‘Où vont les chiens ? ’, ‘Where do the dogs go?’,1 this question is posed by Baudelaire in the last ‘prose’ poem (in Spleen de Paris) in order to evoke a kind of literature that would correspond with urban, modern life – a kind of poetry which is adapted to those ‘sinuous ravines’ of the cities where the ‘poor’ roaming dogs are, the famished dogs. This question is also relevant to poetry: ‘where does poetry go?’, ‘where do the poets go?’.
This question has troubled me for far too many years, and this is the reason why I cannot separate my poetic endeavours from a critical reflection on these. This critical reflection constitutes both the context and condition for my poetry (which for me constitutes the conditions of legibility).
It is in this spirit (of active questioning) that I recently published a book titled Sorties (Exits) which forms the third part of a project (begun more than twenty years ago), with which I intend:
- To comment on a number of choices and tropisms concerning the part of literature called poetry – in sum why, for instance, I prefer this or that literary movement/praxis rather than another one: why this and not that Baudelaire, why les Petits Poèmes en Prose and not Les Fleurs du Mal; or Rimbaud and not Verlaine; Francis Ponge instead of René Char, or Saint John Perse, or André Breton; Denis Roche rather than Yves Bonnefoy or Philippe Jaccottet, and so forth.
- To emphasise the contours of a space more or less defined by practical notions (methodological tools) which progressively emerge during contemplation or reflection (literalism, realness (réelisme), prose in prose, a post-poetic praxis…). Rather than having fixed definitions, these terms are continuously being tested in concrete analyses of texts.
Though elusive, these terms are consistent throughout my critical work, always susceptible to further modifications.
To describe the contours of this space is to find ways which enables one to intervene in this field and to situate this intervention. Not only to describe and demonstrate a fact, but, if it is possible, to modify the map of the landscape (through literature, but also through publications and joint collections, through magazines, and in teaching…).
I have mentioned the fact that Sortie is the third part of a larger project. Thus, two previous attempts exist.
The first book was titled Poésie et figuration, and was published in 1983 at the publishing company Seuil in the collection ‘Pierres Vives’ (which does not exist today, but which in my opinion had much power at that time because this was where the Essais critiques of Roland Barthes were published). Through a number of actual analyses from romanticism up to contemporary modernity, this critical essay endeavours to demonstrate the process of de-figuration, of progressive de-representation at work in the poetic text which makes it increasingly illegible, or legible in a different way. The purpose of this venture also was to draw attention to two different positions: 1.) the inventor of modern lyricism, the founder of a modern poetic language, profoundly de-conventionalised in his Méditations from 1820, Lamartine, and 2.) the ‘frantic’ poet or anti-poet, author of Mécrit (1972, the ‘Tel Quel’ collection at Seuil), Denis Roche, who with this ultimate work proclaimed the death of his own poetry and poetry as such (‘poetry is inadmissible; besides it does not exist’2 or that it no longer makes any sense or has any legitimacy).
The second book, titled A noir and with the subtitle ‘Poésie et littéralité’ (from 1992 and published at the same company, but this time in the collection ‘Fiction & Cie’, founded and directed by exactly the aforementioned poet Denis Roche) was much more free in its formal aspects and corresponds with the development of my conception of literary criticism: the word ‘fiction’ in the collection’s title may be understood in a broad way, as it exceeds the genre of the novel. Concerning ‘& Cie’ this term opened the doors to much theoretical ado in various ways, which was if not downright perverse, then at least polymorphous. A Noir is hence a book which I regard as an indirect manifesto (a manifesto for the literal literature, for a prose conversion) which intermingles texts of criticism, panorama texts, poetic, metapoetic, autobiographic and polemical texts without masking the heterogeneity of the work…
Sorties, the last part of the triptych picture, definitely emphasises and tightens the characteristics of A Noir. It is a book containing fifty texts, which may be regarded as different contributions to the understanding of contemporary poetry. They are both interior and exterior to the academic institution, and they often explicitly stress the context of the enunciation. They progress step by step dialectically through deliberate repetitions (foregrounding certain key texts through reformulations and re-descriptions, juxtaposing them with exemplary theoretical models, like for instance ‘La Mounine’ by Ponge in la Rage de l’expression or in the beginning of ‘Aprés le déluge’ in Illuminations by Rimbaud), which because they are not written at the same time produces a permanent montage – montage and re-montage. Therefore it is a matter of different versions, readjustments and possible contradictions of the same texts and themes; an approach that should be regarded as a continuing movement (cf. the fourth volume, where it says: ‘I don’t understand, still not: I continue’).
