French? Poetry?

When I started learning French formally around 2005, my French teacher suggested that I practise every day by keeping a journal. In the beginning it would take me 20 minutes to write two sentences, having to refer to dictionaries and grammars to just write the basic stuff. Sixteen years later and I can fill three or four pages in that time; the French is not perfect but it is mostly okay and every day I learn a few new words and from time to time I correct my systematic errors and learn more natural ways of expressing myself in French rather than using the stilted phrases that result from translating from English to French in your head. More and more, the words come to me in French because I now have a stock of standard phrases (clichés) and ways of saying things.

What do you write about in a journal? It varies. Mostly I record trivial stuff like who I have seen, gigs and other events (before lockdown at least). Then my thoughts and reflections, personal stuff, dreams, ideas, random word play too. At some point I started spontaneously writing ‘poems’ because that is just how my mind works and always has done. I get bored with the rules of prose and enjoy the freedom that poetry gives the imagination and language, you can break rules.

The first ‘poem’ I wrote in French just came to me after my mother died. I had already written something about her in English and then I was writing about her death in my journal and the words ‘ma mère suggested ‘mammaire’ (mammary) and without really thinking I wrote a bilingual ‘poem’ called ‘Mammaire Est Sortie‘ (Breast has gone). It was just a play on words, using bilingual puns:

“Je say pa et tu dis ma.
Je suis enfant et tu es vieille,
Mais tu n’écoutes jamais
À ce que je sais…”

I put ‘poem’ in quotes because I don’t have any pretension that this is a French poem of any interest other than to me. It just amused me to pun on the words ‘sais’ (know in French) and ‘say’ in English, ‘ma mère’ and ‘mammaire’ etcetera.

Since then I have written quite a few of these impromptu poems in French. What interests me about it is that I can see the poetic process working in slow motion and it makes me realise that in our native language our brains work too quickly to see it. For example, if you are going to write in rhyme, how big is your vocabulary? How many words do you know that rhyme with ‘mère’ for example. As you are searching for a rhyme for mère, you maybe find just a few that you know and you hit on ‘amère’ (bitter). This leads you down a path of mental associations and images (depending on your own particular associations and history). You might think of bitter almonds, but your brain might flip into English to do that. So you see immediately how your word choice is being constrained firstly by your limitations and then your own particular psychology (having chosen ‘bitter’ you might be bitter or not about your parenting, so the sentiment can go either way.) But you realise that you are totally limited by the means at your disposal.

This is no different to playing a musical instrument: you may be highly proficient and have an enormous repertoire to select from (you know your chops) so you are not going to play just two chords. Having said that, thousands of great songs have been written on two chords or a few notes, so the creativity and beauty is obviously not dependent on sophistication itself. But you can also get bored with unsophisticated music as you can with ‘naive’ poetry or painting. The ideal art is one that achieves simplicity by transcending its sophistication. The really great artists make it look simple but also produce simple things that conceal the talent that made them. Marvin Minsky called this ‘Negative Expertise‘, a good choice that is made by avoiding bad choices and blind alleys, deriving from a wealth of knowledge.

WH Auden said he liked writing in rhyme and metre because having that constraint forced out creativity. The mind becomes highly creative within those constraints because it cannot go just anywhere: it has to go somewhere. Some other poets (Frank O’Hara, for example) are averse to the clippety-clop-ness of that kind of verse and prefer lines that ‘follow the breath’ of the utterance, landing and taking off in the right places.

A good poem is a good poem regardless of its style – it is not those choices that make it good.

My French poems have no value as poems per se; maybe no art has any value per se. And they are probably unintentionally comical to a native speaker, I don’t know. I generally grammar check them as far as possible and then just leave any curious syntax in there. I mean, curious syntax is what poetry is good at:

“When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent…”

John Milton, Sonnet 19

Here is an entry from October 7, 2021. It’s parodying a certain type of French Romantic poetry (Google translation on the right).

Jeudi 7 octobre,
Un mois sombre et sobre,
Les arbres perdent leurs feuilles,
Les nuages les accueillent,
Et laissent mon esprit sous l’opprobre.

Tout que j’ai fait
L’année passée,
Me pousse dans le sens d’amertume
Comme un voilier dans une brume,
Je cherche la direction du soleil.

Même les corbeaux et pies
Me moquent par leurs cris,
Parce que ma mine
Révèle mon spleen
Qui accompagne leurs mélodies.

Lorsque le vent et la pluie
Fustige la nuit,
Le loir se cache
Sous une fleur, sa bâche,
Et rêve de blé qui brille.

Mais quand la terre dort,
L’homme vert est mort,
Les racines et les vers respirent,
Les graines et les spores conspirent,
De renouveler le monde encore.

Thursday October 7,
A dark and sober month,
The trees are losing their leaves,
The clouds welcome them,
And leave my mind in shame.

Everything I did
Last year,
Pushes me in the direction of bitterness
Like a sailboat in a mist,
I am looking for the direction of the sun.

Even the crows and magpies
Mock me by their cries,
Because my mien
Reveals my spleen
Which accompanies their melodies.

When the wind and the rain
Castigates the night,
The dormouse hides
Under a flower, its tarpaulin,
And dreams of shining wheat.

But when the earth sleeps
The green man is dead,
The roots and the worms breathe,
Seeds and spores conspire,
To renew the world again.

Here is another from around the same time. There seems to be an autumn equinox theme, lathered with a mock melancholy.

Il fait doux et calme
Sous le ciel bleu et pâle,
La fin d’été s’est déjà évanoui,
L’automne l’a pris dans sa cale.
Le voilier farci de rêves s’est enfui
Avant l’orage, son sourire amical
Nous a abandonné à sa blâme.

Tu te souviens les jours du chaleur
Lorsque les rivières et les rives miroitaient
Sous les jupes des arbres, leur bonheur
Comme une drogue nous enveloppaient,
Et la musique d’une vieille guitare
Accompagnait les notes d’un merle bavard.

Avant les chasseurs, avant leurs crimes,
Ont fait leur irruption dans la scène,
Les corps enlacés nos rêves animent,
Haut au dessus les champs les emmènent
Vers le grand arc blanc de la côte
Et ses visions de fuites maritimes.

Mais on se souviendra aussi le givre,
La lune gelée dessous une flaque noir,
Les vents qui plient les ifs chétifs,
Les vagues qui battent le promontoire,
Sont souvent plus calmes que l’été
Où nos désirs et nos peurs jouaient.

Le bonheur, c’est facile devant une glace,
Un verre et une langue aléatoire,
On peut se cacher, comme Narcisse, en surface
Les réflexions sarcastiques d’un miroir
Où tous les bouteilles oranges-bleus
Se tombent sous l’horizon de vos yeux.

It’s soft and calm
Under the pale blue sky,
The end of summer has already passed,
Autumn took him in its hold.
The sailboat stuffed with dreams has fled
Before the storm, her friendly smile
Left us to its blame.

You remember the days of the heat
When rivers and shores shimmered
Under the skirts of the trees, their happiness
Like a drug enveloping us
And the music of an old guitar
Accompanied the notes of a talkative blackbird.

Before the hunters, before their crimes,
Burst into the scene,
The entwined bodies our dreams animate,
High above the fields take them away
Towards the great white arch of the coast
And its visions of maritime flights.

But we will also remember the frost,
The moon frozen under a black puddle,
The winds that bend the puny yews,
The waves that beat the promontory,
Are often quieter than summer
Where our desires and fears played out.

Happiness is easy in front of a mirror,
A glass and a random tongue,
We can hide, like Narcissus, on the surface
The sarcastic reflections of a mirror
Where all the orange-blue bottles
Fall below the horizon of your eyes.

I have no idea whether these ‘poems’ make any sense in French. They may have crazy syntax although Google Translate seems to do okay with them. I showed them to a French friend of mine, who is a writer, and he refused to correct them and just said the errors were ‘charming’.

To me they are a form of automatic writing totally dictated by what I am able to do within the constraints of my language skills. But also, for the same reason, they are strangely liberating to write. I don’t have a little voice in my head saying “this is not poetry”, “this is not in the English tradition”, “you are not expressing what you really feel” and all those other little demons that stop us doing what we like. No, they are just bagatelles that do not have to prove themselves in the world and I do not even worry if they express an aspect of my personality that is melancholy or obsessive, because they do not mean anything to anyone, they are just the passing fancies of the day scribbled in a journal that nobody will ever read, not even my grandchildren. Do English people even learn French any more?

L’Aigle Noir, Barbara

The French singer Barbara, born Monique Andrée Serf in 1930, died in 1997. After becoming seriously ill in 1994, she stopped performing and wrote some fragments and notes for an autobiography that was published posthumously as ‘Il etait un piano noir’. In it she describes how from as early as she could remember she wanted to play the piano and sing; because there was no piano in the house, she mimicked playing on the table while making up songs.

Like so many of the great artists, she discovered her vocation young and was single-minded in her pursuit of it, refusing to do anything else, even when presented with great obstacles like poverty and homelessness. Being Jewish, her and her family had to go into hiding during the Second World War but, miraculously, they all survived, despite the family being scattered and broken up several times.

In her autobiography she describes how her father sexually abused her between the ages of ten and thirteen. Her mother did not believe her and nobody else wanted to know. Eventually, during a family holiday in Brittany, she escaped from her father and ran to the local police station and reported what her father did to her. As was common at that time, the police also refused to believe her and after her father arrived and told them that she was a fantasist, they returned her to his ‘care’.

Later her father abandoned the family and completely disappeared, attempting to contact her only once more, when he was on his death bed. The latter episode is the subject of another of her songs, Nantes.

This song L’Aigle Noir (The Black Eagle) refers back to those episodes of sexual abuse and her relationship with her father. As well as being awed by the power and beauty of this magnificent creature that drops down on her from the sky, she is also nostalgic to return to her childhood when his presence meant everything to her, when he used to light up the sun, was the maker of rain and miracles. In that ambiguity of emotions, you can sense the betrayal of trust felt by a young girl who idolised and loved her father but whose love was abused.

This song reportedly sold a million copies in 12 hours.

L’Aigle Noir, Barbara

Un beau jour ou peut-être une nuit
One beautiful day or maybe a night
Près d’un lac je m’étais endormie
Close to a lake, I was trying to sleep
Quand soudain, semblant crever le ciel
When suddenly, seeming to burst the sky
Et venant de nulle part,
And coming from nowhere
Surgit un aigle noir.
Appeared a black eagle.
Lentement, les ailes déployées,
Slowly, it spread its wings
Lentement, je le vis tournoyer
Slowly, I saw it whirl around
Près de moi, dans un bruissement d’ailes,
Close to me, with a rustle of wings,
Comme tombé du ciel
As if it fell from heaven
L’oiseau vint se poser.
The bird settled down.
Il avait les yeux couleur rubis
He had eyes the colour of rubies
Et des plumes couleur de la nuit
And feathers the colour of night
À son front, brillant de mille feux,
On his forehead, shining brightly
L’oiseau roi couronné
The bird king crowned
Portait un diamant bleu.
Wore a blue diamond.
De son bec, il a touché ma joue
With his beak, he touched my cheek
Dans ma main, il a glissé son cou
In my hand, he slipped his neck
C’est alors que je l’ai reconnu
Which was how I recognised him
Surgissant du passé
Arising from the past
Il m’était revenu.
He had returned to me.
Dis l’oiseau, O dis, emmène-moi
Tell me, bird, O tell me, carry me away
Retournons au pays d’autrefois
Let us return to the country of the past
Comme avant, dans mes rêves d’enfant,
Like before, in my childhood dreams,
Pour cueillir en tremblant
To gather, trembling,
Des étoiles, des étoiles.
The stars, the stars.
Comme avant, dans mes rêves d’enfant,
Like before, in my childhood dreams,
Comme avant, sur un nuage blanc,
Like before, on a white cloud,
Comme avant, allumer le soleil,
Like before, light up the sun,
Être faiseur de pluie
Be the maker of rain
Et faire des merveilles.
And perform wonders.
L’aigle noir dans un bruissement d’ailes
The black eagle, with a rustle of wings,
Prit son vol pour regagner le ciel,
Took his flight to regain the sky,
Quatre plumes, couleur de la nuit,
Four feathers, the colour of the night,
Une larme, ou peut-être un rubis.
A tear, or maybe a ruby.
J’avais froid, il ne me restait rien
I was cold, I was left with nothing
L’oiseau m’avait laissée
The bird had left me
Seule avec mon chagrin.
Alone with my sorrow.
Un beau jour, ou était-ce une nuit
One beautiful day or was it a night
Près d’un lac je m’étais endormie
Close to a lake, I was trying to sleep
Quand soudain, semblant crever le ciel
When suddenly, seeming to burst the sky
Et venant de nulle part,
And coming from nowhere
Surgit un aigle noir.
Appeared a black eagle.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire, Charles Trenet

Charles Trenet came from a Music Hall tradition and lived in an epoch when, even in
French cabaret, certain subject matter was taboo. As with Marie Lloyd in England,
Music Hall artists became adept at disguising taboo subjects using word-play, puns,
and innuendo. The audience were in the know and were thus able to enjoy bawdy
subject matter without ostensibly outraging polite society.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire owes something to that tradition because on one level it is a
song, seemingly narrated by a child (Papa… Maman…), about a fantastic
garden where ducks speak English, statues dance and frogs sing to the red-faced

But as with all magical gardens, sex very soon enters the scene in the form of a
beautiful girl who simply propositions him: « Vous me plaisez beaucoup, j’aime les hommes dont les yeux brillent ! » (“You please me a lot, I like men with sparkling eyes!”). There are references to the gloomy and perverse city where people in bars trade their love. To escape this Gomorrah, the narrator says he had to find ‘a sweet little love, a little flirt of twenty years’ (Il fallait bien trouver… Une gentille amourette, un petit flirt de vingt ans).

Trenet was gay and it is hard not to read into this song coded references to cruising in the
Jardin de Tuileries, a well-known cruising spot. From the introduction of the ‘young flirt’
the subtext becomes decidedly sexual but in such a way that anyone who remarked on it
could be accused of having a ‘dirty mind’. The rejoinder to that is the explicit introduction
into the text of a supposed childish fantasy references to prostitution and perversity
and the gloomy depression of a large metropolis.

Like Alice in Wonderland, he wandered into this garden by chance and found himself in
a magical playground where pleasure is easily had.

Le Jardin Extraordinaire, Charles Trenet

Il y a des canards qui parlent anglais
There are ducks who speak English,
Je leur donne du pain, ils remuent leur derrière
I give them bread, they wiggle their behinds
En me disant « Thank you very much, Monsieur Trenet »
At me, saying, “Thank you very much, Monsieur Trenet.”
On y voit aussi des statues
We also see there, statues
Qui se tiennent tranquilles tout le jour, dit-on
That stay tranquil all day long, people say,
Mais moi, je sais que, dès la nuit venue,
But me, I know that when the night comes,
Elles s’en vont danser sur le gazon
They go dancing on the lawn.
Papa, c’est un jardin extraordinaire:
Daddy, it’s an extraordinary garden,
Il y a des oiseaux qui tiennent un buffet
There are birds that have a buffet,
Ils vendent du grain, des petits morceaux de gruyère
They sell grain, morsels of Gruyère,
Comme clients ils ont Monsieur le maire et le Sous-Préfet
And have clients like the Mayor and the Sub-Prefect.
Il fallait bien trouver, dans cette grande ville maussade
I really had to find, in this big gloomy town
Où les touristes s’ennuient au fond de leurs autocars,
Where the tourists are bored, deep inside their coaches,
Il fallait bien trouver un lieu pour la promenade
I really had to find a place to walk,
J’avoue que ce samedi-là je suis entré par hasard…
I confess that Saturday I entered by chance,
Dans, dans, dans…
In, in, in…
Un jardin extraordinaire,
An extraordinary garden,
Loin des noirs buildings et des passages cloutés
Far from black buildings and pedestrian crossings,
Y avait un bal que donnaient des primevères
There was a ball that spilled primroses
Dans un coin de verdure, les petites grenouilles chantaient
In a green area, the small frogs sing
Une chanson pour saluer la lune
A song to salute the moon
Dès que celle-ci parut, toute rose d’émotion,
As soon as it appeared, all red with emotion.
Elles entonnèrent, je crois, la valse brune
They sang, I believe, The Brown Waltz,
Une vieille chouette me dit: « Quelle distraction ! »
An old owl said to me, “What a distraction!”
Maman, dans ce jardin extraordinaire,
Mummy, in this extraordinary garden
Je vis soudain passer la plus belle des filles
I saw suddenly pass the most beautiful girl,
Elle vint près de moi, et là me dit sans manières:
She came close to me and simply said,
« Vous me plaisez beaucoup, j’aime les hommes dont les yeux brillent ! »
“You please me a lot, I like men with sparkling eyes!”
Il fallait bien trouver, dans cette grande ville perverse,
I had to find, in this big perverted town,
Une gentille amourette, un petit flirt de vingt ans
A sweet little love, a little flirt of twenty years,
Qui me fasse oublier que l’amour est un commerce
Who makes me forget that love is a trade
Dans les bars de la cité,
In the bars of the city.
Oui, mais oui mais pas dans…
Yes, but yes, but not in…
Dans, dans, dans…
In, in, in…
Mon jardin extraordinaire
My extraordinary garden,
Un ange du Bizarre, un agent nous dit:
An Angel from Bizarre, an agent tells us:
« Etendez-vous sur la verte bruyère,
“Stretch out on the green heather,
Je vous jouerai du luth pendant que vous serez réunis »
I will play the lute for you while you will be reunited.”
Cet agent était un grand poète
This agent was a great poet,
Mais nous préférions, Artémise et moi,
But we would prefer, Artemise and I,
La douceur d’une couchette secrète
The sweetness of a secret berth,
Qu’elle me fit découvrir au fond du bois
That she revealed to me deep in the woods.
Poir ceux qui veulent savoir où le jardin se trouve,
For those who want to know where the garden is found,
Il est, vous le voyez, au coeur de ma chanson
It is, you see it, at the heart of my song.
J’y vole parfois quand un chagrin m’éprouve
I fly there sometimes when I feel sorrow,
Il suffit pour ça d’un peu d’imagination !
All it needs is a little imagination,
Il suffit pour ça d’un peu d’imagination !
All it needs is a little imagination,
Il suffit pour ça d’un peu d’imagination
All it needs is a little imagination.

