Jacques Prévert

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The son of working-class parents, Jacques Prévert was born February 4, 1900, in Neuilly-sur-Seine. At the age of fifteen, having completed his primary education—a process he obviously did not enjoy—he left school and began to earn his living. He once, in a radio interview, confessed that, had the label “juvenile delinquent” been part of the vocabulary of the early twentieth century, it would have been applied to him.

Despite his distaste for school, Prévert read a great deal and was particularly interested in the authors of the Enlightenment and their ideas about the natural rights of man, as well as such distinctions as natural evil as opposed to human evil. Nevertheless, he quickly developed a distrust of great intellectual constructs and philosophical debate. His friendship with the Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy began in the regiment in which they both served in 1920, as part of the occupation army of Thessaloníki, Greece. There he also made the acquaintance of Marcel Duhamel, who would later become a film director. The three young men went to Paris upon their demobilization and established what they jokingly called a phalanstery (after the Fourierist communes known by that name) in the no longer extant rue de Château. Raymond Queneau, who thirty years later would write critical works on Prévert, soon joined them, and their house became a gathering point for the young writers and artists of the Surrealist movement.

A shared passion for the cinema prompted them to attend films daily, sometimes three or four in a single day. Prévert and his friends, including his brother, Pierre, later attested the significant impact of these cinematic experiences upon their later work. Prévert fondly recalled long walks in the middle of the night through the streets of Paris, from which he returned to the rue de Cháteau full of life, and impatient with the intellectual turmoil of the Surrealists. His disdainful attitude toward the dogmatism of the movement ultimately led to his being excluded by its leader, André Breton.

Prévert circulated his poems in handwritten form, a habit that led to the existence of numerous textual variations. Between 1930 and 1936, three long poems appeared in reviews. “Souvenirs de famille, ou l’Ange garde-chiourme,” published in Bifur in 1930, appealed to an extremely refined literary audience. In 1931, the magazine Commerce at first hesitated to publish “Tentative de description d’un diner de têtes à Paris-France” (“An Endeavor to Describe a Dinner of Heads at Paris, France”), but it conceded at the insistence of Saint-John Perse. The third poem, “La Crosse en l’air,” appeared in Soutes in 1936, a Communist tract more dedicated to politics than to literature. Such beginnings reflect the diversity of Prévert’s appeal as well as his difficulty in getting his poetry published.

In 1933, with the theater group Octobre, Prévert visited Moscow to perform on the occasion of the International Olympiad of Theater. In 1938, he spent a year in the United States, returning home in time to be called up in the French mobilization in 1939. An attack of appendicitis prevented his military service in the war.

After the war, the Hungarian-born composer Joseph Kosma, who had worked on films with the Prévert-Carné team, began to set Prévert’s verses to music, and the songs were every bit as popular as Prévert’s volumes of poetry, which had also begun to appear after the war. Prévert carried his celebrity quite modestly and was regarded as a man of the people. He was, for example, a figure of interest for the most popular magazines in France, which celebrated him in interviews and profiles.

Other artistic inclinations found expression in Prévert’s collages. He enjoyed two exhibitions, one in Paris in 1957 and one in 1963 in Antibes on the Riviera. In 1977, Prévert died after a long illness and was buried in a quiet, simple ceremony in his village of Omon-la-Petite near the English...

(The entire section is 1,419 words.)