Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A glance at the complete poems of Blaise Cendrars - Your menus / Are the new poetry

My reading is tipping towards London, which I will visit for the first time in January – if you are there, let me buy you a pint.  The London I mean is the city, not the writer, although I am now reading a book by London about London, which will make for a confusing post if I ever write it up, which I likely won’t.

More French books, instead, books I have read in French as part of my effort to learn to read books in French.  I will abandon the glib literary history now that I have gotten to the 20th century, but for my own sake stick to the basic chronology.

Today, the book is Du monde entier au coeur du monde (1946, written 1912-26, From the Whole World to the Heart of the World), which is the complete poems of Blaise Cendrars under a fancy title.  If I were writing the more literary-historical post, I would be writing about Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, the two writers and rivals who made the big parallel break in Modernist French poetry – before and after.  No more rules.  But I have only read Cendrars in French.

This book is a landmark for me, actually, since it is the first and only book over 300 pages that I have read in French.

To the left is Cendrars’s second published poem, “La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France” (1913, “The prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France”), a collaboration with Sonia Delaunay.  It is sort of a poster, two meters long, that folds up like a map.  It has everything – a bit of collage on the top right, the Eiffel Tower on the bottom left, and a poem about young Cendrars riding on a Russian train with his French girlfriend.

Cendrars was twenty-six when he wrote the poem; in the poem he would have been more like sixteen.  He was in St. Petersburg in 1904 and 1905 as an apprentice watchmaker.  Why did a Swiss kid have to go to Russia to be an apprentice watchmaker?  I do not know.  Heck of a time to be in Petersburg, though.

Does it matter what is in the poem itself?  I mean, look at that thing.  There are no more rules.  Fragments, collage, montage, just like Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Cendrars was not formally educated.  He was a natural conceptual artist.  Do something new.  His first published poem was “Easter in New York” (1912), an early urban poem.  Third was “Le Panama or les aventures de mes sept oncles” (1918 but written in 1914, “Panama or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles”).  Cendrars is always on the move, writing about places he’s been, places other people have been:

Oh my uncle, you alone have never had homesickness
Nice London Budapest Bermuda St. Petersburg Tokyo Memphis
All the great hotels fight for your services
You are the master
You have invented numerous sweet dishes that carry your name
Your art
You give yourself you sell yourself they eat you
We never know where you are

You were always somewhere where something happened
You are maybe in Paris
Your menus
Are the new poetry

He wrote denatured sonnets, elastic poems, Kodak poems.  Menu poems, as if on an imaginary passenger ship, I love those.  They’re the new poetry:

Ragout of river crabs in pepper
Pork in milk surrounded by fried bananas
Hedgehog in nutmeg

That is one of the Kodak (Documentaires) (1924) poems, number VIII of the Menu Poems.  And now many of us photograph actual menus.

Around this point, in a typical conceptual-artist move, he gave up poetry for novels, which he eventually abandoned for screenplays, before ending with a series of memoirs.  I have read just a bit of the latter, a school edition of a chunk of The Severed Hand (1946), about World War I, in which Our Hero is ordered to capture a German prisoner, and does, more or less.  I was surprised by how much profanity there was in a school text aimed at junior high students.  I had not yet quite figured out how the school editions were labelled.  It was not for junior high students.  It was hard.  Someday I should read the whole book, and see how Cendrars loses his right hand.  The novels sound good, too.

The image of  “La prose du Transsibérien” shows Princeton’s copy, borrowed from Wikipedia.


  1. Oooh, do get in touch, would love to meet up with you in London!

  2. Yes! I'm trying to keep some room on the calendar and not just cram it with museums and teas and roasts.

  3. The book sounds like a delight. Cendrars seems to have written about everything and everywhere. I did a double-take at the Robert Louis Stevenson house in Monterey, CA a few years ago when I saw a novel he'd written about the California gold rush on display.

    What a striking thing, that Transiberian collage-painting-poem. There's a 2008 facsimile edition from the Beinecke Library available if you have - *cough* - $1,700 to cough up.

  4. It's a great book (it's this one), full of terrific notes and timelines and so on. Very helpful.

    It does not include that poster though! "Transsibérien" is just in plain ol' print.

    The Gold Rush novel is his first, the point where he abandoned poetry for fiction. It was a big hit, which could not have hurt.

  5. I love Cendrars! Back in 2007 I posted about the scandal of the alleged finding of the lost poem “La Légende de Novgorode”; as best I can determine a dozen years later, it's pretty much agreed that it was a fake.

  6. The French edition I read was up to date, with some detail about the fake Cendrars poem and some speculation about the original Cendrars hoax, meaning: why did Cendrars ever claim that a poem with this title existed? But that is part of the fun with this kind of poet, a Borgesian before the fact.

  7. Happy holidays AR(T). What did you think of the Mauriac? He's a very particular writer.

  8. Happy holidays to you, too. The Mauriac, Thérèse Desqueyroux, it was good. It was worth reading. You must - one must - I had to kind of ignore the looming Nobel Prize - those folks are nuts - but that was easy enough.

    I should write squibs on the Mauriac novels sometime, I suppose.