Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Poetry Is An Operation Performed on Language

In Seizing: Places, his translation of Helene Dorion's 2005 collection Ravir: Les Lieux (sample some of it here), Patrick McGuinness reflects on the difference between French and English-language verse. His argument—that we are made uncomfortable by the "quasi-philosophical, spiritual language" of French poetry—might help explain why appreciation for much Québécois poetry in Canada lags behind where it should be.
We in English-language poetry write as if we somehow disdained poetry but had faith in language—it’s a facet of our national irony perhaps, our suspicion of abstraction, and a sense that poetry somehow denatures ordinary speech. Our quest for the demotic and the democratic makes us suspicious of the grand claims of poetry, and of its grand words: the soul, memory, the spirit, and the quasi-philosophical, spiritual language by which much European and some North American poetry has orientated itself. French-language poetry, one might say, is the other way around: it suspects language, which is why French poets always seem to be remaking it, asking the impossible of it, making it fail on a scale which makes mere success look petty. But it retains faith in poetry: the lyric urge, however broken its movement, damaged its materials, or ironic its gestures, retains its necessity. For Paul Valéry, poetry was not just a language within a language, but an operation performed on language. Poetry may reclaim its birthright from music, Valéry contended, but it always repays it debt to thought.

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