Jacques Prévert

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Prévert, Jacques 1900–1977

A French poet, screenwriter, dramatist, and author of children's books, Prévert was described by Hazel Hackett in Sight and Sound as "the most poetical of script-writers … and the most unliterary of poets." He began his career as a member of the symbolist movement but soon broke away to forge his own individualistic, experimental style. An anarchist, Prévert attacked bureaucracy and officialdom in his work, directing much of his poetry to common people. Paroles, his best-known collection, is credited with making poetry accessible to a large audience. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)

Eliot G. Fay

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987

It is impossible to read many of Prévert's verses without becoming aware that he takes considerable interest in animals. Paroles contains a poem about a whale, a poem about two snails, and four poems about horses. But the author is not so much concerned with animals as he is with birds. Birds are spoken of in many of his poems, and in half a dozen a bird would appear to be the central theme. It seems to me, indeed, that his fondness for birds amounts very nearly to a sort of cult.

Prévert is not, of course, a sentimental poet. Though he is fond of birds he is never, under any circumstances, sentimental about them. He likes them because they are self-respecting creatures, he likes them because they are gay, or he likes them merely as symbols. (p. 450)

["Les Oiseaux du Souci"] expresses very well the ease with which a man in pain can be irritated. It expresses also the complete indifference with which he relinquishes a room, or anything else, which has ceased to seem important to him. But the most remarkable thing about the poem is the way in which its author plays with certain phrases, which he arranges and rearranges so as to create an atmosphere of boredom and of despair. The first line, "Pluie de plumes plumes de pluie," later becomes "Plumes de pluie pluie de plumes," and still later "Suaire de pluie pluie de suie." The poet, as he sits staring out the window, sees a rain of feathers and feathers of rain. This suggests to him a shroud of rain and a rain of soot. The rain, because of his mood, seems to be dirty and to have a chill of death about it. (p. 451)

In "Les Oiseaux du souci" [the bird] is a symbol of sorrow. In "Chanson de l'oiseleur" it is … a figure of speech which Prévert employs with marvellous skill to describe the heart of a woman who is afraid of life, or at any rate insufficiently responsive to it…. As we read the first twelve lines of this very pretty poem, we are delighted to note how perfectly every one of them describes the temperament, the emotions, the behavior, and the aspirations of a little red bird that is imprisoned in a cage, or perhaps within the walls of a room…. "Chanson de l'oiseleur" is, incidentally, an excellent example of one of Prévert's favorite technical devices, that of repetition. How he must have enjoyed beginning each of those first twelve lines with the words "L'oiseau!"

The bird poem "Pour faire le portrait d'un oiseau" is, because of its subject, one of the most important poems in Paroles, and is also, because of its treatment, one of the most pleasing. Apparently it consists of a series of instructions for painting a picture of a bird; actually it is Prévert's ars poetica, comparable in a way with L'Art of Gautier and with the Art poétique of Verlaine....

(This entire section contains 987 words.)

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It is also an artistic credo to be followed not only by the writer, but by the painter, the sculptor, and the musician as well. Why did the author choose to express this credo in the language of painting rather than in the language of literature? Probably because he is himself a painter, and because he is intensely interested in the work of such artists as Picasso and Van Gogh. Why does he discuss the painting of a bird, instead of the painting of a bowl of fruit, or of a wrinkled woman selling flowers? No doubt because, as I have stated above, birds charm him, fascinate him; he is subject to their spell. (pp. 452-53)

The reader will have caught, of course, the various implications of this wise and charming poem. An artist's mind must be open to that which is beautiful in life. ("Peindre d'abord une cage avec une porte ouverte.") He must be willing to wait patiently for the inspiration that he needs ("attendre s'il le faut pendant des années."). When this inspiration comes he must seize it quickly ("fermer doucement la porte avec le pinceau"), capture its essence with color or clay or written words. He must remove all traces of the artistic effort that he has had to make ("effacer un à un tous les barreaux"), so that his handiwork will seem, will be, alive. If it is alive, then he has succeeded. He is glad, for his creative impulse has been satisfied. (p. 453)

If "Pour faire le portrait d'un oiseau" is Prévert's ars poetica, then "Salut à l'oiseau" is a statement of his philosophy. It teaches us that he loves children, he loves laughter, and he loves love. He is contemptuous of priests …, but his heart goes out to humble folk…. He likes the sunshine on the snow….

