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Provisionality and the Poem

Transition in the Work of

du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël


Etudes de langue et littérature françaises

publiées sous la direction de

Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman,

Sjef Houppermans et Paul Pelckmans
Provisionality and the Poem
Transition in the Work of
du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël

Emma Wagstaff


Cover illustration: From Sous le linteau en forme de joug,
by André du Bouchet and Pierre Tal Coat (Lausanne: Françoise Simecek, 1978),
28.3 x 18.8 cm. Pierre Tal Coat-© ADAGP, Paris and DACS,
London 2006

Cover design: Pier Post

The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of

‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents -
Requirements for permanence’.

Le papier sur lequel le présent ouvrage est imprimé remplit les prescriptions
de ‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information et documentation - Papier pour documents
- Prescriptions pour la permanence’.

ISBN-10: 90-420-1939-5
ISBN-13: 978-90-420-1939-3
©Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2006
Printed in The Netherlands

Acknowledgements 7

List of Illustrations 9

Introduction 11

1. Poetry in Time 29

2. Words in the Air 59

i. Du Bouchet: Entering Matter 64

ii. Jaccottet: Floating Images 91
iii. Noël: Exchanging Places 115

3. Art and the Book: Du Bouchet, Noël and the Visual Arts 139

4. The Foreign Language:

Jaccottet, du Bouchet and Translation 165

5. Silence: Noël, Jaccottet and the Limits of Language 189

Conclusion 213

Illustrations 223

Bibliography 227

Index 239

I am grateful to Trinity College and St. John’s College, Cambridge,

where I was respectively student and research fellow, for their
intellectual and financial support. Jean Khalfa supervised the PhD
project from which this book has emerged; I am indebted to him for
introducing me to modern poetry and for many years of inspiration
and advice. I am grateful to my PhD examiners, Malcolm Bowie and
Andrew Rothwell, and to others who offered criticisms and
suggestions, especially Peter Collier and Andrew Brown. Yves Peyré,
director of the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, has allowed me
to see livres d’artistes and organised the photographs reproduced here.
The estates of Pierre Tal Coat and Olivier Debré have kindly
agreed to my use of the illustrations. Quotations are reproduced, and
translations included, courtesy of Éditions Fata Morgana, Éditions
Flammarion and Éditions Gallimard. I have used some of the material
in this book for an article in Dalhousie French Studies, 71, and for my
chapter in the catalogue The Dialogue Between Painting and Poetry:
Livres d’artistes 1870-1999, and I am grateful to the editors for
permission to include it.
Bernard Noël and the late André du Bouchet generously
agreed to talk to me about their work; it was a great privilege to meet
I should like to thank personally all those who have helped
and supported me over the past few years, especially Edmund Newey,
Mairi Ryan, Joanna Shearer, Matthew Treherne, Victoria Treherne
and my family, Edward, Peter and Rosemary Wagstaff, to whom this
book is dedicated.

All photographs by Michel Nguyen from books held at the

Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris.

Cover illustration

From Sous le linteau en forme de joug, by André du Bouchet and

Pierre Tal Coat (Lausanne: Françoise Simecek, 1978), 28.3 x 18.8 cm.
Pierre Tal Coat-© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2006

Plate 1

From Sous le linteau en forme de joug, by André du Bouchet and

Pierre Tal Coat (Lausanne: Françoise Simecek, 1978), 28.3 x 18.8 cm.
Pierre Tal Coat-© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2006

Plate 2

From Le Livre de l'oubli, by Bernard Noël and Olivier Debré

(Marseille: Ryoan-Ji, 1985), 38.7 x 31.6 cm. Olivier Debré-
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2006

Setting the Scene

La poésie se poursuit dans l’espace de la parole, mais chaque pas en est

vérifiable dans le monde réaffirmé.1

Yves Bonnefoy asserts here that poetry has a connection to the real.
Writing may take the form of words on a page, laid out in printed
space, but it is not simply a system of signs divorced from the things
they evoke. Bonnefoy does not insist that words represent the world,
but that they exist in a dependent relationship with reality. Poetry
recreates the world on the page; the real, meanwhile, keeps a check on
Bonnefoy belongs to a generation of poets writing in French,
many of whom are still working, who began publishing after the
Second World War. Their poetry is often described as metaphysical,
because it aims at approaching Being, at evoking the encounter
between the self and reality; it does not express the sentiments of an
individual subject. The speaking voice has become depersonalised,
which means that there is room for the resistant presence of reality in
the text. The human subject is not absent, but comes up against the
world continually, perceives it and acts within it. Bonnefoy employs
the word “pas” to describe the progress of poetic creativity. Every
utterance is a step towards the world, taken in recognition that Being
might be approached, but never attained. The movement itself is the
goal of poetry, because each step is measured against the real and
brings it into being on the page. Movement is of central importance to
post-war poetry, even in texts that are primarily spatial.
The written poetry of the period is often original in its use of
space. Sometimes criticised for publishing hermetic poetry, writers
achieve many of the effects deemed to obscure understanding by
exploiting the space of the page. Images might be juxtaposed without
narrative, context or obvious links, through careful positioning of text
on the page. When there appears to be no overall control of the
poem’s progression, when multiple meanings are projected and no
precedence granted to any single interpretation, the text comes to
generate its own significance rather than reflecting an individual’s

Yves Bonnefoy, L’Improbable (Paris: Mercure de France, 1980), p. 130.
12 Provisionality and the Poem

train of thought. The time in which it might have unfolded has been
The modern poem’s relationship to memory is profoundly
different from that of verse in oral traditions. Poems need no longer be
constructed according to metrical rules and rhyme schemes, because
these are not required to aid the recall of the poet who will recite.
Rather, memory can be a property of the text, as it sets up echoes and
allusions from one line to the next, or across pages of a volume. If
words do not need division into lines and stanzas to be memorable,
then the layout of the text on the page takes on a new role. Giorgio
Agamben has suggested, for example, that the only criterion for dis-
tinguishing between poetry and prose might be enjambement.2
Agamben cites Paul Valéry’s definition: “le poème – cette
hésitation prolongée entre le son et le sens.”3 Here poetry is under-
stood as enacting a hiatus and granting equal status to form and
content. A poem is not prose because its content cannot exist without
its form. If different words were chosen, the poem would not express
the same thing differently; it would be a different poem. Jacques
Roubaud writes that poetry cannot be paraphrased.4
Valéry’s insistence on prolonged hesitation incorporates
silence into the poem, and also suggests breathing, because pauses
between lines give it a structure and can be used to question
apparently transparent meaning. Final interpretation remains only
potential; the significance of the text is found in its movement, rather
than in conclusions.
Even texts considered spatial are on the move. The image of
the horizon is developed by Michel Collot to link recent poetry’s
concentration on the real with the importance accorded to the page. He
writes that post-war French poets seek transcendence in the heart of
reality, and define themselves by “being in the world”. They make the
horizon the emblem of their desire for the real and of the text on the
white page; the vanishing point shifts as the text moves from word to
word. 5

Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem, trans. by D. Heller-Roazen (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 109.
Paul Valéry, Œuvres, 2 vols, ed. by Jean Hytier, II (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), p. 637.
Jacques Roubaud, Poésie, etcetera: ménage (Paris: Stock, 1995), p. 77.
Michel Collot, L’Horizon fabuleux II: XXème siècle (Paris: Corti, 1988), pp. 14-17.
Introduction 13

Post-war poetry is distinctive in that it does not separate

reality from the text. In the modern philosophical climate, where
writers have been shown not to be present to their utterances, a
distinction is made between phenomenological consciousness of
something beyond the subject, and the structuralist model of language
as operating through internal difference. But this opposition is over-
come in poetry because it does not propose a representation of the
real. Since its form and substance are interrelated, it cannot imitate
transparently. It creates a world in language through engagement with
the non-linguistic.
An encounter with the natural world is essential to many
poets, but their interest in what is beyond language takes a variety of
forms; bodily imagery may be important, and the visual is often
paramount. A majority of twentieth-century French poets has col-
laborated with artists to produce livres d’artistes that testify to the
complex interrelationship of word and image.
Rejecting naïve mimesis, such poetry is obliged to investigate
the link between the real and language. Indeed, it is noted for
examining its own processes. The figurative is blended with meta-
discourse, as words are made novel through an interrogation of their
creative potential. In turn, this has caused criticism of poetry to
become poetic criticism; if the form of a text is inseparable from its
content, and an investigation of language always accompanies crea-
tivity, then the critic cannot operate at a distance from the text. A
feature of much writing on post-war poetry is its integration of a
figurative dimension.6 Indeed, many critics are also poets, and in some
cases, little distinction can be made between their critical and creative

Noël, Jaccottet and du Bouchet

The poets presented in this study all examine language and
they all engage with what is beyond language. In this they are typical
of their literary context. The work of André du Bouchet, Philippe
Jaccottet and Bernard Noël exemplifies a trend in modern poetry,
among a generation that has been publishing for the last fifty years,
motivated above all by transitions. All poets of the impersonal subject,

Collot is cited, among others, by Denis Bertrand and Nathalie Beauvois in their
discussion of this phenomenon in “Entre substance et figurativité: Le discours critique
de la poésie”, Études Littéraires, 30, 3 (1998), 33-45 (p. 34).
14 Provisionality and the Poem

they seek encounters with the real, producing texts in which meaning
is continually opened up and deferred. Images do not illuminate clear
comparisons, but create movement through echo and suggestion. They
link the space of the page and singular experiences of reality with
change in perception and language. But they do this in distinctive
ways, and thereby demonstrate a wide range of formal temporal struc-
tures and images of transition that are present in contemporary poetry
in French.
They also discuss the processes of writing and a variety of
non-linguistic experiences, such as bodily sensation and the visual.
The resulting texts, which often blur the boundary between criticism
and poetry, enact transitions between modes of expression. In so
doing, they delve into language and renew the potential significance
of the words they employ.
All three authors have earned at least a partial living from
writing. Jaccottet has been a journalist and translator, and has
undertaken editorial work. Du Bouchet published translations and
texts about artists. Noël, among a range of projects, has written a
number of commercial books on art. André du Bouchet lived from
1924-2001, Philippe Jaccottet was born in 1925 and Bernard Noël in
1930. Jaccottet grew up in Switzerland, but has lived in France since
the 1950s. Du Bouchet’s family left France for the United States
before World War II; he studied and taught in universities there before
returning to Paris. They have all lived in the South of France, and
northern Provence is the landscape of Jaccottet’s and du Bouchet’s
The autobiographical element of their work extends no further
than the presence of this landscape. A striking similarity between the
poems of Noël, du Bouchet and Jaccottet is the role of the speaking
“je”, or poetic subject. The “je” is a constant reference throughout
their texts, and yet it is impersonal. We learn nothing about its past
experiences or characteristics that would help us to place it as we
would a character in fiction, or even a self expressing emotions or
thoughts in Romantic poetry. “Tu” figures are often invoked as com-
panions or interlocutors, but these are similarly undefined. 7

The “je” in Jaccottet’s poems of mourning in Chants d’en bas and Leçons appears
more individuated, but it is still primarily textual rather than expressive. They are
reprinted in Poésie 1946-1967 (Paris: Gallimard, 1977); Leçons: pp. 7-33, Chants
d’en bas: pp. 35-65.
Introduction 15

In du Bouchet’s poetry, the “je” walks in the elemental land-

scape, entering into the substance of the earth and air, and marking the
text by its steps and breathing. The “je” in Jaccottet’s work notices
moments of change in the natural world, and while it may provide a
way for the poet to offer reflections on the relationship of the human
figure to nature, it is by no means personalised. Identity is explored in
Noël’s texts, but rather than elaborating a rounded persona, he focuses
intensely on our experiences of the human body and its relation with
the world around.
Movement and change characterise the poetry of all three
authors: movement in the natural world and through the text. Walking
is a central image for du Bouchet, momentary hesitations and thres-
holds for Jaccottet and, for Noël, inexorable changes affecting iden-
tity. The poetic subject does not pre-exist the text as a fully formed
entity, ready to observe and represent the world. Rather, it is the
means by which the human encounter with its surroundings is enacted,
and it comes into being as the poetry unfolds.
Noël’s early texts include Extraits du corps, from 1958, where
violent and disturbing images present the parts of the body as
constantly on the move, and disrupt the boundaries between what is
internal and external.8 His original exploration of time, death and
personal identity is inseparable from his materialism, as the body and
perception determine thought and writing, and contact between the
body and the elemental world is paramount. À vif enfin la nuit, for
example, presents a poetic subject reduced to the most fundamental
experience of air, earth and darkness through the medium of the body
(Poèmes 1, pp. 153-166).
Features of Noël’s early work that have attracted the most
interest are also those that set him apart from du Bouchet and
Jaccottet: his focus on violence, sexuality and censorship. Alongside
poetry, he has composed a number of texts on art, ranging from
studies of well known painters such as David, Géricault, Magritte and
Matisse, to many more contemporary artists. Extracts from some of
his catalogue texts were collected in the award-winning Journal du

Extraits du corps, in Poèmes 1 (Paris: Flammarion, 1983), pp. 29-73.
See Magritte (Paris: Flammarion, 1977), Matisse (Paris: Hazan, 1983), David (Paris:
Flammarion, 1989) and Géricault (Paris: Flammarion, 1991); Journal du regard
(Paris: P.O.L., 1988).
16 Provisionality and the Poem

His more recent publications have tended towards an exam-

ination of the spiritual, while retaining the interrogation of vision and
thought that has always been vital. 10 Unlike du Bouchet and Jaccottet,
Noël has explored the genres of drama and the novel, which will not
form the focus of this study. The novels and plays also testify to his
preoccupation with identity and language. 11
His poetry of the 1970s and 1980s sets up distinctive times of
expression and reading that cannot be achieved in prose. Collections
such as La Chute des temps and L’Été langue morte tend to be struc-
tured in sequences, and consist of long, unpunctuated poems with
short lines, which demand a rapid pace from the reader, and create a
sense of acceleration and self-generating language. 12
The temporality of du Bouchet’s writing is very different. It
also contains movement, but this is produced by intervals. They in-
trude as gaps between words, through punctuation marks such as
dashes and ellipses that require the reader to pause, and, above all, in
the importance accorded to the white area of the page around and
between sections of text. Phrases are dispersed across the page and the
margins of his poetry from the 1970s onwards are highly mobile.
Enjambement, juxtaposition and uncertainty over the direction of
reading all serve to disrupt interpretation.
It is hard to isolate distinctive volumes in du Bouchet’s
œuvre. His analysis of Pierre Reverdy’s poetry could equally be
applied to his own; du Bouchet’s and Reverdy’s writing can be
“ramenée à un poème unique | – jamais le même – interdit à la
mémoire”. 13 It seems to belong to a single, inaccessible poem, which
cannot be reduced to any individual example. Nevertheless, du Bou-
chet’s earlier work is more easily classified as either poetry or poetic
prose than are the later texts. Dans la chaleur vacante, for instance, is
his best known collection of poetry. Laisses, a volume of poetry, and

See, for example, Le Tu et le silence ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1998).
His plays are La Reconstitution (Paris: P.O.L., 1988) and Onze voies de fait (Mont-
de-Marsan: L’Atelier des brisants, 2002). He is in the process of writing a series of
prose monologues for P.O.L., each focusing on a different pronoun. They include: Le
Syndrome de Gramsci (1994), La Maladie de la chair (1995), La Langue d’Anna
(1998), La Maladie du sens (2001) and La Face de silence (2002).
La Chute des temps, suivi de L’Été langue morte, La Moitié du geste, La Rumeur de
l’air, Sur un pli du temps (Paris: Gallimard, 1993).
André du Bouchet, Matière de l’interlocuteur ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1992),
p. 39.
Introduction 17

L’Incohérence, a collection of prose pieces, are considered companion

volumes. Poetic prose tended to dominate his later publications, which
ended with Tumulte in 2001.14
In common with Noël, he had a keen interest in visual art,
although his writings on artists such as Tal Coat and Giacometti are
more obviously poetic than are Noël’s catalogue texts. Du Bouchet
has translated from English, German and Russian, which links his
professional activities with those of Jaccottet, who translated from
German, Italian, Spanish and Russian, and has written more than du
Bouchet or Noël about other authors.
In Après beaucoup d’années, Jaccottet expresses his wish to
present the natural world as transparently as possible:

Pourtant, que je ne l’oublie pas: ce n’est pas une voix, malgré les
apparences; ce n’est pas une parole; ce n’est pas “de la poésie”… C’est de l’eau
qui bouscule les pierres, et j’y aurai trempé mes mains.

Il ne faut ni orner, ni troubler, ni freiner ce cours.15

The real is paramount, and must not be contained or embellished.

After the publication of his early poems, which were rich in
imagery, Jaccottet did not write until he encountered the Japanese
haikus of Bashô. His subsequent collection Airs, which appeared in
1967, first demonstrated his aim of employing simple, pared-down
language that would allow things to emerge in the texts rather than
drawing attention to stylised imagery. 16 Simultaneously, his writing
acknowledges that the world will always remain beyond the grasp of
language. The ephemeral in Jaccottet’s work emerges through hesitant
images that hover and are then left behind. This is the striking
temporality of his verse and prose poetry. Fleeting instants of
perception are not so much described as recreated in the light, gentle
poetry that distinguishes Jaccottet from the “élan” of Noël and the
rupturing intervals in du Bouchet’s texts.

Dans la chaleur vacante, suivi de Où le soleil (Paris: Gallimard, 1991). Dans la
chaleur vacante has been translated by David Mus as Where Heat Looms (Los
Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1996). Laisses (Paris: Hachette, 1979); L’Incohérence (Paris:
Hachette, 1979); Tumulte ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 2001).
Philippe Jaccottet, Après beaucoup d’années (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), p. 88.
Airs, in Poésie, pp. 93-155.
18 Provisionality and the Poem

Jaccottet’s work is the most widely read of the three in

France. His collections, which include À la lumière d’hiver and Pen-
sées sous les nuages, were accompanied by reflections in prose in
volumes such as Paysages avec figures absentes. The more recent
works, Après beaucoup d’années and Et, néanmoins, combine prose
and verse poems. 17

Contemporary Differences
The writing of Jaccottet and du Bouchet contributes to a trend
in contemporary poetry that is remarkable for its focus on landscape.
Yves Bonnefoy is the best known of these poets in the English-
speaking world; among others of the same generation is Jacques
Dupin. Often classified with du Bouchet, Dupin also bases his poetry
on the mountainous landscape of southern France. It is pervaded by
images of disruption, but the violence that is more or less explicit in
his work is distinct from the interrupting intervals so particular to du
These poets do not see the natural world as offering the
observer a source of images to aid self-expression. Rather, it is the
object of poetic exploration. Texts recreate the experience of being in
brute reality, while the real repeatedly intrudes to question language
and reconstruct accepted perceptions. Images emerge, change and
disappear. Richard Stamelman writes of this kind of poetry that it is
“capable of being written and unwritten”. 19
An extract from a prose text by du Bouchet reveals the rigour
with which he undertakes this process:

À la lumière d’hiver, suivi de Pensées sous les nuages (Paris: Gallimard, 1994);
Paysages avec figures absentes, rev. edn (Paris: Gallimard, 1976); Et, néanmoins
(Paris: Gallimard, 2001). Derek Mahon has translated and introduced Jaccottet’s
poetry for Anglophone readers in Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe
Jaccottet (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1998).
Du Bouchet, Dupin and Bonnefoy were among the founding editors of the review
L’Éphémère, which appeared from 1967 to 1972. It was intended to provide a forum
for the mutual questioning of its editors’ work, and was also notable for publishing
poetry in translation and the work of visual artists. Jaccottet was an occasional
Richard Stamelman, Lost Beyond Telling: Respresentations of Death and Absence
in modern French Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 161.
Introduction 19

dans l’agrégat ruiné des signes,

le monde net aura – et pour le clarifier aujourd’hui, comme
aujourd’hui l’emporte, fait sous les yeux, et jusqu’au centre sans
nom, retour. (Matière, p. 19)

Abstract signs are given concrete form, “l’agrégat ruiné des signes”,
and reality, “le monde net”, emerges at the end of a complex linguistic
process in which clauses qualify and subtract from one another. If we
isolate the main clause, we see that the action is a simple one: “le
monde net aura […] fait […] retour”. The process is hardly obscure; it
takes place “sous les yeux”. Yet the world comes back as the result of
sustained abstraction. Examples such as these, which are a particular
feature of du Bouchet’s writing, take performativity beyond the
restricted sense of utterances that carry out actions in certain sit-
uations.20 The effect is produced through syntax as it is evoked. Here,
the principal statement is interrupted as it unfolds, because perception
and language operate in the present instant; emergence is both des-
cribed and enacted. Reality appears through words, but it seems that
this can only occur once language has first been dismantled.
Despite a shared insistence on the reworking of language
through an encounter with reality, poets of this generation cannot be
classified as a group. They did not operate together in a movement,
and they have important differences in approach. The poetry of du
Bouchet and Jaccottet, for instance, is not overtly philosophical in its
focus on the real. This sets them apart from Bonnefoy, whose writing
has been described as “une tentative quasi philosophique de définition
du réel”. 21 It is a quality that links Bonnefoy to writers such as Michel
Deguy, who “serait philosophe ‘avant’ d’être poète”. 22
Noël’s writing resists all definition within modern poetic
trends. The landscape emerges in fragmented images of the elements,
and human experience of presence in reality is evoked above all
through bodily sensation. But his poetry is not anchored in the natural
world. Images follow fluid association, and reflections on time and

J. L. Austin categorises these as verdictives (for example, “I convict”), exercitives
(“I appoint”), commissives (“I promise”), behabitives (“I apologise”) and expositives
(“I deny”). How to do things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 132-
John E. Jackson, “Yves Bonnefoy”, in Dictionnaire de poésie de Baudelaire à nos
jours, ed. by Michel Jarrety (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001), p. 74.
J.-M. Gleize, “Michel Deguy”, in Jarrety, p. 188.
20 Provisionality and the Poem

identity are motivated more by the internal resources of language than

by philosophical considerations. He occupies a unique position in the
contemporary poetic climate in France, and can only be situated as
distinct from the major poetic movements of the post-war period. For
instance, he frequently structures his poetry according to metrical
constraints. He tends to favour the eleven-syllable line, which sug-
gests and simultaneously undermines the traditional alexandrine. But
he insists that such rules are not language games, as they would be for
members of the OuLiPo group, who adopt constraints in their re-
working of texts or in their own writing, with the stated aim of
releasing the potential of literature (the name stands for “ouvroir de
littérature potentielle”). For Noël, establishing a structure means that
the words can emerge freely, even precipitously, an approach that is
far from the mathematical experiments of Jacques Roubaud and Ray-
mond Queneau, the best known poets of OuLiPo.
Du Bouchet and Jaccottet can also be considered in the light
of their differences from this and other recent developments in poetic
writing. Among the poets of their generation and the next are the
proponents of sound poetry. Its novel use of the voice sets this strand
of poetic creativity apart from poetry written to be read, in which the
space of the page often plays a central role. Sound poetry can take a
variety of forms, from Bernard Heidsieck’s use of recording tech-
nology to superimpose sounds and voices, to Christian Prigent’s
unique ability to incorporate vocal utterances – repeated phonemes or
non-verbal sounds – into his spoken work. Performance poetry is an
increasingly popular art form in France.
Sound poets, in their use of the performer’s voice and body on
stage to disrupt the audience’s expectations of language, are influenc-
ed by Artaud and the dadaists. They believed that violence must be
done to poetry, performance, and the comfortable assumptions of
bourgeois society. Art reacted directly to the context of its creation.
Twentieth-century literature has engaged with its historical
circumstances in a variety of ways. Committed poetry is a distinct epi-
sode between surrealism and various post-war movements. In recent
years, numerous writers have attempted to explore the difficulties, or
impossibility, of representation since the Holocaust.
But poetry whose reference is the natural world appears far
removed from such engagement. Why does it not testify to the
traumas of our history? Why does it adopt an impersonal subject alien
Introduction 21

to the increasingly sophisticated investigation of self and identity

undertaken by autobiographers and theorists of cultural identity?
Du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël make only occasional men-
tion of major collective experiences such as the Second World War. In
a very early publication of 1946, Requiem, Jaccottet expresses his
horror at the deaths of soldiers in the war, and du Bouchet’s carnets,
published many years after the notebooks were in use, contain ref-
erences to the devastated landscape of France after the war.23 Du
Bouchet’s only publication to discuss the contemporary political
climate is his piece in the issue of L’Éphémère that followed the
events of May 68: “Sous les pavés, la plage”. Jaccottet later com-
mented on this issue of the journal, saying that he found the haiku
poems of Bashô reproduced in it more truthful than any of those
contributions that dealt with politics.24
Noël has authored a number of prose texts on power and
censorship, among them Le Sens, la sensure and Le Château de Cène,
and his interest in the events of his time is clear from texts such as
URSS, aller-retour. He has described being obsessed with the Al-
gerian War between 1956 and 1958.25
But all direct references to historical events are absent from
their poetry. The anti-biography that opens the bibliography in one of
Bernard Noël’s publications is written in the third person. He insists
that “les événements qui l’ont marqué sont ceux qui ont marqué sa
génération” and that “la biographie s’arrête aux actes publics qui sont
les publications” (Chute, p. 265). We learn nothing about Noël from
this, and the “je” that is present throughout his poetry cannot be
interpreted autobiographically. His reticence is shared by du Bouchet
and Jaccottet.
Nevertheless, they do not ignore circumstances of over-
whelming importance to their peers and readers. Human concerns are

See Jaccottet, Requiem suivi de Remarques ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1991),
and du Bouchet, Carnets 1952-1956 ([Paris]: Plon, 1990).
L’Éphémère, 6, 1968. Jaccottet’s comments were made to Jacques Laurens in an
interview for a documentary: Les Hommes-Livres: Philippe Jaccottet. Dir. François
Barat. Co-production INA-Centre Georges Pompidou, in association with France 3.
Le Sens, la sensure (Le Rœulx: Talus d’Approche, 1985); Le Château de Cène
(Paris: Pauvert, 1971); URSS, aller-retour (Paris: Flammarion, 1980). He discusses
the Algerian War in an interview with Jacques Ancet, published in Ancet’s Bernard
Noël ou l’éclaircie (?: Opales, 2002), p. 23.
22 Provisionality and the Poem

not absent from their work. Our perceptions, engagement with our
surroundings, and changing identity are explored in universal terms,
and not through writing based on individual or collective experiences.

Modern Preoccupations
Although the poets’ approach appears unrelated to much
recent French prose writing, it has a more complex relationship with
the major poetic movement of the century: surrealism. The real was
not dismissed by the surrealists. Ferdinand Alquié explains that the
force of the imaginative derives from its tendency to become ac-
tualised.26 But emergent images motivated by unconscious desires
have a radically different basis from poetry that is grounded in the real
and constantly affirms reality as check and reference. Paring down a
visual image to its simplest form, which is the aim of Jaccottet, and du
Bouchet’s precise interrogation of words and perceptions, are far
removed from the idealisation of an image “avec le degré d’arbitraire
le plus élevé”.27 This poetry is affected by surrealism through its very
rejection of the movement’s principles.
Noël has moved away from surrealism’s influence to establish
his highly original formal and stylistic approach, but this is the result
of an early engagement with it. He continues to create surprising ef-
fects by juxtaposing unexpected images, and his preoccupation with
the body and with the fragmentation that besets our sense of identity is
ongoing. Perhaps the greatest influence on Noël’s writing is the work
of Georges Bataille, whose poetry he has edited. Noël is particularly
fascinated by the notion of expenditure, and much of his work can be
seen to explore and enact the “informe”; both concepts are central to
Bataille’s writings. 28
It might at first appear that du Bouchet fits more squarely into
the French poetic tradition, through the importance, since Mallarmé,
of the visual aspect of the text. “Un coup de dés” was clearly decisive
in the subsequent development of spatialised poetry, but du Bouchet

F. Alquié, La Philosophie du surréalisme (Paris: Flammarion, 1955), p. 170.
André Breton, Manifestes du surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1995 [1924]), p. 50.
He prepared the critical edition of Bataille’s L’Archangélique et autres poèmes
(Paris: Mercure de France, 1967) and prefaced the Dictionnaire critique (Orléans:
L’Ecarlate, 1993). Noël’s play Onze voies de fait was based on a short text by
Bataille. See L’Informe: Mode d’emploi, by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss
(Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1996).
Introduction 23

cannot be described as a direct successor.29 Once again, his attitude to

the real is the decisive difference. Jaccottet recalls:

avoir entendu un jour André du Bouchet opposer avec véhémence à la

proposition de Mallarmé selon laquelle le monde serait fait pour aboutir à
un livre, le vœu contraire, que tout livre finît par renvoyer au monde.30

Early in the Twentieth Century, Futurism fundamentally

altered the course of typography in poetry, and exploited the space of
the page to divide and juxtapose words, unsettling meanings and
creating new rhythms. Futurist texts convey speed and urban
excitement as well as linguistic fragmentation. Du Bouchet’s poetry,
on the other hand, depends on measure and a considered depth of
response to language.
The only vital influence on his work is that of Pierre
Reverdy. 31 Reverdy understood the image not as arbitrary, but as the
bringing together of two distant elements in a necessary relation.
Images are then integral to the poetic world evoked rather than a
decorative or surprising addition to it, and that is their appeal for du
Bouchet. His first major essay was about Reverdy, and his early
poems reveal the influence of Reverdy’s disposition of texts on the
page and his evocations of spatial relationships.32
Jaccottet has a diverse range of interests. His first mentor was
the Swiss landscape poet Gustave Roud, who remained a constant
presence. Their lengthy correspondence has recently been published. 33
Although not a literary critic, Jaccottet wrote a large number of
articles on more or less well known writers for newspapers and lit-
erary journals. Many of these are collected in Une transaction secrète.
His work as a translator has brought him into intimate contact with

“Un coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard”, in Œuvres complètes, I, ed. by
Bertrand Marchal (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), pp. 363-386.
Philippe Jaccottet, Une transaction secrète (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), p. 267.
See Michaël Bishop’s study, Les Altérités d’André du Bouchet (Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 2003). Bishop examines the wide range of du Bouchet’s interests, and his
generous responses to the work of others.
See Pierre Reverdy, Nord-Sud, Self Defence et autres écrits sur l’art et la poésie
(Paris: Flammarion, 1975), p. 73. Du Bouchet’s Envergure de Reverdy, of 1951, is
reprinted in Matière de l’interlocuteur, pp. 37-45, along with Interstice élargi
jusqu’au dehors toujours l’interstice, pp. 14-36, also on Reverdy.
Philippe Jaccottet and Gustave Roud, Correspondance 1942-1976, ed. by José-
Flore Tappy (Paris: Gallimard, 2002).
24 Provisionality and the Poem

texts in German, the best known of these being Musil’s L’Homme

sans qualités. He also published a guide to the poetry of Rilke. From
Italian, he has translated principally Ungaretti’s poetry. 34
It is perhaps with Hölderlin that Jaccottet senses the greatest
affinity. He edited the Pléiade edition of Hölderlin’s works, and
devoted several reflective prose pieces to him in Paysages avec
figures absentes.35 The sense of place that is so important to Hölderlin
is also evident in Jaccottet’s poetry, which reveals the quest for a
sacred “centre” that calls to mind Hölderlin’s lament for the gods that
have abandoned the earth, although Jaccottet always stops short of
religious terminology.
Of the German Romantic poets, Hölderlin is the most
important reference for contemporary French poets. Writers are
fascinated by his innovative translations of Greek poetry, which
render the German language strange. It is through his essays on
Hölderlin that Heidegger became known to French poets. Heidegger’s
argument that poetry is the language best able to express Being has
influenced the writing and reading of a generation of poets’ work.
The differences between Jaccottet, du Bouchet and Noël
emerge from their similarities. They all make Being the focus of their
poetry, exploring the relationship of the human subject to its
surroundings. But the relationship is different in each case, and it
operates in varying temporal frameworks. Forging distinct paths
within and beyond modern poetic developments, they present us with
poetic worlds that do not consist solely of visual imagery, of privil-
eged instants or spatialised texts. Rather, their writing links space and
time, creating provisional images and worlds in transition. Through
the work of these writers, the present study suggests that transitions
are vital to recent poetic writing in French.

Scope and Structure

The first chapter elaborates the temporal models that can be
discerned in the work of each poet. Although the texts are intended to
be read silently, they share features with spoken and oral poetry,
including rhythm, echo and repetition. Within the context of contem-

Robert Musil, L’Homme sans qualités, trans. by Philippe Jaccottet, 2 vols (Paris:
Seuil, 1995); Philippe Jaccottet, Rilke par lui-même (Paris: Seuil, 1970); Giuseppe
Ungaretti, Vie d’un homme, trans. by Philippe Jaccottet et al. (Paris: Gallimard, 1973).
Friedrich Hölderlin, Œuvres, ed. by Philippe Jaccottet (Paris: Gallimard, 1967).
Introduction 25

porary poetic creativity, their work represents written poetry that

enacts movement and change in three distinctive ways: the poetry of
du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël can be characterised broadly as based
on the interval, the hesitant instant and the emergent impulse res-
The following section considers the imagery that creates their
poetic worlds through an examination of the element of air. Its literal
and metaphorical manifestations connect the oral aspect of poetic
creativity, breathing, to its grounding in the natural world. Air is the
substance that fills visible volume in the material world. It is also
movement, creating wind, flight and human speech. Air is spatial and
temporal, physical and abstract. It can incite images of the cold and
stormy weather, but it can also represent musical form. The clearest
link between the poetry of these three writers is their use of the word
“air” in titles of their collections: Du Bouchet published Air, Jaccottet
Airs, and Noël texts entitled La Rumeur de l’air, Les États de l’air and
L’air est les yeux.36
After presenting their poetic worlds through a focus on the
image of air, I examine three long extracts of poetry in detail, with the
primary aim of allowing the texts to speak for themselves. They are
not widely available in translation, so English translations of the
extracts have been included. The difficulties presented by the task of
translating also highlight aspects of the poets’ work that contribute to
their provisional nature, notably terms that carry multiple meanings
and radiate out to other poems. The choice of poems is not determined
solely by their titles. The texts chosen from du Bouchet’s early work
demonstrate certain tendencies that persist throughout all his poetry.
The poems by Jaccottet that are translated exemplify the perfor-
mativity of his work. The long text by Noël takes only one of the
various forms he adopts; it typifies the style which is the focus of this
Air reveals how movement and transitions are enacted as well
as represented in the poetry. Another kind of transition is explored in
the last three chapters. They discuss how different kinds of engage-
ment with something other than poetry allow the writers to identify
what they believe is involved in poetic creativity.

Du Bouchet, Air suivi de Défets (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1986); Noël, “Les
États de l’air”, in Poèmes 1, pp. 299-304; L’Air est les yeux (Trans-en-Provence:
Unes, 1982).
26 Provisionality and the Poem

Noël and du Bouchet engage with the work of visual artists in

their collaborations on livres d’artistes. The extent to which subtle
connections and transitions operate between a verbal and a visual
medium is extraordinary. But rather than confidently representing the
visual, their work acknowledges the impossibility of such an end-
eavour, and creates verbal realities that complement the visual images.
They explore the interaction between surface, layers, depth and
volume that also characterises their poetry. For Noël, the work of art
can demonstrate the mobile transitions between internal and external
space that govern how we see and think. Du Bouchet focuses on the
momentary revelation of depth in the apparently two-dimensional
canvas or page.
Du Bouchet and Jaccottet translate from one language to
another and write about the practice of translating. The particular case
considered here is their work on texts by Hölderlin. In their different
ways, both Jaccottet and du Bouchet question the possibility of
transparent translation. They emphasise the provisional nature of any
utterance, including those in one’s native language. The act of trans-
lating leads them to consider the poet’s relationship with his or her
language of composition. Du Bouchet considers translation as an
example of the disruption of language by the poet with the intention of
making language new. He shows how poetry can reveal depth
between and within languages, as was represented by the visual depth
of the page. Jaccottet insists on uncertainty and hesitation in the
transition between languages, and this movement is a metaphor for the
relationship of words to things.
Both Jaccottet and Noël, meanwhile, engage with what is
utterly other to language: silence. In their theoretical explorations of
what poetic writing is able to express, they recognise that language
has limits, and choose precisely to incorporate those limits into their
own work. Indeed, it is the interaction of language and silence that
motivates creativity. That is why hesitancy is so important to Jac-
cottet’s poetic imagery. Noël’s creation of poetry with “élan”, which
pushes language to its limits, enacts his understanding of our existence
as an energetic movement from our internal space into the world
The three writers presented here are typical of recent French
poets in that they examine the processes of writing alongside, and
sometimes within, poetic texts. Neither clear generic boundaries nor
Introduction 27

distinct areas of interest can be located in their œuvres. They question

what language can say, but do not conclude that words are infinitely
self-referential, or incapable of expressing what is other to language.
Transitions operate within their texts and between texts and media, as
it is precisely the elusive and evocative nature of poetic language that
enables the poets to explore the non-linguistic. The language of their
texts is provisional because it is in constant motion, continuously
made different by its own energy, disruptiveness and hesitancy. This
study suggests how, in contemporary French poetry, the provisionality
of language can bring poetic reality into being.
je ne logerai pas
l’écho (Du Bouchet, Tumulte)


Du Bouchet’s texts depend on space. In prose poems where lines are
dispersed across the page, the positioning prevents any single linear
reading, and therefore contributes directly to the production of mul-
tiple interpretations. In du Bouchet’s early collections, the texts are
more clearly presented as poems, yet still the white area of the page
makes itself known. The short poems of Dans la chaleur vacante are
placed alone on the page, which is dominated by blank space; texts in
Où le soleil often consist of very few lines, positioned at the top and
the bottom of the page, with a gaping white area between.
Of the later prose poems, Aujourd’hui c’est has a typical
spatialised layout.37 It is twenty-four pages long and published in an
attractive Fata Morgana edition. Sections of text are clearly separated
by large stretches of blank space, and gaps are introduced within each
block of writing. A new sentence often appears to take up where an-
other left off, but without links being made clear. For instance, many
pronouns are used, which could each correspond to a number of
earlier nouns. Examples such as the following are frequent:

c’est la pierre. laissant

la nuit venir, je vois plus loin que la nuit, aussitôt c’est la pierre.

contre l’autre, comme serrées dans l’air non tiré de la montagne
encore. (Aujourd’hui, p. 23)

Aujourd’hui c’est (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1994). This volume will be the
principal source for examples of du Bouchet’s work in this chapter. The analysis will
also focus specifically on Noël’s La Chute des temps and Sur un pli du temps (Chute,
pp. 223-262) and texts from Jaccottet’s Et, néanmoins.
30 Provisionality and the Poem

We can suppose, but not conclude, that “l’une” and “l’autre”

refer to “la pierre” and “la nuit”. This potential link between the two
short paragraphs sets up complex spatial and temporal interaction.
First, the night is seen to approach a subject who remains unnamed.
By refusing to situate the image in a specific time or place, du Bou-
chet emphasises the timelessness of the elemental world, represented
here by stone and air. Immediately, the subject sees beyond night to
stone. Time does not operate in linear fashion, but through anti-
cipation, “laissant […] venir”, “non […] encore”, and immediacy,
The night is then tightly bound to the stone. But this situation
is virtual. They are bound in air that has not yet been drawn from the
mountain. Furthermore, they are not actually bound together, but “as
if” that were the case. There is no verb to specify the connection
between the night and the stone: “l’une | contre l’autre”, only a
comparison, “comme serrées”, which implies that their spatial rela-
tionship is indescribable. The form of the poem must resist any clear
presentation of time and space in order to be true to this experience.
Du Bouchet is not, of course, the only contemporary poet to
use the space of the page. Since Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés”, poets
have dispersed lines and fragments of text over the double-page
spread, so that each time the reader turns a page, s/he perceives the
text as a visual image framed by the edges of the book before
beginning to read the words. Among du Bouchet’s contemporaries,
Jacques Dupin also experiments with layout and fragmentation. The
following extract from a poem entitled “Nuit de couleur” in Le Grésil,
for instance, distributes fragments of text over the page, while refer-
ring obliquely to Mallarmé’s throw of the dice:

ultime lancer déchirure

du roc
d’où l’espace va jaillir

l’espace, et glisser virer

sur l’aile découpé du faucon.38

Dupin interrupts phrases as du Bouchet does. Here, form and

content merge as the term “déchirure” follows a gap and is linked,
Jacques Dupin, Le Grésil (Paris: P.O.L., 1996), p. 55.
Poetry in Time 31

with enjambement, to the naming of rock, a solid substance. Similarly,

“l’espace” is the first word to occur after a space of several lines, and
it is followed by another interval. “Et glisser” operates as a transition,
coming from blank space and moving into it. Afterwards, a change in
direction takes place, “virer”, but the movement has not led to smooth
flight because the falcon’s wings are clipped.
In an article comparing Dupin’s writing with du Bouchet’s,
Glenn W. Fetzer contrasts the relationship each has to space. Acc-
ording to Fetzer, space in du Bouchet’s texts is expanding and is
entered into with a languid rhythm, while Dupin engages with it in an
altogether more impassioned and disruptive way. 39 Seamless move-
ment will never be allowed to occur in his work. This characterisation
of their texts is useful because it offers a detailed analysis of the
differences between two poets often considered to be close to one
another, on the basis of a notion that unites them: the importance of
space and its interruption.
Some features of the structure du Bouchet has gradually
developed render his poetic prose recognisably his own. These include
his particular use of enjambement, in which a line is divided after the
first one or two words, and his placing on any single page of three or
four utterances, each consisting of between one and four lines only.
The unique structure of du Bouchet’s texts is determined
above all by the interval. It will be an important concept in this dis-
cussion of du Bouchet’s work, because it appears figuratively as well
as literally in all his texts. Its formal role in the structure of the poetry
is to separate and divide sections of text, phrases and words. A com-
plex range of intervals is produced by the use of dashes and punc-
tuation, as well as the introduction of blanks of varying size. The
resulting gaps and interruptions grant the text rhythm. This often bears
little resemblance to the use of strict metre in French verse, but it does
complement the immediate visual impression offered by the double-
page spread. The interval is the moment and the place where time and
space are linked in du Bouchet’s texts. Interruption and moving for-
ward are central to the writing and reading of his work.
Nowhere does du Bouchet clearly theorise his ideas on the
importance of the interval or, indeed, on any other aspect of his

“Jacques Dupin, André du Bouchet and the Space of Poetry”, Language Quarterly,
29, 1-2 (1991), 115-128 (pp. 125-126).
32 Provisionality and the Poem

writing practice, but statements in some of his prose works elucidate

its potential. For instance, a piece from Matière de l’interlocuteur
emphasises the interval in the form and content of its title: “Interstice
élargi jusqu’au | dehors | toujours l’interstice” (pp. 14-36). It is im-
plied that interstices can approach the real by allowing access beyond
the immediate visible surface of things. The insistent presence of
interstices in the title, both in the phrase “toujours l’interstice” and in
its division into three short lines, reminds us that an interval is nec-
essarily only brief and must be repeated in order to take effect.
In this piece, du Bouchet proposes that a text structured by
gaps matches the process of reading:

lecteur intermittent. œuvre attenante au

lecteur intermittent. (p. 25)

By repeating the phrase “lecteur intermittent” and introducing gaps

into its layout, he demonstrates the way in which the reader moves
through a text, encountering words and then leaving them behind in
order to move on. This model is unlike a poem in which rules of
versification are obeyed, with rhythm and rhyme schemes to connect
lines into a coherent whole. It implies rather a rhythm of repeated
engagement and forgetting; indeed, earlier in the text he writes: “un
lecteur – oubli vivant” (p. 19). Forgetting is a motivating principle of
du Bouchet’s poetry, and the reader keeps forgetfulness alive when
confronted with such texts.
Noël’s poetry is also marked by its refusal of linear pro-
gression, but the structures he employs are very different from those
favoured by du Bouchet. La Chute des temps, for example, is divided
mathematically into sections: the three “chants” and two intercalated
“contre-chants” consist of the following numbers of lines: 333, 111,
223, 111 and 333, which together make 1111 lines. His choice of the
term corresponds to the use of “chants” to divide up long texts, such
as epic verse. It continues to be employed in modern poetry, by Valéry
in La Jeune Parque, for example.40 Song suggests lyricism, and Noël
both evokes this and counters it with the “contre-chants”, which
briskly cut in to disturb any lyrical tone that might be discerned in the

Paul Valéry, La Jeune Parque, in Œuvres, 2 vols, ed. by Jean Hytier, I (Paris:
Gallimard, 1957), pp. 96-110.
Poetry in Time 33

The length of the poems in La Chute des temps (Chute, pp.

13-71), as in L’Été langue morte (Chute, pp. 73-105) and Sur un pli du
temps (Chute, pp. 223-262), combined with the brevity of each line,
creates a sense of acceleration and forward movement, often described
by Noël as “élan”. This might appear to indicate linearity, but is,
rather, a rejection both of the metrical constraints that can lend co-
herence and stasis to a poem, and of the horizontal progression of
prose that is not divided into lines. The titles of the collections La
Chute des temps and Sur un pli du temps support Noël’s more theo-
retical pronouncements on the need to eradicate the assumed model of
the logical linear progression of time. He is emphatic that modern
poetry is not oral and that its development on the space of the page
allows it to escape the process of unfolding over time:

l’écriture, tout au long de son histoire, a noté de l’oralité, ce qui l’a vouée au
linéaire, à la logique du fil temporel. La poésie, en se révoltant contre la
ligne, se met une nouvelle fois debout sur la page et recrée une origine.41

Poetry contains verticality through its division into lines,

which removes it from the horizontal continuity of prose. It creates its
own origin, because it no longer has its source in the voice. Noël sets
the writing hand in direct opposition to the mouth that speaks:

La main qui écrit a cessé de suivre le rythme de la bouche. La main s’est

mise à écrire dans l’élan de la montée obscure des mots. La main
d’aujourd’hui se révolte contre la bouche. (p. 144)

For Noël, poetic creation is not the preparation of a text to be read

aloud, nor is it the recording of a performance. It has been freed from
the constraints imposed on poetry in an oral tradition.
While we might assume that rhyme schemes and rhythm are
artificial structures into which some poets fit their work, alien to the
way in which spoken language operates, in fact they represent the
means by which stories and ideas became memorable, and could be
passed on without being written down. In his study Orality and
Literacy, Walter Ong explains:

Bernard Noël, L’Espace du poème: Entretiens avec Dominique Sampiero (Paris:
P.O.L., 1998), p. 144.
34 Provisionality and the Poem

In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and

retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in
mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must
come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or
antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary
expressions, in standard thematic settings (the assembly, the meal, the duel,
the hero’s ‘helper’, and so on) in proverbs which are constantly heard by
everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are
patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious
thought is intertwined with memory systems.42

According to Ong, rhythmic and thematic patterns were the norm for
all communication in oral cultures, because any thought or pronounce-
ment that could not be remembered and passed on would be lost as
soon as it was spoken.
Noël’s work is bound up with modern written culture in that it
has its origin, he claims, in the autonomous movement of language,
and takes the form of the written word, through the medium of the
hand. It does not need structures that would give it memorable form,
and yet some of the poetic devices named by Ong, such as “repetitions
or antitheses” or “alliterations and assonances”, can de discerned in
Noël’s poetry, just as they can in the work of other poets of the written
word, among them du Bouchet and Jaccottet. It is clear that their
poetry cannot be set in straightforward contrast to verse originating in
an oral tradition, and that the sound of the words and phrases still has
an important role to play.
Nevertheless, modern written poetry is very distinct from
developments in sound poetry that are contemporary with it. For poets
such as Bernard Heidsieck, born in 1928, the essence of commu-
nication is through instantaneous, physical connection between
performer and audience, much as it was for Artaud.43 Heidsieck’s
concept of “poésie action” includes movement and use of the voice on

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London:
Routledge, 1982), p. 34. According to Milman Parry, Homer’s poetry was not a verse
rendering of prose speech. Instead, the performer would call on a stock of archetypal
phrases, easily memorised because of their metrical structure, which were fitted into
metrical units of the poem. See The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers
of Milman Parry, ed. by A. Parry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 270.
In Le Théâtre et son double, Artaud insisted on the importance of breath in the
production of sounds, believing that it enabled direct communication between the
body of the actor and those of the spectators. Antonin Artaud, Le Théâtre et son
double (Paris: Gallimard, 1938).
Poetry in Time 35

stage, and was also intended to stand in opposition to the poem on the
page. He accused written poetry of passivity and obsession with
images, something he claimed was a result of the huge influence of
surrealism. He saw the sound poem as made up of events that form
layers and appeal to the ear and the mind’s eye simultaneously.
The voice is not the only sound exploited by such poets, as
modern recording techniques have made possible the inclusion of
mechanical noises in a performance. The tape-recorder is also used to
superimpose multiple voices and to structure pieces through montage.
A hallmark of Heidsieck’s work is the simultaneous recording of two
texts that might interact with, interrupt or undermine one another. In
the poem entitled “Bilan; ou, Mâcher ses mots”, for instance, the
knowledgeable voice taking the listener through an informative
explanation of the stages of digestion is disrupted by the intrusion of
another speaker stringing together a series of everyday expressions:

Au cours de ce séjour dans l’estomac, “C’EST SUR”

qui est une sorte de sac musculeux, cet “sans doute…”
agglomérat d’aliments est stérilisé par ABSOLUMENT
l’acide chlorydrique que secrète sa paroi
et il s’y mélange à un mucus pour former “sans doute…”
une sorte de pâte: le chyme. ALORS?44

The explanatory text takes the form of disembodied content, whereas

the colloquial phrases have no content. Despite the essentially oral
nature of the poem, it has divorced form from content, so does not
correspond to an oral poem that aims at communicating with its
Meanwhile, although the importance of the voice links
Heidsieck to other sound poets and distances him from those who
write to be read, his poems also demonstrate a structural effect that
can be visual: simultaneity. A transcription such as the one cited
above shows how a poem has been compiled, but the confusion it
elicits is only achieved when the two discourses are aurally indis-
tinguishable, rather than conveniently set out side by side on the page.
Nevertheless, the refusal of the piece to narrate in logical, linear
fashion means that it operates in a similar way to a written text where
no order of reading can be established.
“Bilan; ou, Mâcher ses mots”, CD accompanying J.-P. Bobillot, Bernard Heidsieck:
Poésie action (Paris: Place, 1996).
36 Provisionality and the Poem

The temporality of Jaccottet’s poetry is distinct from the

interval that structures du Bouchet’s texts and Noël’s “élan”, as well
as from the oral poetic tradition and contemporary sound poetry. It is
characterised above all by a concentration on the present instant,
which hovers briefly before moving on. This persists through the
range of forms his poems have taken. The early texts, such as those
collected in L’Effraie and L’Ignorant, are relatively conventional in
structure, either composed in free verse, or according to metrical and
rhyme schemes.45 After a long period of being unable to write, he
published Airs, which will be discussed in chapter 2. The poems of
Airs are often compared to the haiku form, owing to their extreme
brevity and evocation of a moment in time and space.
He has also published volumes that combine verse and poetic
prose. Denise Rochat suggests that the alternation in genre between
pared-down poetry and meditative prose, which, she notes, is marked
in Cahier de verdure by the use of italics and roman typeface,
introduces rhythm to his œuvre as a whole. 46 The more recent volumes
Après beaucoup d’années and Et, néanmoins pursue this combination
of poetry and prose. For example, the section entitled “Violettes” of
Et, néanmoins takes the form of five short variations on a theme (pp.
17-23). Each of these suggests a way of evoking a clump of violets
and attempts to make them present. The following poem is typical of
the short texts in these two volumes in that it combines a fragment, a
line that might be a line of verse, and a prose element:


Flèches à la tendre pointe, incapables de poison.

