Strolling out from the Self — Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008

Into the Deep Street

Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern
French Poets 1938-2008

EDITED AND TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH
BY
Jennie Feldman

AND Stephen Romer
(Anvil Press Poetry, 2009)

The anthology Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008 differs from standard representative gatherings of a national poetry from a given period. Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer, who are both fine British poets as well as gifted translators, have an important point to make. They focus on a “definite lignée” of modern French verse, as Romer declares in his perspicacious introduction; that is, on six poets who have expressed their debt to and admiration for Jean Follain (1903-1971), the seventh and founding member as it were, of this loosely defined, unofficial group. Linked by this affiliation, Follain’s “descendants” comprise Henri Thomas (1913-1993), Philippe Jaccottet (1925- ), Jacques Réda (1929- ), Paul de Roux (1937- ), Guy Goffette (1947- ), and Gilles Ortlieb (1953- ). Of these, the poetry of Thomas, de Roux, and Ortlieb is especially welcome because it is mostly unknown to English readers, while the more widely rendered work of the other four writers is cast into a new perspective. Unlike the others, Jaccottet investigates no “deep street” — the title of a poem by de Roux — but the author of La Promenade sous les arbres has been hiking in the countryside of southern France for some sixty years in his attempts to glimpse the depths of Nature. Open-eyed flânerie has often induced the poetry or poetic prose of all the writers presented here.

If one adopts the appropriate vantage point, the contemporary street and the age-old country path are not necessarily mutually contradictory sources of inspiration. In “Two Views of Bercy” or “Two Views of Plaisance,” Réda ventures beyond the walls of the French capital, as the title of his collection, Hors les murs, reveals; in the process, his beloved macadam sometimes dwindles into dirt, but he knows how to praise both. What unifies the work of all these poets is their good-natured, even hopeful, search for such glimmers, which — as Feldman and Romer’s title once again implies — suggest that something deeper, weightier, or more meaningful hovers just beyond the luminous lures… Nature and disparaged urban areas likewise meet miraculously when Ortlieb, in his thought-provoking travel and strolling notes (recently collected in Sous le crible, Éditions Finitude, 2008), comes across wild strawberries growing between railroad ties at the Gare de l’Est. This feat of serendipity contrasts with the grim “dead trees planted alive on the ramparts” that he evokes in his poem “Small Town with its Gleams.” But note the “gleams,” here emanating from coal and tin. What unifies the work of all these poets is their good-natured, even hopeful, search for such glimmers, which — as Feldman and Romer’s title once again implies — suggest that something deeper, weightier, or more meaningful hovers just beyond the luminous lures. Goffette sums up this potential source of bewilderment or jubilation as “a speck of gold in the mud,” whereas Jaccottet has emphasized how we can deceive ourselves, when dazzled by such sparkles, by imagining transcendence where there is none. Such is the tension motivating these poets. Turning to the unexpected, yet surer beauty that can be found among ordinary people, Follain notes in “Metaphysics”:

When they glimpse her
inside a cottage
her hands holding
the bowl with blue flowers
to her tender breasts
they feel the warmth
then all evaporates
from the delicate scene
leaving adrift only
the naked fragrance
of metaphysics.

— p. 41

In any event, peeking into cottages, alleyways, or woods means leaving one’s desk, getting outside and moving to and fro. “Despair does not exist for a man who is walking,” as Réda famously formulates it.

To the lineage might have been added the sometimes sensitive, sometimes sardonic prose poet Gil Jouanard (1937-), who has been Follain’s most studious and enthusiastic disciple; the philosophically inquisitive prose poet, aphorist, and diarist Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924-1981), who was intimately associated with Jaccottet, Réda, and de Roux; and the marvelously mysterious Armenian Francophone poet Armen Lubin (1903-1974), whom Follain, Thomas, and Réda championed. The presence of Jaccottet makes one recall the Swiss prose poet Gustave Roud (1897-1976), who affected him much more profoundly than did Follain and whose poetic sensibility has been lauded by some of the other poets chosen for the anthology.

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