Wednesday, August 17, 2016

In my head lines, nothing but lines - some Pierre Reverdy

I’m going to look at a couple of Cubist poets, first Pierre Reverdy and then Gertrude Stein.  What is a Cubist poet?  A poet who was friends with a Cubist painter.  Are the poems of a Cubist poet particularly Cubist in any other way?  Not in any way that I understand.  It is a weak metaphor.

There is a link to visual art, though.  Reverdy’s first book was the 1915 Prose Poems.  Perhaps this poem can serve as a statement of principles:

Strokes and Figures

    A blue-tinged patch in the sky; in the forest, clearings
quite green; but in the town where pattern imprisons us, the arch
of the porch circle, the squares of the windows, the diamond-shapes
of the roofs.
    Lines, nothing but lines, for the convenience of human
    In my head lines, nothing but lines; if only I could make
a little order of them.
(Selected Poems, p. 9, tr. Mary Ann Caws)

Reverdy returns to these images in the opening poem of his 1918 Roof Slates:

On every slate
                        sliding from the roof
                                 had written
                                                    a poem

The gutter is rimmed with diamonds
                                                the birds drink them  

Translated by Patricia Terry this time (p. 39).  In the original edition, the first stanza, let’s call it, was “in a very large dark type, elsewhere use for titles,” the second stanza thus like “one individual slate on the ground” (Roof Slates and Other Poems of Pierre Reverdy, Terry, p. 7).  The patterns and structures that are a source of anxiety in the prose poem have been put to use as the material for poems.  The concern with lines is built into the visual shape of Reverdy’s poem, as my eye follows the slide and fall of the slate tile.

Reverdy poems do not generally have such a strong calligrammic touch, but the attention to the visual line is clearly important:

Across the Way

          On the edge of the roof
                     A cloud is dancing
Three waterdrops hang from
                                               the gutter
Three stars
And your shining eyes watch
         The sun behind the window pane


(SP, 73, tr. Terry)

Although this poem is actually shaped like a diamond – the image is more obvious in the French poem, where the first (“Au bord du toit”) and next to last lines (“La soleil derrière la vitre”) are much shorter.

One might wonder exactly what the translator’s job is here.  “Three stars” = “Trois étoiles,” “Noon” = “Midi,” “A cloud is dancing” = “Un nuage danse,” and so on.  At least in the last case there had to be a decision about the English verb tense.  Often, with these early Reverdy poems, the translator’s role is visual as well as verbal.

I have been quoting from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1991, tr. Mary Ann Caws and Patricia Terry), which is a rearranged and expanded version of their 1981 The Roof Slates and Other Poems (Northeastern University Press, 1981).  The 2013 NYRB collection, Pierre Reverdy, which I have not read, appears to be another revision and expansion of the same translations.  This decades-long commitment by the translators and editors to create an English Reverdy is impressive.


  1. Illuminating post. I first came across PR in 'A Step Away From Them' by Frank O'Hara, which ends: A glass of papaya juice/and back to work. My heart is in my/pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

  2. The NYRB collection had translations by O'Hara and many other poets. The newer one I read has a number by Ashbery. A perfect fit.