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AT STAKE
Poetry in the Western World

Yves Bonnefoy

Translated by James Petterson

Rather than discuss particular aspects of European literary creation, I would like
to pose the question of poetry more generally, in a way that addresses the essence
of the poetic and seems urgently apt for the period we are now entering. For
there is a crisis in this realm of human endeavor: a profound crisis, though per-
haps not of the kind that we occasionally imagine. What is at stake is not really
a weakening of the creative faculties. Nor is there an unusual rarefaction of the
sensibility that enables poems to be written. Poetry has always been difficult, its
authentic manifestations few; and major works have always been crowded by
mediocre ones. Lengthy periods, the French classical era for instance, have only
a fleeting acquaintance with poetry. A satisfactory moment can hardly be found,
even in the nineteenth century until around 1860, when Baudelaire — the only
major poet at a time when Vigny was getting on in years and Hugo was in exile—
was reviled and insulted. After this, Mallarmé was mocked and Rimbaud reduced
to sarcasm and revolt. In short, the golden ages of poetry are in our dreams. Our
own time, though, has an inventive spirit and, perhaps more than any previous
era, feels a need for radicalism and rigor. Meanwhile, the masterpieces of film
in their own way show — as much as major narratives like Werther, René, and

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Copyright 2002 by Duke University Press

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Nadja— that poetic perception of the world survives (even if, as now, outside of
books).
The crisis of poetry may not be so noticeable in the creation of poetry, but
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it is amply evident in the suspicious and hostile reception that many spectators
of literature reserve for works of poetry (or, rather, for their propositions and
worldview) — I am referring mainly to theorists and philosophers. More trou-
bling is that the negative reception of poetry is almost as common among poets,
perhaps because they experience rejection more acutely and are tempted to sur-
render what they most cherish. I would be among the first to take seriously the
doubts — raised during the recent fin de siècle, at least in France — concerning
the claims made for poetry. Objections that arise in the context of these doubts
may be well-founded and should bring us to interrupt our traditional engage-
ment with poetry at least long enough for serious reflection. A glorious past, after
all, in no way guarantees the legitimacy of the present. Neither Baudelaire and
Rimbaud, nor even Dante and Shakespeare, offer a priori proof that we ought
not to turn the page—even were it the central page of a book we have been read-
ing forever.
And so my effort here will be to see whether poetry should renounce its
claims or reassert them at the price of reviving the idea of a “poetic essence,” an
idea more uncertain (hence, more readily contestable) than any of poetry’s own
works and intuitions. Let me begin by stating what appear to me poetry’s right
to exist, the reason for which it has existed for so long, and (this will be my hardly
unexpected conclusion) why it must continue to exist. The reason for poetry
resides in the most profound depths of language, both langage and parole. Under-
standing requires that we pay close attention to the way in which langage becomes
parole— a process whose effects can be harmful to us, even without our notic-
ing. When it comes to the mind, the greatest ills often go unnoticed.
There are, it seems to me, speech acts whose consequences are dangerous
and alarming for poetry. Language, we know, is inhabited and articulated by webs
of interrelated notions—by concepts. A child enters early on into adult language,
essentially by acquiring concepts, and these conceptual systems are, it is obvious,
immensely beneficial: they construct the world in whose midst human activity
produces its goods and expands. These systems have discovered ways to drill
through the bottomless layer of matter and harness its energy. They enable me,
even now, to reflect, fool myself, correct myself; they are able to flush out lies. As
such, these systems are the ferment of freedom; they are not an instrument of
tyrannical desire, which prospers only by means of contradiction and fantasy.
But what price do we pay for the powers we owe to conceptual systems?
Must we not lose as much as we receive, and lose even before receiving? Con-
sider what occurs when a concept emerges and assumes its place in a series of
concepts. Some aspect of an object is noticed that distinguishes it from other
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objects. It receives a name that permits it to be situated, is assigned a place in dis-
course and stored in memory. When similar aspects are encountered in other
objects, the name helps establish affinities and differences that contribute to

