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The Fortunes of Avant-Garde Poetry
Mary Anne O'Neil
Invisible Fences. Prose Poetry as a Genre in French and American Literature, by Steven Monte; xii & 298 pp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, $50.00.
Modern Visual Poetry, by Willard Bohn; 321 pp. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000, $47.00.
The situation of French poetry at the turn of the twenty-first century is far different from what it was during the last fin de siècle. In 1900, poetry was a booming art, and France was home to numerous poets of varied inspiration and expression. The religious verse of Claudel and Péguy shared the attention of the reading public with the philosophical poetry of Valéry and the futuristic celebrations of Paris and modern life found in Apollinaire's Alcools and Calligrammes. Long poems, short poems, poems written in standard verse, free verse, prose, and even published as drawings, suggested that the golden age of poetry begun in the early nineteenth century by the Romantics and continued after 1850 by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, would not soon come to an end. This indeed proved to be the case, for the heirs of the Symbolist tradition of the first decade of the twentieth century were soon followed by the Surrealist revolutionaries of the 1920s and 1930s, many of whom directed their talents to the composition of political verse at the time of the Second World War. Political poetry by and large disappeared from France after 1950, only to be [End Page 142] succeeded over the next two decades by two very different types of verse. On the one hand, writers like St. John Perse and Pierre Jean Jouve produced difficult works whose appeal was limited to a sophisticated audience, while lyricists, such as Jacques Prévert and even the songwriter Georges Brassens, made poetry more accessible to the general public, often through popular songs. The fact that, during the days of May 1968, students scrawled verses of the Surrealist-Communist poet Paul Eluard on the walls of the Sorbonne to encourage efforts to bring down the social order attests to the power exerted by poetry on the intellectual life of France well into the second half of the twentieth century. Such, however, is no longer the case today. There are only two well-known living French poets, Francis Ponge and Yves Bonnefoy. While reviews dedicated to original poetry do still exist, especially in the south of France where the poetic arm of the French Resistance was most active in the 1940s, poetry attracts many fewer readers--and fewer writers--than it did even fifty years ago.
Such a radical change merits some reflection. What has happened to French poetry since the mid-twentieth century? In a sense, all good things must come to an end sometime, and a century and a half of inventiveness and poetic energy may simply have run its natural course. French publishing houses, well aware that prose sells better than verse, have done little to encourage young poets. However, certain trends in the subject matter and form of contemporary French poetry have probably contributed to the current lack of interest. Since the end of the Second World War, French poets have concerned themselves almost uniquely with everyday life--common objects, geographical locales, and ordinary people. This obsession with the ordinary has produced some excellent poetry, especially René Char's evocations of Provençal landscapes and Yves Bonnefoy's treatments of childhood. Yet, this concentration on everyday life has severed poetry from the traditional subjects that have sustained it ever since classical antiquity, such as the celebration of heroic figures and heroic deeds, philosophical and religious inquiry, love, loss, prophetic vision. This very narrow range of subject risks consigning poetry to the status of a minor art. At the turn of the twenty-first century, French poetry also finds itself at the end of a very long period of formal experimentation that began in the second half of the nineteenth century and which includes...