Why ‘Sorties’?, this simple title in plural tense. ‘Sorties’ because it no doubt concerns a central trope by which one is to comprehend the critical gestures which are rough-hewed in these pages. Plural because the ‘sortie’ does not have just one dimension, but the modalities of the ‘sortie’ are even multiple, and each text in the book evoke different examples. I recall my friend who is a philosopher, Sarah Kofman, who has written a short book titled Comment s’en sortir? She alludes to the question of the aporetic in general, to the question of possible exits to situations seemingly without any exits. When I choose this word, I first of all presuppose that we are (or that I am) in an unfortunate position. And that it is a question of ways of escape. How? How does one escape from this? The anxiety has to do with a feeling of being subjugated to a certain space (a literary and poetic field, an institutional, social and political field), to a controlling and constraining regime, to the dominance of evidences (which are not very evident) which is generally accepted, but from which there are good reasons to emancipate oneself.
In this case the principal exit, if I dare call it that, is the exit, or the attempt at leaving the ‘circus ring’, or the ‘routine’ of poetry (the terms in the inverted commas belong to Ponge’s parlance): the story of placing oneself after poetry with hands free. Rimbaud has escaped, has multiplied the exits, ever since his escapes as a child and until his ‘departure’; Mallarmé has said that he (Rimbaud) ‘operated himself to cure himself of poetry’.3 Francis Ponge has multiplied the possibilities of acts of secession, he quickly gave up writing ‘poems’, and instead he decided to exhibit his drafts and notebooks as texts (‘I make use of the magma of the simile, but only in order to dispose of it’,4 the true poetry is not in the poems but ‘in the energetic drafts made by the manics of this novel embrace’5). Let me pause for a minute at these two authors, these two exemplary decisions. It is clear that these exits, or attempts at exit, are at the same time ‘false exits’ so long as the institution (the school, the publishing company, the book store and the library) has lead the two back inside the traditional poetic field: Rimbaud and Ponge’s works have been published in La Pléiade and at the publishing company Seghers, and they are integrated in school books. It is this phenomenon I term the ‘internal exit’. One dares to note that the ineluctable nature of the ‘internal exit’ in no way seeks to discredit the act of ‘sortie’ itself. This exit (even when it does not present itself as a systematic refusal of or deviation from the generic frame and of the ideology that attend it) is ineluctably connected with any literary endeavour, which is seriously involved in formal invention; and if the poet himself has not sought the exit, it may be imposed on him from external forces. Thus, Lamartine is accused of violating the rules of rational poetry and the precision of unambiguous language, just as Hugo felt he had to respond to a ‘charge’, a charge which he knew was appropriate: ‘I threw the noble line to the black dogs of prose’.6 In fact, Hugo has contributed to a de-articulation of the alexandrine verse and to the contamination of the verse and of the poem by what we call prose: ‘prosaisms’ (in French, ‘prosaïsmes’), the facts of orality…
Under these circumstances, I reserve an important place for the historical line of theoreticians and practitioners of sortie critique: Rimbaud, Ponge and Denis Roche. This lineage within ‘poésie critique’ (or critical post-poetry) is characterised by foregrounding the principle of ‘de-lyricising’ poetry and by the search of some kind of ‘objective poetry’ (the latter is announced – but not defined – by Rimbaud in one of his letters ‘du voyant’). In our modern (or modernist?) tradition, there might exist a literal objectivism or an objective literalism (which, by the way, always refrains from calling itself by that name, to present itself like that or dogmatise itself as such) which is made evident in the works of Claude Royet-Journoud, Jean Daive, Anne-Marie Albiach, Emmanuel Hocquard, Dominique Fourcade…, oeuvres that are drawn upon as Sorties progresses. This corpus (which is objective objectivistic and literal), which represents the lineage of critique, has affinities with the classics of experimental modernism, the relevant inheritors of the historical avant-gardes: poésie sonore, poésie concrete, poésie élémentaire, poésie-action or performance poetry, which are e.g. represented by poets like Bernard Heidsieck or Julien Blaine, and it is also has affinities with the most recent generation, that which emerges during the nineties; the origin of this generation is centred on the publication of two volumes of Revue de Littérature générale (‘RLG’) in 1995 published by Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi at the publishing company POL; it is a book project which may partly be perceived as a manifesto (it being technical and practical rather than theoretical), the propositions in which many recognise themselves or against which they position themselves: C. Hanna, O. Quintyn, N. Quintane, M. Joseph….
