The Language of Contemporary French Poetry
A dialogue with Pierre Alferi (2007)
Pierre Alferi (b 1963) is a French poet of contemporary prominence. He has published four books of poetry. His third book of poems Kub Or, (1994) was translated into English (OXO) by Cole Swensen. Language plays a very important role in Alferi’s poetry and OXO offers a revealing display of his craft. The OXO poems use the concept of the bouillon cube, with each poem two dimensionally reflecting a side of the cube. The book contain seven poems, each poem is made up of seven lines and each line has seven syllables. I had a very personal reason to be drawn to these poems. It is interesting and rather telepathic that I wrote a forty-nine line poem in 2005 about fall evenings I once spent in Schenectady, a small town in upstate New York. This poem, I discovered later, had an astonishing structural similarity with Alferi’s OXO poems in that they were also arranged into seven-line stanzas, each line referred to one color of the rainbow and each stanza was about one day of the week. Furthermore, each stanza had a tail-end title like the sections of Alferi’s poems. The following interview was chiseled out of a personal communication with Pierre Alferi in the fall of 2007 while I was working on the Bengali translation of one of his OXO poems.
AM: John Ashbery once said in the mid-eighties about French surrealist poetry that although they made a claim to “automatic writing” their poetic language was classical and calculated. While the poetry attempted to break free from all constraints of imagaination, grammatical conventions were adhered to. Would you agree ? How do you look at French surrealist poetry today ? Who amongst the French surrealists, if any, would still appeal to the experimental contemporary poets?
PA: The rejection of surrealism’s remnants was fundamental for poets in the sixties (Bonnefoy’s generation). Today, we can both criticize the surrealists’ indulgence in imagery and overcontrolled « automatism » (Breton), sentimentalism (Éluard), or prophetizing (Char), and look for inspiring experiments in the margins of the group. I still read Reverdy, Vaché, Crevel, for example.
AM: Could you help give our readers a brief sketch of the broadly important phases of French poetry since the surrealists ?
PA: Not really – this is a scholarly task which I could not achieve with impartiality. I perceive generations, mostly : one in the sixties around the Ephemère magazine (Dupin, Du Bouchet), one in the seventies around Orange Export publishing house (Albiach, Royet-Journoud, Hocquard), and then one in the nineties around Al Dante editions (Tarkos, Quintane, Pennequin). But there were other trends : pulsional with Prigent and TXT, sound poetry (Heidsieck, Chopin), OULIPO formalism (Roubaud) and a few great outsiders.
AM: Who, according to you, are the most influential poets in the past fifty years of French verse ? What’s important about their contribution to the changes in poetic language ?
PA: The most influential among the poets wrote mostly prose, and therefore had no influence on verse : Ponge, Artaud, Michaux. The most influential for french verse were, in the last thirty years, American : Gertrude Stein, Charles Reznikoff, the Beats (Burroughs, Gysin), Jack Spicer, the New-York School (O’Hara, Ashbery), and some « language poets » in the nineties.
AM: What impetus did post-modernism give to French poetry ? Would you say that the poetry written in France in your generation would still qualify as “post-modern” ? Or is its genre largely or profoundly different from post-modern French poetry ?
PA: I must confess that I never took post-modernism seriously. Contemporary writing which I favour would qualify as « persistingly modern ». Post-modernism seemed to be an excuse for reactionary or cynical attitudes towards form. On the other hand, there is a neo-modern pose – in the militarized fringe of the Al Dante group, mimicking the uniformism of historical avant-gardes (repetition, cut-up, proclamations, innocuous « transgressive » themes) – which I believe does qualify, in the desultory sense, as « post-modern ».
AM: Paul Valery said – poetry is never completed, it is always abandoned. Is this quality of abandonment quite evident in later French poetry ? Looking back in retrospect, how would you confront Valery’s statement today ?
PA: We don’t understand completion and abandonment as Valery did, anymore. His idealist notion of the perfect form has been itself abandoned long ago (before he even stated it, actually – by the Dadaïsts). Therefore, incompletion has also lost its symbolic aura. For me, there is no ideal, vocation or call for poetry. But it is true that in its practice, i prefer suspense to statement, an equivalent for abandonment in materialistic terms.
AM: In post-modernist oeuvres we generally notice a tendency to de-eliticize poetic language. Would that hold good for French post-modernist poetry ? Or were classical restoration themes parallely in play ?
PA: Of course we still have a constant downpour of neo-classical, euphonious, declamatory lyricism. But I’m afraid that we know how to build pompous verse with grandiose overtones even without restoration themes – for instance with an abstract, « philosophical » lexicon. Perhaps this explains why there has been so little « de-eliticizing » of poetic language here, compared to, say, american contemporaries. The stronger boundary between spoken and written french considerably adds to this resistance.
AM: Yves Bonnefoy once remarked, “Poetry helps return objects to their true selves”. What role, do you think, language plays in that process ?
PA: Objects have neither truth, nor selves. Language can do better than solve a problem it has invented. In poetry, it creates new meaning : a sensory, mental experience of its own. When you turn to the world of objects, the best it can do, as far as I know, is to freshen up your eye and ear.
AM: Lets discuss your book OXO (from Burning Deck press). What prompted you to perform a structural experiment of that sort ? Had you been contemplating an organized experiment over time or was it the result of a momentary upsurge ?
PA: I didn't think about this form until I tried it for one, then seven poems. But compression in writing (accelerating, colliding, coding) always attracted me. There was also a stimulating paradox, almost a provocation, in deciding for a strict syllabic prosody while I was in fact defending prosodic anarchy and the blurring of the prose/poetry boarder in french magazines of the time. For me, the metric form is hardly a constraint here, it acts more as a container, a cubic box where anything - junk or gold - can be squeezed in and everything has to cohabitate. Also, the square is like a small, chaotic-looking photograph, whose title, after you read it, gives you a delayed clue of the "subject-matter".
AM: What made you interested in the bouillon cube ? Why did you choose number seven? The similarity of my poem with your OXO poems seemed astonishing to me both thematically and structurally -I too, like you, chose number seven. The seven days of the week and seven colors of the rainbow were the primary catalysts, but also number seven had other cultural implications. For example, in ancient Indian culture, the classification of life-stages were believed to be dictated by the number seven; "payaar" , an ancient Bengali poetic form is based on seven lines, the seven stars of the nearest galaxy, Indian music scale is also a heptate (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti) unlike the western octave and so on. Likewise, was there a profoundly cultural or philosophical reason for you to choose number seven ? Or has "7" got to do something with the bouillon cube ?
PA: The resemblance sounds very interesting indeed.
The bouillon kub (KUB is in fact a trademark) was invented at the turn of the century, together more or less with cubist painting. It was a good object to suggest an "infusive" use of poetry having a poem melt in your memory and diffusing the condensed smells and tastes , and also the plurality of angles, view-points, idioms, in a single design. Seven is a propitiatory number, a good omen, and, obviously, the number of daily (weekly) life. More importantly it is an odd number for the lines, troubling the dominant even french prosody (with its pervasive six, eight, ten, twelve syllables lines). Verlaine said he "preferred" odd to even. Technically, the caesura (middle-pause) is unstable in this asymetric meter, which encourages rythmical surprises, cuts and overlappings.
AM: Could you explain the “caesura” for our readers ?
PA: Caesura, well, every verse line longer than, say, six syllables has in French a virtual pause somewhere in the middle (3/3 for the six line, 3/4 or 4/3 for the seven, 4/4 for the eight, 5/5 or 4/6, 6/4 for the 10 and, most common, 6/6 for the "alexandrine" twelve, sometimes 4/4/4 (romantic double caesura) the shorter the line, the less obvious the caesura and, in the case of the seven as other odd numbers there is always some hesitation and unbalance between a 3/4 and 4/3 reading rythms. For many readers it results in the illusion that there is no pause, no prosody, no versical rythm in fact and that the line cuts are arbitrary – I liked that.
AM: I do notice that you are both trying to compress the language and the visual snapshots into a densified entitiy in the OXO poems which is so craftily done....I mean it comes out in the English translation so well. Could you spare a few words about it ? Was it a conscious motivation ?
PA: Yes, quite a conscious choice - reminiscent of the industrial compression of used cars, for instance.
AM: Linguistically how would you characterize your OXO poems against the complete spectrum of your poetics ?
PA: The language is, perhaps more than in my other books, filled with colloquialisms, slang, daily-life phrases, which strongly contrast with the somewhat intricate syntax, and violent, almost precious line-cuts. It can result in comic, seemingly nonsensic sentences.
AM: The condensed matter of your verbal snapshots of Parisian life tempted me to think of an acoustic parellel too. Music's sonority derives from the order of the acoustic waves that carry it. But when too much music is overlapped or condensed, the resultant wave loses much of that order - "noise" (which is often defined by scientists as waves/curves that are most ill-patterened) is thus born. When I read your OXO poems, I am able to hear that noise - the overlapping/colliding visuals bring acoustic parallels for me.
PA: If there is noise to be heard I think it lies in the interferences of phrases from different "language level" (colloquial, precious, etc.) and, mostly, different syntax : some jumbling of them might be welcome but, in the French, the whole construction of the poem sentence is always - discretely but obsessively - strictly logical.