On NYRB poetry anthology of Reverdy

I have been enjoying a new anthology picked up recently that features one of my favorite French poets, Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960).  The book, a New York Review Book/Poets anthology of Reverdy poems, was published in October 2013.

The anthology includes translations by Lydia Davis (some of her translations were featured in the Oct. 2013 issue of Poetry magazine), John Ashberry, Mary Ann Caws (the anthology’s editor), Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, Marilyn Hacker, Rosanna Warren and others.

NYRB Poets Pierre Reverdy book image copyYou can purchase the anthology for $11 at Amazon. You should. It’s the best collection of Reverdy out there.

In Caws’ preface to the NYRB volume (where she places Reverdy in the Cubist camp), she quotes Ashberry as saying, “Reverdy succeeds in giving back to things their true name, in abolishing the eternal dead weight of Symbolism and allegory so excessive in Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Joyce.”

For sure, placing Reverdy outside a literary movement is an easier task than locating his work in one.

Through 1910s and 1920s Paris, Reverdy’s companions included a handful of other exquisite French poets including Guillaume Apollinaire, Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, Max Jacob, Louis Aragon and other period notables (Picasso, Duchamp, &c.).

Reverdy, Apollinaire and Jacob didn’t fly banners for the Surrealist movement (championed by Breton) though their collected work has often been associated with it and, by stretches, with Cubism (and Dada).

That the Nord-Sud journal founded by Reverdy, Apollinaire and Jacob included some Surrealist and Cubist contributions (understandably) baits those casting for an ism-link.  But this is the man who wrote “Late at Night…” translated by Rexroth: “The color which night decomposes / The table where they sit / In its glass chimney / The lamp is a heart emptying itself.”

Ashberry, an American contemporary poet who has backwardly latched onto France and Surrealism in his own work, is right to disassociate Reverdy from Modernists, criticizing the “excessive” symbolism of the literary movement.

In contrast to the Modernist literary movement, the work of the Surrealists appealed to dream logic instead of human reason. They relied on disassociation rather than allegory to give their poems some oomph.

I reckon you could argue Reverdy, the “Surrealist at home” as Breton refers to him in his 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” was more than just a precursor and actually supplied the movement with its raison d’etre. Though that claim might be dismissed by the late Breton who became dissatisfied with some Surrealist characteristics like the “pure psychic automatism” which begins Breton’s definition in the 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism.”

In the March 1918 issue of Nord-Sud, Reverdy said:

The image is a pure creation of the mind.

It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.

The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.

Sometimes juxtaposing two realities was not enough for Reverdy as we see in Lydia Davis’ translation of his poem, “At the Edge of Time,” where Reverdy immediately juxtaposes the “stems of the sun bent over the eye,” the “sleeping man,” the “whole of the earth” and “this head heavy with fear.”

The head moves

On the carpet the body shifts

And turns over the warm spot

At the slipping feet of  the animal

Each line throughout the rest of the poem corresponds in its imagery specifically to one of the four subjects introduced at the beginning of the poem.  But each line and verse also could be read through only one subject.

But Reverdy’s often-quoted Nord Sud statement has been taken to mean or represent other movements. Microscope the creeds (or pretentious artist statements) of modern avant garde artists and you can identify apologetics indebted to Reverdy’s definition of an image as something born from “a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.”  Derailed from track laid by Reverdy, some have passed him up to believe the greater the disparity between two realities, the stronger the image will be.

'Pierre Reverdy 1915' by Modigliani

‘Pierre Reverdy 1915’ by Modigliani

Also, Reverdy’s claim that the “image is a pure creation of the mind,” something “born” by the poet’s juxtaposition does not gel with much of avant garde’s insistence that the image develops a true relationship or “poetic reality” only in the recipient’s mind.

Unlike the Surrealist literary movement, Reverdy keeps tight control of his verse, and unlike avant garde artists, Reverdy creates relationships that are distant but also true. He often reaches this juxtaposition of distant and true realities through synesthesia (at least, it is the means he employs in his early work before departing a few years later from his 1918 Nord Sud declaration and accompanying practices).

There’s a good sampling of Reverdy’s later work (much looser) in this anthology as there is from his “poetic peak” when he was chummy with Surrealism and Cubism (two literary movements whose company he later tried to escape).

But the collection is notable for its inclusion of not just the original French, but also for its occasional presentation of multiple translations of one poem. That alone commends the NYRB book above other collections of Reverdy – the ability to read several takes in the same space.  (I will soon post again on with specific quibbles and praises of some translations – multiple translations invites it).

If you were to compile a list of most-used words in Reverdy’s poetry, you would have the following words and their derivatives: window, ashes, wind (air), moon, clock, water, mirror, smoke, shadow, head (face), wall, foot, stars and more.

In other words, you have some idea why Breton calls him in “Manifesto” the “Surrealist at home” even if it was only the home and heart of life Reverdy tried to articulate.

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