Poésie des morts and Coloured Spotlights

The Celebration of French Poetry took place on Friday night following some massive build-up on my part, and completely lived up to expectations. We had a bunch of London-based poets, some native French speakers and some not – Anouche Sherman, Joanna Kamath, Tatiana Judycka, Chris Arning, Tom Bland, Anthony Costello and myself – channel some of the amazing French poets into English translations. We had the light bulbs in the basement room changed from the usual bright ones to a mixture of red, amber and blue, to give the performance space a bit of an atmosphere of a dingy little basement on a small alley in 1800s Paris… or so I’d imagine, I know very little about 1800s Paris, but the atmosphere fit into the fantasy in my head and worked fantastically.

Following a somewhat chronological order, Joanna kicked off the night with La mort du loup by Alfred de Vigny, an early 1800s poet. I read my two Baudelaire translations (now posted in the ‘Poetry’ -> ‘Translations‘ section) followed by my sonnet dedicated to Baudelaire. I struggled with Les Metamorphoses du vampire quite a bit, since it’s a long and complex poem with a lot of ambiguity, but decided to focus on conserving end rhymes and the general tone of the poetic voice, while compromising metre and some stricter meanings of individual lines.

Chris gave a fascinating talk on the OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle -Workshop of Potential Literature) movement in French literature. This was a fascinating group of mathematicians and scientists imposing formulas on language. I am a big fan of formal poetry and love writing sestinas which feel like crossword puzzles, but some of Chris’ explanations of the OULIPO methods were far beyond my understanding of mathematics. One of the great works from this experimental movement was Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, a collection of 10 sonnets whose lines can be interchanged (e.g. take 1st line of sonnet 1 and replace it with the 1st line of any other sonnet) and the sonnet will still make sense, while changing in meaning. The number of possible combinations is then 10 sonnets to the power of 14 lines, therefore 100 000 000 000 000 different poems. I can’t begin to imagine the time and effort Queneau must have put into this project, but it’s a real thing, and you can check for yourself by generating the sonnet combinations randomly here.

Tom Bland, photo by Maxine Sherman
Tom Bland, photo by Maxine Sherman

Tom Bland’s set was focused on Rimbaud; he read Paul Schmidt’s translation of some parts of A Season in Hell as well as The Sleeper of the Valley, translated by Jeremy Reed.

Tom also covered the fantastic, decadent, French-poet-inspired Harry Crosby’s perfect sonnet Lit de Mort (‘Deathbed’) which I’d like to share with you as an example of a flawless iambic pentameter.

Lit de Mort

by Harry Crosby

I shall not die within a mad man’s cell
Or in the city of unconquered pain
Nor on the ocean in a cockle shell
When mad March winds are blowing hurricane.

I shall not die among the multitude
Or as a martyr tortured at the stake,
I shall not die in business servitude
Nor as a soldier for my country’s sake;

But I shall die within my lady’s arms
And from her mouth drink down the purple wine
And tremble at the touch of naked charms
With silver fingers seeking to entwine.

My dying words shall be a lover’s sighs
Beyond the last faint rhythm of her thighs.


(A moment’s silence, please, to respect the perfect sonnet form and the fact that Crosby actually lived this out – the sick bastard shot first his lover and then himself in 1929, at the age of 31*)

On that cheerful note, Anouche read her own translation of Apollinaire’s La maison des morts, ‘House of the Dead.’ I like her style of translating, she keeps the language simple and captures what the original poem intended to say, without unnecessarily tweaking form or meaning. Apollinaire may be only one of the many French poets with a slight obsession with death, but even if La maison des morts seems a bit morbid a poem at first sight,  it is a beautiful and empowering piece of literature.

Tatiana brought some Paul Éluard into the scene, and also started off the second half of the show with a magnificent cello improvisation. It’s quite unusual to hear live music, especially the cello, at the Poetry Café, and this completely transformed the atmosphere of the venue in my eyes. Something here to consider for Poetry in the Basement’s future reference!

Anthony read some of his Alain-Fournier translations. He did say at the beginning of his set that probably the reason why this poet is so underrepresented in the English language is that his poetry wasn’t very good. I must admit I’ve never read Alain-Fournier but agree with Anthony who approached the translation task thinking that any literature that is representative of its time period and says something about it that other works from that time miss is always worth translating, even if it’s not excellently written. Besides, a good translator can always pick up what the poet is saying in the original text and write a better version, which is the beauty of the practice of literature in translation.

On the whole we all agreed that it’s most important to capture the meaning and tone of the poem in translation, even if that means compromising rhyme and metre. French decadence and mild death obsession were beautifully channelled to the intimate glow of the Poetry Café in its unusual coloured spotlights.


*Or so I’ve heard through word of mouth and Wikipedia – reliability of this information to be confirmed.


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