Dominique Sorrente

 

 

 

(France)

 

 

Letter to an Old Poet

 

 

 

 

My dear Hans,

 

You don’t ask me any more if your poems are good. Actually you may never have asked me. Still, your silence worries me and I wouldn’t like to lose touch with you at a time when I feel that the wind, riffling through your thinning hair, seems to want to wipe the slate clean.

 

What feeling makes you say that you have not been heard as you certainly hoped you were in your younger days? Maybe you tell yourself that your readers and your listeners belong to the ‘happy few’, the rare and precious ‘quelques-uns’; all the same it’s enough to make one’s head spin at the thought of comparing such personal experience with the deafening din of the surrounding logosphere. It seems to me that visiting the hypermarkets’ book sections is the best way of acquainting a writer with silence and vacuity. Your withdrawn attitude, adopted more through resignation than desire, taught you early on that the words of a poet would be hard pressed to find shelf-space.

 

And yet you have persisted in the work you have undertaken even if you haven’t always understood its purpose. With the sense of exultation that accompanies the flow of words, with the weariness that sometimes led you into endless sidetracks, all that toil you called an ‘oeuvre’; without claiming any self-importance, that was the only word for it. Of course you were not referring to the kind of  well-equipped craft which makes up its own rules and never passes up an opportunity to tell others of the inherent rightness of its views. But rather, an oeuvre in an unlikely form, constantly changing, thriving on that very instability, sometimes losing itself in it, but following the tracks left by the wake. That is really what you have been teaching all these years, mostly spent in obscurity.

 

The literary world, the ‘clique’ as it is sometimes called, was not really your cup of tea. You never felt that you belonged to that group, that coterie, that clan. Yet that was painful too, as the times we live in can scarcely tolerate the spirit of non-alignment so characteristic of the solitary mind. It’s not that you have refused to live in the company of others, of your artist or writer friends. Quite the contrary – since adolescence you’ve dreamed of a utopia of words, pitched like a sheltering canopy. But the ‘clique’ assumes different strategies which you felt more distant from with each passing year.  Increasingly I saw that your intention was to rid yourself of ‘calculation’, with your unrestrained gestures, your letters sent with no expectation of any reply, your exploration of the unknown in your poetry. And each time you laid yourself open you took a keen delight in it, as if your aim was to restore life to a bird that had lost its wings.

 

My guess is that such an attitude, which some consider ‘suicidal’, must have led to feelings of abandonment, perhaps regret, of an inner jihad, who can say… To accept that mediocrity parades itself around while the experience of ardour and incandescence is hidden away – that has to rankle. I remember the definition you gave me one day, to describe the ‘clique’: the poetry world (at least in France) while not a metaphor for a state of war, could very easily be mistaken for an armed peace. At the time, the definition made me smile. I imagined certain ethereal writers, with their faces smeared with war-paint, clad in battledress and helmets…Now I have a better understanding of what you meant by that remark, as a new generation is faced with the temptation of striding into battle  armed with all the new marketing methods, management, lobbying, all the techniques of the business world, which have become common practice in professional relationships. These techniques have infiltrated the everyday world and have become tacitly accepted standards in social relationships. The so discreet charm of the perfect crime – there you have it!

 

You rightly wanted to denounce this sham, no doubt because you knew it all too well. You wanted to show it up, even though you had no idea what a victory might entail, when it was too remote even to imagine, considering the inequality of the struggle. Your meagre weaponry makes me think of someone building a sandcastle as the tide comes in.

 

Today it’s hard to discern that innocent and childlike playfulness which used to enliven all your work. The spirit of the beautiful losers perhaps. You knew what had to be done in order to ‘succeed’ in the accepted terms but your actions made it clear that you would never live your life in such a trivial way. So – were you deliberately following the strategy of defeat, like one of those amusing oddballs the crowd finds so entertaining because they use every trick of the trade to not succeed? It would have been all too easy for the crowd to judge you in that way. For the poet, always  sidelined, a gentle dreamer placed on the mantelpiece like a Japanese vase by cold manipulators, in the hierarchy of indignity is relegated to a place not so very far away from the village idiot, a sort of ‘fada’ as we say in Provence, in other words, someone ‘away with the fairies’…

 

The answer lies elsewhere. For you, such criteria play no part in measuring success or failure. The concentration you put into working on a poem, finding the right place for a word, setting the rhythm of a sentence, all this is at the heart of your commitment. This kind of concentration takes you beyond the limits of ordinary time. To see an unexpected association of words emerge, this always surprises you, mysterious as any birth. When it came to publication, distribution, public readings, these activities were merely the lame companions of the original outpouring. Success, for you, has always meant using language to usher in or to welcome meaning, appearing as if by a stroke of luck.

 

Sometimes, when I reflect on how silent you are these days, faced with this frenetic world, I say to myself that I could very well define a poet as – the tree hiding the forest which does not exist!

 

This tree is not there to nourish illusions or wish fulfilments for the ‘instant’ world. It is alone in order to control both doubt and fear, and to leave room for hope, so that a path of possibility is offered to the world.

 

The two words ‘resistance’ and ‘foundation’ were always essential to you and still are today. These are not slick terms for opportunism or for treating oneself to a clear conscience at cost price. These two words are more like two wells, whose seeming endless resources need to be plumbed and tested, in every new circumstance. Resistance is something you have felt everywhere, well beyond any fragmented discussions on the economic system. It would be presumptuous to think that the present dangers are more exacting than those you lived through in the heady days of the twentieth century. But I think that they are much less visible than those you experienced at other times in your life. The resistance that is so much on your mind may have changed its horizon but it has never changed its original face. The face that first of all observes, with a deeply penetrating gaze, how the worlds move, the most distant world and the closest one, bearing witness to another’s story and to the inner labyrinth. As to the spirit of foundation, it forsook you only during fallow periods. I’m convinced that you adored inventing foundations, even if they were short-lived, and especially if you could prove them to be so.

 

It seems to me that the process of elaboration never engaged you as much as the passion you felt when launching yourself into something new. And you taught me that resistance and foundation lived on the same island, that rock of utopia which nourishes language as it does life.

 

Now you tell us that you are an old poet. This is acknowledged in the biographical dates that you are required to give when your work appears in anthologies or reviews. You’ve also bowed out of giving public readings and you’ve handed this over to others. As for your language, it evolves as mysteriously as ever, though it’s sometimes more austere; it’s like a river in different seasons and old age has nothing to do with it. You tell us you are an old poet because the signs of age are evident in your body and this is undeniably reflected in fine glass-fronted wardrobes. Yet, while saying that, it seems to me that all these ink-covered pages, far from serving as evidence on your behalf, they weigh you down.

 

One day, not so long ago, you mentioned Thomas Aquinas who, after writing Summa Contra Gentiles (The Summary against the Gentile) and nearing completion of the Summa Theologica (Theological Summary) may have admitted to his secretary  “videtur mihi ut palea” (all that seems to me just a pile of straw).

 

Nowadays the novice writer, chasing after instant success, will draw rapid conclusions. If writing like that only leads to gathering straw, he will have to alter course immediately – either work on something else or write in a different way.  But will he understand that these words come as if from the ends of the earth, claiming the last hours of a man’s life whose gaze is fixed on the beyond? The straw collected here is the poor relation, necessary to every work. Its dignity lies in its humility. That was the light that informed each one of your poems. The straw that accompanied you helped you to take a fresh look at the world, its ebbs and its flows. 

 

To be a full time poet has never been a sinecure. Triviality! How could anything commercial be linked with such a word, still considered somewhat embarrassing?  Draped in diaphanous material, tossed around in derision, littered with extravagances, to each his couplet….

 

From an early age you called yourself a poet, with the innocence and passion of adolescence, which knows nothing of compromise. If that description had been left behind  with adolescence, it would have been seen as a natural phase of life.  But as you grew older  poetry still kept on working in you.  And so the question had to be asked –  were you harbouring an eternal adolescence in you or had poetry  chosen to take on a more mature appearance to line the road you were following?  It could well be that, at different times, either of these responses might feel valid.  And so the poem finds its expression, using as a mouthpiece the most ordinary member of the immortal ones.

 

So what can an old poet do? Count the books that he hasn’t written?  Line up the trophies that he failed to be awarded? Thank the readers whose correspondence piles up in the poste restante box?…

This brings to mind another old poet, or should I say, ‘very old’ compared to you. He had taken classes in the school of ‘Whimsy’ and his first writings had been published in the revue Divan. He was almost one hundred years old.  Joe Bousquet, who lived a few kilometres from his house, was a mere boy compared to him. Together with a friend, we paid him a visit at his home near Lézignan.  It was siesta time and his work, sensibly, was  sleeping in a corner of the library.  The ‘whimsical’ poet’s comments were somewhat bitter.  We were among the rare few curious enough to pay him a visit.  The very old poet had been whimsical. Now he was getting ready to leave this world. And that, apparently, was not going to stop the world from turning.

 

A few books on a shelf, manuscript archives, a couple of pigeon-holes  for letters,  some photos; that about sums up the visible legacy of the old poet that you are today. The tendency of poets to fetishism often pulls objects into their orbit,  scribbled bits of writing on postcards. That helps them to live in their element. Since they do not tend to plaster the walls of their room with posters of the big stars of poetry, who no-one would recognize anyway, such a process is not entirely insignificant.  I can imagine a shop window displaying these objects, the collected scraps of your writing. A curious swallow might stop for a moment and say,  is this how humans live? Then it would fly off again, having encountered the visible side of the work which has been your whole life.

 

How many hours have been spent indulging in this peculiar obsession – shaping letters one after the other so that one line follows on from the next?  It must be admitted – the poet that you are has never really grasped the thorny question of work.  This word, which everyone loads with their personal associations – treating it as something to be cursed, to be borne bravely or as  simply routine – is often an ill-fitting garment for him.  The poet lives in this  constant activity which unfolds in a time different from social time and which arouses, at  best, incomprehension. For he is also capable, when needs must, of holding up a torch to inactivity.  Saint Laziness, protect us from the obligatory sentence…. At other times, nothing could stop you from ruining your eyesight staring at pages until late into the night. A poet like you is just as likely to let trains go without him as he is to stay late in the office after working hours. He doesn’t think of his work in terms of an hourly rate  and does not subscribe to  the academic ideology of targets. He receives the real, tries to join the wave lengths, delivers a chorus, falls silent.  And even when he’s asleep he remembers the formula that the admirable St. Pol the Red  pinned on the door of his bedroom, so that his dreams should not be disturbed “Silence, the poet is working.” So here we have someone who clearly defends from any kind of control or supervision  –  the work of the unconscious… I only know of one serious rival to that, the work of a pregnant woman.

 

In your life as a poet there is a rhythm to the years as there is to daily life.  When the time came for you to retire from the profession in which you earned your living there was no speech made, no medal awarded for services given, through your pages, to the nation. You simply quit the arena. And besides, the only reward you asked for was to pursue your daily explorations. For you the most beautiful gift will always be a new paragraph that appears from your hand as if by magic.

 

This is how Hugo von Hofmannstahl depicted the situation of a poet: hidden under the staircase, listening to others talking about him as if he were dead or had disappeared, but unable to make them aware of his presence under the staircase of his own house.  Perhaps there are some contemporary poets who take the lift these days (I’m still strangely resistant to that) – and yet, apparently, the situation has hardly changed. The poet jealously guards his precarious position in the city of today.  On the outer fringes of the margins, he will always manage to find himself a stray perch. And if he tries to change the hand he’s been dealt, to claim centre stage for example, he will soon hear the sound of today’s pillars of cultural authority turning back the clock. It’s well known that the only good poet is a dead poet! Since he doesn’t care to stand in line he can easily be pointed out unless he’s crafty enough to find some subterfuge. You, dear Hans,  have learned to recognize the suspect nature of such a desire. You never put your faith in false ideals. For you, the ongoing fascination lies in scrutinizing the enigmatic movement of the real.  At the beginning of the century in which you have lived, Apollinaire wrote “Depths of consciousness, you will be explored tomorrow”. We all know that things are not so different today, but are even more fascinating. The dizzy heights of rational thought have overflowed into so many fields of the spirit, from the theory of the crumpled universe to  the threshold of the infinitesimal, that scientists have become humble. An example, for the poet. You were curious about all these theories, for you were never indifferent to changing world views.

 

But you also know that in a scenario where the tendency is towards extreme specialization, the path of the poet, an individual, cuts across different landscapes,  for he is curious about every universe,  in search of unity, and even while traversing unstable terrain, is mindful of the permanence of the spirit. Your solitude, still, has this value: a retreat that welcomes the river of Diversity which Victor Segalen talks about, a retreat which can return us to the presence of the whole invisible world that connects us all.  There are so many worlds we might come across, in the subtle interlaced design of one moment, which reveals itself here and there, at the same time. It can be on the pavement of a street you walk down every day,  in the lamentations of war and imprisonment, in the touching of a flower, in the familiar morning cock crow or on the  unfathomable side of a planet which is living out its own story. And that ubiquity fascinates us as much as it unsettles us.

 

I will always see you as someone open to such encounters, without knowing when one might occur.

 

As things stand now, the old poet that you are has regained the high ground. He is not wondering about the fate of poetry after he has gone. He is like the joyous branches of that acacia tree which has survived all kinds of weather, which knows that hardship and pleasure are combined so intimately that the pain of separation and the joy of love making spring from the same root. The old poet remembers the bitter taste of bark; he hands it over to the imagination of the morning, to turn it into the joy of blossoming branches.

 

My dear Hans, what you have written cannot be taken away from you.

Your life as a poet has been a series of carved inscriptions, a dust-cloud of words, an account of bottles thrown into the sea, day after day, with such faith and dedication that the sea willingly poured itself into every one of them. 

 

Others will regard such a way of life as derisory.  It’s up to them if they want to quantify what they have, like counting the breaths of someone you love. Though that might risk weighing them down with a heavy load of incriminating evidence to carry to paradise ….

 

The evidence that an old poet presents is lighter. It is made from the colours of birds’ feathers, from joyous anticipation, from sheets of reflected sunlight, from sentences written on the walls of some forgotten prison, from a watchful eye trained on the edge of night. If one day you stop, others will take over, to write about everything that claims the honour of ‘serving no purpose’ and which is so important for us, for that very reason, to name.

 

My dear Hans, I will often think of you again, reconnect with you, even if you’re not aware of it.  It will only take an open book, behind the page marker or hidden behind a bookmark.  A few words, hastily written, that one day will revive two lovers faith in each other.  And you will protect them, without them even knowing it, by re-evoking buried feelings.

 

 

(Translated by Morelle Smith)

 

 

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