Francis Ponge Ponge, Francis (Vol. 18) - Essay


(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. 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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)

James Merrill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Stamelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerd Henniger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Robert W. Greene

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Bly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 335 words.)