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This item is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

News & Notes
Brexit
‘Poets are […] the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; […] the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ – Shelley, ‘A Defence of Poetry’, 1821.

Those ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, at least the three hundred who responded to PN Review’s questionnaire, voted in a ratio of 6.5 to 1 to stay in the European Union. It is as well to put this on record since the writers and their readers seem to be out of step with the declared political will of the nation. The results, nine days before the referendum, were these:

94.1% intended to vote, 13.3% to Leave, 86.6% to Remain; 2.8% changed voting intentions during the period of the debate; 34.6% of respondents were women, 63.1% men, with 1.8% undeclared. In terms of age groups, 28.3% were aged 25–54; 28.1% 55–64; and 37.5% over 65. Older voters, among writers, were strongly in favour of remaining.

Novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici responded as follows: ‘I have always thought of myself as a European with roots in the Middle East who happens to live in Britain. I spent my working life teaching literature in the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex, where I was proud to have as colleagues not one but two people who had been imprisoned first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. I was naturally delighted when Britain finally joined the EU and the thought that it might now break with it fills me with gloom. The idea that by remaining in the EU Britain somehow loses its uniqueness is laughable. France is just as proud as England of its heritage and traditions yet the only people wanting to leave are the Front National. This country, which seems split between those whose only ambition is to make money and those who dread and fear foreigners, is not the one I came to in 1956. Is this how the Jews felt in the waning years of the Weimar Republic, I ask myself?’

Neutralising poetry
At Yale University in June some students set out to ‘decolonise’ the English department, demanding an end to the compulsory course ‘Major English Poets’, which includes such culpably male writers as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, Spenser, Donne, Pope and Wordsworth. Eliot or ‘another major poet’ is allowed in the second semester, and some instructors have managed to include a woman in this slot. The anonymous petition cited the course as ‘especially hostile’ to students of colour. In its place they demand literature relating to ‘gender, race and sexuality’. The course, required for all students taking English literature as a major, has run since 1920: the petition insists it should be abolished. ‘A year spent around a seminar table where the literary contributions of women, people of colour and queer folk are absent actively harms all students, regardless of their identity,’ it declares. Some professors have, apparently, associated themselves with the petition’s demands that work by ‘women, people of colour, and those who identify with the LGBTQ community’ should be included. One recent graduate told of the indignity of her four years’ study, a ‘horrifying experience’. ‘In my four years as an English major, I primarily was lectured by old, white men about rape, about violence, about death, about colonialism, about genocide. And I was repeatedly told by many of my professors that these evils were necessary or even related to spiritual enrichment. This was horrifying.’ She added later that these white men were also ‘largely wealthy’. Jill Richards, an assistant professor of English, the associate director of undergraduate studies, advocates the petition. ‘I think it’s time to revisit our understanding of what is foundational to an English major,’ she told the Daily Beast. Other professors – and students who do not subscribe to the petition – have stood up for the course. Department Chair Langdon Hammer noted that the works of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Derek Walcott, and Louise Glück were all taught in the second semester of 2016. He also noted that the English Department faculty had not been presented with the petition and that student evaluations for the course’s spring semester ‘were overall very positive, as is usual’. Miele was not to be pacified. ‘This department actively contributes to the erasure of history,’ she wrote.

In the Name of Pablo Neruda
On 14 July Chilean poet Raúl Zurita was presented with the 2016 Premio Iberamericano de Poesia Pablo Neruda, the Iberamerican Poetry Prize given in the name of his Nobel Prize-winning countryman. It is one of the major Latin American awards. Zurita, who spent time in prison under the Pinochet dictatorship, has written the ambitious trilogy which deliberately builds out of Dante, its three parts being Purgatory (1979), Pre-Paradise (1982) and The New Life (1994). After life in prison, he said, the arts and man-made things restored his sense of life’s beauty, but in recent years rampant neo-liberalism, the failure of civic solidarity and the zeal to destroy the dream of Latin American integration had delivered him back to bitterness and nostalgia. He celebrated other great Chilean poets – Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Nicanor Parra. From memory he recited Robert Desnos’s final poem, composed shortly before his death in a concentration camp at the end of the last World War. Zurita himself was born after the War, in 1950.

John Lucas remembers Robert Nye
Robert Nye, a poet and novelist who found rich material in the legends of ancient England and Wales, and who invented a rollicking afterlife for one of Shakespeare’s most enduring characters in his acclaimed novel Falstaff, died on 2 July in Cork, Ireland. He was seventy-seven. Mr Nye was a word-drunk fabulist, steeped in the oral tradition. ‘My stories’, he told the reference work World Authors in 1980, ‘have their source in dreams which more than one person has dreamt, in ballads, jests, yarns, and in those folk tales which are as it were the dreams of the people coming to us without the interference of our own identity.’

He was happy to describe his own output as ‘tall tales, fibs, lies, whoppers’ – a penchant that explains his attraction to the vainglorious, less than truthful hero of Falstaff. Told in florid, exuberantly vulgar Rabelaisian prose, that novel, published in 1976, purported to be Falstaff’s memoirs, dictated in his ninth decade to a series of household secretaries. The Times called it ‘one of the most ambitious and seductive novels of the decade’. Anthony Burgess, in Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (1984), wrote that it ‘combines, successfully, the forward drive of modern fiction with the divagations of a more monkish tradition’. Falstaff won the Hawthornden Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and convinced its author that he had a future as a novelist. ‘In writing it I found myself, my own voice and pitch,’ Mr Nye said.

Robert Thomas Nye was born in 1939 in London and grew up in Southend, Essex. His father was a minor civil servant, his mother a farmer’s daughter – the youngest of twenty-one children – and former ladies’ maid. Robert Nye credited her ‘innate peasant storytelling ability’ as an important influence. He left school at sixteen and immediately published his first poem in London Magazine. A conscientious objector, he worked as a hospital orderly to satisfy his National Service requirement. While contributing poems to a number of publications, he worked as a newspaper reporter, milkman, postman, labourer in a market garden and orderly in a sanatorium. Writing in a vein reminiscent of Robert Graves’s, Nye created a small stir with his poetry collections Juvenilia (1961) and Juvenilia 2 (1963). He began writing reviews to supplement his income and became the poetry editor of The Scotsman in 1967. From 1971 to 1996 he was the poetry critic of The Times.

To entertain the three sons from his first marriage, he began writing children’s books. Taliesin and March Has Horse’s Ears, both published in 1966, retold traditional tales from Wales, to where he and his wife moved in 1961. In 1968 he recast Beowulf in prose form, for children, in Beowulf: A New Telling, adding a twist ending in which the hero vanquishes Grendel with a swarm of bees.

His first novel for adults, Doubtfire (1967), wove the story of Joan of Arc and mythic characters into the fantasy life of a teenager suffering an identity crisis. He returned to fifteenth-century France in The Life and Death of My Lord Gilles de Rais, the fictional memoirs of Joan of Arc’s comrade in arms and the first marshal of France. He applied the Falstaff treatment to two more fictional characters in the novels Merlin (1978) and Faust (1980). In Mrs Shakespeare: The Complete Works (1993) and The Late Mr Shakespeare (1998), he once again turned the conceit inside out, furnishing historical figures with fictional lives. He imagined Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, reminiscing about her husband, whose works she has not bothered to read and whose poetry she resists. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ he asks her at one point. ‘No, thanks,’ she replies. In The Late Mr Shakespeare, Pickleherring, a fictional actor who as a boy played many of the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays, recounts the playwright’s life, half a century after his death, in one hundred episodes. The author’s fun-house version of Shakespeare and his age gave full rein to what the Independent described as ‘his furry and evocative poet’s prose, his luscious delight in gaskins and ouzels and gold-belted bees’. In passing, the book’s narrator offers what could stand as an epigraph to Mr Nye’s entire oeuvre: ‘It is a pack of lies, and my heart’s blood.’

Bill Berkson was here
Best known, or most visible, in the 1960s and ’70s at art openings, readings, experimental films and theatrical productions, Bill Berkson, a presence, a poet and critic, has died at the age of seventy-six.

He was at home in New York: born into a successful Manhattan publishing family, handsome, sharp, well educated (he had studied with Kenneth Koch at the New School), he commented in his forthcoming memoir Since When, ‘I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.’ He was enchanted by the otherness of the Beats’ world, but more at home with the New York School poets, Frank O’Hara in particular. He replaced Koch at the New School and his pupils there included Patti Smith. He was prolific and various, making a virtue of his ‘scatter’.

