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This poem is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

Three Prose Poems (translated by Sophie Lewis) Charles Cros
Born in southern France in 1842, Charles Cros published one collection of poetry in his lifetime, Le Coffret de Santal. Another collection, Le Collier de Griffes, was published twenty years after his death in 1888. Despite his small formal output, he was active among the cabaret performers and literary groups of 1870s and 1880s Paris. He contributed to literary magazines and became known for his comic monologues. He was also a dedicated scientific inventor, submitting original papers to the Académie des Sciences on, among other topics, a means of creating colour photography and an instrument that reproduced recorded sound.

The history of Cros’s reception is an uneven tale of flashes of fame followed by periods of doldrums. He is best known in France as the inventor of the comic monologue and for one much-anthologised comic poem, ‘Le Hareng Saur’, yet to view these achievements as the core of his oeuvre is drastically to reduce and skew any assessment of its value.

Rimbaud was not alone in turning to prose poetry when he began writing the Illuminations – on the contrary. An extreme practitioner of this new form, he was surrounded by peers making similar essays. La Vogue, one of several Paris magazines publishing new poetry in the 1880s, counted Paul Verlaine, Charles Henry, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jules Laforgue and Stéphane Mallarmé among its regular contributors of prose poetry pieces. It was here that Rimbaud published the first of the Illuminations. Similarly, Cros published the first three of his ‘Fantaisies en Prose’ in the early numbers of La Renaissance Littéraire et Artistique, another new magazine. He too appeared there alongside a few usual suspects: Mallarmé, Verlaine and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam are among those co-contributors whose reputations have survived better than Cros’s.

It is clear that the young poets who favoured prose poetry saw themselves as part of an avant-garde that rejected establishment literature – and it seems that posterity has to a fair extent sided with them. By this token, Cros’s prose poetry might also constitute the most interesting sector of his poetic oeuvre, even aligning him with the great poets of his time. In his preface to a selection of Cros’s writing, Maurice Saillet called the prose poetry ‘la partie la plus scandaleusement ignorée de son oeuvre. Peut-être la plus importante’. Suzanne Bernard, an authority on the French prose poem, concurs, writing of Cros: ‘A la suite des noms de Bertrand, de Lautréamont, de Rimbaud, son nom vient s’inscrire sur cette liste “noire” du poème en prose, qui est en même temps une liste de novateurs géniaux.’

SOPHIE LEWIS



Distractress

The room is full of perfume. On the low table, in baskets,
are sweet reseda, jasmine and all sorts of little flowers, red,
yellow and blue.

Emigrants from the land of endless dusks, from the land of
dreams, blonde visions set foot in my fantasy. They rush to
it, cry out and jostle so that I would like to turn them all
out.

I take up very white, very smooth sheets of paper, and
amber-coloured quills that glide over the paper with the
cries of swallows. I want to lend these troubled visions the
refuge of rhythm and rhyme.
...


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