Francis Ponge

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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. Although Ponge denies that classification, as he denies all neatly stereotypical categories of thinking, it is true that he is concerned with the development of human awareness. His works, too, defy classification; he calls them "proèmes." (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)

Sarah N. Lawall

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Certainly what Ponge has to say remains quite consistent, and his collected works juxtapose texts from 1921 to 1967 without any contradiction whatsoever. He still goes to the "mute world" of things for his peculiar dialectic, and he still celebrates the creative power of speech. What is new is the sense of mission involved and the way in which Ponge has openly let his works be widely published in order to further his particular vision and give the example of systematically individual perception and expression in a world threatened by group morality and intellectual totalitarianism.

Several pages in Pour un Malherbe (1965) are quite clear about his intention…. Ponge understands the point of view of the Lettrists, and of Aragon and his followers, but he does not want to see their common "spiritual revolution" triumph in a dogmatic, totalitarian form. He feels personally responsible to halt this trend, and displays a feeling of pride and responsibility that echoes his main subject Malherbe…. Whether Ponge has fulfilled his aims as he had wished, and in the manner he wished, is impossible to know…. Ponge speaks of his future work as a "mission" which must dominate his "oral, moral, and social" behavior…. The man of Ponge's objeu (the objective play of the mind) will not be dogmatic, for he will have mastered a supple technique of perception and expression that will not let him be content with one fixed appearance of reality. This objeu, and its counterpart emotion the objoie, represent the lesson of individualized, disciplined thought that Ponge now conceives to be his mission.

The objeu is a game based upon perception of the object, and implies an individual mental exercise Ponge describes at length in Le Savon. With the Objeu, Ponge is now codifying ideas which were always a part of his "objective" descriptions, and especially the idea that an object's essential differences can be seen only through an honestly expressed individual sensitivity…. It is the glass of water's "true particularity" that he must reach, and a pebble's "complex of particular feelings," as it is the "rather special dignity" of soap. He must express how an object is different from others, and to do so must involve the mind and its sense of formulating reality. In 1948, Ponge takes up and alters a famous title from Paul Eluard, Donner à voir, to include this sense of human thought enjoying its capacity to perceive and express…. More than enjoyment is involved in this expression of particularity, for the man recognizing the uniqueness of objects also expresses his own uniqueness. (pp. 194-96)

Certainly the objects that appear in Ponge's poetry do not come neutrally to the reader's eyes: they are specifically shaped by the author's manner of vision and personal preference until they could scarcely belong to anyone else…. Ponge's reactions personally select the words of his most "impersonal" poems. In "Pratique de la littérature" he describes this passage from personal reaction to absolute language in connection with "L'Abricot": "I know how I feel about apricots, and what a feeling or complex of feelings I have had about apricots. I know! I know that if I allow in one word...

(This entire section contains 1705 words.)

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that is not in that order of feeling, it won't work." This "order of feelings" reflects Ponge the man as well as the particular qualities of the apricot. (pp. 196-97)

This particularity in which man and object are simultaneously revealed—or rather, in which a unique relationship between one man and one object is specified—comes from a careful use of words: the objeu as a genre. Ponge describes the objeu as his own method and as a new genre where language is manipulated by a series of interior connections, double meanings, and intertwined associations based on root meanings to create a functioning relationship (not an object) that reflects the structures of reality…. [The] best poem is "The most structured, the most uninvolved, the 'coldest' possible." Ponge naturally wishes to base his own writing on this ideal, which employs the slow crystallization of many layers of thought. For this reason, he emphasizes the verbal precision that is needed, a concomitant slowness of production, and a desire to have the reader follow in his writing a slow circulation of self-conscious thoughts. (pp. 197-98)

Ponge's goal is a language of absolute truth, as he says in a peculiar image from … Nouveau Recueil: the notes and words that he accumulates are all written to help slow down the mind enough for Truth to catch up to it and be recognized.

