Yves Bonnefoy (1923–2016): A Tribute from His Translators
The French poet and critic Yves Bonnefoy, who died on July 1, 2016, was unusually well served by his translators, who shepherded many of his books into publication in English. Thanks to their devotion and talent, readers in the English-speaking world can appreciate why Bonnefoy was, as the New York Times described him, “France’s pre-eminent poet of the postwar era.” The two most prolific publishers of Bonnefoy’s work in English have been Seagull Books and the University of Chicago Press. Seagull’s Naveen Kishore and Chicago’s Alan Thomas invited Bonnefoy’s translators to recall their collaborations with the poet.
I first met Yves Bonnefoy at a lunch organized by Jonathan Galassi, who was then an editor at Random House and the poetry editor of The Paris Review. Galway Kinnell, translator of Bonnefoy’s first book of poems, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve, joined us. He and Galassi had formed a project for translating the four books of poems Bonnefoy had published up to then [along with Douve, published in 1953, there were also Hier régnant désert (1958), Pierre écrite (1965), and Dans le leurre du seuil (1975)]. The first two were to be published by Ohio University Press, the original publisher of Kinnell’s Douve in 1968, and the second two by Random House. Kinnell and Galassi invited me to translate the remaining three collections.
That was in the early 1980s. During the years that followed, I met with Yves a number of times, attended his readings and lectures, and, most important of all, went over my translations with him. That was a remarkable experience. Joseph Frank, in his foreword to The Act and Place of Poetry (a collection of the poet’s prose published by the University of Chicago Press in 1989) notes: “What first struck me about the man, aside from a complete absence of any pose or pretension, was a quiet and tranquil spiritual integrity.” I was impressed by those same qualities in him. He worked with me in a spirit of perfect equality. He never criticized and never challenged; he asked questions and sometimes made suggestions; once or twice he urged me to be more specific, when he thought he had been too vague himself. He never insisted on changes, but his questions would point me to something I hadn’t seen or to a possibility I hadn’t thought of. His own inner freedom was infectious.
One of my favorite memories from those years is of a conversation we had over lunch one day. I had driven up to Yale to work with him on the translations. At the time I had recently married my Russian wife, and she had discovered that I had never read The Three Musketeers. For a Russian, that was unthinkable, and she rushed to buy me a copy. I started reading it, became completely caught up, and, at lunch with Yves, overflowed with enthusiasm for the book. He listened very patiently, finally looked at me rather sadly and said, “I have never read it.”
Bonnefoy’s poetry is a mysterious combination of the generic and the specific—something I have not encountered in any other poet. It is never anecdotal, never personal, never political; but it is fully alive. In it a tree is just a tree, any tree, but at the same time it is this living tree. His poetry is a form of provisional utterance. The music, the images are not an end in themselves. Words always fail, but in failing they allow something to appear beyond them, and for him that “something” was the most important thing. “Presence” was his name for it.
Richard Pevear’s translations appear in Yves Bonnefoy’s Poems: 1959–1975 (Random House, 1985) and Poems: 1959–1975 (Ohio University Press, 1992).
Unpacking my library here in France, after some years in which the majority of my books have lain undisturbed in numberless boxes, I found that in each of them there was one volume, at least, and sometimes several, by Yves Bonnefoy. All of them dedicated, avec affection, and sometimes with the rather nineteenth-century formality of a card, which reads Hommage de l’auteur, absent de Paris. Wherever I look on my yet-to-be-ordered-shelves, there are books by Yves—from where sit I can see Sous le signe de Baudelaire, Le siècle de Baudelaire, Le siècle où la parole a été victime, and of course L’Arrière-pays, that mesmerizing alchemical text which occupied me for so many years, first as a reader and then as a translator. I recall the phrases that drew me in, and that I have not exhausted to this day: “I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads.” That inaugural sentence could stand as Epigraph to his whole œuvre, with its tantalizing suggestion of an elsewhere, the haunting dream of a higher, non-conceptual consciousness, in some hidden fastness, surrounded by impassable rock. . . . And especially, “the blue in Nicolas Poussin’s Bacchanalia with Guitar-Player has that stormy immediacy, that non-conceptual clear-sightedness for which our whole consciousness craves,” and “Why can we not dominate what is there, like looking out from a terrace? Why can we not exist other than at the surface of things, at chance turnings in the path; like a swimmer who would plunge into this process of becoming and come up wreathed in seaweed, broader in brow and shoulders—blind, laughing, divine?” Yves is one of the very few poets who gives us not just landscape but the artwork—since reading him my view of, say, Uccello, or Nicolas Poussin, or Goya, or the tombs of Ravenna, or of the romanesque in architecture—has changed, or rather, he has provided the view. His best prose is frequently an invitation to meditate on great works.