It is necessary to direct our efforts towards a description of the way in which contemporary poetry is organised in France after the death of the avant-garde, after the death of the neo-avant-garde from the sixties and seventies, an époque where this movement was organised around the predominant groups of poets and magazines: the ‘textualists’ of Tel Quel, the ‘formalists’ of Change, and various groups inspired by them, along with groups in the periphery who were subjected to the necessity of not defining oneself in relation to or as a reaction against anything else but these hegemonic groups. In the eighties and nineties this field is dissolved, and one bears witness to a destruction of the field which, thus, becomes extremely blurred to the extent that everything from this time on can coexist; this allowed serious attempts at restoring traditional lyric poetry to reoccur; restoration, that is, a ‘return’ to a previous condition which is prior to the sterilising ‘catastrophe’ from the years where the systematic destruction of fundamental poetic values took place, i.e. the destruction of the lyric tradition: expression, the lyric I, emotion, metre and prosody, song… I am content to merely name in passing this moment, which is extremely interesting for the abundant resurgence of discourses which openly and aggressively are regressive (there are numerous texts that need to be looked out and analysed…). It is in this context that I have proposed the idea (an idea that I pursue in Sorties) of comprehending the field after the sixties and seventies as a clear division intolapoésie (which I write as one word) and repoésie on the one hand, and néo-poésie and post-poésie on the other hand. The former willingly inherit the formal and thematic aspects of traditional poetry either to be legitimised by the ‘magistrates’ or incontestable ‘officials’ (Valéry in the beginning of the last century and Yves Bonnefoy today), or they inherit it as a reactionary mode: they are composed by the new lyric poets from the eighties, the re-lyric poets in continuation of whom a number of suggestions follow – from prosaic lyricisms to emphatic lyricisms (e.g. James Sacré and Pierre Oster). The latter part contains those who could be called the reformers or refounders of poetry, those who want to change poetry through a permanent reinvention of itself and its various forms; this is what I call neo-poetry, which is both the ex-formalists of Change ( they have close affinities with the Oulipo-group) and the neo-experimentalists (performance poetry, elementary poetry, etc.). They depend on the term ‘poetry’ in so far as they recognise themselves herein, but they also use it to flaunt a distance to what we understand by poetry. Last but not least post-poetry, i.e. poets who no longer define their poetic praxis in relation to questions which concern the intra-poetic debate: verse or non-verse, verse or prose, poem or non-poem, image or non-image etc.; poets who reflect on what they do, the non-identified objects that they produce, the ways in which their works circulate (in the book or outside the book), in another context. Just like the term ‘sortie interne’ applies to the ‘modernist critics’, it may also be used to designate the post-poets, and I believe it has an actual effect concerning the latter ones. All that is left to be done is to state that something different happens in different way. I.e. when one speaks of post-poetry you continue to place these movements in relation to poetry, in relation to the poetry from which they had sought ‘operation’ (to repeat Mallarmé’s comment on Rimbaud). Yes, but it is necessary to point out that there is a difference between post-poets and critical poets (non- or contra-poets), and this difference concerns 1.) the way in which they move outside any reference to formal, technical and theoretical questions, questions concerning poetry, so to speak, disregarding pretensions of novelty, 2.) the fact that the textual or other objects that they produce are very difficult to recuperate within any generic frame. I continue to assume that post-poetry is not an optical illusion. It tends to proliferate among us.
There is no doubt another possible way of understanding the term ‘sortie’. It is inspired by Francis Ponge and it is connected with the effort in prose, the effort to invent a prose in prose, it is the effort to exit the circle enchanted by stylistic sublimation and by the idealising poeticity or re-poeticity (the key word here is: avoid to ‘arrange things’…). This other way of perceiving the exit has to do with the role which may be attributed to the literary activity after poetry. Let me quote the very short text by Ponge (which I reproduce here) from Cahier de l’Herne:
Christ glorifies the humble.