The language that captures truth is vital but cold and anonymous: a kind of classicism that is "the baroque's tautest cord … and this baroque must still be well cast in stone." To fix or cast baroque emotion, the author must make it pass through a sort of death or geometric perfection—a purifying change of state. Ponge has always considered, he says, that the only worthwhile texts were those that need have no author: that could be "written in stone … those that would still hold their own as objects, placed among the objects of nature … inscriptions." (pp. 199)

Ponge's mission is to complete the lesson of Malherbe, La Fontaine, and Mallarmé—of Cézanne, Braque, and Picasso—and to lead the way to an understanding of the objet, a practice of the objeu, and a vision of the objoie. Although he considers the truth he carries as beyond history, he feels that he is accompanying and helping to direct a modern revolution of vision that begins with Cézanne in art, and with poetry after 1870…. Ponge has written a good deal about contemporary art, but strangely enough (for a man who is so involved in literary stylistics) most of his observations record common themes or a contemporary vision…. The poet's many texts on Braque are perhaps his closest analyses of art (one contains a discussion of the process of lithography), but here again he usually singles out attitudes with which he sympathizes. Braque's images "owe their marvelous quality to the fact that they … participate in the heaviness, thickness, clumsiness, weakness and precariousness of creatures." Braque as artist fulfills a role that Ponge also sees for himself in literature: he puts together the pieces of a world that is poorly functioning in men's minds…. [Both] Braque and Ponge put together the fragmented world of the modern vision, and derive a new coherence from the vision of significant matter. (pp. 200-02)

The beginning of Le Savon ("Soap") is a poem in Ponge's first manner, written in the year of publication of Le Parti pris des choses, and at a time when lack of soap in wartime France led Ponge to indulge in sudsy fantasies. (p. 202)

The description—as often with Ponge's descriptions—is of the object acting in a typical fashion: here, soap being used as a man washes his hands. The joyous, expansive lines of the first part describe with comic good humor the way the suds develop, increase, and overflow before a prose text that brings the verbal froth to an end in a passage of rinsing sobriety…. Water, air, and soap are the primordial elements of this universe, and they interact in a series of subtly echoing lines: savon-mouton-combinaison, the three verbs se chevauchent, jouent, and forment, the repetitive sounds of chimiques, physiques, gymnastiques, acrobatiques—leading to a final rhyming word that punctures the rhetorical bubble by showing its gratuity: rhétoriques…. This game of words is typically Ponge, as is the humorous development on the forms of reality. Along with the subtle consciousness of the reader's presence, it sets the tone for a book that will gradually talk around the subject at hand, leading the reader quietly into the various paths of Pongian meditation. This meditation will ultimately offer also Ponge's interpretation of his vision, and an exhortation to see the world in similar manner. (p. 203)

[The] technique of total inclusion of meditated fragments results in the impression of a total mental event: a literary "happening" that conveys, in Le Savon, Ponge's most essential reactions to the nature and significance of soap. (p. 204)

Ponge considers the various states of soap, of soapy water, the relative integrities of soap and water, and its final "Rinsing." At the same time, he scatters hints to explain soap's fascination for him, and to predict its final glorious conclusion in the objoie. Soap, he says, is "only a pretext" for "application"—an exercise he seeks for himself and his reader. In this application is "ordre, beauté, luxe, calme et volupté": a catalogue of Baudelairean virtues that come with the free exercise of man's mind against any religious or political brainwashing. Ponge's satire on Christian baptism and his admiration of Pilate as the only man to enter history with clean hands shows that he rejects Christianity as a proper guide for man; his parody of Sartre also rejects conventional tragic existentialism. (p. 205)

[The] tour de force does come at the end of the book…. Here the author builds upon the reader's memory of Le Savon's joyous verbal play. He develops a series of comparisons to show how the reader's pleasure has come from his sense of playing a game, that the extreme form of this game is "poetry, the purely verbal game which neither imitates nor represents 'life'," and that "words and figures of speech" resemble other human concoctions like bread, soap, and electrcity (all Pongian subjects). Writers, as the real fabricators of language, control the instrument of play that lets us recognize ourselves and our "liberty." In the game of language, as in the game of soap, it is the contact with something or someone else that "permits anyone to conceive of his personal identity, to disengage it from what it is not … to find his own meaning." In Ponge's sense, then, the contact with foreign reality is "liberating." Since he asks for no more certainty than the self-knowledge to be gained by contact with another object, he is able to justify the game of soap as a perfectly valid functioning of the most essential quality of all: man's capacity for self-knowledge. (p. 206)

Sarah N. Lawall, "Ponge and the Poetry of Self-Knowledge," in Contemporary Literature (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 192-216.

