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Bonnefoy, Yves 1923–

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Bonnefoy is a French critic, poet, translator, essayist, and art historian. The central thematic concern of his poetry is the life-death relationship. Bonnefoy has increasingly devoted more time to his art history studies, and his translations of Shakespeare's plays are widely acclaimed.

By general critical consensus Yves Bonnefoy is one of the finest poets to emerge in France since World War II; and, remarkably, his reputation came with … [his first book], Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve (1953)…. This book is a sequence of short poems, separated into several sections, and must be read as such; it is as well a difficult work of "magie suggestif", which is reminiscent in part of the hermetic qualities of Mallarmé and Valéry and others whose technique involves obliquity, spiritual plenitude and vacancy. "Douve", the proper name of the title, cannot be fixed in a single identity except as a feminine principle, she is variously glimpsed as earth, woman, the beloved, and is associated with the origins of poetry and the poem itself. The sequence proceeds through changing moods and the transformations of inward metaphysical drama that is deliberately ambiguous and elusive, though it clearly is implicated with love and separation, a journey into death and rebirth. It is a poem for reflective rereading with attention to recurrent gestures, rhythms, images. (p. 269)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Poetry (© 1969 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1969.

One of the deepest incitements to poetry since the Romantics has been a search for Eden. Yves Bonnefoy's L'Arrière-pays is another account of such a search, and an important one. He rediscovers the paradox of Poe, that it is precisely the seemingly utter sufficiency of natural beauty which dissatisfies, by urging to something beyond itself. He looks, however, for the lost place of benediction, the vrai lieu, not in the néant or an imaginary elsewhere but in a world "of flesh and of time" like ours, not in the unreal but in the real transformed by human vision. The book both celebrates the earth as it is and desires its "resurrection".

In form, it is a kind of essential autobiography, organized around the single quest for the arrière-pays, and reports M Bonnefoy's travels, mainly as an art critic, to various places and paintings. He responds to the latter, with continually stimulating penetration, as attempts to fulfil our need for images, for seeing the earth remade. It also relates crucial experiences that have fed his writing though he refers them curiously less to his poetry than to certain unfinished stories. He reveals himself, indeed, a compelling storyteller, delicate, symbolic, erudite, no doubt under the conscious influence of Nerval; even though it is part of the discipline of which the book is the narrative to reject this "imaginative" type of composition.

L'Arrière-pays is a spacious work, despite its relative shortness, and is written with M Bonnefoy's usual impassioned high seriousness, in a grave and poetically vibrant language whose syntax, at times, is pointedly classical. It is full of ideas (for instance, on the metaphysical nature of Latin), of writer's wisdom, and of pregnant phrasing.

A comparison with Philippe Jaccottet's very similar Paysages avec figures absentes … shows its possible limitations. There is less really probing contact with individual sites and canvases: M Bonnefoy's imagination, which is anything but abstract, works nevertheless not so much through a response to detailed particulars as through the establishing of general, though still passionate, mental structures, in a way that one associates with French classicism. One may, of course, prefer his method; here it makes his pursuit of a relationship with nature an intellectual hygiene rather more than a hygiene of the whole man. One also becomes aware in M Jaccottet of a dimension that is absent from L'Arrière-pays, the dimension of human pain and evil, which is arguably vital to a study of natural beauty as lacking its plenitude, and of ourselves as exiles. None of which is to deny, however, that this is a severe and admirable work, which anyone concerned for poetry and painting ought to know. (p. 839)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 21, 1972.

Silence—as the other side of speech, of consciousness, of being—is a recurrent yet often ambiguous theme in Yves Bonnefoy's poetry. A master of dense and beautiful lyrics, Bonnefoy seeks nonetheless the "summit of imperfection." An anti-Platonist who wishes to "name" the objects of this earth, he decries at the same time the inadequacy of all language. The following two papers take up different aspects of this quest for silence through language; juxtaposed, they propose different readings of the same area in the same poetry. They may well be contradictory. Does Bonnefoy's speech resolve into silence, or into multiple voices? Is his ultimate "comprehension" a stilled, higher vision, or an ambiguous self-awareness? Is his "passage" the passage to an intuited arrière-pays, or a progression forever halted on the threshold? Does Bonnefoy's style evoke silence as a decrescendo formed of echo and inner allusion, or does it represent silence by a ceaseless interplay of decentered references? Do these readings cancel each other out, or is there something to be gained by pursuing divergent view-points in the same context? (p. 193)

Sarah Lawall

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Yves Bonnefoy's poetry incorporates the risk of silence. Not silence itself, for unlike Rimbaud he continues to write, but a systematic disbelief in the efficacy of words. Words that would "name" never reach their objects, and the writer merely inflicts "ces coups sourds contre la paroi de la parole" ("dull blows on the wall of speech" …). (p. 194)

