Henri Michaux Essay - Critical Essays


Few modern French poets have equaled the range and scope of Henri Michaux. Often contrasted with René Char, who represents a positive vision of and affirmation of the creative force, Michaux is known for his humor, his destructive power that renders all generic and structural barriers useless, and his ongoing investigation of the inner self and rejection of the outer world’s conventions. Michaux’s poetry transcends national boundaries and defies specific literary schools. His strong belief in the will makes his poetic images strong and intense. Yet Michaux is also an enigma, an ethereal go-between from one world to the next. It is through this paradox—attack countered by whimsy, delicacy balanced by audacity, the pen in tandem with the brush—that each of Michaux’s poems comes alive.

This paradox in Michaux’s writing is displayed in his use of traditionally nonpoetic literary forms—artistic commentary, drama, travelogue, proverb, and essay—as a background for his poetry. Flux, rhythm, alliteration, litany, and repetition of sounds and words may be found in any Michaux text. Furthermore, all Michaux’s creations are self-referential and could never be considered objective nonfiction.

Ecuador: A Travel Journal

Michaux’s travelogues are a poetic voyage through both real and imaginary countries and creatures. Ecuador: A Travel Journal is the unique journal of Michaux’s travels through South America and is not to be mistaken for a traditional guidebook. Rather, it is about Michaux’s own self-discovery, a first-person narration that skips from vague, sensory perception to the specific notations of a diary, incorporating twenty-two free-verse poems, several prose essays, and entries recorded by hour and day. The importance of Ecuador, however, lies not in what Michaux sees and does, in the conventional approach to travel literature, or in the novel approach to traditional literary exoticism, but, instead, in Michaux’s explorations of his self in an effort to expand his knowledge and feeling.

A Barbarian in Asia

Similarly, A Barbarian in Asia reveals a subjective view of Michaux’s travels in the Far East. Here, Western man is revealed to be a barbarian—ignorant and unschooled, especially when faced with the refinement of Eastern civilization. In a series of short poetic essays, a “naïve” Michaux examines not “facts” but “style, gestures, accent, appearance, and reflexes” and also discovers that the Chinese originated the ideogram, his particular obsession.