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Into the Deep Street

Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008

Jean Follain, Henri Thomas and Philippe Jaccottet

Edited by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer

Translated by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer

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Imprint: Anvil Press Poetry
Publisher: Carcanet Press
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Paperback (336 pages)
(Pub. Jun 2009)
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  • From the Introduction by Stephen Romer

    Some words of explanation are required at the start of this anthology, which gathers together seven French poets from three generations. The oldest, Jean Follain, was born in 1903, and the youngest, Gilles Ortlieb, in 1953. The original “hunch”, and it is one that has become a conviction over the years, is that Follain in fact stands at the head of a line of poets who have, to a greater or lesser extent, recognized themselves in his work. For one thing, the seven represented here have all at various moments expressed their admiration for the poet, either in written form, or (among the living) in conversation. Henri Thomas has written of Follain as one of the poets “qui parle d’autre chose”, rather than of himself. He admires him also as a poet extraordinarily free of rhetoric. Jacques Réda has remarked on Follain’s magical art of contiguity, his ability to set a current running between objects in juxtaposition, in the absence of any single governing metaphor – indeed there are scarcely any metaphors in his work. Guy Goffette has penned a typically witty poem, in the Follain style, and incorporating titles from the Norman poet’s collections, “Usage de Follain”. Seen in these terms, of loyalty, and even fealty, this cluster with seven sides, this septagon, is in fact self-suggesting. Obviously it is not exclusive, and each of these poets belongs also to other clusters, and has undergone other influences. But for our purpose, which is to present a definite lignée, or filiation, of poets, and to follow one significant and relatively untrodden path through the labyrinthine ways of French poetry in the last century, it is a useful point to start.

    One hallmark of this grouping is the fierce independence of each of these poets, since they would only warily acknowledge that they belonged to anything resembling a school, still less a chapelle. They are all, in the nice French sense of that word, fairly sauvage, which does not mean that they are sociopaths, or that they cannot, on occasion, be perfectly urbane. But the sauvagerie is there in the work, which is solitary in feeling, whether alone in a room, or on a train, or on a Parisian street. Several of them quote approvingly Rimbaud’s celebrated On ne part pas (“no one ever leaves”) – quite cognizant of the fact they are frequently in movement. Apart from the notable exception of Henri Thomas, who is the author of several novels, these poets remain for the most part in disjunctive dialogue with themselves, and it is remarkable that even Follain himself, so scrupulously impersonal in his aesthetics, acknowledges that a poet lacks le don de l’ubiquité, the gift of being omnipresent. But a reading of Henri Thomas’s recently published Carnets shows clearly how this haunted and obsessive young man managed to distribute, among a whole cast of characters, his own compulsions. In Guy Goffette’s prose text “Partance”, the image of the poet writing in a dilapidated, immobilized caravan at the bottom of his own garden is a poignant résumé of a mental condition, of a self-consciousness that cannot escape itself. And as we shall see, it is in the effort to escape, and in what is for them almost a moral imperative to turn outwards, that these poets recognize each other. “Despair does not exist for a man who is walking”, writes Jacques Réda in Les Ruines de Paris, and it might serve as a motto for the others gathered here. But he adds the important qualifier, “as long as he really walks, and does not engage in chatter with someone else, or in self-pity, or in showing off”.

    Contemporary French poetry has long been tagged as being overly cerebral and hermetic. But there exists a very different, thriving tradition which is too often muffled by noisier movements like Surrealism or Minimalism. Into the Deep Street gives voice to this tradition. What links the poets is an acute awareness of the existential instant in both its inward workings and also, crucially, in its outwardness – in the street, on the move.

    From the key figure of Jean Follain, who can freeze an entire period of history in a vignette of a few lines, via the best-known of the close-knit if regionally scattered group, Philippe Jaccottet, to the newer voices of Guy Goffette and Gilles Ortlieb, all these poets are masters of wry brevity and the resonant image. These qualities are evoked both in the editors’ introductions and in their excellent translations.

    The poets: Jean Follain, Henri Thomas, Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Réda, Paul de Roux, Guy Goffette, Gilles Ortlieb

    Jean Follain
    Jean Follain was born in Canisy, Normandy in 1903. He studied law at Caen and in Paris, passing his bar exams in 1927 before entering legal practice. In 1951 he was appointed an Assize Judge for the Ardennes region. He continued to live in Paris until his death in a street ... read more
    Jennie Feldman
    Jennie Feldman was born in South Africa, grew up in London and studied French at Oxford. A former award-winning radio producer and presenter, she is married with two children and lives in Jerusalem and Oxford. Her first collection of poems, The Lost Notebook, was published in 2005, as was her ... read more
    Stephen Romer
    Stephen Romer was born in Hertfordshire in 1957 and read English at Cambridge. Since 1981 he has lived in France, where he is Maître de Conférences at Tours University. He has held Visiting Fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge and has taught in the US. He has published four full collections, including ... read more
    Awards won by Jean Follain Short-listed, 2011 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize (Jean Follain)
    Praise for Stephen Romer 'Stasis is the great enemy of a mind as active as Romer's and his poems are often a means of avoiding it, except when by some conjuring trick they attempt to arrest time... This is a book of elegant benedictions that allow for ecstasy and its opposite, and are fitting, memorable companions for either.'
    Declan Ryan, TLS
    'Reading Romer's poetry will leave you with a sense of calm and clarity because this long serving poet has developed a technical control that allows even for mysticism without rattling the bodily cage too much'
    Claire Crowther, Magma
       'A characteristic blend of self-examination and what feels like a classically trained sense of beauty, clarity and proportion. There is something Bergman-esque about Romer's work.'
    New Statesman
    'Stephen Romer has achieved a breakthrough in these new poems. The death of his father has torn away a veil, releasing a fresh energy and vision.'
    Hugo Williams
    'If Tribute is haunted by aphasia, exile and the loss of continuity, those fears are shadows that give body to the essences more insistently dwelt upon, and these are apprehended with a depth of spiritual resource that is almost mystical.'
    Clive Wilmer on Tribute, in Times Literary Supplement
    'Austerely eloquent treatments of lost love and the complexities of family are juxtaposed with reflections on art and poetry - exactly the civilised range of interests that might strike fear into the incurious. Readers open to Romer's scrupulous, passionate music and the conversational intimacy of his address will gather rich rewards, however.'
    Sean O'Brien, Culture, 11 January 2009
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