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?