The risk is real, not hypothetical: Bonnefoy's latest poems have been published as "fragments" and "other fragments" in an apparent unwillingness to give even the impression of a deceptively finished text. The poet does continue to write, however, and it is possible that he is in fact experimenting with ways to express—perhaps resolve—this very notion of linguistic promise and inadequacy. Such a development would be consistent with the change in Bonnefoy's artistic tastes from the finished, idealistic products of the Italian Renaissance to a baroque style that, reaching out into surrounding nothingness, becomes a "negative rhetoric" and a "passageway to the invisible."… (p. 195)

Bonnefoy's poet can name things exactly because he sees into their presence as possibility of life and death. By naming them, he calls into existence their full identity. In terms of the legend of the Grail, he asks the question that Parsifal does not: he asks the meaning of the unearthly procession and thus forces the Holy Grail to enter an earthly incarnation. Poetic images synthesize the death and life, presence and absence, of their objects….

The empty structures of language must continue to work against the constant murmur of subterranean waters, so as to end not with an illusion or with an answer, but with a repetitive, all-embracing question…. Poetry avoids illusion only by maintaining a quality of randomness, of drifting on a liquid surface that cannot be plumbed and whose voice—although it must be heard—cannot be understood. (p. 196)

Poetry is parole, not langue: it is a special speech act that goes beyond any mechanical combinations of impersonal words. If poetry relies on langue alone, and reproduces mere patterns of language …, it arrives at impersonality and death—the "wrong kind of death." Such a wrong kind of death is all the more dangerous because it is already present in the art work, insofar as the latter congeals and fixes the living exchanges of reality. The highest value Bonnefoy finds in art is in fact exchange, a sort of communion with others and with other things that takes place through poetry's transcendent example. Poetry is not the supreme value, but rather the "ultimate resource" for reaching that value. (p. 197)

How does Bonnefoy combine openness and meaning, these two apparently contradictory qualities? "Meaning," for the poet, does not imply a predetermined absolute significance that is transferred from writer to reader. It is an exchange in and through the ambiguity of language—a kind of "ontological refraction" that takes place in words…. Art aims towards an unwordly perfection, says Bonnefoy, and is thus essentially untrue. This untruth jeopardizes communion, which cannot take place in an unreal dimension. Artistic illusion should therefore not be too perfect. Bonnefoy's task is to retain, in the form and vision of his poetry, the ontological refraction originally perceived and through which the human imagination seeks its unity…. Dans le leurre du seuil expresses just such an attempt. (pp. 197-98)

There are three ways in which this … collection seems to me different from those that precede: it extends and fragments syntactic patterns, it questions the whole idea of passing to an absolute presence, and it develops a far-reaching, more fluid system of images than the somewhat static, miraculous glimpses given in previous poems. (p. 199)

The communion or exchange Bonnefoy seeks is a potential form of dialogue, and dialogue is also sought, rejected, and reinterpreted in Dans le leurre du seuil. The speaker at the beginning knocks at a closed door, invokes blind matter and empty language, and calls for a tranquility and reassurance that do not come. (p. 204)

[There] may be no answer if the voice proceeds from himself, an echo and vibration of his own questions: "Est-ce 'un autre' la voix qui me répond/Ou moi encore …" ("Is the voice that answers me 'an other'/Or is it still myself …"…. This multiple voice rejects naming, answering, or conclusive transcendental images; it sends us back to the exploratory act of writing as a perennial knocking at the gates of a nonexistent paradise….

This unstable dialogue is resolved in a manner somewhat like the impersonal "communion" of matter and consciousness…. The poet has conquered the idealistic temptation of passage over a threshold by recomposing a broken, active, and truer vision out of the refracted fragments of reality. A throb of insistent questioning pervades the entire poem. (p. 205)

This is not to say that Bonnefoy's ideas have changed essentially since Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve; rather, he seems to have come full circle, and accepted his basic metaphor on the level of verbal patterns. What is different in Dans le leurre du seuil is that he has tried to incorporate silence into the forms of his text. An increased role is given to the self-conscious use of language, and to negative images or ones that cancel each other out. Constructions are deconstructed; the rooms, cathedrals, high walls, and vaults of earlier works become now stones torn out of a wall at night, a wall which crumbles, blasted stones, a destroyed vault, or the mere beginnings of an arch. The threshold is no passageway. The communion sought through a Grail has been recreated as a purely earthly, ephemeral event—attainable only in poetic language. At the end of the poem, the "sponge" of nothingness wipes up the debris of bread and wine, and returns the celebration to the emptiness in which it was born. This emptiness is real, and thus it adds a certain poignancy to the celebration in which man becomes conscious of his mortal existence. (pp. 205-06)

At the end of the quest, then, it is not "naming" but the word as sign that takes the place of the Grail, becoming both passage and true place….