James Merrill

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While practicing "pure and simple abstention from themes imposed by ideologies of the time," Ponge has been embraced by the existentialists in their time, and by the structuralists in theirs. Only human, and French, he too has devoted his requisite pages to the Absurd. Still the bloom does not wear off. This genial life's-work will outlast the ideas by which it is judged….

Ponge, in ["Things" and "The Voice of Things"], restores l'azur and le vide papier que la blancheur défend, all that rare, magnetic emptiness so prized by Mallarmé and Valéry, to a backdrop for something common, modest, real.

And elsewhere: "It's a question of the object as notion. Of the object in the French language (an item, really, in a French dictionary)."

For a thought is after all a thing of sorts. Its density, color, weight, etc., vary according to the thinker, to the symbols at his command, or at whose command he thinks. One would hardly care so much for language if this were not the case.

One of the ideas that most solicit a poet's approval is that of meter. Ponge naturally distrusts it. His prose arrives now and then at a diffident mise en page resembling verse, but only very seldom, as in "The Mimosa," at overt numbers. Unlike Valéry, who could instruct and no doubt surprise himself by recasting his decasyllabic "Cimetière Marin" into alexandrines, Ponge is not absorbed by conventional formal problems. Which of course only helps him again and again, since he is Ponge, to achieve a form, a movement, a kind of poem enchantingly, unmistakably his own….

With Ponge, the object being closer to home, the result is more importantly light, more detachedly involved. (p. 31)

In the closing sentence of "Blackberries" we glimpse a most suspect device, the pun.

A pity about that lowest form of humor. It is suffered, by and large, with groans of aversion, as though one had done an unseemly thing in adult society, like slipping a hand up the hostess's dress. Indeed, the punster has touched, and knows it if only for being so promptly shamed, upon a secret, fecund place in language herself. The pun's objet trouvé aspect cheapens it further—why? A Freudian slip is taken seriously: it betrays its maker's hidden wish. The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter) "merely" betrays the hidden wish of words.

It betrays also a historical dilemma. If World War I snapped, as we hear tell, the thread of civilization except where it continued briefly to baste the memories of men like Valéry and Joyce, the next generation's problem was to create works whose resonance lasted more than a season. A culture without Greek or Latin or Anglo-Saxon goes off the gold standard. How to draw upon the treasure?…

Ponge, to be sure, forfeits no resource of language, natural or unnatural. He positively dines upon the etymological root, seasoning it with fantastic gaiety and invention….

Ponge may be the first poet ever to expose so openly the machinery of a poem, to present his revisions, blind alleys, critical asides, and accidental felicities as part of a text perfected, as it were, without "finish."… One meets a mind desiring and deferring, both, according to the laws of baroque music, solution and resolution, the final breaking of an enchantment that may already have lasted weeks, years. (p. 32)

[When] Ponge returns to "The Carnation" in 1944, his concern is for some rinsing of his hands in a plainer idiom. "Though you should invent," he had written on that distant evening at Mme Dugourd's, "a pill to dissolve in the vase's water, to make the carnation eternal"—éternel with its echo of éternuer, to sneeze—"it would still not survive long as a flower." Neither, perhaps, would it have survived long as a poem had Ponge been content to leave it tossing in a high rhetorical fever. But now, to end it, he sets down a few pages describing the carnation's root-system:

… horizontally underlining the ground, a long, very stubborn willing of resistance … a kind of very resistant string which baffles the extractor, forces him to alter the direction of his effort….

In France of 1944 these were charged words. (Ponge himself had underground contacts during the war.) Yet "resistance" is no more the buried issue here than "faith" is, or "style," or the relation between what one knows deep down and what one utters—all mildly, glancingly apparent through Ponge's own altered effort in these concluding paragraphs….

