the poetry of Reverdy makes unusual demands upon the reader and translator. Reverdy himself retired to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes in 1930 and lived there as a lay associate until his death in 1960 with only rare visits to Paris on business trips or to see old friends.

III. Translation from the French

Turning Road

It’s a terrible gray with dust over time
Wind from the south with strong wings
Echoes deaf of water in the evening keeling over
And in the wet night that gushes at the turn
voices rough and grumbling
A taste of ashes on the tongue
An organ noise along the trail
The heart a ship that bobs along
All disasters of the calling

When the lights go out in the desert one by one
When the eyes are wet as
blades of grass
When the dew falls barefoot on the leaves
In the morning newly risen
There is someone gazing
A lost address on the hidden path
The stars stretch and flowers tumble
Through the branches broken
And the dark stream wipes her soft lips scarcely unstuck

Where not walking on the clock face counts
to regulate the progress and push back the horizon
All the cries have let slip by the time they’ve stumbled on

And I I walk in heaven’s eyes on the rays
There’s a noise for nothing and names in my mind
Of faces alive
All that has passed within the world
And this gala prize
Where I lost my time


Anonymous said...

Brilliant. You furnish, at times, a study guide.

Continually impressive work.

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