In sudden memory I see him—a small figure, that strangely floating gait; the straight penetrating look, ce regard enflammé; and he is walking up a street that leads to the façade of the Saint Gatien cathedral in Tours, a flamboyant Gothic affair . . . and though he is in a group, everyone and everything has fallen away; he is taking in, he is absorbing, the immense façade, an extraordinary, imperious concentration radiates out from him like a nimbus. I saw that same blue flash of intense looking at an exhibition of Anne-Marie Jaccottet’s watercolors. And the never-ceasing dialogue in his mind . . . once I rode the 95 bus with him, all the way from the Collège de France, to Montmartre, where we both lived . . . he was speculating on what Mallarmé might have said to Baudelaire, had the two met . . . it was an unceasing monologue, a murmuration of that unforgettable voice. And now I turn to the essay “Baudelaire parlant à Mallarmé,” and it appears that as early as 1967 he was meditating this; and when I passed through the heart of Paris with him, past the Louvre and the scene of Baudelaire’s great unchanging melancholy, he was meditating Mallarmé’s reply. A devotion to the vérité de parole, to the search for le vrai lieu; a great abstract intelligence paradoxically devoted to “waking up the world (réveiller le monde),” to making us see a tree before we can name it as a tree. . . . A mathematical mind, a system-making mind, even, brought up short by the indelible impressions of childhood. Forays into reason continually stymied by the irrational, some dark body of water. And always, the early torments fought through if not wholly resolved, then at least appeased, his central project, from as early as 1958, has been unchanging: “I should like to bring together, if not in fact to identify, poetry with hope.” It was at the time—and remains to this day—a scandalous, outlandish mission.
Stephen Romer is the translator of Yves Bonnefoy’s L’Arrière-pays (Seagull, 2012).
We mourn the passing of Yves Bonnefoy, which is a great loss for poetry. My friendship with Yves lasted almost forty years. He was fond of quoting Yeats’s line from “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”—“my glory was I had such friends”—which he generously extended to those of us who spent many years translating his work or writing about it. But we were the ones who felt the gratitude in friendship Yeats’s line expresses, for Yves was an extraordinarily loyal friend. Over the years, I received countless letters and emails asking after my children, giving advice about problems, extending concern or encouragement.
We traveled together on many occasions, either just the two of us or with our families, and his wife Lucy and their daughter Mathilde soon became an extended family. I have never encountered anyone who lived more fully the life of the poet. There was never a moment when he was not writing or thinking. But above all, he lived the spirit of poetry. His commitment was total. When he spoke about or read poetry it was with an incomparable authority, because poetry was his whole life. It’s true that he did not suffer fools lightly, but there was a deep-seated humility in this man.
Yves Bonnefoy was in the great French tradition of Baudelaire and Valéry, producing not only exceptional poetry, but a distinguished secondary body of work devoted to art and literary criticism as well. He aligned poetry with hopefulness and sought to invest the simple earthly realities we all share with an almost sacred luminosity.
John Naughton is the translator of Yves Bonnefoy’s In the Shadow’s Light (1991); the editor of two volumes of his essays, The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays (1989) and Shakespeare and the French Poet (2004), and co-editor, with Anthony Rudolf, of his New and Selected Poems (1995), all published by the University of Chicago Press. He is also the author if The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy (Chicago, 1984).
Beverley Bie Brahic
Yves Bonnefoy, who died on July 1, has left the world an immense and varied oeuvre comprising poems, essays on art and esthetics, and translations from English and Italian. But it is perhaps his manner, in his poems, of mixing the sensuously earthy and the philosophical that will be most alluring for English readers. Take these limpid images from his 2008 collection, Début et fin de la neige:
And what to think
Of these yellow apples?
Yesterday, they astonished us, waiting so, naked
After the leaves fell.
Today they charm,
Their shoulders so
With a hem of snow.
