Cendrars, Blaise (Pseudonym of Frédéric-Louis Sauser-Hall) 1887–1961
Cendrars was a French-Swiss poet, novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and editor. A tireless world traveler, he transmuted his adventures into lyric poetry and picaresque novels remarkable for their exuberant imagery and vigorous characters. Among the many stories surrounding his life and career, none has caused more debate than whether his first poem, Easter in New York, significantly influenced Apollonaire. His efforts to adapt the techniques of musical composition to writing poetry, along with other formal innovations, made him an important figure in French letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Blaise Cendrars's reputation as a poet will, undoubtedly, rest upon one poem, "Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France." This is a meager residue from a body of work that fills 269 pages in the 1957 edition of the collected poems, but it is the one poem in which his basic inspiration, consisting, as it does, of autobiographical themes, fuses with his free poetic line to produce a work rich in technique and in meaning. The range of emotional coloring, the rhythms responding now to the impulsive movement of the train, now to his feeling of kinship with Jeanne and the humble creatures of this world, give it a more than personal significance. The dislocated rhythms of the modern world, that world to which he is so resolutely dedicated, are communicated in an exact and incisive language, capable of considerable beauty. It is a long poem, but its length is sustained by an emotional drive, immediate and intense, that is not exhausted until the concluding lines, when the poet, reviewing the images of the poem, translates his exhaustion into the slow, measured cadences of the finale. (p. 321)
In Cendrars's "Prose du Transsibérien," the sections concerning Jeanne are quiet lyrical pauses in the relentless onrush of the train. Cendrars's poem can thus be seen as a kind of poetic inversion of [Alfred de Vigny's] "La Maison du Berger," with the modern world's ferocity and power, captured in the train, dominating the mood of nostalgic reverie and contemplation to which the woman invites the poet. (p. 322)
Cendrars's poetic vision is rooted in an absorption of his own experiences into a poetic framework. Like the Romantic poets, he incorporated the personal ego, the intense physical or spiritual life, into a poetic context, deepening and diffusing it. However, where [Victor Hugo] in "Olympia," [Alfred de Musset] in "Souvenir," and [Alphonse de Lamartine] in "Le Lac" attempt to recall a time that was happy, to capture the intensity of a privileged experience, isolating certain moments and giving them a special value, Cendrars gathers together, in a single poem, an often bewildering variety of experiences. He gives to them not the aura of a nostalgic happiness and beauty but the record of memories intense and vivid enough to impose themselves again upon him. These memories possess sufficient force to break through the traditional limits of rhyme and meter…. Formal content, for him, cannot be restricted to a tight formal structure. This metrical liberation permits him a spatial freedom, and as Vigny has pointed out, the world has "narrowed." It is not, as it was with the Romantics, Man and Nature or Man and the Universe, but man and the world about him, distance conquered by science and the modern imagination…. (pp. 322-23)
Thus, Cendrars stands, at the same time, in a Romantic tradition, personal experience furnishing the material of the poem, and departs from it by refusing to find an ultimate poetic relationship between structure and experience. Where the romantic poets sought to deepen the experience in a temporal relationship, Cendrars insisted upon a spatial relationship. The world is narrowed by our experience, and in "Prose du Transsibérien" its depths are plumbed, depths of feeling, an emotional coloring lending a tonal unity to the poem….
Cendrars's poetry, like that of Rimbaud, in Saison en enfer, is the lyrical biography of a vagabond in flight but instead of using the prose poem, Cendrars preferred to use free verse, with its more formal poetic grouping into strophes rather than the paragraphs of the prose poem. And, lacking the semimystical exaltation of Rimbaud, his orientation is toward the observable incidents and artifacts of this world. The shrieking train may speed on in a superhuman madness, but it cannot take the poet out of this world. It contracts time and space, but it does not obliterate them.
Cendrars's revolt is also extended to the vocabulary, encompassing all ranges of expression, to the most vulgar and common. This is particularly striking in "Prose du Transsibérien"...
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My first taste of [Cendrars] in his own language came at a time when my French was none too proficient. I began with Moravagine, a book by no means easy to read for one who knows little French. It was like reading a phosphorescent text through smoked glasses. I had to divine what he was saying, Cendrars, but I got it. If he had written it in Tegalic I would have gotten it. Everything is written in blood, but a blood that is saturated with starlight. Cendrars is like a transparent fish swimming in a planetary sperm; you can see his backbone, his lungs, his heart, his kidneys, his intestines; you can see the red corpuscles moving in the blood stream. You can look clean through him and see the planets wheeling. The silence he creates is deafening. It takes you back to the beginning of the world, to that hush which is engraved on the face of mystery. (pp. vii-viii)
He has been accused of writing trash. It is true that he did not always write on the same level—but Cendrars never wrote trash. He was incapable of writing trash. His problem was not whether to write well or badly, but whether to write or not to write. Writing was almost a violation of his way of living. He wrote against the grain, more and more so as the years went on. If, on the impulse of the moment, or through dire necessity, he took the notion to do a piece of reportage, he went through with it with good grace. He went about even the most trivial task with pains,...