In this poem, and in this poem only, does Prévert refer to his emblematic bird as a phoenix. This reminds us that another sensitive and courageous writer of he twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence, also chose the phoenix as his device. However Prévert's phoenix is to rise again, not from its own ashes, but from those of the dead poet who has been his friend. For the poet bequeaths to it, now, the "mégot" (cigarette-butt) of his life. Others have compared a living man with a lighted candle. To Prévert, a man's dead body is like the stub of a snuffed-out cigarette.

Enough has been said, I think, to show that birds mean more to Jacques Prévert than to almost any other modern poet. Yet his birds are not the familiar birds of the Romanticists and the nature worshippers. They are somewhat more, it seems to me, like the mystic birds of Saint Francis of Assisi. (p. 457)

Eliot G. Fay, "The Bird Poems of Jacques Prévert," in Modern Language Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No. 6, October, 1949, pp. 450-57.

William E. Baker

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Given that [Prévert] interprets his world largely in sharp blacks and whites, it is useful to study Prévert not as a "proletarian" poet, but as an anti-bourgeois and pro-proletariat poet; the one prefix suggests the vitriol that saturates so many poems on capitalism, and the other, the sachet that accompanies the poems written about common people….

It is Prévert's handling of the French language, however, rather than the fierceness of his convictions, that will most likely establish an enduring reputation. His styles are unique without being intricate and mannered. He ignites upon occasion a fantastic display of verbal fireworks: puns, alliteration, obsessive rhyme, tongue slips and coined words. Elsewhere he speaks in simple, straightforward idiom, and often there are finely chiseled images presented in subdued, graceful cadences….

Always, the poet's aim seems to be communication rather than mystification. He does not ask the reader to achieve rarefied states of consciousness by contemplating symbols drawn from highly esoteric sources; he asks one merely to look at the everyday world with an unjaded eye. To look and to feel rather than to cogitate—this is the message implicit throughout Prévert's work. His is a poetry of searing images, music both raucous and refined, and humorous chatter; at its best this poetry can evoke a world of marvels—marvels experienced rather than comprehended intellectually, marvels found nowhere but in the glorious chaos of everyday life. (p. 8)

Prévert does not attack abstractions like "social and economic injustice," or "religious insincerity"; he names names…. Whatever generalizations a critic may use to cover Prévert's subject matter, they will be inevitably somewhat false to the poetry, which remains specific.

One group of themes can be called the "anti" group. Here one finds poems or parts of poems devoted to the ridicule of the bourgeoisie, the Church, militarists and chauvinists, academicians and … "all oppressors." Anti-bourgeoisie, anti-Church, anti-militarist, and anti-intellectual: such is Prévert's stance vis-à-vis the conventional structure of his society.

A second group of themes tempers the acid of the satirist with the honey of the lyrical poet. These are the "pro" themes, in which the poet expresses repeatedly his sympathy and praise for the proletariat—a group of character types having the virtues of honesty, courage, and brotherly affection in contrast to the vices of the moneyed class; he exalts free, unfettered love between man and woman; he finds kinship and harmony between nature and the natural, uncivilized spirit of man; he celebrates the life of the senses and admires the imaginative élan of the child. (pp. 23-4)

Prévert identifies the bourgeoisie with greed, pompousness, and insensitivity and the proletariat with fraternity, honesty and courage. But these attributes would remain tiresome vacuities unless attached to people, so Prévert selects or invents characters whom he can admire or strike at…. Prévert hates war only if one adds that the poet hates it in the form of the militarists and politicians who cause it.