Ponge keeps insisting that he does not write poetry. "I need the poetic magma, but only to rid myself of it." He means "demonstrative outbursts," "beauty … all dolled up in an illusion of destiny," "gods and heroes." His Athena is a shrimp with "weapons now wilted and transformed into organs of circumspection." (p. 33)

Ponge remains—it is one of his strengths—open to understanding without apparatus. His words are "conductors of thought, as one says conductors of heat or electricity." One understands, at every blessed turning, why he turned, why he wrote, for what delight, for what beautifully envisionable end. (pp. 33-4)

James Merrill, "Object Lessons," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1972 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XIX, No. 9, November 30, 1972, pp. 31-4.

Richard Stamelman

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All things, Ponge believes, yearn to express themselves, and they mutely await the coming of the word so that they may reveal the hidden depths of their being….

Everything in the world of Ponge is envisioned as an act of expression that is constantly in progress. In a sense, there are no acts that are not also essentially acts of language. The careful, microscopic observation of a thing by the poet, the detailed scrutiny of its "qualités différentielles," the naiveté and love with which he approaches the object, the intrusion by the poet's mind into the intimacy of the object's interior landscape, the generosity with which he surrenders his own being to its attraction, the total engagement of his mind and consciousness with the geography of the object—all these acts, which for Ponge constitute contemplation, occur through language and during the operation by which the text is written. Contemplation is inseparable from writing…. (p. 689)

The transformation of objet-chose into objet-description constitutes the drama of expression in Ponge's work. How this occurs, the process by which language converts an object-in-the-world into a text, is one of Ponge's major preoccupations and the subject, either implicit or explicit, of most of his poems and writings. He is the scientist of the phenomenon of expression, seeking answers to questions about how the expression functions, what changes occur when it is under way, and what effects result from its operation…. As cold can change water to ice, so the advent of words, the act of writing, can change one object, the objet-chose, into another, the objet-description. The title of one of Ponge's most beautiful "proêmes" aptly expresses this conversion: "De la modification des choses par la parole."…

Words modify things, and a Ponge text simultaneously dramatizes and activates this modification. At once, it converts the objet-chose into the objet-description and at the same time describes the very process of conversion that is taking place. Ponge is like a magician who performs tricks of appearance and disappearance whereby things are transformed into other things, while, at the very moment of the trick, calling his spectators' attention to the way in which the trick has been performed. The process of conversion is as important as the conversion itself. (p. 690)

Ponge's poetic texts dramatize the struggle for verbalization of an objet-chose, while being, in their own right, a "verbalisation en acte." The story of the quest of the objet-chose for expression occurs at the same moment that the objet-description, the text, is unfolding. What interests Ponge above all is the act by which expression is taking place. He is more preoccupied with the process of expression than with the products or creations it generates, more concerned with the making of the text than with the text itself….

What Ponge has written is never allowed to petrify into a definite form, and in this respect he would appear to share Sartre's horror of the en soi and to do battle against it by attempting to make of each of his texts a pour soi, something still susceptible to modification. Ponge's love of process explains, perhaps, why he is continuously rewriting his texts, adding bits and pieces to them, beginning them anew, incorporating new variants into texts already in progress, repeating his expressions over and over again in different genres (sometimes in poetry, sometimes in prose) in different typographies (sometimes in roman characters, sometimes in capitals, sometimes in italics) and in different arrangements. (p. 691)

[Not] only is Ponge concerned with the act or the process by which the objet-chose is converted to the objet-description, he is acutely sensitive to the gestures, the motions, the acrobatics, and above all to the feelings of the objet-chose as it journeys from the world of the res to the world of the text. A drama of expression, in which joy, jubilation, ecstasy, enthusiasm, exhilaration, pain, sadness, and death play a part, unfolds around the movement toward speech of the objet-chose, its subsequent disappearance, and the resulting formation of the objet-description…. [The] act of self-expression by the objet-chose is an act of self-sacrifice. In order to create a presence, the object must destine itself to absence. It literally ex-presses itself, squeezing its inner being outward, by means of language, toward depletion. And yet this dramatic act of projective self-expression and self-extinction reverberates with joy, for the object has succeeded in ecstatically revealing the intimacy of its uniqueness….