Mary Ann Caws

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Bonnefoy's visionary place of poetry is a "vrai lieu," sacrificial and yet empty of shadow, an orangery closed off where the vacant self is determined at last by its watching and its waiting. Unsure of his victory, the poet grasps the red flame of the sword, the ardent blade of the most difficult speaking against the gray of a neutral prose; his Arthurian gesture is defined—like all poetry—by its risk. (p. 206)

In this poetry where the positive absence of all sound seems to mark the end of the path, where "un haut silence" seems to carry the highest value, the word can only be considered to lead not toward but through. In the particular resonance of each of Bonnefoy's texts against the others to form the profound clusters of images and the long strains resolved or unresolved of this intense and far-reaching poetry, we notice a passage totally unlike that found in any other poet. The parts here in their faithful belonging to the whole of the chant are also inserted as continuities in our perception, each a part of the passage to our understanding as to the poet's own. Their appartenance is also that of each reader.

As a preliminary stage on the way to reading the cheminement of this word and this silence, the simplest trace of the word "understanding" itself may guide us on the path of L'Arrière-pays behind this text. The volume by this name—a prose poem on art, understanding, and perception—examines the place where the contraries meet, ideal and yet bound to the now and the here of this land, inscribed in the present and in the poet's presence, and yet pointing beyond—showing the place, and then the moment of passage. (p. 209)

The passage from the outer to the inner country of and behind the text is revealed in the most silent of ways.

In the passage we take guided by the voices of Bonnefoy's poetry, we follow two seemingly contrary psychological directions. First, an apparent crescendo: from the part to the whole, or from the disconnected expression to the unifying word or phrase, the movement being always interior to the sense and never a question of volume. (p. 212)

The answer to be given to the question "Et toi … qui estu?" can only have been: that speech which was silence, as the song "qui s'est tu" is seen in retrospect, reflecting back on it in an echo…. But when the text falls silent, a triple closing-off is felt through these same echoes, and their echoes: "Voix, déjà tous chemins que tu suivais se ferment." For with this voice, there fails both a vision and a way of going ("vois …," "voie …"). Now the real passage will lead from the closure of this path, the failure of this sight, to the eventual opening of an inner threshold, another higher song heard or understood within the first song stilled. (p. 217)

Sarah Lawall and Mary Ann Caws, "A Style of Silence: Two Readings of Yves Bonnefoy's Poetry," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 16 No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 193-217.

In the title-work of Yves Bonnefoy's new collection of prose narratives [Rue Traversière], the rue Traversière is remembered as having led, during the poet's childhood, from the ordinary world into the wonderland of a botanical garden. The street was a perfectly named place of transition…. Readers of Bonnefoy's earlier work will at once recognize the sort of place this is: a keenly felt segment of the real world which owns up without prompting to its impermanence, its drift towards vacancy; a place which haunts him by showing absence minutely and inseparably woven into presence, flux into stability, losing into having. In a later text the narrator meets someone who has read "Rue Traversière" and found the street familiar. But this person remembers it as well-to-do, not poor, places it in a different part of town and knows nothing of the magic garden. Which of them had got things wrong? Whose street was real, whose invented? Perhaps language itself was the culprit and would allow indefinitely many possible streets to be called into actuality in the same way.

The relationship between the two texts is characteristic of the book as a whole. The telling of an experience makes its fullest sense in the retelling to which it gives rise. By superimposing narrative on narrative and by displacing the reader's attention into the region between descriptions, Bonnefoy gives the collection a precarious coherence and an exhaustiveness of sorts. But some of the material—and especially the rarefied travelogue for which he has a particular fondness—is so meagre that no amount of transitional thinking could lend it substance.

Malcolm Bowie, "The Immanent Idea," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reprinted from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 6, 1977, p. 553.

Bonnefoy may very well be the greatest living French poet. With the passing of Saint-John Perse, whom he resembles in his use of a persistent, overriding metaphor throughout a long poem, Bonnefoy has sadly few competitors. In his surreal gentle melancholy, he is like Reverdy, Desnos, Eluard, or Supervielle. In strength and bite, he is like Valéry or Beckett…. [Words in Stone/Pierre Écrite] consists of a series of poems whose extreme unity almost seems rigid. (p. 98)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 3 (Summer, 1977).

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Bonnefoy, Yves (Vol. 15)