A Monolingrel’s Forays into European Poetry #2: Raymond Queneau

In the run-up to Sidekick’s Alkemi event, run in conjunction with the Stockholm Review of Literature, I’m touring the Europe of my poetry bookshelf. Dominated as it is by British poets, and limited as I am by my lack of facility in any language other than my own, there are still quite a few Europeans who have managed to infiltrate. Today I’m going to reflect briefly on a recent addition: Raymond Queneau.

It is strange and, some might say, shameful, that this is the only Queneau book I own, and that I have only come by it recently. It’s not even a bilingual edition. It’s not even poetry! (Is it?)

But Queneau is a Charles Xavier among poets; his reach and influence extends well beyond those who have actually read his work. And not simply because his disciples have disciples of their own, or because he was the head of a movement (Oulipo) that has had more than one zeitgeist-y moment, but also because his achievements as an innovator can be boiled down to simple, eye-opening descriptions that have the power to send other writers scurrying to their laboratory-sheds to replicate his experiments. When you first hear about Exercises de Style, for instance – a book that recounts the same anecdote 99 times, each in a different literary or journalistic style – you can grasp the significance of it without a lesson in literary history, and without having to so much as glance at a single page.

Let’s have a glance anyway though. Here’s the English version (translated by Barbara Wright) of the anecdote rendered as a homeoteleuton:

On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: “Oi, mate!” But to anticipate Billingsgate debate, he hastened to abate, and sate.

An houate aftrate, in front of the Saint-Lazate gate, I notate him agate, talkate about a buttate, a buttate on his overcate.

And here it is again as a sonnet:

Glabrous of dial, a plait upon his bonnet,
This lousy lout – (how sad the neck he bore
And long also) – performed his usual chore:
The bus was full and he tried to get on it.

One came, a number ten – perhaps an S;
The platform joined to this plebeian carriage,
Crammed full of folk, allowed no easy passage;
Rich bastards lit cigars there, to impress.

The young giraffe described in my first strophe
Once he was on the bus began to curse an
Innocent chap – (he sought an easy trophy,

But got the worst of it); then found a seat
And sat in it. Time passed. Some wicked person,
Returning, found his buttons did not fit.

It’s similarly easy to get the gist of Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a set of ten sonnets with entirely interchangeable lines, allowing for, well, a hundred million million possible combinations. You’re more likely to encounter this work on a website than in book form, and it’s no coincidence that Queneau is referenced in every single book on games studies I currently have on loan from the library – his work is a touchstone for students in game-like literature, literature as inducement to play. The mere fact of its existence is encouraging for anyone troubled by the apparent one-sidedness of the author-reader relationship in poetry.

That much of the value and import of Queneau’s work resides in its formulation also means that he comfortably vaults the language barrier. If you don’t need to read him in English, you certainly don’t need to read him in French. This is not without drawbacks: I’ve detected for a while now a fatigue with Oulipo-inspired work by English-speaking poets, and the murmurings of complaint that the average Queneau-em lacks both purpose and substance. Arguably, anyone truly wishing to imitate the spirit of Queneau should be concocting their own formal innovations, not simply repeating his exercises. One invention of his in particular, the univocalism, long ago became the English-poetry equivalent of bicep-flexing. And it can be galling to be dismissed as an Oulipian trickster simply because one makes use of ideas that have now been around for more than half a century.

So it makes sense to turn back to the work itself, and inevitably find that there’s more to this poet than clever and hyper-restrictive forms. What I like most about Queneau (the above book isn’t the only one I’ve read, just the only one I own) is his penchant for inter-poem patterning and assemblage. It isn’t just the poems, but the books themselves that are elaborate structures. In Morale élémentaire, for instance, the latter half of the book consists of 64 prose poems based roughly on hexagrams from the I Ching. It’s like a deck of cards; it could be published as a deck of cards. Content-wise, tone-wise the poems are incredibly ranging – sprawling, even – and yet they always feel reined in, always feel marshalled. I hate to end on a cliche, but this is precisely what I consider to be missing from many poetry books that leave me cold. At the very least, it makes for a refreshing alternative. Queneau sells you the complete set, painstakingly collected, the finished sticker book, rather than giving you the junk shop tour.

