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This review is taken from PN Review 83, Volume 18 Number 3, January - February 1992.

FROM WITHIN THE GRAIN Jean Tardieu, The River Underground: selected poems and prose, translated by David Kelley (Bloodaxe) £6.95

There are forty-eight names, familiar and unfamiliar, in Paul Auster's fine Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, and Tardieu's is not one of them. Previous to The River Underground indeed, the traces of Tardieu in English have been very few and far between. Ardis, a small Michigan imprint specializing in Russian literature, surprisingly published a translation of Tardieu's 1976 collection Formeries, but even with the semi-statutory claim that he was 'one of the greatest living French poets', the book failed to ignite any significant sparks of interest. Yet in France, both as a poet and a playwright, Tardieu is widely admired, with three collections (comprising almost all his poems and prose poems) in the estimable Gallimard Poesie series, with numerous books, colloquies, theses and articles devoted to him, and with something of the standing of the Grand Old Man of contemporary French poetry since his friend Francis Ponge died. It seems strange that Tardieu, born in 1903 and with his appetite for writing apparently undiminished as he approaches his tenth decade of life, should have had to wait so long to travel so short a distance.

At the same time as reinforcing this impression, and very happly dispelling it in part, The River Underground goes some way towards defining why we should not be unduly surprised. Though much too populist and 'open' to be classified as a hermetic poet, Tardieu writes very much from within the grain of his own language, delighting in verbal play, ...


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