"FRENCH AND ENGLISH constitute a single language," Wallace Stevens once wrote. Paul Auster affixes that impish statement as an epigraph to the preface of his new anthology of 20th-century French poetry, and in support of Stevens he sketches the history of English borrowings from French poetry, beginning with William Caxton in the 15th century and moving up to the modern period in American letters. Solid enough as it stands, the case could be put even more strongly by recalling how often French poetry has borrowed in turn from the English and Americans: Hugo's Shakespeare, Musset's Byron, Baudelaire's Poe. In fact, from Mallarme and the Symbolists up through the Decadents and early modernists, Poe and Whitman were as powerful an influence on the French as the French tradition itself.
As American readers, we are more conscious, however, of our own national debt than any other nation's. The reminders crop up everywhere. Think, for example, of Eliot's French-language poems, written in 1917 and 1918 and still included in the Collected Poems 40 years later, long after the magical prestige of things French had declined. Eliot's early indebtedness to Laforgue and Corbiere is standard literary history; but one of his French poems, "Lune de Miel," also pays homage to Guillaume Apollinaire, not usually mentioned as an influence on Eliot. The tourists in this poem visit the famous Byzantine basilica Saint Apollinaire, described as "raide et ascetique," "une vieille usine desaffectee de Dieu." This is Eliot's sly evocation of the author of Alcools (1913), who is interpreted as a machine-age Christian heresiarch, much according to his own self-portrayal in the great poem "Zone."
Apollinaire is the poet and "Zone" the poem that opens this anthology. We might have expected Valery, Peguy, or Claudel; but these poets, whose poems were published in the opening decades of the century, were all born before 1876, the date Auster has taken as his outoff point. No doubt considerations besides mere chronology made this determination; and in fact the editorial assumption is reasonable. The real, if not the chronological 20th-century French poetry, begins with Apollinaire. He strikes a celebratory, Whitmanesque note never before heard so vibrantly in French poetry. And his zealous courting of the "antipoetic" -- his popular speech, his aeroplanes, his Americanism, and his vers libres -- encode as part of their meaning the sign of radical newness, of differing from the past; this is something Roland Barthes might have designated the "avant-garde effect," by now a venerable tradition itself.
Echoes of Apollinaire's celebratory note have diminished as his successors have appeared; but its Whitmanesque origins help explain why Americans have liked Apollinaire more than any other modern French poet. He has been lucky in his translators and admirers, too, the latest piece of luck being Richard Wilbur's new and excellent verse rendering of "Mirabeau Bridge," published for the first time in this anthology.
I should stress that the translations assembled by Auster are not prose trots. Most of the translators are themselves poets, and they have worked to make from their originals plausible poems in English. It's beguiling and perhaps a form of scholarship to speculate on the translation choices of the major poets here -- why Stevens, for example, should have settled on the descriptive prose poems of Leon-Paul Farque, or what precisely Eliot saw in Saint-John Perse's Anabase that led him to declare it "a piece of writing of the same importance as the later work of James Joyce." Also, has anyone noticed that Eliot uses a phrase from "Gerontion" ("a wilderness of mirrors") to translate Anabase 's "un pe ple de miroirs"? The odd substitution suggests that Eliot believed he was simply retrieving his goods from Saint-John Perse. Perhaps he was right to think so. This anglophilic poet would certainly have read Eliot before he published Anabase in 1924.
There are of course many departures from accuracy both in sense and tone throughout the anthology. Small wonder, given that poets like to add to their oeuvre only things that they might, hypothetically, have written. Minor adjustments in sense are admissible when necessary to make a living contemporary poem from an older original. Still, when, for example, John Peck translates the line (from a poem of O.V. de L. Milosz), "Ton histoire morte a jamais, meme pour toi," which means, "Your story, dead forever, even for you," as, "That story of yours dead as always, even as you are," the departure seems to arise not from reasons of temperament and special poetics but simply an incomplete grasp of the French.
In any case, half of the 600 pages of the book are taken up with facing taxts of the originals, and these can serve, if need be, as trots for occasional extravagances in the English versions. Most of the translators have performed responsibly and admirably, however. Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery, Richard Howard, Robert Fitzgerald, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, Ron Padgett, and the anthology's editor himself all deserve praise for the work done here, as does Random House for publishing this unconventional and valuable collection.
One objection: why is Henri Michaux so poorly represented? Michaux, a Belgian living in Paris since the 1920s, and Francis Ponge are the greatest living poets writing in French. Years ago a selection of Michaux's poems translated by Richard Ellmann appeared with New Directions. The translations were accurate but dull; and they have got worse with time. Auster was apparently unable to find substitutes. Could he have commissioned them? And could the poems selected be more satisfyingly Michaux-like than these here? Michaux would repay the pains taken; his phantasmagoric voyages, bestiaries, and maladies imaginaires manage to fuse the intelligence and fancy of the 18th-century philosophical tale with the onerirism, terror, and black humor of the modern period.
Having made sure the major figures (those already mentioned, plus Breton, Eluard, and Aragon) are securely in place, the reader of this anthology will want to check for less famous poets and newer ones to care about. Of the less famous I recommend Jean Follain, Jean-Paul de Dadelsen, and Yves Bonnefoy. Of the newer ones Robert Marteau deserves a close look, along with perhaps Roger Giroux, Michel Deguy, and Jacques Roubaud. This is not many. An editor must be loyal to what is there to choose from, but I think almost anyone else would agree that the new contemporary French poetry has had a great falling off.
Two of the representative younger poets, Marcelin pleynet and Denis Roche, are associated with Tel Quel, which more than any other literary review has helped launch the new French semiological and deconstructionist criticism. (Biographical notes on all the poets, with publication credits, are given in an appendix to this volume.) Texts designed by poets of the Tel Quel bias manifest, more than anything else, the will to demonstrate the non-referentiality of language. For them poetry is only the interplay of language codes. Reading the poems of Roche and Pleynet here, one sees that they have undertaken the daunting project of fabricating ironic exemplars of the process of writing; it is a disastrous success. Such texts of course refer to themselves, and they had better, in order to guarantee at least one referral; no other belongs to them.
Roughly in the same camp are young poets like Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, and Emmanuel Hocquard. All write relentlessly about "ecriture," which comes to mean code, randomness, disjunctiveness, anxiety. The one-word line is a favored convention, and common Gothic props include darkness, low temperatures, the stars, the word, and "whiteness." Not since the vast desert of 18th-century French verse, when poetry expired under the dogmatism of Boileau's poetics, have the conventions and aims of poetry seemed so preordained and narrow. No exit? Perhaps it is time for the French to cast their nets across the Atlantic again (as they once did with Poe, Whitman, and Eliot) and reclaim the patrimony that helped make 20th-century American poetry as strong as it has been. At least this much is clear: Americans who look to the newest French poetry will not find it as rich as it once was, and would do best by keeping to the first part of this anthlogy. Or simply keep to our own vital tradition with its stubborn referentiality and eerie knack, against all odds, for ceremony and celebration.