In an early statement on cubism, Pierre Reverdy declaimed that a new epoch was beginning, one in which “one creates works that, by detaching themselves from life, enter back into it because they have an existence of their own.” In addition to attacking mimetic standards of reproduction, or representation of reality, he also called for a renunciation of punctuation and a freeing of syntax in the writing of poetry. Rather than being something fixed according to rules, for Reverdy, syntax was “a medium of literary creation.” Changing the rules of literary expression carried with it a change in ideas of representation. For Reverdy, the poetic image was solely responsible to the discovery of emotional truth.
In the years 1915 to 1922, Reverdy produced many volumes of poetry. The avant-garde called for an overturning of literary conventions, and Reverdy contributed with his own explosion of creative activity. In addition to editing the influential review Nord-Sud, he used his experience as an engraver and typesetter to publish books, including his own. The list of artists who contributed the illustrations to these volumes of poetry by Reverdy reads like a Who’s Who of the art world of the time: Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Georges Braques, among others. Reverdy’s work, along with that of Apollinaire, was cited as the guiding force for Surrealism by André Breton in his Manifestes du surréalisme (1962; Manifestoes of Surrealism, 1969).
Reverdy’s early work achieves an extreme detachment from mimetic standards and literary conventions that allows for the images to stand forth as though seen shockingly for the first time. The last two lines from “Sur le Talus” (on the talus), published in 1918, show this extreme detachment: “L’eau monte comme une poussière/ Le silence ferme la nuit” (The water rises like dust/ Silence shuts the night). There can be no question here of establishing a realistic context for these images. Rather, one is cast back on the weight of emotion that they carry and which must thus guide their interpretation. Reflections off water may appear to rise in various settings, though perhaps particularly at twilight. The dust points to a particular kind of aridity that may be primarily an emotional state. The sudden transition from an (implied) twilight to an abrupt nightfall undercuts any kind of conventional emotional presentation. The quick cut is a measure perhaps of the individual’s lack of control over external phenomena and, by extension, inner feelings as well.
Much of Reverdy’s early work is based on just such an imagistic depiction of interior states, with a strong element of detachment from reality and a certain resulting confusion or overlapping. The force of emotion is clearly there, but to pin it down to a particular situation or persona proves difficult because any such certainty is constantly being undercut by the quick transitions between images. The complete suppression of punctuation as well as a certain freedom of syntax as one moves from line to line are clearly tools that Reverdy developed to increase the level of logical disjunction in his poetry. At times, however, this disjunction in the logical progression of word and image gives way to a resolution. The short poem “Carrefour” (crossroad) sets up a surreal image sequence:
De la lumière
Un rayon sur le bord du verre
Ma main déçue n’attrape rien
A ray on the edge of the glass
My disappointed hand holds nothing)
Here the elements are invoked, and then two images, one of an inanimate object and one the hand of the speaker. From this atmosphere of mystery and disjunction, the poem’s conclusion moves to a fairly well-defined emotional statement:
Enfin tout seul j’aurai vécu
Jusqu’au dernier matin
Sans qu’un mot m’indiquât quel fut le bon chemin
(After all I will have lived all alone
Until the last morning
Without a single word that might have shown me
which was the right way)
Here, as in many of Reverdy’s poems, the emotion evoked is a kind of diffused sadness. The solitary individual is probably meant to stand for an aspect of the human condition, alone in a confrontation with an unknown destiny.
It was Reverdy’s fate to see actual military duty during World War I, and it may well be that the magnitude of human tragedy he witnessed at the front lines served to mute the youthful enthusiasm that pervades his earliest works. It may also be the case that Reverdy, while espousing radical measures in literary practice, still was caught in the kind of bittersweet ethos that characterizes fin de siècle writers generally.
Whatever the case may be, there is no question that Reverdy wrote some of the most affecting war poems in the French language. One of the most direct is titled simply “Guerre” (war). Running through a series of disjointed, if coherent, images, Reverdy toward the end of the poem approaches direct statement, when the speaker says:
Et la figure attristée
Visage des visages
La mort passe sur le chemin
(And the saddened figure
Visage of visages
Death passes along the road)
Close to a medieval allegorizing of death, this figure also incorporates a fascination with the effect of the gaze. One’s face is revealing of one’s emotion because of the way one looks—the distillation of the phenomenon into a general characteristic is a strong term to describe death. If this image is strong, the poem’s ending is more forceful still:
Mais quel autre poids que celui de ton corps
as-tu jeté dans la balance
Tout froid dans le fossé
Il dort sans plus rêver
(But what other weight than that of your body
have you thrown in the balance
All cold in the ditch
He sleeps no longer to dream)
Philosophers have questioned whether the idea of death is properly an idea, since strictly speaking it has no content. Caught between viewing another’s death from...
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