Yves Bonnefoy 1923-
French poet, essayist, critic, fabulist, editor, and translator.
Bonnefoy is viewed as one of the finest poets and most influential figures in contemporary French poetry. A prolific critic, editor, translator, and poet, he has written several collections of poetry and long poems that have received much critical acclaim. Commentators commend Bonnefoy's verse for its range of imagery and its exploration of profound philosophical and spiritual matters. His emphasis on the omnipresence of death in everyday life has led many commentators to consider him as the first true existential poet.
Bonnefoy was born on June 24, 1923, in Tours, France. As a child, he spent his summers at his grandfather's house in Toirac; many images from his later poetry were derived from these idyllic experiences. When he was thirteen years old his father died, which had a profound impact on him. Many critics note that the recurring sense of loss in his poetry may be traced back to this tragic event. In 1941 he graduated with honors from the Lycée Descartes and then went on to study mathematics, science, and philosophy at the Université de Poitiers and the Sorbonne. In 1944, while living in Paris, Bonnefoy began to write poetry. Critics contend that this early verse was heavily influenced by such prominent Surrealist poets as Victor Brauner and André Breton. Bonnefoy became so interested in poetry and literary theory that he put aside his advanced studies in philosophy to study literary theory at the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique. Bonnefoy's first major collection of poetry, Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve [On the Motion and Immobility of Douve], was published in 1953 to critical acclaim. In 1967 he co-founded the prestigious art and literary review L'Ephéme, acting as co-editor until 1972, when the periodical folded. He has been a professor at several academic institutions, including Centre Universitaire de Vincennes, the Université de Nice, the Université d'Aix-en-Provence, and the Collège de France. In addition, he has taught literature at various universities, including Brandeis, the City University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Yale University, and Geneva University. He is regarded as a respected critic and scholar, as well as a poet, and has written essays on literature, art, and architecture. He is also praised for his translations of Shakespeare. He has received several awards for his work, including the Prix Montaigne in 1978, the Prix Goncourt in 1987, and the Grand Prix Nationale de Poèsie in 1993.
In Bonnefoy's first major collection of poetry, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, the poet reflects on his capacity to fully express the essence of being, which he calls “presence,” a concept central to his work. The poems of the collection focus on the death, decomposition, and rebirth of the enigmatic female figure, Douve, who has been interpreted alternatively as the poet's lover, a mythological representation of all women, nature, or the poem itself. Critics note his use of metonymy and other devices to circumvent the logic of ordinary discourse. In his next collection, Hier régnant désert (1958), Bonnefoy expresses dissatisfaction with his previous poetry. Instead, he utilizes stark imagery, such as that of an iron bridge or black clay, to explore such thematic concerns as death, survival, and redemption. In Pierre écrite [1958; Words in Stone] Bonnefoy turns to the fertile imagery of a garden to express ideas about presence and to impart a fuller and more accurate perception of reality. Commentators assert that this rich garden imagery and the more optimistic tone of the poetry in this collection can be traced to his experiences with his wife at his country home at Valsaintes in Provence. Dans le leurre du seuil (1975), his next major collection, utilizes the same affirmative vision and garden imagery as Words in Stone. Yet critics maintain that it is a more ambitious work, in that it is a long poem divided into seven sections and explores Plato's theory of ideas, which Bonnefoy initially discussed in L'Anti-Platon (1947). The verses describe the journey through stages of self-doubt, revision, regeneration, and affirmation. His 1987 collection Ce qui fut sans lumière touches on themes of abandonment, love, and mortality. The poems also underscore another recurring thematic concern of Bonnefoy's poetry: the connection between art and poetry. In his critical and poetic work, he has frequently discussed the unique ability of art and the act of painting to express presence.
Bonnefoy is regarded as a talented, experimental poet whose work is committed to expressing truth. Commentators have traced the development of his work, particularly in light of his claim that each of his poetry collections has been built on the one before it. Therefore, stylistic and thematic progressions from volume to volume have been central to examinations of his poetry, and critics praise his ability to experiment with different forms, imagery, and themes. Connections between his theory of language and his poetry have been a recurrent topic of critical discussion. The thematic concerns of his verse—mortality, absence and presence, excarnation and incarnation, redemption, the power of love, and the experience of transcendence—have been investigated and traced back to such philosophers as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger. In fact, his emphasis on death and the transience of all earthly things has led many critics to call him the first existential poet. Others detect the influence of classical materialism on his work and underscore his affinities with the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, the tradition of nineteenth-century French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and the Surrealists of the twentieth century. His interest in painting, particularly fifteenth-century Italian art, has also been examined. Stylistically, reviewers have discussed Bonnefoy's grandiloquent language, his use of metonymy and metaphor, and his tendency toward abstractions. His detractors maintain that his verse is difficult and can be viewed mainly as an offshoot of his philosophical ideas. His innovative and distinctive approach to poetics has made him one of the most significant and influential French poets in contemporary literature.