Hans R. Vlek (1947–2016)
Contributed by P. C. Evans

The Dutch poet Hans R. Vlek has just died. He was the brilliant, brash, arrogant, obnoxious rising star of the 1960s, with four prize-winning collections and a selected poems by the time he was twenty-three. This was a mind in hyper-drive. His naked appearance at a poetry festival, and his waving a gun at his publisher, lent him cachet, but hinted at the mental health issues that he was wrestling with.

Vlek careered off the literary grid in the seventies. Frequently institutionalised, he divided his time between the mental asylum Bird Song and Granada, where he wrote, painted and trawled the brothels.


Forgive them, these models from Porq with their perma-tanned tushies
And their quims bristling with depilated hair,
With nipple-rings dangling from their silicon titties
To fire the inferno of the poor voyeur –­


But Vlek was no Rimbaud. Fighting with himself and his doctors, he would return in the mid-eighties with a sequence of collections that established him as one of the most original and compelling European poets of the late twentieth century.

By this stage, Vlek couldn’t knit two coherent sentences together; he was the incessantly mumbling loon in a turban. But he’d ditched the free verse of his earlier period and his poetry was now straightjacketed into classical forms, which seemed to hold his mind together briefly. His readings in antiquity were immense, yielding dramatic monologues – by turns plaintive and provocative – skitting from the Hittites to the biblical patriarchs, to a thirteen-year-old Filipino prostitute foraging the rubbish dumps for food, to a freshly-burned Jew:


My daughter was a thorn in Goebbels’ eye,
her nose too eastern, her Greek too perfect.
For her, Wagner and Nietzsche would have stood aside,
if Arminius had not granted a corporal a ready wit –


The fortuitous discovery of a Roman coin, a hieroglyph, or an apocryphal biblical text opened portals to the co-existent present and past.


Mithras had forbidden unto Mani the dewy grape,
even Augustinus, with Hippo, defended the law –
The buttocked peach was only for the gods to take,
and the asparagus, dear ladies, ask of it no more...
[...]
there’s been nothing since then but lust and more
lust and luxuria, three gilded ells high. And Vi
behind a window, humming as her money multiplies –


Although Vlek was published by Holland’s leading press, he grew to be one of Europe’s foremost contemporary poets almost unobserved, writing in Dutch in a studio in Granada: a disturbed Apollonian mind, imposing order on a darker world in a honeycomb of sonnets and ballads. Below is Vlek’s portrayal of a patrician poet’s retirement. He died in a mental institution in Den Bosch last Friday.


As a retired Octavian I managed to procure
         a little villa near Cartagena,
after long struggles with the refined Gaul and raw Celt.
There at sunset I enjoy a vitamin-rich cena,
not impecunious, careful with the copper coins in my money belt.


On my patio I rest by roses and a terracotta beaker
– a present from a tribune whose title escaped my mind –
and write verses, of beauty to be sure,
like that fool Tertsarus in his bath of suicide –

Moshe Dor (1932–2016)
Moshe Dor was a translator of American poetry, a critic, and a prolific poet for adults and children. A founder of Israeli poetry, his first book of Hebrew verse appeared in 1954. Early in the 1950s he helped found Likrat (Toward), a group that included Natan Zach and Yehuda Amichai. He was Israel’s cultural attaché in London in the 1970s. Gabriel Moked, editor of the Jerusalem Review, said Dor would be remembered for his lyrical poetry. ‘He was strongly influenced by the Canaanite poetry of Yonatan Ratosh, […] but his poetry was more native and touched on Israel’s landscape. He was an independent leftist.’

Geoffrey Hill (1932–2016)
Contributed by James Sutherland-Smith

Geoffrey Hill was the first poet of substantial reputation who came to hear me read. I was a student of Political Studies at Leeds University. I went up in 1968 and thought little of poetry in my first term, being more concerned with drinking beer with my friends in digs and left-wing student politics. However, one Friday towards the end of the first term I emerged from wrestling with Weber and Durkheim in the Brotherton library and picked up a copy of a roneo’d magazine, Poetry and Audience, which had only ever cost a penny per weekly issue since its foundation in 1953 by Bonamy Dobrée. Nothing in the magazine’s six or seven poems seemed beyond the poems I had written in the preceding twelve months and I uttered the fatal words to myself, ‘I can do better than that’, before sending in some poems.

Instant fame among the magazine’s editorial committee of five students of English Studies resulted in the editor, Ronnie Sullivan, asking me to read in a poetry workshop in the University Union. A lecturer and poet called Geoffrey Hill had agreed to attend. I had heard of him vaguely although I had yet to read him. The date in my copy of King Log is May 1970 so it must have been more than twelve months after my workshop that I decided to make a definite investment. For the Unfallen was out of print and the third impression that I have did not appear until June 1971. King Log is probably the best collection with which to begin reading Geoffrey’s poetry. For the Unfallen is indebted to American formalists such as Allen Tate and, as the author once told me, Richard Eberhart. The sea is mentioned in about half the poems and, moreover, the incidence of ‘dead’ either as an adjective or a noun makes for mournful reading. Re-reading these poems, I am irresistibly reminded of the lugubrious goat with the Dead Sea in the background in Holman Hunt’s painting The Scapegoat.  

Before going down from Leeds, I achieved a small book-buying coup. Mercian Hymns had just been published and, as I was paying for my copy in Austicks opposite the Brotherton Library, Geoffrey came in and I secured his autograph and the date ‘8/7/71’ under a ‘Best wishes’. I also got to know Hill’s impatience with literary gush as I launched into a panegyric on Peter Porter’s The Last of England published the previous year. ‘I don’t rush out to buy the latest Peter Porter,’ was his comment. Geoffrey, I believe, was not too keen on the Group poets. In another conversation I was rattling on about poets I had read and at one point remarked, ‘a person like George Macbeth’, at which point he interrupted me with ‘I’m glad you say, a person like George Macbeth.’

Geoffrey had been much easier on me during my workshop. I recall gratifying references to Yeats and his suggestion that six lines of a poem called Orgy (a work ungrounded in experience) might be usefully removed. After the workshop I fancied, and still do, that his participation conferred some kind of licence to practise the art.

The workshops of student poetry removed themselves in my second year at Leeds from the Students’ Union to the School of English. Kevin Crossley-Holland replaced Martin Bell as Gregory Fellow of Poetry and set up a group of student poets on the model of the Poets’ Workshop in London which had succeeded the Group. Kevin invited Geoffrey, but he only showed up on one occasion when Kevin read a group of his translations from Anglo-Saxon. It was evident that their sensibilities were tuned to different scales. A somewhat innocuous remark by Kevin comparing the spirit of the Anglo-Saxons with that of Winston Churchill was put to the question by Geoffrey with rider following rider, finally leaving Kevin only able to respond, ‘Gosh!’

King Log was the first collection of Geoffrey’s that I read and re-read. The sequence ‘The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz’ was my point of entry, seemingly lacking his customary freight of allusion and pun, a mix on rhymed lyrics and prose poems both sensuous and ironical. Reading these poems, I became aware of the extraordinary importance of the line and where to place phrases in it:


Oh my dear one, I shall grieve for you
For the rest of my life with slightly
Varying cadence, oh my dear one    (FromCoplas’)


There is something more complex than the invention of a minor elegiac poet. Whatever manoeuvre he is engaged in it seems less straightforward than Browning’s invention of personae, the revelation of whose true character becomes the focus of the poem. Eliot’s Prufrock, whose hesitations and elaborate rationalisations for doing nothing are extraordinarily wedded to the break between stanza and stanza and the movement from line to line, seems closer to Arrurruz. In his essay ‘Dividing Legacies’ Geoffrey wrote, ‘It was the pitch of Prufrock and Other Observations that disturbed and alienated readers; it was the tone of Four Quartets that assuaged and consoled them. That is to say, Eliot’s poetry declines over thirty years from pitch to tone.’ It might be observed that Geoffrey’s poetry over the thirty years from Mercian Hymns to the quartet of books from Canaan to The Orchards of Syon moves in the opposite direction, if only (for some critics) in their capacity to disturb and alienate readers.

I left Leeds in 1971, but continued to read Geoffrey’s poetry and later his criticism. Perhaps his most revelatory essay is ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’, in which he takes us back to the use of ‘at-one-ment’ by Tyndale, its subsequent exclusion from the Authorised Version of the Bible and its derivation in the early sixteenth century from Wycliff’s ‘onement’ (despite Geoffrey’s line in The Orchards of Syon, ‘Never cared much for righteous WICLIF’). He reminds us that ‘atonement’, as well as its sense of ‘making amends’ popularized by Joseph Addison and others in the late seventeenth century, has a primary sense of ‘reconciliation with the community’. I know of no other critic capable of such insight into verbal particulars. Verborum defensor (defender of words/the language) I think when I read his essays.