(Effacer toutes les erreurs, tous les détours, toutes les espèces de
destructions; pour ne garder que ces légères, ces fragiles flèches-là,
décochées d’un coin d’ombre en fin d’hiver.) (Et, néanmoins, p. 22)

First the flowers are named, then they are evoked meto-
nymically, through the shape of their leaves. Their interest for the poet
stems from the disjuncture between the sharpness of the leaves and

L’Effraie (Paris: Gallimard, 1953); L’Ignorant (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).
Philippe Jaccottet, Cahier de verdure (Paris: Gallimard, 1990). Denise Rochat,
“Cahier de verdure ou ‘les méandres de la rêverie’: Remarque sur les proses de
Philippe Jaccottet”, Studi Francesi, 118 (1996), 29-37 (p. 36).
Poetry in Time 37

their harmlessness. The final section, by far the longest, paradoxically

provides the rationale for his choice of brevity to evoke the flowers.
The temptations of a style that must be abandoned are named: “toutes
les erreurs, tous les détours, toutes les espèces de destructions”, and
the pointed fragility of the violets is repeated. In this way, Jaccottet is
able to emphasise what is central to his poem: the glimpse of the
plant’s leaves in a shady corner at the end of the winter. The precise
time of their appearance, among the first flowers of the rebirth in
spring, becomes the only moment important to the text.
The brief poem is an important feature of contemporary
poetry, even when poets have abandoned the longstanding forms of
the epigram or aphorism. For instance, the Quebec poet André Roy,
born in 1944, is known for composing poems of around four to twelve
lines. The concentration of the form ensures that every part is indis-
pensable; Alain Frontier describes the poems as creating a sense that
language is coming into being. 47
Jaccottet’s texts are not always compact; indeed, the fleeting
nature of the moments evoked tend to grant them a lightness that
dense poems would not have. He employs the brief poem in order to
suggest an instant of vision and the simultaneous birth of the words to
accompany it.
The poetry of du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël is written to be
read rather than heard. It does not require the conventions of oral
poetry because it need not be memorable to be recorded; indeed, its
emphasis on movement often means that it incites forgetting. Nor does
it involve the essential element of contemporary sound poetry, perfor-
mance. But it does not abandon all aspects of verse and become purely
visual. Its structures are more than spatial; they create new kinds of
rhythms. The remainder of this chapter will discuss the range of de-
vices that contribute to the original rhythms of this poetry.

Punctuation and Enjambement

Not always of primary interest to readers, punctuation never-
theless has an important role to play in contemporary poetry, includ-
ing in those cases where it is absent. As in prose writing, the function
of full stops, commas, colons and semi-colons has generally been to
clarify meaning. In much verse poetry, these marks occur at the ends

Alain Frontier, La Poésie (Paris: Belin, 1992), p. 235.
38 Provisionality and the Poem

of lines or at caesuras.48 They are seen as indicators of where to pause

when reading, whether aloud or silently, and they confirm the begin-
ning, ending or elaboration of ideas. In modern poetry, however, the
concern is rarely to prevent ambiguity, and the purpose of form is to
interact with content, not to explicate it. Punctuation marks, then, must
either be removed or employed in a novel way.
The most famous excision of punctuation in the Twentieth
Century was Apollinaire’s decision to publish Alcools without any of
its original punctuation. 49 Initial capital letters were also put into lower
case, so the sentence was effectively no longer an element of his poe-
try. Noël also chooses to compose his long verse poems entirely
without punctuation and in lower case letters.50 This has two important
effects. First, meanings multiply because it is impossible to designate
a phrase as belonging to one unit of sense rather than another. Second-
ly, phrases that would seem to require reading in a single breath are
often carried over line breaks, thus maintaining two potential rhythms
For example, in the following extract from La Chute des
temps, divisions between ideas do not correspond to line endings:

qui donc voudrait

sentir sur la peau de ses yeux
autre chose que le vide du monde
l’aile a le même besoin
d’abîme et nous passons dans
l’air oubliant
que la vérité se tue elle-même. (Chute, p. 22)

We might expect divisions to occur after “d’abîme” in the fifth line

and “l’air” in the sixth. The positioning Noël has chosen creates a

The exclamation mark, conspicuous by its absence in most modern poetry, was
frequently placed at the end of an alexandrine in order to emphasise the utterance in
its formal completeness.
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools, in Œuvres poétiques, ed. by Marcel Adéma and
Michel Décaudin (Paris: Gallimard, 1956), pp. 37-154.
One of the ways in which the influence of Bataille on Noël’s writing can be
discerned is through Bataille’s little known poetry. He also abandons all capitalisation
other than for the first letter of a poem, and writes entirely without punctuation.
Visually, his texts in collections such as L’Archangélique resemble Noël’s brief
poems that appear almost square on the page.
Poetry in Time 39

limping rhythm reinforced by the rhyming of “dans” and “oubliant”,

echoed also in “passons”.
The brevity of the line “l’air oubliant” could suggest that it
marks the end of an idea. Forgetfulness could qualify either “nous” or
“l’air”; in both cases, it would be left hanging in the air. But the fol-
lowing line opens with “que”, which introduces the “vérité” that we
tend to forget. Ironically, this is that the truth is self-destructive, which
brings us back to the “vide” and “abîme”. The reading of Noël’s long
poems involves a constant reassessment of meaning, as potential ele-
ments of an idea must be retained in case they will be resolved later
on, and then left behind so that new images can progress.
Noël’s absent punctuation interacts with the verticality of the
poem and enjambement, as it contradicts the breaks suggested by its
division into lines. The version printed on the right suggests what the
punctuation in this extract from La Chute des temps might look like if
it were introduced:

mais quoi Mais quoi?

le corps n’a pas lieu tout le temps Le corps n’a pas lieu tout le temps
et l’émotion est chose muette et l’émotion est chose muette,
comme l’est toute chose comme l’est toute chose.
le je appelle pour être tutoyé dans Le je appelle pour être tutoyé dans
l’innombrable nous prendrons l’innombrable; nous prendrons
le large les syllabes feront voile le large; les syllables feront voile;
l’avenir n’est pas un jour plus un jour l’avenir n’est pas un jour plus un
il est maintenant (Chute, p. 25) il est maintenant.

Of course, this is not an exercise in reinstating the punctuation that

Noël might have imagined, then decided not to include. In particular,
there is no reason to suggest that the semi-colons should not be repla-
ced by full stops or commas. It does emphasise, however, that the
pauses we would expect to make when reading do not occur solely at
the ends of lines. In particular, it is difficult to read “le je appelle pour
être tutoyé dans | l’innombrable nous prendrons | le large les syllabes
feront voile” without taking enjambement into account. The result is
that we tend to pause neither at the line breaks, nor where we would
expect to see a punctuation mark, and that our reading takes on a sense
of acceleration.
Du Bouchet also refuses the syntactical unit of the sentence in
some poetic prose by employing only the lower case. But he does not
40 Provisionality and the Poem

remove all punctuation from his work. Rather, he employs judicious

punctuation in order to include intervals and silences where we would
not expect to find them. He uses full stops and commas, but his poetic
prose is especially recognisable by the dashes and suspension marks
that pepper the pages.
Dashes are more frequent in French than in English, and are
not restricted to the role of enclosing a parenthetical idea. In French,
they can also imply a qualification or an extension to an idea, and,
most importantly, introduce a gap whose length is indeterminate and
could come anywhere on a scale that ranges from the comma, through
the semi-colon and colon to the full stop. Frontier quotes Rimbaud’s
poem “Marine”, in which lines end with commas or dashes, and points
out that the function of the dash is to interrupt the flow of words and
introduce a silence. Poetry is therefore distinguished from prose not
by cadence or metre, but because it breaks the text into isolated frag-
ments (p. 196).
This is very useful to du Bouchet, whose writing is charac-
terised by fragmentation. Not only do the gaps produced by dashes
force the reader to stop frequently and perceive silence in the text
through the medium of a space, they also complicate and multiply the
potential links between isolated elements. Dashes and commas are
particularly prevalent in Aujourd’hui c’est, occurring in short sections
of text such as the following:

s’il y a – dans la
moi survenu, comme rupture, c’est, où j’aurai été,
disparaître aussi. (p. 11)

A complex process of repeated emergence and disappearance is

expressed semantically and formally in this extract. The principal
statement: “s’il y a […] moi survenu […] c’est […] disparaître aussi”
suggests that the subject’s presence must be interrupted if it is to occur
at all. This is inscribed in the utterance itself through the disruption of
the phrase by the fragments “dans la récidive” and “comme rupture”,
which both describe and enact repetition and rupture, and the temporal
and spatial complexity contained in “où j’aurai été”. Du Bouchet often
employs the future perfect tense to include time and space that are
virtual, but have the potential to become real.
Poetry in Time 41

The punctuation works alongside enjambement to fragment

the elements of the phrase into a maximum of five syllables. The
commas introduce repeated breaks, forcing the reader to see a gap and
hear a brief silence, and they render the rhythm of the phrase very
stilted. The dash is confusing, as it appears neither to open a paren-
thesis nor to qualify an idea; it operates above all as an intrusion,
similar to a comma, but one of undecided length that refuses to be
integrated into a structure of regular rhythm.
Du Bouchet and Noël are two poets who exploit punctuation
and enjambement to make their texts more opaque in both senses: they
block clarity of interpretation and oblige the reader to take notice of
the matter of the text. Punctuation in modern poetry does not serve
meaning transparently and it is not secondary to the words; rather, it
contributes to meaning by being part of, and drawing attention to, the
form of the text.
Punctuation is not exploited by Jaccottet in such novel ways;
it is usually as discreet as every element of his texts. But close exam-
ination reveals that it plays a significant role in determining the way in
which the poems are read. Michel Sandras explains that it introduces
pauses corresponding to the momentary retention of breath.51 For in-
stance, the first poem of the suite “A Henry Purcell” opens:

Écoute : comment se peut-il

que notre voix troublée se mêle ainsi
aux étoiles? (À la lumière, p. 159)

The colon after the initial command to listen literally forces us to

pause before continuing to read, as if we were present at the scene
evoked. Question marks are also a feature of Jaccottet’s more recent
work, introducing enigmas and arresting any text that tends towards
certainty. Jaccottet insists that images are precarious and must be held
at a distance, because once a text is fixed, it no longer pays careful
attention to the multiplicity present in nature.52 He writes, in a phrase
whose meditative pace is determined by a series of commas:

Michel Sandras, “La Prosodie dans les poèmes de Philippe Jaccottet”, in La Poésie
de Philippe Jaccottet, ed. by Marie-Claire Dumas, Collection Unichamp, 12 (Geneva:
Slatkine, 1986), pp. 113-122 (p. 120).
Philippe Jaccottet, À travers un verger (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1975), p. 36.
42 Provisionality and the Poem

des milliers de petites choses, ou présences, ou taches, ou ailes, légères – en

suspens, de nouveau, comme à chaque printemps. (À travers, p. 11)

The intervals that du Bouchet introduces within lines of text

create new starts at points that do not correspond to the beginning of a
line. His characteristic technique of splitting a line in two by pushing
all but the first few words over the line break is a constant reminder
that he is writing poetry and not prose. Aujourd’hui c’est contains
numerous examples, among them the deceptively simple phrase:

tout de même – dans l’épaisseur – à avancer. (p. 24)

The break between “encore” and the rest of the phrase underlines the
forward movement described, while the reinforcing of “encore” with
the similar “tout de même”, along with the separation provided by
dashes, creates a sense of moving through thickness for the reader try-
ing to proceed through the text.
Enjambement can be particularly powerful in du Bouchet’s
texts when it combines fragmentation with projection. In some instan-
ces, words appear to have been launched ahead, even to the point of
being pushed onto the following page:

coulé, ou, par là, ayant dû

couper – mais coulé, c’est encore
avoir rejoint par le
fond. là même,
le point aéré d’où, partant, j’ai dû m’écarter
aujourd’hui. c’est, de nouveau comme la
ligne longuement se tire, le point de départ. là
je m’arrête, là, longuement. (pp. 21-22)

Most striking here is the development of paradox. “Flowed” is

compared to “cut”, a link reinforced by the similarity between the two
terms in French, “coulé” / “coupé”, and it is also connected to depth;
the word “fond” is delayed as the reader has to turn the page to
discover the masculine noun that follows the article left stranded on
the previous page. As well as implying the opposite of a flowing
movement, “fond” seems too weighty a word, both semantically and
phonetically, to have been thrown over to the top of a new page, and it
lands heavily. Combined with its isolation, this creates a sense of soli-
Poetry in Time 43

dity that is reinforced by the repetition of “là”, which occurs three

times in the subsequent text. But “là même” is itself paradoxically
described as a “point aéré”, which implies once again movement rath-
er than stasis. By now, the two have become intertwined, and they
represent the effort made by the subject to move forward: it must
separate itself from the static place, which therefore becomes a point
of departure. The repetition of “longuement” evokes the stretching out
of the line of poetry, which is interrupted by gaps and yet persists over
more line breaks, and mimics the subject’s inclination to remain in
one place, the place that is both solid depth and repeated departure.
Du Bouchet’s writing always combines isolated moments
with transitions because he insists that perception and thought operate
in this way. He writes that the power of poetry lies in its ability to
reveal the process by which the mind moves on:

ce que la poésie
en voie de réalisation incessante peut dans son inachèvement pla-
cer sous les yeux, c’est comme par surcroît le point momentané
où l’esprit a cessé d’avoir prise. (Matière, p. 26)

Poetry such as his own is in constant flux; it is coming into being yet
never quite complete, but this, again paradoxically, is what gives it the
power to create instants of stillness: “placer sous les yeux”. It is
typical of du Bouchet’s questioning of all his statements that he
should interrupt the word that evokes such a moment in time and
space, “placer”, by making it the site of enjambement. Instances of
presence do occur, he believes, but only because they are also points
of departure. When we perceive something, we are always about to
move on from that perception.
Forgetting is vital to du Bouchet’s work; it is what allows
perception to operate in time, and it must also be incorporated into
texts if they are accurately to convey perception. He writes: “nul, dans
cet instant, n’a precédé” (Aujourd’hui, p. 27) and on the same page
has already stated: “pour, en avant de soi, tracer | la trace” in a
complex interplay of anticipated past action. Writing, in other words,
must leave vestiges of itself in order to be able to forget and move on,
but, in doing so, necessarily leaves those traces. Language is not
relegated to the recording of past movement. His texts aim at reveal-
ing the moment when language becomes more than a sign and takes
on the role of creator of reality:
44 Provisionality and the Poem

sur une ligne de fracture où pour reprendre le large, elle [une parole] bas-
culera, sitôt prononcée, hors de la langue. (Matière, p. 32)

Once again, enjambement is used to divide a word, this time one that
evokes projection forward. This can only happen in the fraction of an
instant when a gap is revealed, in language and in perception.

Breathing and Measure

Du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël rarely read their work in
public, and when they did so, they read written texts; they did not give
performances. Jaccottet is the most reluctant of all, reading in Paris for
the first time in February 2001. Du Bouchet reveals the extent of the
importance of the blank page in his readings by introducing pauses of
varying length, although no exact correlation can be established
between the size of a space and the length of a pause.53 The rhythm
that he introduces into his texts is made plain; the listener can sense
the breathing of the poet, and even the rhythm of walking that du
Bouchet always linked to the act of breathing and to perception of the
Noël reads his long, unpunctuated texts, such as those con-
sidered above, not according to sense groupings of words across lines,
but rather with a break at the end of each line, which runs counter to
the frequent enjambement.55 He therefore insists on their poetic,
vertical structure, and makes it harder for the ear to isolate possible
units of meaning.
Jaccottet speaks the lines of poetry in the most traditional
way, as if they were regularly measured and rhymed, even when
examination reveals the use of irregular line lengths and assonance in
preference to rhyme. 56 The listener is left with the impression that
some texts that might read as poetic prose are in fact undeniably verse.
While their texts are not written primarily to be heard, the
poets’ readings remind us that breathing has not been abandoned in

This was clear in a broadcast of his readings on France Culture in the programme
“Surpris par la poésie”, 21 April 2001.
Yves Peyré writes that the time of the poem is its movement, which takes the form
of breathing. See Yves Peyré, “La Coïncidence des temps”, in Autour d’André du
Bouchet, ed. by Michel Collot (Paris: Presses de L’École Normale Supérieure, 1986),
pp. 41-52 (p. 42).
Based on a reading given at Trinity College, Cambridge, 5 May 2001.
Based on a reading given at the Centre culturel suisse, Paris, 2 February 2001.
Poetry in Time 45

favour of simultaneity. However, their understanding of the role of

breathing in a text is still very different from that demonstrated by
contemporary sound poets. In Bernard Heidsieck’s works grouped
under the title “Respirations et brèves rencontres”, the role of breath-
ing is emphasised by pauses in performance. He wrote that: “Le
poème est porté par le souffle”. 57 When the sound poet Christian
Prigent, born in 1945, performs his work, he often expels air and
words with a force and speed that astonishes the listener. He does not
hide the deep breaths that this obliges him to take at intervals, and
these emphasise that the body and its functions are inseparable from
the words of the poem.
This is far from the gentleness that is vital to Jaccottet’s
evocation and creation of breathing and movement. Unlike du Bou-
chet and Noël, he often refers to music in his discussion of poetry. 58
Sandras comments that Jaccottet’s poems produce a sense of cadence,
owing to their decreasing line length (Sandras, p. 119). Jaccottet
himself stresses not the cadences of music, but something much more
ephemeral; he said he would like to write poetry as “cristalline” as
music (Interview). The choice of term suggests that his frequent ref-
erences to clarity, light and shimmering movement need not
necessarily be conceived of as purely visual phenomena:

Songe à ce que serait pour ton ouïe,

toi qui es à l’écoute de la nuit,
une très lente neige
de cristal. (À la lumière, p. 162)

The extract is taken from the suite of poems “A Henry Purcell”, which
makes repeated reference to the sense of hearing in surprising
contexts. A blanket of silence imposed by falling snow would be a
more usual image, but here Jaccottet invents a sound we would not
actually hear in order to link light with aural clarity.
Sandras quotes Jaccottet as saying that “la poésie n’a jamais
été autre chose à [s]es yeux qu’une respiration juste.” (Sandras, p.
120). It is important to stress that he is not classifying his poetry as

“Notes convergents”, cited in Bobillot, p. 352.
In a radio interview he describes the importance music has always held for him, and
cites in particular Monteverdi, Purcell and Schubert. Interview with Alain Veinstein,
12 February 2001, France Culture.
46 Provisionality and the Poem

oral: the breathing of the poet is not that of the performer. 59 Instead, it
aims at creating rhythms determined by the kind of movement and
musicality of language that seems, to the poet’s ear, to be the most
“juste”. How does the poet judge what is appropriate? He is concerned
above all to capture instants of movement and change in the natural
world. Our normal speech patterns cannot be employed if the text is to
be in tune with the natural world, but neither can artificially construc-
ted metre. In Jaccottet’s later work, it is the prose poem above all that
seems appropriate to convey the subtle rhythms that govern moments
of perception. It does not foreground its formal construction, but it
does convey a sense of lilting movement and measured progression
that resembles breathing.
The French poetic tradition since Baudelaire has placed great
emphasis on the prose poem, in which language can appear more
freely rhythmical than in poetry governed by metre. Yves Bonnefoy
has emphasised the specificity of French poetry, required by the
nature of the regular stresses in the language to construct lines
according to the number of syllables, and link them through equally
artificial rhyming constraints.60 The exception to this, he argues, is the
mute e in French, which alters speech rhythms and can be used to
provide unexpected effects and rhythmical structures. He situates the
use of this feature of French not merely in poetry (he would single out
Rimbaud and Mallarmé), but also in poetic prose and prose poetry,
citing Rousseau’s Rêveries, Chateaubriand and Nerval.61
Jaccottet’s poetic prose contains a number of devices that set
up new rhythms. A text from the last section of Et, néanmoins, “Aux
liserons des champs”, deals with the relationship of the observer to a
flower, which is described as causing him to see properly, in an image
of the flower simultaneously opening, and opening his eyes:

Toute fleur qui s’ouvre, on dirait qu’elle m’ouvre les yeux.

Dans l’inattention. Sans qu’il y ait aucun acte de volonté
d’un côté ni de l’autre.

Isabelle Lebrat insists that, for Jaccottet, the voice is “ni chant, ni parole, ni trans-
cription de l’oral”, in Philippe Jaccottet, tous feux éteints: Pour une éthique de la voix
(Paris: Bibliophane – Daniel Radford, 2002), p. 22.
“La Poésie en français: rapports entre une langue et sa poésie”, lecture, Institute of
Romance Studies, London, 3 December 2001.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire, ed. by Henri Rodier
(Paris: Garnier, 1960).
Poetry in Time 47

Elle ouvre, en s’ouvrant, autre chose, beaucoup plus

qu’elle-même. C’est pressentir cela qui vous surprend et
vous donne de la joie.

Alors même qu’il vous arrive désormais, par instants, de

trembler, comme quelqu’un qui a peur et qui croit, ou pré-
tend ne pas savoir pourquoi. (Et, néanmoins, p. 77)

The repetition of “ouvre”, with the variation in pronoun, gives unity to

the first lines of the first two sections, and links them to one another.
“Elle-même” is recalled in “alors même”, and the words “qui” and
“que” dominate the whole text. The rhyming of “joie” with “croit” and
“pourquoi” grants the last two phrases a lilting rhythm and a sense of
The rhythm ensures that the text is perceived as a prose poem.
For instance, the succession of short units in the third section is
divided by commas to produce musical phrasing measured by breaths:
“désormais, par instants, de trembler” This is reinforced by the
alliteration and assonance set up through the pair “désormais” / “de
Several phrases conform to traditional metrical units in
French, with phrases of three, six and twelve syllables dominating the
text: “elle ouvre, [3] en s’ouvrant, [3] autre chos[e], [3] beaucoup plus
[3] qu’elle mêm[e] [3]”; “par instants, [3] de trembler [3]”; “dans
l’inattention” [6]; “d’un côté ni de l’autr[e]” [6]; “c’est pressentir
cela” [6]; “sans qu’il y ait aucun acte de volonté” [12]; “alors même
qu’il vous arrive désormais” [12].
The last two phrases are not immediately read as alexandrines,
however, as there is no caesura after the sixth syllable. Caesuras can
be made after four and eight syllables of the former example, but in
the latter even this is impossible. It is not the metre, therefore, that
strikes the reader first.
Above all, the mute e disrupts the regularity of the rhythm by
altering the speed at which groups of words are read. The long “ou”
sound in “ouvre” is contrasted with the elision of “s’ouvre, on” and
“elle ouvre”, and by the “e” that comes before and after it in “qu’elle
m’ouvre”. The word “joie”, which ends the second paragraph, is
highlighted by the rapid succession of syllables in the phrase “donne
de la” that precedes it. Even where metre is observed, the poem
introduces unpredictability into its rhythms. The tone is not conver-
48 Provisionality and the Poem

sational, but rather follows the barely noticeable movements made by

the flower as sensed by the subject.

Repetition and Echo

Poetry that aims at expressing the singularity of a brief
moment appears, at first sight, to be far removed from verse based on
the repetition of certain elements. The refrain, for instance, is a poetic
device that is frequently employed to link the stanzas of a poem, and it
can lead to a sense of stasis that is quite different from the poetry of
transitions examined here. But repetition can still be an important
means of lending coherence to a text; in the hands of some poets, it is
developed into a complex process of repetition with variation that
refers back and forward in a text and allows progression to occur.
Repetition of this kind is an important structural element in du
Bouchet’s work, and it contributes to the unique rhythms set up by his
texts. He employs a deceptively simple lexicon that serves to establish
a limited number of images as his own, and to create echoes, as the
reader encounters the same terms several times within a text, and
through the reading of several different volumes. 62 Terms including
“la faux”, “un pas” and “de nouveau” are found in all of his texts;
their frequency helps establish the continual interaction between
intervals and movement that disrupt and carry forward the progress of
the subject and the reader through each text. The simplicity of his
vocabulary hides the fact that numerous subtle variations are possible
within the repetition of basic terms. This may take the form of
variation in the words that qualify nouns:

le fond instantané.

le fond
momentané. (Aujourd’hui, p. 8)

Henri Maldiney writes that all of du Bouchet’s phrases come from all of the others.
See “Les ‘Blancs’ d’André du Bouchet”, in L’Ire des vents, 6-8 (1983), 195-215 (p.
211). Lucie Bourassa explains that movement operates from one collection to another
as well as within each volume. See “De l’espace au temps, du voir à la voix”,
Poétique, 91 (1992), 345-358 (p. 356).
Poetry in Time 49

Here the apparent fixity of the image of depth is destabilised because

the idea is not repeated exactly. Alternatively, repetition may reinforce
pared-down statements such as:

l’air oblige. air

qui oblige. (p. 31)

Variation is often established within the form of a single

word. For instance, the first page of the text includes the verb “couler”
and its conjugated form “coule” (Aujourd’hui, p. 7). On the following
page, this recurs as a past participle, “coulé” (p. 8). When we come
across the noun “coulée” (p. 15) several pages later, this echoes the
terms we read earlier without actually repeating them. Examples of
this kind can be found in all of du Bouchet’s poetic prose, but it is
always necessary to read the texts repeatedly and look back and forth
through them in order to establish precisely which forms have been
Repetition with variation creates change and progression, and
it also prevents the poem from becoming linear. Du Bouchet’s poetry
is known to be “forgettable”, owing to the intervals that introduce
space and silence between utterances and within them. 63 But
interstices do not divide the text into isolated elements with no
connection to one another other than their simultaneous layout on the
page. Rather, variation ensures that echoes of words and phrases are
carried through the reading process, and it establishes duration. In du
Bouchet’s words, this is “une durée qui ignore la chronologie”.64
Prepositions are an important site of repetition and variation
in du Bouchet’s texts. An image might remain unchanged in all ways
except the barely noticeable variation in preposition. Alternatively, the
repeated use of a single preposition in different images emphasises the

Lucy-Jean Lloyd compares his poetry to Reverdy’s on the basis that both depend on
forgetfulness for progression to occur. See “Writing and Forgetting: Reading Reverdy
through André du Bouchet”, Nottingham French Studies, 28, 2 (1989), 66-74.
André du Bouchet, Pourquoi si calmes (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1996).
Bachelard, in his analysis of Gaston Roupnel’s work on time in L’Intuition de
l’instant, insists that one cannot think of time as instants separated by empty intervals,
because time does not exist if nothing happens in it. According to Bachelard, time is
constructed from instants instead of being a duration that is divided up. See
L’Intuition de l’instant: étude sur la Siloë de Gaston Roupnel (Paris: Stock, 1932), p.
50 Provisionality and the Poem

particular positioning, movement or direction that it describes. For

instance, “sur” occurs in Aujourd’hui c’est in the phrase “le bleu sur
ses roues” (Aujourd’hui, p. 12), which is followed by “ira sur la
relation perdue” (p. 12), and then “sur terre déjà” (p. 13); the first and
third images that describe the placement of objects surround the
movement evoked by the verb “ira”.
In this volume, the most noticeable feature of the prepositions
included is that their number is limited and the terms “dans” and
“par”, run throughout the text. “Dans l’épaisseur du temps” (p. 8),
“dans le temps” (p. 8), “dans la récidive” (p. 11), “dans les premiers
froids” (p. 15), “dans l’instant” (p. 18), “serrées dans l’air” (p. 23),
“dans l’épaisseur” (p. 24), “dans cet instant” (p. 27), “dans la matière
humaine” (p. 28), “dans le plafond” (p. 32), and:

comme à

la paume incrustant. (p. 35)

The capacity of “dans” to link space and time is clear, and “dans
l’épaisseur” is echoed in both “dans l’épaisseur du temps” and “dans
la matière humaine”.
More than this, however, it acts in conjunction with “par”,
situating the subject in time and space, only for any established
positions to be undermined by the constant movement and cutting
through and across suggested by the expressions that involve “par”:
“pris | par le travers” (p. 9), “venu par le travers” (p. 9), “par le centre
de la parole” (p. 10), “aller par ces terres-là” (p. 13), “rejoint par le |
fond” (pp. 21-22), “portée par des branches” (p. 25), “par l’air où je ne
suis pas” (p. 33). Instances of repetition and variation grant du
Bouchet’s texts an existence in time, introducing hesitation and
change if the texts threaten to become static.
Jaccottet also uses the device of repetition, in prose as much
as in poetry, to create echoes within one text and across whole series.
In a poem quoted above from Et, néanmoins, the phrase:

Rien qu’une touffe de violettes pâles

une touffe de ces fleurs faibles et presque fades (p. 19)
Poetry in Time 51

is varied in the following pages:

Fleurs parmi les plus insignifiantes et les plus cachées. Infimes. A la limite
de la fadeur (p. 20),

Je ne cueillerai pas les fleurs (p. 21),

Flèches à la tendre pointe, incapables de poison (p. 22)

and lastly,

Frayeuses de chemin, parfumées, mais trop frêles pour qu’il ne soit pas
besoin de les relayer dans le noir et dans le froid (p. 23).

We are left with the impression of delicate and gentle flowers, but also
of the attempt to capture the essence of something that will always
remain just beyond the reach of language. Du Bouchet deliberately
pares descriptive writing down to the minimum, until variation can be
attained by altering an element as simple as a preposition, but
Jaccottet either repeats terms in order to render their evocation more
precise, or creates the impression of repetition through subtle variation
in order to keep the image mobile. The nouns “fleurs”, “violettes” and
“touffe” recur, but “fades” becomes “fadeur”, and is also suggested by
“faibles”, “infimes”, “insignifiantes”, “tendre” and “frêles”.
Temporal settings are important both for precision and for
fluidity. The violets will only be as Jaccottet evokes them here at this
particular point in the year and moment of the day, and this clump of
violets is not the same as the one that will appear the following year,
although that clump will grow and change in the same way. That is
why his repetitions always involve variation. Change and nuance
allow for more faithful accounts of the natural world than the certainty
of exact repetition. He is particularly sensitive to the rhythms and
cycles of death and rebirth in nature, which he understands through
the figure of a spiral: “il s’agit d’un mouvement en spirale par rapport
au nôtre, qui serait en ligne droite” (À travers, p. 15).
Repetition and variation are techniques frequently employed
by sound poets. Ghérasim Luca (1913-1994) creates a structure from
repetition in poems such as “Quart d’heure de culture métaphysique”
(a reference to culture physique, or PT, a form of physical exercise in
52 Provisionality and the Poem

which movements were repeated).65 Whole words are repeated in

varying combinations and over seven pages, a limited number of verbs
and the even smaller number of nouns upon which they act are com-
bined in a variety of ways. The metaphysical term “angoisses”, for
instance, is qualified by the physical “écartées” (p. 10), “tendues” (pp.
10-11), “jointes” (p. 14), “souples” (p. 14), “ramenées” (p. 15),
“fléchies” (p. 15), “derrière” (p. 12) and “en avant” (p. 15), while
most of these are applied to other substantives. “Tendu(e)(s)”, for ex-
ample, is also used with the metaphysical terms “idées” (pp. 9 and
12), “mort” (p. 9) and “vide” (p. 13), while “idées” are described in
different ways, and so on.
Luca produces his effects as much through the form of the
voice as the meaning of the words employed. Repetition and variation
of words, and even syllables, lead to an aural effect of acceleration
and a sense that the poem is coming into being during the course of
the performance as words generate one another.

Luca insisted that an audience should experience the unfold-
ing of a text rather than see it laid out before them. Even when it is not
written with performance in mind, much contemporary poetry pro-
duces a sense of the text unfolding, or coming into being before the
reader’s eyes.
Jaccottet’s work is known primarily for its evocation of the
present instant. The title series of prose poems in Et, néanmoins, for
example, comprises texts in which the time of the observation is
clearly stated; phrases include “ce jour-là, en ce février-là” (p. 19). In
another text from the same volume, it is precisely because the narrator
specifies the moment that is evoked fractionally before it is lost that
the transition appears to take place during the time taken to read the

Parce que c’est vu juste avant la nuit, qui tombe tôt, c’est un moment
assez bref, à la limite du perceptible; juste avant que les couleurs ne
s’éteignent, ne se fondent dans l’obscurité. Cela dure peu, mais surprend
d’autant plus: comme quand une ombre passe vite et s’enfuit, sans qu’on
puisse espérer la rattraper jamais. (p. 63)

Ghérasim Luca, Le Chant de la carpe, 2nd edn (Paris: Corti, 1986), pp. 7-15.
Poetry in Time 53

The narrator reduces and intensifies what is sensed by insisting that it

is barely noticeable. The reader is drawn to the second before the light
fades and allowed to glimpse the colours before they merge into dark-
ness. The brevity of the impression reinforces its impact, as its fleeting
nature renders it more desirable to the narrator and to the reader, who
is involved in the implicit emotional response.
In the following passage from Éléments d’un songe, the
moment observed seems to unfold in the present from the opening

ce qu’elle voit alors, ce sont de brèves pluies sur les eaux, et des brumes
rapides au-dessus de la terre qui dissimulent presque entièrement le port, les
premières lumières aux fenêtres des maisons basses.66

Jaccottet often simply names the constitutive elements of a scene, but

in this case, the addition of adjectives and adverbs serves to grant it a
temporal existence beyond a list of nouns. The rain is brief and the
mist rapidly moving. Moreover, the port and windows are glimpsed
indistinctly, and these perceptions must frequently change as the mist
is never still. The scene is set at dawn, a time of constantly changing
light, and we have the sense of witnessing the visual image of an
instant that hovers and then is lost to the process of change.
Unfolding is a vital element of Noël’s poetry, but its speed
and rhythm is very different from Jaccottet’s hovering instant. His
long poems cannot be read slowly, as each short line appears to
generate the next, creating a sense of acceleration and suggesting the
outpouring or precipitation that Noël claims can be achieved within a
poetic framework. The effect is exaggerated by his use of conjunc-
tions and open-ended expressions that often prevent any unit of
meaning from being completed. The end of the first “chant” of L’Été
langue morte, for instance, includes lines that prolong phrases by
opening with terms such as “et”, “mais”, “qui”, “et pourtant”,
“comme” and “ce qui” (Chute, p. 85). Addition, contradiction and
qualification force the reader to move through the text, while ob-
structing the retention of images and ideas.
It is not only Noël’s long poems that appear to take shape in
the present. Sur un pli du temps contains sections made up of very
short texts alongside extensive ones. Among these are the poems in

Philippe Jaccottet, Éléments d’un songe (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), pp. 75-76.
54 Provisionality and the Poem

“Fenêtres fougère”, which all open with the simple evocation of one
or two nouns, usually with their definite articles. The lack of conju-
gated verbs might be thought to make these texts static, offering only
a frozen instant, but they tend rather to suggest a barely perceptible
movement or emotion. Conjugated verbs would easily develop into
the narrative form Noël wishes to avoid in these texts:

du vent
un peu de pluie
d’âme. (p. 249)

One would have the sense of reading a haiku if it were not for the fact
that these poems lack the essential elements of a setting in a precise
time and place. There are no seasons or times of day, which are so
important in Jaccottet’s work. When the vocabulary of time is em-
ployed, it is with the purpose of removing the poem from any fixed
time scheme and insisting that we live in temporal chaos, in a “pli du

on s’est vêtu
de presque
de encore. (p. 226)

In the early series of prose poems Extraits du corps, unfolding

times are figured in the restlessness and growth that take place inside
the body. For example, in the opening poem he writes:

Le buste est un assemblage d’éléments mobiles et d’éléments immobiles.

Les gestes se poursuivent à l’intérieur de la poitrine, comme les cercles sur
l’eau. Et le cou se prolonge loin dans le corps. (Poèmes 1, p. 33)

The poet’s gaze enters into the body, which contains gestures equip-
ped with their own impetus to move. Inside and outside are disrupted
and contrasted, as internal movement is compared with ripples on the
surface of water, while parts of the body extend into the body imagin-
atively, out of sight of an external observer. All this is enacted in the
present of reading.
At times, the body appears to be present in Noël’s poetry even
when it is not evoked directly. His use of short syllables and repetition
creates the sense that the words stem from breathing and from the
body’s other rhythms. Sur un pli du temps contains the lines:
Poetry in Time 55

il y a du ho du ah
du corps à peine
du où du quand
du pourquoi. (Chute, p. 259)

Words subvert grammatical rules, are rendered alien to our ear by

substantivisation (“du où”, “du quand” and “du pourquoi”) and even
consist of syllables and phonemes without agreed meanings: “du ho
du ah”. Form begins to take over from content as generator of
language, and, ultimately, as the significance of the text.
In the longer poems, this takes place only occasionally, the
best example being the “contre-chants” in La Chute des temps. The
technique is developed furthest by Noël in his Bruits de langue, which
display an anarchic attitude to language. In the following example, the
onomatopœic use of words creates the impression that they are
meaningless: “riant de la risée du branlaboum quoi couac”, even if, as
is the case with “couac”, they do have a definition.67 This line is
followed by one containing nonsense words that are close enough to
words we know to imply meaning: “il affriol’ la résiduance et
l’excroisse” (p. 159). “Résiduance”, for instance, suggests “résidu”
and “résidance”, and “excroisse” appears to be an invented form from
“excroissance”. The text is both excessive and insufficient. The
reader’s apparent recognition of words is frustrated by their ultimate
refusal to produce intelligibility.
Luca often composes poems that move from apparently mean-
ingful words and phrases to phonemes that offer only pure sound, or
vice versa, in phrases such as “la jamjamjamjambe”.68 This is a form
of stuttering, which shows words to be inherently unstable, but it is
less a sign of uncertainty than of the power of language to transform
itself of its own accord. Jean-Pierre Bobillot evokes Luca’s technique
of “déterritorialisation de la langue” (Java, p. 19). Deleuze, for whom
deterritorialisation is an important concept, cites Luca as “un des plus
grands poètes français, et de tous les temps”. 69 This was due in parti-
cular to his ability to make language stammer, “bégayer”. He was able

Bernard Noël, Bruits de langue, repr. in Hervé Carn, Bernard Noël (Paris: Seghers,
1986), pp. 156-163 (p. 159).
Java, 15 (1996-97), p. 10.
Gilles Deleuze, “Un manifeste de moins”, in C. Bene and Gilles Deleuze,
Superpositions (Paris: Minuit, 1979), pp. 85-131 (p. 108).
56 Provisionality and the Poem

imposer à la langue, à tous les éléments intérieurs de la langue,

phonologiques, syntaxiques, sémantiques, le travail de la variation continue.
(p. 108)

Jacques Sivan writes that words have lost their “centre de

gravité” (Java, p. 95). They no longer have a secure grip on the world,
but this also grants them the capacity to make us laugh at language
and our own use of it. Luca emphasises the power of language to
produce meaning through sound, even if the sounds are not mean-
ingful, in the sense that they do not allow for fixed semantic
interpretations. The poems are events rather than examples of texts in
which certain meanings or ideas are elaborated.
For Prigent, signifying is also secondary to sound, which itself
forms the meaning of the text. Frontier explains how he deliberately
blocks any possible narrative or logical sense the audience might seek
to find. His aim is to “empêcher l’image” and to “refuser l’illusion que
la langue pourrait représenter le réel” (Frontier, p. 348). Language
cannot represent reality, because it is energy that is itself reality: “une
scansion, un rythme, une musicalité, une énergie” (p. 348). It is an
event in itself.

Conclusion: Poetry as Event

Noël’s concept of poetry appears similar to Prigent’s; he says
that the poem “est un événement verbal entier” (L’Espace, p. 53).70
While this might seem to imply performance or oral communication,
it is, in fact, inseparable from his concept of written poetry. He
considers poetry to be distinct from narrative prose primarily through
its refusal of the representation that is so essential to narrative. Instead
of referring to non-linguistic events, the poem and words “sont
détachés de leurs références aux choses et ne relèvent plus que de la
réalité seconde peu à peu produite par l’écrit” (L’Espace, p. 147).
Poetry produces reality rather than imitating it, and this is a gradual,
temporal process. It occurs: “peu à peu”.
Jaccottet is also concerned to create an event rather than
recounting it. For him, the event is the brief instant of perception. The

Much twentieth-century poetry has been influenced by Mallarmé’s famous
insistence at the end of “Crise de vers” that poetry makes language new and complete:
“un mot total, neuf, étranger à la langue”. “Crise de vers”, Œuvres complètes, 2 vols,
ed. by Bertrand Marchal, II (Paris: Gallimard, 2003), pp. 204-213 (p. 213).
Poetry in Time 57

series “Éclats d’août”, from Cahier de verdure (pp. 47-52) announces

this approach in its title. The poems are characteristically situated at a
particular time of year, but they are also in themselves eruptions or
“éclats”. Each page contains two short poems, one positioned near the
centre of the page and one at the bottom. The sequence opens:

Tard dans la nuit d’août,

l’œil du Taureau devient rouge
comme s’il allait ensemencer la terre. (p. 47)

These poems are more than attempts to evoke a scene precisely,

because metaphors take the images beyond the moment of visual
perception that inspired them. The image of the burning sun implied
here has echoes throughout the series, as the noun “brasier” (p. 47)
and the verbs “brûlent” (p. 47) and “flambent” (p. 48) go on to
counteract the increasing darkness of the phrases “vont vers la nuit”
(p. 48) and “se rapproche de l’obscur” (p. 49). The flashes of light and
fecundity that are both evoked and produced on the page resist the
encroaching dark and the death that will come with autumn. The short
poems themselves act as instances of life and energy.
Du Bouchet chooses to discuss what he describes as a “non-
événement” in his text Pourquoi si calmes (p. 24). He is referring to
the interruption of a lecture given by Henri Maldiney by a siren that is
sounded every month at that time in the town. Maldiney asked his
audience why they ignored it, “pourquoi si calmes” (p. 24), when the
siren was, in legend, the very call that could not be ignored and lured
men to their deaths. Du Bouchet, however, focuses on the fact that
while it was a routine occurrence, the siren still disrupted and slightly
altered the course of Maldiney’s talk. He sees the event not in the
siren’s sound, but in the silence that immediately preceded the speaker
resuming his talk:

ce qui a eu lieu – comme fendu alors – en un sifflement annonciateur de la

parole imminente, résonne encore quand on a cessé de l’entendre. (p. 26)

The silence anticipates the words that will break it and is not forgotten
once it has ended. Words and the intervals between them, in the form
of pauses or blank spaces, have equal standing as events that const-
itute the text.
58 Provisionality and the Poem

For each poet, time is vital to the functioning of the text. As

an event, the poem is not an isolated moment, but an instance of
transition. The reader encounters the interaction of enunciation and
silence that allows du Bouchet’s texts to progress, or Jaccottet’s
capturing of a moment of change in the natural world, or, in Noël’s
work, the energy that propels language forward and multiplies the
meanings it can suggest. While their work is distinct from the
recordings and performances of sound poets, they create poetry in
which new rhythms are seen, read and felt.
l’important n’est pas d’avoir le pouce vert
mais de faire venir à travers les branches
cette floraison d’air qu’on appelle l’être71


Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the poetry of du

Bouchet, Noël and Jaccottet is that it takes place outdoors, and is
especially bound up in the elemental world. Their poems contain
abundant images of air, earth, fire and water, both as singular instan-
ces and as manifestations of bare presence. The poetic subject takes
shape in relation to the movements and changes of the elements.
The earth is the main point of contact between the subject and
the area through which s/he walks; rocks provide evidence of
unchanging matter, while soil and sand allow the subject to enter into
the earth. Noël indicates the extent to which the human being and its
faculty of sight are inseparable from their surroundings, with lines
such as “les yeux de mon amie sont dans la terre” (Chute, p. 84). Du
Bouchet’s phrase “le sol fait sans cesse irruption vers nous” (Dans la
chaleur, p. 45) grants the earth an active power to break into the
walker’s path and consciousness.
Fire is often treated as solid matter presenting an obstacle in
du Bouchet’s texts, but he also associates it with light and, in
particular, with bright heat or the colours of dawn and dusk: “à l’heure
où le jour brûle encore sur les | bords, on y fait courir un cordon de
feu” (Dans la chaleur, p. 99). For Jaccottet, fire is often present
through the evidence of ash, which can be a means of evoking autumn
scents or a more overt reference to human mortality. Of the dead, he
writes: “leur corps est cendre, | cendre leur ombre et leur souvenir” (À
la lumière, p. 117). The same text contains another manifestation of
fire that is also important to Jaccottet, the image of a candle: “une
bougie brûlante dans un miroir, une main | de femme proche, une em-
brasure” (p. 116).73
Bernard Noël, Le Reste du voyage (Paris: P.O.L., 1997), p. 79.
The title is taken from Derek Mahon’s anthology, Words in the Air: A Selection of
Poems by Philippe Jaccottet. This, in turn, translates Jaccottet’s phrase, “paroles dans
l’air” (Poésie, p. 57).
An “embrasure” is a frequent image in Jacques Dupin’s poetry. See, for example,
L’Embrasure, in Le Corps clairvoyant (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), pp. 99-202. As the
60 Provisionality and the Poem

It appears to be the constant movement of light that attracts

Jaccottet to the candle flame, which he frequently links to a tear,
perhaps owing to the shape they share. A tear moves down the face
and changes its form, and it is the physical evidence of sorrow:

elles [les larmes] sont de la brume sur des lacs

un trouble du jour intérieur,
une eau que la peine a salée. (À la lumière, p. 93)

Water is important to Jaccottet for its movement, particularly when

this blurs its clarity, and, in the case of tears, for the emotion it
This is very different from Noël’s evocation of the sea, in
phrases such as “la mer est là | immobile” (Chute, pp. 83-84). And yet
movement is also vital in his imagery; instead of providing an obvious
image of a troubled sea or crashing waves, Noël chooses to make the
sea a desiring, but passive subject that wishes to be moved. He

l’immobilité appelle le vent
l’état de détresse est lié
à la goutte mouvante. (p. 84)

This is being moved in both senses; while Jaccottet values the image
of the tear, Noël suggests this without naming it, reserving his
nomination for the powerful emotion “détresse”. In this case the wind
is the active force, and air in its various forms appears to be the most
important element to all three writers.
Bachelard’s work on the elements in poetry tends to classify
writers according to one of the four elements. The fact that the work
of Jaccottet, Noël and du Bouchet focuses on the elemental world as a
whole renders this kind of distinction unhelpful, but an examination of
air in their work is perhaps best suited to revealing connections and
differences between them.
In L’Air et les songes, Bachelard examines images of air in
modern poetry by dividing them into the categories of blue sky,

opening provided by a window frame, it also suggests light and depth. It is a poetic
convention, too, as the window seat implies a trysting place for lovers.
Words in the Air 61

clouds, mist and wind. 74 This immediately points to the fact that we
tend not to notice air unless it is doing something such as moving
rapidly or reacting with water to form clouds. Poets have rarely
written about air as a substance in itself, although it is a frequent
image of absolute purity. Mallarmé’s “Azur” is perhaps the best
known example in modern French poetry, while the sky as lightness
and pure unity is fundamental to Éluard’s poetry.75 Bachelard points
out that Hölderlin sees the blue sky as pure, sacred air, from which the
seasons and weather descend (L’Air, p. 199).
The opposite movement usually dominates images of air in
poetry. Mircea Éliade reminds us that air in mystical or religious
experience implies expansion and ascension. 76 Bachelard cites Super-
vielle’s poetry as exemplifying the link between air and upward
movement (p. 232):

Terre lourde que se disputent les cadavres et les arcs-en-ciel,

Des statues au nez brisé sous le soleil d’or incassable
Et des vivants protestaires levant leurs bras jusqu’aux nues.77

This implies a wish to escape from the world; the poem concludes
with the attainment of weightlessness on the part of the human
subjects: “Et vos mains onduleront comme au vent les marguerites!”
(Supervielle, p. 232).
The sky frequently incites reveries of vagueness and distance.
But whereas for some poets, such as Goethe, its distance separates it
from human beings, for others, this creates yearning on the part of the
subject.78 Laforgue writes in “Crépuscule de dimanche d’été”:

Gaston Bachelard, L’Air et les songes (Paris: Corti, 1943).
Mallarmé, Œuvres complètes, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), pp. 80-81. See in
particular Paul Éluard, Donner à voir, in Œuvres, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 917-
Mircea Éliade, Images and Symbols (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), p. 166.
Daniel R. Morris, who cites Éliade’s and Bachelard’s work, discusses how air is
essential to creation in the Christian story because God breathed life into Adam’s
nostrils and Man became a living soul. See From Heaven to Hell: Imagery of Earth,
Air, Water and Fire in the novels of Georges Bernanos (New York: Peter Lang,
Jules Supervielle, Œuvres poétiques, ed. by Michel Collot (Paris: Gallimard, 1996),
p. 230.
See Bachelard on Goethe, L’Air, p. 201.
62 Provisionality and the Poem

Où donc es-tu, depuis tant d’astres, à présent…

Ô fleuve chaotique, ô Nébuleuse mère.79

He presents the night sky through images of distant stars and the
Milky Way, which is related to the earth by comparison with a river,
and human concerns in the image of the mother.
We can see that the relation of the subject to the air is central
across this variety of images. It is particularly noticeable in conditions
where we are physically affected by the air, such as windy weather or
a storm. Moreover, agitated air appears to be animated, or given life,
so it can seem to correspond to the subject’s mind or even incite
movement. 80 If the poem is understood as a breath, it is made of the
same stuff as the air: elemental matter, motion and the soul.
These various manifestations of air in modern poetry are also
to be found in the work of du Bouchet, Noël and Jaccottet. Breath is
important to them all, but the differences between their images for air
reveal the specificities of each writer’s poetic universe. For instance,
air can be solid matter, as in du Bouchet’s work; it is used to blur
outlines when it takes the form of mist for Jaccottet; in Noël’s texts it
operates as a metaphor for internal space.
Rather than simply elaborating the scope of air imagery in the
poetry, the following sections examine how, for each poet, the
presentation of air is integral to the imaginative universe of the work,
and how its features are also those that characterise their imagery as a
whole. Air links the poets, but also highlights the essential differences
in approach between all three.
It is, of course, impossible to separate form from content in
discussion of poetry. The aim of focusing principally on formal
devices in chapter 1 and imagery in this chapter is not to present these
as working independently from one another, but quite the opposite: we
shall see in analysis of extended extracts that structure and image
combine to produce texts that enact what they evoke. These are taken
from volumes that reveal the most obvious way in which air links the

Jules Laforgue, Poésies complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), p. 356.
The English Romantic poets used the wind as a vehicle for “drastic changes in the
poet’s mind”, according to Hans H. Rudwick. See his essay “Concretizations of the
Aeolian Metaphor” in Poetics of the Elements in the Human Condition, part 2: The
Airy Elements in the Poetic Imagination: Breath, Breeze, Wind, Tempest, Thunder,
Snow, Flame, Fire, Volcano…, ed. by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D.
Reidel, 1988), pp. 145-155 (p. 151).
Words in the Air 63

writers; each title includes the word “air”. Du Bouchet’s 1951 Air is
the earliest of the three, and also his first volume of poetry; Jaccottet
published Airs in 1967 (Poésie, pp. 93-155), and Noël’s La Rumeur de
l’air dates from 1986 (Chute, pp. 167-222).
The translations that accompany the extracts are my own and
are intended to adhere as closely as possible to the vocabulary and
structures of the French in order to aid comprehension of the original

