Yves Bonnefoy

Poetry is a never-ending task


Michael March talks to Yves Bonnefoy (2009)

Michael March: "To be or not to be." Are we losing sight of the fundamental mystery of our being-in-the-world, which haunts Hamlet and shakes old Lear to the core?

Yves Bonnefoy: Are we losing touch with what you rightly call the fundamental mystery? First of all, we must define what a mystery is and ask ourselves - why can the dilemma "to be or not to be" be lived as a mystery? And then another question, perhaps the most important of all: is not the very experience of mystery, of mystery as an actual entity, something that our modern era, at least in the west, has forgotten? I think it is essential to contemplate these matters that are not only neglected today but badly received when they are discussed, considered to be both pointless and fanciful. We should reflect on the concept of mystery, as this will not deflect us from our shared concern, the realm of poetry.

Mystery? It is really something quite simple, and keeping the thought alive allows us to explore dimensions within ourselves that are absolutely vital and that it would be disastrous to ignore. Mystery is when an event appears to us as truly ineffable, according to our own understanding of the world, that cannot be explained or justified by our capacity for thought and understanding.

One such phenomenon beyond the bounds of logical thought is, for example, the undeniable and insoluble paradox: words are simultaneously sound and meaning. Where does this paradox lie? Well, when we perceive words as meaning, as means of communication, we use them to interpret aspects of perceivable reality, or existence, and in this way we construct the world that we live in, but at the same time we detect something in their sound, the noise they make, that is totally extraneous to what we can think or say, and this sound, this eruption can then drag us into its core as can the contemplation of a mass of shapeless stone or the starry sky at night. Over and above all that we think we know the harsh sound allows us to perceive reality as it exists beyond the confines of our knowledge, a reality that has not been penetrated by the word and is consequently a unity: in short, an experience of the unity or what we term the mystical, in any event the dissolution of all that language itself allows us to construct for everyday lives. Words have the ability to drag us in these two opposite directions, totally separate from one another, and it is precisely this phenomenon that I consider to be a mystery.

Furthermore, I regard it as the fundamental mystery, which contains all others within it, particularly the one which you identify when you quote "to be or not to be": these words show Hamlet in the throes of a dilemma, with a choice to make, but at a deeper level they seem to prove that being and not being are not totally opposite conditions, more a fundamentally indistinct state, a process of rapid changes, in truth - an identity.

And it is true: because, after all, what does happen when we speak, when we deliver a meaning? We construct an intelligible space within which we can believe that "we are a being", as if endowed by a god, and yet we still only know things from the outside, using concepts that provide generalisations about aspects of the world and are consequently incapable of penetrating the irreducibly personal or specific, our relationship as human beings to time, to death and what I would call our transience. It follows that these fundamental aspects of our relationships with ourselves become so many enigmas, before which we can see nothing but "empty shapes of matter" otherwise expressed as non-being. Yes, but however little we deny ourselves these meanings to listen simply and intensely to the sound of the words, representing the deepest level of reality, and so in truth losing all the illusions that the word's meaning suggested, we now have the impression of connecting with the reality of this depth that exists as much within our body as within the core of all matter. This is what constitutes the awareness of being, in a totally immediate way, even if this time it exists in the silence of words. To have a world, through the word, is to have nothing, to be nothing. To perceive the nothingness within, in the syncope of the word, is to be, by the mere fact of not being.

Our relationship with language is therefore in both these states "to be AND not to be", in spite of the paradox. And the question asked by Hamlet has perhaps engaged readers of Shakespeare so forcibly because it reveals that the Prince of Denmark is no longer able to understand that he does not have a choice between being and not being, as if the choice depended upon an act of the intellect, but rather that he must search for the being in the heart of the non-being through listening at a deeper, more inward searching level to the mysterious proposition that words create.

To phrase that differently: Shakespeare recognised that moment in the history of the western world when the intellect that analyses the world but in fact merely considers the surface was beginning to stifle those intuitions which in previous times had preserved the awareness of unity and of personal involvement in that unity. It is precisely on this account that Hamlet is so significant: here we find the hero at the moment where the "or not to be" replaces the "and not to be", a choice that leads to a preference for a labyrinth of conceptual meanings with their many enigmas, and consequently induces anguish and dejection to the point of provoking the same cynical outlook exhibited by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This choice has been consistently accepted by modern man ever since. Why? Because technology is forever becoming a substitute for natural phenomena - which can be interpreted as symbols, associated with unity - such artificially produced products, starting with simple matter but not with life. Drinking water or wine preserved our awareness of life, which always leads towards the One along the pathway of individual existences. Opting for drinks which, like modern medicines, are no more than syntheses of chemical elements, gives us no more enlightenment than shackled concepts, conceptual meanings - quite the contrary. All we are imbibing is our self-fragmentation, our non-being.

This being the case, the poetry lies precisely in the memory of the unity of truth buried beneath this fragmentation. And it is Hamlet himself who, in this new condition created on the threshold of the 17th century by scientific discoveries, ought to have been a poet, and understands moreover that he should have been, but fails to be, suffers and dies as a result. Shakespeare's play simultaneously expresses the need and the difficulty of poetry.


 At the point poetry escapes from ordinary language, can poetry recover our existence? Can poetry rediscover the unity, the oneness of the world that has been forgotten?

This is, of course, the great question of our time. And, at a glance, the answer is positive. When we hear the sound in the depth of language, our body - which is aware of our transience - can absorb into its rhythms the words, weakening their network of meaning, allowing things and beings to appear before us, within us, with an immediacy by virtue of which we escape the anguish of non-being, which is the fatal consequence of knowledge through concepts. But it is only there for a fleeting moment, since our desires exploit this word with its greater freedom to project the dreams that are still bound by exterior meaning and concepts. And thus it is the poem which is a compromise that juxtaposes poetry with the undeniable facts of existence. The truth of poetry lies less in the original memory of the presence of the world beneath the language than the obduracy with which it resurfaces, when that presence is fading. Poetry is a never-ending task - the continuous search which could otherwise, by asking us to think together about what it is in us that stands in its way, help in the construction of a society based on truth.

What act of consciousness allows us to recognise poetry and to freecit from ordinary speech?

This act is certainly not the analysis of the meanings which figure in the poems, not even in the very greatest and mostly intensely poetic. The meanings contribute no more to the mystery of poetry than theologies invoke faith. The poetry is in the insight that poets can focus onto aspects of their existence, an awareness of its intrinsic transience, as opposed to the viewpoint of those who are limited by the restraints and choices of conceptual thought. And one can easily see the effects of this great insight in the texts. For example, it is basic knowledge that distinguished between smells, sounds and colours. From the point of view of the immediacy that poetry seeks to rediscover, "colours, smells and sounds" cannot be differentiated. To quote Baudelaire, who refers to their "tenebrous" as well as profound "unity", they "echo one another". And also from this point of view, some things appear more important than others and are therefore immediately perceived in a new fashion that is poetry.

Some examples? Baudelaire, during one of his peregrinations across Paris on an autumn evening, hears the logs thrown down by the delivery men from their carts onto the paving stones of a courtyard. These logs, before coming to rest, bounce and fall a few times before landing with a dull thump, followed by silence, and the sharp sense of finality that poetry keeps alert in Baudelaire allows him to recognise in this sound, that he calls "funereal", a parallel with the human condition between life and death, and to raise it to the highest level of his consciousness. This choice, this observation, is the very poetry of "Chant d'automne", one of the peaks of "Fleurs du Mal".

Are we "condemned to hope"?

Yes. This ensues from the nature of poetry, this search for the immediacy that is inhibited by the dream. To renounce this search, this hope, would be to accept living oblivious of oneself, like all those Rosencrantz and Guildensterns.

Does art offer immortality?

That question is a trap, but one that allows me to clarify my ideas. Writers like to establish harmonious or interesting relationships of shapes between words, balanced with wisdom, to create a verbal object that exists in its own right and has the capacity to endure. This object, one can definitely maintain, has been conceived and created with art, sometimes great art, and for some authors one can call this art "poetry", applying as a hallmark the ancient Greek word for "creating" or "producing". But I cannot accept this recourse to the word "poetry". It is true that in a certain verbal object the words are wrenched from their normal usage at the heart of a conceptual dialogue, which is weakened to serve the purpose of whoever is aiming further, into the realm of poetry: but this will only really happen if the author takes advantage of such a weakening of the meaning to move beyond it to a more intimate and living relationship with the world, as well as with himself. A reaction to the events of his life that will require him to leave behind the preoccupation with the verbal object in favour of a newly opened word, a word that acknowledges its limitation and seeks to move itself forward in the struggle between thought and desire. To put this another way: there is an art that is in no way poetry. And as this is not sustained by the hope of fulfilment that characterises the poet, it follows that he who calls himself the artist is supported by a dream of immortality, however relative. They lie ahead, the centuries of glory awaiting Horace in the form of his "monumentum aere perennius", but poets will not be hooked by this essentially naive dream.

In poetry, there is no more victory over death than there is in life: during the moment - that split second before ordinary dialogue recommences - when the sound that is heard, the mounting rhythm, dissipates exteriority in the perception of things. Any other idea of immortality is no more than an extension of generality, of abstraction, that turns a conceptual thought into a simple representation from the outside, just an empty shell. Anyway, how can we talk about immortality today when it is becoming apparent that within a more or less short time span, it is human society that is going to crumble into pieces on a planet that will again become uninhabitable?

Is "absolute dispossession the supreme richness"?

Is this another trap? Or rather an incitement to equivocate? It is possible to believe, in effect, that the idea of "absolute dispossession" is intimately connectable with what I have just said about poetry, to recognise that it is a transgression of representations and meanings that rule within the word. If we do not concern ourselves with these meanings, those things that they fix in our consciousness lose value in our eyes, and so the desire to possess them will be wiped out together with their images. No, that is not what poetry is! It is less the transgression of the conceptual than the awareness that this transgression is already falling back on the expression of desire; it is a perpetual cycle, an understanding of the endless contradictions of words, seeking to overcome them. And to achieve this it is more necessary to simplify the desire than to attempt to reduce it to nothingness. Poetry is not to shed everything, as is generally supposed, but rather to attach itself to acts of existence and to recognise their intrinsic value. It is to love these few positives, to love them without deviation and for what they are. Never to cease desiring, but rather to continue shedding light on desire.

What images remain of your past visits to Czechoslovakia?

One especially, from after the velvet revolution. It was on the day that the Pope arrived to visit Prague, when the loudspeakers that the old political regime had installed on the streets (and which had helped to overthrow it) were being used to broadcast a very long mass across the city. I can see myself once more in that huge square, just a few steps from the monument that commemorates the sacrifice of Jan Palach, listening to the music of a rock group intermingling with the Latin voices broadcast from the rooftops. A policeman, who had stopped close to us, was also listening, his gun at rest on his shoulder.



©Michael March, 2009

 Yves Jean Bonnefoy (24 June 1923 – 1 July 2016) a French poet and art historian