Jacques Prévert, France's most popular poet of the 20th century, died this past spring, and there should be some memorial or festival of his work to mark not his death but his aliveness. What a remarkable person he was. Known in America principally as a pop lyricist ("Autumn Leaves" and "Ne Me Quitte Pas" in particular) and as screenwriter for the film classic Les Enfants du Paradis, he was truly a people's poet. His first collection of poems, Paroles, went into many different editions, eventually selling half a million copies; successive volumes also were enormously widespread, so much so that passers-by on the street would come up to him and quote his verses by way of greeting "Jacques"— they never thought of him as Monsieur Prévert. This casual exchange was fitting for a man who was on a first name basis with the language of his times: his work was colloquial, as much so as Brecht's, and as deceptively simple, A marvelous three-ring circus of a theater event could be made out of his triplefold writings: his political poetry of World War II and the resistance movement; his heart-breakingly spare love poetry, with its empathy for women; and his crazy wonderful sense and nonsense for children.
It was my happy fortune to meet him when I went to Paris for the first time in 1959. I was told that he spoke no English, and there was the additional handicap of my own limited French— entirely ungrammatical, present tense only, with sentence extenders (like hamburger filler) formidable, vraiment, and bien entendu. Ursula Vian, however, who lived next door to the Préverts in Montmartre, agreed to act as an intermediary. As it turned out, we often didn't need her support; Prévert was a splendid mimic, and his gestures and nonverbalizations were easier to understand than any amount of prose cross-overs. I fell in love with him at sight: a short, white-haired man with blue eyes, blunt expressive fingers, cigarette dangling from his lips like a corny Apache dancer. Wearing a blue sweater the color of his eyes, dapper gray flannels, and black leather moccasins newly polished, he looked like a sportive dandy. He reminded me of someone, and it nagged me till I realized it was not one other man, but two: the night club comedian Jimmy Savo as well as Chaplin. Humor and sentiment did not combine in him so much as seem to be homogenized, I thought.
We were supposed to have a half-hour together; it stretched into six, accented by glasses of vermouth cassis, his favorite drink at that period of his life. He told me of his earlier visit to New York, how he had deliberately not learned any English so that the advertising signs would remain mysterious, exotic. His favorite American actress was Shirley MacLaine; her Irma la Douce was a picture he could see and resee. So sentiment did overpower humor at times, but then his mood changed, and he showed me another side to his creativity: the collages he had recently begun to construct. They were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy of every order. Generously, he gave me copies of all his books, inscribing them with a large bold hand and drawing cartoon pictures around the titles: a Punch and Judy show for Spectacle: a blue crescent moon and golden stars with rays emanating for La Pluie et Le Beaux Temps. The only book he could not give me a copy of, he apologized, was Contes pour Enfants pas Sages because It was out of print. I managed to get a copy later from a friend, and came back to the United States determined to find a publisher for it. A number of houses looked at it but were scared off: the idea of "operas" about children who abandon their parents and go off to live with ostriches and camels—the nuclear American family unit and librarians were not ready for such lightheartedness; it was necessary, the editors all told me, to emphasize family togetherness and trips with Daddy to the zoo with Mommy making delicious dinners for them to come home to. This was back in the unliberating '60s, remember. But to this day 1 have found no takers for Prévert’s original and charming notions.
Still, American readers should be given the chance to meet this triply gifted writer: the passionate pacifist, the romantic and anti-romantic poet of love, and the children's Pied Piper. Here a small garland, for, de tout les fleurs, le couleur je prifere, c'est pre-vert.
MARRIAGES (from Histoires)
A woman flows into a river
the river leads into a channel
a man dives into the channel
and the channel flows into the sea
and the sea flows back again
over the land again
with a trail of foam
shining under the moon
the white lace of its waves
a dress for the bride
of the great flowing tides
WAR (from Spectacle)
You cut the woods down
you cut the woods down
all the young trees with an old hatchet
you raise them up
you cut them down
and the old trees with their old roots
their old teeth
you keep them
and you put up a recruiting poster
trees of good and evil
trees of Victory
trees of Liberty
and the deserted forest stinks of old
and the birds fly away
and you stay there to sing
you stay there
to sing and to march in line
THE WHEELBARROW OR GREAT
INVENTIONS (from Paroles)
A peacock turns the wheel
Chance does the rest
God sits inside it
and man pushes from behind.