Geoffrey was a poet and critic that I often had to read more than once to gain the satisfaction of understanding, or perhaps misunderstanding. I reject the facile view of his work as a reactionary force in Anglophone literature. ‘Where to stand?’ he once remarked in reply to a request from Jon Silkin for poets to indicate their political positions. This uncertainty seems to be a consistent thread in all his work.

Much of his later poetry has yet to seem more than a puzzle to me. At Leeds he was less guarded than his reputation for reticence would have it. Once he said to me that the Penguin series of books of European verse were a useful way in when one’s knowledge of the language was small. Some of Geoffrey’s lines in ‘The Pentecost Castle’, the opening sequence of Tenebrae, show familiarity with J. M. Cohen’s translations in the Penguin Book of Spanish Verse.

As I moved around the world he automatically came up in conversations about poetry. Once, a line manager of mine in the British Council who had been a student of English at Leeds, told me of one of Geoffrey’s tutorials on Shakespeare’s sonnets in which the students failed to respond to his invitation to open the discussion. He did not let the students off the hook by shrugging at their silence and moving into teaching mode, so they sat in silence for a whole hour before he dismissed them.

However, he could be less forbidding. I went to a reading of his at the old Poetry Society premises in Earls Court Square before the Society moved to a cubbyhole near Seven Dials. Possibly it was a reading of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy and possibly the actress, Diana Rigg, was in the audience and later in the bar downstairs where Geoffrey sat with William Cookson of Agenda and two or three of his other friends. I looked over tentatively as we hadn’t seen each other for some years and he called out, ‘James, good to see you!’ Certainly he had formidable powers of recall.

Later that evening, in response my account of a medical mishap either in Riyadh or Cairo, he regaled us with an account of having a tooth pulled without anaesthetic in Bombay. To my aghast ‘Really!’ he said ‘No you fool, it’s a joke.’

The YouTube recording of his Newsnight interview with a po-faced Stephen Smith reminded me of his capacity for leg-pulling when he declared absolutely deadpan that he would leave the secret of the late abundance of his poetry, ‘like an old lady donating her dandelion wine recipe to her kin’, for his biographer on the centennial of his birth. Was there a slight twitch of his lips? It was good to listen to those Worcestershire vowels again, the same as those a young Anthony Thwaite heard in 1952 at a party in St Edmunds Hall when ‘on the other side of the room, a tall dark young ploughboy stood up, swaying slightly, and began to recite from, memory:


Against the burly air I strode,
Where the tight ocean heaved its load,
Crying the miracles of God ... ’


Yves Bonnefoy (1923–2016)
Contributed by Stephen Romer

Yves Bonnefoy, who has died at ninety-three, was the best-known and most influential French poet since the Second World War. His immense body of work, more than one hundred titles to which he was adding regularly into his nineties, comprises the poetry itself, prose poetry, books with artists, essays on poetics, works of art history and of translation, notably of Shakespeare, John Donne and W. B. Yeats. Always in control, he lived long enough to oversee plans for the forthcoming Pléiade edition of his works. Among the French poets of his generation, Bonnefoy was the most attached to, and knowledgeable about, the English-speaking world. He married Lucy Vines, an American artist, and in the 1960s, thanks in part to an essay on the New Criticism he published in Encounter, he held visiting professorships at Harvard, Brandeis, New York and Yale, where his colleagues included Robert Lowell and Robert Fitzgerald, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Since undertaking his first translation of Hamlet in 1957, Shakespeare never ceased to feed his imagination. At the time of his death he had translated ten major plays (including all the tragedies), the Poems and the Sonnets. The Winter’s Tale, notably, provided him with a central metaphysic of rebirth at a dark time. Similarly, he found Yeats’s mythological reach bracing; in his translations he goes head-to-head, wrestling with the Irish poet’s thought as though it were in part his own. In the other direction, his work has attracted a tribe of translators, into English most notably but also into thirty other languages.

