Yves Bonnefoy Bonnefoy, Yves (Vol. 9) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bonnefoy, Yves 1923–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Ann Caws

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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