Is poetry a lie?

Neither “lie” nor “truth” is the proper term to define Art or Poetry. Fiction is not a lie. Though it is not a true story, a fable is a true fable. Truth is not dependent upon reality. Reality however is always true, but the lie often trumps it. No one has ever been asked to believe that the dawn has rosy fingers. Yet to have said so has made the dawn more beautiful in the eyes of many people who have been unable to qualify such a statement. In art as in poetry, it is not a question of things being true—only that they are appropriate [juste]. It is this appropriateness [justesse] that makes them acceptable to the mind which, at any rate, needs to be shown things other than as they are and for which things stand out all the more when one, justifiably [avec justesses], describes them other than as they are. What stands out, what draws the attention is not the obvious. The mind easily grasps the obvious aspects of things, instead it is the unapparent that needs to be brought to light. For certain people reality quickly appears as a total con, a rather ingenious swindle, they clearly see that it is abundantly garnished with excellent and tasty treats which, however, they can neither reach nor taste. If they have nothing, they are consumed by desire; if they have everything, they don’t know what to do. For them nothing is simply available or ready for consumption. Between the world and such people there is a kind of refracting glass. They only need to place their hand on it for the object that they desire to appear elsewhere. Whereas all that they do succeed in acquiring turns to lead. Then, they begin to imagine and to enjoy fantasies ceaselessly sized and resized to their ever more convenient limits. On the other hand, because it is nothing more than the need and means to express oneself, art is a truth—assuming that it does not attempt to present itself as something other than it is—as a goal and not a means—if it does not try to fool us or to pull the wool over our eyes.

It is a question of knowing whether these things, which by an imperious need have been especially conceived and expressed, please you, touch you, move you or not. All the rest is on another plane—the one where putting into play entirely different kinds of forces and ruses has, for better or worse, immediate consequences that are inarguably less gratuitous. Nevertheless, like us, the poet is caught, indecisive and tempted, between the bitter, yet appetizing, lie of life and the sublime, but always somewhat hollow, truth of art.

(Les Cahiers du Journal des Poètes, No.70, November 15, 1939)

a sense of unity

The poet writes in order to discover, understand, develop and create himself, and make palpable the malaise or joy bubbling deep within him. No matter if upon confronting the work he discovers that he has been deceived! What he loves, what he hates, what touches and moves him, produce in him a catalyzing effect so that all the deposits that have accumulated will, at a given moment, change  into a single whole, which will become a poem when a new shock stimulates his creativity. Thus, instead of being the imitation of an external fact, the subject will emerge directly from the poet himself. The poet seeks a sense of unity of his total being with all that is foreign, but sympathetic to him in the universe.

(Le Journal des Poêtes, 1932)

what was the most important encounter of your life?

My single, principal and too obviously necessary, encounter–the importance of which increases according to its persistence in time–is the one that I believe I have had with myself,  and which I will never come to grips with. The others, with their various counterparts, appear fortuitous in the successive shocks that always turn me back, with more or less violence, toward my own reality.

(Answer to an inquiry from Minotaure, 1934)

why do you write poems?

I only write poems because I don’t see how I could live with other people, even of my own invention.

(Answer to an inquiry from Journal des Poêtes, 1932)

the secret poet and the external world

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