Experimentation and the Lyric in Contemporary French Poetry

Experimentation and the Lyric in Contemporary French Poetry
Jeff Barda

Palgrave-Macmillan, London, 2019
328 pp. Trade, 90,09 €; paper, 63,59 €; E-book, 50,28 €
ISBN: 978-3-030-15292-5; ISBN: 978-3-030-15295-6; 978-3-030-15293-2.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
August 2021

For most Anglophone readers, contemporary French poetry is an unknown country. Unknown because uncharted, hardly available in translation, exclusively studied in a small number of French departments shattered all over the (Western) world, only circulating in specialized festivals for chosen audiences. The contrast is huge with what has been one of the main features of the poetic scene in France since at least the late seventies, where contemporary, that is avant-garde American (and to a lesser extent non-US) poetry has been at the center of all creative and critical ambitions and endeavors. Without the echo chamber of modern writing in English, French poetry would not be what it has become today (see my recent review of Abigail Lang, La Conversation transatlantique: https://leonardo.info/review/2021/02/la-conversation-transatlantique-les-echanges-franco-americains-en-poesie-depuis-1968)

Hence the interest of Jeff Barda’s monograph on experimental French poetry, which is not only a brilliant survey of “the best that has been said and thought” in English in this field, to paraphrase Mathew Arnold, but which should also prove capable of starting a second dialogue between Anglophone and Francophone authors, critics, and readers, now no longer seen from Paris, but from London and New York (or San Francisco, for that matter).

Barda’s work testifies of an in-depth knowledge of a difficult and extremely innovative field, which he perfectly masters. In this regard, the very selection of his corpus is exemplary of his outstanding understanding of who is pushing the boundaries and which aspects of their work will prove decisive in the long run. Since this is history in the making, it is not easy to judge what is really at stake and who are the key people. In both cases, Barda perfectly answers the question. On the one hand, his selection of authors does not contain one flaw. It is always possible to argue that this or that author is missing for this or that reason, but in the list of writers under scrutiny there is not a single author that does not deserve to be listed: Pierre Alferi, Olivier Cadiot, Emmanuel Hoacquard, Franck Leibovici, Anne Portugal, and Denis Roche. Next to that, Barda is always right on target when identifying the fundamental mechanisms and perspectives that these authors (who do not belong to the same “generation”, “group”, or “style”) question and explore. He also highlights the essential stakes with the help of ground-breaking yet very didactically explained research hypotheses. Central in this regard is the reflection on the notion of the “lyric”, which Barda brings to the fore in a totally new framework. Since many decades, modern French poetry has been characterized by the absolute divide between “neo-lyrical” poets and “literalist” poets, the former defined by a resolutely subjective take on writing, the latter strongly inspired by various types of objectivist poetry, but always harshly scorning each other as either utterly reactionary (in the case of the neo-lyrical) or completely unreadable and elitist (in the case of literalism). Barda succeeds in exceeding this dichotomy by reframing experimental poetry in terms of a new form of lyric, which no longer emphasizes the personal of individual style and position of the author (her or his unique voice) but focuses instead on more general mechanisms having to do with the interaction between text processing on the one hand and (critical) thinking and (political) action on the other hand. This stance is a crucial breakthrough in our thinking of contemporary poetry and may help supersede the sterile opposition between two poetic practices and restructure the whole poetic field.

These general hypotheses are strongly supported by an excellent knowledge of the relevant literature, both primary and secondary (with a strong focus on philosophy and politics). Here as well, however, Barda brings in a new dimension, which has to do with the specifically French contribution to the debates on experimentalism. As already mentioned, most studies tend to read this type of French poetry in the exclusive light of its US forerunners or sources of inspiration, but what Barda demonstrates is that French poetry did not have to wait the return from US based French Theory to start developing unexplored ways of writing, but that the local and national context and tradition are as important a factor as the international influences. This position, which is not turned against an “American” reading of French poetry but instead extremely well informed by the international models and their differences and analogies with the French production, is also a pioneering and courageous one, which explains the systematic attention given to close reading in this book. Barda succeeds in seamlessly bringing together theoretical standpoints and questions with meticulous close readings (always well translated and carefully contextualized), while cleverly relying on the methodological toolbox (a brilliant synthesis of the countless techniques and procedures explored by French experimentalism over the last fifty years –and here as well the book achieves to demonstrate that it does much more than “transfer” a certain number of US constraints and concepts to the field of French poetry, which strongly relies upon the critical dialogue with essentially and vitally French elements at for instance syntactic, typographic and lexical level).

In short, this book reframes our way of thinking the relationship between the lyric and the experiment. It can be used as a user’s manual to contemporary French poetry, which may seem very difficult to read without this kind of help (but it’s more than worth the effort).