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ordering the data offered by perception and action.
Somebody noticed, for instance, that one could say “flower,” as opposed
to “leaf” or “stem.” So began botany — a rich haul though a mixed blessing. For
in thus naming things, in grasping the world by means of abstractions, was it nec-
essary to abandon perceptible qualities, those perceived through the senses? Of
course not. Sensible aspects are among those that a name can most easily serve
to delimit and remember — so much so that they owe their nearly supernatural
brilliance to the intellect’s taking an interest in them. The red and green of this


flower on its stem will never be redder or greener than from the perspective of

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the concept that determined there is red and green in the world. As for the effects
of abstraction on our apprehension of being — or of its perceptible aspects:
abstraction, it is worth noting, displaces the activity of our senses with regard
to visible and audible things. It is touch and smell, the senses of nearness, that are
most cheated, and this in turn disrupts the equilibrium proper to the world’s
means of offering itself to us. But what today’s concepts lose, tomorrow’s can
recover. The project of conceptualization will not be scared off because a thing
has many or even an infinite number of aspects. The vocation of conceptual
understanding is to account for everything.

1
Everything. Still, there is one very specific loss: at the moment when an aspect
of a thing or being is abstracted from it, its reality is at the heart of an existen-
tial world. By this, I mean that the thing or being appears at a given moment
in time, experiences wear and tear and aging, and one day disappears. Beings
have their life in time, the same time that we live in, and like us they are located
in one place and not another, here rather than there, at a point in the world that
cannot be defined alone in terms of geometrical space. Their relationship to
space, on the one hand, and to time, on the other, implies two ways of being;
and those relationships keep them connected to other beings and things, but not
at a level that science can articulate. Their connection is a simultaneity or prox-
imity determined by chance . . . In a botany textbook, the rose is planted forever
next to its genetic relation, the eglantine. An actual rose, however, is planted
next to some tulips and this old wall or that fountain in a particular garden —
and only for some few days. From this unrepeatable, unique reality (call it pres-
ence), a concept is abstracted; and it is these presences and their occasional dis-
appearance (call it absence) that, it is clear, comprise the universe we live in and
that decide our destiny.
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Although a concept may comprehend aspects of a presence that has a
beginning and end, that has a place and is subject to chance, concepts themselves
have no beginning, end, or place. Concepts know nothing of chance, and neither
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profit nor suffer from it. This flower is red; and while redness will not stop it
from withering, the concept of red does not decay. This rose is beside an old wall,
but the idea of the rose exists in a mental space comprised of pure relations, clear
and complete as an algebraic expression. From the disjunction between concept
and presence it follows that conceptual discourse can never comprehend from
within the existential reality that is also our own. Doubtless, discourse invents
“decay” and “death,” even “anguish in the face of death.” But conceptual discourse
never will live decay, death, or anguish as will an existing being, aware that chance
presides over its fate and that the unforeseen can, in a moment, alter its relation
to itself and other beings.
Clearly, I would insist, that disjunction is a great loss. Consider the dis-
comfort or even indignation you feel on noticing that an error in pronuncia-
tion — on the part of a child, for instance — permits him to be labeled as belong-
ing to a given social or ethnic group. The child is categorized, once and for all,
and put at risk of being denied a job or of having his unique qualities discounted.
A conceptual representation has been unduly substituted for a presence — you
feel it. And you sense that this distancing of a reality that is in itself infinite affects
you as well, since it would prohibit you, were you to accept it, from following up
on sympathies that, if nothing else, would enable you to understand yourself bet-
ter . . . My example may seem simplistic, addressing as it does a human being, not
an object. But objects offer ways toward the human, and I believe that what I
am saying applies to every type of conceptual understanding that denies, I dare
say, the dignity proper to all that exists.
But why dwell on the effects of conceptualization, either on self-con-
sciousness or one’s consciousness of others? Because I believe that poetry can
most strictly and fundamentally be defined as a remembering, within discourse, of
the presence that discourse abolishes. Our speech is carried along the endless flow
of representations and meanings. It is poetry, at the root of speech, that remem-
bers situations and moments lived in the immediate presence of things or per-
sons — an immanence that discloses the infinite. For poetry, for poetic intuition,
this way of being is essentially ambiguous. Summoned not by concepts but by
recollections of an infant’s first glimpse of the world on the threshold of lan-
guage — or summoned, say, by the impulse of love, which catches our precon-
ceptions off guard — poetry is even then divided from its object (presence) and
formed by words where abstractions are at work and tend to dominate.
Poetry is fettered consciousness — a desire frustrated, from the outset and
forever. We may well ask how and why poetry has managed to cling stubbornly
to speech and even empower its most memorable events. In language there is
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an element, always present and essential, that contributes to remembrance of the
very thing language obstructs. Words are not only concepts but also sound. It is
true that the sonorous aspect of words often disappears behind their meaning,

