Although Francis Ponge did admit to writing poetry, he was reluctant to call his works poems, inventing instead other names for them, such as “prétextes,” “définitions-descriptions,” and “proêmes.” Most of his works are generally classified as prose poems, ranging from a few sentences in length to those which are book length, such as Soap. Certain of his texts, however, are not readily classifiable. Commentary on the act of writing poetry is a feature of many of Ponge’s works; the transcripts of his conversations with Philippe Sollers, for example, are prose texts about poetry, while a work such as “Le carnet du bois de pins” (“The Notebook of the Pine Woods”) is clearly a poetic piece which also features a level of meta-commentary about the act of writing. There are, however, other works, many of them contained in a volume titled Méthodes, that are basically theoretical works expounding Ponge’s aesthetic, but whose structural and poetic qualities effectively blur the distinction between theoretical work and literary text. Ponge’s interest in the creation of the literary text as process is evidenced by two of his other works, The Making of the Pré and Comment une figue de paroles et pourquoi (how a fig of words and why). In each of these two works, a comparatively short poem is preceded by the notes, doodles, dictionary definitions, preliminary drafts, and the like which chronicle the various stages of evolution toward the finished poem. Also worthy of mention, as constituting a separate literary form, are Ponge’s works of art criticism, which have been collected in the volume L’Atelier contemporain (the contemporary workshop), published in 1977.
During the first thirty-five years of Francis Ponge’s career, he was known only within limited artistic circles. His reputation grew slowly, and in 1956, La Nouvelle Revue française devoted an entire issue to his work. In 1959, Ponge received a prize for his poem “La Figue (séche)” (“The [Dried] Fig”). In that year, he also received the medal of the French Legion of Honor. Between 1965 and 1971, he lectured extensively in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and in 1966-1967 he was a visiting professor at Columbia University. He received the Ingram Merrill Foundation Award for 1972 and the Books Abroad/Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1974. In 1975, at the prestigious international colloquium at Cerisy-la-Salle, his oeuvre was the subject of study by a distinguished group of his literary colleagues (the proceedings of this conference were published in 1977).
Ponge’s belief that the poem should perfectly suit its object-subject has led him to formulate a compositional ideal which he calls adéquation, best translated from its Latin components–ad (to) and aequus (equal)—as “equivalence.” A perfect realization of this ideal results in a poem with almost magical qualities; its words, while remaining true to language’s own laws of syntax, so perfectly conjure up the object they describe that the poem becomes the verbal equivalent of the object. Ponge attempts to achieve adéquation through the use of various compositional techniques: the creation of forms that are tailor-made for their subjects, the frequent use of word associations, the exploration of etymologies, the innovative and often humorous use of figurative language, the coining of puns and portmanteau words, and the enlistment of typography in support of a poetic idea.
Ponge attempts to fit the form of the poem to the object it describes, both on the level of overall structure and on the level of syntax. “L’Huître” (the oyster), for example, has three sections. The first describes the outward appearance of the oyster, stressing its obstinate refusal to reveal its inner self. The second section uses a metaphor that describes the shell’s contents as a separate world whose sky is a hard mother-of-pearl firmament. Finally, a single sentence refers to that rarity, the pearl, as a formule (“tiny form,” but also “formula”). This mimetic approach to form is not without its humorous side; the “Ode inachevée à la boue” (unfinished ode to mud) is as formless as the substance it describes, covering several pages and finally trailing off in mid-sentence. In Soap, words froth and bubble and proliferate in imitation of the effervescence of soap and include such airy coinages as ebullescence (ebullience). In “Le Papillon” (the butterfly), soft fricative and plosive sounds abound, and the poem’s breathless manner cleverly mimics the whimsical and erratic flight of the butterfly: “Dès lors, le papillon erratique ne se pose plus qu’au hasard de sa course, ou tout comme” (“From then on, the erratic butterfly no longer alights except by chance in its flight, or just about”).
“Le Mimosa” and “Pluie”
Sometimes Ponge’s poems present an intentional...
(The entire section is 557 words.)
Ponge maintains that language contains truths about the essential nature of the objects it is capable of describing, if only writers are willing to work hard enough to find these truths. Once the inherent harmony between language and the objects of the world is struck, the poet will find that the words intertwine to form a network of secondary meanings and serendipitous etymologies.
In an essay on his creative method, Ponge gives an illustration of the inherent ability of language to form metonymical links that illuminate the world with sudden insights: Once, when writing in Algeria, the word sacripant (roguish) continually occurred to him as an adjective descriptive of the harsh red color of the Sahel at the foot of the Atlas mountains. Curious about the etymology of the word, he traced it to the name of Ludovico Ariosto’s characters. He then discovered to his delight that this name, Sacripant, was linked to that of Rodomont—a king of Algeria, whose name (red mountain) furnished Ponge with the sort of felicitous coincidence in which his poems abound.
Sometimes Ponge puns on words in such a way that their literal meaning is revealed in a fresh and unexpected manner. In “L’Orange” (the orange), Ponge describes a squeezed orange; in a play on the French pression (pressing or squeezing), he portrays the orange as having undergone an ordeal of “expression” and of having submitted to a forced “oppression.” In yet another punning excursion, Ponge compares the “aspirations” of the squeezed orange to regain its “countenance” (an allusion not only to its shape or disposition, but...
(The entire section is 670 words.)
Ponge is fascinated by the graphic possibilities of the written word. Although he has created at least one visual poem, “L’Araignée mise au mur” (the spider placed on the wall), that is reminiscent of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, Ponge does not ordinarily write purely concrete poetry; the dominant role of language in his poems is always that of a verbal rather than a graphic medium. Nevertheless, he is intrigued by the ability of the shapes of the letters of the alphabet to participate in the process of symbolization. In an essay from Méthodes titled “Proclamation et petit four” (proclamation and petit four), Ponge points out that the modern reader’s acquaintance with poetry is almost...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Although predicated on the notion of “equivalence”—an aesthetic ideal difficult if not impossible to achieve—Ponge’s approach to poetry is yet a pragmatic one, based both upon careful observation of his object-subjects and upon diligent mining of the language for the insights it provides. Ponge asserts that the resistance posed by a centuries-old system of structures such as language actually helps him to write better poetry. The poet’s commitment to a meticulous use of language prevents the annexation or the taking for granted of objects by human beings and, at the same time, furnishes insights into human behavior.
Like Albert Camus, Ponge has acknowledged the impossibility of attaining philosophical...
(The entire section is 341 words.)
Andrews, Chris. Poetry and Cosmogony. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1999. Andrews analyzes references to science and to the creation of the universe in the works of Raymond Queneau and Ponge. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Higgins, Ian. Francis Ponge. London: Athlone Press, 1979. Critical assessment of Ponge’s oeuvre. Includes bibliographic references.
Meadows, Patrick Alan. Francis Ponge and the Nature of Things: From Ancient Atomism to a Modern Poetics. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997. Critical interpretation of Ponge’s works. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Minahen, Charles D. Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in...
(The entire section is 163 words.)