The Polyphonic Symphony of Words - by Tiffany Edmonds

The Anchor Anthology of French PoetryEdited by Angel Flores Anchor Books; 458 pgs. Paperback, 1958; introduction 2000

The Polyphonic Symphony of Words

By Tiffany Edmonds   

It begins with an introduction by Patti Smith-a goddess of rebellion and freedom to a new generation of artists and poets. But, lest we forget, these nine Romantics are her gods, particularly Arthur Rimbaud. But then, Rimbaud is almost everybody's hero. What about the other eight, who have not reached a zenith as high as Rimbaud?

They are here. From Gerard Nerval to Jules Laforgue, they are here.  Nerval's poetry is at once joyous, yet melancholy. Still, there remains a glimmer of hope. In one particular poem, Golden Verses, Nerval goes right to the heart of the matter of humanity: hope and goodness.

"Man, free thinker! Do you believe you alone can reason

In this world where life surges everywhere?...

Each flower is a soul open to nature ...

Often, in the meanest being a God is hidden;

And as the eyelid covers the nascent eye,

The Spirit grows under the surface of stones!"

(pg. 13)

As with many of the French poets of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, there is a certain miasma permeating the air. There is disillusionment in most of the poets in that era due to changes in politics and culture-The Treaty of Versailles-and economic changes as well. France was considered a formidable force only because of its size. Although France's educational system was considered inferior, these poets and others turned that notion on its head. For instance, Charles Baudelaire was not only a poet; he also was a critic of art and letters. He is considered a formidable force in the world of Modern Art.

Baudelaire was convinced of man's fallibility, and good and evil interchangeable.

He believed in "the unity of all existence, the correspondence of all phenomena."  That is broad and powerful statement. Baudelaire wrote in the poem, "To The Reader"

" ... Habitually we cultivate remorse

As beggars entertain and nurse their lice ....

This paradise of filthy beasts that screech,

howl, grovel, grunt ...

There's one supremely hideous and impure!

Soft-spoken, not the type to cause a scene,

He'd willingly make rubble of the earth

And swallow up creation with a yawn."

(pg 17-18)

The third poet, Tristan Corbiere, is the most grounded of the nine. He was the son of seafarers and spent most of his time there. Heavily influenced by Baudelaire, he nonetheless shuns his style of writing-the inner workings of the mind, and not life experience. Corbiere was most concerned with experience, whether it is sea life or death, it was tangible. From "The End":

\poem {

"A squall ... that's death, you think? ...

Pounding across the water!-That's floundering ... 

      Whipping at sea level-and that's foundering."

(pg 78)

Always inextricably linked with Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine had a voice all his own. Verlaine was born of the bourgeois class, and was continually troubled.  Escaping to Paris with Rimbaud, Verlaine lived in a duality-debauchery and gentility.  Out of all of the Romantics, Verlaine's poetry is the only one that disagrees with me- it could be either his blatant honesty or utter pompousness. Take the poem Anguish. He writes:

"I laugh at Art, I laugh at Man, too, and at songs,

At verses, at Greek temples and the spiraled towers

Cathedrals spread across the empty sky,

And I see good men and evil with identical eye."

(pg 85)

Now, it could be his refusal to pick something, dammit!  But, maybe it should be taken in and weighed not so heavily by my own way of reasoning and idealism.

Rimbaud, on the other hand, is easier on my mind, at least. Maybe it's because, as with Patti Smith, Rimbaud is my personal hero. I first read Rimbaud in James O'Barr's graphic novel, The Crow. I was elated by the voice of imagination. That's what Rimbaud symbolizes for me; what if. He was not afraid to tread where Verlaine was apprehensive: the inner workings of the mind, which is a complex and treacherous place.  It is the euphoria of written secret places of the subconscious and how to navigate it. Consider his poem "The Alchemy of Words":

"Oh seasons, oh castles!

What soul is flawless? ...

I have made the magic study

Of happiness, that none evades.

Ah, I'll have no cares:

It manages my life ...

Its hour of flight, alas!

Will be the hour of death."

(pg 128)

The next, Stephane Mallarmé, concerns the magic of making beauty from where there was none. Mallarmé has a certain rhythm which reminds me of a symphony. It starts out slow, lulling you to a dream state; and then a crescendo wakes you with a start, and the final throes of wonder, drifting down. And then you want more.

A Throw of The Dice

"Never even when cast in eternal circumstances

At the heart of a shipwreck

Let it be that the Abyss

Whitened slack raging under an incline

Desperately soars

By its own wing ...

A simple in the silence

Into an approaching hovers

Innuendo encoiled with irony ...

A constellation cold from neglect and disuse

Yet not so much that it does not count

On some empty and superior plane

The next collision sidereally

Of a final reckoning in the making ...

All Thought emits a Throw of The Dice"

(pg 193)}

Jules Laforgue is considered the creator of free verse. An influence of Eloit, Appolinaire, and Pound, Laforgue strives to reinvent French poetry, breaking away from classic French poetry. He does an exceptional job.

The Impossible

"Tonight, I may die. Rain, wind, sun

Will scatter everywhere my heart, my nerves, my marrow,

All will be over for me. Neither sleeping nor waking.

I shall not have been out there among the stars ...

Alas, before that time, rain, wind, sun,

Will have lost in the distance my heart, my nerves, my marrow.

All will be done without me. Neither dream nor awakening.

I shall not have been among the gentle stars."

(pg 203) Guillaume Appolinaire came to rise at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. In that spirit of the new, Appolinaire embraced modernism to the fullest. He was credited with inventing the term "surrealism."


" After all you are weary of this oldtime world ...

You have had enough of this living in Greek and Roman


Here even the automobiles contrive an ancient aspect

Only religion is still new only religion

Has stayed simple like the Airport Hangars ...

You drink an alcohol that burns like your life

Your life that you drink down like brandy ....

Good-bye Good-bye.

Sun cut throat."

(pgs 233-234)

The last poet is Paul Valéry. An intellect, he concerns himself more with mechanics than the spirit, but is still considered among the likes of Proust and Gide.


"Where are you going? To death.

What will you do there? Die.

Nor ever return to this rotten game,

Forever and ever and ever the same.

Where are you going? To die.

What will you do there? Be dead."

(pg 285)

This anthology of French Poetry provides the crème de Menthe of the Romantic poets. Or as my friend states, these poets are the old guys. Either way, stale or classic, these nine poets embody the spirit of an age that was riotous and expedient all at once. I like this; because I never had a chance to really delve into French poetry, like I should have years ago. Maybe this will get your mind craving the art of words, too.