Poetry in the Western World


perhaps because the sound helps to differentiate between notions or because,
when sound is briefly perceived as such, it may underscore thought. Veni, vidi,
vici: the sound, in this famous example, reinforces the idea. Sound is auxiliary
to the idea and does not compete with it.
Still, everyone has experienced, on occasion, how sound detaches itself
from the meanings joined to it and supposedly independent of it. At such times,
sound is a material property entirely devoid of meaning, and yet perceived all the
more as infinitely resonant. Avène, for example, could have been, for Rimbaud,


simply the name of a cereal. But the word struck him, one day, as evidence of the

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absolute, literally outside language. In addition to the referent that the word
always designates — barley — avène ceased for Rimbaud to play its modest role in
the conceptual universe of peasants and agronomists. It acquired a surplus of real-
ity; henceforth impenetrable, the word disclosed, to a young poet, all its mystery.
Why? Because sound, when it is perceived beyond any web of meanings, is
immediate: it belongs to the immediacy of a world not yet broken into compo-
nent parts, a world whose unity is not yet undone by conceptual discourse. In
short, sound is in itself a presence located where concepts play their game of hin-
dering speech from grasping presence. When we hear a sound and the memory
of presence is thus restored, we consider afresh what has been said. In this way,
poetry can arise naturally from words and, at the same time, remember more
than words do. The sound of a word preserves within language the reality that
language dissipates. Sound helps bring presence to mind and, with it, stirs desire.
Moreover, we should not forget that sound, the nearly infinite variety of sounds,
enable the poet who can hear them, who truly listens and wants to remain in their
domain, to create effects of assonance, alliteration, and rhyme that inscribe them-
selves on the poet’s body in all their immediacy. It is then that poetry begins, and
not simply as memory but as return. Since poetry uses words more for their
sounds than for the concepts joined to them, the concepts’ authority is weakened.
The veil they cast over reality is torn or is at least worn thin. Contact is reestab-
lished with presence.
Presence, the full presence of an object or person, is thus the stake that can
be lost or won, depending on our acceptance or refusal of poetic intuition. In a
society that forgets presence and devotes itself to representations whose ability
to grasp and analyze mere surfaces is matched by its ignorance of time, place, and
chance — that is to say, of finitude and uniqueness —what is at stake in poetry is
presence.
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2
What is at stake in poetry is presence. At least in Europe; in the West.
Having defined poetry in terms of an essential relationship to abstract
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thinking, it is necessary to recall that such thinking is not an invariable fact of


consciousness the world over. On the contrary, abstraction has a history, even a
geography; and its evolution down the centuries imposes a specific character on
the changing circumstances and potential effects of poetic invention. The evo-
lution of conceptual understanding has known such profoundly different phases
that one may even suggest there was a time when poetry did not exist — though
for altogether different reasons than the ones proposed today by those suggest-
ing it may yet cease to exist.
I am obviously thinking of prehistory, the time when conceptualization,
in an early, uncertain form, was still far from taking possession of the phenom-
enal world and of each event in our lives. Chains of signification were beginning
to take shape. But at every instant, events in the natural world occurred so sud-
denly, so unexpectedly, so complexly, and often so menacingly — a tiger about to
pounce, lightning flashing in the sky — that one could hardly keep from feeling
the fullness of presence, the saturation of the immediate with the infinite. Speech
could then account for presence only by an equally immediate naming, an excla-
mation—as is still the case today, when we address someone by his or her proper
name. Furthermore, when naming was a matter of comprehending and not
merely designating, the name must have attributed to unanalyzed realities —
regarded as beings — the same motivations, feelings, and desires noticed in one-
self. Such was the age of myth; and in it, where all is presence, the idea of poetry
is senseless. One can feel nostalgia only for what has been lost. For poetry to
exist, conceptual systems must be sufficiently coherent and all-encompassing that
they veil the world with their image of it.
This coherent and expansive conceptual aim, however, was not slow to real-
ize itself. Then poetry could arise, in all its ambiguity, and take its various shapes
in differing times and places. There was, for instance, a vast gap between the sys-
tem of writing devised in China and that in societies from which we, in Europe,
inherited the signs of our alphabet — hence the title of this essay refers explic-
itly to poetry in the West. In China, a means was developed to denote the idea
of a thing using characters whose design imitates the general appearance of the
thing represented. The mind thus remained on the plane of appearance, where
the reality of a thing can easily be perceived as unitary and indivisible. There
were even, between the main elements of Chinese characters, blank spaces sug-
gesting that the unity of the object existed absolutely, rather than at the level of
mere sensory continuity. It was as though the Chinese system of notation sought
to preserve the experience of wholeness, of immediately existing being — as
though it sought to preserve the dimension of presence that conceptual analysis
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necessarily abolishes. As a consequence, Chinese and Japanese poetry has suf-
fered less than our own from conceptual alienation and has played a completely
different social role. But this is not my present topic, even were I qualified to

