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  • Affirmation without End: Some Syntactical Similarities between the Poetry of Yves Bonnefoy and the Philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Emily McLaughlin

SINCE HE CAME TO PROMINENCE with the publication of Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve in 1953, Yves Bonnefoy has always been quick to affirm the value and the function of poetry. Whether writing about his own work or the work of others, whether writing essays, poetry or prose, he reminds us that poetry’s function is affirmative. Poetry is presented as an ontological act, an affirmation of the sense of existence, and a quest to affirm the physical and embodied reality of “la présence” within language. In “L’acte et le lieu de la poésie,” published in L’improbable in 1959, the poet insists that the “destin privé de chaque œuvre” is to “donner un sens à ce qui est.”1 The poet continues, “je ne crois pas que soit de poésie vraie que ne cherche aujourd’hui, et ne veuille chercher jusqu’au dernier souffle, à fonder un nouvel espoir” (Bonnefoy, L’improbable 122–23).

It is therefore no surprise that Bonnefoy’s writings are dotted with simple affirmative statements, statements that use the verb “être” to affirm the existence of a phenomenon and then provide a simple definition of it. Bonnefoy writes in the early seminal essay “Les tombeaux de Ravenne, “L’objet sensible est présence” (Bonnefoy, L’improbable 26); “Simplement, [le monde] est avec nous. Dans le sensible” (Bonnefoy, L’improbable 28). In an essay on Paul Valéry, he affirms, “La poésie comme l’amour doit décider que les êtres sont” (Bonnefoy, L’improbable, 101). In a more recent essay on Christian Dotremont, published in 2010, he affirms, “la vie est une réalité ultime, enracinée si profond dans l’être qu’elle s’y obstine en dépit de tous les obstacles, qu’elle est donc comme telle la vérité, mais une vérité âpre, ‘rugueuse.’”2 As his use of the word “rugueuse” here suggests, Bonnefoy conceives of this act of affirmation in Rimbaldien terms. The poet is the one who affirms “la réalité rugueuse à étreindre,” in all its irreducibility and ungraspability.3 And he does so, over and over again.

Critics have been quick to discern the provocative or resistant nature of Bonnefoy’s affirmations. Roland Gérard Giguère and Michèle Finck have highlighted how Bonnefoy’s affirmative poetics advertise his fidelity to material reality or embodied experience,4 at a time when writers and critics are increasingly [End Page 110] preoccupied with the modalities of linguistic production, the ways in which language forms our perception and experience of reality. With the emergence from the 1950s onwards of structuralism and post-structuralism, and literary and psychoanalytic strains of theory, Bonnefoy’s simple affirmations seek to counter what he describes as “un parti pris des mots” (Bonnefoy, Le siècle 174). The poet affirms the primacy of presence, the real, and the world. He affirms the sense of words that Heidegger and then Derrida place scrupulously under erasure, words that according to a logic of différance are irretrievably spaced and suspended. At a time of growing artistic and critical skepticism, Bonnefoy’s affirmations appear to be defiantly or even willfully naive.

Yet Bonnefoy’s affirmations are so striking precisely because they are so effusive. An initial affirmation —“Le sensible est une présence,” for example—offers a definition that is simple and persuasive, assuaging a basic human need for clarity and identity. This definition then tends to be supplemented by an appositional syntax that repeatedly equates one term with another. The more enthusiastic the poet’s affirmations grow, the more they tend to spill, from one clause to another, in a long series of appositions, parataxes or parentheses. The poet’s effusively affirmative syntax thus voids processes of definition. Bonnefoy affirms the existence of phenomena that cannot be defined, measured or signified. And whilst the words that he affirms are not erased, as they are in Heidegger’s or Derrida’s writings, they are nonetheless revealed to be inherently elusive or excessive. Bonnefoy writes, “Le sensible est une présence...


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