Translations of some of Jaccottet’s poems cited here can be found in Derek
Mahon’s anthology.
64 Provisionality and the Poem

i. Du Bouchet: Entering Matter

Air is not particularly airy in du Bouchet’s poetry. It asserts its

materiality, refusing to be ignored as if it were empty space, and rarely
occurring in gentle forms such as breezes. Michel Collot cites du
Bouchet as an example of a poet who valorises the opacity of matter.82
Air can be as thick and heavy as earth. In a text from L’Emportement
du muet du Bouchet insists on its three-dimensional form:

volume d’air volume, subitement. le


“Le révolu” is an expression that recurs in his texts. It appears to have

both a spatial and a temporal meaning, suggesting earth that has been
turned over by a plough and time that has gone by. The noun is
separated from its article, the turn of the line reinforcing the turning of
the earth and time. The air is not endlessly present, but takes on its
volume suddenly; the subject notes its existence in these fragmented
emergences of language, which appear and are left behind like the
ridges and troughs of ploughed land. They draw attention to the blank
areas in between words, previously ignored or thought to be empty
just as air is rarely noticed, but which here also suddenly emerge as
Landscape is the poetic world du Bouchet’s texts inhabit and
create. It does not take the form of a view, seen objectively or in clear
perspective. Rather, the reader encounters images of elemental matter
and the shapes in which it occurs. Sensations are proffered alongside
visual images, as we are taken through the landscape by a subject who
experiences its immediacy, and does not attempt to represent it. The
earth, ice and paths are usually named without comparison or
qualification, with the result that they emerge as powerful forces
rather than as aspects of the landscape a subject has attempted to
master and use for his or her own poetic purposes. Du Bouchet’s work
appears to be strongly motivated by the natural world, not merely to
find in it useful inspiration. He writes:

Michel Collot, La Matière-émotion (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997),
p. 76.
André du Bouchet, L’Emportement du muet (Paris: Mercure de France, 2000), p.
Words in the Air 65

…ce que j’écris

c’est l’air qui l’exige

comme si chaque endroit vide

me forçait d’écrire.84

Each motivating “endroit vide” could be space in the land-

scape, which is always far from empty for du Bouchet, since
everything about the natural environment is matter. But it could also
refer to the blank areas of the page. The landscape would not be suf-
ficient inspiration without language, because the textual environment
comes into being with the text. This is implied in the layout of the
extract cited here, in which “l’air qui exige” and “chaque endroit vide”
are encircled by the words “…ce que j’écris” and the closing infinitive
Nevertheless, the subject’s encounters with the landscape are
essential to much of du Bouchet’s poetry. While the human subject is
always an undefined presence, its relationship to its surroundings
determines the way in which the elements appear, often through
sensations such as the brightness of light or the feel of heat, cold and
wind. Roger Cardinal stresses the importance of sensation to modern
poetry in Sensibility and Creation. He suggests that the poetic image
can encapsulate both phenomenal experience and abstract ideas.85 In
du Bouchet’s work, however, the focus is above all on the sensation
for itself; he resists all interpretation that would link a phenomenal
experience intellectually to a particular idea.
Bachelard relates wind to the body, remarking that the
forehead is usually the first part of the body where wind is felt, and
that poets often attribute a face and a forehead to the wind itself
(L’Air, p. 269). Du Bouchet does this in a poem from Où le soleil,
comparing the sensation of wind on the face to the feeling that one is
the object of a gaze: “ce regard en froid ardent sur notre face” (Dans
la chaleur, p. 180). His choice of the term “face” rather than “visage”
de-emphasises the subject as human, and focuses rather on the face as
a part of the body that encounters the elemental world. The sense of
being looked at by the wind suggests that the subject and the world are
equally active and passive figures. Glenn W. Fetzer describes du
Carnets 1952-1956 (Paris: Plon, 1990), p. 43.
Roger Cardinal, Sensibility and Creation: Studies in Twentieth-Century French
Poetry (London: Croom Helm; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977), p. 14.
66 Provisionality and the Poem

Bouchet’s evocations of landscape as based on a “bi-directional sense

of perception: the poet’s own perception of the world, and the world’s
point of view as recorded by the poet”. 86
In this poem, “face” is subsequently applied to summer, “la
face de l’été” (Dans la chaleur, p. 180), which implies heat rather than
cold. Moreover, the cold wind was itself described as “ardent”, which
means blazing or burning. The poem is shot through with paradoxical
images. John E. Jackson examines instances of paradox in du Bou-
chet’s evocation of the elements:

l’aridité qui subsiste en dépit de l’orage, la route qui demeure sèche malgré
la pluie, le déversement sans perte de la terre, l’épaisseur du sol qui répond
à la déchirure dans le ciel.87

By removing the elements from “la banalité de leur assertion

traditionnelle” (Jackson, p. 18), du Bouchet emphasises their force and
their independence from human control, whether of the observer, the
poet or the reader.
Bachelard suggests that wind is often an ambivalent
phenomenon, because it can range from gentleness to violence, from a
breeze to a storm, and poets exploit this characteristic (L’Air, p. 265).
Du Bouchet’s poetry is most likely to evoke a storm. For example, he
writes in Air: “De l’autre côté du seuil de bois, le vent recommence à
tonner, | à tourner” (p. 35). The repetition with variation formed by the
juxtaposition of two terms describing the storm, “à tonner” and “à
tourner”, evokes the effect of wind turning rapidly, indirectly suggest-
ing a “tourbillon”, while the slight change in vowel sound implies that
the wind swirls in unexpected ways; it disconcerts as a stormy day
would do.
The poetic subject is rarely a passive recipient of the wea-
ther’s blows. The encounters with the elements that determine many
of du Bouchet’s texts can be overtly confrontational; at times, the
subject is drawn into the landscape or taken over by its forces, and at
others it counters with a determined move to embrace its environment.
The continued attempt to become part of the elemental world requires

Glenn W. Fetzer, “André du Bouchet: Imaging the Real, Seeing the Unseeable”,
Nottingham French Studies, 35, 2 (1996), 76-83, p. 78.
John E. Jackson, “L’Étranger dans la langue”, in Michel Collot, Autour d’André du
Bouchet, pp. 13-23 (p. 18).
Words in the Air 67

overcoming the boundary between subject and object, and this entails
a certain loss of coherence for the self.
For example, in the poem “Ce que la lampe a brûlé”, from Le
Moteur blanc, the subject is not alone, but there is no indication of the
identities of the people present, and they appear separated from their
own sense of self:88

Nous nous reconnaissons à notre fatigue, le bois des

membres, le bûcher tout à coup délaissé par le feu, et
froid au fond du jour. Nous prenons froid. Puis j’ai
tourné le dos à ceux qui s’embrassent. (Dans la chaleur, p. 78)

The reflexive pronoun in “nous nous reconnaissons” divides the

subjects from themselves without separating them into individuals.
They are forced to recognise themselves from the outside, through the
tiredness they realise they must be experiencing. The elements of the
scene: wood, fire and cold, are first evoked as objects, although the
term “membres” suggests human limbs, but the cold ceases to be only
“au fond du jour” and affects the subjects. The expression used, “nous
prenons froid” implies that they are active in their acceptance of the
cold. Then the singular pronoun “je” comes into play. There has been
no indication earlier in the text of who “ceux qui s’embrassent” might
be, but at this point they are notable as examples of a closeness
between people that the “je” rejects through its appearance in the
Its subsequent engagement with the cold is more assertive

Quand je ne vois rien, je vois l’air. Je tiens le froid par

les manches. (p. 78)

It catches hold of the cold as if it were another person whose presence

were vital. Air is once again important, even though it is transparent.
As well as an element that can be traversed, air enters into the body
through breath, and walking in the cold emphasises its invasiveness.
By welcoming the cold air, even grabbing hold of it, the subject is
seeking to break down the barriers between the inside and the outside

André du Bouchet, Le Moteur blanc, in Dans la chaleur vacante, pp. 57-83.
68 Provisionality and the Poem

of itself, an aim whose complexity is emphasised by the interweaving,

but not conflation, of the pronouns “je” and “nous”.
In a text from the prose collection L’Incohérence, du Bou-
chet’s image of breathing is broader than the taking in of air to the
body. Breath is seen to animate the landscape:

Dans l’indistinct, ce qui ressort, c’est la charnière de l’étendue que notre

souffle anime – comme le souffle de la terre que j’imagine en respirant.
(“Écart non déchirement”, L’Incohérence, n. pag.)

He lays before us space that gradually emerges into clarity; at first, it

is “ce qui ressort”, but it is then revealed that the space is the passive
party, brought to life by “notre souffle”. The poet’s own breath is
compared to the breath of the earth as he imagines it. But his
landscape is more than a term of comparison; the world that is
emerging is also a verbal one being created in conjunction with the
imagination of the reader: “notre souffle”.
Du Bouchet deliberately connects the living rhythms of the
earth with the breathing that is poetic invention, and the mediating
image for these two is frequently the physical breathing, often labour-
ed with effort or the cold, of the subject in the elements. In “Ce que la
lampe a brûlé”, he writes:

Un chemin, comme un torrent sans souffle. Je prête

mon souffle aux pierres. J’avance, avec de l’ombre sur
les épaules. (Dans la chaleur, p. 77)

Here the mountain path seems to rush torrentially downwards without

pausing for breath, possibly because the subject is following it down a
steep slope. He writes that, as poetic subject, he lends it breath, which
is true on two levels. First, as a walker he anthropomorphises the path
because it appears to be moving rapidly, and breaks down the
distinction between an inanimate object and human life. In addition, as
poet he brings the path to life through his imagery. The life-giving
process is not simply one way, however. He suggests precisely that it
is by breathing animation into the landscape that he is himself able to
move forward, both on his walk and in his writing.
Central to many of du Bouchet’s texts is the action of
walking, although it often remains implicit. Even where he makes it
clear that the subject is experiencing the landscape from within rather
Words in the Air 69

than observing it, he rarely states that he is walking through it. Du

Bouchet avoids any hint of mapped terrain or plotted progress, just as
he evokes fragmented images rather than describing the elements of a
scene through their spatial relationships. However, images of move-
ment forward, or advancement, are often what link the disparate parts
of a text. For instance, in the poem “L’Air soudain”, movement into
the landscape is inseparable from the breathing that animates the
textual form it is given:

L’horizon diffus,
à la coupure du souffle. J’avance dans
le jour retentissant.
La maison s’anime. L’air se fend. (Dans la chaleur, p. 44)

Images of undefined space are contrasted with the impression of sharp

precision suggested by “coupure”. Breath is cut off, or taken away,
while the day resounds forcefully. But even if the poetic subject is
momentarily deprived of speech and taken into the landscape, his or
her advancement causes the air to divide and the house to become
Air parts here as if it were solid matter that could split into
two, but du Bouchet has not produced a metaphor; rather, he
consistently presents air in this way. It is an invisible thickness,
integral to the material world, but it is privileged because it is capable
of parting to let us move through it. His insistence on its solidity
serves to emphasise the effort required to make progress through a
landscape and a text.
Du Bouchet links movement in the landscape to division by
exploiting multiple meanings in “Ce que la lampe a brûlé”. He writes:

Notre faux enjambe la campagne. Nous allons plus vite

que les routes. Plus vite qu’une voiture. Aussi vite que
le froid. (Dans la chaleur, p. 78)

The action of scything, of cutting through crops, also permits move-

ment through the countryside. Walking, in the literal action of
straddling, is suggested through the choice of “enjambe”, which
includes the word “jambe”. “Faux” also suggests a fault that might be
made in writing, an image immediately reinforced by the reference to
70 Provisionality and the Poem

Not only is the “nous” figure endowed by movement, its

speed goes beyond walking pace (as the path beneath the walker’s feet
seems to move), beyond even that of man-made transport, to be as fast
as the cold, a phenomenon not normally associated with speed at all.
Rather than simply accelerating through the landscape, the moving
subjects and, by extension, the text, mingle with the elemental world.
The subject in du Bouchet’s poetry does not passively submit
to the forces of nature, and the natural world does not remain
unaffected by its actions. When human movement into the atmosphere
causes air to part, and the surface of the earth is disturbed by walking
and ploughing, the landscape appears to undertake an answering
movement. In the following section of this text, du Bouchet writes:
“Déjà le pays perce” (p. 78). Indeed, “déjà” implies that it anticipated
the movement of the subject and was animated by it.
Suggestions of anticipation and repetition serve to involve
time in the images of penetration and parting. For example, a text
from “Un jour de plus augmenté d’un jour” includes the lines:

Sur une déchirure des airs

qui transhument – comme, dehors, la porte rouverte
Le souffle. Tant que j’ai souffle.89

The composition of air from multiple particles is noted in the use of

the plural, and it is employed as the subject of a verb that usually has
animals as its object: “transhumer”. The image of moving to summer
pastures evokes the transition from cold to warmth as well as
movement in space. The air is also torn, which grants it the
characteristics of solid matter rather than particles, and it is compared
to a door, which usually marks the boundary between inside and
outside; in this case, it is attributed to the outside. The door is not only
immediately open, “aussitôt”, a fraction after the air is torn, but opens
again: “rouverte”. By beginning with the preposition “sur”, du
Bouchet prevents us from situating the image visually in space, and
insists rather on the importance of breath. Once again, the trans-
formation effected by a tear and an opening lasts as long as the poet’s

L’Ajour (Paris: Gallimard, 1998), p. 19.
Words in the Air 71

Du Bouchet often describes air in terms of a wall that must be

broken through, whether or not a door is present. Walls also occur as
images in their own right, but he tends to focus on their existence as
surfaces with no solid depth attached. In these cases, the surface is a
boundary between inside and outside, which it may or may not be
possible to cross, but it is also a façade, a surface that implies depth
without providing it. In the following image from Où le soleil, he
disturbs our understanding of space by comparing the light that comes
into a room with a cloud moving above a façade:

qui entre en plein jour
dans le foyer comme un nuage en marche au-dessus
des façades blanchies. (Dans la chaleur, p. 180)

The comparison between summer light and cloud is unsettling, and

summer appears to be standing in for the sun, when we might expect a
reverse image in which the sun would represent summer and heat
metonymically. White walls imply the brilliance of the hot sun rather
than the shadow clouds would cast. The difference between inside and
outside is deliberately blurred to reveal that walls which apparently
circumscribe areas could turn out only to be façades.
Images of rooms recur in the poetry of Reverdy, who makes
the window emblematic of the boundary between inside and out,
which protects the self looking out, but also provides a means of
interaction between the spaces it divides. 90
Du Bouchet goes further, complicating three dimensional
space by taking from surface and depth the very characteristics that
define them as opposites. In the text “Cession”, for instance, he writes:

Ici, dans le monde immobile et bleu, j’ai presque

atteint ce mur. Le fond du jour est encore devant nous.
Le fond embrasé de la terre. Le fond
et la surface du front,
aplani par le même souffle,
ce froid. (Dans la chaleur, p. 107)

See Andrew Rothwell’s discussion of the “chambre” in Textual Spaces: The Poetry
of Pierre Reverdy (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989), pp. 91-106.
72 Provisionality and the Poem

The subject is drawn forward by a wall and by the limits of the day
seen ahead. Both daylight and earth have depth, which the subject
encounters through the forehead, the surface of the body. But then the
distinction between them is eroded, they are “aplani par le même
souffle”. The action of the “souffle” implies that language effects this
transition; indeed, it appears to have occurred as a result of the
similarity of the words “fond” and “front”.
In the following section, the poetic self is also transformed. It
has come up against a façade and lost its coherence, but is able to
reconstruct itself:

Je me recompose au pied de la façade comme l’air bleu

au pied des labours.

Rien ne désaltère mon pas. (p. 107)

Just as air is parted and reconfigured when something moves through

it, so is the subject reassembled in words after going beyond the
surface the world presented to it. This process is what enables it to
advance into the landscape and the text.
Language undergoes an analogous transformation in du
Bouchet’s hands. He frequently establishes a connection between the
space in which we live and breathe, which is made up of air, and the
page of writing or drawing, through his qualification of air as white,
writing in the poem “Laisses”: “J’ai vu la blancheur de l’air dehors”
(L’Ajour, p. 76).
Among his texts on the visual arts, which will be the subject
of chapter 3, are important writings on Alberto Giacometti. Du
Bouchet appears most interested in Giacometti’s drawings, which are
generally less well known than his distinctive sculptures. Du Bouchet
does not attempt to describe individual works, but prefers to evoke the
impression of movement he experiences when viewing the drawings.
In Qui n’est pas tourné vers nous, for example, he conveys the
paradoxical impression that a figure is approaching the viewer while
also entering into the paper on which it is drawn:

La part laissée à l’air grandit, comme la figure traversée rentre, en “nous”

parvenant, dans le papier qui l’environne.91

André du Bouchet, Qui n’est pas tourné vers nous (Paris: Mercure de France,
1972), p. 40.
Words in the Air 73

Two effects of Giacometti’s drawings stand out for du Bouchet. First,

he suggests that they appear to maintain a certain distance from the
viewer, even when, as is the case here, they also give the impression
of advancing. Secondly, du Bouchet insists as much on the white
space around the figure as on the pencil marks themselves. Here he
specifically relates the white paper to air, and suggests that as the
figure appears to be in motion, the part that air occupies increases. It is
notable that he does not describe the figure as shrinking, but rather
makes the increasing air and paper the focus of the image.
Air is included in du Bouchet’s poetry through the white
spaces of the page, and remarks in his notebooks imply that this is less
the result of assembling words and blanks than the hard-won product
of the reduction, even destruction of poetry:

…je n’ai pu travailler

que pour détruire mon poème
…Tant j’ai travaillé
pour détruire ce qu’il y avait
de trop – j’avais créé
l’air – fait place. (Carnets, p. 42)

In order to remove superfluous elements from the text, the poet must
destroy it, and allow room for the space around, the page and air. This
is much more than a simple concern for concision; rather, it integrates
the poem into the air of the page, and therefore into the material world
that is its inspiration and subject, by the reverse process of giving the
air room to penetrate the words. Later in Qui n’est pas tourné vers
nous, he explicitly relates language to the drawn figures he is

La parole qui sur tel

instant aura cessé d’être la nôtre seulement, apparaît elle aussi comme
une figure dans l’air ( à flanc des montagnes de ce sol ) – en
suspens elle aussi sur ses abîmes… Et qui se défait. (Qui, p. 71.)

Ensuring that language is dismantled and aerated means giving up

ownership of it. Words are released from our control and become
“comme une figure dans l’air”, close also to the earth, but suspended
over emptiness. Du Bouchet never implies that words are lost to us,
however. Instead, they grant us access to the world around and make
us part of it in a way that would not be possible were they to remain
74 Provisionality and the Poem

separate tools to describe it and we were confined to the position of

objective observer.
In the poem “Cette surface”, the self embraces the earth:

De la terre,
je ne connais que la surface.
Je l’ai embrassée. (Dans la chaleur, p. 184),

and eventually merges with it:

Plus chaude que moi, la paille qui enveloppe

notre pas venu de terre – notre pas comme cette
dans le corps
de la terre. (p. 187)

The straw is enveloping, but this is not a simple image of the self
being taken into the earth; the step taken by the walker has emerged
from the earth, not sunk into it, while the earth is both described as a
body and appears to possess the clarity we would associate more with
the sky above. The poetic subject has overcome the role assigned to it
of walker on the surface of the earth to find that its step emerges from
the ground.
Du Bouchet’s poetry is above all an intense, highly original
evocation of the elemental landscape, but nowhere are the constituent
features of this clearly outlined. Rather, he conveys the overwhelming
presence and endurance of the earth, rocks, ice and fire. His insistence
on the solidity of air and the effort required to move through it
reminds us that there is no empty space in the landscape and that the
subject can never stand outside it. In order to demonstrate that we do
not exist beyond the world with an objective perspective on it, he
ruptures and dismantles the boundaries between self and environment,
interior and exterior space, earth and air, and, above all, language and
what it evokes. Once descriptive, representational language has been
deprived of its superior position on the world, it can begin to construct
a poetic world and a poetic subject from the inside. He writes in
Retours sur le vent, a text whose title emphasises repeated movement
and its ambiguous relationship with the air:
Words in the Air 75

si, mêlé au vent qui

chasse sur les maisons fendues, j’arrivais à être où je suis,
je me verrais entier à nouveau – et dehors. (L’Ajour, p. 149)
76 Provisionality and the Poem

From Air suivi de Défets: “Agrandissement” (pp. 33-34); “Dictée”

(pp. 39-45); “Grain” (p. 52)

Du Bouchet’s collection Air was his first. The texts studied below
cannot, therefore, be taken as representative of his poetry as a whole.
They are generally less elliptical than some of his later poetic writing,
and his incorporation of the space of the page into the text would
develop more fully. On the other hand, there is an astonishing con-
tinuity throughout his work where vocabulary and setting are
concerned. Many of the recurrent images by which we recognise his
writing are already well established in this collection, and the poems
reveal a keen interest in the mountainous landscape; it is rare to find a
later publication that contain no references to this. Images of air occur
in each of the three poems reproduced below, and together they
explore a range of elements important in du Bouchet’s poetic world.
“Agrandissement” and “Dictée” both consist of sections of text of
reasonably even length, and cover two and seven pages respectively.
“Grain” adopts a more recognisable poetic vertical form on a single


Que la lumière l’éclaire jusqu’au fond, recule ses murs blancs et

la couvre d’un plafond. La chambre. L’œil calme du papier.
La porte sèche.

Le revers du feu brûle dans la chambre. Air lisse, sans un nœud.

Glacé à l’endroit.

Lit calé dans le mur d’angle. Jour équarri.

Fenêtre de la personne sur la fraîcheur sans qu’elle penche.

Dans l’autre pièce, les volets deviennent blancs.


Un bras tendu à deux étages de la terre, dans le souffle.

Words in the Air 77


Let the light illuminate it to the end, push back its white walls and
cover it with a ceiling. The bedroom. The calm eye of the paper.
The arid door.

The fire’s reverse burns in the bedroom. Smooth air, without a glitch.
Frozen on the right side.

Bed wedged in the wall’s corner. Hewn day.

The person’s window on freshness without needing to lean.

In the other room, the shutters turn white.


An arm stretched out two floors from the ground, in the breath.

The transitions that operate in this poem are barely perceptible,

because it creates an atmosphere of stillness and calm. We seem to see
a brightly lit room that is simply named: “ La chambre ”, the
noun isolated by gaps on either side. The room’s whiteness is related
to white paper, but there is no anguished writer’s block; the paper
looks calmly back at us. The air in the room is not disturbed in any
way: “Air lisse, sans un nœud”. There is a bed in the corner. This
indicates a human presence, which recurs in the form of a possible
figure at an upstairs window who does nothing more than stretch out
an arm.
On closer inspection, however, we realise that this is not a
motionless, silent scene. Rather, it engages with absence to evoke and
produce change. We are not looking at a brightly lit bedroom, but
reading about the desire there this should be the case: “que la lumière
l’éclaire jusqu’au fond, recule ses murs blancs et la couvre d’un
plafond”. There is no interior space, and the subject is wishing that the
light would create one. Of course, the poet has done so, producing a
visual image of three-dimensional space from his calm, white paper.
He then introduces a fire, but this, too, is an absence. “Le revers du
feu” is what burns, and it does not fulfil its function. There is no heat,
and the air, which is on the opposite side, remains frozen. In this
hypothetical room, with a fire whose “other side” it is impossible to
78 Provisionality and the Poem

imagine, we can no longer label the right and wrong sides of things
with any certainty.
It would seem that the bed, at least, occupies space in a
reasonable fashion, being wedged into the corner. But the terms “mur”
and “angle” have been reversed, so we cannot attribute the corner
securely to the wall. It is not solid walls that have been squared off, or
hewn into geometrical form, but the day itself. This returns us to a
more usual image of light entering a room and taking on its
dimensions, but our understanding of the distinction between interior,
circumscribed space and the formless outside has, by this stage, been
thoroughly disrupted.
At this point, halfway through the six sections of text, a
person is introduced: “Fenêtre de la personne sur la fraîcheur sans
qu’elle penche.” This disconcerting phrase is granted internal unity by
the alternating alliteration of “f” and “p”. The window is linked to
coolness, perhaps suggesting colder air coming in through an open
window. The person relates to the action of not leaning, although
“elle” could equally well refer to the window or the cool temperature,
both of which are indicated by feminine nouns, because the sentence
is so far removed from standard grammatical rules. The lack of
leaning is as present as movement would have been. Most
importantly, this person is also no one, “personne”. Like the fire, the
person and the action of leaning are both present and absent at the
same time.
The final two lines, which end the first page and make up the
only text on the second, do not evoke absences. We are told, simply,
that in the other room, the shutters turn white. The other room, not
mentioned before, is presented as existing and not as the product of
wishful thinking. The shutters’ action of becoming white is not one
that the subject would like to happen and creates from an absence by
writing it down; rather, the use of the present tense means that it is
always in the process of happening, as we read. But we cannot help
but wonder about their previous colour, because there is no colour in
this text other than white; it is in the walls of the room, the page and
the frozen air. The image of the shutters turning white reminds us that
the scene is not one of unchanging calm. If it is white, it is because it
is being created on the page.
Shutters have an even more liminal status than windows,
because they can be open, letting in light and providing a point of
Words in the Air 79

access between inside and outside, or they can, in their closed state,
shut out all light and create a wall with only the potential for an
opening. The final line of the poem suggests that this opening in the
wall has been breached, because an arm is held out. We are not told
that it is stretched out of the window, but our viewpoint appears to be
located outside the building, looking up to the second floor. It is only
at this stage, the very end of the text, that movement is suggested:
“dans le souffle”. The shadowy human figure would be able to sense
the movement of the air on his or her outstretched arm. The breath is
performative, and has brought the scene into existence.


Il faut peut-être s’astreindre à

cette dictée. Mais rien ne
m’astreint. Dehors indifférent.
Le vent le permet.

Une bouche fraîche piétine l’air. La nuit roule encore une fois.
Ma route reprend dans la neige. Tu apparais, quand je tourne
la tête, comme une chose sauvage.

ou fenêtre au flanc de la neige.

Marcher – comme nous parlons – sans cesse. Sans avancer

d’un pas.

Le nuage couvre la route d’un nuage noir, souffle noir à la

porte de l’hiver.

Je maintiens ma tête hors de la terre remplie de

morceaux d’animaux et de pierres.
80 Provisionality and the Poem

Le harnais qui glisse sur l’épaule de la terre. Deux fléaux aux

chaînons froids.

La terre apparaît partout où je sèche.

Ce n’est pas un être achevé, mais quelque chose qui souffle. On

entend son souffle. On voit tous ses métiers. Les cailloux nus comme
les arbres. Comme la terre.

Je passe la nuit sur terre

avec ces mots qui restent froids en attendant, peut-être, la première

heure du souffle.

Comme je sors,
je suis lu. Plusieurs fois, j’ai été terre, plusieurs fois comme un

L’anse rouge. Le tranchant de l’air. Ce que je suis, est encore

plus froid.

La terre basse, qui parle à voix basse, me change en terre.


Adossé à l’air

avec la vaisselle

où l’air a fini.
Words in the Air 81


Le jour
dont la main
me serre

je respire à sa place

cette route froide


jusqu’à terre

ce n’est pas mon feu

c’est une autre chaleur

son ciel

où nous sommes enfermés.


Le froid est le froid de la pièce autour de l’or quand j’ai allumé.

L’encre qui se décolore aussi, je

la réchauffe, comme elle sèche, entre mes mains rougies.


Perhaps this dictation is

compelling. But nothing
compels me. Indifferent outside.
The wind allows it.

A cold mouth tramples the air. The night rolls once more.
I set off again in the snow. You appear, when I turn my
head, like a wild thing.
82 Provisionality and the Poem

or window on the snow’s flank.

Walking – as we talk – without stopping. Without taking

one step forward.

Cloud covers the road with a black cloud, black breath at

the gate of winter.

I hold my head up out of the earth filled with

fragments of animal and with stones.

The harness sliding onto earth’s shoulders. Two flails with

cold chains.

The earth appears wherever I dry up.

It’s not a finished being, but something that breathes. You can
hear it breathing. You can see all its workings. Pebbles bare like
the trees. Like the earth.

I spend the night on earth

with these words that stay cold while waiting, perhaps, for the first
hour of breathing.

As I come out,
I am read. Many times, I have been earth, many times like a
Words in the Air 83

The red arch. The air’s cutting edge. What I am is even


The low earth, which speaks in a low voice, changes me into earth.


Joined to the air

with crockery

the air has ended.


The day
whose hand
grips me

I breathe in its place

this cold road


until the earth

it is not my fire
it’s another heat

its sky

where we are confined.


The cold is the room’s cold around the gold when I’ve turned on the lamp.
84 Provisionality and the Poem

I warm the ink, which also loses its colour,

as it dries, between my reddened hands.

The poem consists of twelve numbered sections of varying length,

preceded by four lines positioned as an epigraph would be. Many of
the themes that characterise du Bouchet’s later work are in evidence
here: the cold, snow, walking and also the experience of writing. The
text occupies a relatively small part of each page, so the impression of
white dominates. Its title implies that the poet will not be in control of
the content of the text, but the introductory statement claims the
opposite, “mais rien ne m’astreint”. The reflexive verb “s’astreindre”
transforms the writer from the object “me” into an active subject who
can choose what to include: “il faut peut-être s’astreindre à cette
dictée”. The natural world is both personified, “le vent le permet” and
entirely impersonal: “dehors indifférent”.
The first section sets the scene, albeit elliptically, by
presenting the wildness of a walk in the snow. An unspecified “tu”
figure looms up when the subject turns around: “comme une chose
sauvage”, barely human. It has been rendered unfamiliar by the hostile
conditions. The first element of the text is the disturbing image “une
bouche fraîche piétine l’air”. The mouth is detached from the body
and prefigures metonymically the experience of walking that will be
evoked. It is cold and tramples on the air as the walker moves through
the snow. Perhaps the walker is noticing his own rasping breath as if
from the outside; he is estranged from his own body.92 The harshness
of the situation is emphasised, rather than diminished, by the sug-
gestion that the activity is habitual: “La nuit roule encore une fois. Ma
route reprend dans la neige”. The journey seems endless.
The following section appears unconnected, and it introduces
an unexpected element into the scene of extreme cold and snow,
“feu”, and immediately layers it with the suggestion that it might, in
fact, be a window: “ou fenêtre”.93 The fire or light that would shine
through a window at night provides a link to a warm interior that
contrasts with the cold scene outside. The last section of the poem
refers back to this and confirms it, as the poet describes the cold of a

Du Bouchet’s Le Surcroît also contains a fragment that links the air, rawness and
the figure of the other: “l’autre est la crudité de l’air” (L’Ajour, p. 133).
While du Bouchet does not employ the term “embrasure”, which is a motif in
Jacques Dupin’s poetry, he does evoke its dual meaning of fire and a window.
Words in the Air 85

room around the golden light of a lamp: “Le froid est le froid de la
pièce autour de l’or quand j’ai allumé”. The walking subject is now in
the artificial light of an interior, but, despite the lamp, the cold has
been carried over from the exterior scene to the room. The lamp does
not produce heat; it is golden rather than fiery and remains surrounded
by the cold. In the second section the window is positioned laterally
on the snow, with no suggestion that its warmth will cause melting.
The use of the word “flanc” for the hillside introduces animal imag-
ery, implying that the snow might have internal warmth.
A reference to animals occurs on the following page: “Je
maintiens ma tête hors de la terre remplie de morceaux d’animaux et
de pierres”. While stones and rocks are frequently evoked by du
Bouchet, and the walker is constantly aware of the earth through
which s/he has contact with the world, it is extremely unusual to find
an image of the subject being drawn into the earth almost against his
or her will. Nor does du Bouchet tend to imagine the soil in terms of
animal remains; his later poetry is almost completely devoid of natural
The earth is made into a beast of burden by “le harnais qui
glisse sur l’épaule de la terre. Deux fléaux aux chaînons froids”. The
flail with its cold chains might refer to the weight of the dark cloud
covering the road that is evoked at the beginning of the preceding
section. The resulting sense of oppression, emphasised by the other
meaning of “fléau”, “curse”, is all the more effective for being
separated from the sight that prompted the metaphor. The cloud is
weightier owing to the repetition of the words “nuage” and “noir”,
while the “souffle”, which might have introduced some movement,
suggests rather a threatening wind.
The word “souffle” recurs on the following page, first as
evidence of a creature that might be the walker or the walker’s
companion, but which appears even wilder and more unfamiliar than
the “chose sauvage” of the first section: “Ce n’est pas un être achevé,
mais quelque chose qui souffle. On | entend son souffle”. This being is
completely foreign to the writer, and barely qualifies as a living
creature; it is “quelque chose”. The poetic subject is distinct from
what is breathing, and therefore from the communication provided by
speech and poetry. In the following section, however, breath is
associated with the ending of the night; words lie dormant until the
first breath of day grants them freedom:
86 Provisionality and the Poem

Je passe la nuit sur terre

avec ces mots qui restent froids en attendant, peut-être, la première

heure du souffle.

Here the subject is on the earth, rather than in it, and the cold stands in
for frozen potential expression, which will come to life with breath
and daylight. It appears, therefore, that writing is associated with
warming up and thawing out. When walking in the snow, constant
movement achieves no progress. The third section reads: “Marcher –
comme nous parlons – sans cesse. Sans avancer | d’un pas”. By the
fifth section the earth is beginning to show through the snow: “La
terre apparaît partout où je sèche”. “Sécher” also means to dry up, or
find one cannot continue speaking, which contrasts with the ink that
will dry out in the last phrase of the poem. The earth, it seems,
emerges better when the subject is silent.
Stones, trees and earth are now visible; the nouns are not
simply listed, but are compared to one another: “Les cailloux nus
comme les arbres. Comme la terre”. These are similes where it is
impossible to tell which term is the original referent and which the
point of comparison. The reappearance of the earth and the new day
seems to allow expression to come to life, but this also involves
exposure; the poetic subject is said to be read by others, in a use of the
passive that is unusual in French: “Comme je sors | je suis lu”. The
process of being buried and then revealed is repeated, both for the
subject and his or her language: “Plusieurs fois, j’ai été terre, plusieurs
fois comme un | mot”. As the act of writing transforms an experience
into words, the “je” is not separated from the earth, but becomes more
like its surroundings: “La terre basse, qui parle à voix basse, me
change en terre”. This circular phrase, of which the earth is the begin-
ning and the end, reveals the nature of the earth’s dictation; its voice is
low and subtle so that the subject must become part of it in order to
hear. The air, by contrast, is full of paradox. It has a cutting edge, “le
tranchant de l’air”, but the subject still adheres to it: “Adossé à l’air”.
It is even said to have limits, “partout | où l’air a fini”.
By the eleventh section, which is unusual in that it consists of
short lines arranged vertically, and is therefore more reminiscent of
verse, the subject appears interchangeable with its surroundings. Du
Bouchet reverses the habitual functions of man and landscape; the
Words in the Air 87

subject has taken over from the air: “je respire à sa place”, and upset
standard grammar:

Le jour
dont la main
me serre.

Through incorporation in the earth, the self seems to have gone

beyond its own boundaries and become foreign to itself: “ce n’est pas
mon feu | c’est une autre chaleur”. The last line of the section intro-
duces a “nous” that may refer to the walking companion, but appears
rather to be an identification of the self and its surroundings, both of
which are trapped by the sky:

son ciel

où nous sommes enfermés.

The final double page, consisting of two sentences, takes the

subject away from the cold frozen landscape into a lighted interior. It
is only by the last unnumbered section, perhaps after the end of the
dictation, that the process of writing is allowed to begin. It is seen as a
thawing-out and warming of ink that had threatened to become
colourless. The poet is able to effect this through the warmth of his
reddened hands, which appear to have been returned to him after
being taken into the bitter earth and air: “L’encre qui se décolore
aussi, je | la réchauffe, comme elle sèche, entre mes mains rougies”.
The text comes into being once the process of identification between
the subject and the environment is complete.

Grain Grain

Sauf Except
avec l’air with the air
par-dessus up above
que je fends that I part
il faut plusieurs routes many roads are needed
pour avancer to move forward
vivant alive
je retourne I turn over
les terres the land
faiblement feebly
comme le grain like the grain
88 Provisionality and the Poem

sans voir without seeing

le guidon the marker
mais aveugle but blind
et de loin and from afar

le jour rayonnant the shining day

ce n’est pas dehors qui avance outside isn’t advancing

c’est le moteur the engine is
moi. myself.

Although du Bouchet does not disturb the left-hand margin in this

poem, it is typical of his later work in many ways. As in “Dictée”, it
includes images of air, the land, roads and daylight, and involves
movement into the landscape by a depersonalised subject who parts
the air and turns over the earth. It does not evoke the environment by
description, but nor does it connect the subject to its surroundings
through sensation. There is no mention of sound, touch, taste or smell,
and although roads, earth and light are present, the subject appears
unable to see them: “sans voir”, “aveugle”. What might be left of the
scene and the self is the question posed by this short text.
Its only punctuation is an opening capital letter and a full stop
at the end. These two marks suggest that the poem should be read as a
single utterance; it avoids the impression of unrelated fragments that
might result from the total suppression of punctuation that is so
common to twentieth-century French verse. It cannot be read as a
prose sentence, however, because it is divided into brief lines, and in
three instances these consist of only one word. It has a measured pace,
and frustrates the reader’s search for sense by refusing to indicate
when units of meaning are completed. For example, line five, “il faut
plusieurs routes”, could be an isolated statement, but it could be a
condition: “il faut plusieurs routes / pour avancer”. The next line
might also be included in the phrase: “il faut plusieurs routes / pour
avancer / vivant”. On the other hand, “vivant” could relate adverbially
to the following line: “vivant / je retourne”. The dual meaning of “je
retourne” as the intransitive “I come back” and the transitive “I turn
over” serves to link it either with the line that precedes it or with the
subsequent one: “je retourne / les terres”. It seems clear that
“faiblement” should describe the manner in which the subject turns
over the land, but the point of comparison is surprising: a seed or grain
Words in the Air 89

is sown in earth turned by a plough, but it is not sufficient to turn over

the soil itself, however feebly.
This is where the multiple meanings of the title term come
into play. As well as being used for various kinds of grains, seeds and
pips, and evoking a small amount of something, as in English, the use
of “le grain” has further implications. It means a squall, which brings
violent gusts of wind and rain that would be powerful enough to
disturb the earth. It suggests tools because it can mean a metal pivot.
In the art of engraving, whose vocabulary du Bouchet would have
known through his work with artists, it refers to the effect created by
marks engraved over one another in different directions. The image of
grooves and ridges could be linked visually to the texture of ploughed
Texture is also important to the sense of “le grain” as the
texture of skin or paper. Du Bouchet often includes oblique references
to writing and paper in his texts about the landscape. Although the
only human figure clearly present in this poem is the “je”, which is
impersonal, human tasks hover behind the imagery of agriculture,
craftsmanship and writing. One might even see in the turning of the
earth “comme le grain” a hint of the turning of rosary beads, although
religious imagery is not a feature of du Bouchet’s texts. As the figure
advances into the landscape, an echo of the expression “être dans le
grain”, or being at ease, could also come to mind.
The multiple approaches this text invites are suggested by the
phrase “plusieurs routes”, although these appear to be a necessity, not
simply opportunities, for the subject’s survival. Perhaps the poem is
implying that the subject must exist in various potential forms if it is
to become a textual reality at all.
One stable marker does stand out in the centre of the text, “le
guidon”, but it remains unseen. Among various meanings suggesting
markers or guides, “le guidon” refers to a small pennant in a field (or
battlefield), and a marker indicating a vein in the landscape. The latter
sense would integrate a further rent or weakness into a poem where
these have already been evoked directly in the lines “l’air | par-dessus |
que je fends” and “faiblement”. In addition, “le guidon” also means
the handlebars on a bicycle, an unlikely intrusion at first, but a
possible one since the subject appears to be moving through the
landscape on roads.
90 Provisionality and the Poem

Blindness is combined with a visual image in that the subject

appears sightless, but states that the day is shining; “et de loin” could
refer both to the position of the marker and to the bright light in the far
distance. The insistence on blindness means that we do not necessarily
visualise sunlight; the placing of the phrase “le jour rayonnant” in an
isolated position after fifteen uninterrupted lines of text allows it to be
considered as an unqualified presence, not presented, described or
affected by any external force.
However, the final three lines of the text form a confident
conclusion that positions the subject as active, neither objective
observer of a scene nor passive recipient of its actions. The decreasing
line length insists on the final image, which is “moi”, the self as
motivating force. In its positioning alone at the end of the poem, it
mirrors the opening word, “sauf”, which, isolated as the first line,
created an absence from the start of the text; it suggests that an
unnamed object is all there is. “Sauf” is followed by the parting of the
air, which reminds us of the existence of air as matter, but
immediately introduces a gap; there can only be emptiness when air,
which usually fills a vacuum, is pulled apart. No road, or route, is
favoured because many are necessary, so we are not given any
indication of direction. Even the earth, which appears to be a stable
presence, is disturbed and then rendered invisible by blindness. The
scene has been reduced to a minimum, which serves to highlight the
motivating presence of the shining day in the distance. It does not
matter if the horizon is inaccessible, because it appears to invite the
self to forward movement. What is left at the end of the text, as is so
often the case in du Bouchet’s poetry, is not a picture of a scene, but a
confident subject that has taken shape through its ability to advance
into the landscape.
Words in the Air 91

ii. Jaccottet: Floating Images

Jaccottet lives in the same area of the South of France that inspired du
Bouchet, but his texts do not present a sparse elemental mountain-
scape. Rather, his landscape is teeming with plants, home to birds and
brought alive by rivers and sunlight. The titles of many of his
publications indicate that the natural world is a central figure: Airs,
Paysages avec figures absentes, À la lumière d’hiver, Pensées sous les
nuages, La Semaison, À travers un verger, Les Cormorans, Cahier de
verdure, La Promenade sous les arbres.94 The human presence is
veiled in the titles, implied through the actions of walking, thinking, or
These volumes are also representative of Jaccottet’s work in
that they cover verse and prose; in some cases, such as Cahier de
verdure, they contain both forms. This chapter will focus principally
on Jaccottet’s verse, with some reference to his prose poetry. A
feature of the prose is that it tends to mingle poetry with meditations
or discussions of the image-making process.
Jaccottet’s poetic world is one of gentleness and change, and
he creates a sense of the ephemeral. These are all qualities associated
with air. The very form of Jaccottet’s images is fleeting and hesitant.
At times they appear to hover briefly before moving on, suggesting
the real through glimpsed instants rather than extended descriptions.
Correspondingly, images of air in many forms traverse all of his
poetry; in particular, air is present as soft breezes, wispy clouds and
mist that hovers over the landscape. Unlike du Bouchet, he rarely
presents it in terms of a storm or strong wind. The epigraph he chose
for his collection Airs, taken from Joubert, is indicative: “Notre vie est
du vent tissé” (Poésie, p. 94). The image emphasises that human life is
textured, but also fragile, layered and in transition. Joubert’s phrase is
likely to appeal to Jaccottet’s sense that our life is inseparable from
the natural world.
The airy forms of mist and smoke are especially prevalent in
Jaccottet’s work. Their multiple particles are constantly moving and
dispersing; more and more air is gradually introduced. They link the
elements by their transformations from one state into another. Fire,

La Promenade sous les arbres (Lausanne: Mermod, 1957); Les Cormorans
(Marseille: Éditions Idumée, 1980); La Semaison: Carnets 1954-1979 (Paris:
Gallimard, 1984).
92 Provisionality and the Poem

which needs air, creates smoke, and mist hovers between water and
air. Mist and smoke are light and have blurred outlines. Anything seen
through them will appear hazy and shimmering, taking on their
qualities. Mist often occurs at dawn, probably the most significant
time of transition in Jaccottet’s poetry. As the landscape becomes
visible with the increasing light, any mist that forms contributes to the
impression that the solid features are in flux, and that the world is
literally changing with the new day. Of course, he is not alone in
favouring such images. Bachelard explains that mist is diffuse and
constantly being reformed. It therefore corresponds to and incites
reverie in the poet (L’Air, pp. 225-226).
Jaccottet’s early prose work La Promenade sous les arbres
elaborates the aspects of the natural world that most fascinate him,
both in imaginative prose and through discussion of why they are so
important. For example, he realises that the mountains are most
attractive when only their summits are visible, writing: “c’est leur
légèreté de buée qui m’obsède” (p. 64).
He insists that this state must be momentary; if it were
permanent, it would not be so valuable. Such brief glimpses are
necessarily unique. Even if the same process were to occur every day,
the precise conditions would vary and, crucially, they would not be
viewed in an identical way. Although the observer in Jaccottet’s
poetry is reticent, it is through his or her particular connection with a
scene that this is perceived. One of the major similarities between
Jaccottet’s work and that of du Bouchet and Noël is that the subject is
impersonal, but also inseparable from its environment. In this text,
Jaccottet explicitly states that such moments of being in a landscape
are what render its description true; a subjective evocation is more
truthful than a distanced one would be. He cannot claim to show what
always happens to the landscape in the mist, because he is so attentive
to minor variations and change. His work is made up of multiple
instances, because that is how the world exists in time:

Ce qui me reste en effet de tous ces instants où j’ai regardé les montagnes,
où elles m’ont ému et rendu plus étonné d’être au monde, cela peut tenir en
ces mots qui me sont venus plus haut sous la plume: ‘montagnes légères’,
‘rocs changés en buées’, en ces images qui, tour à tour, essayaient de dire la
vérité, non pas sur le monde ni sur moi, mais peut-être sur nos rapports.
(Promenade, p. 66)
Words in the Air 93

Mist often hovers on the surface of lakes in Jaccottet’s poetry.

A lake does not flow as a river does, so any movement is gentler. He
rarely presents an entirely still surface of water, however, because that
would provide a clear reflection. Mist either obscures the surface
entirely, covering the boundary between water and air, or creates
blurred reflections that correspond to his evocations of shimmering
outlines. The image of mist on an otherwise mirrored surface also
suggests breath on glass. The human presence is often hazily implied
by Jaccottet through references to images in mirrors. In some texts, it
is more explicit, and the face appears through a mist of tears. In the
following poem from “À la lumière d’hiver”, for example, eyes are
clouded by tears as lakes are by mist:

Les larmes quelquefois montent aux yeux

comme d’une source,
elles sont de la brume sur des lacs,
un trouble du jour intérieur,
une eau que la peine a salée. (À la lumière, p. 93)

Here Jaccottet weaves together a number of images of water:

tears, springs, mist, lakes and the sea. Tears well up as if from a
spring, because they are evidence of hidden disturbance. This invites
us to look beyond the surface of lakes as well as beyond the faces we
encounter. Inside and outside are linked as the troubled interior is
described as “jour”; the crying human figure and the earth from which
the spring emerges are not described as dark or unknown, but visible
through what is revealed on the surface. Pain is said to have added salt
to the water. The salt water of tears also recalls the sea, to which the
term “trouble” is more likely to be applied than to lakes.
This is typical of Jaccottet’s ability to connect aspects of the
natural world with human emotion so that neither can be clearly
defined as referent or term of comparison. Rather, each illuminates the
other and the human being is bound ever closer to his or her
While the two realms are intimately related, Jaccottet refuses
to see nature only in terms of human concerns. He insists always on its
absolute reality, and aims at evoking it with as little embellishment as
possible. The extent to which it is possible to write transparently,
without imaginative imagery, is of course always debatable, not least
in Jaccottet’s own work. He states his wish to reduce poetry to its
94 Provisionality and the Poem

simplest form, while remaining aware that much of his poetic writing
is dependent on chains of images. This continual paradox will be
discussed in chapter 5. In Après beaucoup d’années, he can say
without reservation, however, that the world around him remains
vividly alive and real to him regardless of his personal concerns:

Celui qui douterait que le monde soit, qui douterait, lui-même, d’être, se
guérit, ici, de ce qui n’est plus que maladie, ou faiblesse, ou lâcheté. Cette
terrasse aux dalles disjointes, envahies par l’herbe couleur de paille, est
aussi réelle, sous cette lumière-ci, que la plus vive douleur. (Après, p. 24)

Jaccottet shows how the linear trajectory of our own lives,

awareness of which causes so much anxiety and sorrow, can be
understood in terms of renewal and progress as much as inevitable
decline. He favours the image of the tree, because it persists through
the seasons to grow taller each year. In the poem “Arbres I” from Airs,
trees emerge from the confusion and opacity of the world and
introduce more light and air among their leaves as they expand:

Du monde confus, opaque

des ossements et des graines
ils s’arrachent avec patience

afin d’être chaque année

plus criblés d’air (Poésie, p. 138).

Trees are granted the active power to tear their growth from the world,
which is a mixture of bones and seed, or death and rebirth. Their
progress is slow and steady. The airiness that they gradually introduce
into their shape, as branches multiply and produce leaves, serves to
counter the dense matter from which they stemmed. But it also mirrors
it, because their form refuses defined outlines and draws attention to
the air that can break through; movement is still favoured over distinct
shapes. Bachelard discusses the movement our imagination attributes
to trees:

l’arbre, être statique par excellence, reçoit de notre imagination une vie
dynamique merveilleuse. Sourde, lente, invincible poussée! Conquête de
légèrté, fabrication de choses volantes, de feuilles aériennes et frémissantes.
(L’Air, p. 235)
Words in the Air 95

As well as drawing comfort from observation of the natural

world, the subject appeals to it for guidance. In the following poem
from À la lumière d’hiver, air is invoked, this time in its cold clarity:

Aide-moi maintenant, air noir et frais, cristal

noir. Les légères feuilles bougent à peine,
comme pensées d’enfants endormis. Je traverse
la distance transparente, et c’est le temps
même qui marche dans ce jardin,
comme il marche plus haut de toit en toit, d’étoile
en étoile, c’est la nuit même qui passe. (À la lumière, p. 85)

There is not much of a breeze in this text, and definitely no hazy mist
or smoke. The air is black and clear, and the leaves are hardly moving.
The simile introduced suggests not only night, but also a dreamlike
atmosphere and a contrast between childlike innocence and the adult
realisation that time passes. The subject crosses distance and moves
through time. This is produced in the text by enjambement, which
creates forward movement: “cristal / noir”, “traverse / la distance”, “le
temps / même”, “d’étoile / en étoile”. Jaccottet frequently relates
movement in space to temporal progression. Time itself is spatialised,
as it steps from roof to sleeping roof, and from star to star; the far
dimensions of the universe are included in this scene. There is nothing
to obstruct the movement, or the view of it, because distance is
This crystalline clarity is as much a feature of Jaccottet’s work
as hazy forms, which shows that he does not only consider temporality
in terms of potential transformation. At times, it can have an alarming
directness. Transparency is an ambiguous image in Jaccottet’s poetry,
because it relates both to his insistence on an evocation of the real that
is as straightforward as possible, and to the very different concen-
tration on shimmering, changing forms. Paradoxically, it seems that it
is only by paying attention to variations in detail that the subject can
come close to achieving an apparently transparent presentation of his
or her surroundings.
Not only does Jaccottet value moments of change in nature,
he also writes in La Promenade sous les arbres that the potential for
transformation can become visible in apparently immobile things:

Sous un certain éclairage, les choses n’apparaissent plus dans leurs

correspondances secrètes, mais dans leur possibilité de métamorphose; nous
96 Provisionality and the Poem

ne voyons plus simplement un monde immobile dont les structures et

l’éventuelle unité sont devenues visibles par la puissance enivrée de nos
yeux, mais un monde prêt à changer, qui se meut, qui tend à une autre forme
ou paraît au moins en contenir la possibilité. (pp. 116-117)

He echoes Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondances” and possibly his

injunction to his readers to “enivrez-vous”, “de vin, de poésie ou de
vertu”. But Jaccottet rejects the idea that the gaze can uncover
underlying connections between things. Rather, he proposes that the
world is inherently unstable. 95
Jaccottet always celebrates the provisionality of things, and
the metamorphosis that they promise. That is why the liminal
moments of the day and of the year are so central to his work, and
explains his attempts to capture the instant of transformation in his
poetry. Throughout his work, beginning with the earliest collections,
he has set poems at moments of change. For instance, “Les
Distances”, from his second major collection, L’Ignorant, takes place
at dusk:

Tournent les martinets dans les hauteurs de l’air :

plus haut encore tournent les astres invisibles.
Que le jour se retire aux extrémités de la terre,
apparaîtront ces feux sur l’étendue de sombre sable…

Ainsi nous habitons un domaine de mouvements

et de distances; ainsi le cœur
va de l’arbre à l’oiseau, de l’oiseau aux astres lointains,
de l’astre à son amour. Ainsi l’amour
dans la maison fermée s’accroît, tourne et travaille,
serviteur des soucieux portant une lampe à la main. (Poésie, p. 84)

The poem is in two halves, the first evoking the swirling flight of
swifts at sunset, when the sky turns fiery and the stars are about to
become visible. Circular planetary movement corresponds to that of
the birds, linking natural life, which necessarily ages and dies, and the
cosmos, which appears to be in eternal movement. The distance
between our immediate surroundings and the universe is remarked
upon (and emphasised in the title), but it is also reduced by the
harmony created.

