The Cubist Poetry of Pierre Reverdy

The poets associated with Cubism are Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, André Salmon and Pierre Reverdy. As the years have passed and cette belle époque recedes into perspective, for us today, Pierre Reverdy stands out from his fellows as the most profound and most controlled artist. This is part of a general revaluation which has taken place as the latter half of the century has come to judge the first half. So Robert Desnos has risen above his Surrealist colleagues and competitors. So independents like Supervielle, Milosz and Léon-Paul Fargue are more appreciated today than they were in their lifetimes. Just as Francis Jammes has almost overwhelmed the poetic reputations of the beginning of the century and the once world-famous Verhaeren is hardly read at all, so from the Fantaisistes, the poets of Le Divan, Toulet and Francis Carco almost alone survive. Although time has seldom worked so quickly, I am more or less confident that those revaluations will stand. Certainly Pierre Reverdy’s present position should be secure. International literary taste has learned the idiom, the syntax that was so new and strange in 1912. Fortuitous novelty has fallen away and this has enabled comprehension and judgment. Neither Reverdy nor Tristan Tzara can shock anybody any more. And so those values once masked by shock enter into the judgment of a later generation.

Juan Gris was Pierre Reverdy’s favorite illustrator, as he in turn was the painter’s favorite poet. No one today would deny that they share the distinction of being the most Cubist of the Cubists. This is apparent to all in Juan Gris. But what is Cubism in poetry? It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture. This is quite different from the free association of the Surrealists and the combination of unconscious utterance and political nihilism of Dada.

When I was a young lad I thought that literary Cubism was the future of American poetry. Only Walter Conrad Arensberg in his last poems, Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons and a very few other pieces, much of the work of the young Yvor Winters and others of his generation of Chicago Modernists, Laura Riding’s best work and my own poems later collected in The Art of Worldly Wisdom could be said to show the deliberate practice of the principles of creative construction which guided Juan Gris or Pierre Reverdy. It is necessary to make a sharp distinction between this kind of verse and the Apollinairian technique of The Waste Land, The Cantos, Paterson, Zukofsky’s A, J.C. MacLeod’s Ecliptic, Lowenfels’s Some Deaths, the youthful work of Sam Beckett and Nancy Cunard and, the last of all, David Jones’s Anathemata.

In poems such as these, as in Apollinaire’s “Zone,” the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes. In verse such as Reverdy’s, they are simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction. Eliot works in The Waste Land with fragmented and recombined arguments; Pierre Reverdy with dismembered propositions from which subject, operator and object have been wrenched free and restructured into an invisible or subliminal discourse which owes its cogency to its own strict, complex and secret logic.

Poetry such as this attempts not just a new syntax of the word. Its revolution is aimed at the syntax of the mind itself. Its restructuring of experience is purposive, not dreamlike, and hence it possesses an uncanniness fundamentally different in kind from the most haunted utterances of the Surrealist or Symbolist unconscious. Contrary to what we are taught, it appears first in the ultimate expressions of Neo-Symbolism in Mallarmé in his curious still lifes like “Autre Éventail,” in occult dramatic molecules like “Petit Air,” and, of course, above all in his hieratic metaphysical ritual, Un Coup de dés. It is in this tremendously ambitious poem in fact that all the virtues and the faults of the style, whether practiced by Reverdy, Laura Riding or myself, can be found.

These faults, as well as those virtues which he decided were in fact faults, led Yvor Winters to condemn all verse of this kind as the deliberate courting of madness. What he objected to in essence was the seeking of glamour, that effulgence which St. Thomas called the stigmata of a true work of art, as an end in itself. What James Joyce translates “wholeness, harmony and radiance” are qualities not only of all works of art but they are often sought deliberately. Paul Valéry’s objectives are the same as Reverdy’s but he presents them in a syntactical context that can be negotiated throughout general experience.

When the ordinary materials of poetry are broken up, recombined in structures radically different from those we assume to be the result of causal, or of what we have come to accept as logical sequence, and then an abnormally focused attention is invited to their apprehension, they are given an intense significance, closed within the structure of the work of art, and are not negotiable in ordinary contexts of occasion. So isolated and illuminated, they seem to assume an unanalyzable transcendental claim. Accompanying, as it were garbing, this insistent transcendence are sometimes certain projected physical responses induced or transmitted in the person undergoing the poetic experience, whether poet or reader. Vertigo, rapture, transport, crystalline and plangent sounds, shattered and refracted light, indefinite depths, weightlessness, piercing odors and tastes, and synthesizing these sensations and affects, an all-consuming clarity. These are the phenomena that often attend what theologians call natural mysticism. They can be found especially in the poetry of St. Mechtild of Magdeburg and St. Hildegarde of Bingen, great favorites of the psychologists who have written on this subject, but they are equally prominent in the poetry of Sappho or Henry Vaughan or the prose of Jakob Boehme, as well as in many modern poets. They have often been equated with the idioretinal and vasomotor disturbances caused by drugs, migraine, or other dissociations of personality, or petit-mal epilepsy. At the present moment the quest of such experiences by way of hallucinogenic drugs is immensely fashionable.

I think what Winters meant was that intense hyperesthesia of this type, when it occurs in modern poetry without the motivation of religious belief, is pathological in its most advanced forms and sentimental in its less extreme ones. It is true of course that any work of art that coerces the reader or spectator into intense emotional response for which there is no adequate warrant or motive is by definition sentimental, but I do not think that this is exactly what happens in poetry like that of Reverdy, Mallarmé or Valéry. The putative justifications given by Valéry for the extremities to which he pushes his quest for effulgence are really sops to the reader. His seemingly ordinary informative syntax masks only slightly the same unanalyzable transcendental claim.

We still know almost nothing about how the mind works in states of rapture nor why the disjunction, the ecstasis, of self and experience should produce a whole range of peculiar nervous responses, sometimes quite conscious as in St. Hildegarde, sometimes almost certainly subliminal as in Reverdy or the early poems of Yvor Winters. I am inclined to believe that the persistence of this vocabulary among visionary poets is not a defect but a novitiate. Until rapture becomes an accepted habit, a trained method of apprehending reality, an accustomed instrument, the epiphenomena that accompany its onset will seem unduly important. Since only the intimations of rapture are all that most people are ever aware of, Henry Vaughan’s ring of endless light will always serve as an adequate symbol of eternity. Kerkele saw the same idioretinal vision as a very finite ring of carbohydrates.

We are dealing with a self-induced, or naturally and mysteriously come-by, creative state from which two of the most fundamental human activities diverge, the aesthetic and the mystic act. The creative matrix is the same in both, and it is that state of being that is most peculiarly and characteristically human, as the resulting aesthetic or mystic experience is the purest form of human act. There is a great deal of overlapping, today especially, when art is all the religion most people have and when they demand of it experiences that few people of the past demanded even of religion. But a painting by Juan Gris or a poem by Pierre Reverdy is self-evidently not a moment of illumination in the life of St. Teresa of Avila nor even her description of it. It is the difference between centripetal and centrifugal. A visionary poem is not a vision. The religious experience is necessitated and ultimate. The poet may have had such an experience in writing the poem, although probably only to a limited degree, or he would not have had the need to write the poem. But there is nothing necessitated about the poem. We can take it or leave it alone, and any ultimates we find in it we must first bring to it ourselves.

History accustoms the public for poetry, as experience accustoms the poet, to this idiom of radiance. Returned to today, Un Coup de dés, or the poems of Reverdy or Laura Riding seem negotiable enough and the similar poems of Yvor Winters seem only passionate love poems or rather simple philosophic apothemes. Reverdy, in fact, in most of his poems is hardly a mystic poet. He simply uses a method which he has learned from his more ambitious poems. It is ambitious enough. He seeks, as all the Cubists did, to present the spectator with a little organism that will take up all experience brought to it, digest it, reorganize it and return it as the aesthetic experience unadulterated. All works of art do this. Artists like Reverdy or Juan Gris sought to do it with a minimum of interference. When they were successful their artifacts were peculiarly indestructible. Today, like the paintings of 1910, Reverdy’s poems have become precious objects indeed. They have a special appeal now because, although rigorously classical — (I suppose my description of their method could be called a definition of an hypertrophied classicism, which in a sense was precisely what Cubism was) — they are not in the least depersonalized. Quite the contrary — they are rather shameless. So many of the poems are simple gestures laying bare the heart. For this reason Reverdy has influenced personalist poets like Robert Creeley and Gary Snyder and through them whole schools of younger people.

Reverdy was aware of the final deductions to be made from his poetry as a whole and from his poetic experience when in his most illuminated poems he pushed it to its limits. It is not necessary that the poet have any special religious belief, or any at all, but if poetic vision is refined until it is sufficiently piercing and sufficiently tensile, it cuts through the reality it has reorganized to an existential transcendence. In Reverdy’s case the consequences were more specific. In 1930 he retired to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes and lived there as a lay associate until his death in 1960 with only rare visits to Paris on business trips or to see old friends.

The revolution of the sensibility that began with Baudelaire became in the later work of Mallarmé a thoroughgoing syntactical revolution in the language because it was realized that the logical structure of the Indo-European languages was an inadequate vehicle for so profound a change in the sensibility. In actual fact, although Apollinaire is usually considered the watershed of modern poetry, no single poem of his represents as thoroughgoing a change in method as Mallarmé’s.

The only attack on the language that was as drastic was the Simultaneism of Henri Barzun, the father of the American critic. Unfortunately the quality of Barzun’s work leaves much to be desired and his impact was slight. Gertrude Stein and Walter Conrad Arensberg both went further than anyone writing in French, both in their attempts to provide a new syntax of the sensibility and more simply in applying the methods of Analytical Cubism to poetry. Pierre Reverdy is the first important French poet after Un Coup de dés to develop the methods of communication explored by Mallarmé.

The syntactical problems and possibilities of a language are peculiar to that language so the poetry of Reverdy makes unusual demands upon the translator. Certain of his devices would be irrelevant if transmitted directly into English. I have tended to avoid his purposive confusions of tense and mood and used mostly the present or the simple past or future. The subjunctive of course is no longer part of American speech and its use would have destroyed the wry colloquialism so characteristic of Reverdy. Similarly I have used the simple English meanings where Reverdy uses slang of some special métier — for instance, show business. We simply do not have such terms for spotlights and one-wheeled bicycles. Again, “one” is not American speech, and sometimes it has been necessary to use more than one pronoun to translate the French “on” when Reverdy is talking about “you,” “they” and “I” in the same poem. Otherwise I have tried to keep the translation reasonably literal although there is probably a tendency to assimilate Reverdy’s language to that of my own Cubist poetry, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or Walter Conrad Arensberg’s “For Shady Hill.”

Of all modern poets in Western European languages Reverdy has certainly been the leading influence on my own work — incomparably more than anyone in English or American — and I have known and loved his work since I first read Les Épaves du ciel as a young boy.



This essay was originally published as the Introduction to Rexroth’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Selected Poems (New Directions, 1969). It was reprinted in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1969. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Five of Rexroth’s Reverdy translations can be read here.

Other Rexroth Essays