This past summer we lost the French poet and essayist, Yves Bonnefoy, some of whose lines have occasionally graced these columns. Considered by many to be the most important French poet of the later 20th century, Bonnefoy has had a big influence on yours truly, and I’ll let the few words I say about him here serve as earnest money for a future column and a more adequate assessment of his poetry and his essays on creativity.
For the moment, I’m interested in something Bonnefoy said in an interview from 1994. Talking about his long literary career (he began publishing in 1953), Bonnefoy had this to say about being a poet:
“One should not call oneself a poet. It would be pretentious. It would mean that one has resolved the problems poetry presents. Poet is a word one can use when speaking of others, if one admires them sufficiently. If someone asks me what I do, I say I’m a critic, or a historian.”
What strikes me first about these remarks is not Bonnefoy’s opinion that the poet can never attain the goals of poetry (he thinks that words get in the way), but the suggestion that as a poet you never get to know how close you come; your success is only discernible by your readers. Only they get to say that you’re a poet.
You may be confident that your poem will affect readers the way you intend or even in ways you don’t. But you never get to experience firsthand your poem’s success at getting inside your readers, and so you’re not the one who can tell, finally, whether your poem succeeds or how.
All writing is that way.
When we write, we try to make our words work a little harder, make a piece a little more engaging, more expressive, in general a better experience for the reader. We revise and revise and revise—and it’s always a tenuous kind of business because we’re chasing a consummation we can never actually savor. The wave that washes over our readers never washes over us.
In this sense, writing is like sex. (Actually, I think everything is like sex, but we’ll not go there.) We never get to experience our lover’s sexual climax. We can experience its manifestations. We may even be there for the event. We may even have a hand in it—or a mouth or some other part of our anatomy. We may even share in an emotional commingling of some sort—love or affection or friendship (with benefits) or desperation or some other such endearment, or perhaps just a profound and unspeakable indebtedness.
But we are forever kept at a little remove from the full experience of our lover’s ecstasy. Writing is like leading your lover there. But the journey ends with you a few steps behind.
Sometimes I find myself rereading one of my published pieces, looking for some vicarious apprehension of how readers might have experienced this sentence or that—oh they must have laughed at this, I bet they winced at that, etc. But if writing is like sex, reading your own published stuff is like watching porn. It looks fun, but you’re not really there, and you can’t really feel it the way they can.
Calling yourself a “writer” presumes that you can apprehend that communion with readers that all writers reach for, but you can’t.
We never see ourselves that way when we’re writing, anyway. When we’re down in the furrows doing it, plowing those adverbs and adjectives, giving those subjects a good predicating, we’re not standing back watching ourselves do it. (If we are, that’s a good sign that we’re doing it badly.) The point implicit in Bonnefoy’s remarks above is that the appellation (of poet, of writer) has nothing to do with the practice of the art.
Bonnefoy’s refusal to call himself a poet isn’t just a posture, a pose like American poet Marianne Moore’s claim that she dislikes poetry. Bonnefoy comes out of a European philosophical tradition that sees a danger in our identifying too neatly, too completely, too conclusively with the roles we play, whatever those roles may be: mother, atheist, fisherman, nun; lover, Republican, scientist, son. Tinker, tailor….
The epithet simply burdens you with any number of cultural conventions and presumptions that do nothing to help you write and can only get in the way of the art of poetry, the free exploration of—and attempt to resolve anew—“the problems poetry presents.” The title of poet is an accretion of notions from the past. Poetry is an attempt to get at the present.
Like all of us, Bonnefoy was more interested in being there, being fully present to his experience than in trying to represent it, but like other poets and writers he saw a fundamental paradox in language and the nature of words. He believed that language separates us from “an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is.” But he also trusted in the ability of poetry to remind us of “the value of those moments when we encounter other people, or trees, or anything, beyond words, in silence.”
(Sounds to me like he’s talking about dogs. Dogs seem to live in that “authentic intimacy” with the world all the time, and their company gives us humans a glimpse of what it’s like to engage with the world unmediated by words. Dogs are a kind of living poetry that keeps that silent encounter before our eyes—as anyone who lives with dogs can tell you.)
Trying simply to live, to live simply, completely: we try to get at it, to be there, to be completely present in and for the moment, in and for the world, and not lost circling around in our own nebulous heads. I think that’s the problem poetry presented for Bonnefoy: to know that struggle, what it is and what it means—to touch this life that always seems to lie just out of reach, beyond representation, beyond art, beyond poetry.
Bonnefoy was a poet. They don’t come any better. But he didn’t write because he wanted to be a poet. He wrote poetry because he wanted to express what it’s like to encounter the world without words. He’s a poet when we read his poems and can savor it ourselves.
• Jim Hale can be contacted at email@example.com or through his website, jimhalewriting.com. The Alaska Press Club has awarded him the Suzan Nightingale Award for Best Columnist.