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PN Review 276
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This article is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.

The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Cratylian Nostalgia Roger Little

THE BRIEF COMMENTS I made in P·N·R 81 on the prose poem require development and further support, and I am grateful for the opportunity afforded me to enlarge on propositions made there. Some informality of approach well suits the disentanglement of a complex nexus of interrelated features which to my mind impinge on poetry as it is now conceived and specifically on the shaping of modern French poetry. That the provisional nature of my reflections might give more purchase to constructive criticism is something I welcome. But perhaps I can start with an attempt at formulating a principle which guides my reading and then investigate its application to the corpus which particularly interests me.

At the heart of the impulsion towards verbal re-enactment of sense-stimuli which seems to have governed so much of French poetry over the last 150 years lies what I call Cratylian nostalgia. By it I mean the view of language espoused in various founding texts, including the Bible, and discussed in Plato's celebrated Socratic dialogue, whereby there is a necessary rather than an arbitrary relationship between a word and the object or event it represents. One can readily see the attraction of such a recognizably simplistic view for poets seeking to cope with the breakdown of traditional forms not just of verse but of society itself. It represents a criterion of simultaneous reassurance and adventure in a sea of uncertainty, a veritable bateau ivre which generates excitement while guaranteeing a minimum of security. ...

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