The emphatic verbalization of the objet-chose and its dramatic disappearance is nowhere better expressed by Ponge than in Le savon. The drama of soap centers around the transformation that occurs when soap, inert, stone-like, mute and suffering from a painful reticence as it sits in a soap dish, suddenly comes to life in water, where it begins to lead "une existence dissolue" …, expressing itself with jubilating, effervescent suds…. The drama of the soap, which is also the drama of expression, is reflected in the conflict experienced by the soap between muteness, and therefore self-preservation—for forgotten, the soap becomes hard, cracked and dry—on the one hand, and expression with its consequent self-depletion, on the other. (p. 692)

In Ponge's poetry the text refers to itself and to itself alone. If reference is indeed made to something, it is only to the drama of the objet-chose's death and the consequent birth of the objet-description, and that drama exists nowhere but in and through the words of the poem, not the poem as a finished product but as a process. The only thing the text "represents" is its own surging into being through language, its own act of expression. Ultimately, the text signifies itself. (p. 693)

Richard Stamelman, "From Muteness to Speech: The Drama of Expression in Francis Ponge's Poetry," in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 688-94.

Gerd Henniger

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When Ponge began to write, the question of how to salute beauty was hardly a problem, and right after a world war, the proposition that poetry should be written by everyone appeared to be a mockery. And what of the descent into the depths of consciousness that Apollinaire predicted and which turned out to be the road taken by the best of his contemporaries? Ponge's despair, however, was too skeptical to submit to the belief that language could bring into the light of day the messages of the subconscious in a pure form. If poetry was still possible at all, then only as an "art of resistance against the word."…

In order to achieve affirmation, creative nihilism operates through negation of that which is established. Applied to language, this means repairing the regular abuse of words with resolute incorrectness, that incorrectness which appears as a program in Ponge's earliest writings. Against the old order, which was logical and based on ideas, the new order of things can only assert itself in a seemingly a-logical manner. Not outside of the old order, but rather through the conscious falsification of its values, the human mind will be cured of a way of thinking that uses language as a mere system of designations; language constitutes a reality that must be reconciled with the reality of the world it designates. Rhetoric, in this context, means making use of the self-awareness of man as a language-producing being who can put an end to his alienation from the world. (p. 715)

The belief that rhetoric is being as well as form is derived from a poetical experience which mediates between two well-known philosophical positions: "Things are already as much words as things, and conversely, words are already as much things as words" (La fabrique du pré). This fusion of word and thing defines truth as the unity of the two, whereas previously truth was defined as their correspondence. The objection that superstition prevails here could easily be made, since for Ponge that which is designated is not a representation but rather a referent. The psychic boundary zone between word and thing is repressed in favor of a direct coupling of word and thing; and it is precisely through this coupling that the text, in which the representation returns, becomes an animating symptom…. This is, from the standpoint of formal rhetoric, a confusion which leads to the objectification of the text; from the point of view of an ontological rhetoric, it is the only possibility for working toward a union of word and thing: "In this manner the complete work of an author can itself in time be considered an object" ("Raisons de vivre heureux," Proêmes).

What this kind of materialism actually accomplishes is more important than the fact that it may seem utopian. It is no accident that in the context of such thoughts Ponge introduces concepts such as contemplation or meditation. Are we aware that spoken language is a physical reality, namely formed breath, breath which we ourselves form while speaking? Our idealistic consciousness still lags behind the materiality of man…. The aim of Ponge's materialism is to demonstrate the dependence of the consciousness upon the material existence of language and writing; this concreteness, due to its foreordained connection to the world of objects, transforms the human mind into the interaction between the world of objects and that of words.

Contemplation, meditation, then, would be a conscious stressing of this functioning or, in case it is disturbed, its restoration by means of language. However, that which disturbs and makes writing necessary is the self-glorification of thinking, which in turn has to be disturbed. The attitude of the terrorists, contrary to what an arrogant proverb maintains, demands that the intellect not stand above things, but renounce its usurped power of command over the world. (pp. 716-17)

Gerd Henniger, "Terrorism and Rhetoric in the Works of Francis Ponge," translated by Peter F. Brueckner, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 715-17.

Robert W. Greene

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An obsessive concern with its own constituent elements, its words, dominates Francis Ponge's poetry. This trait, which should not be confused with narcissism, appears in many guises and contexts, and yet it always manages to illuminate some aspect of a single, coherent vision. Scrutinizing Ponge's self-consciousness, we make out the contours of his vision. As we do, we realize that his work has a special relevance for our time….

In part because of their pervasive self-consciousness, Ponge's texts hardly conform to most conceptions of what poems, even prose poems, are or should be. They contain puns, false starts, repetitions, agendas, recapitulations, syllogistic overtones, a heavy ideological content, and other features that one normally associates with prose—and the prose of argumentation at that—rather than with poetry. Nevertheless, Ponge is without question a poet, but one who has moved so far away from both the pure poetry and the "art for art's sake" traditions, as well as from the Symbolist heritage generally, that we must alter our notions of what poetry is, or can be, in order to consider him a poet. (pp. 73-4)

We discover [in Proêmes] that the two basic premises from which Ponge starts to write are givens which would prevent virtually any other would-be writer from even picking up his pen. These premises, patently of the extreme absurdist type, are that the world is utterly meaningless and that language is an inherently unreliable means of expression…. (p. 74)

The reversal or movement backward that is operative throughout "Fable" is a metaphor for the return to the concrete which Ponge would like language to accomplish, and it is at odds with the traditional metaphor, also present in "Fable," that assimilates language to a mirror on the grounds that both are simply faithful reflectors of reality and endowed with no opacity of their own. (p. 76)

If the one process in "Fable," progression, leads to disillusionment and failure, its obverse, retrogression, hints broadly at a way out of the dilemma, at a solution to the problem of language's unreliability. In this deceptively slight poem, Ponge superimposes the one process on the other, and in so doing implies that the two are inextricably related. By turning away from the assumption that language is merely an instrument, he seems to say, we turn toward words in their own right, thereby restoring to them some of their original concreteness and immediacy. If in "Fable" Ponge declares the mirror-language metaphor to be invalid, he at the same time and in the same space enunciates a corollary to this declaration, that the symbolizing tendency of language, its apparently inexorable drift from the status of onomatopoeia to that of abstract sign, can and should be reversed…. The way to deal with language's unreliability, its refusal to remain purely instrumental, Ponge would suggest, is to accept words for what they are, not as transparent means but as opaque ends, and to build from there. (pp. 76-7)

His attitude vis-à-vis the world is profoundly anti-Platonic; nothing stands for or is a sign of anything beyond itself. The truth lies not in some ultimate Unity which we must strive to grasp, but in the endless and real variety of things which we must simply accept. (p. 77)

Ponge well knows, of course, that things are ultimately opaque, forever immune to exhaustive description, and would remain so even if language did not invariably distort that which it claims to express. Clearly, then, he has a special kind of description in mind when he urges that description be practiced…. He seeks a balance of equivalences, an equation between the order of things and the order of words. To achieve such a balance the poet must create a closed system of words that will recreate the specificity of the thing, its "qualité différentielle," in a dizzying complex of verbal games. (pp. 77-8)

Ponge aspires [in "Le Soleil placé en abîme"] to create a verbal machine that will have as much local intricacy as its counterpart in the world of objects. The intricacy of such texts will derive from the multiple reciprocal relations of the words, particularly from their mutual reverberations at the root level. This new genre will give utterance to the depth, the variety, and the harmony of the world, by remaking, verbally and one by one, its component parts. (p. 79)

Ponge is especially intrigued by the sun because he sees it as "la grande roue" in our corner of "l'horlogerie universelle."… The sun gave birth to our solar system, sustains all life in it and has destined everything in it to cool or run down and die one day. But the rhythmical manner in which the sun "temporarily" supports life, though tantalizing in the extreme, carries with it a crucial lesson. Each night prepares a new day, in every winter solstice is born the next summer's solstice. The whole rise-and-fall process in the lives of plants and animals, which the sun causes—… is endlessly repeated…. While we cannot forestall entropy, the eventual decline of everything into chaos, by concentrating on genesis, on life's thrust toward definition and differentiation, we gain a degree of control over our destiny….