Charles Baudelaire, “Correspondances”, in Œuvres complètes, I, ed. by Claude
Pichois (Paris: Geneva, 1975), p. 11; “Enivrez-vous”, in Œuvres complètes, I, p. 337.
Words in the Air 97

In the longer second section, human life is brought into the

same domain by comparison between the domestic and the external.
The heart is connected through contiguity and ascending movement to
trees, which are outside the house, but have fixed roots and grow
upwards, then to birds, the stars, and finally to love. Love is seen to
begin in the heart and live in the home, but it also encompasses all the
elements evoked. Love is made the necessary subject of the final
sentence, which opens: “ainsi l’amour”, and it is shown to develop
and work within the confines of the home. The last image directs our
attention to human care that persists and changes over time, but is also
related to the moment of transition in the outside world; the lamps are
lit as the sun sets and the stars prepare to emerge.
In Jaccottet’s work the poetic voice, or breath, is intimately
connected to the rhythms of nature, which combine the forward
movement of birth to death with the cycle of renewal in the seasons.
The collection Airs, with its title that also suggests music, is
exemplary. The short texts appear as light as air; they hover fleetingly
then are gone. They are, above all, responses to moments of
transformation, and function as sequences of poems, each with distinct
characteristics; it seems, for example, that the first three sections
evoke early spring, summer and autumn respectively. They share with
haiku poetry the pinpointing of the scene at a particular moment of the
day or year. It is pointed out by Yasuaki Kawanabe, however, that
Jaccottet did not adapt the haiku form in his own poetry, but rather
found his preferences and style confirmed by it. 96
In the following poem, Jaccottet evokes the change from
summer to autumn by encouraging nature to act:

Pommes éparses
sur l’aire du pommier

Que la peau s’empourpre
avant l’hiver! (Poésie, p. 133)

Just as the trees were considered actively to push upwards and

introduce more air between their branches, here the apples are
exhorted to ripen before winter arrives, as if their ripening were not
“Philippe Jaccottet et le haïku: sur la poétique du on”, Revue des lettres modernes:
Écritures contemporaines, 4 (2001), 117-128 (p. 118).
98 Provisionality and the Poem

the automatic result of time passing. If moments of transition such as

the turn of the seasons or dawn and dusk are to be captured, then it is
necessary, according to Jaccottet, for images to replicate their
temporal quality. This poem takes the form of a fragment, a glimpsed
image that evokes not a visual perception, but a wish, a projection
forward to the transitional time when the apples will change colour. It
must necessarily be brief, because otherwise it would retain the image
and suggest the fixed impression of a colour rather than an action.
Jaccottet’s attention to change comes from a perception of the
world as comprising multiple fragments. He insists that when one
truly looks, one can see “des milliers de petites choses, ou présences,
ou taches, ou ailes, légères – en suspens, de nouveau, comme à chaque
printemps” (À travers un verger, p. 11). The word “choses”, which
implies solid, but undefined, reality, gives way to the more
metaphysical “présences”; the individual identity of things is less
important than their reality. By moving on to “taches”, Jaccottet
introduces the vocabulary of painting, and in particular Impressionist
works, which suggest the movement of things, or their presence, by a
dot of colour rather than outlined definition. The word “ailes”, instead
of explaining that these objects are birds, implies that they are defined
by their lightness and movement, whatever they may be. They are
light, repeatedly hovering emergences, like the new life of spring.
Jaccottet has created an image of what we might see in the world
without allowing us to picture any particular thing. The purpose of
poetry, one might conclude, is to produce these fleeting presences
rather than to represent them.
In the prose poem “Comme le martin-pêcheur prend feu…”,
he evokes the colourful bird in a series of varying images, but these
gradually give way to two fragments of text that begin “choses qui”,
which takes us away from the picture of the bird. These lead on to the
brief section:

Fragments brillants du monde, allumés ici ou là.

Mi-parti d’orange et de bleu, de soleil et de nuit. (Et, néanmoins, p. 35)

The referent has been left behind so that the text can evoke the
impression it leaves rather than its features; it presents fragments,
glimpsed as the bird in flight would be, and these catch the light. The
colours cease to be so distinct from one another, and are compared to
Words in the Air 99

the sun and the night, which would normally be considered opposites.
Once again, Jaccottet is suggesting a moment of transition.
Shards that glisten with light traverse his poetry. They show
us multiplicity, movement, and lightness, in the sense of sunlight as
well as weightlessness. They also connect the elements that recur
throughout his texts, because they can be glass, drops of water, or
even dust. In this way, they resemble du Bouchet’s images of
“poussière sculptée”, glistening particles that draw attention to the air
and white space that are integrated among them. 97
The fragment also characterises some of Jaccottet’s own
work, as it does du Bouchet’s. In a text from the sequence of poems
“Le Mot joie”, the subject claims: “Je ne peux plus parler qu’à travers
ces fragments pareils” (À la lumière, p. 127). Rather than an
admission of failure, this statement indicates that he is required to
write in a way that is most appropriate to the world, which appears in
fragmented form because it is in constant motion. A poem from this
series that takes the form of a fragment draws attention to an instant
that might otherwise have gone unnoticed:

Dans la montagne, dans l’après-midi sans vent

et dans le lait de la lumière
luisant aux branches encore nues des noyers,
dans le long silence :
le murmure de l’eau
qui accompagne un instant le chemin,
l’eau décelable à ces fétus brillants,
à ces éclats de verre dans la poussière,
sa claire et faible voix
de mésange apeurée. (À la lumière, p. 131)

Jaccottet sets the scene in a manner reminiscent of the haiku form,

insisting through repetition of “dans” on a moment in time and space.
He develops images around the figure of light; it is described as both
milky and shining, “luisant”, in the leafless branches of chestnut trees.
This technique helps to delay the naming of the subject of the poem
until a colon halfway through acts as a caesura for the whole text; the
subject is simply “le murmure de l’eau”. Gentle movement, the
characteristic of air images in Jaccottet’s poetry, also qualifies water
here. It introduces sound into the scene, but this is barely audible.

André du Bouchet, “Poussière sculptée”, in L’Ajour, pp. 37-67.
100 Provisionality and the Poem

The sound of the water is immediately caught up in a chain of

further description that mimics its brief coincidence with the path and
suggests that its rapid movement makes it splash up and catch the
light, compared to shining wisps of straw and shards of glass or dust.
It emerges as the “claire et faible voix” of a small and fragile bird.
The water’s passage from “murmure” to “voix” is a
transformation that implies the creation of speech from the barely
discernible sounds of nature. The change that takes place between the
two halves of the poem is suggested by the recurrent sounds Jaccottet
employs. The letter “l” is an insistent presence throughout, but in the
first half of the poem, the sounds are muted: “montagne”, “lumière |
luisant”, “nues des noyers”, “murmure”. But once the term “un
instant” has intervened to remind us of the brevity of each image, both
through its meaning and its short syllables, the phonemes become
lighter and clearer: “décelable”, “fétus brillants”, “éclats”, “claire et
faible voix”. The bird’s song might be extremely quiet, but it has
The two-part structure of this poem creates an atmosphere of
harmony, and it is also granted coherence through the rhyming of
“lumière” / “poussière”, the less orthodox “noyers” / “apeurée”, and
the echo between “vent” and “brillants”. The whole text is made up of
one sentence with reduced punctuation, which emphasises the colon
and places the murmur of the water at the centre of attention, in spite
of the thread of imagery it inspires.
Repetition and variation of an image are employed in the
following poem from Cahier de verdure in order to pinpoint the
precise instant being evoked, and also to turn the poem into an instant
in itself by bringing its end close to its beginning:

En cette nuit,
en cet instant de cette nuit,
je crois même si les dieux incendiaient
le monde,
il en resterait toujours une braise
pour refleurir en rose
dans l’inconnu.

Ce n’est pas moi qui l’ai pensé ni qui l’ai dit,

mais cette nuit d’hiver,
mais un instant passé déjà, de cette nuit d’hiver. (p. 62)
Words in the Air 101

“This night” is qualified to become “this moment of this night”, which

emphatically insists on the present existence of the image. At the end
of the poem, that moment has now passed, because it could not be
retained if it were still to count as an instant, but the present of the
night is reinforced: “cette nuit d’hiver”. The text is a good example of
Jaccottet’s concentration on the existence of the present within
defined limits; an image lasts as long as the act of making it present
continues, and he aims in this kind of writing, be it in short verses or
prose, to produce moments of presence. In this performativity, his
work is representative of writing by post-war poets who aim at
creating instances of the real in language.
It also exemplifies the Stoic notion of time as an interval of
movement, in which the present is the time of action, and the past is
when the act is completed. “Is” is not an eternal term, but the length of
an act.98 This poem does not describe an act in the present, however.
In fact, its content refers to a hypothetical future and we are not told
any of the actual elements of the scene. Instead, we read that if the
gods were to set the world on fire, they would not burn off all living
things, because a spark would rekindle new life. Jaccottet often uses
the image of rekindling to connect the burning of autumn, the apparent
death of nature in winter and its rebirth in spring. His image of a rose
flowering is a botanical one chosen in preference to that of a fire
relighting, which would have corresponded better to the previous
evocation of burning. He insists that this image is not real, but only
suggests a possible future, with the line “dans l’inconnu”. We are
given no indication of what the present instant comprises, and yet it
exists very securely in the brief actuality of the poem.
The subject excuses him- or herself from the responsibility for
inventing this rather fanciful image by stating that it was this
particular moment of the winter night that suggested it. The return to
an emphasis on the instant relates the end of the poem to the
beginning, but it also introduces the element of winter. It appears that
just as the dying down of autumn leads, through winter, to regrowth,
so does a brief impression produce the poem. The subject’s inspiration
and creativity is deemed to be secondary to potential contained in a
moment that is not even described here.

See Émile Bréhier, La Théorie des incorporels dans l’ancien stoïcisme (Paris: Vrin,
1970), p. 58, and Victor Goldschmidt, Le Système stoïcien et l’idée du temps (Paris:
Vrin, 1969), p. 43.
102 Provisionality and the Poem

Jaccottet is perhaps best known for his insistence that the

subject should be self-effacing and allow the world evoked to take
precedence. It is not speaking, but listening that should be the poet’s
role. This is clear in the primary place he accords to the movement
and actions of the natural world that have been examined here. In “Le
Mot joie”, it is made explicit. He conjures up a moving river, but then
addresses the reader and himself:

Tais-toi: ce que tu allais dire

en couvrirait le bruit.
Écoute seulement: l’huis s’est ouvert. (À la lumière, p. 144)

He is rejecting noisy writing, which would develop images on the

basis of impressions rather than allowing phenomena to speak for
themselves. His poetry is rightly considered to be highly visual, and
the gentleness of many of his landscape texts creates an impression of
quietness, or even silence. But silence is not required in order to
strengthen the visual image. Rather, it is a refusal to speak over the
image, an insistence on listening, in the sense of paying careful
In this sense, he can be compared to Francis Ponge, who
expressed the wish to give a voice to “le monde muet”. 99 In his poems
that explore objects, Ponge is far from self-effacing; his verbal inven-
tiveness, often based on the name of the object, motivates the creation
of the text. But he is also trying to tease out the qualities he senses are
intrinsic to the object, yet often overlooked. 100 Where Jaccottet differs
from Ponge is in his insistence on the ephemeral and on transition.
While he can often be accused of letting images take the lead
rather than simply describing a scene, Jaccottet nevertheless does give
natural phenomena the active voice, and leaves us with their actions
that create an image as a present instant. In the text cited above, the
line “l’huis s’est ouvert” suggests an opening through to another
realm. It is not clear what this might be; indeed, a sense of
transcendence in Jaccottet’s poetry never proposes a clear definition,
preferring to qualify it in terms such as “l’inconnu”, above. What is

Francis Ponge, Œuvres complètes, I, ed. by Bernard Beugnot (Paris: Gallimard,
1999), p. 629.
See, for example, the texts “Le cageot” (p. 18) and “L’orange” (pp. 19-20) in
Œuvres complètes, I.
Words in the Air 103

important is that listening to the active changes in the world opens our
perception of the instant out beyond what we habitually see.
In a later text, the subject rejects the added dimension of
potential transcendence as being too complex. The aim must always
be the simplest possible evocation of an instant that avoids imposing
significance on what is perceived. In the following lines from the
poem “Notes nocturnes”, the subject singles out air as an image to
counter the labyrinths into which the observer and writer are
frequently tempted:

Je ne veux plus des labyrinthes,

même pas d’une porte:

juste un poteau d’angle

et une brassée d’air. (Après, p. 31)

Journeys around and through space are rejected and the subject wishes
only to be in space and connected to it through an armful of air. The
bodily image is not one of mastery or possession, but rather a
reduction of desires to the simplest form, or, as Derek Mahon puts it, a
refinement of poetry “to almost nothing” (Words in the Air, p. 14).
The subject has called up into textual existence the simplest elements,
and through the use of a colon and a space, has allowed them the last
104 Provisionality and the Poem

“Fin d’hiver”, Airs, pp. 95-105

Jaccottet wrote in his first published notebook, La Semaison, that

winter is not only the most beautiful season in Grignan, where he
lives, but is also the season “qui va plus droit qu’aucune autre” (p. 73).
According to Jean-Michel Maulpoix, its sparseness allows the poet to
concentrate on clear contrasts, such as those between light and dark,
or between beauty and death. 101 Jean-Marc Sourdillon argues that if
winter has a kind of truthfulness, then it is February, the month that
usually marks the end of the winter, “où le vrai se fait voir”.102 As
Sourdillon’s remark suggests, Jaccottet’s poetry gives the truth of the
natural world an active voice. Airs exemplifies his texts that capture
moments of transition in nature.
The sequence “Fin d’hiver”, or “Winter’s End” to be
discussed here, opens the collection Airs. It consists of eleven poems,
only three of which have titles. In each case, the title names the
subject of the text, which does not include any further mention of the
name. Therefore the subject appears twice, first as a noun, and then
through its gradual evocation. A sense of emergence is also created in
the untitled texts, as in many cases the subject is qualified before
being named. The poems are based primarily on the 7-syllable line,
with some lines of 8 syllables, and each contains six to nine lines.
Their square form suggests a completeness that is borne out more in
some of the poems than in others.

Peu de chose, rien qui chasse Very little, nothing to dispel

l’effroi de perdre l’espace the horror of losing space
est laissé à l’âme errante is left to the wandering soul

Mais peut-être, plus légère, But perhaps, lighter again,

incertaine qu’elle dure, uncertain of enduring,
est-elle celle qui chante is the one who sings
avec la voix la plus pure in the purest of voices
les distances de la terre of the earth’s far distances

See Maulpoix, “Éléments d’un cours sur l’œuvre poétique de Philippe Jaccottet”,
Jean-Michel Maulpoix & Cie… (2004) <www.maulpoix.net/Jaccottetcours.htm>
[accessed 21 September 2004]. Jaccottet chose the title À la lumière d’hiver, which
exemplifies this directness, for what is probably his best known collection.
Jean-Marc Sourdillon, “L’Événement de février”, in Patrick Née and Jérôme
Thélot (eds), Philippe Jaccottet (= Le Temps qu’il fait, 14) pp. 97-108 (p. 99).
Words in the Air 105

Jaccottet begins the suite with the phrase: “Peu de chose”.

This is characteristic of his tendency to reduce expression to its
simplest form and shows the value he attaches to the usually un-
noticed detail. He then uses enjambement and an absence of
punctuation to link groups of words in various combinations, as Noël
often does. The first two lines can be read alone: “Peu de chose, rien
qui chasse | l’effroi de perdre l’espace”, but a conjugated verb opens
line three: “est laissé”. We are then forced to consider the possibility
of dividing the stanza into two: “Peu de chose, rien qui chasse |
l’effroi de perdre” followed by “l’espace | est laissé à l’âme errante”.
Already we are a little disorientated and seem to be wandering,
“errante”, around the space of the poem.
The second stanza introduces the element that might save us
from fear of this space; it is not a certain point of view or solid
support, but rather something that in itself appears fragile: “plus
légère”, temporary: “incertaine qu’elle dure” and ethereal in its clarity:
“la voix la plus pure”. It is this voice, immediately introducing a
musical element, that might be able to express “les distances de la
terre”. If singing can replace wandering, provided the voice is reduced
to its purest form, then perhaps space can be managed and fright
mitigated. The voice required has all the qualities that are most
important in Jaccottet’s poetry: it is light, fleeting and pure, and its
subject is the landscape. Jaccottet suggests a combination of uncer-
tainty and reassurance through rhyme and echo. All the endings are
feminine, and the second stanza is enclosed by a symmetrical rhyme-
scheme, with its central line connected to the first stanza by the rhyme
“errante” / “chante”. But the rhyming of “légère” with “terre” is
unorthodox, as is “chasse” / “espace”, and in each rhyming pair, the
terms come from different parts of speech: a verb is paired with a
noun (ll. 1-2), with an adjective (l. 5, l. 7) and with an adverb (l. 6, l.
3), and the remaining pair combines an adjective and a noun (l. 4, l.
The next poem contains only one rhyme, which links the
masculine singular with the feminine plural:

Une semaison de larmes A scattering of tears

sur le visage changé on the altered face,
la scintillante saison the shimmering season
des rivières dérangées of churned up rivers
chagrin qui creuse la terre sadness that furrows the earth
106 Provisionality and the Poem

l’âge regarde la neige Age watches as the snow

s’éloigner sur les montagnes retreats on the mountainside

Sorrow forms the tone of the text, and it is related to the end of winter,
which shows that Jaccottet does not simply employ the commonplace
that connects autumn with death and spring to rebirth. He intertwines
human emotion and the linear passage of life with images from nature.
Tears are sown like seed, and sorrow furrows the earth as age
engraves lines on the face. The tears accumulate into an image of
rivers swelling with melted snow, so their paths, on the face and
cutting into the earth, are inseparable. Their wildness is conveyed by a
term, “derangées”, that is more usually applied to human experience.
The repetition of the seasons is observed by an ageing subject who
cannot follow the same trajectory even though he or she is thoroughly
imbricated in nature by the metaphors employed. The alliterative
repetition of “s” might seem to correspond to fluid movement, as
water runs down a face and through the land and the snow disappears,
but smooth movement is countered by the motion of the rivers, which
both cut grooves in the earth and are themselves disturbed; similarly,
the subject does not accept the smooth passage of time without
lamenting that life is passing.
A symmetrical text, such as the third one in the sequence,
might be thought to offer a welcome circularity to contrast with the
linear movement of time, but this self-containment can become

Dans l’herbe à l’hiver survivant In the grass that survived the winter
ces ombres moins pesantes qu’elle these shadows, lighter again,
des timides bois patients of the shy patient woods
sont la discrète, la fidèle are the discreet, faithful,

l’encore imperceptible mort yet imperceptible death

Toujours dans le jour tournant Eternally turning in the daylight

ce vol autour de nos corps this flight about our bodies
Toujours dans le champ du jour Eternally in the daylight field
ces tombes d’ardoise bleue these tombs of blue slate

The lines of the first quatrain and the single central line contain eight
syllables, and the second quatrain consists of seven-syllable lines. At
the same time as this shift, the abab, alternating masculine and
Words in the Air 107

feminine “rimes croisées” of the first four lines, which build up to the
name of the central subject in line 5, are replaced by an obsessive
repetition of the syllable “our” and the word “toujours”. It implies that
there is no escape from the inevitability of death, which circles us
continuously. The image of flight is paradoxical, because here it is
associated with oppressiveness rather than airy movement, and with
approaching death rather than freedom and potentiality. We might
expect flight to be the opposite of “ombres” and “tombes”, shadow
and death, but in fact these terms are associated, and run counter to the
prevailing mood of the text. The shadows are described as less
weighty than “elle”, a pronoun that could refer to the grass or to death,
while the tombstones belong to the line that finally breaks free of the
eternal turning sound “our” to end with the word “bleue” that rhymes
with nothing else in the poem.
Death is also central to the next poem, which again associates
it with lightness, but this time the image is of smoke from a fire:

Vérité, non vérité Truth, untruth

se résorbent en fumée become absorbed in smoke

Monde pas mieux abrité World sheltered no better

que la beauté trop aimée than beauty too well loved
passer en toi, c’est fêter passing into you means rejoicing

de la poussière allumée in specks of lighted dust

Vérité, non-vérité Truth, untruth

brillent, cendre parfumée shine, scented ash

The most striking feature of this text is that every line ends with the
same masculine sound, which relates it to the laisses of the chansons
de geste. The sounds are only identical to the ear, however; the reader
notices slight variations. The insistent rhyme accomplishes what is
stated in the opening couplet: the blurring of distinctions. Where truth
and untruth are turned to smoke, it is not simply nuance that
disappears; opposite terms are eliminated, the contrast between the
real and the unreal is removed, and the truth, which is valued very
highly in Jaccottet’s poetry, cannot be discerned.
But this is not necessarily to be lamented. Perhaps, in poetry,
uncertainty is preferable to any overt attempt to reach the truth, for it
is through the blurring of distinctions that multiple fragments emerge,
108 Provisionality and the Poem

in the form of dust and ash: “fêter | de la poussière allumée”; “vérité,

non-vérité | brillent, cendre parfumée”. The world and beauty are not
protected from change, and it is celebrated. Burning creates smoke
and ash (incense is also suggested through scent), but these are far
from dead. The smoke is in motion, as always in Jaccottet’s poetry,
and the dust and ash are shining; they are sparks rather than cold
remains, and they might well catch alight again.
Fire, burning, flames and sparks recur in this sequence of texts
and are always associated with the death and rebirth of the seasons
and the day. In “Lune à l’aube d’été”, the moon is compared to a
flame behind glass, while the dawn is an ember about to catch alight:

Lune à l’aube d’été Moon at summer dawn

Dans l’air de plus en plus clair In the brightening air

scintille encore cette larme shines this tear still
ou faible flamme dans du verre or a feeble flame in glass
quand du sommeil des montagnes when from the mountains’ sleep
monte une vapeur dorée a golden vapour rises

Demeure ainsi suspendue Remain just poised

sur la balance de l’aube on the scales of dawn
entre la braise promise between the promised ember
et cette perle perdue and this abandoned pearl

The moon is not named in the text, but is evoked through images of
fire, water and a pearl; a tear is the same shape, inverted, as a candle
flame, but both of these are distorted versions of the clear crescent,
oval or circle we associate with the moon. It is the moment of
transition that blurs its outlines. The sky lightens as dawn approaches,
and the warmth of the new day is linked to the gradual change in
temperature as winter comes to an end; it causes a mist to rise up from
the mountains. The sun that colours the mist is not named, but is
suggested by the image of the mountains waking from sleep and, in
the second stanza, by the imminent fire of dawn. Fire and water are
linked through the image of the tear / flame and the mist evaporating
in the warmth. Mist comprises multiple droplets of water, so the
evocation of a tear offers us a close-up view of the mist as well as the
moon. A tear can be momentarily suspended, and mist will hover
before dispersing, so each concretises the moment between night and
day when both moon and sun are present. More importantly, they
Words in the Air 109

represent the poem: it offers the image of an instant and its potential to
change, but must itself be lost if it is to be true to that transition. But
Jaccottet’s choice of “Demeure” to open the second stanza, capit-
alised, conjugated in the present tense, either in the third person or as
a command, and without a single clear referent, in fact serves to retain
the moment and the poem outside the passage of time.
The title of this text forms a pair with the next, “Lune
d’hiver”, which also remains unnamed in the body of the poem:

Lune d’hiver Winter Moon

Pour entrer dans l’obscurité To enter into the darkness

prends ce miroir où s’éteint take this mirror where an
un glacial incendie: icy fire goes out:

atteint le centre de la nuit, at the centre of the night,

tu n’y verras plus reflété you’ll only see reflected there
qu’un baptême de brebis a baptism of sheep

This text contrasts with “Lune à l’aube d’été” because it is situated in

the night, in winter, with no promise of spring or daylight. The surface
of a mirror is cold and reflects the replacement of fire with ice, and the
cool white of the moon. However, the poem combines stasis with
movement. The surprising image “un baptême de brebis” describes
immersion. Jean-Pierre Richard writes that in Jaccottet’s poetry, the
moon is both frozen and liquid. 103 The possible Christian reference to
lambs and baptism would suggest mercy in contrast to the unforgiving
cold of a mirror and ice. Although the phrase “atteint le centre de la
nuit”, positioned after a colon, implies no further movement, the
opening verb “entrer” does offer some possibility of progress. The
whole situation is hypothetical; it proposes a course of action, but does
not describe one, and the only image is reflected in a mirror. Perhaps
it is not advisable for the addressee to move into the darkness just yet.
If it is a poem about death, its theme is more veiled than in the
following text, which returns to fear and time passing:

Jeunesse, je te consume Youth, I consume you

avec ce bois qui fut vert with this wood that was green
dans la plus claire fumée in the brightest smoke

Jean-Pierre Richard, “Philippe Jaccottet”, in Onze études sur la poésie moderne
(Paris: Seuil, 1964), pp. 257-276 (p. 275).
110 Provisionality and the Poem

qu’ait jamais l’air emportée ever carried by the air

Âme qui de peu t’effraies, You, easily frightened soul,

la terre de fin d’hiver the earth at winter’s end
n’est qu’une tombe d’abeilles is only a tomb for bees

This poem includes the only naming of the subject as “je” in the
series, although it is present elsewhere as an invisible observer and as
a speaker addressing the reader or a “tu” figure. Here the subject
speaks to youth; it is not specified that this is his or her own past, and
the “âme” addressed in the second stanza appears to be another
person, rather than the subject itself or youth. It is the most square in
form of all the poems, consisting of seven lines of seven syllables
each, and is rhymed in a more regular scheme than are some of the
texts in the series. But it is unusual in that the two stanzas are
imaginatively distinct. While the first develops familiar imagery of
smoke created by burning young wood, which represents “jeunesse”,
and then carried away on the air, the second introduces a figure who is
easily startled or frightened, and a strange image of the earth as “une
tombe d’abeilles”. It seems to be suggesting that the addressee has no
need to be afraid, but the overriding impression left by the poem is of
timidity, ageing and death.
The sequence so far has been marked by images of sorrow,
fright, time passing and death. This is unexpected because the brevity
of the texts and their evocations of instants in the natural world would
appear to correspond to the airiness implied by the collection’s name.
The title of the sequence, “fin d’hiver” might also be interpreted as
promising an emergence from the cold, barren winter into the new life
of spring. But since it refers to a threshold between seasons, this title
indicates a move away from the directness of winter into a transition
period in which boundaries will be blurred and the passing of time
will be most apparent; the sombre tone is therefore not so surprising.
The final four texts, however, appear to instigate a shift
towards the hopefulness of spring, which is also insistently associated
with the dawn. In the following poem, as well as the final one, light is
linked with love:

Au dernier quart de la nuit The last watch of the night

Hors de la chambre de la belle From the chamber of the beauty

rose de braise, de baisers glowing with an ember, with kisses
Words in the Air 111

le fuyard du doigt désignait the fugitive pointed out

Orion, l’Ourse, l’Ombelle Orion, Ursa, Umbel
à l’ombre qui l’accompagnait to his companion shadow

Puis de nouveau dans la lumière, Then, in the light again,

par la lumière même usé, consumed by that very light,
à travers le jour vers la terre through the day towards the earth
cette course de tourterelles this passage of turtle doves

The fugitive figure is either leaving a room at dawn or pointing out of

its window. The suggestion of a man leaving his lover connects
human emotion: love, passion, the experience of beauty, and loss, to
the fire and pink glow of sunrise. As in the poem “Lune à l’aube
d’été”, the night and the day are both suggested, here through the stars
and the light. The movement implied by the terms “fuyard” and
“course” is as swift and weightless as the dawn. Turtle doves
introduce the image of flight and living creatures as well as love.
Plants are suggested by the word “rose”, which is both noun and
adjective, as well as being a trope in love poetry for a beautiful
woman and her body.104 Orion and Ursa Major or Minor are
constellations (Jaccottet does not employ either “grande” or “petite”,
which usually accompany “l’Ourse”, probably for the sake of
alliteration and brevity). But “l’Ombelle” is a type of plant whose
flowers grow from the same point and meet at the same level in a
parasol shape. It is also a typographical mark that takes the form of an
asterisk with eight or ten spokes. As far as I am aware, it is not a
constellation, but it includes both the image of a plant and the shape of
a star. It is more common in French than “umbel” is in English, and
has been employed by poets, among them Victor Hugo.105 A parasol,
of course, also casts a shadow, which occurs in the following line.
As the light grows in strength, it wears down the figure of
movement, both the human and the birds’ flight. “User” also means to
consume by fire, which refers to the embers of the first stanza. Once
again, time is passing inexorably, and it unfolds in space: earth and
sky are brought together by the finger of the fugitive, by light and the

Derek Mahon quotes Jaccottet as saying that Airs “raconte de façon cachée une
histoire d’amour” (p. 14).
For instance, Hugo writes: “Les pins sur les étangs dressent leur verte ombelle”,
Les Contemplations, I, IV, in Œuvres poétiques, II, ed. by Pierre Albouy (Paris:
Gallimard, 1967), p. 490.
112 Provisionality and the Poem

shadow on the ground, and by the flight through the day towards the
earth. Such transitions can encompass space as well as passing
through it, and create an impression of circularity that counters the
ephemeral. Harmony also results from the use of alliteration (“b” in
lines 1-2, “o” in lines 4-5, “t” in lines 8-9) and rhyme: the poem
almost has the scheme abbab cbca, with only the difference in sound
between “ait” and “er” or “é” preventing absolute regularity, which is
typical for Jaccottet. Even though the movement is said to have been
worn away, or consumed, we are nevertheless left with the passage of
the turtle doves as an enduring image.
In the subsequent poem, another limit-point is evoked, but
here it is a spatial one that is rendered metaphysical:

Là où la terre s’achève, There where the earth ends,

levée au plus près de l’air lifted up close to the air
(dans la lumière où le rêve (in the light where the invisible
invisible de Dieu erre) dream of God wanders)

entre pierre et songerie between stone and reverie

cette neige: hermine enfuie this snow: ermine escaped

The blurred horizon is the site of mystery, which Jaccottet associates

with dream and even specifically with God. The assonance “s’achève”
/ “rêve” links the edge of the earth with dreaming, while “air” / “erre”
implies unfinished wandering in the air that hovers just above the
ground. The next line states that he hesitates between the solidity of
the world he sees around and the mysterious presence that might exist
within or just beyond this: “entre pierre et songerie”. The final line of
the poem, also separate from the rest of the text, introduces the strange
image of a stoat (ermine), as the snow in furrows seems to flee as it
melts. The impression of an anagram suggested by the last two words
and, more generally, by the proliferation of the vowels “e” and “i”,
grants the poem a sense of completeness apparently belied by the
movement of the snow that indicates the end of winter. But the final
line of the poem could have either seven syllables, as do the other five
lines, or an eighth if the “e” before the colon is included. This extra
element, and the clear pause introduced by the colon, is perhaps what
allows the final two words, and the fleeing snow and ermine, to be
glimpsed just briefly and then disappear.
Words in the Air 113

A moving stream in the following poem echoes this flight of

melting snow:

Ô compagne du ténébreux O companion of darkness

entends ce qu’écoute sa cendre hear what its ash perceives
afin de mieux céder au feu: so as better to cede to the fire:

les eaux abondantes descendre descend the swollen waters

aux degrés d’herbes et de roche on the steps of grass and rock
et les premiers oiseaux louer and praise the very first birds
la toujours plus longue journée the day that’s ever longer
la lumière toujours plus proche the ever closer light

The poem is an instruction to listen attentively to nature, an approach

that has been implicit, but not explicitly stated, throughout this series.
Once again poised on the brink between night and day, it advocates an
active attention to the night, but suggests that this will lead to a
passive relationship with the day. The subject will give in to the fire of
dawn, and follow water down a hill towards the lengthening days of
spring. The final image of approaching light hints once again at death,
but the natural world is presented as full of life: ash turning to fire,
streams full of water, grass, birds and daylight. An impression of
variety is also subtly provided by rhymes that combine different parts
of speech. “Cendre” leads on to the verb “descendre”, the solid
“roche” is paired with the mobile “proche”, while praise forms a
couplet with the day; “louer” / “journée”. Only darkness and fire are
opposing nouns, and it is the pivot between them that allows the poem
to be set in motion.
The final poem in the series places light at its centre, and
echoes many of the elements that run through the series as a whole:
dark woods, death, fire, a suspended flame, growing plants and love:

Dans l’enceinte du bois d’hiver In the heart of the winter wood

sans entrer tu peux t’emparer without entering you can seize
de l’unique lumière due: the only light owed:
elle n’est pas ardent bûcher not a burning pyre
ni lampe aux branches suspendue nor a lamp hung from the branches

Elle est le jour sur l’écorce It is the daylight on the bark

l’amour qui se dissémine the love that is scattered round
peut-être la clarté divine perhaps the divine clarity
à qui la hache donne force to which the axe gives power
114 Provisionality and the Poem

It could be argued that the series ends in a hopeful way, that this text
leaves an image of natural daylight in the centre of the darkness. The
light does not come from burning or death, and it is not artificial. It
might even stem from divine clarity; God, as a possible presence, is
more certain here than in the earlier poem, in which he was the
invisible element of a dream. The final line introduces a new image,
which jars in a series characterised by repeated motifs; an axe,
metallic and powerful, is an unlikely addition to images of light, fire
and air. It suggests that human effort can cut through the darkness and
allow light in, and makes possible the dissemination of love. The
figure or reader addressed is not required to enter into the darkness,
“sans entrer tu peux t’emparer”, in order to take on this light.
Jean-Pierre Richard interprets the text very differently. He
writes that no sooner has the axe cut into the tree and allowed us to
grasp the divine light than it disperses, along with love:

Le bonheur poétique dure peu. Essentiellement instable, volatile, il nous fait

participer de manière à la fois exquise et déchirante à la rapidité d’un temps.
(p. 266)

He continues by arguing that nothing escapes the passing of time and

that “un profound pessimisme du temps colore ainsi l’œuvre de
Jaccottet” (p. 267).
I would argue that while the passing of time toward death is a
vital aspect of Jaccottet’s poetry, and that, in this way, the series “Fin
d’hiver” is representative, the poems studied above also reveal an
increasing insistence on renewal and hope. Images of burning lead to
fiery dawns, the days grow longer and brighter, and through growth
new life emerges. Dispersal occurs in mist, smoke, blurred horizons
and the disseminated light and love of the last poem, do indeed
provide visual instances of time passing. They link time and space,
moving through space over the course of a certain duration. But this
movement is more than a trajectory towards death, because it is
necessary for rebirth. This provisionality is what allows language to
capture the instant. We shall see in chapters 4 and 5 that it is also
essential for any poetic creativity to occur.
Words in the Air 115

iii. Noël: Exchanging Places

Air has less autonomy in Noël’s poetry than it does in the work of du
Bouchet or Jaccottet. Noël never evokes storms or gentle breezes as
primarily elemental phenomena. Rather, they always affect the poetic
subject or are affected by it. For instance, wind is noticed when it is
felt on the skin, and the action of breathing is often evoked. The body
is integrated into its surroundings through its contact with air, and air
is made a component of internal bodily space. Noël’s work is
absolutely distinctive in that he also presents mental space in terms of
air-filled volume. The mind, as well as the body, therefore becomes
connected to external space. Indeed, the boundaries between inside
and out are overcome so successfully in Noël’s imaginative world that
that the two realms become, if not identical, then interchangeable in a
range of complex ways that contribute to the originality of the texts.
Air is temporal in Noël’s poetry in a different manner from du
Bouchet’s movement through matter or Jaccottet’s fleeting instants.
As it enters into the body it is seen to contribute to the ageing process
by ravaging internal organs and systems. In addition, Noël makes
explicit the link between breathing, speech and poetry through the
dual meaning of “langue” as tongue and language. His examination of
the relationship between identity and language takes him into the body
and back in time, albeit a hypothetical time of meaning and under-
standing rather than one of historical change.
As Jaccottet has done, Noël has combined the writing of verse
with poetic prose and meditative prose, and his poetics as mediated by
his own reflections will be discussed in chapters 3 and 5. This chapter
will concentrate on his verse and prose poetry.
Air is invoked by Noël as a metonym for the elemental world.
To an extent, this links his work to du Bouchet’s presentation of the
sparse elemental landscape. But unlike du Bouchet, Noël makes
explicit language’s failure to convey the subject’s experience of the
elements. For example, the sensation of air on the hand is deemed
more powerful than writing in the following extract from “La Moitié
du geste”:

comment écrire: c’est ça

voici le mot vent
il ne souffle rien
116 Provisionality and the Poem

que souffle le vent

la main touche l’air
et s’envole. (Chute, p. 149)

The word “wind” does not blow, but bodily sensation can produce
movement. An aspect of Noël’s poetic endeavour could be sum-
marised by the line “comment écrire: c’est ça”. His texts aim at
communicating the rawness of existence in the present, and the
impersonal subject in his poetry is, in part, a device for creating
immediacy. By writing “la main”, he could be referring to “my”,
“your”, “his” or “her” hand, but deliberately refuses to specify. The
abrupt emergence of the hand into the text, independent of any body,
isolates the action of touching the air, almost as if it were seen in close
His poetry is highly sensuous, with particular concentration
on touch and vision. Some images are visual even when they have a
surreal quality and seem impossible to visualise. In a later text from
the same section of “La Moitié du geste”, he sums up the interrelation
of sight, touch and the surreal:

la peau des choses

est dans nos yeux
voir écorche. (Chute, p. 153)

The expression “la peau des yeux” recurs in Noël’s poetry, but here
the image has been divided and skin is attributed to the things we see.
Of course, objects have a surface that could be compared to human
skin, but in this case Noël employs the image to bring what we see
close up to our eyes. The skin of objects is described as “dans nos
yeux”; it is no wonder that “voir écorche”. The text conveys the sense
of being overwhelmed by what one sees; things seem so very present
that sight is almost unbearable. By using the first person plural
pronoun, Noël involves the reader in this experience.
Both the extracts above use paradox to make the image more
arresting. Skin is transferred from the eye to the world, and, in the line
“la main touche l’air”, the usual feeling of wind on the skin is
reversed, and the hand is the active agent. Noël frequently upsets
assumptions regarding passive and active positions, either attributing
agency to something other than the poetic subject, or showing a
subject actively seeking sensations that we are generally considered to
Words in the Air 117

undergo. His images of air often suggest that it is affected by the

subject, even when he ascribes to it the name “wind”. In La Rumeur
de l’air, for instance, he complicates its stirrings with the lines:
“comme une main | qui remuerait le vent” (Chute, p. 211).
The body and its movements are central to Noël’s work, but
the body is never seen as a whole. Rather, fragmented parts are
presented in close-up. Meryl Tyers, who has investigated Noël’s work
from the point of view of cinema theory, writes that his poetry gives a
sense “of an uncompromisingly close focusing on the bodies that fade
in and out, so that they can only be imagined as a number of
fragments”.106 A sequence of poems from the collection L’Ombre du
double, for example, does not describe the body as a whole, but calls
up a nail, fist, finger, eyes, tongue, saliva, skin, voice, mouth, heart,
face, bone, genitals, head and teeth.107 In addition, many basic
physical actions are evoked: walking, tasting, breathing, looking,
eating and being hungry. They operate in decontextualised situations,
and Noël obliges us to examine them in detail. The consonant “r” is
dominant, and is used to suggest discomfort: “rien qu’un souffle rêche
| une rumeur un râle ruant” (p. 49) or pain: “l’ongle grattant les images
| le coup de poing dans le reflet” (p. 47).
Noël undercuts any assumptions we might bring to our
reading about the position the subject occupies in relation to his or her
environment. This leaves the way open for constructing new modes of
being, which involve the subject much more closely with the world
around. The “je” frequently expresses the desire to experience the
intensity of the present through integration in, and a heightened
awareness of, the natural world. In some instances, this appears to
have been achieved. In the following extract from “À vif enfin la
nuit”, for example, an implied encounter between two people, quite
possibly a sexual one, is resolved into an image of the self in relation
to nature:

Elle pensa que c’était comme

s’ils avaient dansé ensemble

Meryl Tyers, “Identity and Poetry in Fragments: Bernard Noël in Close-Up”, in
Powerful Bodies: Performance in French Cultural Studies, ed. by Victoria Best and
Peter Collier, Modern French Identities, 1 (Bern: Peter Lang, 1999), p. 167.
Bernard Noël, “Séquence 4”, L’Ombre du double I (Paris: P.O.L., 1993), pp. 47-
118 Provisionality and the Poem

dans la solitude blanche…

Elle se sentait pénétrée de
blancheur au point de faire
corps avec la nature entière,
avec la plaine infiniment
immaculée… Tellement épar-
pillée dans tout cela qu’elle
n’était plus du tout certaine
d’exister distinctement. (Poèmes 1, p. 164)

Enjambement is used to introduce a moment of suspense in several

instances. The term of comparison is delayed across lines 1-2, and the
break between lines 4 and 5 lets the suggestion of sexual penetration
hover before diverting the image into the abstract “de blancheur”. The
expression “faire | corps” is interrupted, allowing the alternative
actions that could have followed the verb a brief potential existence.
In lines 8-9 the word that describes scattering also produces it because
it is distributed over two lines, and the increasingly uncertain subject
is evoked through the hesitations introduced by “qu’elle | n’était” and
“certaine | d’exister”. The subject’s sense of losing a distinct identity
is described, but also enacted by this text, as boundaries are gradually
eroded. The suspension marks contribute to the blurring of difference
between the conscious subject and natural world.
Even though the subject usually accepts that his or her wish,
which is to merge with what is beyond the confines of the body, will
remain only a wish in the real world, Noël uses poetry to carry it out
in words. Again, this exemplifies performative writing. He describes
changes that take place in the body which bring the outside world
inside it and make visible, or even extract, its internal organs.
Although this process recurs througout Noël’s poetic writing, the
collection Extraits du corps is exemplary. The “extraits” are both
nominal, what has been displaced from its usual position in the body
and imposes itself on our attention, and adjectival, where the action of
extraction is emphasised. The term is also a literary one, and refers to
the fragmented prose pieces that make up the volume.
Air is often the basis for these complex bodily transform-
ations, because the act of breathing draws the elemental world into the
body and then expels what the body has transformed for its own
purposes. Extraits du corps never allows this exchange to go
Words in the Air 119

Le péritoine se crevasse. Je me peuple de trous d’air. Chaque effort de l’œil

crispe comiquement ma gorge… Un autre émerge dans mon ventre sans
être venu de l’extérieur. (Poèmes 1, p. 35)

The collection is characterised by Noël’s use of proper biological

terms for parts of the body, but the processes that it undergoes are
rarely medically recognisable. In this poem the subject is literally
punctured by air, which forces its way through the barrier that the
body presents to the outside world. The term “effort” seems to imply
difficulty breathing, but in fact that action is not mentioned, and
looking is what makes the throat constrict. “Autre” is italicised to
show its foreign status; something that does not belong to the subject
has been created inside him or her. It refers back to the reflexive verb
“je me peuple”, which suggests an invasion, but one that is activated
by the subject. Just as active and passive forces are confused and often
reversed in Noël’s poetry, so are the roles of internal and external
Noël extends the notion of exchange from the body to the
mind. He suggests that mental space and perceived space are linked by
“ressemblance”. This does not mean that the mind acts as a camera,
capturing visual images and storing them in identical form. Rather,
Noël’s term “ressemblance” refers to a transformation, because the
mind immediately begins converting a perception into a mental image.
Where the two realms do resemble one another, in the conventional
sense of “resemblance”, is that Noël understands them both in terms
of three-dimensional space. He emphasises this by insisting that the
mind is made up of air, just as the world we perceive has air as its
volume. 108 Chapter 3 will discuss the relation Noël sets up between
perception, the mental image and the visual image as produced by
artists. His insistence on the importance of the artist’s body in creating
works of art reveals how closely he considers mind and body to be
He writes in Journal du regard that: “La vue est immédiate,
mais ce qu’elle saisit, il faut qu’elle le réfléchisse, ainsi devient-elle
pensive…” (Journal, p. 70). Vision is an active process and therefore

For further discussion, see Andrew Rothwell, “Bernard Noël: Espace, Regard,
Sens”, in Text and Visuality, ed. by M. Heusser and others, Word and Image Inter-
actions, 3 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999), pp. 57-64 (pp. 59-60).
120 Provisionality and the Poem

a temporal one. Reflection is not the instant image produced by a

mirror, but rather the transition from sight to thought:

le véritable miroir
n’est pas celui qui seulement
reflète le visage
il est la réflexion de vos yeux. (Poèmes 1, p. 297)

Noël attributes central importance to the eyes because they are the part
of the face where this process begins. The poetic image, whose
purpose and development Noël is always trying to define, in poetry as
well as in his meditative prose, cannot therefore be an instantaneous
act of mimesis; it has to convey (or reflect) the “réflexion” that takes
place as the result of “ressemblance”. Ideally, it should act as the eyes
do; where they begin to change vision into mental images, poetry
should set in motion the transition from verbal image to thought.
Air is vital to his work because it links written and oral
poetry; writing is dependent on vision, which Noël examines in
association with volume and therefore with air, while oral poetry
depends on speech and therefore on breathing. He makes this explicit
in L’Espace du poème:

ce qui m’intrigue dans l’espace du poème, c’est que l’oral est remplacé par
du visuel, mais que le visuel et l’oral se révèlent faits du même élément, un
élément qui, pour reprendre un mot qui m’est cher, un élément qui est de
l’air. Alors le centre se balade en l’air et on n’est pas prêt de l’attraper… (p.

The “centre” is another term to which Noël gives a particular

meaning. It appears to refer to language coming into being; while this
can hardly be understood in terms of any definable space, Noël does
seem to conceive of it in volumetric form. As can be seen from this
quotation, its salient feature is movement, which is why it stems from
the image of air with which Noël characterises vision, thought and
writing. Most frequently, it emerges in the space between two people,
and represents their interaction : “dans le rapport d’une commun-
ication à la fois fragile et toujours palpitante” (L’Espace, p. 28).
His image of communication suggests dialogue rather than
confrontation, and the physical presence of people in the same place
and time. It resembles Levinas’s model of the face-to-face encounter.
Levinas’s essay on Martin Buber examines Buber’s concept of the
Words in the Air 121

“Je-Tu” relation, rendered in English as “I-Thou”, “thou” being the

more intimate form of address now lost in English. He sets Buber in
the context of recent thought through his view of the self not as a
subject in contradistinction to an object, but formed through
connections. The “Moi […] n’est pas une substance, mais une rela-
tion”.109 The “Je-Tu” relation involves placing oneself “en face de” an
exterior being that is radically other, and then addressing this being as
“Tu” (p. 28). The workings of Being take place in the interval between
the two, and it is always constituted as novelty. In Noël’s work,
however, the “tu” is generally a strong feminine presence, and always
carries the meaning of “the silent” that is absent from the “Je-Tu”
relation sketched here.
Noël’s evocation of a face-to-face encounter that leads to the
creation of a “centre” could be considered to fall prey to the ideal of
presence in speech criticised by Derrida.110 But Noël refuses to
privilege speech over writing; indeed, writing is his medium and his
work examines the creative potential of the written word, as will be
examined in chapter 5. Rather, he suggests that the space of the poem
can produce the movement that communicates with the reader.
In the prose text Le Tu et le silence, he presents written
communication as presence taking shape:

De toute page réellement écrite comme de toute peau réellement caressée

monte la même fumée à figures, et c’est de la présence qui prend forme. (p.

Noël makes it clear through simile that writing on a page can be

compared to caressing skin, so the act of writing becomes an erotic
one. He attributes the same quality of meaning, which suggests that it
is not the pen as tool touching the paper (or phallic symbol) that is
most important, but a more complex notion that relates seeing to touch
and to taste, so that the texture of the paper is as tangible to the eye as
skin would be to the tongue:

Mon regard caresse, et il jouit de la qualité du grain. La langue participerait

volontiers à ce plaisir qu’elle sent passer dans son espace et qui la met en
bouche – je veux dire que, prise par son appétit de participer au toucher, elle

Emmanuel Levinas, “Martin Buber et la théorie de la connaissance”, in Noms
propres ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1976), pp. 23-43 (p. 27).
See, for example, Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972).
122 Provisionality and the Poem

en oublie sa fonction d’élocutrice pour n’être plus qu’un organe enfermé

derrière les dents et désireux de s’étirer vers la surface attirante. (Tu, pp. 47-

The tongue strains to emerge in order to touch and taste, and

therefore represents desire, which for Noël is a way of imagining
verbal creativity. He uses the two meanings of “langue” to link taste,
desire, speech and written language. The effect, as this double signi-
fication echoes through all instances of the word “langue” in his
poetry, is to ground language absolutely in the body. While writing is
paramount, it is never freed from the physical existence of the subject
or reader. In “Le livre de Coline”, for example, he suggests the
emergence of language by actually describing the reverse process: “la
langue se retourne | les mots rongent leurs lettres” (Carn, p. 131).
Words are given the masticatory powers of the mouth.
The floating “centre” of communication between two people
is not to be understood as a distance that cannot be traversed; it is a
link between them rather than a barrier. In much of Noël’s poetry,
touch is vital because it brings two people into a kind of silent
dialogue. Contact between the surface of their bodies begins to
dissolve their separateness, as the focus on the inside of the body
disperses the idea of a coherent subject. In L’Été langue morte, the
subject writes:

c’est toi
me dis-je toi
et contre toi je suis
que tu fais de moi. (Chute, p. 92)

The bald statement “c’est toi” appears to be an expression of wonder

at the presence of the other. But the following line reveals that the self
is addressing itself. Through close contact the self is transformed into
the other, and the final line gives the active agency to the other, the
“tu”, to make of the “je” an other. These five lines manage with
admirable concision to destabilise the secure position from which an
“I” views a “you” (or “thou”, as Buber would put it).
The role accorded to touch does not mean that it is favoured
over vision, which is, after all, of prime importance for Noël’s interest
in visual art. But it does serve to nuance our understanding of vision,
and particularly to question the concept of a fixed position from which
Words in the Air 123

the world is viewed. Noël considers vision to involve precisely the

process suggested in the extract above; a reciprocal action affects the
subject and makes him or her the foreign element, the “other”, in the
connection between viewer and viewed. He writes in Onze romans

Le regard n’est un regard qu’à partir du moment où il s’aperçoit sur l’objet

qu’il regarde. […] Tout sujet est un miroir actif et qui réagit, car c’est
l’altérité qu’il renvoie.111

This image of vision, touch and communication recurs in

modern poetry, and is applied particularly to lovers. The reciprocal
gaze is a feature of Éluard’s poetry, and one of a pair of lovers often
appears to take its form from the other: “Avec tes yeux je change
comme avec les lunes”.112 Apollinaire’s famous “Le pont Mirabeau”,
meanwhile, evokes sadness at loss despite the couple’s apparent
linking through touch:

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face

Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse. (Œuvres poétiques, p. 45)

The originality of Noël’s poetry is that when the other is

instrumental in the development of the subject’s identity, and the
subject becomes other to itself, it does not merely express a sense of
disorientation at its own fragmentation. Rather, it addresses itself as
“tu” and engages itself in dialogue. This conversation then becomes
interwoven with the exchange between the subject and another person,
also addressed as “tu”. The “other” is both the self and another person,
just as the self is both itself and other to itself. This is illustrated in the
following extract from “La Chute des temps”:

qu’est-ce qu’un nom quand il ne reste plus

aucun visage
tu regardes
cette chose sans toi qui est toi
de quoi parlions-nous dis-tu

Onze romans d’œil (Paris: P. O. L., 1988), p. 90.
Éluard, Œuvres, I, ed. by Marcelle Dumas and Lucien Scheler (Paris: Gallimard,
1968), p. 151.
124 Provisionality and the Poem

ta main même est muette

est-ce moi que vous avez tué
il n’y a plus moyen de faire la différence
peut-être suis-je quelqu’un
qui n’est plus là. (Chute, p. 62)

The subject asks what determines identity, questioning

whether a name means anything without a face. In written poetry, and
in texts with a depersonalised persona in particular, this is a pertinent
remark, because the “je” is all the subject has by which to identify
itself. “Toi”, here, appears to be both an interlocutor and the self
addressed by itself. The use of “nous” implies some communication
between people, but the introduction of “vous” complicates the situ-
ation further. Identities shift until “il n’y a plus moyen de faire la
différence”. The “je” wonders whether it is still there, an apparently
meaningless question because “je” is still present in the text, but if its
identity has changed and it has passed into the figure of the “tu”, then
it is in the apparently inconceivable position of speaking in the voice
of a subject who no longer exists.
La Chute des temps explores identity, precipitating confusion
by its constant interweaving of the first and second person pronouns in
passages where the “je” is trying to understand its position in relation
to what is other, both in the world outside and within itself. It is also a
motivating feature of the prose poem collection Souvenirs du pâle;
most notably, the face, or more accurately the sight of one’s face in
the mirror, is once again the site of a crisis of identity:

- Qui parle quand je parle? a-t-elle dit.

Le temps s’est fêlé quelque part, et tu t’es souvenu d’un visage qui a
cessé d’être le tien, quoiqu’on te reconnaisse encore derrière lui.113

This collection considers the role of memory in identity, because the

subject must repeatedly readjust to the changes time brings to the face,
which is the part of the body we associate most with a person’s
identity. Noël puts it succinctly in L’Ombre du double: “celui que tu
n’es pas encore | te fixe avec les yeux que tu as” (p. 52).
But this is not always a source of anxiety. The “je” replies that
we must stop wondering who speaks when “je parle” and write in
language divorced from the particular “je”:

Souvenirs du pâle ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1971), p. 12.
Words in the Air 125

Tu as répondu:
– La parole qui compte est impersonnelle. (Souvenirs, p. 12)

The wish to see inside the body, to understand one’s position

in the world and exchanges with it, and also to find a way in language
of relating to one’s own past selves, are all means of searching for the
source of identity and of language. The “je” of La Chute des temps
admits that no one can ever know him- or herself, either on the inside,
because internal space remains inaccessible, or on the surface, because
the mirror image is always reversed:

miroir miroir
nul ne sait fouiller dans la chair
pas plus que dans l’image où chacun
se connaît à l’envers mais tu rêves
d’ouvrir le chantier de l’origine. (Chute, p. 66)

But what cannot be achieved in reality can, perhaps, be

approached in poetry. Although the “je” in Noël’s work laments its
inability to see inside itself, his texts do at times achieve exactly that.
The problem is that this process, which might allow some access to an
understanding of the origins of the self, also makes visible the passing
of time. The image of air is important once again. As the element from
the outside world best able and most likely to penetrate inside the
body, and in the role Noël ascribes to it of making up the volume of
physical and mental space, it is often in evidence when the poetic eye
roves around the workings of the body. In the poem “Le Bât de la
bouche”, from La Rumeur de l’air, he writes:

un dessous en travail
le souffle comme le vent

– que cherches-tu?
– l’issue du désir
– que vois-tu?
– je vois la scie du temps
dans l’haleine des os. (Chute, p. 194)

The act of breathing is vital to life, and it takes place in time; in this
case, however, the movement that maintains life also implies the
passing of time. Air has penetrated even the bones, and the image of
126 Provisionality and the Poem

breath coursing through bones suggests to Noël death at work in the

Ageing is not always mourned as loss in Noël’s work. As we
saw in the first chapter, his long, undivided and unpunctuated poems
depend on change and the passing of time, in the same way that the
instant is valued in Jaccottet’s poetry because it is fleeting. While
Noël’s evocations of “la vite vie” can seem sorrowful, it is life’s
passing that allows the subject to exist intensely in the present. In La
Moitié du geste, he writes:

la joie de vivre
est dans l’air
qui touche les yeux

nulle rétine
pour garder cela
le passant

est la trace d’une aile

toujours le vide vent
la vite vie (Chute, p. 156)

In poetry that relies on vision, an invisible substance is nevertheless

given presence. This text shows once again that the eyes are acted
upon not by a visual impression but by moving air. The sensation
cannot be captured, but it is a trace of the movement and change that
constitue living.
Words in the Air 127

“L’aile sous l’écrit”, from La Rumeur de l’air (Chute, pp. 185-189)

This poem, cited in its entirety here, first appeared as Laile sous lécrit
in a limited edition in 1977, then as part of La Rumeur de l’air, which
contains several series of short poems alongside long vertical texts
such as this one. 114 It resembles La Chute des temps and L’Été langue
morte in its form, which is a mixture of long and short unpunctuated
lines. There is a preponderance of lines with the even number of
syllables 4, 6 or 8. “L’aile sous l’écrit” exemplifies Noël’s original
exploration of the passing of time and death, identity and language.
L’aile sous l’écrit Below writing on the wing

un jour one day

la bouche est devenue obscure the mouth went dark
la langue re the tongue stirr
muait ed
maintenant la vie n’est plus chaude life isn’t warm any more
je cherche mes mains et I look for my hands and
dans mes mains le pouce in my hands their original
originel thumb
le temps est de la terre time is earth
autour des os around the bones
du monde notre mort of the world our death
épaissit cette chair on creuse thickens this flesh we dig
pour se souvenir to remember
l’air noircit puis the air blackens then
c’est du vent it’s the wind
le vent est la langue the wind is the tongue
qui remue la langue that stirs the tongue
elle a racine en l’air it is rooted in the air
pourquoi why
pourquoi l’air qui n’est pas why does air that isn’t
visible ressemble-t-il au visible resemble the
visible pourquoi nos yeux s’y boivent-ils visible why are our eyes drunk
eux-mêmes il y a themselves there is
la nuit il y a la main night there is the hand
sur la bouche on the mouth
tout ce qui couvre couvre all that covers covers
le même deuil the same mourning
les lèvres lâchent nos paroles lips let slip our words
une pierre tombe de moins a stone falls from a lesser
haut height

Laile sous lécrit (Paris: Orange Export Ltd., 1977).
128 Provisionality and the Poem

on oublie et we forget and

quand on ne sait plus when we no longer know
ce que l’on sait what we know
la vie est à l’aise life is comfortable
un peu d’est-ce moi a little is it me
rend la tempe douce warms the forehead
les os ont tout bones have plenty
leur temps le nom of time the name
aussi on dit as well they say
que ce qui est écrit cache that what is written hides
la chose qui voulait the thing that wanted
l’être to be it
c’est faire du mystère à peu de frais that mystery is too easy
il n’y a de mystérieux que le venir there’s nothing mysterious
[except what’s coming
et qu’il batte de l’aile and let it be rough on the wing
sous l’écrit et non pas below writing and not
au-dessus above
les dieux d’autrefois se sont trompés the gods of earlier times were
s’ils avaient aimé l’en-dessous if they had favoured what was
ils vivraient they’d be alive now
on peut tout imaginer we can imagine anything
sauf un premier except a first
jour pourtant l’eau fraîche day yet fresh water
vient d’en bas regarde comes from below look
les yeux de ta mère your mother’s eyes
le corps pense avec ses mains the body thinks with its hands
il fabrique de la tête peu à peu it fashions its head gradually
et la mort ouvre sa porte and death opens its door
dans la bouche même in the mouth itself
je ne tiens pas tellement à moi I’m not especially attached to
mais qui peut faire l’autre but who can act as another
on dit que les jours s’en vont they say the days go by
alors qu’ils viennent but really they come
nous sommes l’avenir du temps we are the future of time
comment disperser le cercle how do we break up the circle
la moelle de l’homme s’enferme man’s marrow hardens
devient centrale becomes central
le centre attire la mort the centre attracts death
le silence n’a pas de centre silence has no centre
il est le plein et le vide it is fullness and emptiness
l’écoute du commencement sans fin hearing endless beginning
alors tous les siècles forment so every century makes up
un seul aujourd’hui a single today
la vieille blessure écarte the old wound opens
Words in the Air 129

ses lèvres pour rire its lips to laugh

dis-moi tell me
est-ce en nous l’inconnu qui cherche is it the unknown in us that
un nom ou bien le nom qui cherche a name or is it the name that
l’inconnu the unknown
pour que le ciel cache la terre for the sky to hide the earth
un peu d’eau suffit a little water is enough
c’est en nous-mêmes it’s in ourselves
que l’autre nous attend that the other is waiting
il faut éplucher we have to peel back
le visage à coups de qui the face with whose blows
le nom est le labyrinthe the name is the labyrinth
l’oubli sa bête forgetting its beast
parfois mon crâne a un fond sometimes my skull isn’t
la réalité y jette quelques sous reality throws down a few
le souviens-toi qui tinte the remember that clinks
est un bris de vitre is broken glass
mais dans quels yeux but in which eyes
je voudrais citer tous les livres I’d like to quote every book
la citation est un plat quotation is a dish best served
froid et moi cold and I
voyant tout à coup ma table seeing my table all of a sudden
mon papier my paper
ma main my hand
je vois I see
une a
chose thing
mais les trois qui composent la chose but the three that make up the
ne la sont are not
pas it
ce qui existe what exists
ressemble à ce qui le fait resembles what makes it
exister exist
un peu de non-pensée suffit a little non-thought is enough
à réfléter le ciel to reflect the sky
d’en bas from below
ma main my hand
mon papier my paper
ma table my table
qu’ai-je pensé what have I thought
qui who
déjà already
enlevait la peau lifted off the skin
130 Provisionality and the Poem

de mon visage from my face

parfois tout se tient sometimes everything contains
sauf moi except me
et ce défaut suffit à donner lieu and that lack is enough to bring

The text opens with the words “un jour”, implying that a conventional
narrative might follow, but the subsequent line: “la bouche est dev-
enue obscure”, soon undermines any such expectations. Noël is
evoking the beginnings of language and the movement of a tongue:
“la langue re | muait”. The splitting of “remuait” over two lines
mirrors the sense of disorientation that would occur on hearing the
very first speech, were this possible. It also introduces the concept of
repetition through the emphasis on the prefix “re”, which denies the
plausibility of any such original moment, while the use of the imper-
fect tense suggests that despite the utterance “un jour”, no single
instant can be isolated.
Warmth, which characterises the living body, has now gone
from life; this prompts the subject’s search for his or her body, but in
fragmented form: s/he looks for his or her hands, and within them, “le
pouce | originel”. In pointing to an original source, this expression
suggests also the homonym “pousse”, implying force and growth. Its
immediate impact is a homing in on parts of the body, and the French
convention of describing one’s hands and thumb as “les mains” and
“le pouce” reinforces the detached, impersonal quality they take on.
The line “le temps est de la terre” contrasts earthly temp-
orality with eternity, but also suggests that time only exists in the real,
that is, in the things that it transforms. Enjambement is employed
across the subsequent lines not only to set a pace that moves one line
rapidly onto the next, thereby creating the effect of time passing, but
also to introduce ambiguity in phrasing. For instance, the running of
“on creuse | pour se souvenir” and “notre mort | épaissit” over line
endings pushes the text forward, and “épaissit cette chair” is an
unexpected qualification for death, because it introduces three-
dimensional space and makes the earth into a bodily element. The
earth has already been rendered complex because we can read both “le
temps est de la terre | autour des os”, and “des os | du monde”. Bones
buried in the earth produce both its temporality and its space, because
they remind us of the dead and contribute to the make-up of the
Words in the Air 131

earth’s matter. Similarly, flesh is thickened through the build-up of

time, and also dug into in search of memories: “on creuse | pour se
souvenir”. The fact that everything in nature changes as it moves
towards death means that an origin can be sought within its increasing
Change then takes place as the air blackens, providing an echo
of “la bouche est devenue obscure”, and turns into wind. Noël
produces circularity by rhyming “langue” with itself, and connects the
mouth, language and air without mentioning speech directly. We
cannot attribute a definitive meaning to either instance of “langue”, so
cannot establish what is the active agent. Both language and the
tongue are rooted in the air, which produces another possible
understanding of origins. This is immediately questioned by “pour-
quoi”, which, although it appears to introduce a subsequent question,
is also linked by its repetition to the statement that preceded it.
When the subject asks why the invisible resembles the visible,
Noël is not simply reminding us that we look through transparent air
when we see the world. Rather, he is relating the visible realm, whose
volume is made up of air, to the invisible interior of the mind, which
he also understands in the form of volume. He separates the word
“visible” from the “pas” that qualifies it in order to open two con-
secutive lines with “visible”. Moreover, the text is laid out in such a
way that the second instance occurs at the top of a new page. By
insisting on a repeated word in the strong first position in a line, he
creates an echo across a page break that keeps the momentum going
and prevents the double-page spread from being seen as a spatial
entity separate from previous pages. This is the opposite of du
Bouchet’s exploitation of layout and the initial visual impression.
The relentless questioning continues, although it is not made
clear who is speaking or who is addressed. The notion of resemblance
is extended with an image of eyes immersing themselves in the
visible. Reflexivity is emphasised by the use of a reflexive verb “s’y
boivent-ils”, “they are drunk” (by someone or something), rather than
“they drink”, and its overlaying with “eux-mêmes”. Eyes are not the
vehicle by which something is seen, but rather participants in a
process of vision that suggests an endless interchange of passive and
active positions.
The potential for mise-en-abîme is countered by the insistent
“il y a”, which designates a state of being there, or presence.
132 Provisionality and the Poem

Repetition is again used for reinforcement, and the hand reappears, its
definite article detaching it from the body and putting it on an equal
footing with the night: “il y a | la nuit il y a la main”. But this time two
parts of the body are connected, as the hand covers the mouth. Noël
repeats the action of covering: “tout ce qui couvre couvre | le même
deuil”. Here a new dimension is introduced. We have already been
presented with the thickness of the earth and the embedding of vision
in the transparent volume of air. Now a surface is shown to cover and
even hide a depth, be it the opening to the inside of the body,
mourning, or, later on this page, all things, when the subject considers
whether writing hides what it names: “on dit | que ce qui est écrit
cache | la chose”. In spite of the hand, the lips let out words, or speech.
An echo of the stone falling will occur further in the poem with the
image of coins being thrown into a well.
Noël introduces an oxymoron with the lines “quand on ne sait
plus | ce que l’on sait”. This apparently impossible state is one that is
posited throughout Noël’s work; it would result from achieving the
aim that is often wished for by his subjects, namely, to forget their
mortality. Life would be less painful were one able to forget the
knowledge that comes with being human. Moreover, the questioning
of our identity renders “la tempe douce”. If “doux” is understood to
mean “soft”, the boundaries of the body are weakened, while its sense
as “warm” implies anxiety.
The suggestion of softness is followed by the naming of
bones, which are the hardest part of the body, while “la tempe” calls
to mind “le temps”; time is a prominent theme throughout the text,
and sure enough it occurs immediately afterwards to qualify bones.
On the following line, “aussi” could be part of two phrases: “le nom |
aussi” or “aussi on dit”, so it serves to propel the poem onwards.
Names are compared to bones in their mutual mastery of time; the
names of things endure even after those things have gone, owing to
language’s tendency to fit things into categories. It therefore runs the
risk of hiding them behind words; here Noël is entering into the wider
debate over the coincidence, or lack of it, between a word and what it
designates. He implies that reality is suppressed by attempts to convey
it in language. In addition, it is not just the thing designated that is
hidden, but “la chose qui voulait | l’être”. It is hard to see what the
definite article can refer to here other than “l’écrit”, so the lines would
read: what is written hides the thing that wanted to be written. The
Words in the Air 133

essence of the thing is not what is covered up, but its tendency to
become writing.
Noël then undercuts this complex development by suggesting
that it is a mystification too easily suggested and believed, which
reminds us that the discussion was initiated by “on dit | que”. Instead,
he proposes that there is nothing mysterious except the future. He does
not write “l’avenir”, but “le venir”, thereby underlining its movement
towards the subject. Later he will write: “on dit que les jours s’en vont
| alors qu’ils viennent”. Noël does not allow time to leave on an
independent course, but always presents it as coming inexorably
towards us.
Perhaps the strangest lines of the text are the following; they
are also among the most important in that words have been taken from
them to form the title of the poem:

il n’y a de mystérieux que le venir

et qu’il batte de l’aile
sous l’écrit et non pas
les dieux d’autrefois se sont trompés

The vital role of enjambement for Noël can be seen from his decision
to choose his title from across two lines, and, in the process, to disrupt
the expression “battre de l’aile” by using only its second half. It means
“to be in a bad way” as well as ‘to beat its wings’. “L’aile” introduces
the image of flight into the title; Noël conceives of ideas in mental
space as being borne on the wing. Most surprising of all is Noël’s use
of the subjunctive. He is not suggesting that future time is in a bad
way, but expresses the wish that it should be. The prepositions “sous”
and “au-dessus” seem plausible because the beating of wings could be
thought to take place at a certain level in the air, although the image
becomes abstract when writing is the thing in relation to which the
action is positioned. “Above” and “below” might refer to earlier
images of a surface covering hidden depths. They also introduce the
contrast between the gods above and the earth below in the following
The subject appears to blame the gods for our loss of faith in
them; if they had loved “l’en-dessous”, Noël writes, they would still
be alive. This invites us to interpret “l’en-dessous” as earth, in contrast
to heaven. But Noël’s decision to focus on relative positioning rather
134 Provisionality and the Poem

than naming earth, or the world, suggests that the distinction between
earthly and heavenly realms is less important than the relationship
between the visible surfaces of life and all that they conceal. Belief in
“les dieux d’autrefois” has declined, and we find ourselves unable to
imagine our origins. The line is split over a page break, “sauf un
premier | jour”, which causes us to hesitate over the word “premier”,
and thereby emphasises it.
Without pausing for breath, the poem continues with another
caveat. Although a source for human life is unimaginable, we can see
how it might well up. The word “source”, which in French means both
origin and a spring of water, is not employed, but it is latent in the text
as it describes water coming up from below and evokes the mother as
the source of new life. The image is immediately diverted into one of
tears, linking sources to sadness. This technique is a hallmark of
Noël’s long poetic texts. Images succeed one another, neither at
random, nor according to argument or logic. Rather, each appears to
generate the next, suggesting meaning in various directions and
referring backwards and forwards in the text to create a web of
movement in different directions.
Pronouns create another kind of network, as they set up
dialogues between the self, another and itself. It is never clear who is
addressing whom and from which position. The introduction of
“nous” appears to fuse “je” and “tu”, but the process is rarely smooth,
and it is sometimes employed to describe the human race as a whole.
For example, in twelve lines the subject invokes “tu”, “je”, “on” and
“nous”, as well as numerous definite articles, including those that
designate parts of the body and detach them from the subject. Thought
is said to begin in the body, and we are presented with the visual
image of a body using its hands to create its head, only for death to
begin operating within the body, through the medium of the mouth.
Any sense of a person understood as defined by a consciousness has
been eradicated from this model; we can take our thoughts and
identity only from our physical nature and its temporality.
This potentially appalling image is followed by the line: “je ne
tiens pas tellement à moi”. If a sense of coherence is not particularly
important, then perhaps the definition of the self that is proposed is
bearable. The subject insists, as is so often the case in Noël’s work,
that we must realise that death is at work within us. He is repeatedly
drawn to this image of soft marrow in the backbone, which is
Words in the Air 135

commonly taken to symbolise strength. Here the attainment of solidity

does nothing to allay the frailty of mortal man, but instead makes it
more inevitable. Once mortality has been recognised, the subject does
not despair, but instead adopts an almost celebratory tone: “nous
sommes l’avenir du temps”. If time is in us, then we are in time, and
therefore can be truly active in the present.
The sequence from “le silence n’a pas de centre” to “un seul
aujourd’hui”, abolishes linearity in a manner reminiscent of Eliot’s
lines: “Time present and time past | Are both perhaps present in time
future, | And time future contained in time past”.115 Noël does not
name the present, preferring to designate it through deixis as
“aujourd’hui”, which is always present. The pace of the passage
increases with a disembodied laugh that is also an old wound; the
mouth appears to be defying the death it was said to harbour, and to be
refusing speech. This is immediately contradicted by a question that
appears to be spoken and to invite speech: “dis-moi”.116
Noël brings together two important themes of the poem,
language and identity, when the subject asks whether language, or the
act of naming, prompted our search to imagine the unknown in us, or
whether language arose from this search. Not only does language have
a complex relationship with the things it designates, but our naming of
ourselves is vital to our identity. The never-ending nature of this
questioning is reinforced by the rhyming of “qui cherche” with “qui
Again the surface hides depths, this time by reflection; the sea
shows us the sky above, not the earth beneath. Similarly, our name is
used by others and reflects our dialogue with them, and not what is
inside the self. The last two lines of the page, “c’est en nous-même |
que l’autre nous attend”, prevent the reader from seeing a
straightforward conflictual relationship between self and other, in
which the self does not recognise him- or herself in the name s/he is
called, by insisting that self and other cannot be clearly distinguished,
because strangeness is found within the self. Noël employs another
bodily image, one of surface and depth, when the subject insists that
the face must be peeled away to reveal what’s underneath, “à coups de

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), p. 13.
It is reminiscent of Cendrars’s repeated “Dis, Blaise”, in “La Prose du transsibérien
et de la Petite Jeanne de France”, in Poésies complètes (Paris: Denoël, 1944), pp. 63-
80 (pp. 71-72).
136 Provisionality and the Poem

qui”. This peculiar grammatical formulation recalls La Chute des

temps, in which the pronoun “qui” is repeatedly invoked to build up
an impression of persistent questioning and anxiety over identity. Here
it has the added dimension of violence.
The following images are visual representations of interiority
and depth, but not ones that can be clearly mapped: the labyrinth and
the well. The latter is unnamed, and the image of it calls to mind the
source of water evoked, but also left unnamed, earlier in the poem.
Naming is no longer just hard to position in relation to identity, it
becomes a labyrinth in which forgetting is trapped. Meanwhile, the
injunction to remember, “le souviens-toi”, is apparently an incursion
made by reality into the mind. But the image of throwing pennies into
a well, which leads to the sound of breaking glass, suggests both vain
wishful thinking and the destruction of transparent or reflective
surfaces. We are not given hope that either forgetting or remembering
will be successful. The subsequent line, “mais dans quels yeux”,
appears to revive the possibility of reflection, but the source and
identity of the participating vision is unknown.
“Je voudrais citer tous les livres | la citation est un plat froid”
seals the sense of sterility that has developed over the course of the
poem, as avenues of potential meaning are suggested through inven-
tive metaphors, but then closed off, as neither dialogue nor self-
exploration seems to bring the subject any closer to finding the origins
that are so important. Linguistic and textual experimentation appear to
have failed.
Yet we also gain a sense of the poet’s fierce attachment to
words as his only, and still privileged, means of expression. Language
can, perhaps, be put to effective use provided that it does not merely
cite other examples of its usage. Noël rhymes “froid” with “moi”, but
then gradually infuses warmth into the following lines that simply
express perception of, and give names to, the ordinary things he sees
around him. Crucially, possessive pronouns begin to multiply: “ma
table | mon papier | ma main”. Possession is most striking when
applied to his hand, because body parts have been designated with
definite articles in all but the very early lines of the text.
The longer lines “voyant tout à coup ma table” and “mais les
trois qui composent la chose” suggest coherence through the internal
rhymes “tout” | “coup” and “composent” | “chose”. Meanwhile, the
other lines become gradually shorter, until Noël has pared the poetry
Words in the Air 137

of perception down to its most basic form: “je vois | une | chose”. The
image is not allowed to stand, however; he explains that the three
things that make it up, presumably the three lines, are not identical to
it.117 While words and things are not the same, words nevertheless
resemble what they designate, and they also bring this into being as a
named thing: “ce qui existe | ressemble à ce qui le fait | exister”. Noël
manages to emphasise both the irreducible materiality of things and
the inseparability of words and what they name.
The phrase “un peu de” occurs for the third time, and it
combines the questioning of identity with the image of water from the
two previous instances of its use. If we succeed in overcoming our
consciousness of the human state, we might be able to reflect the sky
within mental space, that is, participate in the elemental world through
mental space. Noël reminds us of the difference between two
meanings of reflection: the act of thinking, which distances the subject
from what it considers, and the production of a copy.
Of course, Noël does not consider human involvement in the
natural world to take the form of mimetic reflection; as we have seen,
the interrelationship between self and other is a complex process of
resemblance. Indeed, by specifying that we reflect “d’en bas”, he
reintroduces the opposition and connection between above and below,
surface and depth, that have dominated the poem.
The end of the text returns to designating “ma main | mon
papier | ma table”, as if the subject were making a final effort to think
a little less. It even asks: “qu’ai-je pensé”. Eventually, surfaces are
stripped away in one more return of the bodily image, as someone
unknown lifts off the skin from “mon visage”. We might expect to see
revealed at last the depth that appeared so inaccessible. Instead, the
self underneath is a lack. The notion of a coherent persona, separate
from its surroundings, is precisely what the subject has been over-
coming throughout the poem. Now that it has gone, there is room for
presence, for the events of being and writing to take place: “et ce

The concept of the Trinity is obliquely suggested, with its paradoxical insistence
that three are all one, but simultaneously different from one another.
138 Provisionality and the Poem

défaut suffit à donner lieu”. The expression seems unfinished; gen-

erally one would read: “donner lieu à” an event or a thing. 118 It is an
entirely typical ending to a poem by Noël, however, because it enacts
the openness between self and world that the text has worked to

This allusion to Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” (“rien […] n’aura eu lieu […] que le
lieu”), Œuvres complètes, I, pp. 384-385, implies that citation is unavoidable and
welcomed in spite of Noël’s apparent rejection of used language.
Maintenant, j’ecris: je vois le ciel.
Ce que je vois là m’est déplaisant. Le bleu lui manque.
Et le “du”. Le “du” surtout. Pas le temps de m’en
demander la raison qu’elle éclate: “je vois le bleu du
ciel” voulait dire: je vois la substance du ciel.
Et dans cette substance étaient mes yeux.
À elle mes yeux joints.
(Noël, Journal du regard, p. 108)


The collaboration between André du Bouchet and the artist Pierre Tal
Coat has been described as “osmosis”, a term that evokes the equality
between word and image in the three books they produced together:
Sur le pas, in 1959, Laisses, in 1975 and, in 1978, Sous le linteau en
forme de joug.119 Tal Coat added his aquatints to du Bouchet’s text,
but they are no more illustrations of his words than these are descrip-
tions of the images. Neither medium refers to the other; rather, they
are engaged in a mutual quest for the real.
Noël’s work with Olivier Debré is inventive in a different
manner. He seems to suggest interpretations of the engravings, while
never referring directly to them: they were subsequent to the text. He
has prefaced catalogues for Debré’s exhibitions, and they completed
Espace du sourire together shortly before the artist’s death in 1999;
the following year Noël wrote one of his lettres verticales for Debré.
Le Livre de l’oubli, which will be discussed here, appeared in 1985.120
These collaborations have been singled out from a range of
illustrated books produced by Noël and du Bouchet. In addition, Noël
has written catalogue prefaces for many contemporary artists, as well

François Chapon describes the pairing as osmosis in “Cheminement d’André du
Bouchet et de Pierre Tal Coat”, L’Ire des vents, 6-8 (1983), 151-158. André du
Bouchet and Pierre Tal Coat, Sur le pas (Paris: Maeght, 1959), Laisses (Lausanne:
Simecek, 1975), Sous le linteau en forme de joug (Lausanne: Simecek, 1978).
Bernard Noël, À propos de l’exposition des œuvres d’Olivier Debré, juin 1976,
Galerie Ariel (Paris : Galerie Ariel, 1976); Debré (Paris: Flammarion, 1984); Olivier
Debré (Paris: Aréa, 1988); Olivier Debré, le rideau de scène de l’Opéra de Hong-
Kong ([Paris]: Librairie Séguier, 1989); Debré: dessins 1945-1960 (Paris: Biro; Saint-
Denis: Musée d’art et d’histoire, 1990); Lettre verticale XXXI pour Olivier Debré
(Rouen: L’Instant perpétuel, 2000). Bernard Noël and Olivier Debré, Le Livre de
l’oubli (Marseille: Ryoân-ji, 1985); Espace du sourire (Sainte Croix Vallée Française:
l’Attentive, 1998).
140 Provisionality and the Poem

as prefaces and full-length studies of some of the major figures in

modern art. While livres d’artistes are, in general, expensive to pro-
duce and therefore appear in limited editions, Noël has published,
jointly with some of his contemporaries, books in low- and mid-price
editions that include a large number of reproductions alongside the
text. They have brought the work of artists such as Vieira da Silva and
Zao Wou-Ki to the attention of a wider audience; readers benefit from
Noël’s commentary, in which he both illuminates the images and
offers the poetic reflection on vision and creativity that is central to all
his work. In his volume Journal du regard, which assembles extracts
from his catalogue texts, and Onze romans d’œil, in which he studies
eleven artists at work, the full range of these ideas is explored. 121
Noël is typical of his generation of poets in that he works with
artists who are also his friends. Indeed, friendship is vital to the inti-
mate collaborations that have resulted in the modern livre d’artiste.
This is particularly true of du Bouchet, who said in a 1991 interview
that “tous ces livres sont issus d’un rapport d’amitié, de moments
passés ensemble, de discussions”. He worked closely with artists such
as Alberto Giacometti, Antoni Tàpies and Geneviève Asse, although
none of the books produced suggest a rapport such as emerges from
the collaborations with Tal Coat.122
Du Bouchet writes about Tal Coat and Giacometti, and, to a
lesser extent, Miklos Bokor, in texts that are not illustrated. 123 They
cannot be classified as art criticism, because individual works of art
are not interpreted, described, or even named. In some cases, du Bou-
chet even omits the name of the artist. He employs visual imagery,
which might include colour nouns or references to figurative images,
See, for instance, Vieira da Silva (Creil: Dumerchez, 1994) and Zao Wou-Ki
([Mont-de-Marsan]: L’Atelier des brisants, 2001).
Interview with Alain Veinstein, 28 October 1991, France Culture, repr. in André
du Bouchet: Espace du poème, espace de la peinture: exposition à l’Hôtel des Arts –
Centre Méditerranéan d’Art, ed. by Jean-Pascal Léger (Toulon: Conseil général du
Var, 2003), p. 17. See André du Bouchet and Alberto Giacometti, L’Inhabité (Paris:
Hugues, 1967), André du Bouchet and Antoni Tàpies, Air (Paris: Maeght, 1971),
André du Bouchet and Geneviève Asse, Ici en deux (Geneva: Quentin, 1982).
These are not always easy to identify if the artist is not named. Among the texts on
Tal Coat are two published together in L’Emportement du muet: “Cendre tirant sur le
bleu”, pp. 37-53, and “Essor”, pp. 55-73. Du Bouchet’s early writings on Giacometti
are reproduced in Qui n’est pas tourné vers nous, and he devoted to Miklos Bokor the
volume De plusieurs déchirements dans les parages de la peinture (Le Muy: Unes,
1990), n. pag.
Art and the Book 141

but is more likely to create, obliquely, the presence of the real that
also emerges in the artist’s canvases. The texts resemble du Bouchet’s
poetic prose as a whole far more closely than they do conventional art
criticism. They have this in common with Noël’s poetic meditations
on vision.
Why should writers respond to art in this way, and why has
visual art been of overwhelming importance to modern poets?
Throughout the history of poetic responses to art, and artistic depic-
tions of narrative, the debate has raged over which art form has
primacy. But modern practitioners do not aim at transposition; poetry
does not seek to represent the visual, and images are not required to
portray scenes, stories or emotions. Carine Trévison argues that twen-
tieth-century poets and painters search for a “common place”.124 This
would be both philosophical and social. Unattached to poetic schools,
many artists felt a sense of community in their friendships with artists
(p. 197). The Maeght and Louise Leiris galleries were influential in
bringing contemporary art to the attention of writers, who then
published reviews in the journals Cahiers d’art and Derrière le miroir
(p. 195).
The livre d’artiste has been an increasingly exciting
development since the latter part of the nineteenth century, with books
by figures such as Mallarmé and Manet, but it was from Apollinaire
onwards that it began to take on the modern form of collaboration. As
well as working with artists including André Derain, Apollinaire
published his influential essay on Les Peintres cubistes. Similarly,
Reverdy published Note éternelle du présent, in which he discusses
the importance of the visual arts, as well as producing books such as
Le Chant des morts, with Picasso. In his calligraphic images, Picasso
began to blur the boundaries between word and image. 125
Perhaps the most impressive livre d’artiste of the early part of
the century is Sonia Delaunay’s and Blaise Cendrars’s La Prose du

Carine Trévison, “Les poètes et la peinture: une ‘fête de l’apparition’”, in Marie-
Claire Bancquart (ed.), Poésie de langue française 1945-60 (Paris: Presses univer-
sitaires de France, 1995), pp. 193-210 (p. 194).
Stéphane Mallarmé and Édouard Manet, L’Après-midi d’un faune (Paris: Derenne,
1876); Guillaume Apollinaire, Méditations esthétiques: Les Peintres cubistes, ed. by
L. C. Breunig and J.-Cl. Chevalier (Paris: Hermann, 1965); Guillaume Apollinaire
and André Derain, L’Enchanteur pourrissant (Paris: Kahnweiler, 1909); Pierre
Reverdy, Note éternelle du présent: Écrits sur l’art (1923-60) (Paris: Flammarion,
1973); Pierre Reverdy and Pablo Picasso, Le Chant des morts (Paris: Tériade, 1948).
142 Provisionality and the Poem

transsibérien ou la petite Jehanne de France, of 1913.126 Made in

concertina form, it unfolds vertically so that the whole book is visible
simultaneously on one sheet of paper, which could equally well be
described as a canvas. Vibrant colours are used for the images and the
text; although they advance parallel with one another, they merge
together at the boundary.
The livre d’artiste was an important form for the surrealists, a
group that included both artists and writers, and some who worked in
both media. Bataille, Fautrier and Dubuffet are among those who
produced influential books that appear to enter into and produce the
matter of the world, the body and the imagination. Dubuffet published
books on his own, providing both word and image. This rare ability is
shared with the poet and painter Henri Michaux.127
The versatility of the form is revealed in its adoption by those
writers and painters who reject surrealism. Poets who explore the real
can find in visual images emanations of what they seek in words: light
and dark, space, movement, and a sense of presence in the world. For
writers such as Bonnefoy, the page and the canvas are privileged
places for the emergence of sensible reality.
Bonnefoy, along with contemporaries such as Dupin, is an
important art critic as well as a writer who responds poetically to the
work of friends. Bonnefoy has written most famously on Italian
Baroque art, while Dupin is a major authority on Miró. They are
among a great many post-war writers who were friends with and
wrote about Giacometti’s sculptures and drawings. Dupin has insisted
on the importance of watching artists at work; evocations of Giaco-
metti’s obsessive reworking of his sculptures recur in all the texts
devoted to him. 128 They are representative of those who have gone
towards artists, not content to describe and discuss art from a critical
distance. As Emmanuel Pernoud puts it:

Paris: Editions des hommes nouveaux.
See, for example, Georges Bataille and Jean Fautrier, Madame Edwarda (Paris:
Librairie Auguste Blaiziot, 1942), Jean Dubuffet, Ler dla campagne (Paris: L’Art
brut, 1948) and Henri Michaux, Meidosems (Paris: Editions du Point du jour, 1948).
Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti: Biographie d’une œuvre (Paris: Flammarion,
1991); Jacques Dupin, Alberto Giacometti (Tours: Farrago, 1999).
Art and the Book 143

Parmi tous ceux qui écrivent sur les peintres, les poètes furent les premiers à
aller vers les peintres, à aller aux peintres.129

The transitions that operate between collaborators on livres d’artistes

are not transpositions between the verbal and the visual. Rather, they
involve the deliberate movement of one form of imagery towards the
other, in a common search for expression.

Du Bouchet and Tal Coat

The book is a site where word and image gain proximity, for
the simple reason that text and illustration can occupy the same space:
side-by-side on facing pages, interspersed within each other, or even
overlapping on the page. This is the form chosen by du Bouchet and
Tal Coat, and it reaches the height of its potential in their last colla-
boration, Sous le linteau en forme de joug. The book measures 28cm
by 19cm, and consists of ten sheets of paper folded twice to form 19
double-page spreads. The paper is of high quality, but has a rough
grain. The edges appear torn, and the pages vary slightly in size. Fifty
copies only were produced; the book is presented in a box engraved
with a black non-figurative illustration on a brown background.
Tal Coat’s aquatints are not obviously representative, al-
though he insisted that his work was always figurative. For instance,
an apparently formless sweeping area of colour might evoke the rapid
dash of a hare across an open field; he chose to portray the movement
because he said that is what would catch the eye, whereas a hare
motionless in a field is rarely visible. 130 Tal Coat aims at presenting
the real, rather than representing it, which is why his work appeals to a
poet such as du Bouchet.
The illustrations in Sous le linteau are monochrome shapes in
red, yellow, blue and black. They first appear separately from the text
and then in spaces between the words on some pages. Finally, deep
black or grey colour sweeps over the text, which includes:

Des mots, attardés encore, affirment

rouge auprès de blanc, se surimposant à l’obscurité comme à

Emmanuel Pernoud, “L’Œil des poètes: Critique d’art et poésie”, in Où va
l’histoire d’art contemporain?, ed. by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac and others (Paris:
École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1997), pp. 462-469 (p. 464).
Cited by Emmanuel Pernoud: “L’Instant animal”, in Portrait(s) de Pierre Tal
Coat, ed. by Emmanuel Pernoud (Paris: BNF, 1999), pp. 56-64 (p. 60).
144 Provisionality and the Poem

une face…131

The heavy presence of black obscures the words for red and white,
which will later be transformed into pink (red illustrations appeared
earlier in the book, but the colour was not mentioned in words). The
purpose of the black is not to obscure in the sense of negating the
lighter colours and the text, but to create night, into which all the other
colours have entered:

épaisseur dont, cette

nuit même – embrasure rentrée – je peux dire qu’elle est sauge
ou glaise, air, colza, bleu…

The colours are drawn in by the blaze of sunset, and black is the
darkness and depth of the night.
The final illustration, placed immediately after the end of the
text, is a small, angular yellow shape. Its brightness counters the
increasing opacity brought on by the merging of colours into black
and the superimposition of words and images as the book progressed.
The yellow’s brightness evokes sunlight, and it balances the blue
image that opened the work, before the first page of text. Tal Coat’s
magnificent bright blue aquatint haunts the whole book, even though
the colour does not recur. It appears to be made up of layers, and, at its
thickest point, the reader can discern a pale wash overlaid with
lavishly applied ink, into which grooves have been cut. Ridges form a
further layer on top.
The other aquatints in this book suggest depth, but none to
such an extent. Why should Tal Coat have chosen to emphasise
thickness more in a colour that is thought to be light and airy than in
the heavy black images? It is likely that he is responding to the
forceful presence of the colour blue as named by du Bouchet in his
text. The blue of Sous le linteau is fascinating because it is given the
paradoxical qualities of weight and movement. Du Bouchet refers to
“bleu ciel”, but only in combination with “bleu-charette”, which
brings us back down to earth. We have the blue image in mind as the
text opens:

See Plate 1.
Art and the Book 145

Une étendue de peinture – une nouvelle étendue de peinture… une

étendue de sommeil…

Painting is immediately present as matter, and just as quickly related

to human experience. Layers are introduced from the start, creating
the effect of gradual descent into the oblivion of sleep.
Du Bouchet associates the colour blue with forgetting through
an echo with the opening phrase:

Un jour
de plus, une nouvelle épaisseur d’oubli, ravive… La répétition
ravive, sur les pentes de la peinture…

Variation is also subtly introduced; in the opening sentence,

layering brought on sleep, but here repetition has a wakening effect. It
is clear that the interaction of movement and depth in this text is a
complex one. It provides a marked contrast to its companion piece,
Laisses, produced by du Bouchet and Tal Coat three years earlier. The
atmosphere of Laisses evokes floating; the text is sparse in layout, and
the images do not overlay the words. In Sous le linteau, depth and
varying levels are central:

… une épaisseur de plus – un jour de

plus… Et le bleu, immédiatement – sol
encore, d’où je discerne le bleu, empâtement … sur l’oubli
bleu – comme un bouchon d’air, un bouchon revient, mot lavé
dans l’air

Blue is both earth and air. In turn, air is both the constituent of
space in which blockages might build up, “un bouchon dans l’air”,
and is also itself rendered solid: “un bouchon d’air”. The term “de
plus” implies time unfolding, but the image is of the immediate
present: “immédiatement”. Du Bouchet opens up the text to inter-
ruptions and gaps that disturb any conclusions we might form. It is
like the blue; both layered solidity and articulated movement. Here,
for instance, a sense of increasing thickness is created by his
insistence on the terms “épaisseur”, “empâtement”, “bouchon” “soli-
dité”. But there are also indications of movement: “de plus”,
“articuler”, “s’engager”, “soulevée”. Development is created by his
decision to use variation rather than straightforward repetition. The
words build up, but also reveal an overlap that produces change. The
146 Provisionality and the Poem

marginal note again relates this process to forgetting: by leaving

behind unthinking assumptions of meaning, we allow words to return
refreshed. Enacting this process in his text, du Bouchet shows us that
what is left behind remains in layers, and that these influence our
forward movement through the book.
The positioning of the text is a visual example of layering. On
ten of its pages, a central body of text is divided into sections and is
accompanied by marginal notes in smaller font. These resemble du
Bouchet’s poetry, in that the shorter line-length emphasises the role of
enjambement, and the margins internal to the notes are sometimes
mobile. The marginal notes frame the main body of the text, sug-
gesting the image of a door or window through which a scene is
viewed, a shape implied by the title, Sous le linteau en forme de joug.
Far from creating perspective and a secure position from which to
view an image, however, they complicate the reading of the text. Our
inclination to read horizontally, incorporating them into the whole, is
thwarted, as they run in parallel to the main text, without always
referring to what it says. They continue across gaps on the page, or
between pages, which means that we have to move back and forth in
the text in order to read everything.
They take up ideas in the central text, modifying them, pre-
empting what is to come and introducing new images. For example, a
brief marginal reference to “la montagne acide”, is unclear until the
main text at the bottom of the page presents a comparison between the
green of a meadow and the effect of acid eating into the metal of the
plate used to produce the aquatints. The text reads:

( L’ancien, et le frais. Vert qui se nomme,

ailleurs que dans la morsure par l’acide, d’une … trait qui scinde,
plaque, prairie. Parole et inarticulé: le vert comme libre,
accompagne, jusqu’à se fonder, une prairie, il en une fraction de temps,
sort aussi vite – comme de la parole l’inarti- de la figure
culé. Il peut se voir également sur une pierre qu’il lui échoit
éclatée, feutre ajusté aux ruptures. d’envelopper
aussitôt qu’il départage…

The colour green appears to be the subject of this passage. It

is both novel, as fresh grass or the action of acid, and ancient, in the
form of lichen that forms in cracked rocks. But du Bouchet is also
discussing language, and, in particular, how colours are named. The
word “vert” can be used to evoke various images, but it must always
Art and the Book 147

engage with what is not linguistic, the “inarticulé” of the natural world
or the artist’s materials. It might pursue an image, but necessarily
moves away from it. Language can emerge in a new way once it has
first been ruptured, which is what du Bouchet aims to do in his
writing. The text in the centre of the page ends with an image from the
elemental world, a broken rock, but when rupture is taken up in the
marginal note, it has left behind its solid context. The “trait qui
scinde” divides both time and image; it is writing that takes the
ancient “parole” and sets to work in its cracks.
Sous le linteau does not pile words upon words, examining
language through an endless elaboration of its possibilities. Du Bou-
chet does not create gaps and ruptures in the text in order to linger in
them as moss does on a stone. Rather, he obliges the reader to
reconsider meanings in order that the “inarticulé” should have the
space to emerge. The text cited above continues on the following

… bleu pur…
… revenant sur ce que j’ai vu l’épaisseur bleue…
– pour recouvrir ou éclairer, pour taire. en perte pure… y

Silence is required if the paradoxical elements in the pairing of

thickness and purity, or of layers and movement, are to operate in
conjunction with one another. Blue has returned to replace the green
imagined on the previous page. Whereas the word for the colour green
demanded to be discussed in the light of the images it evoked, the
term “bleu” appears able to suggest the substance of the text without
referring to any single nameable example of matter. It is “en perte
pure”, a persistent presence throughout the text that nevertheless
allows for the loss that is needed for it to progress.
We might conclude that the book will enact a gradual
dissolution of reference until the words and images have been reduced
to nothing but blue; this is far from being the case. Towards the end of
the text, du Bouchet writes:

( ce sont vestiges du dedans, nœuds attardés de l’obscur qui se fait

jour, noyaux obscures de la couleur, nœuds de la peinture… remontant
au jour, quand tout a disparu…)
148 Provisionality and the Poem

Silence is not absence, linguistic purity that has succeeded in

abandoning noisy, cumbersome reference. Rather, it allows the non-
linguistic to reassert itself, almost in the manner of a plant growing up
towards the light in Spring. Knots of paint, of colour, push up into
view. They are vestiges of what is beneath, but do not have the
abstract quality of traces that have been left behind by an absent thing.
They are their own tough matter, emerging from the dark.
When asked the reason for his technique of etching grooves
into images, Tal Coat replied:

cela correspond presque toujours à une opération qui vise à faire resurgir ce
qui était enfoui, l’histoire ancienne en quelque sorte ou la préhistoire. C’est
ainsi qu’une ossature enfouie devient glyphe.132

The scratches he makes are signs of what is behind the image, just as
excavated bones can be interpreted. He nuances his description of the
trace as revealing ancient history by clarifying it as prehistory, which
is prior to stories and to written language. An uncovered bone tells us
something of the time in which it was buried, but also has a real
existence in the present of its uncovering. The traces in his work are
not signs that need to be deciphered. They are visual images made in
real matter, and they also testify to the gestures that produced them.

Erupting Realities
“Vestiges” and “traces” are words that recur in du Bouchet’s
writing on painting. They emerge in the present of writing, but do not
always point clearly to an origin. They resemble du Bouchet’s similes
that lack a term of comparison; lines of his poetry often begin
“…comme”. The technique emphasises that language is not required
to be mimetic; it surprises the reader who expects one thing to be
compared to another in poetry. At the same time, du Bouchet obliges
the reader to participate in the creation of the text, to supply possible
terms of comparison.
In du Bouchet’s work, traces always have complex relations
to their origins. The following passage from “Essor”, which considers
Tal Coat’s work without explicit reference to any of his paintings,

Pierre Tal Coat, Conversation avec Eddy Devolder (Gerpinnes: Tandem, 1991), p.
Art and the Book 149

both explains and demonstrates that the trace of an object engages it in

a continuous process of emergence and disappearance:

Je vois est-ce à dire – l’objet

pense-t-on, saisissable, ayant disparu – tout objet sur son
retour ici comme évanoui dans l’instant, presque, où il
réapparaît, et le trait qui le désignera ne constituant pas une
trace – que je ne vois rien? (L’Emportement, p. 67)

The opening statement, “je vois”, seems to suggest that the

subject is about to evoke perception. The rest of the paragraph works
to undo any certainty about what is presented to the subject and the
reader. As is often the case in du Bouchet’s writing, clauses add to,
but also subtract from, one another, extending the sentence through
qualification until the original referent is unclear. In this case, he
nevertheless encloses all his reflections in a central question: “est-ce à
dire […] que je ne vois rien?”, a question that contradicts the certainty
of the opening phrase. The structure “est-ce” signals that a question is
being asked, and forces the reader to search for what that question will
be, retaining each subsequent clause in the hope of later clarification.
The next idea is also interrupted, “l’objet […] ayant disparu”, by our
vain expectation that it can be grasped; “pense-t-on, saisissable”. The
idea is broadened to include all objects, which are brought back just as
the original has disappeared: “tout objet sur son retour ici”. Im-
mediately, these generic objects themselves vanish and return in the
same moment: “comme évanoui dans l’instant […] où il réapparaît”.
The “presque” that intrudes here prevents exact coincidence between
the actions of emergence and disappearance.
In any case, the subject refuses to grant that the image left by
this process is a clear representation of what has occurred: “et le trait
qui le désignera ne constituant pas une trace”. He distinguishes be-
tween a “trace”, which marks the passage of a now absent object, and
a “trait”, which is the painter’s mark that cannot be said for certain to
represent anything other than itself. Perhaps he sees nothing because
there was nothing there. But du Bouchet has not written “est-ce que je
ne vois rien?” Rather, “est-ce à dire que?”, “does it mean that?” is an
attempt to interpret the previous utterance, to put it in other words. In
order to express “je vois” another way, he chooses the expression “je
ne vois rien”. It is not that the subject does not see, but rather that
truly seeing the marks in the painting means seeing that they are
150 Provisionality and the Poem

nothing. Nothing has two meanings here: it emphasises that the marks
exist only in themselves, without pointing to something else; at the
same time, it makes the subject see the absence of the original
referent. It keeps open the transition back and forth between the trace
as an object in itself and as the vestige of something different.
This is put succinctly in another text from the same volume,
“Deux traces vertes”. Du Bouchet writes: “Trace non vestige, trace
toujours à tracer” (L’Emportement, p. 80). A vestige can be the
permanent mark of an earlier presence, whereas the trace is defined as
a continuous process.133 He suggests that the marks made by artists are
never definitive recordings of perception; rather, they incite the
observer to continue looking at the painting and at the world. This is
not to say that vestiges have no place in art, as he understands it. They
recur even in Une tache, a book that would seem, by its title, to be
dedicated to traces without referents. He writes:

vestiges, sur le moment, de provenance une fois encore inconnue

– ça et là, une tache – jusqu’au seuil du support.134

Here marks of paint, “taches” are not described in terms of

what they represent, but simply as vestiges with unknown origin. They
emerge momentarily, here and there on the canvas, so they are far
from permanent elements of deliberately organised space. One has the
impression of the artist’s hand skimming over the surface of the
canvas, leaving traces of paint almost randomly as s/he passes
through, but this is far from du Bouchet’s vision of how art functions.
While the trace might well have emerged suddenly, it does have a
history, albeit unknown. Its “provenance” prevents it from being an
instantly forgettable apparition. Similarly, while the traces are posi-
tioned “ça et là”, they are, in fact, anchored on the threshold of the
“support”: the paper or canvas. It forms the literal, spatial background
of the work, just as the gesture of the painter, and his or her
inspiration, is its background in time. Du Bouchet insists on the term
“support” in all his writing on art. The importance he attaches to it

Language is seen as a play of traces without referent by deconstructionist thinkers.
They refute directly writers from Aristotle on who have conceived of the trace as an
imprint on the memory.
Une tache ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1988), n. pag.
Art and the Book 151

takes his work on art from consideration of surface images to a

complex investigation of depth in space and time.
For du Bouchet, the background to a work of art is more than
a flat surface convenient for the application of paint or ink. It has a
solid presence; he uses the term “support” more frequently than
“fond”. A “support” does not recede, allowing images to emerge in
the foreground. Rather, it bears the weight and depth of their presence.
The term is particularly evocative in du Bouchet’s text on the work of
Miklos Bokor, an artist who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz:

support dont – antérieur à la parole ou à la peinture, et,

étant advenu, à plus d’une reprise, qu’il les survit – on
présume qu’il reste susceptible d’en emporter plus loin – au
plus loin – avec soi quelques traces. (De plusieurs déchirements)

The title of the volume, De plusieurs déchirements dans les parages

de la peinture, reflects the emphasis on rupture and uncertainty in the
text, but this is always seen against the unflinching solidity of the
“support” provided by the canvas, which precedes and outlasts lan-
guage or painting. It can carry with it the traces that have been left,
even when representative meaning in words or images is not possible.
It is something to lean on when expression is inadequate.
The image of backgrounds as a mute presence recurs in du
Bouchet’s writing on art. In Une tache, for instance, he writes:

le plan muet parle à travers de ce qui est dit, comme accent ou


The paradoxical statement that the background is mute, but speaks

through what is said, is again exploring how the non-representative
can be significant. It suggests that what is behind an image emerges
and adds to the viewer’s understanding of that image. The three-way
comparison with light and accent is surprising, but these link the
visual and the linguistic. The accent we hear in speech contributes to
our interpretation of an utterance without offering specific meanings
in the way that words must do. Light incorporated into an image can
appear to shine through and alter its whole aspect even if its source is
not in the frame of the picture.
Du Bouchet often draws attention to the light that penetrates
an image. This might not take the form of bright natural light, but
152 Provisionality and the Poem

could be the whiteness of the background that emerges between drawn

lines or painted shapes and seems to bring the image to life. It upsets
our notions of perspective, as the background is shown to have ad-
vanced up to and through the image that we would expect to see in the
foreground. The canvas or page appears to be made of constantly
shifting layers, rather than to be a flat surface on which the artist’s
skill would cause the background to recede.
He is particularly sensitive to luminous backgrounds in the
drawings by Alberto Giacometti, writing in a text on the artist:

éclat de la lumière dans laquelle une figure tracée, sur son

annulation pressentie, à elle-même reviendra, et
qu’elle paraît réfléchir, alors qu’elle a été, de part en part
déjà, traversée.135

The “figure” appears in a flash of light, but as soon as it has arrived, it

is about to disappear again. Then it returns for a moment. It seems to
reflect, but the object reflected is unclear. It could be the sitter for the
portrait, or the light that has heralded its arrival. The figure is crossed
through, “traversée”, just as the background paper was able to speak
“à travers” the image in the previous quotation. Giacometti endows
the paper in his drawings with the strength to engender the figure and
cause it to disappear repeatedly.
Du Bouchet sees the blank canvas not as a tool, but as real
matter that is active in the creation of an image. It has the elemental
qualities of light and the layered depth of the earth. Indeed, at times he
sees the paper as using the images or words imprinted on it to create a
present of seeing or reading:

Papier – antérieur à ce qu’on aura pu y inscrire, de nouveau seul

à figurer, dans un agencement de mots, le présent. (Une tache)

Du Bouchet’s discussions of painting nearly always relate the

image to the word. He clearly links the artist’s canvas to the writer’s
page, as has been clear from his use of space in all his own texts. The
page provides the support for his words to emerge and disappear, just
as the drawings of Giacometti appear in constant flux.

D’un trait qui figure et défigure ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1997), p. 10.
Art and the Book 153

Repetition and interruption characterise du Bouchet’s texts,

and they are fundamental to the art with which he engages in writing.
His view of the image could be summarised by this statement in Une

ce qui sur
l’instant se découvre retiré au temps, fera – pour éclairer,
dans la durée du temps, irruption de nouveau.

The instant and duration are not mutually exclusive for du Bouchet.
Indeed, they always operate in tandem, as repeated instances of
emergence and disappearance take place in time. This sentence also
exemplifies his technique of enacting what he describes, as the
interruption that allows an image to come into view time after time is
created by the insertion of the phrase “pour éclairer, dans la durée du
temps” into the assertion “fera […] irruption de nouveau”. His
frequent use of the expression “de nouveau” emphasises that repe-
tition should not be seen as the stultifying recurrence of identical
images, but rather as the creation of novelty through the disruption
that obliges us to look at an image in a different fashion.
He employs “de nouveau” to evoke the emergence of reality
incited by Tal Coat’s painting:

présent au surgissement de la réalité

qui de nouveau sera ce qu’on oublie, la destination de la
peinture n’étant pas bornée à un tableau produit, mais elle-même
– pas grand chose – rien qu’un instant, mais l’instant même
marquant l’accueil de ce qui, oublié, n’en est pas moins là,
comme à la source l’eau. (L’Emportement, p. 53)

According to du Bouchet, Tal Coat’s works offer the viewer a sense of

being present at the creation of the present (the opening “présent”
encompasses both noun and adjective). He does not attribute this
directly to the artist’s skill; his skill is such that we see not his
creativity, but the actual coming into being of the real. But reality is
also the inspiration for the work, one that we forget as soon as we see
the image in constant motion.
Du Bouchet explains that movement is vital to Tal Coat’s art,
because it is not limited to the frame of any single canvas. He is
quoting Tal Coat’s own comment on painting when he says that it is
“pas grand chose”; the artist always valued the natural world that
154 Provisionality and the Poem

inspired him over his own work. Du Bouchet transforms Tal Coat’s
humble statement, rendering the smallness of painting its greatest
strength; the transience of each individual piece means that Tal Coat
produces the movement and change of reality across his work as a
The paintings remind the viewer of the everyday reality that is
often ignored by bringing to life its energy. But this same movement
means that images must be forgotten again so they can be left behind.
The real emerges in an instant, and immediately disappears again, but
it is not obliterated. Rather, the viewer is left with the memory of its
presence behind the images on the canvas, compared to water
emerging from a spring. Du Bouchet thus endows Tal Coat’s paintings
with another layer, this time the invisible presence of the real that
reveals itself repeatedly and briefly, only to fade away and leave the
visual traces that make up the work.
In a discussion of the first collaboration between Tal Coat and
du Bouchet, Sur le pas, François Chapon also focuses on this quality
in Tal Coat’s work. He describes the artist’s engraving tool as:

non pas comme l’instrument d’une empreinte définitive, mais propulsion

d’une libre trajectoire en suspens dans ce milieu lui-même animé. Les
barbes du trait, ses variations d’épaisseur ajoutent à cette modulation
spatiale qui semble promise à un “ rebond de présences jaillissantes.136

The traces made by the tool are mobile, but so is the space in which
they are made. Chapon writes that the variations in thickness contri-
bute to the continual movement of the space of the image that allows
presence to well up.
The real is always the central subject in du Bouchet’s texts
and he emphasises its importance in the work of artists he admires. In
this, he is representative of many poets and artists of his generation
who have contributed to livres d’artistes. Chapon points out that he
shared with the artists with whom he worked, including Tàpies and
Ubac as well as Tal Coat, the wish to abandon the position in which
man is the centre of the world. He cites Tal Coat, who asserted that “la
vraie perspective est circulaire” (Le Peintre et le livre, p. 184). This
does not mean that he attempted to show scenes in 360º; that would

Le Peintre et le livre: L’Âge d’or du livre illustré en France, 1870-1970 (Paris:
Flammarion, 1987), p. 188.
Art and the Book 155

imply that they were viewed from a central position. Rather, the space
of the book is its own reality, without an objective viewpoint. It does
not capture the perceptions of an individual, but the engagement of an
artist with the world around.

Noël and Debré

The space of the book is exploited and explored by Noël in his
partnership with Olivier Debré. Le Livre de l’oubli was published in
1985 by André Dimanche. 137 It measures 39 by 32 centimetres and
contains eight engravings in black and white by Debré, based on
original watercolours. Its monochromatic appearance is vital to the
impression it creates of duality and reversal, as white lines and spaces
shine through the predominantly black abstract shapes, implying that
the words printed in black ink emerge through into the white of the
page. Although colour is not layered in the obvious manner of Tal
Coat’s ridged illustrations, black lines on white areas in black images
on white paper create the sense of depth extending back into the page.
The engravings were added to Noël’s text, which takes a
variety of forms, from the short statement that resembles an aphorism
to longer meditations, via short poems or reported dialogue that is
given no context. He considers the nature of forgetting, proposing that
it is an insistent presence and not simply the lack of memory.
Similarly, the white sections of Debré’s engravings do not appear as
an absence of black ink on white paper, but as the active presence of
white shining through black (Plate 2). Noël writes:

L’oubli dont je parle n’est pas oublier.

Il n’est pas un manque de la mémoire
Ni du présent
Il n’est pas derrière moi seulement
L’oubli est mon oubli. (Livre, p. 49)

Rather than a lack of memories or a failure of the faculty of

memory, forgetting is, Noël contends, the presence of forgotten
experiences. When he writes “il n’est pas derrière moi seulement |
l’oubli est mon oubli”, he is saying that the subject does not leave

I am indebted to Andrew Rothwell’s presentation of this book in “Dorny, Noël,
Debré: Two Creative Dialogues”, in The Dialogue Between Painting and Poetry:
Livres d’artistes 1874-1999, ed. by Jean Khalfa (Cambridge: Black Apollo), pp. 127-
156 Provisionality and the Poem

behind what it has forgotten; rather, the self still contains its
forgetting. Noël takes this further by emphasising that the human
being is by its very nature forgetting, as we forget our bodily nature:

Que savons-nous de notre corps? Et des nerfs? Et de la pensée? L’inconnu

est, en nous, lié au plus vif: il est la vie même. Le corps a oublié sa
formation. Le lecteur oublie devant le texte la main qui l’a tracé. (Livre, p.

In this example of reflective prose typical of Noël, he explains that it

is not that we are somehow lifeless because of our forgetting. Quite
the opposite: forgetting is an essential feature of our makeup. His aim
as a writer is to reveal and explore what it is that we forget: what we
consist of and where this comes from. The process will also involve
an examination of the nature of writing, just as du Bouchet’s
exploration of our place in the world was inseparable from an
investigation of language.
As in all his work, Noël proposes a connection between the
body and the text: “le corps a oublié sa formation. Le lecteur oublie
devant le texte la main qui l’a tracé”. In this instance, the body is
unaware of its creation, while the reader who focuses on a text ignores
the physical gesture of writing that produced it. Noël employs the verb
“tracer” to describe the writing of a text, and this helps to connect the
action made by the hand to the forgetting that is central to the process.
The text becomes the trace of its creation, and we are invited to
imagine that the body is therefore the trace, or the existence in the
presence, of the nature that it has forgotten. The trace is forgetting,
then, since forgetting for Noël is the presence of what has gone before.
In this way, it resembles the trace of a fleeting moment in nature that
du Bouchet appreciates in Tal Coat’s work, and which suggests also
the traces of the engraver’s hand retained in the grooves of his images.
Indeed, Noël also employs the term “support” that is so
important to du Bouchet, although he applies it to the body:

Le corps est un terrain archéologique, mais comment le fouiller? Les

inscriptions ne se distinguent pas de leur support: elles en sont la substance,
et le secret… Le secret de l’organique est de s’inscrire sensiblement en
nous, tout en se dérobant à notre lecture. (Livre, p. 12)

His choice of vocabulary incorporates the visual arts, writing and

archaeology when he writes that “les inscriptions ne se distinguent pas
Art and the Book 157

de leur support”. An inscription can be a trace left on canvas, paper,

stone or the earth; it could be made up of meaningful signs, such as
words, but it might also be a clue to an earlier existence that the
archaeologist attempts to interpret. Noël’s originality lies in his
attribution of inscriptions to the body, and his insistence that they are
inseparable from it. Memories are often described as leaving a mark
on a person’s mind at certain points during his or her lifetime. What
Noël is proposing, on the other hand, is that traces are part of the
body; they are organic and have always been there, but we are rarely
able to read them. Noël consistently refuses to separate mind from
The image of an archaeological dig with which the passage
opens suggests the difficult task of digging down through layers of
matter to recover traces that may not be legible. Olivier Debré’s
illustrations for Le livre de l’oubli clearly do not represent this
process, and do not feature written inscriptions. But as each black or
white shape appears to emerge from another, they present us with an
image that might well evoke the experience of an archaeologist. The
engravings are tantalising in their refusal to offer interpretations; they
appear to be traces of a presence that remains just beyond the reach of
our interpretative skills and, in this way, they respond to Noël’s
conception of the body. But it would be reductive to say that they are
illustrative of his words; since they gain their significance from their
power to suggest veiled depths, they are not required to represent
anything beyond their own existence as traces.

The Visible and the Invisible

Noël finds in Debré’s paintings confirmation of his own com-
plex convictions on the functioning of vision, thought and perception.
For instance, he writes:

Je crois que c’est Olivier Debré qui établit un rapport entre l’espace et le
regard pour dire que notre espace interne va jusqu’où va le regard; voilà une
autre façon de dire que notre corps s’illimite à travers nos yeux. (L’Espace,
pp. 89-90)

In this comment Noël evokes the connection between vision, the body
and space that is central to his poetics as a whole. According to Noël,
Debré demonstrates that human beings participate in their environ-
ment because the body is not self-contained. Through sight, the limits
158 Provisionality and the Poem

of the self are extended as far as the eyes can see. The boundaries
between the internal space of the body and the space around it are
What Noël is describing here is a way of being in space. In
Journal du regard, he writes:

Présence, c’est-à-dire l’intensité dans la manière d’occuper l’espace, de

l’orienter, de faire sentir son volume. Et nous, dans ce volume, nous
sommes mis en rapport avec quelque chose qui est le Lieu. Ou bien le
repère vis-à-vis duquel avoir Lieu. (p. 89)

He defines presence as an intense occupation of space that emphasises

its existence as volume. This links space inseparably to time, as in-
stances of presence make us aware of what “takes place”. The
relationship of the self to the volume it occupies is something that
happens rather than something that exists. It is necessarily temporal,
even if its duration cannot be measured.
Noël believes that painting, including that of Olivier Debré, is
capable of reminding the viewer of this taking place, and even of
producing instances of presence. He explains in L’Espace du poème
that the surface of a painting gives off volume that enters into the eye
(p. 159). This places the viewer in the passive role of being penetrated
by the work of art. But Noël does not consider the human subject to be
acted upon by art and perception; according to Noël, we live through
our participation in and action upon the world around, active
involvement that depends on thought. He believes that thought is
intimately related to sight because when we look, we immediately
convert visual perception into mental imagery; seeing is interpreting.
Art is capable of demonstrating how we think, and Noël privileges the
work of visual artists because he is engaged in a persistent attempt to
reveal the workings of thought in his own writing:

Montrer le fonctionnement de la pensée consisterait à détruire sa

représentation au profit de son seul surgissement, mais en quel lieu? Il faut
une surface volumineuse, une surface d’illusion… (Journal, p. 15)

In the sense of volume created by some works of art, thought can be

revealed. Unlike the writer, who is obliged to employ the abstraction
of language, the artist need not attempt to describe or represent
Art and the Book 159

thought, but is able to recreate its emergence in the visual form of

Thinking therefore incorporates movement in the same way
that seeing is an action rather than the passive acceptance of images.
Noël finds it best expressed through volume because he insists on the
volume that is internal to the self and that corresponds to the three-
dimensional space in which we are active. The two realms are
constantly exchanging space, because vision, through which percep-
tion is converted into thought, is a process of transition between inside
and out that he describes as “un renversement perpétuel du dedans et
du dehors” (Journal, pp. 17-18).
At several points in his writing on art, Noël names inside and
outside as visible and invisible versions of the same space, for the
reason that while we cannot see inside the mind, we should still
understand it in material terms. He proposes a hypothetical experiment
in Onze romans d’œil:

Imaginez qu’on opère un prélèvement dans le regard: que verrions-nous?

Non pas des choses, non pas le monde ni ton visage. Nous verrions ce que
nous ne voyons pas, mais qui nous fait voir, ce qui peut-être nous aveugle et
qui, en tout cas, nous en met plein la vue: le bruissement, le fourmillement,
le frémissement de la matière invisible du visible. (p. 123)

Vision does not contain images, nor is it a mirror of what is there to be

perceived. It is matter in itself, the matter of the visible, which he
evokes in terms of rapid movements and rustlings. Images are not
fixed by perception, but incessantly transformed. Even though they
become invisible in thought, they are the stuff of visibility.
In a text on Henri Michaux, Noël insists again on the contrast
between the abstraction, or making invisible, that writing necessarily
enacts, and the making visible of how we see that he believes to be
within the power of some artists:

Depuis l’origine, l’écriture va du visible à l’invisible et nous laisse devant la

page sombre où lire n’est pas voir; mais voici inventée, comme par un
retournement original, l’écriture visible de l’invisible.138

Michaux’s work is presented as the opposite of writing, as a force that

overturns the apparent order of things to make the invisible present for

Vers Henri Michaux ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1998), p. 54.
160 Provisionality and the Poem

us to see. But Noël complicates his statement by choosing to describe

Michaux’s work as writing; it is “écriture visible”. This might not
strike the reader at first, because Michaux was an equally original
writer and painter, and many of his ink drawings take the form of
calligraphic figures that encourage the viewer to attempt to read them
while also suggesting images of human figures.
His use of the term “écriture” is significant, however, because
it reminds us that all seeing is creative because we always convert
perception into thought. Even when an artist performs the feat of
showing us the invisible, we must not be allowed to assume that it is
unmediated. An artist must “write” his or her presentation of vision
because all seeing is in some sense writing. Noël puts this succinctly
in his text on Debré: “L’espace est double: visible et invisible. Dans le
visible, le monde nous apparaît; dans l’invisible, nous pensons le
monde, nous le re-créons” (Debré, p. 11).139
Just as we do not accept perceptions without acting on them,
works of art are not the product of an imagination unaffected by its
bodily form. Indeed, in the essays collected in Onze romans d’œil, it is
clear that Noël is often more interested in how the artist works than in
the finished pieces. Moreover, he does not want to know about the
creative process or inspiration for a work, but goes to the artist’s
studio and watches the physical movements he or she makes in the
process of creating a work of art.
The first of the romans presents the artist Jan Voss in his
studio, completing a piece by soaking fragments of paper, rolling
powdered paint into them with the sole of his foot, projecting paint
with his hands and adding shavings of wax. The whole body is at
work, from rapid movements of turning or kneeling to the separation
of particles of paint with a nail, in a pattern that almost seems
choreographed. As Voss finishes his work with a hairdryer, Noël

D’ailleurs le corps n’est-il pas ‘l’atelier’, non comme logement du travail,

mais comme lieu actif où l’air même devient un élément tantôt présent aux
yeux telle une pensée, tantôt soufflé par l’orifice du séchoir tel un vent

Here Noël’s work is closely allied to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-
Ponty and, in particular, Le Visible et l’invisible, ed. by Claude Lefort (Paris:
Gallimard, 1964). Merleau-Ponty rejected dualism, insisting rather on interaction
between the subject and the world through the materiality of the body, which links the
visible world to internal depths.
Art and the Book 161

siccatif. Le sol est à l’œuvre, l’air est à l’œuvre: le corps du peintre est leur
liant, avec ses gestes, ses regards, ses déplacements. (Onze, p. 15)

This is far from a conventional discussion of Voss’s work, not least

owing to the surprising comparison between the visibility of air and of
thought. The artist’s movements reveal to us the invisible inside of his
body: the air that makes up his internal mental volume and the thought
processes that result from perception.
Noël focuses on the artist’s physical presence, on his gestures,
gaze and movement. The resemblance is striking with Merleau-
Ponty’s discussion of perception in L’Œil et l’esprit. Merleau-Ponty
stresses the importance of the artist’s body to his work, consistently
with the phenomenological concept of reciprocal interaction between
the subject and its surroundings:

Le peintre “ apporte son corps ”, dit Valéry. Et, en effet, on ne voit pas
comment un Esprit pourrait peindre. C’est en prêtant son corps au monde
que le peintre change le monde en peinture. Pour comprendre ces
transsubstantiations, il faut retrouver le corps opérant et actuel, celui qui
n’est pas un morceau d’espace, un faisceau de fonctions, qui est un entrelacs
de vision et de mouvement.140

Merleau-Ponty describes the artist’s body as “opérant et actuel”, so

that, through the medium of physical intervention in his surroundings,
“le peintre change le monde en peinture”. For Noël, the body corres-
ponds to a “lieu actif”, inextricably linked to the world in which it
moves. He, too, implies productive activity: “le sol est à l’œuvre, l’air
est à l’œuvre”, linked to the painter through his or her body: “le corps
du peintre est leur liant”. Merleau-Ponty also uses a term that conveys
interpenetration: the body is “un entrelacs de vision et de mouve-
ment”, and his emphasis on vision and movement is echoed in Noël’s
phrase: “ses gestes, ses regards, ses déplacements”. Artists’ bodies are
the source of the gestures that anchor them in the world, and allow
them to effect changes to it through art.
The movement of the body would not be sufficient in itself to
interest Noël. He focuses on the way in which it becomes incorporated
into the work of art, producing a painting that appears to be brimming

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L’Œil et l’esprit (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), p. 16.
162 Provisionality and the Poem

over with captured motion. The artist’s gesture is energy that has pro-
duced the work and is always about to pour forth before our eyes:141
Un noir traversé de gestes qui suscitent en lui une tension, un élan. Quelque
chose va se montrer, quelque chose qui est déjà là, esquissé, suggéré,
désigné, mais indécidable, irréductible. (Onze, p.165)

By repeating “quelque chose” Noël establishes an air of depth and

mystery. We are tantalised by potential revelation, we sense that the
invisible is about to become visible, although it has, in fact, already
been made plain. The viewer witnesses the process of making visible,
which is what Noël believes we fail to see in everyday life. He aims at
producing the same effect in words as the viewer would experience in
front of the painting by hinting at what will emerge, “esquissé, sug-
géré, désigné”, but refusing to describe it: “mais indécidable,
Of course, we would not be allowed to remain passive in the
face of works such as this (here Noël is evoking the paintings of
Bertrand Vivin). They would not come to life if they did not
communicate with the viewer and penetrate his or her internal space.
Once a work has broken through what separates the subject from the
visible, the subject is then able to penetrate the volume of the painting
and set its energy in motion. Noël sees Michaux’s art as a fine
example of this process: “Un tableau est après tout un dépôt d’énergie
– une énergie communicative. Le regard l’active dans le tableau, si
bien qu’elle pénètre en lui, l’envahit, l’anime en retour” (Vers, p. 92).
Noël continually reinforces the bodily aspect of the impulse he finds
in the works, describing them as containing “des pulsations d’une
poussée vers le visible” (Vers, p. 44). The surface of a canvas has
taken on animate qualities; “des pulsations” evokes life through the
image of blood pulsing round the body.
Noël is always sensitive to the sensuality that can be conveyed
by a work of art. Representation of physical beauty is not what is at
stake; indeed, the paintings which seem to him to suggest desire are
not figurative. Rather, the materiality of a work, the energy that

I discuss the importance of the gesture to Noël’s art criticism and poetry in “The
Creative Gesture: Bernard Noël’s Poetry and Art Criticism” Dalhousie French
Studies, 71 (2005), 53-63.
Art and the Book 163

appears to emerge in the present of looking, has the urgency of desire.

Form and content coincide. He writes of Vivin’s work:

Le plus étrange est que cette trace ne se comporte pas comme un signe: elle
n’évoque pas à travers l’absence, elle impose, elle affirme, elle transmet une
sensualité. (Onze, p. 169)

The works of art he evokes “transmit sensuality”; they are in the

process of engaging the viewer by their energy. But they are also
sensual because they are immediate: Noël insists that they impose and
affirm their sensuality. They are not obliquely suggestive; they are a
definite presence. In this way, Vivin’s paintings take their distance
from any form of sign, because they do not signify by pointing to
something absent. They do not transmit meaning, but are meaningful
in themselves.
Here Noël uses the term “trace” to describe images in which
form and content are inseparable. The trace is neither the remnant of
an absent object nor a surface mark that has no referent, because it is
both sign and surface. It is evidence of the artist’s gesture and, by
extension, of his engagement with the world through perception,
thought and creation, but it also has an autonomous material existence
on the canvas. Noël coins the term “signe-surface” to summarise
Debré’s work, in which he finds the same link between form and
content. He insists on “le besoin d’identité entre le sens et le tracé
pour que le signe soit directement transmissible au lieu de n’être que
le support d’une traduction approchante” (Debré, p. 8). The created
image transmits its significance directly rather than providing the
means by which an abstract idea is conveyed, where its role would
merely be that of “support”.
Noël’s choice of the noun “support” recalls his writing on the
body in Le Livre de l’oubli, as well as du Bouchet’s discussion of the
trace, but here Noël gives the term different connotations. Whereas for
du Bouchet the background is integral to the trace as significant in
itself, here Noël contrasts the meaningful trace with background that
would provide a medium for a sign to translate meaning. In spite of
this particular use of the term, their understanding of form is closely
allied. Du Bouchet values the background of a work of art for its
materiality and contribution to the layers and depth of the page or
canvas. In the same way as Noël links sign and surface, du Bouchet
164 Provisionality and the Poem

welds form to content as traces in visual images embody gestures and

reveal layers of meaning.
Noël always emphasises that the trace operates as a process. It
cannot remain unchanging because it would have no part to play in the
constant interpenetration between artwork and viewer, whose involve-
ment maintains the image in its power to transmit. Moreover, the trace
becomes central to our relationship with the visual image and, by
implication, with the world we perceive. He writes in Journal du
regard that “notre relation avec la réalité passe par le trait, car nous ne
la connaissons qu’en instance d’être écrite par nos yeux” (p. 19). As is
clear throughout all Noël’s writings on perception, the human subject
does not simply see, but actively looks. Even in silence, in our
contemplation of the visual, we are constantly writing the world.142

Steven Winspur has stressed that for Noël, “what my looking unveils is the
formation of form”: “Eleven Ways of Looking in Bernard Noël”, Dalhousie French
Studies, 21 (1991), 133-139 (p. 134).
– sur une cassure il nous est donné d’entrevoir
parfois, au plus près, quelque chose que toute parole que l’on saisit, à
commencer par celles de la langue tenue pour acquise, s’emploie à oblitérer
en partie.143


Du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël are accomplished translators, and

Jaccottet and du Bouchet, alongside their published translations, have
written about the act of translating. They have in common an interest
in Hölderlin’s poetry. Hölderlin was also a translator of, for instance,
Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigonae from ancient Greek, and
Pindar from Latin. 144 In a brief article on translating Hölderlin, Jac-
cottet compares the methods used by various translators, including du
Bouchet.145 Jaccottet examines the difficult path between word-for-
word translation and the departure from the letter of the text that might
be necessary to convey the writer’s style and emphases to a readership
from a different culture. Must the source text be altered to fit the
expectations of readers in the target language? Alternatively, perhaps
a less transparent version that contains literalisms will convey the
poet’s language more faithfully.
The use of the vocabulary of translation theory is in some
ways inappropriate, because it is not employed by the writers in their
discussions of translation; their language in such texts is evocative and
allusive, and is in itself worthy of attention. Nevertheless, we shall see
that their approaches can be situated in relation to a strand that has
developed in writing about translation from the German Romantics
onwards. This is why their shared interest in Hölderlin is not
coincidental. Indeed, Jaccottet relates that it was a letter du Bouchet
wrote to him shortly before his death, in which he quoted Hölderlin,
that gave him the inspiration to speak at du Bouchet’s funeral. The

André du Bouchet, “Hölderlin aujourd’hui”, in L’Incohérence, n. pag.
Oedipus der Tyrann, in Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, 2, ed. by Jochen Schmidt
(Frankfurt-am-Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1994), pp. 787-848; Antigonae, in
Sämtliche Werke, 2, pp. 859-912. His translations of Pindar’s poetry are included in
Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, 1, ed. by Jochen Schmidt (Frankfurt-am-Main:
Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1992), pp. 693-764.
“Note sur les traductions de Hölderlin”, Les Lettres françaises, 1182 (1967), 9.
166 Provisionality and the Poem

text in which he recounts this, Truinas le 21 avril 2001, takes its title
from du Bouchet’s lecture on Hölderlin and Celan, “Tübingen, le 22
mai 1986”.146
They are closely linked by Hölderlin’s prose text “In lieb-
licher Bläue…”.147 Its publication in the Pléiade collection was
controversial because there was some disagreement over whether
Hölderlin actually wrote it; Geert Lernout explains that Jaccottet used
testimonies from du Bouchet, among others, to support his decision to
include it.148 Du Bouchet focuses on this text, which he translates as
“En bleu adorable”, in “Hölderlin aujourd’hui”, a text based on a
lecture on Hölderlin he gave in 1970.
In this lecture, in “Tübingen, le 22 mai 1986”, and in his text
“Notes sur la traduction”, du Bouchet suggests ways in which
translation might be considered a model for the writing of poetry. 149
At first sight, this would appear problematic, because poetry, even if it
can be considered to involve a translation of experience or perception,
which is in itself arguable, is not analogous to the movement from one
system of linguistic signs to another. But these authors do not offer, or
claim to be offering, mimetic representations of non-linguistic reality.
Rather, they create a new textual reality that transforms our perception
of the real and of language. In the same way, they do not presume, as
translators, to present the source text transparently; instead they
communicate what is particular to the text through new ways of
writing in French. Du Bouchet takes this further, suggesting that his
aim is to translate French itself.

Translating Hölderlin
A reading of their poetry could therefore lead us to believe
that these writers would be the ideal translators. After all, the
landscape is always at the foreground of their texts; the poetic subject

Jaccottet, Truinas le 21 avril 2001 (Geneva: La Dogana, 2004), p. 7. Du Bouchet,
“Tübingen, le 22 mai 1986”, in Hölderlin vu de France, ed. by Bernhard Böschenstein
and Jacques Le Ridier (Tübingen: Narr, 1987), pp. 95-112.
“In lieblicher Bläue…” is included as an appendix in Hölderlin’s complete works:
Sämtliche Werke, 1, pp. 479-481.
Geert Lernout, The Poet as Thinker: Hölderlin in France (Columbia: Camden
House, 1994), p. 26.
“Notes sur la traduction” was first published in Ici en deux (Paris: Mercure de
France, 1986), n. pag. This chapter will refer to the revised version in Poèmes et
proses (Paris: Mercure de France, 1995), pp. 133-142.
The Foreign Language 167

does not intrude with interpretations of the world presented, and

resists transforming perceptions into metaphorical imagery. Similarly,
it might seem that the aim of a translation is to grant the source text
existence in another linguistic system, and not to produce the trans-
lator’s interpretation of the work. The translator is self-effacing, a
mere facilitator who grants new readers access to a work they could
not otherwise have read.
Jaccottet himself is concerned that the text, rather than the
translator, should be at the beginning and the end of the translation
process, and this appears to correspond closely to the reticence of his
poetic voice. In a radio interview, he explained that he regretted his
much-quoted phrase, “l’effacement soit ma façon de resplendir”,
saying, in a further instance of self-effacement, that he found it
insufferably pretentious.150 The self in his poetry is present through
the close attention it pays to its surroundings; it does not impose its
thoughts or opinions, or describe its individual past.
The individual self is effaced equally effectively in du
Bouchet’s poetry. This is not so much to allow patient attention to
minute changes in the natural world, as to permit the perceiving
subject to leave behind all that links it to an individual existing over
time, and to take its place within the world through movement and
action. The outside world has a more solid presence in du Bouchet’s
work than in Jaccottet’s; Jaccottet emphasises this distinction in an
article of 1983:

Là où André du Bouchet affronte et confronte, jette, brise ou écarte, avec

brusquerie, avec fougue, avec hauteur, je vois bien que je laisse plutôt les
choses aller et se perdre, sans presque intervenir, et qu’à ma manière plus
hésitante, plus prudente, j’aboutis tout de même quelquefois à des trouées
semblables, à un même renvoi au dehors qui, ici ou là, heureusement,
l’emporte sur le livre. Seulement, je me défais en craintes, en incertitudes.151

The difference between the two writers, according to Jaccottet, is that

his own texts are always the product of hesitant evocations, while du
Bouchet deliberately disrupts perceptions and language. Both,

The line occurs in the poem “Que la fin nous illumine”, in Poésie, p. 76.
Jaccottet’s comment was made in his interview with Alain Veinstein.
Une transaction secrète, p. 268.
168 Provisionality and the Poem

however, are concerned that reality should be the motivating factor,

rather than pre-existing preoccupations of the poetic voice. 152
Jaccottet believes that he has managed to efface his
personality and poetic style in his role as translator, and in particular
in the case of Rilke’s poetry.153 He also attributes this ability to other
translators. When discussing Hölderlin, he writes that, in the philo-
sophical poetry in particular, there is a certain childlike purity of tone
that prevents it from becoming too abstract, and that translators such
as du Bouchet and Gustave Roud have “la vertu de laisser entendre
ces accents” (“Note sur les traductions de Hölderlin”). He contrasts
their approach to that of François Fédier, which is “une sorte de mot à
mot passionné, d’adéquation, qui ne craint pas de faire violence au
français”. This is appropriate for some of Hölderlin’s poetry such as
the fragmentary texts, he believes, but works less well for the hymns.
Among the qualities Jaccottet values in Hölderlin’s hymns are
instances of calm and harmony, and it is such a “moment d’équilibre
inouï” that he tries to convey in his translation of an extract from
“Friedensfeier” (“Fête de paix”), included in an article about the
poem. 154 The original lines read as follows:

Leichtatmende Lüfte
Verkünden euch schon,
Euch kündet das rauchende Tal
Und der Boden, der vom Wetter noch dröhnet.155

Jaccottet writes :

Les légers souffles de l’air

Vous proclament déjà,
Déjà vous annoncent les fumées dans la vallée
Et le sol qui résonne encore de l’orage, (“Un hymne”, p. 106).

The repetition of “déjà” across two lines produces a lilting motion,

while the preponderance of the “s”, and the light “f” and “l” sounds

In Truinas le 21 avril 2001 Jaccottet remembers that, on their first meeting, du
Bouchet told him that they had ‘les mêmes raisons’ (p. 26). It was above all in their
motivations that they were similar.
Interview with Jacques Laurens in Les Hommes-Livres.
Jaccottet, “La Poésie: Un hymne retrouvé de Hölderlin”, La Nouvelle revue
française, 7 (1959), 101-106 (p. 106).
Hölderlin, Sämtliche Werke, 1, p. 342.
The Foreign Language 169

grant the lines a sense of airiness. Following three lines each con-
taining an odd number of syllables, the alexandrine of the fourth line
creates a sense of completeness.
A comparison with du Bouchet’s translation of the same
passage is instructive:

Les souffles de l’air

Vous ont, déjà, proférés,
A vous, ici, la vallée qui fume,
Et le sol, de l’orage frémissant toujours;156

He emphasises the same consonants, but the overall impression

produced is very different. He deliberately disrupts the rhythm
through the positioning of “déjà” and “ici”, as they necessitate the
introduction of commas. He renders the fourth line stilted by sepa-
rating “et le sol” from the rest of the scene (it is imperative to use a
comma before a relative clause in German, but not in French); this
short phrase suggests an immobility that is very different from the
captured moment of potential movement into the valley in Jaccottet’s
The sense of harmony is further implied in Jaccottet’s version
by his consistent use of the present tense to set the scene and suggest
the presence of that which will follow. Du Bouchet, on the other hand,
appears unwilling either to situate the text in a tense or to allow any
verbs that he does employ to be active. For instance, where Jaccottet
uses two active verbs, “Vous proclament déjà | Déjà vous annoncent”,
in a phrase that also possesses balance and symmetry, du Bouchet
chooses only one, and employs it to suggest a state that has come into
being before the scene is described: “Vous ont, déjà, proférés, | A
vous, ici”. His positioning of the words in the following line reveal
that it is the solid, elemental valley that is important to du Bouchet,
rather than the ephemeral mist that may hover above it for a short
time, and which Jaccottet places first. Other active verbs are neutra-
lised by du Bouchet; in this extract, for instance, he chooses a present
participle, “frémissant”, rather than Jaccottet’s active “résonne”. This
is consistent with du Bouchet’s desire to avoid any description of

Hölderlin, Odes, Élégies, Hymnes, trans. by M. Deguy and others (Paris:
Gallimard, 1993), p. 148. Jaccottet explains (“Un Hymne”, p. 101) that du Bouchet’s
translation first appeared in Botteghe oscure, 20.
170 Provisionality and the Poem

time-bound action or narrative, and thereby to remove the times of

writing and reading from linear progression altogether. If a scene is
taken out of time, then the self that views and expresses it is no longer
obliged to situate itself within linear temporality.
Is the strikingly different text that results from du Bouchet’s
translation less faithful than Jaccottet’s version? This need not be the
case, because, in spite of Jaccottet’s view of du Bouchet’s translations,
the latter reads Hölderlin’s poetry as containing the ruptures that he
has introduced into his French version. The phrase “parole de la
rupture” (“Hölderlin aujourd’hui”) recurs throughout the text of his
1970 lecture. Rupture is, of course, also central to his own poetry.
Similarly, the quiet hesitancy Jaccottet makes a feature of his version
of “Fête de paix” is also typical of his own poetry. But these factors
are neither coincidental, nor an argument that each poet transforms
Hölderlin into his favoured image. Rather, du Bouchet and Jaccottet
are both drawn to him because they recognise those aspects of his
work and respond to them. Equally, neither translation is necessarily
more faithful than the other, although every reader of German and
French will be able to draw his or her own conclusions about their

Faithfulness through distance

Typical of du Bouchet’s writing is the fragmenting of phrases
through the disposition of words on the page, and the creation from
this space of a physical presence of air and depth, features that are
notable in this extract from “Tübingen, le 22 mai 1986”:

pour être proche, la parole – au plus proche – au plus loin – doit

prendre distance sur la distance praticable prescrite. distance pour par-
venir au plus proche. à défaut d’être attentif au double mouvement, on
ne relèvera que l’accentuation de la distance, l’étrangeté sans retour – jus-
qu’à la terreur. jusqu’à la séparation. (p. 106)

The gaps in this piece of prose serve all these functions. When dashes
are included, they rupture the enunciation, “pour être proche, la parole

In an essay on Hölderlin published in Une transaction secrète, Jaccottet points out
that images of rivers and lightning are central to much of his poetry (pp. 47 and 63).
The differing responses offered by Jaccottet and du Bouchet to Hölderlin’s work
could be seen to correspond to the prevalence in their own poetry of flowing rivers
and disruptive lightning respectively.
The Foreign Language 171

– au plus proche”, at the moment when it appears to evoke

closeness. This is reinforced by the subsequent “au plus loin –
doit prendre distance”. Gaps can isolate a statement, “distance pour
parvenir au plus proche”, in this case also illustrating the effect
described. This distance can be terrifying when it culminates in the
splitting of subject and enunciation: “jusqu’à la terreur. jusqu’à
la séparation”. Du Bouchet’s text performs as well as describes the
effect of splitting and isolation, and the necessary taking of distance.
If a writer pays no heed to the “double mouvement” that allows a text
to maintain a certain distance from its inspiration and then approach it
through its own medium, then the result will be total disjuncture,
“l’étrangeté sans retour”.
Böschenstein insists on the difference between Jaccottet and
du Bouchet on the issue of translation, writing that “c’est exactement à
l’opposé de Jaccottet qu’il nous faut situer André du Bouchet, qui
appartient à la même génération”.158 Jacques Legrand, however,
claims that Jaccottet himself employs a technique that involves
distance in his translations of Rilke’s poetry. According to Legrand,
he does not fear the unpoetic in French, if this accurately translates
Rilke’s language, and he will sacrifice smooth rhythm in order to take
on Rilke’s syntax.159 Legrand gives the example of Rilke’s line,
“sanft, wie ein Frühlingsregen fällt”, which could be translated with
“doucement – comme tombe une pluie de printemps”, in keeping with
French word order, and he shows how Jaccottet rejects a “natural”
translation in order to stay closer to the German: “tendrement, comme
la pluie au printemps tombe” (p. 23).160 The distance taken by
Jaccottet is from the accepted structures of his own language. This is
not making strange for its own sake. Rather, Jaccottet considers the
technique of allowing the tone to come through as one of continuity
with the original rather than estrangement.

The Translator’s Task

Jaccottet and du Bouchet, in common with other translators
and translation theorists, can be related to a line of thought that

Bernhard Böschenstein, “Hölderlin en France: Sa présence dans les traductions et
dans la poésie”, in Böschenstein and Le Ridier, pp. 9-23 (p. 16).
Jacques Legrand, “Philippe Jaccottet traducteur de Rilke”, in Dumas, pp. 15-28
(pp. 21-23).
He is referring to Jaccottet’s translation in his guide Rilke, p. 43.
172 Provisionality and the Poem

originates with the German Romantics. Hölderlin himself, although he

did not write theoretically on translation, is likely to be the clearest
influence on them. 161 David Constantine, a translator of both Hölderlin
and Jaccottet, writes that Hölderlin wanted to find out what German
could be made to do. 162 A model for Hölderlin’s hymns, among them
“Friedensfeier”, is the poet Pindar and the hymns read strangely
because they incorporate the foreignness of Pindar’s language. The
performative effect of a poem is vital to Heidegger, who mediated
Hölderlin’s poetry for French readers and writers. He cites the open-
ing of Hölderlin’s poem “Wie wenn am Feiertage…”, the line “Jetzt
aber tags!”, and insists that “jetzt”, “now”, enacts the coming of day
that it names. 163
Foreignness is important to the Romantic theorists. Schleier-
macher insists that we always seek the truth through the particularities
of our own language and culture, so a translation that attempts to read
as if it were written in the language of translation is absurd.164 He
insists that the translation should oblige the reader to go beyond
himself to encounter the writer in his foreign environment. 165
Lawrence Venuti explains that the link between translation and culture
was taken up at the beginning of the Twentieth Century by modernists
who looked to literary experiments as a way of revitalising culture,
and therefore considered the translated text to be autonomous. 166 He
points out that perhaps the most famous theorist of this period, Walter
Hölderlin did write in a 1794 letter to Neuffer that translation was a kind of
gymnastics for language, in which the translator and reader must accustom themselves
to the foreign. Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, 3, ed. by Jochen Schmidt (Frankfurt-am-
Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1992), p. 144.
David Constantine, Hölderlin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 239.
Hölderlin, “Wie wenn am Feiertage”, Sämtliche Werke, 1, pp. 239-241. Martin
Heidegger, “Wie wenn am Feiertage…”, in Erläuterung zu Hölderlins Dichtung:
Gesamtausgabe, 4 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1981), pp. 49-77 (pp. 75-76). Angela
Esterhammer cites Heidegger and argues that Hölderlin’s poems are performative
speech acts that await uptake from an addressee: The Romantic Performative:
Language and Action in British and German Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2000), pp. 187-239.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens”, in
Akademievorträge: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 1, 11 (Berlin and New York: Walter de
Gruyter, 2002), pp. 65-93.
For further discussion, see Antoine Berman, L’Épreuve de l’étranger: Culture et
traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique (Paris: Gallimard, 1984), pp. 234-5.
The Translation Studies Reader, ed. by Lawrence Venuti (London and New York:
Routledge, 2000), p. 11.
The Foreign Language 173

Benjamin, took further the insistence on foreignizing translation made

by Schleiermacher and demonstrated by Hölderlin. He argued that
literalisms that depart from standard usage release “pure language”
(Translation Studies Reader, p. 12). According to Benjamin, trans-
lation: “consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into
which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the
original”.167 He continues:

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure
language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language
imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work (p. 80).168

The task of the translator is to liberate pure language. This appears to

be distinct from the words used, and yet it must be expressed through
them. George Steiner explains that Benjamin continues the Gnostic
tradition in his concept of a pure language visible only in fragments. 169
All translations express the original text without using any of the same
words, which would imply that the text exists as a unique web of
interrelated ideas, images or impressions beyond its existence on the
page. The translator must try to reach all, or as much as possible, of
what the words imply and the structures by which they interrelate, and
find in the language of translation a means of recreating these.
In 1975, Steiner’s After Babel developed the German tradition
again, arguing that all reading is translation, and that translation can
be a model for all meaningful exchanges, because it understands the
boundaries between different world views and brings them together
(p. 293). A text cannot be transparently transferred.
The notion of violence and foreignness persists in translation
theory. Heidegger insists that in translation, both the translation and

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn
(London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 77.
Translation “besteht darin, diejenige Intention auf die Sprache, in die übersetzt
wird, zu finden, von der aus in Ihr das Echo des Originals erweckt wird.” Benjamin,
Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by T. Rexroth (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), p.
16. “Jene reine Sprache, die in fremde gebannt ist, in der eigenen zu erlösen, die im
Werk gefangene in der Umdichtung zu befreien, ist die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” (p.
George Steiner, After Babel, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.
174 Provisionality and the Poem

our own language appear to suffer violence. 170 Antoine Berman argues
that assimilating a foreign text to the target culture is, in effect,
systematically negating the foreign language; he calls this “ethno-
centric” translation. Paradoxically, this apparently less violent ap-
proach to language betrays the text, while a more foreignizing practice
would actually be more “faithful”. 171
For example, he discusses two translations of Sappho in a
chapter on Hölderlin. 172 He praises Michel Deguy’s near-literal trans-
lations, despite the disruption they cause to the French text. That is
because they disturb the original Greek. Berman explains:

Il y a eu double violence: sur la langue traduisante, mais aussi sur l’original.

[…] Sappho devient notre contemporaine, là où des traductions plus
classiques la renvoient au fond des millénaires, nous la rendent étrangère au
mauvais sens du mot. L’étrangeté de la traduction métissante /
différenciante abolit la mauvaise étrangeté du temps et de l’espace.
Ceci ne va pas sans violence. (p. 84)

The original text may seem strange in translation, but this strangeness
is far preferable to the distance in time from the contemporary reader
created by the translator whose unadventurous choices do nothing to
upset expectations of an ancient text. A translation that aims to fix a
text in an unchanging form in the language of translation will not take
it out of time, but instead will itself become dated very quickly.
Lawrence Venuti himself develops the line in translation
theory leading from the German Romantics to Berman, arguing that
fluency in the language of translation is likely to mask domestication,
so the language used must be made foreign. He does not advocate the
use of literalisms, but rather experiments with dialects and styles that
will defamiliarise the text without relying on word-for-word
translation. 173

Martin Heidegger, “Der Sprach der Anaximander”, in Holzwege: Gesamtausgabe,
5 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977), pp. 321-373 (p. 328).
Antoine Berman, L’Épreuve de l’étranger, p. 17.
Antoine Berman, La Traduction et la lettre; ou, L’Auberge du lointain (Paris:
Seuil, 1999), pp. 79-95.
Translation Studies Reader, p. 341. In The Translator’s Invisibility (London and
New York: Routledge, 1995), he argues that it is an illusion that translation can be
transparent. The translator should therefore foreignize the translation in order to force
a revision of the individualistic concept of authorship that marginalises the translator
(p. 311).
The Foreign Language 175

Foreign Language
Jaccottet and du Bouchet have in common a sense that the
language of France is foreign to them. Jaccottet’s Swiss background
means that he considers himself well placed to mediate between
French- and German-speaking cultures, and the poets whose influence
on his work he cites tend not to be French. As well as Hölderlin and
Rilke, he mentions, in a 1989 interview with Jean-Pierre Vidal,
Ungaretti and Bashô, whom he has translated, Swiss poets such as
Roud, and Mandelstam, who was also important to du Bouchet.174
Du Bouchet was born in France and lived there for most of his
life, but he studied and taught in the United States for some years. He
said that his relationship to French was at times that of an outsider
viewing a foreign language. Translator of Hölderlin, he begins “Höl-
derlin aujourd’hui” with the statement that he “conna[ît] mal la langue
de Hölderlin”. It would not seem to be the best start for a translator,
but it is precisely this unfamiliarity with language that he wishes to
emphasise and to incite in his readers.
In his lecture, he quotes from Hölderlin’s text “In lieblicher
Bläue”, and tries to produce the strange sounds that the listener to a
foreign language would notice by including phrases in German and
Greek. French listeners, or readers of French, are confronted with the
sound of the German words before necessarily knowing their
meaning, words which, at times, turn out to illustrate his point: “Ein
Zeichen… deutungslos…”;

Un signe…

de sens… (“Hölderlin aujourd’hui”)

His translations of German phrases are placed in the margins

of the written text; it is not clear at what point in the lecture, if at all,
they were read out. They are rendered unfamiliar to the reader by the
unusual typographical layout they occupy. This adds a visual di-
mension to the text that is reminiscent of du Bouchet’s own poetry,
while also acting as an extra layer of interpretation and as repetition.
The term “privé” suggests that the sign is both deprived and private,

Philippe Jaccottet, Pages retrouvées, ed. by Jean-Pierre Vidal (Lausanne: Editions
Payot, 1989), pp. 116-140.
176 Provisionality and the Poem

which removes it from the function of transmitting an accepted

The myth of Cassandra dominates the text; her words were
only meaningless sounds to those who heard her, “comme murmure
inintelligible, vocifération pure, mutité de nouveau, lettre fermée…”.
Moreover, when suggested by the German quotations, they are not
merely meaningless words, but exclamations of joy or distress,
murmurs or cries, which gain in intensity for being unintelligible:
“rauschen”, “Geschrei”, “Waldgeschrei”, “Freudengeschrei” (respec-
tively, “bruire”, “clameur”, “vacarme dans la forêt”, “cri de joie”).
These noises are intimately linked to the practice of writing because,
just as they heralded Cassandra’s death, they announce the disap-
pearance of the speaking subject, “la disparition de qui parle…”, as
well as the recent death of du Bouchet’s friend Celan, to whom the
text is dedicated. They leave only their physical presence as sound,
which is transformed into the cry of swallows, as in the poem “In
lieblicher Bläue”.
One phrase in particular reveals the complexity of his
interpretation-translation because he quotes it on three occasions and
translates it in a slightly different way each time. “Ein stilles Leben ist
es…” becomes, variously, “alors le silence est vie…”, “cette vie est
silence…” and “une vie en silence…”. This technique allows him to
show the fragile viability of any translation and the inevitable gap
between a phrase in one language and any attempt to translate it: “il
n’y a plus parole, semble-t-il, il y a une lacune…”. Most importantly,
it presents the practice of translation as an approach to all that is
behind the words themselves, but an approach that never claims to
attain its goal.
Du Bouchet does not believe that we are situated comfortably
in a native language. Consequently, we cannot leave one language and
move effortlessly into another. We are caught in the gap between

comme entre deux langues, comme entre deux mots, sur l’impossibilité de
passer de l’un à l’autre, exclus alors, n’en disposant d’aucune. (“Tübingen”,
p. 97)175

Jacques Ancet reminds us of Herder’s insistence that, by its very nature, a
language can only be a “mother” tongue if it is engendered by foreignness: “La
Séparation”, in La Traduction-poésie: À Antoine Berman, ed. by Martine Broda
The Foreign Language 177

Where du Bouchet includes quotations from Hölderlin in the

body of his texts, he depends for effect on the unfamiliarity of
German; these words act as eruptions of the outside into all that is

– et cette parole que

l’on entend, se révéler comme ici étrangère tout à fait, proférée bruyam-
ment… trop haut toujours… ou trop bas… vacarme… rumeur… et
– entourée d’un silence. Ein Zeichen… deutungslos… Parole de la rup-
ture, comme au travers de la langue héritée que chacun de nous possède,
le point immédiat de l’irruption, de la dépossession du dehors – de
cette dépossession sur laquelle le dehors au plus vite se manifeste.
(“Hölderlin aujourd’hui”)

The unfamiliarity of the language used dispossesses the reader or

listener of his or her hold on language and causes it to become newly
visible as something “dehors”. Not only can translation unsettle the
reader’s expectations of the foreign text, it can also point to the gap
that exists between languages, and most importantly, between accep-
ted and novel usage. It is not simply that the translated text reminds
the reader of its foreignness, but that his or her native language
appears foreign as well.
This concept has been described by Deleuze as a form of
“bilingualism in one’s own language”:

qui fera de vous un étranger dans votre propre langue. […] Toujours revenir
à la formule de Proust: “Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de
langue étrangère…”176

Remembered Language
In “Notes sur la traduction”, du Bouchet writes at the top of
the page: “le français. il me reste encore à traduire du
français” (p. 142). This is followed by a large blank space and then, at
the bottom of the page: “on ne s’aperçoit pas que cela n’a pas été
traduit”. Poetry is a translation into its own language; it creates
novelty by introducing a gap between accepted expressions and the
words used.

(Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 1999) pp. 173-186 (p. 176).

Gilles Deleuze, “Un manifeste de moins”, in Bene and Deleuze, pp. 85-131 (p.
178 Provisionality and the Poem

Du Bouchet begins “Tübingen, le 22 mai 1986” by explaining

the dedication of the 1970 lecture, “Hölderlin aujourd’hui” to Paul
Celan when it appeared in printed form in L’Incohérence after Celan’s
death. He then notes that this explanation means that it is already
necessary for him to translate his previous use of French:

là, aujourd’hui, italiques dans la

dédicace, signifie - parmi d’autres sens dont je ne ferai pas état aujourd’hui–
après la mort de Paul Celan.

déjà il me faut, on le voit, traduire du français. (p. 95)

This second lecture includes discussion of, and extracts from, Celan’s
work, and he ends by saying that through discussion of Celan, he has
also talked about Hölderlin: “ayant longuement parlé d’un autre, je
crois avoir parlé de Hölderlin aussi” (“Tübingen”, p. 112). The lecture
has taken the form of an interpretation of Celan’s work, just as
“Hölderlin aujourd’hui” interpreted the earlier German’s poetry, but
“Tübingen, le 22 mai 1986” is also a translation of the 1970 lecture. It
seems that, even within French, every text is a translation.
Although du Bouchet tends to reject intertextual reference, he
lets Hölderlin’s words mingle with his own to form disrupted prose
that is situated between commentary and poetic creativity. He employs
the same technique in Matière de l’interlocuteur, by including unref-
erenced quotations from Reverdy’s work in italics. At the end, he
writes: “je dois me perdre, comme revenir – sur les jambes d’un autre
– à moi” (p. 36).
Jaccottet states directly the importance certain reading has had
for his own work. For instance, he described his prose collection
Paysages avec figures absentes as a translation of Hölderlin’s thought
(Interview with Jacques Laurens). The last three sections of this text
are devoted to Hölderlin’s work. They are more than critical com-
mentaries or essays; they explore the meanings and suggestions of
certain expressions that seem resonant, and use these to structure the
present texts. The penultimate text, for example, discusses Hölderlin’s
lament for a world apparently deserted by the gods of ancient times
(Paysages, pp. 143-161). The following piece, in which Rilke joins
Hölderlin as inspiration, ends with Jaccottet’s own meditation on this
theme. He emphasises the tenuousness of his own beliefs, but adds:
The Foreign Language 179

je pressens que dans n’importe quelles conditions, à tout moment, en tout

domaine et en tout lieu, les actes éclairés par la lumière de ce “ciel”
supérieur ne pourrait être “mauvais”. (p. 180)

He does not only discuss what they wrote, but offers his own
reflections as they have developed from his reading.
The influence of the work of others need not be so explicit, of
course. Indeed, discussions of the extent to which translators impose
their own preferences as poets on their translations are undermined by
the suggestion that these very preferences have been formed by the
reading of other poets. Jacques Legrand points out that Jaccottet’s
tendency to substantivise adjectives, adverbs and participles might be
the result of his contact with German. His preference for alliterative
“f”s affects his choice of words when translating, but could equally
well be determined by his reading of other poetry (Legrand, p. 25).
Even Jaccottet’s wish to reduce imagery and reference as far as
possible might be the consequence of his admiration for this quality in
Hölderlin’s poetry. It has also been suggested that Jaccottet has
inscribed literary memory into his texts by taking on attitudes to death
and horror from Dante, Pascoli and Leopardi, mediated by his reading
of Ungaretti.177 The deliberate inclusion of others’ work within a text,
whether in the form of quotation or the kind of source inspiration that
Jaccottet finds in Hölderlin, can be seen as the presence of memory
within a work. Tiphaine Samoyault has remarked that intertextuality is
the memory of literary language: “Qu’est-elle [L’intertextualité]
d’autre, en effet, que la mémoire que la littérature a d’elle-même?”178
If words necessarily refer to one another, and a work is bound
to echo what the writer has read, does this mean that all texts are
translations of other texts? Perhaps du Bouchet shows a way of
overcoming this potentially constraining network of language when he
insists on what is forgotten. We have seen that Reverdy’s poetry
incites forgetting and that du Bouchet, whose work possesses similar
characteristics, particularly values this quality in his work (Lloyd, p.
67). In Matière de l’interlocuteur, du Bouchet does not simply refer to
Reverdy’s work or assimilate his texts into his own:

J.-C. Vegliante, “Philippe Jaccottet traducteur d’Ungaretti”, in Dumas, pp. 29-41
(p. 33).
Tiphaine Samoyault, “Introduction”, L’Intertextualité, mémoire de la littérature
(Paris: Nathan université, 2001).
180 Provisionality and the Poem

comme je poursuis – jusqu’à être, sans me confondre avec lui,

le plus près de celui qui parle, je me rapproche de la réalité de
mon point de départ. (Matière, p. 34)

Texts by the two writers exist in dialogue, and poetry’s action, its
creation of meaning rather than remembering of it, takes place in the
space between du Bouchet and his interlocutor. In this way, it
resembles a translation that emphasises the gap between languages
rather than trying to dissimulate it.

Poetry as Translation
Du Bouchet’s “Notes sur la traduction” opens with a pared-
down evocation of natural elements that is typical of his poetic writing
and seems far removed from translation:

village et eau. et eau,

du glacier. (p. 133)

But the basis for this text is language, not the external world. It is
inspired by a quotation from Mandelstam, which states that the
Armenian for “water” is “djour”, while the word for “village” is
“ghyour”. The two words are linked by a linguistic similarity they do
not possess in French, and du Bouchet immediately translates “water”
into “glacier”, explaining on the following page that:

j’ai – pour atteindre plus vite au dehors, traduit par

glacier. (p. 134)

The addition of a glacier effected by language, “du glacier”, has

created a specific concrete reality from “village et eau”, named
without articles, and the solidifying of water into ice brings it closer to
the physical reality of the village. This is a sophisticated process
involving the creation of a textual world rather than the expression of
experience. Du Bouchet chooses to describe the process as translation.
Critics such as Jacques Ancet insist that poetry does not exist
in order to transcribe experience. That is why it is not a radically
different process from translation, which cannot be thought to be the
imitation of an original text because no text can claim to exist
independently of others. Ancet writes:
The Foreign Language 181

Traduire ne sera donc pas plus imiter, copier servilement, qu’écrire ne sera
traduire, transcrire, du réel, du vécu. (p. 176)

Neither process assumes that meaning can be transmitted trans-

parently. Paradoxically, this is what grants poetic writing its
significance. While it does not simply convey meaning, it is meaning-
ful in itself. By revealing the gap between conventional descriptions
and reality, or between one linguistic system and another, it reveals
what is often overlooked, namely: that meaning is created in language
and not simply communicated in through it. Jacques Roubaud insists
on the importance of form in poetry:

Elle [la poésie] est ce qui essentiellement ne peut être réduit à un sens. Elle
est en nous le monde qui parle, le monde privé de sens, qui nous parle par et
dans la langue, directement dans la langue.179

Poetry says what it says in the way that it says it, through the
creation of structures and allusion, and its content cannot be separated
from its form. Roubaud employs the expression used by du Bouchet in
“Hölderlin aujourd’hui”: “privé de sens”. Both argue that the world
emerges in language. Poetic writing does not translate the world if this
is understood to mean converting reality into intelligible verbal form.
But it is a form of translation in the sense that du Bouchet understands
translation: it is in dialogue with the world (or the source language)
and makes its own language into a foreign object, words that make the
reader see the world afresh.
Words become what du Bouchet calls intransitive things, not
accompanied by explanations:

parole: chose inexplicable, intransitive: ayant sur le défaut d’explication
– elle n’est pas exigible – place au monde. (“Tübingen”, p. 109)

Words can only truly exist if they take on the status of things that are
noticed before the meaning they convey is understood. John E.
Jackson writes that in du Bouchet’s work: “le mot est ressaisi comme

Jacques Roubard, L’Invention du fils de Leoprepes: Poésie et mémoire (Saulxures:
Circé, 1993), p. 143.
182 Provisionality and the Poem

mot, et non plus comme fonction, de même la réalité est-elle

rencontrée pour elle-même”.180
Through the inclusion of Greek words in the text of
“Hölderlin aujourd’hui”, the foreignness of the alphabet stands out
from the page and the reader who does not know Greek is aware of the
appearance of the letters that make up the words before their meaning.
Du Bouchet quotes Hölderlin when he writes: “pauvre étranger en
Grèce!”, which is how Hölderlin described Laius in Oedipus the King
(Sämtliche Werke, 2, p. 481). It might also suggest, through du Bou-
chet’s interweaving of commentary, myth and presentation of models
of reading, to Cassandra’s failure to be understood, and the unfam-
iliarity with language that he wishes to incite in the reader. Written
language is objectified, as solid as the surfaces and objects in the
natural world, which the subject must confront in order to take its
place in its surroundings. Yet it is also an opening in that it provides
movement and direction towards and into the world:

la parole dans le même temps

ouverte et telle à nouveau qu’un mur aveugle, n’est pas celle qui perdure,
chaque fois elle se verra – je le vois, comme je bute sur elle – localisée
non pas dans la pérennité, mais là où de nouveau je suis, dans la durée du
[temps qui
avive et éteint, annule. (“Tübingen”, p. 110)

Du Bouchet’s aim in his lectures, then, and in the piece

entitled “Notes sur la traduction”, is not only to discuss translation,
but also to see in the reading of a foreign language a model for reading
and writing more generally. Is the same true of Philippe Jaccottet?
In Paysages avec figures absentes, Jaccottet reflects on the
inspiration offered by the natural world:

Je comprends seulement: “ici, ici, ici”, ou: “vie, vie, vie”; et moi qui si
souvent tremble et perds pied, moi que le moindre sang dévoyé écœure, je
me remets à les traduire, ici, à ma fenêtre de pierre, dans la lumière qui est
le lait des dieux, ici, sous la Couronne invisible, en cet instant. (p. 112)

Jackson, “L’Étranger dans la langue”, in Collot (ed.), Autour d’André du Bouchet,
pp. 13-23 (p. 16).
The Foreign Language 183

Jaccottet emphasises the present moment and particularity of place,

which appear to be life-giving, truthful and even blessed, an
experience he finds expressed in Hölderlin’s poetry. The here and now
incites the poet to write: he begins to “translate” it into words. We
have seen how Jaccottet’s poetry creates the present instant rather than
simply describing it, because that would excise its essential element:
its immediacy. Translation, then, is not a process that takes place in
subsequent tranquillity: “je me remets à les traduire, ici, à ma fenêtre
de pierre”. The poet’s position is specified and connected to the
elemental world through the vision offered by the window and its
material, stone. The verb “remets” implies repeated action, so despite
the singularity of the poet’s comprehension, his work takes place more
than once. Indeed, the title of the text that ends with this sentence is
“Même lieu, autre moment”.
Translation is a process for Jaccottet, one that requires atten-
tiveness and action. He frequently presents close attention to the
natural world in terms of listening to its movements and rhythms.
Similarly, his comment that du Bouchet’s and Roud’s translations of
Hölderlin allow the “accents” of the original texts to be heard (“Note
sur les traductions”) refers not to the particular accent of German
speakers, but to the subtle inflections and tone of the poems. In
another piece from Paysages avec figures absentes, “‘Si les fleurs
n’étaient que belles…’”, he appears to oscillate between passive and
active modes, between allowing the real to emerge into his writing and
going in search of it:

Ces lieux, ces moments, quelquefois j’ai tenté de les laisser rayonner dans
leur puissance immédiate, plus souvent j’ai cru devoir m’enfoncer en eux
pour les comprendre; et il me semblait descendre en même temps en moi.
(p. 125)

The self-exploration described here is rare in his work, but occurs

more frequently in this volume than in most. Paradoxically, given its
title, the poet’s “je” is central to the poetic prose included here. For
Jaccottet, the translation of the natural world involves receptivity, a
search for depth and a careful consideration of his own response to
that world, alongside the creation of images that produce a sense of
the present instant.
184 Provisionality and the Poem

Translation as movement
The picture Jaccottet suggests of poetry as translation is
similar to du Bouchet’s in one important respect: both writers seek a
reciprocal relationship with the text to be translated or the world
evoked. The word “translation” comes from “transferre”, and means
“to bear across”. But the understanding of translation that can be
gleaned from the work of these writers is not the carrying across
unchanged of essential meaning, although that might be suggested by
Benjamin’s “pure language”. Rather, the movement itself is important,
and if anything is brought to the language of writing as a result, it is
novelty, which might even take the form of absence, as is the case in
du Bouchet’s ruptured texts.
As a creative force and as novelty, language opens the way to
new perceptions, but ones that cannot be fully grasped or assimilated.
The writing of poetry is not, therefore, the communication of a vision
of the world, any more than a translation is the transformation into a
fixed form of that which was fixed in another language. Both allow
the writer and reader to interact with otherness, be it the real or a
foreign language.
This must be a process, and as a result language is not fully
grasped. Du Bouchet evokes duration in the text cited above: “la durée
du temps qui avive et éteint, annule” (“Tübingen”, p. 110). It is not the
linear passing of historical time, but rather the freshness of repeated
newness, the leaving behind of fixed meanings that allows writer and
reader to move towards the world through words. Through awareness
of the foreignness of words, a reaction produced by their strangeness
as sounds, meanings are deferred and a movement is set up that
effaces signs as they are passed through. In “Notes sur la traduction”,
du Bouchet writes:

avant d’avoir saisi, j’ai entendu. je ne saisis pas.

le français. la fraîcheur.
(p. 141)

The French language is associated with this novelty because it remains

foreign (the text which immediately follows in the collection is
entitled “Fraîcheur” (p. 142)). A series of instances of forgetting is
what allows the self to move towards the world, as is the case in all his
The Foreign Language 185

poetic writing. Du Bouchet writes that what shines through a word is

not what it remembers, but “la perte de la mémoire” (L’Ajour, p. 146).
Du Bouchet maintains that poetry can signify without
implying certain meanings:

je tiens aussi à l’inanité des mots pareille à celle de la
pierre qui a roulé par le travers de l’asphalte.
(“Notes sur la traduction”, p. 139)181

It is through their existence as things, among the mute objects of the

elemental world, that words become instances of the real rather than
descriptions of it.
Du Bouchet links meaning and movement when he evokes the
dual definition of the word “sens”: “Je vais, sans pour autant l’avoir
élucidé, dans un sens” (“Tübingen”, p. 97). He wishes to move in a
direction and to create significance, digging down to undermine any
semblance of fixity or explanation, so that words and the poetic
subject can interact with the other objects in the world around. The
direction taken in du Bouchet’s work is one of dialogue with the real.
Poetic writing is a translation of the real that leads ultimately
towards its emergence. That is why gaps are so important in du
Bouchet’s work. Without them, language would not permit the foreign
to enter. He maintains rupture throughout his texts to grant them
perpetual openness:

le jour de la lacune en
formation perpétuelle qui, jusqu’à planitude – cette planitude est
le gouffre encore – affleure au travers du sens dévolu, pour traduire un
lendemain déjà en cours, présent déjà en tant que silence…
(“Hölderlin aujourd’hui”)

Time is present in the sense of potentiality. A textual world is

produced that is neither the mimetic representation of an original nor a
series of linguistic images divorced from their inspiration, and the role

He is perhaps suggesting the opposite of Mallarmé’s famous line: “Aboli bibelot
d’inanité sonore”, from the “Sonnet en x”, Œuvres complètes, I, pp. 37-38: the initial
meaninglessness of words leads to the real existence of language and of the world
around, rather than to abolition.
186 Provisionality and the Poem

of time is precisely to maintain the possibilities of creative language in

the face of these two opposing extremes.
Jaccottet also proposes images of opening up to difference.
Many of his texts recount glimpses of a sense of time and space that
cannot be clearly defined, or even named. He writes, for instance:

Si c’était quelque chose entre les choses, comme

l’espace entre tilleul et laurier dans le jardin. (À la lumière, p. 80)

This is an image of space, but the gap evoked cannot be exactly

delineated. Rather, its purpose is to incite movement towards the
depth momentarily revealed in a scene.
In Paysages avec figures absentes, he describes things as
offering “promesse”. “Ces roseaux ne devraient-ils pas être nommés
“ailleurs” ou “demain”?” (p. 67). We are offered a sense of deferral,
and Jaccottet’s poetry resists closure, but the never-ending movement
is not a frustrating circularity within language; it is an indeterminate
path towards all that is other. Jaccottet believes that the poet can, and
indeed must, approach things indirectly: “on songe à nouveau au
détour, à la saisie, en passant, d’un élément, à propos d’autre chose
peut-être” (Paysages, p. 66). Indirect, hesitant movement is essential
to maintain the fragility of the translation, which is what relates it
persistently to the real and does not fix it in the past.
Although he does not attempt to produce the rupturing
estrangement that du Bouchet incorporates into his texts, Jaccottet is
aware of the foreignness of the world outside, as if our inability to pin
down that which we see, and then write, were in itself an invitation to
approach it more closely:

Il y a du vrai dans cette appréhension que cela se passe à distance, ailleurs,

comme si le texte murmuré l’était bien dans une langue étrangère, comme si
l’on nous faisait signe au-delà d’une frontière, là-bas… Là-bas cette
frontière de paille et à son pied: est-ce de la neige, un plumage, de l’écume?
Comme la neige à la cime de la montagne imperceptible, à la crête de l’eau,
ce bouillonnement bref… Ne se pourrait-il pas qu’en s’éloignant ainsi,
quelquefois, l’on se rapproche? (Paysages, p. 67)

The mountain (an image that is vital to both Jaccottet and du Bouchet)
suggests unattainability. It seems that distance is indeed required in
order to achieve proximity. It is the forgetting of appearances and
direct links that allows the poet to approach all that is present behind
The Foreign Language 187

and between these: the memory of the world or the translated text.
Jaccottet finds in Hölderlin’s poetry the effect he aims to produce in
his own: “Peu à peu, prudemment, le monde extérieur s’infiltrera”
(Une transaction, p. 47).
On aurait cru néanmoins des paroles en-
tendues en passant, surprises en passant; et
qui, en chercherait-on l’origine, se tairaient
aussitôt. (Jaccottet, Et, néanmoins, p. 78)


Chapter 3 discussed the relationship between word and image, con-

sidering poetic responses to works of visual art, the visual elements of
texts, and analogous approaches to the real made by writers and
artists. Chapter 4 examined the transitions between languages made by
translators who also saw poetry as a particular kind of translation: a
making new, or foreign, of poetic language that allows the real to
emerge. In both cases, reflective texts operate in conjunction with
poetic writing. This chapter will examine, alongside poetry by Jac-
cottet and Noël, their texts that reflect on writing itself, on its origins,
its purpose, and what it can and cannot achieve.
It might seem, therefore, that words are always being added:
to visual images, to texts in foreign languages, to mute reality. The
resulting impression could be one of noise, of excessive verbalising.
Since these writers appreciate the visual arts and the elemental world,
one might think they would wish to keep their texts to a minimum,
and certainly not add to them with commentary. Of course, the desire
to pare language down to simpler forms does emerge in the work of
du Bouchet and Jaccottet, but Jaccottet’s preference for writing
unencumbered by imagery is not always carried out in his poetry.
Meanwhile, du Bouchet’s reduced vocabulary is inseparable from
repetition, so his texts are numerous approaches to variations on the
same images. In the case of Noël, the stated wish for simple presence
in the world is engaged in a constant struggle with heightened aware-
ness of the subject’s separation from the non-linguistic real.
These contradictions are not resolved in their poetry or prose,
and yet we are not left with a sense of chatter, or of language covering
up what is silent. Instead, they acknowledge the presence of mute
reality and its inaccessibility, and are able in their writing to offer us
instances in which it makes itself known and is no longer hidden. That
this can be done via language is testament to their sensitive renewing
of words, in very different ways, so that language can no longer be
seen only as a transparent means of communication.
190 Provisionality and the Poem

Jaccottet and Noël are compared in this chapter because they

have discussed the problem of the invisible real and how it might be
accessed in language. This is also important in du Bouchet’s work, but
he does not write reflective texts in parallel with poetic writing.
Although the work of Noël and Jaccottet is radically different, they
share one concern that is the theme of this chapter: they examine, in
theory and in practice, how language incorporates silence, and how it
engages with its limits in order to give a voice to what is silent.

The Inaccessible Real

Both Jaccottet and Noël discuss what language is capable of
doing and find it wanting. Their reflections are bound up with a
consideration of death and decline, but they draw different inferences.
Noël sees language as producing death, whereas Jaccottet is looking
for ways of conveying death and suffering in words.
In Éléments d’un songe, Jaccottet answers those critics who
would “[lui] reprocher [sa] vie à la campagne, à l’abri des ‘beautés
naturelles’”. He is indignant: “comme si l’histoire de [son] voisin ne
[le] suffisait pas pour savoir presque tout de la douleur!” (p. 146).
Suffering and beauty depend on one another according to Jaccottet;
they are intertwined veins that run throughout his verse, poetic prose
and meditative texts. But his view of the relationship between sadness,
death, beauty and writing has changed over the course of his writing
Death and suffering provide an important impetus for writing
in his earlier texts. The 1957 volume La Promenade sous les arbres,
for example, reveals confidence that the presence of death renders the
beauty of light and love meaningful and justifies writing poetry that
celebrates these:

Je crus comprendre un instant qu’il nous fallait bénir cette mort sans
laquelle la lumière et l’amour, de même que nos paroles, ne pourraient plus
avoir aucun sens, ni d’ailleurs aucune possibilité d’existence. (p. 121)

But by 1969, and the collection of poetry Leçons, the subject

bitterly rejects the arrogant presumption of wisdom displayed by his
younger self:

moi l’effrayé, l’ignorant, vivant à peine,
Silence 191

me couvrant d’images les yeux,

j’ai prétendu guider mourants et morts. (À la lumière, p. 11)

L’Ignorant was the title of his second collection, first published in

1958. There, the subject acknowledged his ignorance, but the self who
looks back now sees only naïveté and the false belief that poetic
imagery could express and instruct. He regrets the reliance on imagery
that he claims obscured his perception of what language could do.
Now he is only too aware of the failings of words. Leçons and
Chants d’en bas, of 1974, are collections of mourning, and do not see
in suffering a stimulus for creativity. For example, a text from Chants
d’en bas rejects the notion that anguish brings illumination, insisting
instead that “tourment” and “pitié” are overwhelming:

On voudrait croire que nous sommes tourmentés

pour mieux montrer le ciel. Mais le tourment
l’emporte sur ces envolées, et la pitié
noie tout, brillant d’autant de larmes
que la nuit. (À la lumière, p. 65)

Suffering does not ennoble, and is not attenuated by beauty.

Leçons traces the pain of a subject who has to watch the slow
death of a person he loves. At first, he seems to focus on the beauty of
the natural world in order to minimise the impact of all that is painful
and ugly. But then the poems take on a bitter tone as the subject
discovers that it is impossible adequately to convey suffering in

On peut nommer cela horreur, ordure,

prononcer même les mots de l’ordure
déchiffrés dans le linge des bas-fonds :
à quelque singerie que se livre le poète,
cela n’entrera pas dans sa page d’écriture. (À la lumière, p. 22)

The word “horror” is never enough, even if it comes from the depths
of what the poet has seen, to render the text any more than a page on
which words are printed. Poetry cannot transform the horrific into
beautiful language; it is unable even to do justice to the horrific by
conveying it.
192 Provisionality and the Poem

The end of the previous poem in the collection exemplifies

Jaccottet’s response to this realisation. Rather than trying to force the
horror into the text, he prefers to emphasise its absence:

Le front contre le mur de la montagne

dans le jour froid,
nous sommes pleins d’horreur et de pitié.

Dans le jour hérissé d’oiseaux. (p. 21)

He evokes the sense of confronting reality without being able to

engage with it, through the building up of the terms “front”, “contre”,
“mur” and the intractable “montagne”. The last line of the text shows
that the world continues around the grieving people, apparently
indifferent to what is happening to them; this sums up the sense of
incomprehension at their feelings better than any discursive text could
aim to do. The real remains inaccessible to language.
This is also the case in Noël’s writing, but it takes different
forms. What is inaccessible is the subject’s own self and the origins of
his or her language. But Noël’s texts also reveal an overwhelming
sense of the self as a mortal being whose decline language is incapable
of arresting.
The “je” of his poetry seems to oscillate between, on the one
hand, the desire to take on an impersonal voice, which is accompanied
by an awareness of the difficulty of absenting the self from its
expression, and, on the other, the fear of lost identity. Writing is
motivated both by the wish to move beyond the limits of the indi-
vidual in time and by the feeling that only in language can the self be
In La Chute des temps, impersonality is seen as a means of
escaping mortality:

mais qui
saurait voir
comme voit la nature
d’un œil indifférent
chacun a cette chair
qui ne repousse pas. (p. 51)

Nature is impervious to the trials of human life; it does not

judge what it sees and it continues through the cycles of birth and
Silence 193

death that determine living creatures. Rather than positing this kind of
non-subjective perception as a possible writing position, however, the
poetic subject here is aware that it would be an unattainable goal:
“mais qui | saurait voir”. La Chute des temps invites comparison with
the eighth elegy in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which emphasises the
anguish experienced by the self-conscious human aware of his or her
mortality, in contrast to the animal for which there is no death:

[…] Nur unsre Augen sind

wie umgekehrt und ganz um sie gestellt
als Fallen, rings um ihren freien Ausgang.
Was draußen ist, wir wissens aus des Tiers
Antlitz allein […].182

For Noël, the relationship of the subject to the world around

cannot be one of total indifference, but, ideally, neither should it be
affected by the past or the particularities of the perceiving “je”.
Forgetting is necessary, often to the extent that the present self
becomes divorced from its past, and addresses itself in the second
person. This splitting of the self in two might free it from its
individual mortality, but also prevents the self ever from coinciding
with itself. It is a vital element of La Chute des temps, and is also at
work in the volume of short prose pieces, Souvenirs du pâle; here
Noël creates a “je” that addresses itself as “tu” primarily to show the
subject’s experience of his body:

En vérité, tu gelais de douceur parce que tu venais de déserter ton corps.

Ce blanc regard qui contemplait le vide de ta propre charpente, c’était toi, et
le vide, c’était encore toi, mais sans mémoire. Je me suis absenté du
devenir, te disais-tu, et la mort désormais ne pourra rien ronger de moi-
même. Le vide, en effet, n’a plus cessé d’être présent – rien que présent. (p.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke, I, ed. by the Rilke-Archiv and Ruth Sieber-
Rilke (Wiesbaden: Insel-Verlag, 1955), p. 714.
[…] Only our eyes
are turned inward, like traps
set about on the clear path to freedom.
What really exists out there we can tell only
from an animal’s face […]. Rilke, The Duino Elegies, trans. by Leslie Norris and Alan
Keele (Columbia: Camden House, 1993), p. 45.
I am grateful to David Midgley for suggesting this connection.
194 Provisionality and the Poem

This is a welcome liberation from fixed identity. The body is emptied

of all that would condemn it to grow old and die, and so has been
transformed from a physical reminder of the inevitable void to come,
into the freedom from anxiety and existence in an eternal present. The
loss of identity can liberate the subject from time and therefore from
the confines of always being the same person, one who is condemned
to decline:

j’aime disais-tu j’aime tellement

être le contraire de ce que je fus. (Chute, p. 23)

But timelessness can also cause anxiety. Much of the

powerful effect of Noël’s work stems from his acknowledgement that
we have no stable desire either to escape time or be part of it, let alone
any secure understanding of who we are at all times. La Chute des
temps exemplifies this anxiety. It is divided into “chants” and “contre-
chants” in a contrapuntal pattern that mimics the subject’s relationship
to itself as “tu”. It questions its own identity and what language can do
about the human fear of the void that death seems to be. This is
present in the form of theoretical questions and statements such as: “je
vis de ma mort | ce futur soulève mon présent” (p. 27). Anxiety is also
enacted by the text, as it throws out images of nothingness and
proceeds with the rapid pace of unanswered questions and the attempt
to grasp fears that cannot be allayed. Each section opens with the
word “qui”, which sets off a process of disturbed wondering about
identity, language and meaning in the three “chants”. “Chant un”

et de ce mot lancé
est-ce vers toi ou bien vers qui
la vieille plainte déchire. (p. 21)

The positing of “qui” as an alternative to “toi” implies a completely

disrupted conception of identity. Former suffering continues to affect
the present negatively because nothing can be resolved. The following
lines open “Chant deux”:

et la voix perdue la voix faussée. (p. 41)
Silence 195

Disenchantment with the power of the voice is evident, but it still has
the impetus to draw speech out of the body. Despite this disen-
chantment, Noël calls these sections of the text “chants”. They are
undercut by the two “contre-chants”, but it seems that language is
determined to emerge even in the face of the writer’s awareness of its
impotence. “Chant trois” begins:

jette bas la cause avec l’explication
on ne me fera plus le coup de l’origine. (p. 57)

Anxiety at the difficulty of finding meaning in the world or

understanding its cause is still just preferable to the possibility that
there may be no meaning to discover, and yet the subject does not
allow this fear to lead him to accept religious concepts of origin.
The opening lines of the “contre-chants” illustrate the ways in
which these sections contain within their very structure the uncertainty
that is expressed in the “chants”. “Contre-chant un”:

langue pâlotte
étroit de la glotte
vers l’extrémité
cherche l’achevé
mais la tête trotte. (p. 35)

He suggests that language strains at its limits in the attempt to

delineate the world and time, and the short rhythmic bursts of words
that make up these texts, tightly packed into rhyming couplets, seem
to reduce meaning to the exclamation of sounds. “Contre-chant deux”:

annonce la nuit
avec la peur du noir. (p. 51)

The lines exemplify the fear expressed throughout the text. While
night and darkness are an obvious pairing and are linked alliteratively
here, the rhyming of “qui” with “nuit” implies that the identity of the
night remains entirely unknown, and reinforces the void that has
entered into the term “qui” through its numerous repetitions. The self-
consciousness of the unknown self is emphasised, because it is s/he
196 Provisionality and the Poem

who announces the night ahead and acknowledges his or her own fear
of the dark. Noël’s restless repetition of “qui” again calls to mind
Rilke’s use of “wer” (“who”) in the Duino Elegies. For example, the
first elegy begins: “Wer, wenn ich schriee” (Sämtliche Werke, p. 685);
“Who, if I screamed” (The Duino Elegies, p. 3).
The night in Noël’s text appears to correspond to Blanchot’s
concept of the “other night”. The first night is that of sleep; Blanchot
insists that we are wrong to understand death as unconsciousness and
to fear it for that reason. Rather, death is the “autre nuit”, an
insomniac awareness of death as an impossibility; it is horrific, rather
than simply nothing:

Mais quand tout a disparu dans la nuit, «tout a disparu» apparaît. C’est
l’autre nuit. […] cette autre nuit est la mort qu’on ne trouve pas, est l’oubli
qui s’oublie, qui est, au sein, de l’oubli sans repos.183

Language is not likely to offer a way out of this knowledge. It seems

to be capable only of recounting and reproducing the fear and self-
awareness that it cannot describe.
Language is both imaginary and the means we must use to
communicate and express the real. Moreover, it takes real things and
makes them imaginary by giving them a name that is not the same as
what they are. In his essay “Changer la mort”, Noël explicitly
compares language to death. The section “La Mort, le mot et le mot-
mort” begins:

Qu’est-ce qu’un mort? Un personnage imaginaire et cependant emprunté à

la réalité; quelqu’un qui a quitté l’existence pour devenir un être; en somme
l’analogue de ce qui constitue un mot.184

A word replaces what it names. Blanchot also describes language as

murder, substituting the name for the thing: “Le mot me donne ce
qu’il signifie, mais d’abord il le supprime”.185 But literary language,
according to Blanchot, does not simply replace things with concepts.

Maurice Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), pp. 215-216.
Treize cases du je: journal (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), p. 9.
Maurice Blanchot, “La littérature et le droit à la mort”, in La Part du feu (Paris:
Gallimard, 1949), pp. 291-331 (p. 312). He is influenced by Mallarmé’s under-
standing that the word “flower” makes any individual flower inaccessible to the
imagination (Œuvres complètes, II, p. 213).
Silence 197

Rather, the chain of references that accompanies literary language

means that any single interpretation will always be exceeded, thereby
also negating the concept that has replaced the thing. The reader is
bound to become aware of the absence at the heart of literature.
Noël is also concerned to remind us that the process of obli-
teration remains in writing, but it is not simply things that are
removed. The same applies to writers who are effaced as they write.
By using “vous” instead of “on”, Noël addresses the reader and
includes him or her in the action of obliteration, since a word negates
what it names. Writing:

vous efface, mais pour vous conserver dans le mouvement même de cet
effacement qui, lui, perpétuellement recommence. (p. 9)

Those who write are nevertheless kept alive in this process.

By effacing their subjectivity, writing retains them only in the trace of
what they have written. 186 The writing self does not pre-exist the text
and gain immortality through it, but rather comes into being in the
replacement of personal subjectivity with the textual “je”. Writing,
therefore, both mirrors death in its processes and is essential to life. It
might be concluded that the importance of writing that brings to life
the writing subject is analogous to the importance of language in
general to human existence. Subjectivity is created and enacted
through language.
The power of writing to efface as it names is harnessed for its
ability to erase the self, but the loss of language is feared more than
that of any other faculty. Noël’s prose text Le Syndrome de Gramsci
expresses the horror experienced by the “je” as he fails to remember
the name of a writer who is important to him, and fears that this is the
first instance of forgetting in a long process that will lead to him
losing his language. It takes the form of the subject’s attempts to
remember by repeatedly going over the situation in which he wanted
to recall the name, in the hope that this will trigger his memory. In so
doing, the text repeatedly enacts the instant of forgetting, making the
absence at the heart of language evident to the narrator, and carrying

In a discussion of why poetry matters, Giorgio Agamben writes that poetry and life
diverge where the biography and psychology of an individual are concerned, but are
united at the point of “reciprocal desubjectivization” through the medium of language
(Agamben, p. 93).
198 Provisionality and the Poem

out the gradual loss of identity that will be the result of forgotten

En vérité, je me sentais grêlé de partout à l’intérieur, frappé d’une lèpre

invisible, qui avait dû nécroser des zones entières de la partie la plus
précieuse de mon individu. (Syndrome, p. 14)

However, repetition also plays an important role in language’s efface-

ment of that which it names, and the retention of this absent thing in
the process of naming:

Le langage, en effet, remplace ce qui n’est pas là; également, il nous donne
l’illusion de pouvoir retenir ce qui ne va plus être là. Il possède la clé de la
répétition – répétition qui aurait le pouvoir d’annuler le passage du temps.
(p. 19)

While the name of Gramsci is not remembered by the narrator of Le

Syndrome de Gramsci, and he has to wait until he gets home and can
look on his bookshelves, the very fact of writing the book has meant
that this absent name is conserved: it is present each time the “je” fails
to call it to mind and so is not allowed to pass into the past to be
completely forgotten.
Noël understands repetition as possessing the power to cancel
out the passing of time; it would seem to be the key to countering
human mortality that is sought by his texts. His relationship to lan-
guage will therefore always be ambiguous; it both destroys what it
names and retains its trace, and it can resist the “night” of anxiety
through repetition while remaining the distinguishing characteristic of
the self-conscious and mortal human being.
Noël’s investigation of the workings of language always takes
him to the body. Not only is the body inseparable from the mind, as
we saw in his presentation of visual artists, but Noël considers it to be
the source of language. This is important because it elides the distinc-
tion between the linguistic and the non-linguistic. Language comes
from something other than itself, but this does not mean that language
has access to its source, however much we might wish to find it.
Blanchot explains that the event that separated language from non-
language cannot, by definition, be spoken. In addition, he argues that
the writer, whom he compares to Orpheus, is always looking back for
the source of the artwork. He seeks “the trembling, pre-linguistic
Silence 199

darkness of things”,187 and wants to recover their silent materiality

(Blanchot, L’Espace littéraire, p. 227). Like Eurydice, of course, this
is inaccessible. Blanchot equates the source of language with “the
other night” of impossible death.
Noël’s reflective texts on writing posit a source of this kind,
and, as for Blanchot, it is in the act of writing that he sees traces of the
origin of language that cannot be grasped:

Parce que derrière le travail, derrière les formes qui le portent ou l’orientent,
derrière le geste, il y a sans aucun doute un état, un besoin: quelque chose
d’aussi peu nommé que l’élan de l’espèce derrière l’amour. Tout comme
l’espèce, dans notre corps, est habillée de langage, l’acte d’écrire est habillé
d’un projet…188

He calls the impetus to write “un besoin”, and compares it to the

“élan” of sexual desire. 189 It remains undefined because gaining access
to it would be the equivalent of seeing Eurydice: it would slip forever
out of reach. Instead, writing might be made possible by the constant
desire to reach its origins, and the inevitable failure of this quest. Noël
writes in L’Espace du poème:

Par la combinaison d’une impuissance à dire et d’une volonté exaspérée de

dire quelque chose s’est produit: un soulèvement ou l’équivalent d’une
situation érotique. (p. 105)

The terms “impuissance” and “volonté exaspérée” suggest unsatisfied

desire; similarly, it is by being constantly unable to pin itself down
that literature becomes possible: “quelque chose s’est produit”.
Nowhere does Jaccottet compare writing to sexual desire; the
major difference between his work and that of Noël is perhaps Noël’s
concentration on the body and the almost total absence of references
to the body in Jaccottet’s texts. What they share is a sense of
frustration at the apparent inability of language to allow access to
what is beyond words, and yet we shall see that they both succeed in
offering glimpses of reality by bringing language close to its limits, to

Simon Critchley, Very Little… Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy, Literature
(London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 54.
Bernard Noël, Qu’est-ce qu’écrire? (Paris: Paupières de terre, 1989), pp. 7-8.
In chapter 2 we saw how he described the acts of reading and writing in erotic
200 Provisionality and the Poem

silence. In his discussion of Blanchot’s work, Leslie Hill emphasises

the figure of the limit, and writes that, for Blanchot, “literature is what
arises when the relation between limitlessness and the limit is pursued
to the point of its limitlessness.” 190 At the limit, language is silent and
that is where it makes contact with reality.

The Limits of Language

Jaccottet insists that the poet must always keep on writing. In
À la lumière d’hiver, he writes: “Et, néanmoins, je dis encore” (p. 77);
the phrase is taken up again in the title of the 2001 collection Et,
néanmoins. Already in Éléments d’un songe, he expresses the aim of
being a man who “speaks against the void”:

Peut-être faut-il moins encore. L’herbe où se sont perdus les dieux. Les très
fines pousses d’acacia sur le bleu, presque blanc, du ciel plus mince qu’une
feuille. L’hiver. Être un homme qui brûle les feuilles mortes, qui arrache la
mauvaise herbe, et qui parle contre le vide. (p. 174)

This rich passage enacts the attempts Jaccottet makes in poetry to

focus on detail, “les très fines pousses”, to render the image ever more
precise, “le bleu, presque blanc”, and to situate a scene in time and
space while retaining its quality as timeless: “l’hiver.” He also links
the ordinary image of a man in his garden to a long tradition of French
poetry for which “les feuilles mortes” suggest melancholy, while also
emphasising that the poet must try to resist decline by writing, a claim
we have seen he was later to question. 191
Attention to detail and simplicity are vital to Jaccottet in his
evocations of the natural world. This passage also contains an in-
stance of another side to Jaccottet’s concentration on natural places,
when he suggests that the gods are lost in the grass. He finds in certain
places, rarely pinpointed geographically, but always clearly specific
for the poetic subject, the sense of a “centre”. In Paysages avec
figures absentes, he asks:

Plus particulièrement: qu’est-ce qu’un lieu?

Leslie Hill, Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary (London and New York: Routledge,
1997), p. 94.
The best known poem evoking “les feuilles mortes” is probably Verlaine’s
“Chanson d’automne”: Œuvres poétiques complètes, ed. by Y. G. Le Dantec (Paris:
Gallimard, 1962), pp. 72-73.
Silence 201

Qu’est-ce qui fait qu’en un lieu comme celui dont j’ai parlé au début de
ce livre, on ait dressé un temple, transformé en chapelle plus tard: sinon la
présence d’une source et le sentiment obscur d’y avoir trouvé un “centre”?
(p. 128)192

Jaccottet is the poet most referred to by Christine Dupouy in her

article on place in post-war poetry. She states that he exemplifies the
recent tendency to focus on natural spaces (in contrast to the surrealist
insistence on the fabricated image and on urban space), which become
true places when they take on the characteristics of a “centre”. 193
Unlike cities, these are not mapped, but are significant because of the
depth that seems to be contained within the present. A place might
inspire the poet not through its beauty or association with certain
historical events, but because it seems to offer meaning in the layers
of time buried there; the sense of a centre that it projects structures its
surface. The past emerges into the present space and determines it.
Time is vital, therefore, to these two central characteristics of
the natural world for Jaccottet: the text often evokes the movement he
perceives in light, air, water and trees, but it also aims at conveying
the sense of depth and buried memory experienced in particular
Dupouy explains that in Jaccottet’s poetry, descriptions
become unnecessary because the poet gives way to the place:
“S’effaçant, le poète est à l’écoute du lieu parce qu’il sait regarder” (p.
147). The place is paramount and, crucially, the poet’s task is not to
transform it into poetic form, but to listen to what it has to say.
Jaccottet valued the sense of place he found in Hölderlin’s poetry, and
his own approach can be understood in terms proposed by Heidegger.
Following his reading of Hölderlin, Heidegger wrote that poetic
language, or “Dichtung” (which has a broader meaning than “poetry”
has in English), can reveal the absence behind the habitual way of
thinking that tends to make things into its object. But rather than

The importance of certain places as “centres” in religious beliefs around the world
is set out by Éliade, but Jaccottet’s vague evocations of the sacred always stop short
of direct biblical association or any more than general reference to ancient or eastern
spirituality. See Mircea Éliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return; or, Cosmos and
History, trans. by W. Trask (London: Arkana, 1989), pp. 11-12.
Chistine Dupouy, “La Poésie du lieu”, in Poésie de langue française 1945-60, ed.
by M.-C. Bancquart (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1995), pp. 133-150 (p.
202 Provisionality and the Poem

simply leaving a void, it opens up to a concealed, “sacred” kind of

thinking, and this can transform the reader.194 Poetic language is there-
fore able to bring Being into existence as words rather than rep-
resenting it in words.
This is what Jaccottet’s poetic texts aim to achieve. He fre-
quently describes himself as waiting and allowing images to come to
him. He listens rather than speaks:

Je me trouvais ainsi embarqué, moi sans courage, dans une aventure où il

s’agissait vraiment de confier toute sa vie à des lueurs peu sûres, à des voix
sourdes et intermittentes, presque à l’invisible… (Promenade, p. 26)

This is far removed from surrealist techniques of automatic writing,

but in the same way as surrealist poets granted visual and verbal
images freedom to develop, Jaccottet’s work is driven both by words
and the connections they suggest, and by images he perceives in the
world around. Of course, these take verbal form, but Jaccottet rarely
attempts to translate the exact impression he experienced. Instead,
images emerge into the text in fragmented form, as if it had laid itself
open to being affected by the world.
Such instances of hesitant emergent images are particularly
striking when they occur in Leçons, because they contrast sharply with
the sense early in the collection that language is powerless in the face
of the horror it cannot convey. In the poems towards the end of the
sequence, it seems that images do continue despite the death of the

J’ai relevé les yeux.

Derrière la fenêtre,
au fond du jour,
des images quand même passent.
Navettes ou anges de l’être,
elles réparent l’espace. (À la lumière, p. 28)

Space is evoked in this poem, as it has been throughout the series, but
rather than the incomprehensible space of the void, it is given
perspective by the transparent glass through which the subject gazes,

See Heidegger, Hölderlins Hymnen “Germanien” und “Der Rhein”: Gesamtaus-
gabe, 39 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1980).
Silence 203

and the day, rather than the rebarbative “jour froid” which occurred
earlier (À la lumière, p. 21), has depth and images pass within it. In
the final couplet, images that are construed as messengers or angels
are able to repair space; the imaginative and the real are combined.
The rhyming of “fenêtre” / “être” and “passent” / “l’espace” grants the
text harmony and unity. This short poem does not claim to offer a
solution to language’s inadequacy in the face of suffering, but it gives
hints that if one pays attention to images, they can become messengers
of the real.
Jaccottet’s poetry, then, is not inspired equally by the dark and
light sides of human experience, nor does it despair of recounting
death, as the subject sometimes claims. Rather, we see in the pro-
gression from Chants d’en bas to À la lumière d’hiver, which were
subsequently published together in 1994, a change from the struggle
against an inability to speak, to a sense that the voice might become
possible through watching and listening.
Voice is of central importance to Jaccottet’s work, although
its most important feature is its limitation. Not only must it be guided
by the real that is attended to, but it must be reduced, pared down to a
delicate whisper, if it is to respond truthfully to the minute changes of
the natural world. Often, it seems that it is only through increasingly
sparse images, the effacement of the poetic subject, and even silence,
that it might come close to achieving this.
Jaccottet is noted for his professed wish to reduce or even
eliminate images from his work. For instance, the phrase that opens
the second section of À travers un verger: “Méfie-toi des images” (p.
17), is frequently cited as an example of his desire to write as simply
and truthfully as possible about the world around.195 He insists:

il faudrait un poème presque sans adjectifs et réduit à très peu d’images;

simplement un mouvement vers le haut, et non point un mouvement
brusque, ni intense, ni rapide, mais une émanation, une fumée de fraîcheur.
(Promenade, p. 77)

See Evelio Miñano, “Nécessité et refus de l’image dans la poésie de Philippe
Jaccottet”, Littératures, 17 (1987), 161-171 (p. 164). Denise Rochat describes his
sense that images “empêchent le regard de se désaltérer à la source pure du visible” in
“Airs de Philippe Jaccottet, ou les chemins de la transparence”, The French Review,
63 (1990), 810-818 (p. 811).
204 Provisionality and the Poem

A poem must attempt to be a gentle, light movement, an emanation

rather than a representation.
In the following poem from Leçons, the poetic voice is
imagined as a single grass seed or even the elusive object that is a knot
of air:

Un simple souffle, un nœud léger de l’air,

une graine échappée aux herbes folles du Temps,
rien qu’une voix qui volerait chantant
à travers l’ombre et la lumière. (À la lumière, p. 24)

The minute form of the “graine” seems able to escape time. The poet’s
voice then takes over, but its singing is described in terms of a natural
image, as the seed might float on the air, and it traverses both darkness
and light. Enjambement is employed to striking effect over the fourth
line and the first line of the second stanza:

à travers l’ombre et la lumière,

s’effacent-ils : aucune trace de blessure.

All that has been conjured up is removed; there was nothing but the
voice, but even this has been effaced. The action appears to have
succeeded in overcoming suffering, as with nothing comes the
removal of any trace of a wound. Jaccottet continues:

La voix tue, on dirait plutôt, un instant,

l’étendue apaisée, le jour plus pur.

However momentarily, the poem has had a purifying effect. “La voix
tue” has the triple meaning of a voice that silences, one that is
silenced, and one that kills, just as Noël insisted on language’s
replacing of what it names. But by explicitly relating this to renewed
peace and purity, Jaccottet turns the moment into a brief instance of
quiet that allows listening to take place, even if, or especially if what
is heard is silence.
Of course, in this reduction of the poetic voice, Jaccottet has
employed a large number of images, which develop and become
interwoven with one another as the voice floats across grass and
through shade, light and time. He is very aware of the inconsistency of
Silence 205

an approach that advocates the removal of imaginative writing

through the use of imagery.
The point of images of effacement is that something is there,
on the page and in the mind of the reader, before it is removed or
superseded. Jaccottet does not wish to banish all images from his
work. Rather, he refuses to allow them to rest; they only function
suggestively if they are provisional, permitted to hover on the page
and then immediately passed through. In this way, language engages
with the nothingness that would otherwise remain incomprehensible
and ungraspable.
This is not very different from Noël’s conception of writing.
For both poets, words erase the things they name in the process of
naming, but in this way they are able to retain the trace of these things.
Similarly, the poetic persona is effaced from the texts only to come
into being in the words themselves. Michael Bishop discusses the way
in which language seems related to nothingness in Jaccottet’s work,
citing in particular images of dust, ash and rotting that recur, for
instance: “La pourriture attaque ses paroles”. 196 He then links
Jaccottet’s presentation of the act of writing explicitly to the dialectic
proposed by Noël of the “mot” and “mort”, and states that writing
enacts the death of the self, while demonstrating the provisional nature
of language (pp. 57-58). The purpose of poetry is to maintain this

le monde où nous avons choisi de vivre n’est pas un monde tout fait, ni
davantage un monde à faire selon telle ou telle certitude; mais le monde du
tâtonnement obstiné, du risque intérieur, de l’incertitude merveilleuse. Le
problème, pour notre esprit, serait moins d’entasser des rochers, de bâtir des
temples, que d’ouvrir des passages dans les murs. (Jaccottet, Promenade, p.

He emphasises that poetry is not about sealing up, the packaging of

the real into categories, but rather about opening up; it is the only
approach that might allow a glimpse of reality through into words.
The term “tâtonnement” evokes very effectively Jaccottet’s technique.
It involves taking small, hesitant risks, offering images then letting
them slip away. Above all, things cannot be appropriated in language.
He writes in À travers un verger:
Michaël Bishop, The Contemporary Poetry of France: Eight Studies (Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 1985), p. 58.
206 Provisionality and the Poem

Je ne veux rien affirmer, ici, en ce moment. Je risque un mot, une image,

une pensée, je les retire ou les abandonne, c’est tout, puis je m’en vais. (p.

This process is exemplified in the two versions of Leçons in

Gallimard “Poésie” collections. The first, currently available as part of
the edition Poésie 1946-1967 (pp. 157-181), is subsequently
somewhat reworked and published in conjunction with À la lumière
d’hiver (pp. 7-33). By their very existence, these two versions testify
to the provisionality of any poetic utterance, and where changes have
been made, Jaccottet has chosen not to clarify or extend, but to render
the texts less explanatory and elaborate. He has pared down lines of
poetry until they evoke, rather than state.
For example, a poem about the dying man in the earlier
version contains the lines:

Ce que je croyais lire en lui, quand j’osais lire,

était plus que l’étonnement : une stupeur
comme devant un siècle de ténèbres à franchir,
une tristesse! à voir ces houles de souffrance.
L’innommable enfonçait les barrières de sa vie.
Un gouffre qui assaille. Et pour défense
une tristesse béant comme un gouffre. (Poésie, p. 165)

In the later version this has become:

Une stupeur
commençait dans ses yeux : que cela fût
possible. Une tristesse aussi,
vaste comme ce que venait sur lui,
ou brisait les barrières de sa vie,
vertes, pleines d’oiseaux. (À la lumière, p. 16)

The discursive tone has gone, and the impression felt by the subject
who sees the “stupeur” invade this man is more forcefully conveyed to
the reader by its positioning alone at the beginning of the text. The
absence of the pronoun “je” actually seems to give clarity to the
feelings experienced, as the speaker of the earlier version appears
more distanced from the scene he describes. The lengthy description
of the century of darkness that awaits the man and of the tides of
suffering is replaced by the acknowledgement that these cannot be
imagined; they are unnamed, and qualified by “vaste”. The repeated
Silence 207

evocation of “gouffre” in the first version seems unnecessary by the

same stage in the later text. As Jaccottet might put it, however many
times a gulf is named, it cannot appear on the page. Instead, he
chooses to evoke the limits of the man’s life in terms of what we can
imagine, the walls of a garden full of birds. This is all the more
unbearable for the poet who goes on to recount that the man always
loved his home and was in control of it:

Lui qui avait toujours aimé son clos, ses murs,

lui qui gardait les clefs de sa maison. (p. 16)

These final lines retain the more explanatory tone of the earlier poem,
but they still evoke through allusion, rather than statement: the man’s
death is conveyed by an image of what is lost from his life.
In Jaccottet’s texts, the presence of what is absent can appear
as the inclusion of expressive silence in the text. For instance, after the
death of a loved person, his existence in the text is maintained. In the
last poem of Leçons the man is: “ou tout à fait effacé”, “ou invisible
habitant l’invisible” (p. 33). He is also present, however, in the
subject’s awareness of the small moments of beauty that persist. The

demeure en modèle de patience et de sourire,

tel le soleil dans notre dos encore
qui éclaire la table, et la page, et les raisins. (p. 33)

Jaccottet’s poetic images emerge from silence and dissolve

back into it, while traces of their presence remain. This is a process of
abstraction similar to Noël’s idea of the “mot-mort”: as words efface
what they name, they must continue naming and effacing these things
in order to retain the effacement in the text. Language is able to
involve silence in such very different ways in the work of these two
poets because they consider that words include and are included in
silence, rather than being its opposite.
If words hover briefly in Jaccottet’s texts before moving on,
then they are pushed to extremes and exhaustion by Noël. His poetry
is often motivated by an “élan”; it tumbles forward and produces
words that trip over themselves to generate more words, and images
often erupt with violence. For instance, a section from “contre-chant
deux” of La Chute des temps opens with the usual “qui”, followed by:
208 Provisionality and the Poem

“voudrait rime en igme”, a question that might be a reference to

Mallarmé’s “sonnet en x” (Œuvres complètes, I, pp. 37-38). Noël
chooses a scheme of rhyming couplets; he draws attention to the
sound of the words over their meaning and to the way they efface
what they represent, leaving only a void. The result is “pur caca
mental” and the creation of a text that is “sens dessus dessous”:

voudrait rime en igme
pour coupler l’énigme
et l’effacement
il trouve néant
graine de gangrène
par quoi le fatal
verse à la rengaine
pur caca mental
nulle autorité
car l’humanité
vaut bien l’extrinsèque
et qu’on l’hypothèque
sens dessus dessous
mais qui
tout à coup. (pp. 35-36)

The rhyme scheme adds to the effect of acceleration as the tightly

bound couplets work with the lack of punctuation or pauses to push
the text relentlessly on. The abab rhyme in the centre of the section
also acts as a pivot between the rhyming pairs on either side, so the
sense of forward movement is prevented from becoming pure
progression: we are not expected to find the text conclusive. The
rhyming of the last line of this section with the first of the next,
“dessous” / “coup”, also blocks any kind of ending, and the ques-
tioning is taken up again with the insistent: “mais qui”.
Images of death and dirt reflect the violence of the sense of
being swept along on a deluge of words and emphasise that they are
verbal material. This is important because the language is material that
seems to have been expelled from the body. Language emerges
beyond the conscious control of the writer. The temporality of his
texts is complex because their “élan” is by definition an ongoing
process. It is both removed from a temporal framework of movement
that reaches a goal, and also sets up a new temporality consisting only
of the enactment of an energetic force. Here the influence of Bataille
Silence 209

can be discerned, with his insistence that life is essentially energy that
strives to expend itself.197
In Noël’s texts, energy is expended in an attempt to reach the
source of writing. This would be the paradoxical spending of memory
until a state of forgetfulness were achieved. But he is aware that
expenditure can never be completed:

Écrire est gouverné par le désir de tarir sa source. On voudrait dépenser

toute la mémoire. Quelque chose pourtant s’ajourne, car, malgré soi, on
n’en finit pas de se souvenir. (Treize cases du je, p. 25)

The only situations in which forgetting would appear to be momen-

tarily possible are absorption in work (writing) and the erotic. In
Qu’est-ce qu’écrire?, Noël writes:

Quant au corps et ses mémoires, les voilà plongés dans l’oubli, comme l’est
pareillement en nous l’élan de l’espèce vêtu d’amour. (p. 10)

Bataille sees in eroticism the movement of life momentarily exceeding

its limits.198 The desire Bataille describes as “l’érotisme du cœur”
(Œuvres complètes, X, p. 25) results from the human wish to trans-
cend the separation between oneself and another, to overcome
individuality and our separation from the sources of life:

Nous souffrons de notre isolement dans l’individualité discontinue. La

passion nous répète sans cesse: si tu possédais l’être aimé, ce cœur que la
solitude étrangle formerait un seul cœur avec celui de l’être aimé. (Œuvres
complètes, X, p. 26)

The wish to overcome individual mortality is persistently

expressed by Noël, and is often associated with a yearning for
immediate, forgetful presence in the world, and for sexual union with
a desired woman. But he always insists that desire and expenditure are

In a work on economy, “La Notion de dépense”, Bataille wrote that societies did
not always follow the capitalist model of production for accumulation, insisting
instead that useless expenditure is necessary for its own sake, and surplus must not be
fed back into production. Among the examples he gives are luxury, wars, games, arts
and sexual perversity: “l’accent est placé sur la perte qui doit être la plus grande
possible”. Œuvres completes, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), p. 305.
Georges Bataille, L’Érotisme, in Œuvres complètes, X (Paris: Gallimard, 1987),
pp. 7-270.
210 Provisionality and the Poem

never-ending. Similarly, the poetic subject will always remain unable

to expend language and see its source; were it able to do so, that
source would run dry because it thrives on the search. It will never
pass over the limit into silence. The “je” of La Chute des temps

mais mon corps sait des choses

il lui faudrait des mots des mots
des mots. (p. 45)

In poetry, the desire for and outpouring of words is never-

ending, creating a temporality that is mirrored by the form of the long
poem itself. It pushes forward, but has no narrative or teleology. It is
the enactment of the expenditure of words, though always complicated
by the interweaving of phrases motivated by sound and those in which
complex philosophical reflection is expressed. This movement is the
opposite of discursive writing; it is never allowed to exhaust itself or
reach a conclusion.

Bringing the real to life

Noël and Jaccottet are doubtful about the power of language
effectively to represent what is beyond its limits, but they use this
inadequacy of words to create poetic texts that incorporate what is just
out of reach. Instead of attempting to represent death, the poetic voice
actually brings to life a text that is its own reality. Its time will not be
that of the linear life of an individual, but rather the space and time of
its writing and reading. In the work of Jaccottet and Noël respectively,
the texts take the form of the hesitancy or the impulse that inspired
their creation in the first place.
The strength of their writing is to offer us fragmented hints of
the invisible and the silent. Silence is necessary to acknowledge that
language has limits, but in order to demonstrate its existence, words
must be used to these limits. The concerns that link Noël and Jaccottet
most clearly: time, death and the simultaneous exploration of these
theoretically and imaginatively, also serve to highlight the differences
between their texts.
Jaccottet adopts a tentative tone that aims at being truthful to
the world we perceive as fragmented and in constant transition:
Silence 211

cette voix-ci, avec son incertitude, qui s’élève sans que rien l’étaie de
l’extérieur et s’aventure sans prudence hors de notre bouche, on dirait
qu’elle est moins mensongère, bien qu’elle puisse tromper davantage; on
dirait surtout qu’elle ranime le monde, qu’à travers elle il reprend de la
consistance. (Promenade, p. 97)

Noël’s poetic texts emerge from the body; he imagines that

they bring to life on the page their material source:

écoute le grand bruissement des cellules

la feuillaison du corps
et quelle haleine en est la rumeur
je ne veux rien d’autre sur
ma langue. (Chute, p. 23)

The dual meaning of “langue” combines speech with the body as non-
linguistic source and medium for the production of language. Breath,
similarly, implies poetic utterance, but here Noël focuses on the
physical act of breathing; “haleine” is chosen instead of the more
metaphorical “souffle”.
His short prose piece “Encore”, from 1982, includes an image
of the creation of the earth from the bodies of living things that have
been buried. It suggests that it is precisely absence, silence and death
that create life and language:

Les mots sont à l’absence ce que les morts sont à la terre: ils la créent et,
l’ayant créée, celle-ci fait pousser leur contraire. (Chute, p. 10)

The title of this study appears to treat space and time as connected, but
separate, categories. The provisional is a characteristic of something
that is bound to fade away, as time progresses in linear fashion.
Transitions, meanwhile, are movements in space, from one point, or
point of view, to a different one. But these terms cannot remain
isolated from each other, as a transition in space takes place in time,
and it involves some kind of change that invests the previous position
with provisionality.
In examining the structure of the poetry and its imagery, we
saw that the poetic world could only be created, and produce the
poetic subject, if the text kept itself open to the world, to movement
and to change. The poets’ other activities and interests were revealed
to be not merely ancillary to poetic creativity, but important trans-
itions between poetic language and all that is other to it. As well as
blurring the boundaries between poetry and prose, and between
creative and reflective writing, these texts show that transitions
between language and silence are necessary for the real to emerge.
Poetic texts must include silence, or be provisional, if they are to take
on their own reality.

Time and Space

Different times of reading are created in the works of these
three writers, and they are not always linear. For instance, du Bouchet
uses a restricted vocabulary; it produces echoes and networks that
incite movement in all directions through texts and between volumes.
In his poems of landscape, the furrows, clouds, snow, and so on, are
simply named, and they therefore recall other instances of their
naming. While the repetitions render each individual piece of poetic or
prose writing identifiably his, they do not contain all his work in one
infinitely self-referential whole. Variation is introduced by changing
parts of speech such as prepositions, rather than by identifying things
adjectivally. The consequence of fragmenting sections of text is that
intervals cause them to be left behind, yet the echoes they produce
retain them as traces on the page and in the mind of the reader.
Echoes in sound and vocabulary operate not just within and
between lines of verse, but across stanzas or pages of text, and are one
of the principal characteristics of poetic prose. Noël and Jaccottet both
214 Provisionality and the Poem

compose passages in which the sounds of the words frequently seem

to take precedence in the choice or generation of other words, over
and above meaning or context. Noël explores this in texts such as
“Poème à déchanter” (Poèmes 1, pp. 185-196) and in Bruits de
langues, described by Michaël Bishop as giving: “vent to a ‘buccal’
spontaneity that is often onomatopoetically inspired”.199
Above all, the poets can be compared because their texts
always proffer instants and then leave them behind. This is important
for Jaccottet because he wishes to create in words the impression of a
fleeting glimpse of a moment of change in the world around. In this
description of a river glimpsed between some trees, for example,
Jaccottet evokes the subject’s first impression and describes the act of
looking, while also creating a verbal image:

Elle scintille à l’autre bout du pré, entre les arbres. C’est ainsi qu’on la
découvre d’abord, un étincellement plus vif à travers les feuilles brillantes,
entre deux prés endormis, sous des virevoltes d’oiseaux. Quelle merveille
est-ce là, dit le regard, se faisant plus attentif. (Promenade, p. 85)

The perceptions are not confined to an individual subject; they are

those of “on” and “le regard”, which take the text beyond an
expression of past experience to involve the reader in the act of
looking. The terms evoking shimmering light: “scintille”, “étincelle-
ment”, “brillantes”, multiply in a way that creates the movement and
fragmentation described. This is further highlighted by the repetition
of “i” and “ll” to echo these words, as well as the insistence on “t” and
“f”: “vif”, “feuilles”, “virevoltes”, “merveille”, “attentif”. We scarcely
notice that the water has not been mentioned except in terms of the
light reflected on it, and realise that the scene is created by the early
morning sun.
Of the three writers, Jaccottet’s poetry depends the most on
visual images, and it is their hesitant quality that renders his texts so
recognisable. He also finds this in the work of others. In a 1957 essay
“Approche de du Bouchet”, for instance, he writes of du Bouchet’s
collection Air that “il s’agit presque toujours de brèves entrevisions,
suivies d’une brusque inflammation de paroles”.200 He captures the
glimpse, the instantaneous appearance of the words on the page in du

‘Bernard Noël’, Sub-stance, 23-24 (1976), 157-165 (p. 160).
L’Entretien des Muses: chroniques de poésie (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), p. 261.
Conclusion 215

Bouchet’s texts, and his choice of the imagery of flaring up captures

their intensity. Andrea Cady suggests that more than the form of the
poems themselves, it is the nature of du Bouchet’s “regard” that
fascinates Jaccottet.201
Jaccottet’s own hesitant images do not resemble du Bouchet’s
stark evocations of things and elements; moments in Jaccottet’s texts
hover briefly and then are lost, just as the image of a bird in flight, the
reflection of sunlight on water or the changing sky at sunset might
seem frozen momentarily, at the point of transition between their past
and future movements. His decision to combine verse and prose
poetry with more reflective prose texts in some collections means that
examples of this kind of poetic writing are found alongside discussion
of ways in which it can function. For instance, he writes of a plant:

Surtout, ne pas plier cela dans l’herbier des pages; mais

le laisser déplier dans l’espace, laisser cela flotter au bout de
ses tiges presque invisibles qui en empêchent pour un peu
de temps la dispersion. (Et, néanmoins, p. 29)

He uses the image of pressing a flower in a book to preserve it, in

order to insist that images should not be contained within the pages of
a text, but rather retained only “pour un peu de temps”, before being
allowed to follow their course. This extract reveals the difficulty of
separating poetic and analytical prose; here Jaccottet discusses the
process of creating poetic imagery, but he employs imaginative
language to do so.

Invisible Depths
In du Bouchet’s work also, words emerge and then are passed
through; they act to prevent meaning from becoming fixed:

comme cette déchirure
par laquelle
point ou particule
de la terre
de ce qui peut être

Measuring the Visible: The Verse and Prose of Philippe Jaccottet (Amsterdam:
Rodopi, 1992), p. 63.
216 Provisionality and the Poem

se détachera,
et alors
je ne vois rien,
sinon un socle
pour matériau
à découvert. (Une tache)

Words are dislodged from syntactic links and become visible

as things in themselves before they can act as transmitters of ideas; in
this way, a textual world is created that has the reality of the natural
world evoked without attempting to mimic it in verbal imagery. The
words “provisoirement”, and the opening “futur” in this extract
emphasise that words and images must be forgotten and passed
through, if they are to be creative. They must suggest multiple
meanings or echoes, but also need to anticipate the words to come.
Therefore their significance cannot be made definitive, nor can their
presence impede the movement in the text.
The lines of this text are short because they are placed in the
margin of a page of poetic prose, a style adopted by du Bouchet in
various texts in order to supplement, but also render more complex,
the main body of the text. It is employed most frequently in pieces
about the visual arts, as is the case here, although du Bouchet also
discusses traces and backgrounds elsewhere in a manner that suggests
canvases without ever explicitly referring to art. The effect of the
margin is to turn the page into a visual, vertically layered space before
allowing the reader to consider the meanings that might be expressed
there. What is important is the material of the work of art; when the
observer sees the forms it takes, before looking beyond it for meaning,
then it provides a glimpse of novelty.
During their brief appearance, precisely because this is
provisional, words reveal gaps and intervals. They are disrupted (the
term “déchirure” occurs throughout du Bouchet’s work) in order to
cause the reader to see beyond them to the usually ignored
background of the paper, in the same way that the canvas is made
visible through disruption of painted or engraved forms.
Therefore transitions are not surface phenomena, with words
giving way to one another through a process of slippage, or images
hovering on the surface of the page. Rather, the purpose of
Conclusion 217

maintaining the provisional aspect of poetic writing is to allow

glimpses of depth behind the surface.
The title of du Bouchet’s last published notebook, Anno-
tations sur l’espace non datées, suggests the concentration on space at
the expense of time that often appears to be a feature of his work. 202
Indeed, the fragments in his first two Carnets were ordered only
according to the dates on which they were jotted down. Now even this
marker has been removed, as if time were excised from the response
to space. The text works to nuance this interpretation, however. For
instance, du Bouchet writes:

disparition de la langue
à prendre sur soi comme la parole même
aujourd’hui, et, en tout instant, passage
de l’intervalle, une enjambée, ciel sitôt par le travers. (Annotations, p. 35)

Time, in the form of “today”, “every instant” and “passage”, is part of

the workings of language that disappear when assumed by the poetic
subject, but this process is also spatial. The instants of time are
intervals that emerge and are left behind, in writing as in walking; the
act of taking a step is created in language by enjambement, in the
strict metrical sense or simply by the intrusion of blank space into the
text. This is how the poetry or prose is able to create a world as real as
the landscape; by introducing real gaps in space and time, the physical
materiality of the world that is usually ignored can be momentarily
seen: “ciel sitôt par le travers”.
“Travers” is a complex and rich term that is frequently
employed and exploited by du Bouchet, who grants it both temporal
and spatial meaning. In “Notes sur la traduction”, he writes:

peut-être, par le travers de la parole, elles aussi les choses

ont-elles eu jour. (p. 135)

Instead of reality being used as the basis of language, it is through

language (“au travers de”) and through its defects (“un travers”) and
allusiveness (“de travers”) that things come into being or see the day
(“voir le jour”). “Eu jour” also reminds the reader of the word that is
so significant for du Bouchet that it forms the title of one of his
Annotations sur l’espace non datées (Carnet 3) ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana,
2000). It is the only one of the three notebooks to have been given a title.
218 Provisionality and the Poem

collections of poetry, “l’ajour” (L’Ajour). Literally meaning deco-

rative openwork on a building, this term suggests seeing through
surfaces to that which is beneath, as well as the bringing to light of
things themselves. 203

In Noël’s work, depth tends to take the form of volume, most
frequently in images of mental and bodily space. Rather than
emerging in intervals, internal volume is externalised through an
impulse. This might be physical, in images that range from breathing
to a disturbing emergence of organs, or verbal, as words seem to pour
out onto the page. The form of his long poems demonstrates this most
effectively, but it is present in all those verse and prose texts that upset
the boundaries separating the apparently invisible inside realm from
the outside, which we mistakenly think we have in control because we
can see it. In extreme cases, Noël distorts language so that it suggests
stable meaning and reference while simultaneously refusing to allow it
to be grasped. With phrases such as “eh peaucrite lèchteur, mon pareil
bookmaker” (Bruits de langue, Carn, p. 209), undermining a well-
known quotation from Baudelaire, Noël succeeds in disturbing
language from the inside:

L’écriture devait être l’expérience de l’expérience. Il ne s’agit pas de

raconter, mais d’éveiller. Alors, le langage étant ce qu’il est, il n’y a plus
qu’à le piéger, à le pervertir, à le trouer pour y prendre l’éclair qu’aucun
mot ne peut dire, mais qu’une certaine configuration de mots peut sceller.
Le rythme parlera; l’image deviendra le mot de la nouvelle langue.204

Noël’s comments on Michaux’s ink and watercolour paintings

could equally well be applied to the life of his own poetry. He insists
that Michaux’s paintings only remain so alive because the “surgisse-
ment” that engenders them is continuous and must therefore be
invisible behind the “surgi”, the traces that we see (Vers, pp. 39-40).
This in turn reveals how thought functions, because it makes visible
the process of thinking usually invisible behind its product. As well as

Noël uses this in the title of a text on the artist Chillida: “Chillida: ‘Ajours de
terre’”, Derrière le miroir, 242 (1980), 156-163. “Travers” is also a significant term
for Jaccottet, although it is employed to a lesser extent. For example, see “à travers
ces feuilles brillantes”, cited above (Promenade, p. 85).
Le Lieu des signes (Le Muy: Unes, 1988 (1971)), p. 131.
Conclusion 219

turning the inside out, Noël’s own poetry delves into internal areas
that can never be mapped, in the vain desire to discover where
language originates, to see the invisible. While the source of language
remains elusive, the texts themselves show the reader the internal
depth and volume that is not perceptible outside such language.
Noël’s statement: “il ne s’agit pas de raconter, mais
d’éveiller”, could be applied to all three writers, despite the important
differences between them. Creativity rather than mimesis is central to
their work, which moves towards the world instead of focusing on
linguistic experimentation. Hesitant instants for Jaccottet work
towards the same end as Noël’s generated “élan”, while for du
Bouchet, it is repeated forgetting through the emergence and
disappearance of words on the page that can grant a text rhythm and
Du Bouchet’s last volume of poetry is typical in that it is
unpaginated, and the white space of the page provides the basis for,
and structures, the carefully spaced phrases. He writes, for instance:


ce qui devant soi


été. (Du Bouchet, Tumulte)

The “cela” remains unexplained, but the repetition of “cesse” suggests

that it cannot ever truly end, since the process of coming to an end
will always be enacted, forgotten and then repeated. Times of present,
“cesse | et cesse”, future, “devant soi”, and past, “a été”, are confused.
This complicates the question of being in the present, but it is
precisely through disrupting the linear that the text is able to create its
own reality; it exists in the anticipated and remembered emergence,
forgetting and re-emergence of language.
The impersonal “soi” is typical of the ways in which du
Bouchet, and indeed all three poets, refer to the self; it is devoid of
any personal characteristics and, more importantly, appears to come
220 Provisionality and the Poem

into being along with the text. In du Bouchet’s case, it takes on the
substance of the page:

entré dans la langue, tu te découvres d’un mot à l’autre

toi-même interstice élargi. (Annotations, p. 12)

The discovery of the self takes place in the leap from one word to the
next; its reality is between words, not quite in the visible surface of
language, but rather in all that structures it and can be glimpsed as the
movement of writing and reading reveals the gaps. Pierre Chappuis
explains that it occurs through the effacement of the self, because this
is what allows the movement that produces it to occur. He insists:
“que la personne, en se niant, s’affirme, qu’elle est elle-même le lieu
et la condition de son effacement”. 205

Although the terms “depth”, “thickness” and “invisible
structures” are spatial figures of speech, when temporal modes of
writing and reading are set up, time and thickness together create the
reality of the text. This can be seen in the physical presence of air as
breathing that may motivate the poetry, or as the substance of the page
or canvas. The practice of translation reveals what lies behind the
word used by forcing the translator to consider the multiple meanings
and references it conveys, and the text hints at the hidden structure of
its translation, although it will not reveal its source transparently. In
the writing of poetry, words are revitalised when the gap between their
accepted sense and potential meanings is revealed. These writers
acknowledge and explore the limits of language, and engage with the
silence that disrupts meaning while containing its potential. The
interrelation of time and space takes the poetry beyond the simul-
taneous image, but rather than unfolding in linear fashion, it creates its
own times and depths of reading.
Du Bouchet, Jaccottet and Noël have not participated in
current literary theoretical debates. In particular, their concentration
on the reality of the natural world would seem to imply that they
deliberately ignore or refuse the argument that the textual evocation of
non-linguistic reality is impossible. However, I would argue that the

Pierre Chappuis, “La Parole en avant d’elle-même”, Critique, 307 (1972), 1074-
1081 (p. 1080).
Conclusion 221

complexity we have seen in their work not only testifies to an

awareness of these concerns, but even suggests ways of overcoming
differences that an overt engagement in literary theory would
The tension discernible in their writing is principally between,
on the one hand, the immediacy of perception, an encounter with the
natural world and the importance of evoking this in simple imagery,
and, on the other hand, their awareness that language is inescapably
their medium for creation, and may therefore actually determine the
impressions we naively believe to precede words.
The work of Noël, Jaccottet and du Bouchet seems to thrive
on the tensions between these ways of considering the world and
language, and to transcend the divisions between them. They do not
see language as a vehicle for the expression of the world or the
response it elicits. Their writing does not exist as a mirror of what is
outside it, but rather is significant in itself, in the new images,
language and poetic subject that it brings into being. It creates both
text and subject, renewing ways of seeing while constantly ques-
tioning its own power. It does so, however, by engaging with what is
other: the visual, the incomprehensible, the silent, or the unattainable,
invisible truth of the world that nevertheless inspires poetic attempts
to come close to it.
They share with their contemporaries features that cause their
work to be considered ontological. Creativity begins with an opening
up towards the real of silent matter. Poets of the subsequent generation
have moved on from this insistence on the elemental real, but they
have retained a sense of the materiality of language. They explore its
physical nature, either to transform poetry as an oral form (the TXT
group, including Christian Prigent, plays an important role), or in the
explosion of the page to create three-dimensional collage (this can be
seen in the work of Emmanuel Hocquard and Orange Export Ltd., a
group and publishing house). Despite the great differences between
these movements and their predecessors, the renewal of language
remains paramount. Moreover, gaps, whether in breathing or visual
composition, are vital to disrupt language and allow it to take new
In texts exemplified by the authors examined in this study,
space and time are inseparable because together they form a thickness
that is revealed in intervals, instants and exploding boundaries. While
222 Provisionality and the Poem

this is examined in their prose writing, it is the very substance and

structure of their poetry. Jaccottet’s “vagues fragments” (Éléments, p.
7) float and hover, but are also examined and extended imaginatively;
the stuff of the page allows du Bouchet’s intervals to determine the
force of the traces of words that are passed through; Noël’s poetry has
a volume that rises up from the page and reflects the planned structure
that allowed the words to pour forth onto it.
The poetry is motivated by a sense of what is just beyond the
grasp of the observer, the “insaisissable”; it could be the inside of the
body, the workings of thought and vision, the impression that other
times structure the importance of a place, or the solidity of the outside
world that will always remain beyond our appropriation, but which
allows for contact that gives us a sense of existing in the present:

il semble que puissent revenir à lui toutes les magies du temps et de

l’espace, cette façon qu’a l’insaisissable de surgir moins dans un lieu que
dans ce qui sépare et relie les lieux, dans le passage des instants. (Jaccottet,
Éléments, p. 94)

These are texts of the present, but they do not give us frozen
instants that have no relationship to lived time, nor eternal truths set
down in writing. In each text and at each reading, new times come
into being and language is reborn:

… parole disparue – comme

logée – une fois dite.

… je redis pour déloger.206

Du Bouchet, Rapides (Paris: Hachette, 1980).
Illustrations 223

Plate 1
Illustrations 225

Plate 2

André du Bouchet
(with Antoni Tàpies) Air (Paris: Maeght, 1971)
Air suivi de Défets (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1986)
L’Ajour (Paris: Gallimard, 1998)
Annotations sur l’espace non datées (Carnet 3) ([Montpellier]: Fata
Morgana, 2000)
Aujourd’hui c’est (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1994)
Carnets 1952-1956 ([Paris]: Plon, 1990)
Dans la chaleur vacante suivi de Où le soleil (Paris: Gallimard, 1991)
De plusieurs déchirements dans les parages de la peinture (Le Muy:
Unes, 1990)
D’un trait qui figure et défigure ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1997)
L’Emportement du muet (Paris: Mercure de France, 2000)
“Hölderlin aujourd’hui” in L’Incohérence, n. pag.
(with Geneviève Asse) Ici en deux (Geneva: Quentin, 1982)
Ici en deux (Paris: Mercure de France, 1986)
L’Incohérence (Paris: Hachette, 1979)
(with Alberto Giacometti) L’Inhabité (Paris: Hugues, 1967)
(with Pierre Tal Coat) Laisses (Lausanne: Simecek, 1975)
Laisses (Paris: Hachette, 1979)
Matière de l’interlocuteur ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1992)
“Notes sur la traduction” in Poèmes et proses, pp. 133-142
Poèmes et proses (Paris: Mercure de France, 1995)
Pourquoi si calmes (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1996)
Qui n’est pas tourné vers nous (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972)
Rapides (Paris: Hachette, 1980)
(with Pierre Tal Coat) Sous le linteau en forme de joug (Lausanne:
Simecek, 1978)
(with Pierre Tal Coat) Sur le pas (Paris: Maeght, 1959)
“Tübingen, le 22 mai 1986” in Böschenstein and Le Ridier, pp. 95-
Tumulte ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 2001)
Une tache ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1988)
Where Heat Looms, trans. by David Mus (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon,
228 Provisionality and the Poem

Philippe Jaccottet
À la lumière d’hiver suivi de Pensées sous les nuages (Paris:
Gallimard, 1994)
Après beaucoup d’années (Paris: Gallimard, 1994)
À travers un verger (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1975)
Cahier de verdure (Paris: Gallimard, 1990)
Les Cormorans (Marseille: Éditions Idumée, 1980)
(with Gustave Roud) Correspondance 1942-1976, ed. by José-Flore
Tappy (Paris: Gallimard, 2002)
L’Effraie (Paris: Gallimard, 1953)
Éléments d’un songe (Paris: Gallimard, 1961)
L’Entretien des Muses: chroniques de poésie (Paris: Gallimard, 1968)
Et, néanmoins (Paris: Gallimard, 2001)
L’Ignorant (Paris: Gallimard, 1958)
Interview with Alain Veinstein, 12 February 2001, France Culture
“Note sur les traductions de Hölderlin”, Les Lettres françaises, 1182
(1967), 9
Pages retrouvées, ed. by Jean-Pierre Vidal (Lausanne: Editions Payot,
Paysages avec figures absentes, rev. edn (Paris: Gallimard, 1976)
Poésie 1946-1967 (Paris: Gallimard, 1977)
“La Poésie: Un hymne retrouvé de Hölderlin”, La Nouvelle revue
française, 7 (1959), 101-106
La Promenade sous les arbres (Lausanne: Mermod, 1957)
Requiem suivi de Remarques ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1991)
Rilke par lui-même (Paris: Seuil, 1970)
La Semaison: Carnets 1954-1979 (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)
Truinas le 21 avril 2001 ([Geneva]: La Dogana, 2004)
Une transaction secrète (Paris: Gallimard, 1987)
Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet, trans. by
Derek Mahon (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1998)

Bernard Noël
L’Air est les yeux (Trans-en-Provence: Unes, 1982)
À propos de l’exposition des œuvres d’Olivier Debré, juin 1976,
Galerie Ariel (Paris: Galerie Ariel, 1976)
Bruits de langue, repr. in Hervé Carn, Bernard Noël (Paris: Seghers,
1986), pp. 156-163
Le Château de Cène (Paris: Pauvert, 1971)
Bibliography 229

“Chillida: ‘Ajours de terre’”, Derrière le miroir, 242 (1980), 156-163

La Chute des temps suivi de L’Été langue morte, La Moitié du geste,
La Rumeur de l’air, Sur un pli du temps (Paris: Gallimard,
David (Paris: Flammarion, 1989)
Debré (Paris: Flammarion, 1984)
Debré: dessins 1945-1960 (Paris: Biro; Saint-Denis: Musée d’art et
d’histoire, 1990)
L’Espace du poème: Entretiens avec Dominique Sampiero (Paris:
P.O.L., 1998)
Espace du sourire (Sainte Croix Vallée Française: l’Attentive, 1998)
La Face de silence (Paris: P.O.L., 2002)
Géricault (Paris: Flammarion, 1991)
Journal du regard (Paris: P.O.L., 1988)
Laile sous lécrit (Paris: Orange Export Ltd., 1977)
La Langue d’Anna (Paris: P.O.L., 1998)
Lettre verticale XXXI pour Olivier Debré (Rouen: L’Instant perpétuel,
Le Lieu des signes (Le Muy: Unes, 1988 (1971))
(with Olivier Debré) Le Livre de l’oubli (Marseille: Ryoân-ji, 1985)
Magritte (Paris: Flammarion, 1977)
La Maladie de la chair (Paris: P.O.L., 1995)
La Maladie du sens (Paris: P.O.L., 2001)
Matisse (Paris: Hazan, 1983)
Olivier Debré (Paris: Aréa, 1988)
Olivier Debré, le rideau de scène de l’Opéra de Hong-Kong ([Paris]:
Librairie Séguier, 1989)
L’Ombre du double (Paris: P.O.L., 1993)
Onze romans d’œil (Paris: P.O.L., 1988)
Onze voies de fait (Mont-de-Marsan: L’Atelier des brisants, 2002)
Poèmes 1 (Paris: Flammarion, 1983)
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La Reconstitution (Paris: P.O.L., 1988)
Le Reste du voyage (Paris: P.O.L., 1997)
Le Sens, la sensure (Le Rœulx: Talus d’Approche, 1985)
Souvenirs du pâle ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1971)
Le Syndrome de Gramsci (Paris: P.O.L., 1994)
Treize cases du je: journal (Paris: Flammarion, 1975)
Le Tu et le silence ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1998)
230 Provisionality and the Poem

URSS, aller-retour (Paris: Flammarion, 1980)

Vers Henri Michaux ([Montpellier]: Fata Morgana, 1998)
Vieira da Silva (Creil: Dumerchez, 1994)
Zao Wou-Ki ([Mont-de-Marsan: L’Atelier des brisants, 2001)

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Agamben, Giorgio 12, 197 49-50, 51, 53, 77, 91-104, 145,
Air 15, 25, 59-138, 145, 161, 170, 154, 213
201, 220 Chateaubriand, François-René comte
Alquié, Ferdinand 22 de 46
Ancet, Jacques 176-177, 180-181 Chapon, François 139, 154
Apollinaire, Guillaume 38, 123, 141 Chappuis, Pierre 220
Aristotle 150 Collot, Michel 12, 64
Artaud, Antonin 20, 34 Constantine, David 172
Asse, Geneviève 140 Critchley, Simon 198-199
Bachelard, Gaston 49, 60-62, 65, 66, Dada 20
92, 94 Dante 179
Baroque, the 142 Da Silva, Vieira 140
Bashô 17, 21, 175 David, Jacques-Louis 15
Bataille, Georges 22, 38, 142, 208- Death 15, 59, 107-110, 113-114, 126-
209 127, 130-132, 134-135, 190-199,
Baudelaire, Charles 46, 96, 218 202-203, 205-211
Being 11, 24, 121, 202, 221 Debré, Olivier 139, 155-158, 160,
Benjamin, Walter 173, 184 163
Berman, Antoine 172, 174 Deguy, Michel 19, 174
Bishop, Michaël 23, 205, 214 Deixis 135
Blanchot, Maurice 196-197, 198-200; Delaunay, Sonia 141-142
“la nuit” 195-196, 198-199 Deleuze, Gilles 55, 177
Bobillot, Jean-Pierre 35, 55 Depth (and writing) 26, 71-72, 132-
Body 13, 14, 15, 19, 22, 54, 65, 84, 133, 135-137, 144-148, 170,
115-126, 130-132, 134-137, 142, 186, 201, 203, 215-222 (and art)
156-158, 160-163, 193, 195, 152, 154-155, 157, 162-163
208, 211, 218, 222 Derain, André 141
Bokor, Miklos 140, 151 Derrida, Jacques 121
Bonnefoy, Yves 11, 18, 19, 46, 142 Derrière le miroir 141
Böschenstein, Bernhard 171 De Bouchet, André 13, 14, 15, 16, 17,
Bourassa, Lucie 48 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26,
Breathing 12, 15, 25, 38, 41, 44-48, 29-32, 34, 36, 37-41, 42-44, 45,
54, 62, 68-70, 79, 84-86, 115, 48-50, 51, 57, 58, 59, 62, 63, 64-
117-120, 125-126, 211, 220-221 90, 91, 92, 99, 115, 131, 139-
Bréhier, Emile 101 141, 143-155, 156,163-164, 165-
Breton, André 22 171, 175-182, 183, 184-186,
Buber, Martin 120-122 189-190, 213-222; Air 25, 63,
Cady, Andrea 215 66, 76-90, 140, 214; L’Ajour 70,
Cahiers d’Art 141 72, 75, 84, 99, 185, 218;
Cardinal, Roger 65 Annotations sur l’espace non
Celan, Paul 166, 176, 178 datées 217, 220; Aujourd’hui
Cendrars, Blaise 135, 141-142 c’est 29, 40-41, 42-43, 48-50;
Centre 24, 120-122, 200-201 Carnets 1952-1956 21, 65, 73;
Change (instances of) 15, 46, 51, 53, Dans la chaleur vacante 16, 17,
58, 60, 95-98, 108-109, 131, 29, 59, 68; Défets 25; De
214-215 (enacted in writing) 25, plusieurs déchirements dans les
240 Provisionality and the Poem

parages de la peinture 140, 151; Event (poetry as) 35, 52, 54, 56-58,
D’un trait qui figure et défigure 137
152; Emportement du muet, L’ Expenditure 208-210
64, 140, 149, 153; Envergure de Fautrier, Jean 142
Reverdy 23; “Hölderlin Fédier, François 168
aujourd’hui” 165-166, 170, 175- Fetzer, Glenn W. 31, 65-66
176, 177-178, 181-182, 185; Ici Forgetting 32, 37, 39, 43, 49, 132,
en deux 140, 166; Incohérence, 136, 143, 145-146, 153, 155-
L’ 17, 68, 165, 178; Inhabité, L’ 157, 184-186, 193, 197-198,
140; Laisses 16-17, 72, 139, 209, 216, 219
145; Matière de l’interlocuteur Frontier, Alain 37, 40, 56
16, 19, 23, 32, 178, 179-180; Futurism 23
Moteur blanc, Le 67; “Notes sur Géricault, Théodore 15
la traduction” 166, 177, 180, Gesture 54, 156 (and art) 148, 150,
184-185, 217; Où le soleil 17, 161-164
29, 65-66, 71-72, 74; Poèmes et Giacometti, Alberto 17, 72-73, 140,
proses 166; Pourquoi si calmes 142, 152
49, 57; Qui n’est pas tourné vers Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 61
nous 72-73, 140; Rapides 222; Goldschmidt, Victor 101
Retours sur le vent 74-75; Sous Gnosticism 173
le linteau en forme de joug 139, Haiku 17, 21, 36, 54, 97, 99
143-148; Le Surcroît 84; Sur le Heidegger, Martin 24, 172, 174, 201-
pas 139, 154; “Tübingen le 22 202
mai 1986” 166, 170, 176, 178, Heidsieck, Bernard 20, 34-35, 45
181-182, 184-185; Tumulte 17, Herder, Johann Gottfried 176
29, 219; Une Tache 150, 151, Hesitation 15, 17, 25, 27, 50, 91, 112,
152-153, 216 167, 186, 202, 205, 210, 214-
Dubuffet, Jean 142 215, 219
Dupin, Jacques 18, 30-31, 59, 84, 142 Hill, Leslie 200
Dupouy, Christine 201 Hocquard, Emmanuel 221
Echo 12, 14, 24, 48-52, 105, 131-132, Hölderlin, Friedrich 24, 26, 61, 165-
145, 213, 216 166, 168-172, 174-179, 181-184,
Élan 17, 25, 26, 33, 36, 53, 134, 199, 187, 201-202; ‘In lieblicher
207-210, 218-219, 222 Bläue’ 166, 175-177
Elemental landscape 15, 18, 19, 30, Homer 34
59-74, 84-87, 88-90, 91, 115- Hugo, Victor 111
117, 132-133, 135, 147, 157, Instants 17, 24, 25, 36-37, 52-53, 54,
166, 169, 183, 185, 189, 213, 56-57, 91-92, 97-98, 100-104,
215, 221 109-110, 114, 115, 126, 153,
Éliade, Mircea 61, 201 183, 204, 214-215, 221-222
Eliot, T. S. 135 Intervals 16, 17, 18, 25, 31-32, 36,
Éluard, Paul 61, 123 40-41, 42-44, 48, 49, 57, 145,
Enjambement 12, 16, 31, 37, 39, 41, 147, 153, 170-171, 176-177,
42-44, 69, 95, 105, 118, 130, 184-186, 213, 216-218, 220-222
133, 146, 204, 217 Jaccottet, Philippe 13, 14, 15, 16, 17,
Éphémère, L’ 18, 21 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29,
Erotic, the 117-118, 121-122, 162- 34, 36-37, 41-42, 44, 45-48, 50-
163, 199, 209 51, 52-53, 54, 56-57, 58, 59, 60,
Index 241

62, 63, 91-114, 115, 126, 165- Lernout, Geert 166

171, 175, 178-179, 182-184, Levinas, Emmanuel 120-121
186-187, 189-192, 199-207, 210, Livres d’artistes 13, 26, 139-164
213-215, 218-222; Airs 17, 25, Lloyd, Lucy-Jean 49, 179
36, 63, 91, 94, 97, 104-114, 203; Luca, Ghérasim 51-52, 55-56
À la lumière d’hiver 18, 41, 45, Maeght, Galerie 141
59, 60, 91, 93, 95, 99, 102, 186, Magritte, René 15
190-192, 200, 202-207; Après Mahon, Derek 18, 59, 63, 103, 111
beaucoup d’années 17, 18, 36, Maldiney, Henri 48, 57
94; À travers un verger 41-42, Mallarmé, Stéphane 22, 23, 30, 46,
51, 91, 98, 203, 205-206; Cahier 56, 61, 138, 141, 185, 196, 208
de verdure 36, 57, 91, 100; Mandelstam, Osip 175, 180
Chants d’en bas 14, 191, 203; Manet, Edouard 141
Cormorans, Les 91; Matisse, Henri 15
Correspondance 1942-1976 23; Maulpoix, Jean-Michel 104
Effraie, L’ 36; Éléments d’un Memory 12, 124, 131, 136, 150, 154-
songe 53, 190, 200, 222; 155, 157, 179, 187, 197, 201,
Entretien des muses, L’ 214; Et, 209
néanmoins 18, 29, 36-37, 46-48, Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 160-161
50-51, 52-53, 98, 189, 200, 215; Michaux, Henri 142, 159-160, 162,
Ignorant, L’ 36, 96, 191; Leçons 218
14, 190-191, 202-217; ‘Note sur Miñano, Evelio 203
les traductions de Hölderlin’ Miró, Joan 142
165, 168, 183; Pages retrouvées Movement (in art) 73, 143-144, 150-
175; Paysages avec figures 154, 160-164 (in nature) 46, 48,
absentes 18, 24, 91, 178-179, 59, 91-102, 106-107, 111-113
182-183, 186, 200-201; Pensées (in writing) 11, 12, 14, 15, 16,
sous les nuages 18, 91; Poésie 25, 26, 42-44, 48-50, 53-54, 69-
1946-1967 14, 17, 59, 63, 91, 70, 72, 74, 89-90, 109, 115, 120-
94, 96-97, 167, 206; “Poésie, La: 121, 126, 134, 142, 145-149,
Un Hymne retrouvé de 159, 167, 169, 182-187, 208,
Hölderlin” 168-169; Promenade 210, 213-217, 219-220
sous les arbres, La 91, 92, 95- Musil, Robert 24
96, 190, 202-203, 205, 211, 214, Nature 13, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 41,
218; Requiem 21; Rilke par lui- 46, 51, 58, 70, 91-115, 117-118,
même 24, 171; Semaison, La: 131, 137, 147-148, 153, 156,
carnets 1954-1979 91, 104; 167, 182-183, 191-192, 200-201,
Truinas le 21 avril 2001 166, 203-204, 211, 216, 220-221
168; Une transaction secrète 23, Nerval, Gérard de 46
167, 170, 187 Noël, Bernard 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19,
Jackson, John E. 19, 66, 181-182 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 29, 32-34,
Joubert, Jean 91 36, 37, 38-39, 41, 44, 45, 53-55,
Kawanabe, Yasuaki 97 56, 58, 59, 62, 63, 92, 105, 115-
Laforgue, Jules 61-62 138, 139-141, 155-164, 165,
Lebrat, Isabelle 46 189-190, 192-199, 204-205,
Legrand, Jacques 171, 179 207-211, 213-214, 218-222; Air
Leiris, Galerie Louise 141 est les yeux, L’ 25; À propos de
Leopardi, Giacomo 179 l’exposition des œuvres d’Olivier
242 Provisionality and the Poem

Debré 139; Bruits de langue 55, Oral poetry 12, 24, 25, 33-37, 46, 56,
214, 218; Château de cène, Le 120
21; “Chillida: ‘Ajours de terre’” Orange Export Ltd. 221
218; Chute des temps, La 16, 21, Orpheus (and Eurydice) 198-199
29, 32-33, 38-39, 55, 123-125, OuLiPo 20
136, 192-195, 207-211; David Parry, Milman 34
15; Debré 139, 160, 163; Debré: Pascoli, Giovanni 179
dessins 1945-1960 139; Espace Performativity 19, 25, 62, 78-79, 101,
du poème, L’ 33, 56, 120, 157, 118, 153, 171-172 (J. L. Austin)
158, 199; Espace du sourire 19
139; “États de l’air, Les” 25; Été Pernoud, Emmanuel 142-143
langue morte, L’ 16, 33, 53, 59, Peyré, Yves 44
60, 122, 127; Extraits du corps Phenomenology 13, 160
15, 54, 118-119; Face de Picasso, Pablo 141
silence, La 16; Géricault 15; Pindar 165, 172
Journal du regard 15, 119, 139, Ponge, Francis 102
140, 158-159, 164; Langue Potential (in nature) 101, 107 109,
d’Anna, La 16; Lettre verticale 169 (significance of language)
XXXI pour Olivier Debré 139; 12, 13, 14, 20, 38, 39, 40, 86, 89,
Lieu des signes, Le 218; Livre de 96, 103, 118, 121, 136, 162,
l’oubli, Le 139, 155-157, 163; 185-187, 220
Magritte 15; Maladie de la Prepositions 49-50, 51, 133, 213
chair, La 16; Maladie du sens, Prigent, Christian 20, 45, 56, 221
La 16; Matisse 15; Moitié du Provisional, the 24, 25, 26, 27, 96,
geste, La 115-117, 126; Olivier 114, 205, 206, 213, 216-217
Debré 139; Olivier Debré: le Punctuation 16, 31, 37-41, 44, 88,
rideau de scène de l’Opéra de 100, 105, 126, 127, 208
Hong-Kong 139 Ombre du Queneau, Raymond 20
double, L’ 117, 124; Onze Real, the (experience of) 18, 22, 93,
romans d’œil, 123, 140, 159, 98, 107, 130, 132, 136, 148,
160-162, 163; Onze voies de fait 184-187, 192, 200 (writing
16, 22; Poèmes 1 15, 54, 117- creates the real) 11, 13, 19, 27,
120, 125, 214; Qu’est-ce 32, 43, 56, 91, 95, 139, 141, 142,
qu’écrire? 199, 209; 143, 152-155, 163, 166, 168,
Reconstitution, La 16; Reste du 180-182, 189-190, 203, 205,
voyage, Le 59; Rumeur de l’air, 210, 213, 217, 219-221
La 16, 25, 63, 117, 125, 127- Religion 24, 61, 89, 109, 112, 114,
138; Sens, la sensure, Le 21; 133-134, 137, 195, 200-202
Souvenirs du pâle 124-125, 193; Repetition 20, 24, 32, 34, 40, 41, 47,
Sur un pli du temps 16, 29, 33, 48-52, 54, 66, 70, 98, 99, 100,
53-55; Syndrome de Gramsci, Le 130-132, 145, 152, 153, 154,
16, 197-198; Treize cases du je 175, 183-184, 189, 195, 196,
196-197, 209; Tu et le silence, 197-198, 213-214, 219
Le 16, 121-122; URSS, aller- Ressemblance 119-120, 131, 137
retour 21; Vers Henri Michaux Reverdy, Pierre 16, 23, 49, 71, 141,
159-160, 162, 218; Vieira da 178, 179
Silva 140; Zao Wou-Ki 140 Rhythm 23, 24, 32, 33, 34, 36-58,
Ong, Walter 33-34 171, 183, 195, 219
Index 243

Richard, Jean-Pierre 109, 114 Surrealism 20, 22, 35, 142, 201-202
Rilke, Rainer Maria 24, 168, 171, Tal Coat, Pierre 17, 139, 140, 143-
175, 178, 193, 196 150, 153, 156
Rimbaud, Arthur 40, 46 Tàpies, Antoni 140, 154
Rochat, Denise 36, 203 Time (exploration of) 15, 19, 101,
Romanticism (poetry) 14, 24, 62 106-107, 109-111, 114, 115,
(translation theory) 165, 172, 124-127, 130-135, 145, 158,
174 184-186, 194-195, 198, 201,
Rothwell, Andrew 71, 119, 155 204, 210, 213-215, 217
Roubaud, Jacques 12, 20, 181 (temporal structure) 24, 31-58,
Roud, Gustave 23, 168, 175, 183 153, 170, 208, 219-222
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 46 Touch 116, 121-123
Roy, André 37 Traces 43, 126, 148-151, 154, 156-
Rudwick, Hans H., 62 157, 163-164, 197-199, 204,
Samoyault, Tiphaine, 179 205, 207, 213, 216, 218, 222
Sandras, Michel 41, 45 Transitions (experience of) 24, 26,
Sappho 174 70, 72, 91-99, 102, 108-110
Schleiermacher, Friedrich 172-173 (between modes of expression)
Silence 12, 26, 40-41, 49, 57, 58, 86, 14, 25, 26, 27, 120, 143, 150,
102, 121-122, 147-148, 164, 159, 189 (in poetry) 13, 14, 25,
189-211, 213, 220-221 27, 31, 43, 48, 52, 58, 77, 104,
Sivan, Jacques 56 112, 210, 213, 215-216
Sophocles 165 Translation 14, 17, 25, 26, 165-187,
Sound poetry 20, 34-35, 36, 37, 45, 189, 220
51, 58, 221 Trévison, Carine 141
Sourdillon, Jean-Marc 104 Tu 14, 84, 110, 121-125, 134, 193-
Space (of the page) 11, 14, 16, 22, 23, 194
29-32, 49, 64-65, 72-73, 76, 77, Tyers, Meryl 117
84, 99, 131, 143, 145-147, 150, Ubac, Raoul 154
152, 155, 217, 219-220 Ungaretti, Giuseppe 24, 175, 179
Stamelman, Richard 18 Valéry, Paul 12, 32, 161
Steiner, George 173 Vegliante, J.-C. 179
Stoics, the 101 Venuti, Lawrence 172-174
Structuralism 13 Verlaine, Paul 200
Subject (poetic subject) 11, 13, 14, Vidal, Jean-Pierre 175
15, 20, 22, 30, 59, 62, 64-75, 84- Violence 15, 18, 20, 66, 136, 173-
87, 88-90, 92-95, 102, 106, 110, 174, 207, 208
115-127, 132, 134-138, 156, Vision (the visual) 13, 14, 16, 24, 25,
166-168, 183, 185, 189-198, 26, 37, 45, 53, 57, 59, 64, 88, 90,
203-207, 210, 213-214, 219-220 95, 98, 102, 114, 119-126, 130-
Suffering 190-191, 194, 203-204, 132, 134, 140-143, 148-155,
206-207 157-164, 175, 202, 214-216,
Surface (and art) 151-152, 158, 162, 218, 221-222 (visual arts) 16,
163 (and writing) 26, 32, 71-72, 17, 18, 72-73, 89, 139-164, 189,
74, 93, 116, 122, 125, 132-133, 198, 216, 218
134, 135-137, 182, 201, 216- Vivin, Bertrand 162, 163
218, 220 Volume 25, 26, 64, 158-159, 222
Supervielle, Jules 61 (and mental space) 115, 119-
244 Provisionality and the Poem

121, 125, 131-132, 137, 161-

162, 218-219
Voss, Jan 160-161
Walking 15, 44, 59, 67-70, 74, 84-87,
91, 117, 217
Winspur, Steven 164
Zao Wou-Ki 140