Poetry is not in the object, but in the subject. It is not the object that acts, but the subject. It is not the object that changes, but the subject. It is not the object that communicates emotion, emotion arises in the subject and it is the subject who expresses the emotion after having betrayed and transformed it so that it no longer has anything in common with the object from which it first appeared to arise, and so the subject alone constitutes the source.
The object is an aspect of reality. Yet the passage from the object to the subject arises from the disappearance of all reality. It is a blossoming of relationships. And the perception and choice of relationships varies from subject to subject. It is doubtful that there are even two people in the entire world who grant exactly the same value to the same relationships between the object and themselves, or between two or more objects.
There is no poetic object (scene, landscape, word or group of words), there is a subject who thinks and, due to being constituted in a particular way, feels an emotion arise and develop that is poetic only in the reaction that is produced within him or her.
It is remarkable that the greater one’s sensitivity and, inspired by the deep and complete love of the object, the further it reaches towards that object, the less it is apt to attain the object or even get closer to it.
Playing with the perception of relationships, by intellectualizing the contact between subject and object, is a dangerous exercise – it frustrates the sensitivity that, actually, always encloses the void. Such perception runs into a kind of invisible net of separation that always prevents the subject and object from uniting – it is caught there as if in a trap.
There is an incessant and unsurpassable barrage being fired between the poet’s sensitivity and reality.
Poetry is like an ambiguous scent of reality though the subject is always deceived as to its origin.
In front of the same object, the same subject is likely to have a different response each time they are presented with the object. So does the subject represent a stable value, or does the object? Moreover, where is poetry situated, and where is reality grasped? However if poetry and reality reside only in relationships, the subject alone perceiving them, the subject would still remain the one who would constitute all poetry and all reality. Yet, it is only by escaping the world of relationships that one risks encountering reality. And perhaps only those who let themselves be invaded by reality without seeking it actually apprehend and savour it.
The value of a poetic form does not come from its metre. What gives life to a being or text is never outside of it. A body is given form by what its skin contains. What gives form to a text is the substance that fills it, and its taste is provided by the quality of this substance. Poetic craft does not lead to any grandeur. Rather, anywhere that skill predominates a weakness, a sort of brilliant mediocrity, immediately comes to light.
The means of creation, in poetry even more so than in any other art, must remain the hypothetical key to a mystery that the author himself will never completely solve. Each time that this mystery dissipates, whether in the hierarchy of genius or in that of talent, it recedes further beyond reach. The ways of genius always remain impenetrable, whereas those of talent gradually come to light.
All that touches a true poet, sooner or later, becomes poetry.
It is not at the beginning that one can judge the poetic value of an emotion, but at the end—when it has resulted in an artwork, even though the original emotion, itself, is annulled in the process.
The poet appears, during his lifetime, as an exceptionally gifted being and, seen from another angle, appears even more as a cripple irremediably unable to adapt to the practical demands of reality. This is because the poet’s gift is the result of a somewhat monstrous imbalance between the poet’s almost nonexistent means of action externally and the power of his means of action internally. For poetic movement is an act, an exclusively inner and secret act. The poet is justified in his role, as perfectly useless as it is, only through his oeuvre. And a work of art has no better or more human justification than in being, to the highest degree, the particular and necessary realization of a specific personality. The primordial goal of an artwork being to prove, above all to the one who has created it, that it was the truth, the sole means leading its creator to the summit of power and perfection in the concrete universe. What is much more difficult to admit is that the poet’s act has no affect beyond the plane where the poet finds himself. It is only after a long delay that the poet’s general usefulness is affirmed. The rest of the time, contrary to and against all, it takes no small courage to carry on.
It would be utterly ridiculous for an insignificant little informant about demonstrations of art to suddenly lose his feeling of worthlessness and feel hurt by a word that, directed far above him, was addressed to a famous critic. It is important to realize that each thing has its place. Also I would beware of comparing poetry to any of those prosperous arts that only resemble it from afar and that have borrowed so much from it. This is because, here even less than elsewhere, the hand holding a pen equals the hand grasping a plough. Further the congenital infirmity that I mentioned above, due to the imbalance in strength and sensitivity, prevents poetry, under penalty of falling, from even slightly bending. Hence poetry demands that those who want to approach it must climb up to it. It must expect that the rest will remain ignorant of it, just as it doesn’t need to do anything for them. However, the good that will come from poetry, will be acquired later, and without cost. Later, when, dead, even the asses will gather to pay an homage infinitely more insulting than a kick would have been while alive.
Le Poète Secret et le Monde Extérieur (1938)
from Cette Émotion Appelée Poésie, © Flammarion 1974
translated by Michael Tweed