René Char Char, René (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Char, René 1907–

Char is a French poet. Early in his career he was connected with the Surrealist school, a friend and collaborator of Paul Éluard and André Breton. However, he broke from this early association and continued to develop as a poet of unique gifts. His poetry has been labelled "hermetic" for its verse that often suggests the poet as prophet and poetry as a kind of religion. Char's poetry of the late thirties and early forties reflects his deep concern for the political and social upheaval of a world at war. This period and its effect on the poet lent to all his poetry its characteristic humanity and deeply-felt moral concern. Char's poetry celebrates the joys of life and love in a verse suffused with imagery drawn from the natural splendor of his native Provence. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Robert Nugent

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In ["Argument"] Char makes clear what is to him the nature of poetry, that is, those aspects which underlie understanding the poems. These convictions have to do with the poet's vocation—how a poet sees the world about him, and, especially, the kind of statement he makes concerning the human condition of which he is a necessary part. These three concerns are obviously interdependent; the poem can be read, however, as a progressive development from one to another, working always towards a poetic theory.

Char is in the tradition of the poet-seers, poets like Jouve or Rimbaud, for example, who believe that a poet's vocation is to express a moment of apocalyptic vision and to experience a profound spiritual insight. Char is unlike Jouve in that the latter poet works from a condition of darkness, from a traditional consideration of the dark night of the soul, into a state of illumination which endows that darkness with form and which gives a tangible body to forces once perceived as incoherent. Char, though working from our world into another, from the "world before" (l'avant-monde) into a present one, begins with light; the forces at work in his poetry function, in the words of one critic, like "fire on fire." Further, the world in which Char operates is similar to that described in Les Illuminations, one of a dreadful and hidden catastrophe…. For Char, a poet must seek to initiate the reader into such a world that he might understand not so much its history but its incoherence, its constant change, its chaos and diversity; the clarity of vision which results emphasizes, for both reader and poet, discovery and "harvest," a realization of change which is a condition of freedom.

Thus Char amplifies a description of the poet's calling to include a meaning of freedom which a poet teaches a reader. Char protests against any force, even light, which would deprive man of his liberty and against all those who would deny him its validity and presence. The initial statement of "Argument" is that "man flees from asphyxiation." This verse indicates that the poet's role, for Char, is to urge man continually to fight any tyranny which would choke him, any restriction in his choice of action that would enclose his attempt to find meaning in the world, any preconceived notion—even of liberty itself—that would terminate a possibility of his becoming his own self-defined identity. The meaning of freedom does not imply, for Char, a traditional Cartesian view of self-evident self-awareness; the implication in Cartesian freedom where being and existing are in the conscious mind alone would limit a poet, in Char's belief, to a closed world of perception. Nor would Char accept, as against Cartesian argument, a Freudian structure of uninhibited, unconscious thought, with either a resultant fantasy or a deformed view of the "real world." (Here Char's poetic is to be distinguished from the freedom of the Surrealists.) For Char it is impossible to speak of man's awareness of himself and of his search for freedom in terms of the unconscious opposing the conscious. To claim the rights of the former alone or to infer poetic value in such a dichotomy would impose tyranny; the tyranny is one of a closed view of a universe which Char is convinced must be seen, that is, conceived of, as poetically and essentially fluid in character.

In this fluidity of vision, which operates on both a moral level of freedom and on an esthetic one of poetic vocation, Char neither denies nor accepts Cartesian and Freudian statements. Rather he would search for a unity within the complexity of an entire given situation; he would seek a situation where his becoming his own self-defined freedom would be possible…. Char seeks an open situation, one where all "given" cases are available, one from which he can derive a unity of convictions concerning the poet's role, the value of poetry and the significance of liberty. As man flees a closed situation (asphyxia) on a moral level of action, so does a poet on an esthetic level of writing verse.