The apples are intensely “thingy”—indeed, almost personified—in this poem, yet also suggestive of old quandaries of time and vulnerability to change. Such resonance, such simplicity! My first encounter with these poems from Snow gave me intense pleasure and pointed the way to other Bonnefoy books, and eventually to the poet himself when, clutching my sheaf of translations and a list of questions, I made the pilgrimage to his book-crowded study on a hillside in Montmartre. There I found a poet open to experience and often more interested in talking about California, where he had taught or Provence, whose landscapes we both loved—than in puzzling over the fine points of the translation of books that were by then behind him. My questions often concerned the exact translation of philosophical concepts and vocabulary (how, for instance, to translate the French word “evidence”?), questions I knew he had resolved with other translators. Sometimes I was trying to pin down an image, the better to “feel” and translate it, only to discover that he wished to foster a fruitful ambiguity. Nonetheless, as a translator himself, of Shakespeare, Keats, and Yeats, among others, he was generously supportive of his translators’ solutions to music, phrasing, lineation. But he was a stickler for details, the precise translation for a certain species of frog, say. Bonnefoy’s collection The Present Hour (Seagull, 2013) contains a sonnet (“The Bed, the Stones”) that speaks of a kind of stone called “safre” which, I discovered, is the Provençal name for a clayey sort of rock found in the ancient bed of the Durance River. I sought an adequate translation, without much luck until, with the help of the internet and my next-door neighbor in the Vaucluse, I learned that “safre,” though rare, is also used in English, in the world of wine terroirs. Proud of my solution, I described my researches to Bonnefoy. He stood up, walked over to a shelf, picked up a lump of rock and held it out to me: “safre.” The gift of a word.
Beverley Bie Brahic is the translator of four volumes of Yves Bonnefoy’s poems, all published by Seagull Books: The Present Hour (2013), The Anchor’s Long Chain (2015), Rue Traversière (2015), and Ursa Major (2016).
In 1975, when I was a graduate student in philosophy, a friend gave me a copy of Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve. I’d been memorizing and translating bits of Ronsard, Hugo, and Baudelaire, while travelling in France. When I first encountered the poems of Yves Bonnefoy, not on the roads of Burgundy but in the library at Yale, I started translating them too. Soon thereafter, my mother died and I spent a year in Germany and the world changed. But when I came back home, I learned that Yves Bonnefoy was going to teach a graduate course at Yale on Hugo and Baudelaire! So I sat in on the class, and at the end of the semester, I gave him some of my translations of his poems, and some of my poems, including an elegy for my mother, “Letter from Germany,” which would later appear in the Hudson Review.
What followed was a notable confluence. At the end of the summer, I received a letter from Yves, saying how much he liked my translations and poems, along with a copy of his Poèmes (1945–1974), and we began to correspond. Around the same time, Frederick Morgan kindly came over (with Paula Deitz) to New Haven, to read in the (budgetless) poetry series I ran in a small health food restaurant in the red light district. I started to write for the Hudson Review, poems and reviews and essays, and a few years later became an advisory editor. I discovered that Fred and Paula had established a wonderful tradition of publishing French poetry (see the recent anthology, Poets Translate Poets) and had already discovered Yves Bonnefoy, to whom they gave the Bennett Award in 1988. So they were happy to publish my translations of, and essays about, his work, which encouraged me to continue.
During half a year in Paris in 1981, I got to know Yves and Lucy better, and attended the ‘salon’ they held now and then on Sundays; Mathilde would pop in and out—she was only about ten. Thereafter I visited them whenever I came to Paris for work, and once I visited their summer house in Haute Provence, just as it was being sold: I was translating some of Yves’s poems about it and later wrote an essay about the role it played in his work, as a house first lived in and then remembered.
About ten years ago, Yves asked me if I’d like to translate “his American book,” De’but et fin de la neige, with poems he wrote while teaching at Williams College, in the midst of great snowstorms, and at the edge of the northern forests. I was happy to take on the project; around that time, I went to Paris two or three times a year, so on each visit, I’d take my latest batch of translations over to 72 rue Lepic, and discuss them line by line with Yves and Lucy. The book was published in 2012 (Bucknell University Press), with lovely drawings by Farhad Ostovani. It begins with an essay by Yves about translation, and ends with my essay on what I learned about English, and French, and poetry, by translating the work of Yves Bonnefoy over the course of almost forty years.
Emily Grosholz is the translator of Yves Bonnefoy’s Beginning and End of the Snow/Début et Fin de la Neige (Bucknell University Press, 2012)
In this excerpt from a longer, unpublished homage to Yves Bonnefoy, Anthony Rudolf recalls a May 22, 2016, visit with the poet in hospital.
. . . We talked about his two final books, Ensemble encore and L’Echarpe rouge, which had just come out, thanks to his extraordinary effort (even by his standards) in completing them as well as devotion on the part of his main publisher, Mercure de France. My copies had not arrived before I left London; he told me to go to Mercure’s office at 26 rue de Condé, and collect them, which I did in a sort of daze after leaving the hospital. Both books are slated for their English publication from Seagull Books next year.
