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  • Poetry Proscribed: Twentieth-Century (Re)Visions of the Trials of Poetry in France
  • Steven Winspur
James Petterson . Poetry Proscribed: Twentieth-Century (Re)Visions of the Trials of Poetry in France. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2008. 195 pp.

There have been several studies done during the last three decades of literature on trial in France, or of French writers' being caught between public and esthetic pronouncements. For ones specific to poetry, one could cite E. S. Burt's Poetry's Appeal: Nineteenth-Century French Lyric and the Political Space or Carrie Noland's Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology, while the broader issue of morally condemning literature has been broached by D. LaCapra or E. Ladenson. James Petterson's Poetry Proscribed offers a salutary [End Page 158] refocusing on these questions not simply because it teases out important philosophical concerns largely ignored by the latter two authors, but also because it shows that putting poetry on trial has raised for at least four centuries the issue of poetry's meaningfulness—an issue not limited to post-Revolutionary writings. With each of its chapters beginning with the legal trials undergone, respectively, by Théophile de Viau, André Chénier, Baudelaire and then Aragon (whose condemned poem "Front Rouge" allows J. Petterson to consider the wider defense of Surrealism put forward by Breton against any and all legal attacks), this book opens a vital debate about what is heard in a poem. "Hearing a poem," as Petterson shows, amounts to much more than deciphering a putative moral or political message.

We learn in the book's early chapters that both Viau and Chénier fell victim to attacks made by French law against writings that threatened reason. Viau was condemned twice for writing blasphemous poems, resulting in exile by royal decree in 1619 and then, after his return, a second trial four years later that led to imprisonment. The question as to whether the verses that caused such hardship should be read either as obscene or as a poetic praise of goodness, a debate reopened 300 years later by Frédéric Lachèvre and Antoine Adam (who respectively tried to prove the poet's guilt, then innocence), simply misses the point. For the duplicity of Viau's language in the sonnets for which he was condemned resists any translation into prosaic statements—hence its threat to the force of law. This was not only because legal authority reduces any statement to a single prosaic meaning, but also because such authority is powerless when confronted by statements that openly contradict themselves (by making blasphemous claims and also undermining them). Chénier too became the object of 19th-and 20th-century polemics when writers such as Vigny, Brasillach and Gausseron used the poet's untimely death during the Terror of 1794 to focus on his putative identity as defender of freedom. Such reductions of his verses to literal declarations carried a lot of weight for believers in Fascism and also for those promoting a French essence. Stating that Chénier embodied "What it means to be French" (or the contrary claim, made by his executioners) amounts to dissolving the slipperiness of a poem's meaning and sonority in order to protect the sacrosanct identities of self and nation.

It is in the third chapter, devoted to Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal and [End Page 159] what the poet wrote about his book's trial, that the counterbalance to legal and political misreadings of poetry is made clear. Following through the poet's famous claim that the 1857 trial was based on a misunderstanding, J. Petterson demonstrates that mishearing is built into the very fabric of a poem's language. In a fascinating dialogue set up between Sartre, Jean-Luc Nancy and the four-line poem "Lola de Valence" that Baudelaire had wanted Manet to affix to the bottom of the eponymous portrait of a Spanish ballerina, Petterson argues persuasively that the back-and-forth movement between image and verse creates a shimmering effect that prolongs what spectators notice in the painting—namely, that "something inner shines outward." Both the painter's art and that of the poet resonate...


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