A Monolingrel’s Forays into European Poetry #1: Paul Celan

So then! On Wednesday next week, Sidekick team up with the Stockholm Review of Literature for the above event, Alkemi, which centers around European poetry read in its original form alongside English translations. In the last few days before the event, I’m going to do a very short series of posts about key European poets of My Bookshelf, from the perspective of a reader with very little aptitude (despite ongoing attempts to rectify this) for foreign languages.

To start with, Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel, 1920 – 1970, a Romanian-born poet who wrote in German, forging progressively sparser, sharper, harder sliver-shards of poetry throughout his career.

My first encounter with Celan was in the third year of my undergraduate degree at UEA. I apologise for the mundanity of this. He appeared on a course of major German poets, alongside Rilke and Hölderlin, and I wrote a coursework essay on him, which I am sure I could no longer stand by, arguing that he was writing toward the ‘end of language’. The marks I received suggested I was on the right track, but that has very little to do with why I keep returning to this poet.

The bluffer’s guide to poetry will tell you that if someone brings up Celan, you bring up his suicide and the Holocaust. Both of Celan’s parents died in labour camps, and he himself spent time in one before being liberated by the Russian advance. It’s widely accepted that his poetry addresses and struggles with that experience, and his most famous poem, ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), is entirely unambiguous in taking on that subject matter. The bluffer’s guide might suggest that you quote “through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech”, Celan’s assessment of how language itself (in particular, German) was brutalised by the Nazi regime. Beyond that, you may well be advised to say nothing at all – Celan is difficult, and more importantly, criticism of Celan is difficult. What I’ve read of it is deep-reaching, meticulous, hard to follow and impossible for me to summarise. It makes the poet himself seem dark, despondent and, er, difficult.

But still, none of this is why I keep coming back to him. This may seem intellectually irresponsible, even culturally insensitive, but I’m not that interested in engaging with the Holocaust, or with the Jewish experience, through Celan’s writing. To the extent that particular poems can be traced back to distinct episodes in his life, this is a little more arresting, but I am generally not a fan of parsing the poem as biographical insight. For me, he is much more intriguing as a poet of jagged, crystal strangeness, particularly towards the end of his career, when he made heavy use of neologisms and portmanteau, shunting words together to gesture at new and frightening concepts. An important part of the effect comes from the hard edges (as I perceive it) of the German language, and it’s always worth reading several translations of Celan to see the extent to which different translators have tried echo the sound of the original poem.

My favourite translations, by the way, are those by Ian Fairley, who has produced two books of Celan translations for Carcanet – Snowpart and Fathomsuns and Benighted. He keeps a lot of the portmanteau words. They’re like little birds made of sawblades. The poems are often extremely short – seemingly easily to swallow, yet liable to get caught in the throat. Check out this little number from Snowpart:

gerittener, Über-
geschlitterter, Über-

besungender, Un-
bezwungener, Un-
umwundener, vor
die Irrenzelte gepflanzter

seelenbärtiger, hagel-
äugiger, Weisskies-

ridden, Over-
slidden, Over-

sung, Un-
swung, Un-
planted ahead the bedlam tents,

soulbearded, hailstone-
eyed, Whitepebble-

I could probably go into a thorough comparison of different translations at this point, but I’m not sure I’m up to the task right now, and this is meant to be a very short article. So I’ll end here by saying that the German sound is so integral to the feel of Celan’s poems that when I attempted my own versions, I went so far as to ignore the literal sense entirely and produce a homophonic translation, a form of poem decried by Don Paterson as avant-garde whimsy. The result frustrated a reviewer of my own book, though it’s hard to imagine he would have found much more sense in a literal translation. Below is the original German, followed by Ian Fairley’s translation, then Michael Hamburger’s, and finally my homophonic version from School of Forgery.

Further reading: