Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pessoa: The Exhausting Electric Trolley Car

All night I have dreamt of tobacco,
of a world filled with smoke
and governed by tobacconists.
I work my way back to you
through generations of cigarettes

rollups tailormades filtered, unfiltered
fat and thin, menthol and acrid
some coloured and some with cards, pictures
a world of dead stars and football players
a world all lips and fingers

I light my way to a dark café
the smoke from my own cigarette ending
in the smoke that billows above your head
that is your life, inhaled then with a flourish
expelled, to entertain the air, to go nowhere.

Tobacco-haunted I wander
through rooms rank with the odour...

For some years now I have been trying on and off to write a poem for and about Álvaro de Campos, trying for lines that would get at the essence of this elusive personality and the body of work created out of it; lines that might also be spoken by a near relative of de Campos, that would be, in the ancient tradition of clumsy homage, approximations of the poet himself, mimetic alignments with his spirit. De Campos is a loose, expansive poet, described by himself as a Whitman with a Greek poet inside. He studied mechanical and then naval engineering in Glasgow, but gave it up. He was taught Latin by his uncle, a priest. He was never seen without a monocle. He wrote an energetic poetry about home, homelessness, placelessness, restlessness, selflessness, in the sense of having no definite self. ‘I’d like to have strong convictions and money’1 he says in ‘Opium Eater’, but ‘I’ve no definite character whatever’. He sees himself as ‘a continual dialogue’, a ‘solemn investigator of useless things’. He likes to strike poses of fin de siècle ennui:

I belong to a type of Portuguese
Who since discovering India
Has been unemployed. Death’s a certainty.
I’ve thought about this a great deal.

The condition described in de Campos’s poems is of a generous lyric intelligence energised by the lack of precisely those qualities we usually expect from a poet. He apprehends the world but he lets it wash over him without any attempt to wreak order on it. He is a havoc of negative capability. ‘Nothing holds me to anything./I want fifty things at once’ he half laments, half boasts in ‘Lisbon Revisited’, and he goes on to construct his aesthetic out of nothing, and out of undifferentiated and multidirectional longing. Not even dreams supply conviction : ‘Even my dreams felt false as I dreamed them’. His favourite action is inaction: what he does best is smoke cigarettes, and tobacco has a privileged place in his image stock. Nunca fiz mais do que fumar a vida (I have never done anything but smoke life away). The cigarette is oblivion and deliciously savoured wastefulness, ‘the freedom from all speculation’. Self-knowledge begins for de Campos in self-extinction:

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist.
I’m the space between what I’d like to be and what others made of me.
Or half that space, because there’s life there too...
So that’s what I finally am...
Turn off the light, close the door, stop shuffling your slippers out there in the
Just let me be at ease and all by myself in my room.
It’s a cheap world.

Álvaro de Campos, the breezy, self-extinguishing Portuguese modernist walking his thin line somewhere between Whitman and Surrealism, has a particular fascination for me because, of course, he doesn’t exist. Or does he? Certainly not in the sense that we here do, with our blobs of fleshly apparatus. He is one of the heteronyms of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, along with Ricardo Reis and Alberto Caeiro. Pessoa’s creation of these entirely distinctive poets, each engaging with the other’s work so that collectively they amount in effect to a literary movement, is one of the great leaps of the modern poetic imagination, and it perfectly dramatises one of the central dilemmas of poetry from the latter decades of the nineteenth century through the fraught ground of modernism to our own day.

That dilemma might be summed up as an increasing uncertainty about an increasingly complex set of responses to the positioning of the ‘I’ in poetry: the dissolution of the Romantic sense of self into a room full of competing selves. Rimbaud’s ‘ ‘Je’ est un autre’ is the first step on the journey that leads to the linked but separate achievements of the four imaginary Portuguese poets, of which Pessoa himself must be counted one. To say that the ‘I’ is other is to recognise the necessary fictionality of the writing persona, to define the shift from an empirical to a poetic self that takes place as soon as anyone sits down to write a poem. The fact that a great deal of poetry acts as if that shift were not there shouldn’t persuade us that there is such a thing as an innocent primal empirical self moving seamlessly from the lived life to the written life. Yet much of the most exciting, the most genuinely engaging poetry of our century proceeds from a recognition and even embracing of the fluid, dissolving self. Part of what I want to argue in this essay is that in many respects and for a variety of reasons we are witnessing a return to a more limitingly personalised concept of what it is to be a poet and that many poets are no longer interested in taking the risk of forgetting who they are.

‘To pretend is to know oneself’ Pessoa said, and his whole life was spent in a trance of pretence. Self-extinction and self-creation were the two parallel drives which impelled him, as they did the heteronyms. For Pessoa, in fact self-extinction and self-creation were one and the same thing. He created his first heteronym at the age of six, the Chevalier de Pas, ‘from whom I wrote letters to myself’. The grammar of that phrase suggests the degree to which self division was instinctive to Pessoa. The fact that the only books published in his lifetime were of his English poems points up another kind of division — Pessoa was taken to Durban as a child and educated at an English-speaking school. Poetically he was a latecomer to his own language.

I want to go back to the day Pessoa called ‘the triumphant day of {his} life.’ It was the 8th of March, 1914 and after some attempts at creating a complicated bucolic poet he walked over to a high desk and wrote, standing up,

some thirty poems, one after another, in a kind of ecstasy, the nature of which I am unable to define. It was the triumphant day of my life, and never will I have another like it. I began with the title, The Keeper of Sheep. What followed was the appearance of someone in me whom I named, from then on, Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me the absurdity of the sentence: In me there appeared my master.2

Pessoa describes a process which is as remarkable for the order in which the events took place as for the events themselves. Once he had created Alberto Caeiro he immediately wrote the six poems of the sequence ‘Oblique Rain’ by Fernando Pessoa. ‘It was the return of Fernando Pessoa/ Alberto Caeiro to Fernando Pessoa himself. Or better, it was the reaction of Fernando Pessoa against his nonexistence as Alberto Caeiro.’ It took an act of creative self-obliteration to release the entity that was the poet Fernando Pessoa, to present him so completely with the possibility of his own extinction that he could either vanish from himself or struggle to leave his own imprint on the page. What Pessoa describes here is a reversal of the order we might expect: of the poet’s inventions taking flight from an established poetic presence. It is unusual to witness the invention preceding the self-creation; it is unusual to watch, as we watch Pessoa here, a poet go to the outer reach of the territories within which the self exists, and recognises its own existence, and then return intact, as, remarkably, his own disciple.

What are the implications of that reversal? What does it tell us about the way in which the poetic imagination functions? It should at least re-alert us to the way in which the writing of a poem can proceed from the same sort of creative fracture that opens up a work of fiction, and remind us that the same multi-levelled response caused in us by the interplay of narrator, characters and language is available to us when we encounter whatever self is projected in the lines of a poem. It should also, perhaps, make us wary of accepting at face value even — or particularly — the most seemingly transparent ‘I’. Not every poet possesses the set of emotional and psychological imperatives that drove Pessoa to his particular self subdivision. Nor does every poet seek to build an aesthetic from a primal awareness of the multiplicity of possible selves out of which, either individually or simultaneously, contrapuntally, a poem might be written. It might also be said, to shift the argument sideways a little, that Pessoa’s foregrounding of the whole question of self in poetry accords with a European or at any rate a non-anglophone fluidity of approach. If it is hard to imagine Pessoa in English, as I think it is — and discarding for a moment the fact that Pessoa actually began as a poet in English — part of that difficulty of imagination is that English as a language, and more precisely as a literary language, comes freighted with a level of concreteness, and specificity that impinges on the way in which the poet exists in the world.

Let me attempt to clarify this by recourse to those old allies of sloth, simplification and generalisation. Let us imagine, Pessoa-like, two prototypical poets, one anglophone and one a composite European. Frederick Steel and Jorge Bonacordia have met at an international poetry conference and, in an idle moment, have been scanning each other’s work. Frederick is bothered by what he sees as the unaccountable abstraction of Jorge’s poems. It never seems to be quite clear what is going on, or who is being addressed. The visible world seems to be very skeletally embodied in these lines. If there is an undifferentiated tree, or bird or rock that’s about as concrete as it gets. If something specific and recognisable does appear, a carob-tree, a salamander climbing up a wall, it seems to function in an altogether different manner and to engage the poet’s consciousness at a level as subliminal as it is unparaphrasable. Jorge for his part is bemused by the glutinous mass of material information which Frederick Steel’s poems expect him to digest. Several kinds of tree and species of insect are named and evoked in alarming detail. The poems seem to be structured around things that have happened to the poet and his immediate family or to relate feelings and thoughts by means of stories told to allow the poet to reveal himself to us. Jorge feels as if someone has grabbed the lapel of his jacket and is threatening to stay until he has dredged up every last detail of his biography, sprinkled with what he thinks these details mean in the scheme of things. They consider each other blankly from across the table. They plot escape.

This is a cartoon, though after I drew it I came upon an interview with the English poet Stephen Romer where he referred to what he called ‘the post-Mallarméan reflexiveness and theory’ which further differentiates (and alienates) contemporary French poetry from its English counterpart, and remembered a Cambridge Poetry Festival where a French poet declared that an English poet’s poem about a garden was not a poem at all ‘because it didn’t discuss itself enough’.3 I’m tempted back into my own cartoon every time I read a book of poems in English that depends on my receptiveness to the projection of the single persona of the poet’s self and the reliance on a treasure trove of largely unmediated personal information.

Or again when the poet and his/her audience are locked in a relationship that expects the poet to articulate on behalf of some larger societal set of aspirations, to be a messenger or vates. For it is in fact a short leap from the security of the individual self plunged in a self renewing circle of personal concern to the kind of self certainty that can allow a poet to assume a role of public iteration, no matter how complex the relationship between poet and audience. It does seem that anglophone poets are more likely to blur the distinction between the poetic and empirical self and be subject to a set of audience expectations that also depend on that blurring. Anyone who has opened a magazine and seen, for instance, an Irish poet castigated for failing to deal with ‘the situation’ or an English poet because he or she has, regrettably, not experienced an acceptable level of oppression, poverty, censorship and produced a body of work which satisfies the liberal need for moral applause as much as it asserts human decencies, knows the route where that kind of blurring all too often leads. For again, it isn’t a big step from the idea of a poet as a clearly identifiable and pinnable-down entity to a reflexive prescriptiveness of the audience or critic.

Again, this is why most of our discussion of poetry take place on a thematic plane, where it is the poet’s quantifiable ideas and feelings which matter rather than the manner of their expression. On the other hand, to encounter poetry from outside this tradition is to realise the many different modes in which the poetic consciousness can operate. Writing on René Char, Yves Bonnefoy, Henri Michaux and Philippe Jaccotet—translations of whom have recently become available in dual-language editions published by Bloodaxe — Malcolm Bowie commented that all four are ‘writers who uncouthly refuse to be interested in manners and customs, or in the invisible contractual arrangements by which social groups perpetuate themselves. Each one is a monad, and proud of it.’ (TLS, January 27, 1995, p 11). This is not to say that an interest in society’s ‘invisible contractual arrangements’ is an exclusive property of poetry in English, but it does point up an interesting difference in the relationship between poet and reader, and that between the poet and the poetic consciousness.

Nor am I implying that the notion of a depersonalised self in English is new. If I seem to be eliding the achievements of Eliot or Pound or Stevens or the floating indefiniteness of a contemporary figure like Ashbery, it is in part because they are exceptional figures, but also because the radical redefinitions of the self that are central to their poetry have taken rather different forms than those of Pessoa, or, again to take a random sampling, Bonnefoy or Char or Lorand Gaspar or Montale. But the anglophone poets came to the question from a different context and devised quite different escape routes from the tradition of the foregrounded self which they inherited. Eliot was, after all, the famous exponent of poetry as an escape from self, even if he did put the argument in terms which suggested that it was self replacement rather than escape that he had in mind, a replacement necessitated by a host of emotional and intellectual rejections and realignments. The surfaces of Eliot’s poetry fairly glisten with the authority of a style or the style of an authority quite as meticulously arrived at as Pessoa’s transformations. The same might as easily be said of Wallace Stevens or Ashbery. Yet the very distinctiveness of their styles, the unmistakable modulations of the voices that speak their poetry illustrates their remove from the slippery Pessoa. We cannot easily recognise Pessoa, though we might catch the tone of de Campos, or Caeiro or Reis.

Analysing his own condition, Pessoa goes back to Aristotle’s division of poetry into lyric, elegiac, epic and dramatic and argues that despite the usefulness of Aristotle’s scheme, literary genres are not so easily separated out.

On the first level of lyric poetry, the poet who is focused on his feeling, expresses that feeling. If however, he is someone of many different and shifting feelings, his expression will take in a multiplicity of characters unified only by temperament and style.4

Pessoa pursues the levels of lyric poetry up a ladder of increasing depersonalisation and multiplicity. The farther up the ladder the poet progresses the greater is the fracture between the empirical and poetic selves. On the next rung is the poet ‘of varied and fictive feelings, given more to the imaginative than to sentiment and living each mood intellectually rather emotionally.’ Pessoa is describing the progress of what we might call the sympathetic imagination: variety, fiction, intellect assuming primacy over direct lyric apprehension of emotion. The poet on this level expresses himself through multiple characters ‘not united by temperament and style’. Further up again the ladder of depersonalisation or of the imagination —for the two are in fact synonymous for Pessoa — is the poet of shifting moods, giving himself over to each mood so fully that the style varies. On the final rung you have the ultimately depersonalised poet, the poet like Pessoa himself who is ‘various poets, a dramatic poet writing lyric poetry’. Here, each mood becomes a distinctive character with a quite separate style and also — and this is a crucial element in the theory of depersonalisation — ‘with feelings that differ from, even contradict, the feelings of the poet in his living person’. Thus, Pessoa warns us explicitly against identifying any of his heteronyms with himself, and even makes it clear that they express sentiments he himself finds unacceptable. He also licences them to freely contradict themselves. So Pessoa constantly disappears from his own creations, and from himself. How much his work, and his whole personality, depended on this quality of disappearing, of melting into the world, is evidenced by another journal entry:

I have all the qualities for which the romantic poets are admired, even the fault of such qualities by which one really is a romantic poet. I find myself described (in part) in various novels as the protagonist of various plots, but the essential thing about my life, as about my soul, is never to be a protagonist.
I’ve no idea of myself, not even one that consists of a nonidea of myself. I am a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness.5

Each of the heteronyms embodies Pessoa’s depersonalisation and the poetry of each is both a celebration of the objective world and a personal vanishing act. The different oeuvres also manifest various forms of the sympathetic imagination: the imagination that goes out from the poet and centres itself in the world as it impinges on the poet’s senses. Caeiro, the father-figure, is a spiritual shepherd, a pastoral pagan who identifies completely with the seen world. His poetry is a way ‘of being alone’; he is without ‘ambitions or desires’. He has no sense of self out which ambitions and desires can grow. He believes in the world because he sees it and because he doesn’t think about it or make of it a mystic embodiment of some other reality. His whole philosophy is the absence of philosophy. ‘I have no philosophy: I have senses’, he tells us. The Keeper of Sheep does project a kind of anti-religion, a blasphemous subversion of Christianity: his Christ is radically ordinary, a refugee from his own fate who creates himself ‘eternally human and a child’ who teaches Caeiro how to look at things and let them be themselves. Caeiro allows himself to be a mystic ‘only of the body’; he doesn’t know what Nature is and if he occasionally yields to anthropomorphism, having his ‘flowers smile’ and ‘rivers sing’, it is because this is the only way to ‘make deluded men better sense/The truly real existence of flowers and rivers.’ Caeiro lives in a state of creative denial: the very first words he utters to us, the lines which open The Keeper of Sheep, are ‘I have never kept sheep’. His life is a self-conscious pastoral fiction constructed to deny the fictions of philosophies and systems: what he offers is a brusque materialism, most clearly argued in the poem he wrote some years after his death — a poem, that is, which postdates the lifespan accorded him by Pessoa— :

Sometimes I start looking at a poem.
I don’t start thinking, Does it have feeling?
I don’t fuss about calling it my sister.
But I get pleasure out of its being a stone,
Enjoying it because it feels nothing,
Enjoying it because it’s not at all related to me.

Later on he denies the accuracy of a phrase like ‘materialist poet’, and the concluding lines perfectly sum of the fate of the poet burdened and lightened by a sympathetic imagination:

I’m not even a poet: I see.
If what I write has any merit, it’s not in me;
The merit is there, in my verses.
All this is absolutely independent of my will.

The world happens to the poet, it rests on his senses alone and requires nothing of him but his apprehension of it. Caeiro comes out of nothing, according to his disciple Ricardo Reis, ‘more completely out of nothing than any other poet’. He comes without baggage, with his senses for tradition: a perfect tabula rasa , on which the world can inscribe itself. This notion is surely problematic for many of us. Is the poet an empty jug waiting for the world to tumble in and be embraced; waiting for the jug to empty and fill again, accommodating each burst from the tap with the same clear-eyed equable poise? Isn’t this too passive? Don’t we want our poet to engage with the world from the vantage point of some hard won singular vision, to filter it through to us in the light of that individual fire?

Caeiro’s stance is what Ricardo Reis, strict classical/formalist pagan, nonexistent Ricardo Reis called ‘sensationist’, a term which, inevitably, Caeiro resisted. The idea of sensationism is crucial to Pessoa and the role it projects for the poet is deeply against the grain of current practice. It proceeds from the assertion that ‘there is nothing, no reality, but sensation’. Ideas are also sensations, of things not embodied in space and
‘sometimes not even in time’. It’s a step further from William’s concretist ‘no ideas but in things’. Some of Pessoa’s definitions of sensationism make it seem cold-blooded, sterliley perfectionist. The three central tenets, for example, require that art should be ‘supremely construction and that the greatest part of art is that it can ‘visualise and create organised wholes’; that the component parts of the whole should be perfectly realised, as should every constituent of the part. The insistence on perfection hammers home the insistent aestheticism of the system, but it’s an aestheticism that is all things to all men all the time. It is moral and amoral, religious and anti-religious. A sensationist — indeed, according to Pessoa, every ‘cultured and intelligent man’:

has the duty to be an atheist at noon, when the clearness and materiality of the sun eats into all things, and an ultramontane catholic at that precise hour after sunset when the shadows have not yet completed their slow coil round the clear presence of things.6

Pessoa was deadly serious about this: to him a poet full of beliefs and opinions was not a poet at all. He maintained of himself that he had ‘no personality at all except an expressive one’. Yet every mood that came upon him was intense enough to become a distinctive personality. His poet is a shell invaded by one absolute force after another, and the poet’s only duty is to offer total allegiance to the force of the moment: to keep himself open and uncluttered to allow that absolute occupation. This extremity of sympathy affected his daily life too. One of the most remarkable of his journal entries shows him riding in a tram through Lisbon, a perilous experience for him

I’m riding in an electric trolley car and slowly noting, as I habitually do, all the details of the people who pass before me. For me the details are things, voices, phrases. That girl’s dress, as she passes before me, I reduce to the material it is made of, the work that went into making it…And immediately there unfolds before me, like a primer on political economy, the factories and the workers: the factory where the cloth was made, the factory where the silk thread was made of the darker thread they use to embroider the twisted little things into place close to the neck; and I see the sections of the factories, the machines, the workers, the dressmakers.7

And on it goes until he descends from the tram ‘exhausted and somnambulant’, having ‘lived an entire life’.

Pessoa didn’t mean by all of this that the poet should be disengaged from the world of conviction, that he should live in a rarefied atmosphere of poésie pure. His paradoxical resolution was that a poet should lack and at the same time be full of convictions: he is bound to have ‘none and all political opinions’. The two great crimes for the poet, according to Pessoa, are sincerity and insincerity. What he meant by this was that the poet should have the capacity for total belief, total commitment only for the duration of the poem , ‘the length of time…which is necessary for a poem to be conceived and written’. The timeframe of the poem is the only place where the poet must be fully engaged. Outside of that, conviction is irrelevant, a useless encumbrance. We might think, coming to poetry from a different tradition, that the poem should proceed naturally from the life, and the life includes convictions, beliefs, opinions. Pessoa’s thinking is an absolute aestheticism; he comes back again and again to the autonomous republic of the imagination, the poem. In an age when the focus is more and more on the life that precedes the poem, Pessoa’s refusal to be pinned down, his shifts, evasions and elisions, offer an instructive counter-example. His coolness makes sense if we think about how emotion actually operates in a poem. Does it precede the poem, so that the lines are a faithful transcription of already existent feelings? If that were the case the poet would be a simple clerk of the heart. In the successful poem the emotion is generated in the act of writing: the poem is a self-generating system, and the system is triggered by words. Anyone who has tried to write in the rush of powerful emotion knows the distance between sincerity of feeling and an accomplished piece of writing. Very often, the more powerful the emotion the poet brings to the poem, the more likely it is to be crushed by it. The poem which makes a successful emotional appeal to must have a core of ice, must be built on formal attentiveness to language, line-break, diction, syntax technique. This is what Pessoa meant when he made the distinction between sincerity in ordinary life and sincerity in the poem. ‘Translated sincerity’, he said, ‘is the basis of all art’. The poet mediates between the text of the world and the text of the poem, applying the stratagems of a translator to languages that are related but distinct.

1 Translations of Pessoa’s poems from Poems of Fernando Pessoa , translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown, The Ecco Press, New York, 1986.

2 Fernando Pessoa, Always Astonished, Selected Prose. Translated, edited and introduced by Edwin Honig. City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1988. P 9
3 Poets Talking, Poet of the Month interviews from BBC radio 3, by Clive Wilmer, Carcanet, 1994, p26
4 Always Astonished, , p 69
5 Ibid. pp 116/117
6 Ibid., p 41
7 Ibid. ,p 112/113

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Francis Ponge: Siding with things

No poet has looked more determinedly or more ferociously at things than Francis Ponge, whose Selected Poems has just been published on this side of the Atlantic by Faber. Le parti pris des choses, or Siding with Things, is a key collection of his, and even a brief scan of his titles will reveal his resolutely thing-centred approach: “Rain”, “Ripe Blackberries”, “The Crate”, “The Candle”, “The Cigarette”, “The Orange”, “The Oyster”. Ponge’s work is written in the form of prose poems, a form that always seems to sit uneasily in English, but is perfectly suited to the chunky materiality of Ponge’s vision. In his poem or proem ‘Memorandum’ he offers a useful statement of “the only interesting principle according to which interesting works can be written, and written well” :

“You have first of all to side with your own spirit, and your own taste. Then take the time, and have the courage, to express all your thoughts on the subject at hand (not just keeping the expressions that seem brilliant or distinctive). Finally you have to say everything simply, not striving for charm, but conviction.”