The Church glorifies humility. Be careful! This is not the same
thing. On the contrary.
Christ degrades the powerful.
The church lavishes on the powerful.
Arise ye wretched of the earth! I am the one who incites,7
This text is written in 1942. At that time, Ponge was a member of the Communist Party. As early as in the thirties he says that it is important to ‘teach everyone the art of founding your own rhetoric’,8 the art of ‘resisting words’;9 or phrased differently: to resist the dominant ideological discourse, which surrounds us, which traverses us, which we interiorise to the extent that we no longer speak but are spoken to. When Ponge wrote in 1942 that ‘je suis un suscitateur’ (‘I suscitate’) it did not signify that he wanted to found a literary movement, he simply declared and suggested that when all is said and done, the act of writing is political. It is necessary to let those speak who do not speak or no longer speak.
We, the readers, must bear in mind that our culture juxtaposes politics and discourse and sense (the ‘message’); this is one of the fundamental aspects in what we name ‘commitment’; and politics is also juxtaposed with the technical modalities of representation, of mimesis; this is what we call ‘realism(s)’ which is/are historically inseparable from the social conscience of the artists and the writers: critical and romantic realism(s) in different guises of ‘socialist’ realisms, which pass by the experimental naturalism begun by Zola, etc. What Ponge suggests can only be comprehended on the basis of these terms and demands that one envisages the written as an ‘act’ rather than as mere content, and as susceptible to or destined to suscitate and liberate other speech acts. He wants to demonstrate a certain way of facing language, facing the real and the world ‘actively’, to exemplify a resistance to ‘paroles’; to provide tools to avoid being hypnotised and paralysed by words, stereotypes, the frozen phrases, the language of the forest and of honey etc. It is in this sense that the written may be envisaged as a ‘communal’ activity, concerning man in community. And this is the reason why the word ‘communism’, in spite of the direction the term has taken with the history of socialism, continues to be a word in suspense – the meaning still remains to be defined.
Towards the end of Sorties and in Film à venir which is my previous book, I describe the intact power of this word, the fact that this word necessarily must have another meaning, and that this other meaning is partly, let us say, stifled or impeded. I recall the circumstances of a drowned young revolutionary activist (who was a student at Lycée Mallarmé in Paris) in the Seine by Flins in June 1968, who was pushed in the river by a couple of mobilised Guards: ‘the surface of writing is like the mirror of the lake, it seems to reflect the sky above, but this sky above is really nothing more than the reflection of the sky that is caught in the water’.10 ‘A communist’ is for me a word which is caught in the water (in this body caught in the water). The post-poetic writings, as I perceive them, have as their goal ‘the pragmatic truth’. A condition for this, of course, is that post-poetry incessantly strives to liberate truth, to unveil it, to let it exit, ‘sortir’.
“Oúvont les chiens” is a talk given by Jean-Marie Gleize at the conference “Poetry Today” on October 20-21 2009 at Aarhus University, Denmark. The talk published here is translated by Louise Højgaard Marcussen & Lasse Gammelgaard.
1. The English translator, Keith Waldrop, writes: ”Where are the dogs?”, but as the French verb vont entails movement, this translation is unsatisfactory for Gleize’s purposes.
2. ’La poésie est inadmissible, d’ailleurs elle n’existe pas’.
3. ‘opéré vivant de la poésie’.
4. ‘j’utilise le magma analogique, mais c’est pour m’en débarrasser’.
5. ’dans les brouillons acharnés des maniaques de la nouvelle étreinte’.
6. ’J’ai jeté les vers noble aux chiens noirs de la prose’.
7. ’Le Christ glorifiait les humbles. / L’Eglise glorifie l’humilité. Attention ! ce n’est pas la même shose. C’est tout le contraire. / Le Christ rabaissait les puissants. / L’Eglise encense les puissants. / « Debout les damnés de la terre ! « / Je suis un suscitateur.’ Translation of these lines by Serge Gavronksy.
8. ‘d’apprendre á chacun l’art de fonder sa propre rhétorique’.
9. ’résister aux paroles’.
10. ’La surface des écrits est comme le miroir des lacs, il parait refléter le ciel supérieur, mais ce ciel supérieur n’est en réalité que le reflet de ce ciel enfermé dans l’eau’.