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The Art of Poetry
By Paul Valéry, Denise Folliot
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1958 Bollingen Foundation, Inc., New York, N.Y.
All rights reserved.
This volume contains various essays which have appeared here and there, and which deal with the poet's state and the art of verse; but there is hardly anything to be found in it that would explain poetry itself.
Poetry, an ambiguous term, sometimes means a feeling that leads to creation, and sometimes, a production that tends to affect us.
The first case refers to an emotion whose peculiar effect is to fashion for itself in us and through us a WORLD that corresponds to it.
By the second sense of this word is meant a certain industry that may be thought about. It strives to produce and reproduce in others the creative state I spoke of, through the special means of articulate language. It tries, for example, to suggest a world that will give rise to the emotion just mentioned. The peak of this art is reached, in relation to a particular reader, when for the perfect and necessary expression of the effect produced on him by a work, he can find only that work itself.
But the first meaning signifies for us a kind of mystery. Poetry is at the very meeting point of mind and life—two indefinable essences.
Those in whom this mystery occurs mostly content themselves with their awareness of it. They simply accept this wonderful gift of being moved to create.
As passive or active poets, they endure or pursue pleasure without knowledge. Indeed it is commonly held that these two moods are mutually exclusive; that it is dangerous, perhaps impious, to want to unite them in one person. In the sphere of sensibility this opinion is incontestable—on condition that one labels as "sensibility" anything nonintelligent and divine.
But where are the perils by which no one is attracted?
Certain persons, then—although not very many—are not resigned to being merely favored by nature with a certain causeless gift. Not without pain and resistance do they admit that paroxysms and pleasures of such a high order are not completed and resolved in intellectual contemplation.
Far from thinking that the clear, distinct operations of the mind are opposed to poetry, these headstrong persons claim that the ambition to analyze and to grasp the poetic essence, besides being in itself in conformity with the general tendency of our will to intelligence, and exercising to the full our powers of understanding, is indeed essential to the dignity of the muse—or rather of all the muses, for at present I am speaking generally of all our powers of ideal invention.
In fact, however sensuous and passionate poetry may be, however inseparable from certain ravishments, and although at times it goes even to the point of disorder, one can easily show that it is still linked to the most precise faculties of the intelligence, for if it is in its principle a kind of emotion, it is a peculiar type of emotion, that wants to create its own figures. The mystic and the lover can remain in the sphere of the ineffable; but the poet's contemplation or transports tend to fashion an exact and lasting expression within the real world.
Passion and emotions give us an intimate shock and affect us by surprise. Sometimes they release secret forces in us that suddenly disrupt the soul; sometimes they waste our energies in mad disordered impulses that are explicable only by the moment's overflow; at other times, they drive us to more or less reasonable and reasoned acts, tending to the attainment of some object whose possession or destruction will restore our peace of the moment before and our freedom for some moments after.
But sometimes these particularly deep states of disturbance or emotion give rise to inexplicable bursts of expressive activity whose immediate effects are forms produced in the mind, rhythms, unexpected relations between hidden points in the soul which, although remote from each other until that moment and, as it were, unconscious of each other at ordinary times, suddenly seem made to correspond as though they were parts of an agreement or of a pre-established event. We then feel that there is within us a certain Whole of which only fragments are required by ordinary circumstances. We also observe the initial disorder of consciousness giving birth to the beginnings of order, becoming mingled with projects and promises; a thousand potential perfections arise from imperfection, accidents provoke essences—and a whole creation or formation by contrasts, symmetries, and harmonies is revealed, takes shape in the mind, and at the same time evades thought, only allowing itself to be surmised.
But since I am speaking of emotions in connection with poetry, I may here make a remark that bears a relation to the general scheme of my reflections.
Poets—I mean those persons who are especially prone to feeling poetically—are not very different from other men in respect to the intensity of the emotions they feel in circumstances that move everyone. They are not much more profoundly touched than anyone else by what touches everyone —although, with their talents, they may quite often make one think so. But, on the other hand, they can be clearly distinguished from the majority of people by the ease with which they are extremely moved by things that move no one else, and by their faculty for providing themselves with a host of passions, amazing states of mind, and vivid feelings that need only the slightest pretext to be born from nothing and grow excited. In a way, poets possess within themselves infinitely more answers than ordinary life has questions to put to them; and this provides them with that perpetually latent, superabundant, and, as it were, irritable richness which at the slightest provocation brings forth treasures and even worlds.
This greatness of effect combined with this smallness of cause is quite simply what marks the essential poetic temperament.
But is not this the very character of our nervous system? Is it not the remarkable function of this system to substitute the controllable appearance for the unseizable, insurmountable, and inconsistent reality? Hence this agent and mysterious apparatus of life, seeing that its function is to compose all differences, to make what no longer exists act on what is, make what is absent present to us, and produce great effects by insignificant means, offers us, in short, everything needed for the beginnings of Poetry.
A poet, in sum, is an individual in whom the agility, subtlety, ubiquity, and fecundity of this all-powerful economy are found in the highest degree.
If one knew a little more about it, one could hope in consequence to form a fairly clear idea of the poetic essence. But we are far from possessing this central science. The devotees of analysis, of whom I said just now that they are not resigned to being merely the playthings of their talents, are soon aware that the problem of the invention of forms and ideas is one of the most delicate that a speculative and practiced intelligence can set itself. Everything in this field of research must be created—and not only the means, the methods, the terms, and the notions—but also, and above all, the very object of our curiosity must be defined.
A little metaphysics, a little mysticism, and much mythology will for a long time yet be all we have to take the place of positive knowledge in this kind of question.
This essay on "Adonis" was written in a beautiful stretch of country, so vast, and enclosed at such a distance by forests and gentle curves, that only the deepest peace seemed to come as the fruit of that expanse lying open to the sun and girded by enormous trees.
In that favorable spot I had no difficulty in feeling everything in the way we may imagine La Fontaine felt it. There are uncounted hours in which one seems to hear the murmur of pure time flowing by; one watches a whole day melt in the sky without interrupting one's musing by the least distraction. Sometimes I roused myself from this shadowless sleep; I returned indolently to my work, and studied myself a little so as to imagine the poet at his labors.
This delicate task has hardly changed its procedure or its character since poets first existed. La Fontaine labored and idled as we do. Virgil sought, lost, and found with the same boredom and the same joys as we. Whatever the language and the prosody, this odd craft of reconciling quite different conditions is the same and is repeated in every age and almost everywhere. I have lately been astonished by recognizing in a Chinese poet who sometimes comes to see me, a strange ability to grasp and make his own many of the fine shades of our art which escape so many people here, even the well read. I hardly dare add that being well read may spoil one's right understanding of poetry; but it happens to be so—about seven times out of ten.
A poet is something of a potter. He takes a common material, he sifts it, removes the gravel, and begins to impose on it the form of his idea; he feels all the time as though he were poised between what is being made and what he wanted to make. The expectation and the unexpected both act and react on each other through him. That is the godlike in him. God Himself fashioned us from a little red earth and somewhat less wit. But that essential Poet, who could create infallibly, thought it more worthy of Himself to risk under taking a work. He did not make what He imagined, and we are like Him.
* * *
There hangs about La Fontaine a reputation for laziness and dreaminess, an habitual suggestion of absence of mind and perpetual distraction that naturally leads one to imagine a fictitious personage perpetually taking the easiest course through life. We see him vaguely as one of those inner images which are never far from our minds, though they were formed many years ago from the first engravings and the first stories we knew.
Perhaps the very name of La Fontaine has, from our childhood, fixed forever upon the imagined figure of a poet some indefinable suggestion of freshness and depth, some spell derived from water. Sometimes a consonance creates a myth. Mighty gods have been born of a play on words, which is adultery of a kind.
He is, then, a creature who dreams and babbles on in the greatest possible simplicity. We naturally situate him in a park, or in a delightful countryside, whose beautiful shadows he pursues. We give him the bewitched attitude of a solitary who is never really alone: either because he is rejoicing with himself at the peace around him, or because he is talking to the fox, the ant, or another of those animals of the age of Louis XIV who spoke so pure a language.
If the beasts leave him—for even the wisest of them do not cease being restless and easily frightened by the slightest thing—he turns toward the land spread out in the sun and listens to the reed, the mill, the nymphs responding to each other. He bestows his own silence on them, which they turn into a kind of symphony.
He is faithful to nothing but the pleasures of the day (but on condition that they yield of themselves and that he does not have to pursue them or use force to hold them), and his destiny would seem to be fulfilled in drawing out by a silken thread the sweetness of each moment: delicately deriving from it endless hours.
There is no easier comparison with this dreamer than the lazy cloud that holds his gaze: that gentle drift across the sky insensibly diverts him from himself, from his wife and child; it bears him toward forgetfulness of his own affairs, relieves him from all consequences, absolves him from all plans, for it is vain to try to outstrip the very breeze that bears you; even vainer, perhaps, to claim responsibility for the movements of a mist.
* * *
But a poem of six hundred lines in rhyming couplets like those of Adonis; such a prolonged sequence of graces; a thousand difficulties overcome, a thousand delights captured in an unbroken and inviolable web in which they come together and so tightly that they are forced to melt into each other, thus giving the illusion of a vast and varied tapestry—all this labor which the connoisseur sees transparently, through the magic of the work, in spite of the action of the hunt and of the vicissitudes of love, and at which he marvels as his mind reconstructs it, makes him renounce once and for all the first, crude idea he had held of La Fontaine.
* * *
We must no longer imagine that a lover of gardens, a man who runs through his time as he does through his stockings; part dazed, part inspired; a little stupid, a little quizzical, a little sententious; dispensing to the small animals around him a kind of justice entirely based on proverbs—we must no longer imagine that such a man could be the true author of Adonis. We should note that here the nonchalance is deliberate; the indolence is studied; the facility is the height of artistry. As for artlessness, it is entirely beside the point: to my mind such sustained art and purity exclude all sloth and all guilelessness.
* * *
One cannot engage in politics with a simple heart; but still less is it by absence of mind and dreaming that one can impose on speech such precious and rare arrangements. The true condition of a true poet is as distinct as possible from the state of dreaming. I see in it only willed inquiry, suppleness of thought, the soul's assent to exquisite constraints, and the perpetual triumph of sacrifice.
It is the very one who wants to write down his dream who is obliged to be extremely wide awake. If you would give a fairly exact imitation of the oddities and self-betrayals of the helpless sleeper you have just been, would pursue in your depths that pensive fall of the soul like a dead leaf through the vague immensity of memory, do not flatter yourself that you can succeed without the utmost effort of attention; and attention s greatest achievement will be to discover that which exists only at its expense.
Whoever says exactness and style invokes the opposite of a dream; whoever meets these in a work must presuppose in its author all the labor and time he needed to resist the permanent dissipation of his thoughts. The most beautiful thoughts are shadows, as are the others; and here the ghosts precede the living. It was never an idle pastime to extract a little grace, a little clarity, a little permanence from the mobility of things of the mind, or to change what passes into what endures. And the more restless and fugitive the prey one covets, the more presence of mind and power of will one needs to make it eternally present in its eternally fleeting aspect.
* * *
Even a fabulist is far from resembling that careless being we once carelessly created. Phèdre is all elegance, the La Fontaine of the Fables is full of artifice. It is not enough to have heard, under a tree, the chattering of the magpie or the dark laughter of the crow to make them speak so felicitously: for there is a strange abyss between the speech that birds, leaves, and ideas hold with us and that which we attribute to them: an inconceivable distance.
This mysterious difference between even the clearest impression or invention and their finished expression becomes as great as it can be—and hence most remarkable—when the writer imposes on his language the system of regular verse. This is a convention which has been greatly misunderstood. I shall say a few words about it.
* * *
Freedom is so seductive, particularly to poets; it presents itself to their fancy with reasons that are so plausible and, most of them, well grounded; it clothes itself so suitably in wisdom and novelty, and urges us, by so many advantages whose dark side one hardly sees, to reconsider the old rules, judge their absurdities, and reduce them to the simple observance of the natural laws of the mind and the ear, that at first one does not know what to reply. Can one even say to this charmer that she is dangerously encouraging carelessness, when she can so easily reply by showing us an appalling quantity of very bad, very facile, and terribly regular verse? It is true that one can hold against her an equal quantity of detestable free verse. Accusations hurtle between the two camps: the best supporters of one party are the weak members of the other, and they are so much alike that it is impossible to understand why they are divided.
Excerpted from The Art of Poetry by Paul Valéry, Denise Folliot. Copyright © 1958 Bollingen Foundation, Inc., New York, N.Y.. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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