Here the poet's training as a film writer seems to have influenced his poetry, which often consists of a dramatization of character types…. [The types] are either heroes or villains, good or bad guys. (p. 24)

[As Jean Queval] suggests, they are like puppets in a Punch-and-Judy show, acting perennially the same role though costumes and sets may change. And the cinema provides also an analogy to Prévert's technique. Like a selective cameraman, he records many different individuals at many different moments, yet makes each event another symbol of the same, simple, eternal, human idiocies and glories. (p. 25)

It is necessary to recognize the puppet-show quality of Prévert's work and the distortion and simplification of reality it involves, because in a few poems the puppets, which can be amusing and edifying, are abandoned. There is left only an ugly, hysterical complaint against rather vague grievances. Without caricature of character types, the poetry appears flimsy. It develops both logical and technical faults. (p. 37)

[On one side of the Prévertian world] are "Those" who have and worship false idols, on the other are those who have not and believe in themselves…. [Add also] military men and intellectuals to the ranks of the bad guys, and children, beautiful women, and birds to the ranks of the good. These additions do not pair off into neat antipodes, however, as do the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Prévert regards with affection a number of diverse character types who have in common only the sentiment of love and the will to freedom, rather than occupations which can serve as class symbols. Against religion, for example, one would have to mention both the love of man for woman and the child's love of freedom. And against the regimentation of militarism one can pose whatever is free and natural: the rebellious child, the uninhibited man and woman, the hobo. (p. 53)

The poem Barbara, simple, straightforward and lyrical, is one of Prévert's finest war poems. The bitter protest involves no direct attack on social classes or economic conditions: it is based on the simple grounds that war destroyed the happiness of a young girl walking in the rain to meet her lover. Perhaps those are the best grounds. Certainly Prévert's technique of dramatizing the tragedy of war or poverty by means of ordinary, yet individual characters apparently photographed at random, is more successful artistically than his didactic comments, no matter how lucid and clever, on the entire human pageant. It is a simple fact that one almost always grieves more for the Barbaras of the world than for a whole impersonal army. (pp. 54-5)

This poem also brings one to a clearer realization of the nature of the conflict, as Prévert sees it, between church and state, and the individual. It is a conflict stemming from the supposed attempt of religious, social, or political institutions to restrict or destroy the natural appetites of man…. [The] conventional machinery of society to "protect" the property and lives of its members [ends] by spoiling the happiness in these lives. This idea appears again and again in the poetry of Prévert, who wishes to supplant the laws of institutions with the unwritten law of free, natural expression of one's will. (p. 56)

A number of poems show that freedom is the principle unifying all the values Prévert upholds, particularly in the matter of love. The kind of love Prévert endorses could be called free love in its usual sense and also "free" love in the sense that no restrictions ought to be imposed by either party in such relationships. (pp. 56-7)

In a very general way the titles of Prévert's books of poetry help define his styles: Paroles because the poet has a genius for making all sorts of ordinary idiom highly expressive, Spectacle because his verbal tricks often correspond to the antics of a clown or a magician, and La Pluie et le beau temps because the emotional tones of his symbols can have the classic simplicity of the summer-and-winter, sunshine-and-rain cycle of life and love…. [The] language is sometimes common and colloquial, even vulgar (but rarely banal), sometimes zany in its arrangement of images or in its boldness of metaphor, and occasionally lyric, in the tradition of the cri du coeur. (p. 79)

Though his work is usually uniquely his own, the poet also represents a synthesis of several currents in modern poetry. Some of his work, written in the language of the streets, captures the instinctive rhythms of Parisian dialect, the music inherent in the tongue, and at the same time strips away any hint of "poetic" diction or rhetoric. Thus he belongs both to a line of very ancient poets, the medieval jongleurs who sang poems and did not write them—and a good share of Prévert's poems have been set to music—and to a group of twentieth-century poets, like Bertolt Brecht, George Brassens, and Raymond Queneau, who are striving to recover the lilt of street songs and speech. This colloquialism is the most salient stylistic quality of Prévert.

But in other poems the reader will not only miss the syntax of common speech, he will discover no syntax whatever. There are several rather long Prévert poems which are only "inventories" (the most famous of these poems bears that name), in which images, without verbs or connecting conjunctions, are strung in a pattern which can either suggest meaning or be amusingly absurd. The Prévert inventory is made up of things, apparently evoked arbitrarily…. It is the intuitive ordering of images to achieve an emotional effect, rather than the reasoned organization of "thought" with an esthetic frosting.

