Thursday, March 4, 2010

I know no Art - gleefully bewildered by Tristan Corbière

It's been a few weeks since I finished Les Amours Jaunes (1873) by Tristan Corbière.  I've considered and abandoned a number of approaches to the book.  I still don't have one.  It's all too ker-ay-zee.

I'll give you a for example, from the second poem in the book, "That," which begins a section entitled "That."  In French, "Ça."  After the title, there is an epigram, a useful quotation that will surely help me understand the poem:


Ah, one of my favorite Shakespeare quotations.  With that helpful hint, let's begin:

Essays? - Pooh, I never have essayed!
A study? - Never plagiarized, idle hound.
A tome? - Too behind-hand to be bound...
Articles? - Sadly, no. It's not well-paid.

And on like this for six more stanzas, telling us what he is definitely not writing: poems, light pieces, a masterpiece.  He ends:

It's a fluke, and right or wrong, by chance's part...
Art doesn't recognize me.  I know no Art.

Then, in the crowning touch, Corbière dates and places the composition of the poem, as is traditional:  "Police Headquarters, 20th May 1873."  Very funny. So his book is two hundred pages of non-poetic non-art. 

I'm reading the translation of Peter Dale, Wry-Blue Loves (2005), published by the marvelous Anvil Press.  Dale is quite free with his translation, trying to enter into the spirit of the thing more than the sense, which is often only barely there in the French to begin with.  But please note that every punctuation mark, every orthographic oddity, is followed punctiliously, including the ellipses in the above excerpts and the lines of dots Corbière sometimes inserted between stanzas.  Corbière loved dots.   I don't know what a translator should do with these loopy things.  Dale seems all right to me.

These stanzas, from "I Sonnet," are not exactly typical, but might show what I mean:

- Sacred telegram - 20 words. - Help, step on it...
O Muse of Archimedes! (Sonnet; it's a sonnet.)
- The proof of any sonnet's adding one:

- I put 4 and 4 = 8! Go on to con it
With 3 and 3! - Let's hold Pegasus strictly on it:
'O lyre, O delyrium, O!...' - Sonnet - 'Shun!

That last word is substituting for "attention" - Dale ran out of syllables. Otherwise, that's pretty much what the French looks like.  Corbière tore French poetry to shreds and then stitched the pieces back together.  I can see how T. S. Eliot found real freedom in Corbière.  But he's got me stumped.  What a contrast to Victor Hugo, for example, whose verse I'm working on now.  With Hugo, I want to write about every third poem.  His poems are rich, overstuffed, even.  With Corbière, I laugh and then scratch my head.  What?  That!

Les Amours Jaunes is Corbière's only book.  Poor guy died two years later, age thirty.


  1. Ah ha!! I'm nearly done reading this book and great fun it is. I noticed the name on my handy iPhone TBR list a few weeks ago and on the spur of the moment ILLed it, but unusually, I hadn't listed a reference as to where I'd heard of it - just forgot to I guess. I've been searching the archives of the blogs I've been reading since the beginning of the year, trying to figure out where I heard of the book and the poet. Yay, you! Thanks for bringing Corbiere to my attention. :)

  2. Corbière is so much fun. This warms my heart.