Francis Ponge Ponge, Francis (Vol. 6) - Essay

Ponge, Francis (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ponge, Francis 1899–

Ponge, an influential French poet and critic considered a forerunner of the New Novelists, has been termed a phenomenologist by Sartre and others. Ponge denies that classification, as he denies all neatly stereotypical categories of thinking; and it is true that he speculates on the nature of language as well as of things. His works, too, defy classification; he calls them "proèmes."

Francis Ponge, compared to Valéry, is a minor poet, but a very charming one, who has made it his business for the last fifty years to compose prose poems about objects, any objects—a glass of water, an open door, a wasp, a piece of soap, etc. The point about this, of course, is that for someone with what we might call an Existentialist sensibility, there are no privileged objects, as there were in traditional poetry. Shelley wrote an Ode to the West Wind, Keats an Ode to a Nightingale, because the wind and the nightingale are sublime romantic objects; Ponge has written an Unfinished Ode to Mud. This is because everything outside the consciousness is object, and the lyrical emotion can be engendered by establishing a sufficiently subtle linguistic web between the sense-perceptions relating to any particular object and the rest of the consciousness. (p. 16)

John Weightman, in Encounter (© 1970 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1970.

Francis Ponge … has long made a specialty of little prose poems about familiar objects, animals, and plants. The poems were very delightful jeux d'esprit and were meant only to give pleasure to the mind, but over the last thirty years or so they have been gathering importance, both literary—so that he looms with La Fontaine or maybe Buffon—and philosophical, since he coincides with the great vogue for phenomenology, which tends to be about objects and what the mind makes of them. All this importance may spoil the poems for you, weighing them down and making them a study instead of a pleasure, but I mean to try, by insisting, to hang onto their first lightness and freshness. (p. 60)

In French education there is, or used to be, a peculiar form of instruction beginning at the age of five or so, called the leçon de choses. It started with any casual object, natural or manufactured, and explained what it was, out of what it was made and how it was made…. The subject could be carried as far into chemistry, botany, biology and technology as the very young mind would go, but on the whole the center of interest remained the initial concrete object itself, with its own character, though susceptible of many marvelous forms of explication.

Ponge's work, or most of it, seems to me simply an extension of the leçon de choses…. I think it must be this schoolboy base to most of his poetry that makes Ponge accessible to so wide an audience in France. Not that all Frenchmen began their schooling with the leçon de choses, or that that peculiar schooling determines the French mentality, rather that some strange mixture, in the French mentality, of pedantry, gaiety, practicality and sensousness, typified itself in the leçon de choses and feels itself at home, and young, in poetry which goes like that. (p. 61)

Another specialty of French education is the explication de texte, which sets in at the age of fourteen approximately, and concentrates very sharply on what is being said by the words of a given text, how it is said, and by what rhetorical devices it contrives to be said that way. Rhetoric may be depressing later, insofar as one thinks "rhetorical" means inflated and untrue, but in high school at the age of fourteen or less rhetoric and its great collection of devices can be a very exciting game. Ponge has kept that sense of excitement and is one of the great sportsmen of rhetoric. I mean that seriously: he is much interested in sports in general, in sportsmen, and in art not only as play but as play requiring prowess and high training. His work is said to dance and in a way it does, but many of his metaphors or analogies are so remote (far-fetched if you like) that they are rather like an impossibly long shot in some sport, landing, to our amazement, right in the cup or basket…. If you are expecting poetry of the lofty sort—which he disclaims—the comparison can seem a forced conceit; if you expect Surréalism, it is too reasonable and pleasant; if you expect some sort of mysticism or an illumination after Rimbaud, nothing much is being illuminated; but if you can take it as the sportiveness of a high-spirited schoolboy, I think you are with it…. He combines objet and jeu into the great neologism objeu, which expresses not only his poetry but the essence of phenomenology itself, in the course of a boyish caper with words. (pp. 62-3)

The poems [in The Voice of Things] contain, besides objects and words, a good deal of thought, but of a kind which makes for misapprehension. Among Ponge's associates was Paul Valéry, who might have encouraged him to do heavy thinking in poetry, and sometimes Ponge does fall into that, but while the substance or general situation of his work can be called, with unlimited solemnity, phenomenological, and referred to Husserl, perhaps even to Hegel and to Kant, its procedures are quite another matter, going back to Montaigne, whom he names as one of his masters, and to Diderot, in both of whom a sportive and even random motion among ideas is the essential. Ponge says often enough that he is not very intelligent and that ideas make him sick, at least ideas which are proposed as definitive truth, and this attitude clears the way very nicely for a direct sort of skepticism, and a lively performance among passing thoughts as they may occur or be pursued. (pp. 64-5)

[The] translators and proponents of Ponge in the present volumes try to adjust him to an American sense of portentousness, by way of anthropology, psychotherapy, mysticism, or mythology…. He is open to these interpretations and sometimes even takes a cosmic view of his work himself…. [But I] hang on to what I think is the average and essential Ponge, perhaps the liveliest and most ingratiating intellectual sportsman of our age in poetry. (pp. 66-8)

Donald Sutherland, "Wonderful Things," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 60-8.

Beth Archer's translation of Francis Ponge's The Voice of Things … conveys in clear, thoughtful English the poetry of one of the leading French poets of this century. Ponge's work, like that of most of his contemporaries, is marked by a wide, flexing motion, like billows at the edge of surf. The writing is called poetry mostly by default: it is written in prose format that Ponge called "description-definition-literary art work." It is certainly literary, and the moods and thoughts throughout the work are surely evoked by a kind of art. Yet, again like most of his contemporaries, Ponge is confined and contorted by solipsism; his art barely has "any effect outside" itself. It is the old business of exalting the trivial—pebbles, shells, potatoes—which does nothing so much as trivialize the exalted. The Voice of Things has many amusements, but not in any discernible way as poetry. The book can best be enjoyed as pensées. As poetry, it is another testament to the belief that looking down French verse is attending a salty well. (p. 90)

W. G. Regier, in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1975.