Poetry in the Western World


entertain it.
I shall limit myself to the civilization and part of the world called the West,
where words were made first of syllabic and then alphabetic signs. This Western
preference takes the direction, obviously, opposite to that of China, and takes it
with extraordinary energy. In the West, the signs we use are resolutely nonfigura-
tive, even wholly arbitrary. Once these signs form a word, they no longer enable
the mind to retrieve the appearance of the thing signified, nor the presence
inherent in it. From the outset, they institute a completely different field, one


where analytic thought can freely replace the kind of immediate apprehension

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that had once called for proper nouns. This inaugural rupture is the origin of
conceptualization, which inevitably accelerates its work and increases its author-
ity. The rupture does not facilitate poetry — poetry recalls presence from within
the web of mediation. Still, poetry may thus be compelled to reflect upon its
unique identity.
I say compelled, since, at this initial stage of writing, poetry had to experi-
ence a sort of competition that could only trouble its self-consciousness and
weigh heavily on its historical destiny. When, in this early period, conceptual-
ization took hold — along with its surplus of energy and means — its inventors at
the same time underwent a profound transformation in self-understanding. At
first reflectively self-conscious, in harmony with the analytical means they now
possessed, they then perceived that they were themselves superior to the mean-
ings they had produced; after all, they could cancel them and create new ones.
They thus experienced what might be called transcendence. It is as if the quality
of presence that had been perceived in almost everything and then receded from
the face of things as they became conceptualized, was in the end capable of exist-
ing only within the self-consciousness of those from whom all concepts spring.
Nevertheless, an impression of presence still enchanted the unexplored reaches
of our worldly experience, and thus a new idea arose that changed the direction
of history: the idea of a divinity that, in its transcendence, could exist in our
unknowable depths as well as at the unapproachable horizon of external reality.
The rise of a personal and unique god — here I am following Karl Jaspers
(and also Jean-Pierre Vernant, who underscored the point in his inaugural lec-
ture at the Collège de France) — occurred pretty much everywhere at about the
same time, between the seventh and the second centuries B.C. Contemporary
with the rise of writing and with the increasing power of conceptualization, the
personal god arose as a way for the mind to maintain contact with absolute real-
ity at a time when conceptual understanding had undertaken to substitute a mere
image for it.
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The consequences of this new way of thinking upon an equally new poetry
are plain to see. Hardly had the preoccupation with God become noticeable than
it put into words all that it required to sustain its main intuition. Narratives and
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rituals gave transcendence a meaning by comparing it to human existence. Tran-