We discussed scornfully and in full agreement political issues such as the forthcoming referendum on Brexit, Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen. Reassure me, I said, that she cannot win the next election. His opinion was that she would lose on the second ballot; then we discussed other likely candidates before moving on.
I reminded him that a few weeks earlier I had told him about Jean Daive’s remarkable second book on Paul Celan and that he intended to buy it. “Overtaken by events”, he replied. I asked him yet again about his friendship with Paul Celan and the complex issue of Celan’s relationship with Yvan and Claire Goll, as discussed by Daive. Yves reiterated his own views and then moved on to the magazine he co-founded, L’Ephémère, and how the group of friends who edited it from 1967 till 1972 (Bonnefoy, du Bouchet, des Forêts, Picon, Dupin, Leiris, Celan), with their collective energy and genius (my phrase not Yves’s), brought to mind the poets of the Romantic circle in England.
Wordsworth and the others: we both knew it was too late for our pilgrimage to the Lake District, long wished for, which would have been Yves’s first visit. We talked about our companions, Lucy Vines and Paula Rego, painters both. Then about my good friends dating back to London in the late nineteen-sixties, Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, and Michel Couturier, another group of French poets strongly associated with the English language. I introduced them to him and he, typically, supported the work of these younger and brilliant figures, notwithstanding their radically different poetics.
I recalled to him one of the high memories of my life: at his ninetieth birthday gathering in the Maison de l’Amérique-Latine on Boulevard Saint-Germain (scene too of Mathilde’s wedding), while we were talking in the garden slightly apart from the other guests, he gestured towards them and quoted the conclusion of one of Yeats’ greatest poems (included in Yves’s Yeats volume): “And say my glory was I had such friends.” He smiled. Friendship was one of his great gifts. Teaching was another. And both involved learning, even from his juniors, especially from his juniors. That he was my teacher has always been self- evident but, for example, he regularly asked whom he should read. The first recommendation I made was back in the sixties when I said he must pay attention to Geoffrey Hill, which he did, Geoffrey who died one day before him. Later, I insisted he read a French classic he had inexplicably missed: La Vie de Henry Brulard, my favorite book by Stendhal.
I asked him about unfinished work. He said he had hoped to complete a final essay for a big book on Poussin but he didn’t have the strength. However, he was content: “mon oeuvre est bouclée,” my work is done. And what work! He told me again about his inclusion in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. This, for those who do not know France, is the ultimate consecration, especially for a living writer. Concurrently, volumes of correspondence, including letters to his translators into thirty languages, are being prepared. There are not only dozens of letters to me, what about the enormous number of emails, including the very first email he ever sent? “It’s the editors’ problem, not mine,” and he laughed.
Anthony Rudolf is the translator of many works by Bonnefoy, including the complete Hier régnant désert (Yesterday’s Wilderness Kingdom, MPT Books 2000), and is co-editor, with John Naughton, of Yves Bonnefoy’s New and Selected Poems (Chicago, 1995).
Worldwide, the community of letters mourns the death of Yves Bonnefoy; but some of us have also lost the man who was our spiritual father. After knowing him well for almost half a century, I am acutely aware that he was the last of my parents—and in many ways, the one who changed my life the most. The anecdotes I might recount would be endless: they would begin with our weekly conversations in Paris in the late sixties, and range through our days in Rome, the encounters in Cambridge and New York, and the unforgettable sojourn in Ireland. But as always, the best tribute we translators can pay to our great friend is an echo of his words: an echo that by its very nature must be faint, humble, and distorted. Through a glass, darkly, this might be one of the many potential versions of his final poem in verse, among the most luminous he ever wrote.
BRIEFWEG, IN WARBENDE
What I’ve picked up is a letter—tossed
Yesterday into the grass, beside the path.
It has rained: the pages are stained with mud;
Ink overflows from the words, illegible.
And yet the iridescence of these signs,
Decomposed, now is almost light.
The downpour has drenched a promise;
The ink has become a puddle of sky.
Like this, let us love the words of the cloud:
They too were a letter, and our lure;
But light redeems them by passing through.
Shall I try to decipher these phrases? No:
They are more to me, by coming undone.
I dream that night is the breaking of day.
Hoyt Rogers is the translator of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Digamma (2014) and Together Still (forthcoming, 2017), both published by Seagull Books.
To read more about Yves Bonnefoy’s works translated into English and published by Seagull Books and the University of Chicago Press,