No poet has looked more determinedly or more ferociously at things than Francis Ponge, whose Selected Poems has just been published on this side of the Atlantic by Faber. Le parti pris des choses, or Siding with Things, is a key collection of his, and even a brief scan of his titles will reveal his resolutely thing-centred approach: “Rain”, “Ripe Blackberries”, “The Crate”, “The Candle”, “The Cigarette”, “The Orange”, “The Oyster”. Ponge’s work is written in the form of prose poems, a form that always seems to sit uneasily in English, but is perfectly suited to the chunky materiality of Ponge’s vision. In his poem or proem ‘Memorandum’ he offers a useful statement of “the only interesting principle according to which interesting works can be written, and written well” :
“You have first of all to side with your own spirit, and your own taste. Then take the time, and have the courage, to express all your thoughts on the subject at hand (not just keeping the expressions that seem brilliant or distinctive). Finally you have to say everything simply, not striving for charm, but conviction.”
Ponge is impatient with abstraction and irrelevance, with words that go beyond what’s closest to hand. He wants to let the material sink into his pores and in that sinking to let his spirit reveal itself. A poem which strikingly shows this process at work is ‘Rain’, which, like ‘Memorandum’, works by a power of gathering precision, given here in C.K. Williams’ translation:
The rain I watch fall in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos. In the center it’s a fine discontinuous curtain (or net), an implacable but relatively slow downfall of fairly light drops, a lethargic, everlasting precipitation, a concentrated fragment of the atmosphere. Near the left and right walls, heavier, individual drops fall more noisily. Here they seem the size of a grain of wheat, there of a pea, elsewhere almost of a marble. ...
The poetry is in the intensity, the utterly absorbed attentiveness of the gaze Ponge turns on the complex phenomenon of falling rain. The poem builds successive layers of detail from the simple opening observation, and yet there’s nothing simply objective about this. The language is that of rigorous and impersonal scientific inquiry, but the description is located firmly within the human frame; we’re aware from the beginning of the watching poet’s eye, aware too that the language of precision, for all its technical restraint, is also the language of a kind of ecstasy. The deepening complexity grows in the amazed consciousness of the observer. On one level it’s a poem in which nothing happens and which refuses the kind of trajectory from opening to closure that we might expect. On another level, though, it’s filled with event, its own event, and in confining itself to that event it radiates out from it. And look at the distance that is travelled from “The rain I watch in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos” to “And then if the sun comes out, all soon vanishes, the brilliant display evaporates: it has rained.” So much energy on such a precarious mechanism. You take what’s there, as it arrives, and you can’t look beyond something until you’ve had a good look at it.
To an extent Ponge’s vision depends on a sleight of hand — the primacy accorded to the world of objects, flora or fauna, and the use of a quasi-scientific language and approach to apprehend them, masks the deeply human need to make sense of the world on an emotional and spiritual level. The poems are full of anxiety, suppressed hopefulness, humour, which are as it were authenticated for their being won from the contemplation of the material. Sometimes the spiritual trajectory of a poem is that of the necessarily doomed effort to define, the fact that once you start, it’s almost impossible to stop:
It isn’t easy to define a pebble.
If you’re satisfied with a simple description you can start out by saying that it’s a form or state of stone halfway between rocks and gravel.
But this already implies a concept of stone that must be validated. So don’t blame me for going even further back than the flood.
What strikes again and again on reading Ponge is the absence of human relationships, the absence, indeed, of other human beings. On the rare occasions when they do appear they are oddly material, disembodied. The only relationship is between the observing consciousness and the usually inanimate objects observed, scrutinised. But these object are the receivers of such a powerful concentration of attention and emotion that they in turn in the poet's — and therefore also in our — imagination press back towards us a human attention. There is therefore a kind of reciprocation. Stones and other objects play tricks on the humans who watch them in order to draw “some general principles” from their contemplation. Ponge’s material vision thus consistently undermines itself as, inevitably it has to. Bread is better eaten than scrutinised, as one poem ruefully concludes.
Ponge derives neither consolation nor terror from his inquiries, merely —but is a big ‘merely’— an intensified relationship with the things of the world. Part of the poetic strategy by which this is achieved is his way of presenting the world in his poems ab initio, unburdened by a tradition of inquiry, as if it had never been properly attended to before and by his self presentation as a kind of Adam constantly waking to a first surprising morning. This selection, excellently translated and introduced, allows us to share the disabused innocence of Ponge’s Eden.
Francis Ponge. Selected Poems. Edited Margaret Guiton, with translations by Margaret Guiton, John Montague and C.K. Williams. Faber and Faber, 220 pp. £9.99 in UK.