The inventory technique, along with certain others, appears to derive from the poet's experience with the Surrealist movement. (pp. 79-80)

Prévert's use of [the Surrealist's] methods betrays a creative process much more sophisticated than automatic writing…. But, even employed deliberately rather than accidentally, such devices retain a spontaneous, nonrational character. Indeed, to use them effectively, a poet must cede some of his rational control over words. Left by themselves to form odd cross-breeds somewhere in the darkness of the unconscious, words can emerge in original patterns with an inherent poetic energy. Such images—spontaneous, not integrated logically into the poem, often pure whim—mark another characteristic Prévert style.

Occasionally, although he does not become effusively decorative, Prévert writes a love poem or a song using conventional imagery in more or less regular verse patterns, including the traditional Alexandrine. (p. 80)

Oranges and the sun, metaphors for woman in Prévert's pro-love poems, have unity, simple form and color. These are also the qualities one finds in a number of very brief, highly elliptical poems which treat the love theme. The phrases in these poems, as naked as verbal images can be, without sentence framework of subject and verb, may well remind one of another influence on modern poetry; namely, that of imagist doctrines and the haiku verse forms from the Japanese tradition. Certainly, two broad aspects of such poetry, economy of expression and concreteness of imagery, can define many of Prévert's poems, especially those of a page or less in length. Thus one may distinguish in Prévert a third and a fourth stylistic mode; one introduces chiefly stark, concrete images, often swiftly extended into metaphor; the other offers figures of popular currency couched in simple, lyrical verse forms.

A final and pervasive quality in Prévert's work, one that appears to have some effect on all of his other styles, may result from his knowledge of the techniques of the modern cinema. Almost every critic who studies Prévert closely eventually uses the camera as a metaphor for the poet's style. The metaphor applies because the movie camera is both an instrument of objective documentation and a "magic lantern" able to trick the eye and imagination. Although Prévert can and does play with sounds and words, his work generally impresses one as being highly visual and dramatic. Of course, in many poems the music and the image are as inseparable as a film and its sound track. But the eye is more taken than the ear. Perhaps this is the nature of the film art too; the name "talkie" soon disappeared, but the colloquialism "picture" remains.

When critics speak of "anti-poetry" they seem to mean a poetry which scorns a hieratic or apocalyptic role as well as the frozen forms and artificial, literary language of traditional verse. (p. 81)

Prévert qualifies as a major figure in [the post-Symbolist] current of nonpoetry. His concentration on contemporary social and political topics is a marked departure from the self-conscious art of the Symbolists. Also, he mocks the diction and theory of "pure" poetry much as the Surrealists did, but he often chooses, as an alternative, everyday turns of speech rather than the odd, rambling, and disconnected style of "automatic writing."

But as a number of critics have implied, the poésie parlée of Prévert has a purity of its own. It satirizes journalese and commercial jargon, the cheapest, most corrupt popular language, and prunes away all but a cryptic, colorful core of street talk. For this reason, the poet has been called a hygienist of language—one who cleans away all but the simple, common, and uniquely apt expression. (pp. 82-3)

[The] relation of Prévert's poetic talk to real speech goes beyond mere similarities in diction; the rhythm and pattern of lines correspond in many instances to the cadence of conversation. (p. 83)

Prévert is a realist, recording the sincere banalities of ordinary people; yet he is equally a surrealist, boldly distorting and exploiting language. The poet's attitude toward his art seems to be divided, and the style he adopts depends on whether he wishes to take language seriously, as a medium capable of rendering sensations more or less accurately, or lightly, as a bin of worn-out toys with which one can make up fascinating new games. The two extremes represented … [by the styles of] documentary Realism and absurd Surrealism, can perhaps be reconciled if we consider a fifth and more pervasive Prévert style, the cinematic one.

Though his theme may be a romantic or even a sentimental one, Prévert's treatment of it often remains impersonal…. Prévert merely tells "what happens." The poet's diction does give one an impression of objectivity. He usually avoids speaking directly to the reader, preferring to present an incident or character type without comments. (p. 99)

[The] camera style of Prévert, if we understand by the term a concentration on visual images of fine detail and a dramatic development of themes, pervades a great deal of his work. Both in the harsh realism of La Grasse Matinée and in the flights of intoxicated imagination of La Lanterne magique de Picasso the poet maintains his sense of spectacle. The former work is a newsreel; the latter is a circus. (p. 102)

The conviction persists, difficult to sustain empirically, that the value as well as the originality of Prévert's style depends on his ability to combine the commonest words and expressions into new patterns which effectively tap the reader's emotions. It is Prévert the editor, arranging and splicing phrases and scraps of phrases transcribed accurately from everyday speech, who is most truly a poet. Without concerning himself with the word recherché, the Latin and Greek residue in modern tongues, or the subtleties of formal verse patterns, Prévert has concentrated on translating all kinds of emotions into carefully ordered series of notations, either sketching actions or exactly registering spoken idiom; the action or speech and its position in a series become more important than any properties of the symbols of notation. The "poem" tries to disappear or to become clear as a camera lens, so that only gesture and utterance remain, charged, in context, with all the explosive significance of drama.

But no one style, even that of the camera, wholly accounts for Prévert's reputation; and perhaps no general commentary can unite into harmonious chorus his many voices…. [It has been said] that the genius of Prévert lies in the apparent nonchalance of his artistry. (pp. 103-04)

Prévert's reputation rests to a great extent on the aptness and acidity of his satire, satire often brutal in its directness, and totally unlike the world-weary, impersonal poetry of Valéry and Eliot. Prévert attacks … the Church and the authority of the state—the very institutions the Anglo-Catholic Eliot upheld. He is also violently anti-intellectual, placing his faith in the honest but dumb emotions of the Sweeneys of the world.

The tradition of revolt culminating in Prévert is one of total revolt. (p. 123)

[Prévert] writes personal, nonintellectual, popular poetry, and no criticism at all; he views contemporary civilization not as a wasteland, but as a battleground where real, red blood must be spilled to right injustice; and the last thing in the world he wants to do is "escape from emotion." Further, he is no exile. Behind the prototype who appears throughout his poetry, "le pauvre bougre," appears the horde of the proletariat. Prévert is their willing spokesman, the enemy of all Prufrocks. (p. 125)

Prévert has his faults, but they are not as notable as his success, and they in no way mitigate the implicit challenge of his poetry to American criticism. For this Frenchman, with his poetry from the back streets of Paris, poses, against the old dogmas of obscurity, emotion purged by irony, and detachment, a new set of virtues: simplicity, humor for its own sake, unadulterated ire and affection. In Prévert's work, poetry becomes something it has not been in America for some time. It becomes a voice, a shout in fact, of protest against injustice. It becomes the sincere, straightforward expression of passion. It becomes the chronicle of contemporary life at its humblest. With Prévert, in short, poetry becomes human. (p. 130)

William E. Baker, in his Jacques Prévert (copyright © 1967 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1967, 162 p.

[Choses et autres] is a charming mixture: puns and politics, innocence and optimism, brief prose anecdotes and the occasional peroration thrown in for good measure. This is a treasury of many funny and touching things. Jacques Prévert is entertainingly up to date with structuralism, for instance; his power to make ingenious and uproarious puns has not diminished; and such short récits as his own reminiscences of childhood are delightful. But M Prévert's greatest charm, his wide-eyed innocent good-heartedness, is also the quality that occasionally sends him sprawling. Or is this prejudice? Is it just that one finds him funny only when one agrees with him? No, perhaps it is rather that though good causes rarely produce good poetry, bad ones never do. And, comparing his inventive anti-structuralist witticisms with the heaviness of "Evolution du rêve, rêve et rêvolution. Réalité", one is tempted to say that the same is true of good and bad puns.

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3698, January 19, 1973, p. 69.∗

Eve Merriam

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Jacques Prévert, France's most popular poet of the 20th century, died this past spring, and there should be some memorial or festival of his work to mark not his death but his aliveness…. [He was] a man who was on a first name basis with the language of his times: his work was colloquial, as much so as Brecht's, and as deceptively simple. A marvelous three-ring circus of a theater event could be made out of his triplefold writings: his political poetry of World War II and the resistance movement; his heartbreakingly spare love poetry, with its empathy for women; and his crazy wonderful sense and nonsense for children. (pp. 25-6)

[His colleagues] were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy of every order….

[Prévert was a] triply gifted writer: the passionate pacifist, the romantic and anti-romantic poet of love, and the children's Pied Piper. (p. 26)

Eve Merriam, "Jacques Prévert, 1900–1977," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 177, Nos. 2 & 3, July 9 and 16, 1977, pp. 25-6.