La poésie de l’après-guerre, 1945-1960
José Corti, «Les Essais», Paris, France, 2022
288 pp. Paper, 22 €
This is a deceivingly modest book on an equally deceivingly modest literary period and ecosystem. Post-World War Two poetry in France, with its rapidly vanishing Resistance poetry morphing into countless Odes to Stalin, is usually seen as a vacuum, a desert between no longer triumphant Surrealism and the sudden eruption of extreme avant-garde in the sixties and the French Theory that accompanies it as its shadow. Murat’s book accepts this relative void as its point of departure, but along the way he will demonstrate that this uncanny period is incredibly rich. He will also drive home the point that the correct understanding of its dead ends, crises, and challenges offers a key to the better understanding of what French-language poetry is standing for today and tomorrow.
Unlike the apparent emptiness of the corpus under scrutiny, literary history, for this is the perspective chosen by Murat, has become a hot topic. The shift from close to distant reading in literary studies as well as the broader impact of our general concern over questions of heritage and cultural transmission have produced a strong revival of a discipline that is no longer considered old-fashioned or anti-literary. At first sight, Murat refrains from the theoretical and methodological innovations that have characterized the field in recent years. He sticks to a very humble and classic way of doing history, which is based on two major pillars: first, the attempt to see the broad picture of the period, including the relationships between poetry and society; second, the effort to disclose the mutual relationships between this bigger picture and the singularities of a set of representative authors –all of them, with only slight exceptions, canonical figures, yet with no ambition at all to include the complete canon. Murat thus convincingly explains why important poets, such as René Char, Henri Michaux and Pierre Reverdy, are only marginally present in his study. A more traditional approach would be difficult to find, yet what Murat is doing with it is game-changing. This should not come as a surprise: theory and methodology are important, but in the end it is the quality of the reader and her or his personal use of theories and methods we are interested in.
Murat’s reading is above all panoramic. He wants to know what poetry “is” in these years, how it is defined, how the writing of poetry changes and how these changes interact with the shifting ideas of what poetry is or ought to be, what it means to write in France as well as in French (two questions we have become used to ask today, in the globalized post-colonial world, but which were new and only emerging in a period where the French still believed in the universal impact and hegemonic of their culture), and finally what we have to think of the literary quality of the production of the years 1945–1960 –a question so simple and so elementary that literary historians, certainly when they have a “scientific” agenda, allow themselves not even to ask, as if we were to simply take for granted the answers that had been given before. Instead, Murat is not afraid of taking risks by giving good and bad points, while always taking great care of motivating his personal, sometimes unorthodox choices and preferences by emphasizing his close readings with the personal trajectories of the poets as well as the general tendencies of the poetic ecosystem. We should be deeply grateful for this liberating courage.
Two major features structure Murat’s analysis of the field. First, what he calls poetry’s “situatedness” (the reference Sartre, the leading intellectual of these years is explicit), that is the tight relationship between poetic writing and political context. Second, the “national” dimension of poetry, that is the role of poetic writing in the refashioning of the idea of France and French culture after the collaborationist Vichy years as well as in the period of the dying Empire. Both questions are of course inseparable, but Murat rightly stresses that the crucial one is that of the link between poetry and French culture (French culture is deeply rooted in French language and poetry is the acme of it).
In his book Murat does not offer a top-down discussion of these issues, looking for concrete examples helping to illustrate general hypotheses. Rather than trying to cover the whole field, he foregrounds a small number of well-chosen authors (with a deeply moving “epilog”, where he picks up three “forgotten” poets who do not fit into the general frameworks but whom he considers impossible not to mention in spite of the institutional as well as literary marginality: André Frénaud, Armand Robin, and Jean-Paul De Dadelsen). La Poésie de l’Après-guerre is organized in three parts, each of them built around three major works. Part one studies a key aspect of French editorial life: the publication policy of mainstream literature as scrutinized via the lens of the impact of Jean Paulhan, literary director of the Nouvelle Revue Française and influential member of the editorial committee of Gallimard who tries to reconstruct a certain way of writing poetry that reconciles tradition and innovation (from a technical point of view, the postwar period does not make real choices between classic prosody and free verse) while refusing to pit aesthetics against politics or vice versa (Paulhan rejects both formalism and propaganda). The three authors highlighted in this section are Eugène Guillevic, Jean Follain, and Philippe Jaccottet, all of them struggling with the conflict between realism and subjectivism and, thus, the increasing or decreasing involvement of the poetic text in the representation of the real. The second part of the book, entitled “Black Orpheus”, examines the emergence of African and Antillean poetry in French, a radical novelty, at least in the reception and perception of these authors as African or Antillean. The case studies in this part address Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, all of them representing not only different parts of the then French empire (Senegal, Martinique, Madagascar) but also different social, political, and ideological backgrounds and above all different types and degrees of integration in the French educational and cultural system. The third part of the book studies the impact of two seemingly distinctive clashes. On the one hand the collapse of the French empire, the subsequent attempt to reconstruct French “grandeur” at a national level, and the attempt to appropriate the notion of “francophony”, that is French outside of France, to assure the lasting influence of France in a world where the country has lost much of its power. On the other hand, and the appearance of an ultra-radical avant-garde, which unsettles the very idea of poetry, now displaced from literature to theory and politics. The three authors highlighted in this section are Saint-John Perse (as the ultimate example of the already anachronic example of proclaiming French universalism), Francis Ponge (the most important poet of this period, studied here in his struggle to find a radically modern way of reinventing a French tradition), and Edmond Jabès (the Egyptian émigré whose work is being repositioned as both Jewish and theoretical via its French Theory related international critical reception).
One easily notes that the chosen authors are highly canonical, and although all of them are male, a large part of them are non-white. In other words: Murat definitely avoids the dangers of presentism (there is no anachronistic rereading of the past in light of more recent concerns over gender and sex issues), but his foregrounding of poetry in French by African and Antillean authors is exceptional. Granted, Senghor and Césaire are present in any serious literary history of the period, but the place they are given here moves from the periphery to the center. At the same time, the focus on the canon does not prevent foregrounding new questions and new readings. What makes this book exceptionally good is the back and forth movement between close-reading and bird's-eye perspective on the larger period, with a well-balanced mix of stylistic analysis, publishing history, institutional and political analysis, always in a very elegant style which does not need the help of heavy theoretical caveats and bulwarks to make clear and strong claims.
I have read over many years hundreds and hundreds of books on poetry, but this is without any doubt one of the best of them. It is refreshingly simple and lastingly profound. It is also, despite its great humility and the relative exoticism of its corpus, which starts now to belong to the foreign country of the past, the best possible defense of poetry one can imagine today.