Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Most of what we call insane is just stupid - some selected poems of Max Jacob

Max Jacob was a painter, friend of the famous (once the friends became more famous than him), and master, or at least writer, of the strange and irritating form, the prose poem.  Several months ago I read a chunk of his first book, The Dice Cup (1916), an inspired mix of puns, shaggy dogs, nonsense, and proto-surrealism. Now I have added The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (1999) as translated by William Kulik, a book that is less wacky and less fun, but more instructive.

This book has just 102 pages of Jacob’s pieces.  A third are from The Dice Cup, a third from the posthumous Last Poems (1946), and a third scattered through the 1920s and 1930s.  The date of Last Poems tells the sad end of the story of Max Jacob, who was both Jewish (though a Catholic convert) and openly gay:

Loving Thy Neighbor

Who’s watched a toad cross the street?  He looks like a very small man: no bigger than a doll.  He crawls along on his knees: do we say he looks ashamed?... no!  That he’s got rheumatism.  A leg draws behind, he pulls it forward. Where’s he headed like this?  He came up out of the sewer, poor clown.  No one noticed him on the street.  Long time ago no one noticed me.  Now the children mock my yellow star.  Lucky toad, you don’t have a yellow star.  (1946, ellipses in original)

This piece’s swerve to a more openly personal statement is hard to find in the poet of 1916, but common in the Jacob of the Occupation.  The “poor clown” – even before he said so, I knew that that was Max, or also Max.  That had been his role for decades.  A contemporary piece is title “’Max is a Lunatic’ (Everyone)” – and he is, he had been, but this poem ends with:

I think it’s time to go lie down.  Most of what we call insane is just stupid.

The middle of the book surprised me in two ways, first that Jacob wrote verse as well as prose poems – one is title “To Mr. Modigliani to Prove I’m a Poet” – and second that Jacob’s conversion to Catholicism was serious enough that he becomes something that I saw no hint of in The Dice Cup, a French Catholic writer.  He is a screwy version of the type, as he perhaps says directly in “Glass of Blood” (1921):

Our ideas at Brocken our hearts at Calvary
The ones the color of time
The others of blood
I drank half a glass of your blood
Threw the rest into the sea

Jacob declares himself a witch, dancing at the Brocken Walpurgisnacht, but only abstractly, in the realm of ideas.  He is a poet full of doubt and disillusion, but only about earthly things.  He does not doubt that the Christian God exists, but that the world exists.

But Jacob was a painter, too.  It is all representation.  Different kinds of representation.

A View in Perspective

Mountain view of the turreted white house
It’s dark, with one lighted window
And two turrets, two turtledove turrets.
Behind the window in the house
Is the fiery light of love!
Plenty of it, winged, eloquent
On the third story
In another room
Unlit, lies a dead man
And all the sorrow of death,
Sorrow’s plenty,
Sorrow’s wings,
Sorrow’s eloquence
View in perspective of a turreted white house.  (1921)


  1. Jacob is full of surprises. The last book of his I read was "Poèmes de Morven le Gaëlique": simple bucolic poems about Breton life, often in loose rhyming quatrains, often evoking folk song, written under that pseudonym in the '20s. Not what I expected! He also wrote plays; I'm curious about those.

  2. That's great. The authentic taste of Brittany, as a tourist board might say, that occasionally appears in Jacob, although I did not know there was an entire book of it.

    I am curious to read more Jacob, too, although I think it will have to be in French.