MY LITTLE LIONESS (from Histoires)
My little lioness
I didn't like your clawing me
so I gave you to the Christians
However I liked you a lot
I wish that you would pardon me
my little lioness.
TO LAUGH IN SOCIETY
The liontamer puts his head
in the lion's mouth
I only put two fingers
in the throat of the beautiful Jet Set
and there wasn't time
to bite me
but the creature
simply threw up
threw up a little gold bile
of which it has so much
To succeed in this
useful and amusing trick
Wash your fingers
in a pint of good blood
To each his circus.
THE OSTRICH (from Stories for children who aren’t very well behaved)
When little Poucet was abandoned in the forest, he scattered pebbles so that he'd find his way again, but he wasn't at all sure that an ostrich might not follow him and gobble up the pebbles one by one.
That's the true story, that's how it began…
Little Poucet turns back: no more pebbles!
He's definitely lost, no more pebbles, no more way back; no more way back, no more home; no more home, no more papa-mama.
"It's very upsetting," he says, muttering between his teeth.
Suddenly he hears a laugh and then the noise of clocks and the noise of a torrent, of trumpets, a whole orchestra, a shower of noises, a brutal music, strange but not at all disagreeable, and altogether new to him. He then pokes his head through some foliage and sees an ostrich who's dancing, who's looking at him, who stops dancing and says to him:
Ostrich: It's me making all the noise, I'm happy, I have a magnificent stomach and I can eat anything. This morning 1 ate two clocks with their works, I ate two trumpets, three dozen egg cups, I ate a salad with its salad bowl, and the white pebbles that you put in the road, I ate them too. Climb on my back, I can go very fast, we'll travel together!
"But, says little Poucet, "what about my father and mother, won't 1 see them any more?"
Ostrich: If they've abandoned you, they don't want to see you again very soon.
Poucet: That's certainly true, what you're saying, Madame Ostrich.
Ostrich: Don't call me Madame, it makes my wings ache, call me simply Ostrich.
Poucet: Yes, Ostrich, but all the same, my mother. You know...?
Ostrich: (in a rage); You know what? You're getting me upset and do you want me to tell you — I don't like your mother very much, because of the way she always puts ostrich plumes on her hat . . . "
Poucet: The fact is they cost a lot. . .but she always goes ahead and does it to show off to her cousins.
Ostrich: Instead of showing off to the cousins, she'd do better to take care of you; sometimes she smacks you.
Poucet: My father hits me sometimes, too.
Ostrich: Ah, Mister Poucet beats you up. That's unforgiveable. Children don't beat up their parents, why should parents beat up their children? Anyway, Mister Poucet isn't very much to be concerned about anymore. The first time he saw an ostrich egg, do you know what he said?
Poucet: No. Ostrich: Well! He said, "That would make a terrific omelet!"
Poucet (dreamy): I remember the first time that he saw the ocean, he thought for a few seconds and then he said, "What a huge wash bowl, too bad there aren't any bridges!" Everybody laughed, but I wanted to cry. Then my mother boxed my ears and said to me: "Why can't you laugh like the others when your father makes a joke!" it's not my fault that I don't like grownups' jokes . . .
Ostrich: I don't either, hop on my back, you won't go home to your parents, but you'll see the country. "Okay," says little Poucet, and he hops on board.
Off at a triple gallop they gall-op gallop gall-op, the bird and the child together and they raise a huge cloud of dust.
Villagers lean their heads out of their front windows and say, "Another one of those dirty automobiles!" Then they hear the ostrich who's making ringing bell sounds as they gallop along, and they say, "Do you hear the clacks?" And they cross themselves, "It'su church that's running away, the devil is chasing it!"
And they all barricade themselves inside until daylight, but by that time the ostrich and Poucet are far far away.
This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine