First in Vers Libre: Jules Laforgue’s Last Verses

Keith Ekiss

Trans. Donald Revell. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2011. 93 pages. $15.95.

Last VersesIn December 1908, while a student at Harvard, T.S. Eliot came across the poetry of Jules Laforgue in Arthur Symons’s critical introduction The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Eliot would later describe the moment as a “revelation” claiming that Laforgue was “The first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech.” Laforgue, Eliot said, turned him “from a bundle of sentiments into a person.” After the discovery, Eliot stopped writing poetry, read Laforgue, and emerged a year later with the style and persona of J. Alfred Prufrock. Modernist poetry in English, or at least one strand of it, was born.

The poetry of Jules Laforgue is thus undeniably in the DNA of Anglo-American modernism, but despite this influence Laforgue hasn’t captured the imagination of American readers in quite the persistent manner of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, or Apollinaire, the latter two of whom translator Donald Revell has already brought lovingly alive in English in four previous volumes. To these giants, Revell now adds Laforgue: hip, satirical, ironic, dramatic, melodramatic, and surreal. He’s passionate to the point of camp:

This pretty, pretty Sunday
Frail, inviolable virgins
Stroll to the little chapel
Whose insane bells
Hygienically and elegantly draw them in.

Cleanness everywhere they go!
Sunday anywhere you look!

The closer they get, the crueler I become! (35)

In this campiness he resembles not so much Eliot as a latter-day American successor of French poetry, Frank O’Hara. Symons wrote that Laforgue’s verse was an “art of nerves.” O’Hara couldn’t agree more for the art of poetry, writing in his “Personism: A Manifesto”: “You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’”

This premonition of O’Hara’s style may be in part what lends a contemporary feel to Laforgue’s work. If anyone’s taking a victory lap in American poetry right now it’s not Eliot but O’Hara and the New York School. Yesterday’s plain style (the flat American poem of yore) has morphed into today’s default mode of urbanity and edginess with irony blocking every exit. Laforgue sounds strikingly contemporary, and Revell is doing his best to put Laforgue’s poetry into contemporary consciousness. There’s no translation-ese here. If Laforgue through Revell sounds like he could be writing right now it’s because, metaphorically speaking, and through the long and too often unrecognized history of French influence on American poetry, he is.

But where the least of our contemporaries value disorientation for its own sake, Laforgue has a motive: his disgust at the prudish morals of bourgeois French society. Laforgue has the enemy in his sights and it’s often (unfairly enough) the figure of woman, the embodiment of the conservative values of the day.

My God, if only the Ideal
Would strip her of her angel wings!
If only she’d accept man as her equal . . .
Oh! forbid her eyes to speak of the Ideal,
Let them speak plainly of human things! (43)

Laforgue’s critique of the chaste female is countered by his all-out unrequited love for an unnamed muse (probably Leah Lee, whom he married less than a year before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 27). At its heart, Last Verses is a sequence of love poems that progresses from frustration to idealization with a brief moment of fulfillment dashed by separation again. The two lovers hook up long enough for Laforgue to have his moment of delight as he recalls their shared love.

I’m sprawled atop a stagecoach, smoking,
Grinning at the sky;
My carcass is bouncing, my soul is dancing . . .

We loved each other like mooncalves,
We parted without a word;
Desolation banished me,
And desolation was everything. Good. (53)

Derniers Vers was first published in 1890, three years after Laforgue’s death, and it’s considered the first volume of free verse in French poetry (excluding the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud). He’s rightfully claimed by those looking for avant-garde predecessors, but in his quest to find the ideal in the figure of woman he remains highly traditional, a successor to Dante and his Beatrice, among others. Eliot recognized this and eventually turned his back on Laforgue in his Clark Lectures at Cambridge saying that Laforgue was trapped by his “effusion of adolescent sentiment and he remained, for us, imprisoned within his own adolescence.”

Laforgue offers no system, no overt manipulation of symbol or history; he’s sardonically and romantically alive on the page, and very much our contemporary. “Pain always produces logic which is very bad for you,” O’Hara writes in “Personism.” For better or worse that illogical lyric cry, whether adolescent or not, won’t apologize in us or in Laforgue.

“Stay away;
There’s no cure for me.
Only one thing left to do:
Smash everything.” (49)

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