Francis Ponge Essay - Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The title of Francis Ponge’s first major book of poems epitomizes his aesthetic philosophy and poetic style. Usually translated as Taking the Side of Things, it announces both Ponge’s preference for things over ideas and his desire to correct what he believes is a human anthropocentric conception of the universe. Ponge disapproves of the human tendency to regard abstract ideas as absolutes rather than as linguistic constructs whose truth is only relative. He is also unhappy with commonplace cultural notions which deem certain subjects unworthy of poetic consideration. Rejecting such assumptions, Ponge has adopted an ironic anti-intellectualism by devoting his literary endeavors to the defense of the concrete things of the world. As subjects for his poems, he chooses ordinary objects encountered in daily life that are often taken for granted. He perceives them as relegated to a kind of second-class citizenship by their inability to express themselves, and he sympathetically imagines them as pleading with him to speak for them.

Ponge has thus designated himself as the advocate of things. In his poems, he declines to describe the object as though it were a human being, and he resists the lure of lyric excess which might tempt him to forget his self-appointed task. Choosing an object such as a door, a pebble, a loaf of bread, or a bar of soap, he observes it with the concentration of a scientist. He avoids preconceived ideas and linguistic formulas unless he can transform them to offer the reader fresh insights into the nature of the object or the functioning of language. He seeks not to render the object from a human point of view, but rather to find a literary form whose structure, density, and character will be the verbal equivalent of the object.

Ponge has labeled his works définitions-descriptions, a term he invented to describe a literary form that would combine the functions of encyclopedias, etymological dictionaries, and dictionaries of synonyms, rhymes, and analogous words. Whereas the traditional dictionary definition uses words devoid of connotation to describe each object, Ponge chooses words with greater affective content for his descriptions; the object is evoked repeatedly by words whose sound, spelling, etymology, or secondary meanings reflect and echo the object.

For Ponge, the ideal result of this faithful attention to...

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