The Poetry of Valéry Critical Essays

Paul Valéry

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Paul Valery said that while making poems he always watched himself at work on them. This statement is a good place to begin a consideration of Valery’s poetry, for it reveals the super-consciousness of a writer whose major theme and inspiration are super-consciousness. Thought and the process of thought interested Valery above all other things; and in an effort to make poetry of these concerns he followed the lead of the French Symbolist movement in attempting to write a “pure” poetry in which thought itself would be purely felt without the impurities and lack of clarity that the use of language usually involves.

Valery’s idea of pure poetry was much influenced by the thought of Mallarme, whom the young Valery knew and admired. Poetry is not, Valery insisted, prose dressed up with pretty and poetical devices; a poem cannot be reduced to the expression of a mere idea. The thing we experience when we truly feel a poem is revelation and communication of a poetic state which involves the thinking, feeling being. The experience of a poetic state, which is the whole reason for the poem’s existence, cannot be translated into any other form of expression than the poem itself without destroying the unique poetic state. Each poem is a construct that lives only for and by itself. Poetry uses language to make in each individual poem a “language within language” that can only be understood within the world of the particular poem; a language that can be understood only after reading and rereading have brought a full experiencing of the individual poem. When the reader understands this “language within language,” he is immersed in the poetic world the poet has created. It is a world of poetic music, harmony, and resonance arising from the interplay of the sound and connotations as well as from the denotations of the words in the poem. When the reader is thus immersed in the poetic world, the true pure text of the poem is “created” in the sensibility, the structure of aesthetic response.

The union of the reader’s mind and the poem is impossible in prose, or in “impure” poetry which is based on the statement of ideas rather than on the exploitation of the meanings within words that the true poet releases by his harmonic and musical arrangement and juxtaposition of words in pure poetry. Pure poetry is poetry that finds its world within the relationship of words, not in the relationship of words and the things they refer to.

Since pure poetry can only be known as it is actually being felt by a reader, pure poetry exists only as it is actually being said aloud, and heard, and experienced: only when we are being made the sensitive instrument upon which the poem plays. As we read the poem our voice, our intelligence, our sensibility are shaped into a single experience by the art of the poet: the letters printed on the page are not the poem; the experience of the poem is the poem. Valery has made his best statement on pure poetry in his LITTLE NOTEBOOK OF A POET (CALEPIN D’UN POETE).

Committed as he was to a poetry of pure intellect, Valery played down the idea of poetic inspiration in favour of an emphasis on the poet’s conscious labor and construction. He did not deny that the poet feels a kind of creative energy as he contemplates and writes. But the task of the poet is to make his readers feel inspired, not himself. To accomplish this task the poet must always be aware of what he is doing, of how he is doing it; he must be in total control. The poet must go beyond mere inspiration. Pure poetry is the product not of enthusiasm and accident, but choice and conscious work by the poet who has the idea of pure poetry constantly in mind.

The poet, for Valery, is a professional. The characteristics of the poetic profession are patience, conscious effort, and knowing how to discern and use what is poetic in chance ideas and observations. The poet must wait for the germ of a poem to appear. When the germ does present itself, the poet must know how to exploit it and how to resist the impulse to stop work, to “finish” the poem. The poet is an “architect of poems” who is concerned with the problems of expression: it...

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