La Chanson Des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel

Many of Jacques Brel’s lyrics are almost poetry. That is, their meaning is often dependent on imagery, association, and sound rather than logical prose narrative. You can see that in the translation of La Chanson Des Vieux Amants below. A woman is talking to her lover about their twenty-year relationship and how they have survived. It sounds like one of those stormy relationships that consists of passions, partings, and reunions. Brel uses language in a symbolist way:

And each piece of furniture has its memory,
In this room without a cot
Fragments of old storms…

The translation is drained of the meaning that comes from the sound association of the original, the end rhymes and inner rhymes. Also, a French word may have a cluster of associations and potency for which there is no equivalent in the target language. For example, the original French for ‘fragments of old storms’ is ‘des éclats des vieilles tempêtes’. The word ‘éclat’ has multiple meanings in French: a flash, a burst, a scandal, breaking into splinters. All of those are present in the French but there is no single equivalent word in English. ‘Splinters of old storms’ is probably a better translation because its proximity to furniture suggests the violence of things being broken during an explosive argument.

Some of the lines I don’t know how to translate so that they make sense in English, such as ‘Et plus le temps nous fait cortège.’ A cortège is a procession, wedding or funeral, but I am not sure what he means exactly by ‘plus le temps’. ‘And longer the time makes us our cortège’ seems nonsensical to me so if you have a better translation, please let me know.

As well as the Brel version, I heard it sung by Juliette Greco. The woman says, ‘Of course, you had your lovers’, not ‘we had our lovers’. Maybe they wouldn’t have survived for twenty-years if their affairs had been more symmetrical. That’s possibly a Gallic thing, or a Gallic cliché – I don’t know which.

La Chanson des Vieux Amants, Jacques Brel

Bien sûr, nous eûmes des orages
Of course, we had some storms
Vingt ans d’amour, c’est l’amour fol
Twenty years of love, that's crazy love
Mille fois tu pris ton bagage
A thousand times you took your luggage
Mille fois je pris mon envol
A thousand times I took flight
Et chaque meuble se souvient
And each furniture has its memory
Dans cette chambre sans berceau
In this room without a cot
Des éclats des vieilles tempêtes
Fragments of old storms
Plus rien ne ressemblait à rien
Nothing any longer resembled anything
Tu avais perdu le goût de l’eau
You had lost the taste for water
Et moi celui de la conquête
And me, that of conquest
Mais mon amour, mon amour
But my love, my love
Mon doux mon tendre mon merveilleux amour
My sweet, my tender, my marvellous love
De l’aube claire jusqu’à la fin du jour
From the clear dawn till the end of the day
Je t’aime encore tu sais je t’aime
I love you still, you know I love you.
Moi, je sais tous tes sortilèges
Me, I know all your magic tricks
Tu sais tous mes envoûtements
You know all my magic charms
Tu m’as gardé de pièges en pièges
You kept me from trap to trap
Je t’ai perdue de temps en temps
I lost you from time to time
Bien sûr tu pris quelques amants
Of course, you took some lovers
Il fallait bien passer le temps
It was necessary to get through
Il faut bien que le corps exulte
The body has to rejoice
Finalement finalement
In the end, in the end
Il nous fallut bien du talent
It took us a lot of talent
Pour être vieux sans être adultes
To get old without being adults.
Et plus le temps nous fait cortège
And longer the time makes us our cortège
Et plus le temps nous fait tourment
And longer the time torments us
Mais n’est-ce pas le pire piège
But is it not the worst trap
Que vivre en paix pour des amants
For lovers to live peacefully?
Bien sûr tu pleures un peu moins tôt
Okay, you cry a little less early
Je me déchire un peu plus tard
I get torn up a little l