Ponge is impatient with abstraction and irrelevance, with words that go beyond what’s closest to hand. He wants to let the material sink into his pores and in that sinking to let his spirit reveal itself. A poem which strikingly shows this process at work is ‘Rain’, which, like ‘Memorandum’, works by a power of gathering precision, given here in C.K. Williams’ translation:

The rain I watch fall in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos. In the center it’s a fine discontinuous curtain (or net), an implacable but relatively slow downfall of fairly light drops, a lethargic, everlasting precipitation, a concentrated fragment of the atmosphere. Near the left and right walls, heavier, individual drops fall more noisily. Here they seem the size of a grain of wheat, there of a pea, elsewhere almost of a marble. ...

The poetry is in the intensity, the utterly absorbed attentiveness of the gaze Ponge turns on the complex phenomenon of falling rain. The poem builds successive layers of detail from the simple opening observation, and yet there’s nothing simply objective about this. The language is that of rigorous and impersonal scientific inquiry, but the description is located firmly within the human frame; we’re aware from the beginning of the watching poet’s eye, aware too that the language of precision, for all its technical restraint, is also the language of a kind of ecstasy. The deepening complexity grows in the amazed consciousness of the observer. On one level it’s a poem in which nothing happens and which refuses the kind of trajectory from opening to closure that we might expect. On another level, though, it’s filled with event, its own event, and in confining itself to that event it radiates out from it. And look at the distance that is travelled from “The rain I watch in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos” to “And then if the sun comes out, all soon vanishes, the brilliant display evaporates: it has rained.” So much energy on such a precarious mechanism. You take what’s there, as it arrives, and you can’t look beyond something until you’ve had a good look at it.

To an extent Ponge’s vision depends on a sleight of hand — the primacy accorded to the world of objects, flora or fauna, and the use of a quasi-scientific language and approach to apprehend them, masks the deeply human need to make sense of the world on an emotional and spiritual level. The poems are full of anxiety, suppressed hopefulness, humour, which are as it were authenticated for their being won from the contemplation of the material. Sometimes the spiritual trajectory of a poem is that of the necessarily doomed effort to define, the fact that once you start, it’s almost impossible to stop:

It isn’t easy to define a pebble.
If you’re satisfied with a simple description you can start out by saying that it’s a form or state of stone halfway between rocks and gravel.
But this already implies a concept of stone that must be validated. So don’t blame me for going even further back than the flood.

What strikes again and again on reading Ponge is the absence of human relationships, the absence, indeed, of other human beings. On the rare occasions when they do appear they are oddly material, disembodied. The only relationship is between the observing consciousness and the usually inanimate objects observed, scrutinised. But these object are the receivers of such a powerful concentration of attention and emotion that they in turn in the poet's — and therefore also in our — imagination press back towards us a human attention. There is therefore a kind of reciprocation. Stones and other objects play tricks on the humans who watch them in order to draw “some general principles” from their contemplation. Ponge’s material vision thus consistently undermines itself as, inevitably it has to. Bread is better eaten than scrutinised, as one poem ruefully concludes.

Ponge derives neither consolation nor terror from his inquiries, merely —but is a big ‘merely’— an intensified relationship with the things of the world. Part of the poetic strategy by which this is achieved is his way of presenting the world in his poems ab initio, unburdened by a tradition of inquiry, as if it had never been properly attended to before and by his self presentation as a kind of Adam constantly waking to a first surprising morning. This selection, excellently translated and introduced, allows us to share the disabused innocence of Ponge’s Eden.

Francis Ponge. Selected Poems. Edited Margaret Guiton, with translations by Margaret Guiton, John Montague and C.K. Williams. Faber and Faber, 220 pp. £9.99 in UK.

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