Not surprisingly, the theme of birth haunts Ponge's writings…. He is fascinated by Braque's sketches [in Pour un Malherbe] because they reflect stages in the development of the finished work, because they constitute a kind of record of the artist's labor pains. (p. 80)

This very theme, the birth of form, also turns up in many of Ponge's "créations métalogiques…. For these texts, besides attempting to formulate a thing's "qualité différentielle" through intricate word play, contain the principles of Ponge's art poétique. Furthermore, as just noted, they are concerned with the birth of form, with the creative moment. Ponge's "objeux" are thus at one and the same time "about" their own verbal selves, "about" the explosive rise of form, and "about" the principles of a poetic art. Since the term "metapoem" can suggest all three of these subjects" and since the poet himself uses the phrase "création métalogique" in reference to his work, "métapoem" seems a more fitting label than "objeu" for the kind of text Ponge actually writes.

"Le Pré" is both a metapoem in the above senses of the term and a major recapitulation for Ponge. (pp. 81-2)

The first two stanzas [of "Le Pré"], while setting the poem's apparently casual tone, introduce a continuuum involving poet, reader, nature and text. The words "propose" and "disposés" immediately establish the relationship of equality and mutuality that obtains between us and nature, a relationship that "justement" subtly underscores. What automatically swells in our throats as we awaken to our experience of nature is a heavenly paean to the total integration of everything. Formulation accompanies awareness and joy reigns supreme.

The meadow has proposed itself in this fashion to the poet and he now wants to speak for it, to utter it. Accordingly, the meadow will make the poet's talk of today. (pp. 86-7)

Is "Le Pré" in fact concerned not so much with the meadow but with the limitations and real possibilities of language? [Stanzas eleven and twelve] would seem to require an affirmative answer to this question.

The Greek "naos," meaning the inner part of a temple or shrine, picks up the Greek-based "théorie" along with that word's sacred overtones. Knowing Ponge's predilection for neologisms and his great sensitivity to the malleability of words, we can also see in "naos," because of its context, hints of "chaos" and "néant." The mute procession has reached (note the choice of "parvenus" over "arrivés") the innermost part or heart of what? Of Chaos? Nothingness? Silence? Perhaps all three, for we have reached that place where words are redundant, where language is found in efficacious or modal gesture, as in a spinning prayer-wheel…. But the poet quickly steps back from the perhaps too serious evocation of the prayer-wheel and again broaches the formal "subject" of his poem, the meadow, which he alludes to now, in wry fashion, as the "verticalités de l'endroit." This sudden and yet deft return to "le pré" paves the way for the poem's next five stanzas, thirteen through seventeen. (p. 90)

The abyss of semantic and phonetic associations and reverberations we have entered seems bottomless. The poet has clearly placed the sign-referent "pré," the object of his loving attention, "en abîme" and has created a verbal machine as capable of giving us the meadow, in all of that object's density and ambiguity, as the meadow itself. (p. 91)

We cannot escape our verbal roots, Ponge then declares, and we should not try. "Ever backward and inward" would seem to be his motto regarding language. We cannot lose our self-consciousness as speakers, our constant awareness of the words we utter, and that is for the best. Just as the spider's web, spun out of his own substance, constitutes his "rayon d'action" and gives the spider what mastery he has over his world,… language for man, spun out of his substance, constitutes his control, his consciousness, of the world. Words give birth to consciousness by structuring the as yet unformulated. We must get all the way back to our first words because there, in the realm of logos, where onomatopoeia is the natural mode of speech, we will find no gap between things and their expression, between referent and sign, between "l'objet" and the "jeu de mots" that recreates "l'objet."

Fittingly enough, Ponge then restates, very concisely, his theory of "l'objeu." He asserts that the variations on our original utterances suffice to account for the intricate and grandiose clockwork of the universe—provided of course that we utter all the variations. (p. 92)

"Pré" is an unsettling ripping sound in the impossibly quiet sky-mirror of word-meanings. Once we realize the intrusive, shaping nature of language, this place and occasion (i.e., this text) of preliminary talk, of palaver, can and does become the place of decision. The end of the poem becomes the beginning of awareness. (p. 94)

The key word-particles "pré" and "par" and the poem's key word "parler" endure to the end. (p. 95-6)

Words exist in flux, in a state of semantic, phonetic and orthographic instability; they flow into and out of one another, breaking up and forming new verbal units, with astonishing ease. At the same time, language has an inner logic, an internal interconnectedness. The poet's role is to find these interconnections, to trace the patterns made by the shifting verbal particles….

"Le Pré" is also the exploration of "par's" opacity that "Fable" suggests. In that sense the long, late poem picks up where the brief, early poem leaves off and recapitulates everything Ponge has done in between. (p. 96)

As we move from "Fable" to "Le Pré," we learn that language activated, that is, speech, is the agency, the means, "le par," by which consciousness is born. Without "fable" or "parle" all is randomness and chaos. The distinguishing faculty of man, his "note [or "qualité"] différentielle," is his word-making capacity….

The appeal and value of Ponge stem from the fact that he is truly a post-Existentialist poet. He assumes the absurd and goes beyond the despair that it inspires by refusing to dwell on the inevitable decline of everything and by rejoicing in the here and now, in his successive awakenings to the endless variety of the world. If Roquentin, Sartre's hero in La Nausée, is overwhelmed at that novel's climax by a vision of apocalyptic collapse, Ponge, throughout his oeuvre, celebrates the explosive rise of differentiation and definition, the birth of consciousness. And since consciousness and formulation are the same for Ponge, his poetry is of necessity metapoetic, turned in on itself, watching itself and guiding itself as it comes into being….

Ponge's abiding concern with his instrument, his implacable self-consciousness when writing, is both unabashed and central to his vision. (p. 97)

For Ponge, the universe is a vast clockwork whose spinning wheels signify nothing beyond themselves. While he never mentions "l'analogie universelle" by name, his vision of an "horlogerie universelle" diametrically opposes Baudelaire's theory. His texts are not symbolic but literal, hence they are not poetic in a traditional way. Moreover, they speak neither of private obsessions nor of life's limitations, but instead seek merely to render widely differing cogs within our infinitely rich world. They aspire not to charm us but to immerse us in a total experience of the relative, of that which is at hand, and in so doing to revitalize our moribund capacity for sensuous reasoning. If the excesses of Symbolism and estheticism have contributed to our alienation from our proper place and function in the world, Ponge's metapoems help to reintegrate us into the world, for they demonstrate that the self is by nature participatory, intentional, that it is in a sense forever "out there" in that which it perceives and formulates. His achievement, one with profound consequences for contemporary man, is that he turns us back toward experience from the unbearable and false isolation of "pure" subjectivity. (p. 98)

Robert W. Greene, "Francis Ponge: Metapoet" (originally published in a slightly different form in MLN, Vol. 85, May, 1970; © copyright by The Johns Hopkins University Press; reprinted by permission of the author, Johns Hopkins University Press, and Princeton University Press), in his Six French Poets of Our Time: A Critical and Historical Study, Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. 59-98.

Robert Bly

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Something surprising happens often during [Ponge's] writing. It is as if the object itself, a stump or an orange, has links with the human psyche, and the unconscious provides material it would not give if asked directly. The unconscious passes into the object and returns. The union of the object with the psyche moves slowly, and the poem may take four or five years to write…. The title [of Le Parti Pris des Choses] means "taking the side of things." I suggest that Ponge is refusing to exploit things, either as symbols or as beings of a lower class. The title also suggests another meaning: that the things themselves have opinions, or points of view. Ponge has confidence that things are fruitful and nourishing, not hostile, not emptied of spirit, not inferior, not unreal. (p. 107)

Ponge in general remains near the object all the way through the poem. That ability is astonishing. The concentration in his poem, "Trees Abandon Something Inside a Circle of Fog" remains on trees throughout, even on the bodily experiences a tree goes through in fall. It's possible that Ponge has some perception about girls and marriage in mind, but the last syllable is as true to the tree's physical experience as the first. It's astonishing. And how many people—how many poets—have opened the same door, thousands of times each year, somehow without noticing it? Or perhaps they don't believe the door worthy of honor. Francis Ponge, so far as I know, has written the only poem on opening a door, and it is brilliant in every line. Ponge doesn't try to be cool, distant, or objective, nor does he "let the object speak for itself." His poems are funny, his vocabulary immense, his personality full of quirks, and yet the poem remains somewhere in the place where the senses join the object. (pp. 107-08)

Robert Bly, "The Two Stages of an Artist's Life," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1980, by the University of Georgia), Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 105-09.




Ponge, Francis (Vol. 6)