scendence was depicted as a being with its own history and feelings — the last
myth permitted by the new, soon to be scientific, worldview. All this took hold
of the human mind and enabled its sense of mystery to be kept alive; poetry could
not but be affected, since it binds itself to the transcendence it conceals. In other
words, the need for the absolute — poetry’s reason for existing — could also lead
poetry to renounce itself for the sake of religious experience. Poetic intuition,
which had just become self-aware, was already “robbed of its energies,” as Rim-
baud would later suggest.
Why robbed — robbed of its lost object, rather than helped in finding it?
Because the intuition of transcendence cannot become an idea, even a religious
one, without being in some way associated with a system of representations that
is still conceptual, still a replacement for immediate experience by a mere idea
about it, still a forgetting of the existential under the insidious influence of gen-
eral formulas. The god, in principle unknowable, that religion has made the key
to its memory of transcendence is also the god that distances itself, thus ceasing
to be omnipresent. Only mysticism can loosen the hold that representations have
over the simplifier’s gaze, but it does so at the cost of withdrawal from language,
a result that poetry does not want. Poetry, as I have defined it, is at heart the
memory of what is other-than-concepts, and so it follows that, in its attraction to
religion, poetry runs the risk of being reconciled to a form of the alienation it
rejects. In other words, poetry runs the risk of being robbed or deprived of itself
by itself.1 It is asked to give itself up.
Yet, since poetry did not relinquish itself during the centuries when vari-
ous churches nevertheless claimed to be the judges of what one might think and
feel, poetry became in practice religion’s intimate enemy. Poetry identified itself
with religion’s point of departure, but so as to contest the conceptual inflexibil-
ity through which the intuition of transcendence was, to say the least, attenuated
by theological notions and moralistic preconceptions. It is striking to observe
how, throughout the history of poetry in the West, major poets are always dis-
tinguished by their attentiveness to the surplus of reality, to the immediate pres-
ence that they alone are capable of perceiving in the object of thought proposed
by religion. Consider, in the French context, François Villon. Even when turn-
ing toward others — the natural direction of the concern with transcendence —
Christianity is not above placing obstacles along the way. Among the obstacles

1. Bonnefoy’s expression “volée de soi” suggests that


poetry is both robber and robbed.
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are, first, the Christian understanding of ethical behavior and, next, the still-
mythological beliefs in which Christianity demands that we have faith. Never-
theless, Villon wrote his poetry solely to struggle against this dangerous reduc-

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tion of the religious to the moral. When he evokes his illiterate mother, who
marvels in church at the images of heaven and hell, he does so out of sympathy
for a worldview that is ignorant of these figures of dogma and that derives from
them only a sense of hope. In Villon’s Lais or in his Testament, poetry and religion
are not separate, but since they remain united only through the disappearance of
the theological structure, it may be said that, by the work’s end, there is noth-
ing there but poetry.
Much the same could be said of Petrarch and Ronsard, except that for them


it was the task of erotic desire to rework the model that Christianity proposes for

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love and life; next, it was Racine’s turn in Phèdre and, then, in the great phase of
European Romanticism, the rediscovery of transcendence in the immediacy of
nature. Throughout European history — through a long series of intuitions —
poetry has confirmed that it can exist without mythological props. Poetry has
more and more apprehended its own specificity and its immense responsibility.
It has “grown up” or, better, readied itself for the self-consciousness and spiritual
maturity it attained in the works of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. These poets no
longer doubted, in effect, that the object of poetry differs radically from all those
pursued by other intellectual endeavors. They knew that its object is the key to
“real life”2 and concluded that its revelation and proclamation were sufficiently
crucial acts to justify, in their own lives, the most painful sacrifices. Thanks to a
number of French poets during the latter half of the nineteenth century — but
also thanks to Leopardi, Hölderlin, and Wordsworth — poetry learned to know
what it is: the project of recognizing existence as such and assuring it of its right
to be. With these poets, the age that witnessed the birth and life of poetry came
to consciousness of its own particularity.

3
At the same time, paradoxically, the poets’ sense of self became troubled once
again, and now in a way that shook their work to its foundation.
Why? Because conceptual knowledge, in the context of which poems are
made and unmade, began to discover that conceptualization was decidedly not as
previously believed. Before Vigny, before Baudelaire, no one doubted that the
world concealed a profound order that someday the human mind would fathom.