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Of all the poets of his time, Blaise Cendrars concerned himself to the most extreme degree with the life of adventure and with the recounting of that adventure. The rough surface of his writing is an uncalculated witness to the rapidity and variety of his experience and to his genuine passion for life, often at the expense of what we usually call literature. The question which arises at various times in his work as to why in fact it should be important to transcribe the events one lives or observes is less interesting than the question as to what sort of transcription might be valid. For the poet of movement, only words in motion are acceptable; for the man of adventure, a cinematic language is more fitting than a language of mere picture. (p. 345)
The epic "Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France" (1913) encompasses a physical journey of the same complexity, scope, and melancholy as the spiritual journey of his "Pâques à New York" of a year earlier. In the highly poetic "Prose," Cendrars repeatedly laments that in his "ardent and foolish" adolescence, he was a bad poet, not knowing how to push to the limits of the possible. In the present, he can say of his life that it is, and has always been, in perpetual motion, that it has been measured out by train tracks. (p. 346)
Three essential psychological and esthetic attitudes are present [in "Le Panama ou les aventures de mes sept oncles"] as Cendrars states his change of direction. First, the highly-developed sensitivity already informing the visions of his "Pâques à New York" and the fear expressed in his "Prose." In his poetry and his essays, he repeatedly alludes to this characteristic, defining it as an ingredient of the modern, both in the personal and the impersonal realms, and thereby consecrating it as supremely valuable…. Second, the refusal to continue his poetic tourism because the seen is in fact pathetically undifferentiated, as the lines of railroads, of cables, of canals foster a tedium of the same. Third, the rejection of his complete passivity as he has followed the lines of the countryside presented to him in his linear passage. "Ma Danse," the poem of 1914 which … forms the central image for all the works of Cendrars as he places himself "Au coeur du monde," concludes with parallel statements on the ennui of sameness and on the possible interest of a new kind of motion, more circular than linear. The dance of the landscape finally merges with his own, as the pejorative sense of the notion tourisme (superficiality, unoriginality of vision) yields to the more positive sense of tour and tourner: the whirling motion of the seen and of the seer suggests the idea of the universal with which the poem ends…. (p. 347)
More often than any other geometrical figure, that of the spiral recurs in Cendrars' prose and poetry. He identifies it with a certain depth and an intense presence. Although the uni-linear voyage disappoints him by its monotony and its superficial nature, there is another possibility to which he attaches all the values of the total as well as the deep. (p. 348)
When, in an essay called "Le Principe d'utilité." Cendrars abounds in praise for the engineers of the epoch, the extent to which he is able to identify exterior physical constructions with the internal mental impulsions and their verbal and plastic expression becomes clear. He compares the material of hardened steels, sharp-edged glass, nickel and copper to currents of high-tension ideas, and the geometrical progress of inventions, the brightly-colored posters which replace the strict formal categories of flowerbeds to a new writing, a "verbe coloré" to match the multicolored life ("vie bariolée") of the poet and, ideally, of the people. His rejections of those flowerbeds (representing a restricted vision of time and space) for that of the whirlwind enables him to absorb, in a further spiral, the least "poetic" elements into his writing. (p. 349)
The accent placed on the simultaneous gesture is in itself a protest against the narrow and the linear, as the accent, peculiar to Cendrars, placed on the simultaneous contrast, is a protest against the facility and the narrow range of the simple contrast (of black and white, for instance)…. Founded in the resemblance between things as much as in their basic difference, this kind of contrast accentuates the continuous above the discontinuous. All the stages of a journey are linked and yet separate; their cohesion is assured by the movement of the voyager. This...
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Cendrars always deals with a unified core of concerns or themes, and interweaving … is a necessary technique for searching out an elusive and complex centre. In the case of [Les Pâques] something of the reverse seems to obtain, for the diverse images appear to be flung away from the central image of Christ, as if he can no longer control them. (p. 92)
The centre of Les Pâques is the difficulty of resurrecting the faith we already had. While it is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the modern world, New York, goes about its crass and deepeningly oppressive business…. There is no especial grudge against the modern world, and the poem is more concerned with the...
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Cendrars cannot be considered apart from his biography. To read anything that he has written is to be implicated, present at the joining point of life and art. The two are intimately interfused. The writings have to be read as a footnote to the life, as an interlinear, if you will. It is as if to make this process even more forbidding and complex that Cendrars chose to write poetry, novels, reportage, criticism, autobiography, film scripts, radio plays—apart from which he also anthologized and translated. He could not have set his gift at the heart of a labyrinth any more artfully had he tried. And yet there will be those who will undertake to find their way in, for there is something in Cendrars that matters...
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