Initially trained in mathematics and logic, Bonnefoy might have had a career as a professional philosopher, had his complex analytic mind not been stormed by a first encounter with André Breton and Surrealism, but more lastingly by certain experiences in childhood that continually wrested him away from conceptual thought and into an apprehension of what he termed variously ‘undivided being’, ‘organic unity’, the neo-Platonic ‘One’. This experience, that in his poetics he calls ‘Présence’, and his war on ‘concept’ – and collaterally on Platonism with its higher, but shadowy Forms – has occupied him for seven decades, with remarkable consistency. ‘The task of the poet is to show us a tree, before the intellect tells us that it is one’, he once wrote; it is to ‘awaken the world’, he said in an interview in 1966. How, or whether, language can deliver us ‘presence’ – and the postulate is a paradox, for language creates concepts – is at the heart of his quest, pursued with almost messianic focus, and it is the lodestone by which he judges poems, paintings, architecture, landscape and mythology. This measure, and it is one he usually makes explicit in his essays, is idiosyncratic, but it confers an appearance of coherence upon the great variety of subjects that come under his scrutiny.

Bonnefoy was born in 1923 into a working-class family. His father, originally from the Aveyron, was a blue-collar worker on the railways, and his mother was a primary-school teacher, who taught her son to read. Schooldays were spent in Tours, and holidays in the village of Toirac in the Lot. In many writings, notably in l’Arrière-pays (1972) – ‘The hinterland’ – a kind of ‘excited reverie’, part autobiography, part art-history, part metaphysical thriller – the poet dwells on this double, or divided, experience. The greyness of the quotidian – Tours on the one side, and the experience of liberty and immediacy in the deep rural plenitudes of the Lot valley on the other. The famous opening sentence, ‘I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads’ takes on serious psychological charge as the book progresses, relating as it does the young poet’s wrestling with what he calls his ‘gnostic temptation’ – the idea that, up the road not taken, a higher civilization might exist, one not trammelled by concept; this would be the ‘true place’ of origins where men would dwell, and where speech would be a fiat lux, word incarnating object. Bonnefoy, following a trait peculiar to French poets, sets about, much as Mallarmé or Reverdy did before him, though with different aims, ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’. The anxiety articulated in L’Arrière-pays, and it was a genuinely disabling one which came near to silencing the poet, is partially resolved in the book by an acceptance of the finite, and a new found joy in the voluptuous celebration of the mortal that he came to find in Bernini and the art of the Roman baroque. There was also the discovery, one summer in the ‘sixties, of an abandoned Abbey near Valsaintes, in Provence. The young couple lived, or camped out in it, over several enchanted summers; it was really a ruin, but an immensely fertile one for the poet: ‘We loved the crevice in the wall, a bursting / Ear of grain that spilled out worlds.’

Bonnefoy went up to Paris right after the war, ostensibly to read mathematics at the Sorbonne, but in fact he attended André Chastel’s classes on Renaissance art and read widely in philosophy, notably Kierkegaard and Chestov, but also Bataille and Pierre Jean Jouve. Inevitably, he entered the gravitational force-field of Surrealism, and was even summoned to the rue Fontaine, to tea with André Breton. His later break with the movement occasions some of his most revealing thought, notably his definitive commitment to the humble object of everyday, communal usage, rather than the exclusive surreal object and its ‘negative presence’. But surrealism, in the sense that unconscious/irrational material is allowed to seep into and disturb the text, remains a central resource in the poet’s work throughout – and that is how the poetry and a genre he made very much his own, the récit en rêve, or dream-narrative, also escapes the sinuous lucidities of his exegetical prose. This is true of the great breakthrough collection of 1953, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve, which made him famous and baffles students to this day. But Bonnefoy is never averse to ‘explaining’ – and this is one key to his influence, notably in the Anglo-Saxon world – he supplies his own theory, and that will always have a claim on the university syllabus. It was this exegetical gift that made him such a distinguished successor to Paul Valéry and Roland Barthes when in 1981 he acceded to the Chair of Comparative Poetics at the Collège de France. His copious later work, dream-prose and distilled lyric, includes more personal material, notably his last book, completed just weeks before his death, L’echarpe rouge, ‘The Red Scarf’, a meditation on, and act of penance to, his father who died early, estranged from his bookish son, divided from him by poetical language, which of course feeds once more into the poet’s central concerns.

[The above is an expanded version of Stephen Romer’s Daily Telegraph obituary of the poet.]

This item is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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