In this search for a fluid, open, situation (where both freedom and poetry are possible), a search which makes up the basis of a poet's calling, Char distinguishes between the poet and the non-poet. The non-poet seeks to sustain the various functions of life based on means which, in themselves, are not dependent on the imagination…. The non-poet works within a limited space. In the initial poem of Le Poème pulvérisé (also entitled "Argument") …, Char describes this non-poet: Les hommes d'aujourd'hui veulent que le poème soit à l'image faite de si peu d'espace et brûlée d'intolérance. Char's imagination works always within a limit of the possible terms of the spatial or realistic data; he finds in this spatial situation an inexhaustible source of poetic order. (pp. 789-92)

A fluid situation where a poet can fulfill his vocation of freedom is also one of premonition (l'homme qui s'épointe dans la prémonition). This premonition results from a spiritual crisis which leads to an esthetic that proves, as had written Baudelaire, an infallibility of the poetic production. The crisis does not derive from romantic inspiration, a sudden overwhelming, as a flooding of a river, in a disarray of emotions and observations. The crisis is, to be sure, similar to platonic furor. This furor, however, works precisely in terms of an open, spatial, concept which does not deny a pole of consciousness in favor of a pole of unconsciousness (a choice which romantic inspiration cannot resolve); or, in terms already discussed above, a rejection of a Cartesian world view in favor of a Freudian one. Char writes that a belief in the value of poetry can and must, especially in crisis, allow both positions; by allowing both extremes Char can posit a wider range of poetic production (as the Cubist painters found a wider range by allowing both realism and abstraction). In a more open, fluid, working area than would be available through either realism or through abstraction, a poet can find, first, an infallibility of change. He can then find a meaning to this change because two concepts work simultaneously and open up further possibilities of vision. (pp. 792-93)

In line with the problem of how reality is apprehended and seized and the question whether reality is understood through an extension of mind (entendement) or through a description of the role of the subconscious in understanding, Char would still insist upon the idea that to apprehend the world, a poet must see the given moment, the phenomenological moment which lies between conscious and subconscious. The phrase qui déboise dans son silence intérieur implies neither an inner act of a Cartesian sort which would seek a complete grasp through reason; nor would it indicate an act dependent upon subconscious past associations. A poet must bring himself into involvement with a visual world. (p. 793)

Therefore to write poetry is a process; a poet must present this process because—if it has value—it must consist (as it does for Char) in an affirmation of the outgoing nature of reality. This reality is one of a total experience wherein each individual can find beauty and freedom. This reality is further more than an...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

René Char is the rare poet who unhesitatingly acknowledges the artistic sources of his creative vision, teleology, and practice. In La Conversation souveraine …, he identifies and appraises those poets to whom he is indebted as a poet, and he categorically states that his three major precursors are the philosopher Heraclitus, the painter Georges de La Tour, and the poet Arthur Rimbaud…. Rimbaud is quantitatively more prominent than either Heraclitus or La Tour, for among all of Char's hommage texts, Rimbaud receives the greatest attention and admiration….

Char's hommage to Rimbaud … goes beyond mere admiration; it is based on Char's awareness that he is esthetically...

(The entire section is 2519 words.)

Michael J. Worton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his preface to Fureur et mystère Yves Berger writes: "Of all today's poets, René Char is the greatest matchmaker of words. I am thinking here only of those words which, by their sound or their meaning, are least suited to go together. Words which, by their very nature, were destined never to meet." It is clear, even on first acquaintance with Char's poetry, that he achieves much of his success through the juxtaposition of terms which, while seemingly unsuited, nonetheless "work" together, creating new and unexpected images and presenting a world in which objects have a significance which transcends the purely physical. (p. 373)

Char's is not a generous pen. No word is freely given, each...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)

James R. Lawler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most dramatic periods in Char's career is his rediscovery of nature as the central resource after 1935. Surrealism had taken him into nocturnal obsession from which withdrawal was not easy, but his poetry that postdates Le marteau sans maître contains the assertion of a Mediterranean warmth and of a language deliberately renewed. He delights in the multiplicity of plants, animals, landscapes, transforms the vocabulary of his poems; at the same time he is attentive to an implicit wisdom that he seeks to convey. He becomes the fervent hunter of meanings who reinvents the myth of Orion….

In reading Char's finest nature poems we are able to gauge his artistic integrity. He composes...

(The entire section is 2414 words.)