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This article is taken from PN Review 37, Volume 10 Number 5, March - April 1984.

A Quiet Voice Overheard: Jean Follain John Pilling

Joseph Brodsky has powerfully reaffirmed the importance to modern poetry of those who, like Cavafy and Montale, have exposed the bombast and rhetoric of others by patiently applying the dry ice of their 'quiet voices'. Yet it is clear that the quieter the voice, the more likelihood there is of its going unheeded, its qualities of tone and timbre heard only by default, or by those in its vicinity. This seems to have been the fate of a number of modern French poets who, intrinsically less charismatic than their nineteenth-century forbears, have had to make themselves heard against the hubbub created by Existentialism, or the nouveau roman, or most recently the nouvelle critique. Occasionally, as in the case of Francis Ponge, such figures have acquired the kind of celebrity their efforts merit, if only because they seem assimilable to current fashions. But more often - as in the case of Jean Follain - their potential audience is much greater than their actual one, both in France and, more especially, in the English-speaking world.

Follain's voice is of a piece with the man himself. As a measure of his modesty one might point to a photograph in his monograph on Pierre Albert-Birot for the Seghers series Poètes d'aujourd'hui; Follain appears so close to the margin as to be effectively absent from the scene. His work, almost all of which consists of brief lyrics and short prose poems, seems similarly to disclaim any attempt to occupy the limelight, and ...

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