Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Introduction to French Poetry:
By Stanley Applebaum (Editor)
Paperback: 192 pages, June 1, 1991, ISBN-10: 0486267113, ISBN-13: 978-0486267111
Poetry is almost impossible to translate. You may get the gist of the thing, but unless the translator is also a poet (and in that case, you’re getting a different poem to the original), you lose the nuance, the rhythm, the subtle linguistic play. Reading poetry in any language is an advanced linguistic activity. It isn’t really for beginner language learners, because of the way it pushes language to its limits, puns, flows, uses double entendre and sophisticated innuendo. There are so many beautiful poems written in other languages, and it seems a shame to limit ourselves only to those poems that are written in the languages we’re fluent in. The answer is in dual-language books like Introduction to French Poetry which allow us to still access the meaning in our own language, but experience the rhythm, expression, and beauty of the orignal. In the case of this one, there’s an accompanying CD with each poem beautifully read by French actor Michel Moinot, who enunciates every word so perfectly that it’s easy to follow along and even begin to fall into the flow of the grammar and syntax. With the printed poems in both English and French open at the same time as you listen to it in French, it’s almost possible to bridge the language gap and experience the original.
For those learning French, this is an excellent way to increase vocabulary and learn the pronunciation. Moinot’s richly expressed readings will help with fluency and tone, and the overall choice of poets and simplicity of the poems will encourage further reading and a stronger understanding of the history and progression of French poetry. For those who are interested in the poetry itself, there are 30 tracks, with only one or two poems by each poet. This kind of survey does show provides a sense of the different types of verse, from the rondeaux of Charles D’orléans, the sonnets of Louise Labé, to the wonderful epistles of Voltaire, the start of romanticism with the bleak fervour of Victor Hugo, the rich imagery of peotic giants Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud, towards the more modern work of Apollainaire, Éluard, Aragon or Bonnefoy. It’s a rich and heady mix, diluted only by the fact that there is, at best, only two poems from each poet (some have only one), which is but a mere scratching on the surface of what each of these poets has produced. If it creates an itch though, as it is sure to do if the reader/listener is able to hear the power and beauty in most of these poems, that can only be a positive thing, as there are plenty of volumes waiting to be explored, many in dual-language form.
The poems are each prefaced with a brief summarised biography of the poet, including a portrait wherever possible. Compiling this book would have been no easy task, and Applebaum has done a good job of putting each work into context and choosing the most accessible, easy to follow poem, with the least amount of ambiguity. The accompanying CD, is worth the price of the book alone, as it’s only by listening to the work read by an expert speaker where the rhythm and intonation comes out. What is a surprise, for me at least, is how much humour, playfulness, and lightheartedness there are in even the most intense of poems (and nobody does intense like the French Romantics). A recurring theme throughout many of the poems (and maybe poetry in general) is the juxtaposition of youth and beauty and mortality, decrepitude and death. Heavy as the subject is, few of the poems become maudlin, and less so when heard spoken with just a hint of detached irony, and the delicate musicality that is altogether lost in translation. Listening and reading simultaneously works wonderfully well and gives a complete poetic experience. Of course, as Applebaum clearly states in his introduction, this is really just the tiniest taste. Each of the poets represented has a complete oeuvre which is significantly more wonderful than one or two poems can show. Nevertheless, Introduction to French Poetry provides a lovely and well-structured overview which will help show the relationship between poets – how one historical movement gave rise to another, as well as to provide a beginner’s sense of the many different styles and symbols of the poetic giants who shaped the French poetic landscape. It’s a good way of finding, as Rimbaud puts it in“Départ”, “affection et le bruit neufs!” (new affection and new noise!”).
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.
Article first published as Le mot juste en anglais.