BOOKS SEPTEMBER 17, 1956
A review of Hypnos Waking, by René Char.
The impression I get from the poems and fragments of poems of René Char is that they are parts of something larger, from the same block. There is always a disturbing element about them, a sense of awe which comes over from whatever he writes. A Frenchman and an artist, he writes with all the respect of his kind of accuracy of detail. At the same time, were he a painter he would not paint like Picasso but Braque. He has all the attachment to nature, its birds and rivers and in short the whole topography of his native land which he knows and loves passionately. He might have been an Henri Fabre or for that matter a Vercingetorix save that his customary manner appears to be too mild. He is attached to the immediately-before-him, which he would investigate to its last feeling.
As far as I can see, and I acknowledge that it may not be far, the abstract as a thing in itself is a man without a body. We know by this time, I hope, that art is not nature, but if we had been alert Aristotle should have taught us that long since. But the relation between nature and art remains still to be laid bare, no amount of random daubing by the painters in pursuit of the psyche in blood-red and black is going to alter the parti. The Melancholy of Breughel, the use of gold by Fra Angelico or the works of Hieronymous Bosch is not to be ignored.
We are, the public is, on the whole dull witted. René Char is, a man schooled in a long life of multiple experiences, a man of extraordinary patience and courage both moral and physical; he cannot pause in what he has to do because we are too slow to follow him. The artist is inevitably an innovator, not because he wants to be, but because he must. He must, in order to see at all (surrounded as he is by his own garbage), look about him. He does not like garbage even when it is served up to him in the best recepticles, our books and daily papers.
But the artist, the poet, René Char for instance, is not by his nature a contemptuous man. He is a determined man and often possibly a wrongheaded one at times when he has not gone far enough in his craft, but never a blind man. When I myself attempted to translate something that René Char had written in French into English, I had to warn myself, as I always do under such circumstances, that I was using not English at all for my work, but the American idiom. That gave me a certain stylistic advantage; rhythmical! I could approach the French much more confidently than if, we’ll say, I were an Oxford don or even an Evelyn Waugh. But could my language be recognized for what it was even by my own countrymen ? The French should come over into my language more readily than into German or Russian. Its subtle variations of poetic accent are, I feel, much more congenial to a modern American turn of phrase than, at least, to formal English. But these are gradations more to be spoken of as feelings than facts. Or if you want to enjoy a René Char text, read it in the original.
Is it worth sweating our souls out for? René Char’s poems are difficult for an American reader—not because of his French but because the sense of the words themselves is difficult to recognize in any specific poem:
Extrême brais du ciel et première
ardeur du jour,
Elle reste sertie dans l’aurore et chante
la terre agitée,
Carrillon maître de son haleine et libre
de sa route.
Fascinante, on la tue en l’émerveillant.
III (of a long suite)
Le poète transforme indifferemment la défaite en victoire, la victoire en défaite, empereur pré-natal seulement souoieux du receuil de l’azure.
Sometimes he catches no more than the tail of an idea as it were in passing and follows, as in one series of poems in the Botteghe Oscure, where he well succeeds in developing a cumulative interest; once he gets the theme he follows it in example after example with telling effect until gradually it becomes clear by the sheer persistence of what he has to say. It is a perfectly legitimate device of the artist and increases the pleasure of the reader by piling up the emphasis with variations of detail until the total effect is overwhelming.
WE ARE NOT used in America to that approach. We are used, strange to say, to formal work that is more cut and dried. We, as poets, think too much of ourselves—in other words we are self-conscious. We think of Milton and Herrick, even Shakespeare when we write, as poets who have written great poems. Shall we not write great poems; we are addicted as a nation to great sonnet sequences. We cannot understand the French who are more modest. We cannot understand René Char who has lived through hell in his life being reticent. His only concern is the art itself and all that the art implies; not to be God but leaving that to others, to be content with another regime where there is not so much competition.