Monday, November 02, 2009


Char by Man Ray (1933)

I had an “aha moment” reading René Char’s The Brittle Age and Returning Upland,the two volumes of mid-sixties poetry translated by Gustaf Sobin & released this year by Counterpath Press in a design that winks at the New Directions volumes both authors had. Char’s an Objectivist. Well, not an Objectivist really, but he is someone who echoes some of the same concerns that show up in American poetry in the work of Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff et al, writers who were in fact his contemporaries. In this sense, Gustav Sobin, Char’s neighbor & protégé, whose own poetry has always struck me – as do the work of John Taggart &, in places at least, the late Ronald Johnson – as shaped heavily by Objectivism, seems the perfect person to have tackled this work.

This is not, I think, an instance of the translator turning his subject into a mirror of his own obsessions – the volume presents not only Char’s French originals, but, as an appendix, a number of variant translations by Sobin himself, apparently done in “an earlier period.” Nor is it out of any conscious parallel on Char’s part – he knew of American poetry, as it knew of him. The book’s rear cover quotes some lines by Williams directed to Char by name: René Char / you are a poet who believes / in the power of beauty / to right all wrongs. / I believe it also. While the poems of The Brittle Age (L’Âge Cassant) may look reminiscent of Stein’s Tender Buttons (& thus, by inference at least, Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations), they’re nothing like them in tone or focus:

In fidelity we learn never to be consoled


No man, unless he be dead in living, can feel at anchor in this life.


How would the end justify the means? There is no end, only and forever the means, always more machinated.


However, these three poems could fit almost seamlessly into Of Being Numerous, George Oppen’s great poem of the same period. How is that possible? In what sense might these brief pieces conceivably capture the essence of Williams’ comment about beauty? If anything, the emotion of the first poem relies entirely on Char’s own obsessive commitment to fidelity in language, which is everywhere manifest in this volume.

It was Char, after all, who was Roland Barthes’ template of zero degree poetry in Writing Degree Zero, even if Barthes’ description sounds for all the world like early period Clark Coolidge. For Char does, like Zukofsky, like the best of Oppen, represent the turn toward language in the poem. Not in the aesthetic sense that one might think of, pointing to Baudelaire or Mallarmé or even Stein, but rather in the ethical one – where Char has a lot in common with Oppen, say, or with Ponge. Francis Ponge is the poet whom I’ve always thought of when I imagined a French equivalent for Objectivism. It is not simply his obsession with objects – “The Object is Poetics” the title of a key statement, intending very much both senses of that first noun – but the degree to which language & voice are intertwined in his thinking.

I don’t think of Ponge particularly when I think of Char, nor vice versa, but perhaps that’s a mistake on my part. Both were born within the same time frame as the Objectivists (dating from Reznikoff in ’94 through Oppen in ’08) – Ponge in ’99, Char in ’07. Both French poets died in 1988, four years after Oppen, a decade after Zukofsky.

All of these poets had their lives & careers disrupted by the Second World War. Char & Ponge were both active in the French Resistance. Oppen saw combat. In the U.S., the anti-communism & anti-semitism that led to the disappearance of most of the Objectivists from print & literary society between 1940 & 1962 prevented them from having the kind of international discovery of one another that one sees much more commonly today. It was, in fact, Cid Corman whose Origin first put both groups of poets together. But I don’t think I ever got the genius of Corman’s editing on this until I read Sobin’s translations.

As translations, they seem serviceable, but the appendix of variant translations – there are ten in all – tend to be more direct, more colloquial & more well constructed. Consider the opening lines of “Septentrion,” a word that is obsolete in English, refering to the North:

—Je me suis promenée au bord de la Folie.—

Aux questions de mon coeur,
S’il ne les posait point,
Ma compagne cédait,
Tant est inventive l’absence.

Here is the main translation from the body of the book:

—I walked along the edge of the Folie. —

To the unmentioned questions of my heart
My companion yielded,
So inventive is absence.

Here is the version from the appendix:

—I walked along the edge of the Folie. —

To the questions of my heart,
If none were forthcoming,
My companion yielded,
So inventive is absence.

I might have prefered “Which it failed to pose,” or even “Which I failed to pose” to “If none were forthcoming,” but there seems to me no way of avoiding the fact that Sobin’s earlier, rejected version is superior to the later “main” one. It better captures the cadence of Char’s logic that get irretrievably lost in inserting “unmentioned” into the first line of the second stanza. “Unmentioned” not only bloats the line, it’s a less exact rendering of Char’s original: unspoken would have been better.

This isn’t particularly a criticism of the book, however. Sobin has complete translations of the two volumes, and that’s what’s rendered here in the main body of the text. But he also has these other variations, some of which are considerably better than their counterparts in the completed project. One could have, I suppose, combined the two & only published the best versions. But this seems the much fuller view, showing Sobin approaching these poems not once, but twice. One wonders what cut short the earlier attempt. Either way, this is a wonderful book. Just be sure you read the appendix – some of the very best work is there.

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