Pierre Reverdy’s New Year Thoughts

Pierre Reverdy by Amedeo Modigliani. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1915. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

Pierre Reverdy by Amedeo Modigliani. (Oil on canvas. ca. 1915. Private collection.) Click to enlarge.

The great French Cubist poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) is enjoying something of a small revival owing to the publication last October of the NYRB Classics anthology edited by Mary Ann Caws. The poems are translated by some fourteen different translators. Their approaches to the work (diction, structure, emphasis) are widely different, but all emphasize the conceptual meaning of the words. Those meanings seem discordant, somewhat arbitrarily associated. In fact, the translations often give the impression of sterile lists artlessly assembled by a dispirited cataloger. Fortunately the collection contains the original poems facing each rendering, so you can see for yourself how the poems hang together through sound. Unlike casual musings that they might resemble, the poems have intimate and patterned phonemic relations, rhymes, near rhymes, phonic similarities and dissonance, that make the poems something of sound-webs. Of course, it is that aspect of poetry that only rarely is amenable to translation.

Illustration by Georges Braque for Reverdy's Les Adoises du Toit

Illustration by Georges Braque for Reverdy’s Les Adoises du Toit

Ever since the Impressionists, European poets had taken cues from new movements in the visual arts to define styles of poetry (and often to form self-proclaimed literary movements). At the beginning of the twentieth century the profusion of visual schools produced a corresponding number of poetry or other literary trends. Many of the literary movements had only notional relation to the visual schools they named themselves after. And while it is often difficult to see much differences in principle between literary Dadaists and Surrealists, Vorticists and Imagists, among many other movements, Cubism, at least as practiced by Reverdy, seems to have had a well-conceived conceptual basis. This is how Kenneth Roxwell (an American Cubist poet himself) describes it:

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Gris’s portrait of Reverdy accompanying the poet’s reproduced script

Juan Gris was Pierre Reverdy’s favorite illustrator, as he in turn was the painter’s favorite poet. No one today would deny that they share the distinction of being the most Cubist of the Cubists. This is apparent to all in Juan Gris. But why is Cubism in poetry? It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture. This is quite different from the free association of the Surrelaists and the combination of the unconscious utterance and political nihilism of Dada. (Pierre Reverdy, Selected Poems, ed. by Kenneth Rexroth (NY: New Directions: 1955), pp. v-vi.)

Reverdy was more than just an imitator of painters, however. He remained life-long friends with the leading French painters through his life.

Photograph taken by  Brassaï after a performance of Picasso's play El deseo pillado por la cola. Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

Photograph taken by Brassaï in 1944 after a performance of Picasso’s play El deseo pillado por la cola. Standing from,left to right: Jacques Lacan, Cecile Eluard, Pierre Reverdy, Luoise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, Zanie de Campan, Valentine Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir, Brassaï. Sitting from left to right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Michel Leiris, Jean Aubier.

Numerous painters repaid the attention bestowed on them by Reverdy by painting his portrait.

Reverdy was not simply a poet of abstracted images. Nor did he arrange disembodied fragments into a narrative. Rexroth argues that Reverdy’s approach was distinct from other collectors of fragments, such as Eliot, who, for all his fragmentation, proceeds linearly, much in the tradition of Apollinaire.

[In “Apollinairian” poems] the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes. In verse such as Reverdy’s, they are simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction. Eliot works in The Waste Land with fragmented and recombined arguments; Pierre Reverdy with dismembered propositions from which subject, operator and object have been wrenched free and restructured into an invisible or subliminal discourse which owes its cogency to its own stric, complex and secret logic.

Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself. Its restructuring of experience is purposive, not dreamlike and hence it possesses and uncanniness fundamentally different in kind from the most haunted utterances of the Surrealists or Symbolist unconscious. (pp. vi-vii.)

Rexroth’s critical edifice is probably a bit too elaborate to support the poems themselves, but it is true that you can almost feel an underlying non-verbal, and decidedly non-linear, logic to the verses (particularly if you revert to the French).

So we come to the day. The poem below suggests the various mixed thoughts we seem to entertain when we for some reason continue to celebrate the changing of the calendar as though it signifies some new chance (despite our own repeated experiences). Here’s to a decidedly Cubist New Year.

Tard dans la nuit . . .

from Les Ardoises du Toit (Paris: [for Pierre Reverdy]: 1918)

by Pierre Reverdy

La couleur que décompose la nuit
La table où ils se sont assis
La verre en cheminée
La lampe est un cœur qui se vide
C’est une autre année
Une nouvelle ride
Y aviez-vous déjà pensé
La fenêtre déverse un carré blue
La porte est plus intime
Une séparation
Le remords et le crime
Adieu je tombe
Et cest un coin
Des bras qui me reçoivent
Du coin de l’œil je vois tous ceux qui boivent
Je n’ose pas bouger
Ils sont assis
La table est ronde
Et ma mémoire aussi
Je me souviens de tout le monde
Même de ceux qui sont partis

Late at Night

[translation by Kenneth Rexroth]

The color which night decomposes
The table where they sit
In its glass chimney
The lamp is a heart emptying itself
It is another year
A new wrinkle
Would you have thought of it
The window throws a blue square
The door is more familiar
A separation
Remorse and crime
Goodbye I am falling
Gently bending arms take me
Out of the corner of my eye I can see them all drinking
I don’t dare move
They sit there
The table is round
And so is my memory
I remember everybody
Even those who are gone

[Text note: I followed the text and the irregular indentations of the 1918 edition. Reverdy, after all, was employed for a while as a typeset proofreader, so I presume he knew what he wanted with respect to page layout. The French text above is different from the version Rexworth uses in this respect: Instead of Adieu je tomb / Et chest un coin / Des bras qui me reçcoivent as in the original text, Rexroth has it: Adieu je tomb / Dans l’angle roux des bras qui me reçcoivent.]

The poem reminds me (in some non-rational way) of a Gris painting soon to become part of the permanent collection of the Met. And even if it doesn’t remind you of the poem, perhaps it’s festive enough in its own right for the occasion.

Figure Seated in a Café by Juan Gris. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Part of a donation of a Cubist collection from Leonard Lauder to be installed in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) (1914)

Figure Seated in a Café by Juan Gris. (Oil on canvas. 1914. Part of the vast and recent donation of Cubist paintings from Leonard Lauder to be installed in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

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  1. Thanks for this beautiful post, the touching poem …

  2. just beautiful! kudos~

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