Blaise Cendrars

The greatest poet of the Cubist epoch was Pierre Reverdy, because he had distinguished emotions. The next was Gertrude Stein, because she had none. Both had perfect ears and impeccable style. Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), like Max Jacob, was a professional personality of the same period, rather than an artist. Henry Miller, who writes a brief preface to this collection, has written about Cendrars extensively elsewhere and admires him greatly. They have a good deal in common.

Both Cendrars and Miller present themselves to the public as livers rather than artists, and both have a talent for engaging implausibility, which sometimes catches them short. Actually this sort of thing is just as literary as Walter Pater or Henry James. It’s just a different pitch, and it depends for its effectiveness on its literary convincingness. Blaise Cendrars portrays himself in his poetry as a more picaresque and more robust and very French Whitman, a nonchalant knockabout who had been for to see and for to admire in all the most remote and exciting parts of the world.

It is interesting to go back and read some of the things that made his reputation — the volume called Kodak, the poem “Far West,” most emphatically pronounced “Fahvest,” as you discover on reading it. San Bernardino, Calif., is built in the center of a verdant valley, watered by a multitude of little brooks from the neighboring mountains. Trout pullulate in these brooks; innumerable herds graze in the fat fields and the shepherds stuff themselves with the local fruits, which include pineapples. Game abounds. The lapin à queue de coton called “cottontail” and the hare with long ears called “jackass,” the chat sauvage and le serpent à sonnette, “rattlesnake,” but there aren’t any more pumas nowadays. So it goes on. Hilaire Hiler used to read this whole poem, ad-libbing all sorts of French-pronounced Westernisms with hilarious effect on the select audience in the old Jockey on Boulevard Montparnasse.

As a cowboy poet, Cendrars is, I’m afraid, only a cooey-booey. As a poet of tourism, he is less convincing than Valéry Larbaud and his world-wandering, world-weary billionaire, A.O. Barnabooth. Yet convincing he is, not for what he pretends to be, but for what he is. He is the poet of the lumpen demimonde, of the sword-swallowers, escape-artists and streetcorner acrobats in the cheap hotels back of the Gaîté, of the worn and innocent whores of the Passage du Départ with runs in their stockings and holes in their shoes. It’s not just that he writes about them, although when he does he’s very good indeed, but that he thinks like them and speaks in their very voices.

This is not true of other poets of the métier, who sublimate the idiom with their own sentiment. This is the sort of thing that translators seem unable to catch. The desperate insouciance that underlies the rhythms of Cendrars’s verse and the twists of his syntax are inaccessible to American professors of French who get foundation grants.

Yet Cendrars was also intellectual and the introduction to these translations makes much of his writing on poetics. His ideas are pretty much the orthodoxy of the Cubist period and now have the musty smell of dead café conversation. Our principal emotion on reading Cendrars today is nostalgia for him and his friends and the beautiful epoch in which they came to maturity, and this is greatly reinforced by the fact that nostalgia is also close to being his own principal subject. Far away at the ends of the earth he meets a wandering tart on a transcontinental train and all the sordid purgatorial excitement of the streets of Paris lit with prostitutes floods back on him. The Far West or the Argentine pampas, which he probably never saw, are symbols of lost innocence and glamour.

One of Cendrars’s most important contributions to French literature is his prosody. He began writing vers libre in Vielé-Griffin’s sense, which is not to be translated “free verse,” but which in Cendrars’s case was a kind of rushing, sprung alexandrine or hexameter or hendecasyllable. In his first long poem this approaches the impetuous rocking rhythm of Apollinaire’s “Zone.” Cendrars, although he always denied discipleship, was a very obvious continuator of one aspect of Apollinaire, as person, poet and prosodist. Soon he was writing free verse in the English sense, a little like the early, best poetry of Carl Sandburg or even more like the long swaying rhythms of Robinson Jeffers.

His translators do not manage to transmit these virtues. I think the reason is that poetry like Cendrars’s, for all its surface blustery extroversion, is really very intimate. To translate him successfully, it would be necessary to have either shared his background and his attitude toward it or to be a consummate actor able to project oneself imaginatively into almost complete identification with his personality. However, this book contains the French texts on facing pages, and the English is usually not too far off to serve as a pony.

The youngest generation of American poets should find Cendrars stimulating. It’s a long time since poetry like this, as good as this, has been written in America. Nothing less like the imitation Jacobean verse of the older Establishment and the Pound-Williams-Olson verse of the new Establishment could be imagined. People are trying to write like this again and Cendrars could be of help — although the world of the working-class Bohemia of the slums of Paris that gives his poetry its special quality is utterly vanished from the earth.


This review of Selected Writings of Blaise Cendrars (New Directions, 1966) originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review (9 October 1966). Copyright 1966. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays