- "The Rhapsody of Things as They Are":Stevens, Francis Ponge, and the Impossible Everyday
In the early 1950s, a young Korean poet named Peter Lee sent Wallace Stevens a group of his own poems, triggering an extensive correspondence with the older poet, as well as several meetings in Hartford, Connecticut, where the two discussed poetry.1 As Lee recalled, at one of their meetings Stevens gave him some intriguing advice: "When I asked him whom I should read he recommended Randall Jarrell and two French poets, Francis Ponge and René Char" (qtd. in Brazeau 137). Ever since Stevens made his famous remark in "Adagia" that "French and English constitute a single language" (CPP 914), if not before, readers have acknowledged the poet's Francophilia and abiding interest in all things French, so it is not surprising to learn that Stevens named French poets in response to his young admirer's request for tips on whom to read. But Francis Ponge? The avant-garde writer who became famous for his strange prose poems devoted to humble everyday objects, like a candle, cigarette, or pebble? In spite of the similarities between Stevens and Ponge, the two poets have rarely been mentioned in the same breath.
Even though Stevens scholarship has long grappled with a wide range of issues related to the poet's interest in France and French literature, the parallels between Stevens and Ponge have gone virtually unnoticed, despite this tantalizing clue that Stevens knew and admired the French poet's work.2 Twenty-five years younger than Stevens, Ponge began publishing his idiosyncratic prose poems in the 1920s and 1930s and quickly became affiliated with the Surrealist movement. Although he forged important friendships with poets like André Breton and Paul Éluard, Ponge was determined to go his own way, steering clear of close attachment to any particular avant-garde communities or political movements, despite a relatively short-lived and unsatisfying stint as a member of the Communist Party. During World War II, Ponge took part in the Resistance, continuing to write poems while hiding in the countryside and assisting the Underground. In 1942, he published his groundbreaking and best-known volume, Le Parti pris des choses, usually translated as Taking the Side of Things (for one such translation, see The Voice of Things). Suddenly, Ponge [End Page 47] found his work widely discussed and celebrated, thanks to a famous 1944 essay by Jean-Paul Sartre entitled "L'Homme et les choses" ("Man and Things"), which argued for Ponge as an exemplar of a phenomenological and materialist approach to a universe of things.
In the books that followed, Ponge continued to publish shorter prose poems about common objects and animals, but also began composing methodological pieces (to which he gave the hybrid name "Proêmes") that exhaustively reflect upon his own poetics and creative processes, as well as longer works of self-reflexive prose that intertwine theory and poetry, commentary and practice, such as "The Notebook of the Pine Woods," "The Prairie," and "The Sun Placed in the Abyss." After being championed by those invested in existentialism, phenomenology, and the nouveau roman in the 1960s and 1970s, Ponge's linguistic play and self-consciousness made him an ideal subject for the radically different approach of the Tel Quel circle and a new generation of structuralist and poststructuralist theorists and critics, including Jacques Derrida, whose book Signéponge/ Signsponge playfully explores the vertiginous dance of the signifier (including puns on the poet's own name) in Ponge's poetry.
Although Ponge remains much better known in France than abroad, he has quietly served as an important touchstone and influence for a surprisingly wide range of American poets and other writers, including a number who have translated his work, such as Cid Corman, Robert Bly, C. K. Williams, and Karen Volkman. A slew of writers from diverse aesthetic camps have written of their admiration for Ponge, from the elegant formalist poets James Merrill and Richard Wilbur to the postmodern novelists Paul Auster and Italo Calvino (who celebrates Ponge in his Why Read the Classics?).3 Ponge has proven especially important to more recent experimental poets like Ron Silliman, one of the...