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92: TWO FRENCH POETS

#92: TWO FRENCH POETS. Another figure lingering in the shadowed back lanes of fame is Theophile Gautier, the poet, novelist, travel writer and journalist whose activities and influence took place in the thick of two generations of Parisian literary life. He was schoolmate to Nerval, friend to Victor Hugo, and close familiar of the early generation of French Romantics; he was the dedicatee of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, and was in the theatre for the furor over the first performance of Hernani. He had his succes de scandale with Mademoiselle de Maupin, a novel about a married couple who both fall in love with a woman, who is disguised as a man (ah, the French). He wrote some of the best-esteemed dance criticism of the nineteenth century, created the scenario for the ballet “Giselle,” and his poem “Spectre de la Rose” inspired the Fokine ballet. He coined the phrase and the notion of “L’Art pour l’art”—“Art for art’s sake”—and the idea and Gautier’s verse acted as a hinge point for French poetry, moving from the Romantics to the Parnassians, Symbolists and Decadents; his mid-career collection Emaux et Camees (Enamels and Cameos) is one of the standard titles of French poetry. Loved and quoted by Wilde, extolled by Pound and Eliot, his star fell with English-language readers after the Modernists, and he is for most readers now a faintly-remembered name. So Norman R. Shapiro’s new selection and translation of Gautier’s verse (Selected Lyrics, Yale, 2012) is a lovely pop-up surprise of a book. Gautier’s verse is varied, appealing, and an immense musical joy to read aloud; he occupies, emotionally, a sort of level ground, being a poete moyen sensuel, if you will. He hasn’t Hugo’s tremendousness or Baudelaire’s fell, passionate gravity, but he also lacks Hugo’s gaseousness and Baudelaire’s morbidity; the poems are less lofty, more sweetly ordinary. They are also, especially the poems of Emaux et Camees, built by a master, and watching Shapiro’s success in matching Gautier’s metrical invention and his rhyme schemes is impressive and fun. His versions are literal enough to be used as ponies but nimble, clever and melodic enough to be no small success as poetry on their own. Bravo and a bow to them both.

On the other hand, every French child grows up with the lovely see-saw tune of the “Chanson pour les enfants l’hiver”; every French cinema addict knows the scenarios of Drole de Drame, Quai des Brumes, and the extraordinary Enfants du Paradis; and knows some of the songs sung by Montand, Reggiani, and Gainsbourg written by Jacques Prevert; Prevert’s song “Les Feuillles Mortes” was translated as “Autumn Leaves” and sung by Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Doris Day and just about bloody everyone on up to Eric Clapton. His book Paroles remains one of the best-selling collections of poems by any French poet, yet he still seems to be neither widely read nor widely known in the States. Ferlinghetti translated Paroles (literally, “Words”) back in the fifties, and it’s still in print; but it’s taken Shapiro to produce a full selection of Prevert’s work in English. He was the example of the café chantant poet, a type pretty much unknown in English, though imitated in the poetry readings of thousands of coffee houses in the U.S. in the post-war period. Prevert remains irreducibly, quintessentially French, which seems to require a certain dereglement des sens in American readers; but Shapiro, ingenious as ever, bears across into English a really astonishing amount not just of Prevert’s puckish surrealism but of the subtleties and real beauties of his language; he catches felicities that might be missed by all but the most attentive reader of the French. It’s a generous selection, with texts, published by Black Widow Press in 2010, with the appropriately impish title Preversities, and you should read it.

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