2. Bonnefoy’s phrase “la vraie vie” refers to Arthur Rim-


baud’s Une Saison en enfer: “La vraie vie est absente” [True
life is absent]. Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1972),
103.
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The idea of a creator god became attenuated and for some thinkers even seemed
to disappear; still, most continued to believe that beneath appearance there was
something that could be called being. By around 1850, however, science had been
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laboring a long time to bring this illusion to ruin. In approaching the world
through its material aspects and single-mindedly pursuing an understanding of
matter, science encountered nothing that could confirm religious revelation,
much less illuminate the mystery of being or of human destiny. Science suggested
that humanity is but a “vain form of matter.”3 The universe might be penetra-
ble by means of geometry or of the physical and life sciences, but it meets meta-
physical questions with nothing but silence, and human beings have no privileged
place in its midst. This discovery was not disquieting to poets, since they refused
all such abstractions and could happily accept the final crumbling of a mythol-
ogy against which they had struggled throughout their history.
Far more preoccupying for the creation of poetry is the question of how, in
this new era, our thinking — a thought process that, freed from the sway of
mythology, attends exclusively to things — may come to consider an inner world
in which the self relates to itself. This new philosophy deems us but one of many
forms of matter and holds that there is nothing to us that could be called “the
substance of being” or a piece of “the transcendent truth.” For those persuaded
by this argument, it is clear that our ideas about ourselves are demonstrably
invalid hypotheses and that such ideas persist thanks only to their internal coher-
ence. Each hypothesis is but one configuration among others of the elements of
language, whose interactions are — so this argument goes — the sole reality.
But imagine the devastating consequences of this outlook for poetry (at
least as I have defined it). It is, in my account, with memories of impressions
experienced in their own lives that poets nourish poetry. But what if these exis-
tential moments of these supposed witnesses to poetic truth are merely linguis-
tic reconstructions of things? What becomes of the poets’ claim that what they
attain is beyond concepts? However one may believe that poems are carried by
direct experience of presence, they may only displace or modify representations
without even shifting the plane on which these are coordinated. Poetry would be
simply a mental delusion. Where poetry lays claim to a truth and a particular
responsibility, there is (according to the new philosophy) only writing: tropes,
allegory, images—all that makes up the “meta” level of discourse—is as reducible,
for the purposes of conceptual analysis, as is ordinary discourse.
Poetry would thus not exist; the self-understanding of the poet would depend
on a fundamental illusion. And so I return to the critique of poetry whose specter

3. Stéphane Mallarmé to Henri Cazalis, April 1866. Bon- forms of matter, but quite sublime, having invented God
nefoy is quoting a passage in which mortal beings are and our soul]. Correspondance 1862–1871, ed. Henri Mon-
characterized as “vaines formes de la matière, mais bien dor and L. J. Austin, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 207.
sublimes pour avoir inventé Dieu et notre âme” [vain
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I raised at the outset — though without revealing, then, its essential nature. My
reason for saying that this critique cannot be taken lightly may now be clearer:
there can be no poetry tomorrow if we do not answer, today, the question that

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has been posed.

4
I shall try to answer the question. To do so, I must return to my argument that
concepts are blind to the facts of existence. The conclusion of my argument —
confidently asserted —was that, given this blindness, poetry is justified.
Meanwhile, however, I have had to consider an aspect of the problem that


complicates matters and seems to put my conviction in doubt. The machinery of

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conceptualization knows nothing of time, place, or chance, and so estranges us
from our most immediate reality; an attempt to overcome the concept’s hold on
words — the activity of poets — is therefore justified. But what if all our means of
self-evaluation are conceptual through and through, and we are thus forced to
perceive existential realities through reductive generalities and abstractions?
What if, at bottom, language is itself conceptual? How, then, can poetry be, as
I have defined it, a memory of that which transcends concepts? Is believing in the
possibility of such a memory, and deducing from it poetry’s right to exist, sim-
ply an erroneous consequence of a naive idea of language?
I hope that some readers may recall the dialogue in which Zeno, Zeno of
Elea, hypothesizing that a straight line is made up of a series of points, deduces
that Achilles could never catch up with the turtle; in other words, that move-
ment is impossible. Yet all the while, someone —whether foil or accomplice —
walks, ostensibly, by his side. Likewise, I must turn to phenomena that to me
seem obvious.
You too are walking. You spend a while walking through a forest laced with
gullies, bare of trails or footpaths. Suddenly you realize that, by chance, you are
lost. You are not where you ought to be. You seek the proper direction, but in
vain, and not without some anxiety; night is falling. In moments such as this, what
awareness do you have of the world and of yourself? You are no longer so inter-
ested in the nature of things. You wonder less about whether this tree is a maple
or an oak, and more about its presence: the fact that this tree confronts you, when
another tree (the last you had noticed while still where you ought to have been)
should stand in its place. And you think of the contingencies that led you to lose
your way, because you well know that it is chance, and chance alone, that will
set you on your way again. In other words, your faculty of abstraction or con-
ceptualization, which should enable you to analyze your situation and resolve
your problem — it has not really stopped working, no; it remains your only way
to explain to yourself, step by step, what is happening. Yet something transpires
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in the forest that could not possibly come from conceptual thinking alone. There
are categories of understanding — time as it rushes toward you, place as it dis-
appears, chance when you are at its mercy — that are no longer notions pushed
COMMON KNOWLEDGE

into the backwoods of discourse. They are now the center and focus of your
attention. They have reorganized your inner discourse, for which certain
things — this tree here, that stone there, this peak in the east you can use as a
landmark, that ravine blocking your way — are no longer objects for analysis but
presences that preoccupy, if not menace, you. This change in the relation
between words and things also unexpectedly reorients your relation to yourself.
Unexpectedly, for you remain lost in these woods, like a castaway on an
island, forced to survive alone; you no longer occupy your mind with the next
minutes’ decisions, pressing as they may seem. In discovering the import of this
place, the urgency of time now, the role of chance in your life, you are led quickly
to regard your existence in a way that puts much of your past in question; and
you discover aspects of your life that could have been, let us say, more serious,
more mature. You would see that we are nothing, true enough, but also that per-
ceiving and accepting nonbeing is — in the uniqueness of that instant — an
absolute event. Then, at last, one encounters one’s own depth, the rock bottom,
concealed by the interplay of ordinary meanings, a game that neither began nor
will end. After this experience, new values are clarified; you plan to draw on them
to achieve self-understanding, simplicity, eventually a kind of wisdom. If you feel
that concepts do not lend themselves to this pursuit, you remove yourself from
them, valuing, instead, symbolic hints that may suddenly come to you from water
surging between two rocks, or from the noise of wind rustling in the leaves . . .
We may take leave of this example. I hope that it has served to show that,
if conceptualization can in no way penetrate the categories of presence (and per-
haps can never encounter them directly in its internal discourse), they are nev-
ertheless at work at the heart of thought and language, putting certain words
aside to let others appear, evoking images whose lesson begins only on the far
side of silence. We are always lost in some wood, as night is falling. And though
conceptual thought cannot open to what happens within us — open itself to the
mystery of self-consciousness — there are still, within words that are more than
concepts, stirrings through which we can meet up (this time, fully) with ourselves.
Conceptual discourse is not the whole of what we are. Another form of speech
exists within us, one that conceptual discourse does not encounter but that, at all
events, is traced on reputedly indestructible tissue, as if by pressure from below,
or from inside, an envelope that is sealed. The discourse that, in effect, wishes
it were and believes it is alien to the phenomena of existence is perhaps itself just
such a phenomenon — and for the following reason: conceptual discourse knows
nothing of finitude and thus enables us to forget time and death. Consequently,
we may devote ourselves to concepts, while they last, and escape the anguish that
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accompanies the thought of death. Conceptual discourse is less the instrument
of truth than a dream dreamt by an existence terrorized by its true condition.
I am approaching my conclusion. The experience of presence, though

Poetry in the Western World


unknown to conceptual thought, is nonetheless active beneath it. It is as if the
eventualities of life restored our true center, despite the preoccupations and pri-
orities of conceptualization, and no matter how little one consents to what life
everywhere imposes: time, place, chance, and the other attributes of finitude.
Inaccessible at the level where words are reducible to notions or to webs of ideas,
presence reappears when these same words—no longer designating, for one who
is lost, the idea of the oak, but this tree here, this oak and no other — assume the
character of proper nouns, words we use to name someone and to love. There


is thus a truth—an authentic truth—in thinking of presence, in remembering it,

Bonnefoy
and in wishing to testify to it in the midst of our linguistic exile, by asking the
sounds of syllables and the rhythms of verse to break the chains of concepts.
Sound and rhythm may, if nothing else, open up for us another perspective.
Poetry is from the moment we sense that we are lost in the selva oscura, or bet-
ter, from the moment we decide to know that we are lost.
One can certainly refuse to make this decision. In which case, however, the
denial of poetry must justify itself before an understanding of the human con-
dition that is vaster than the mere project of scientific understanding, and larger
than the horizon of simple linguistic laws. That understanding surely has the
right, even the duty, to be heard, since it must judge whether there is reason for
living on this earth, and whether the price is worth paying. Left to their own
devices, concepts—in their atemporality, their vocation for generality, their irre-
pressible exteriorization of events and beings — may, in the end, be all that
enables matter, rejected on the first day of language, to rediscover through us
(ourselves dispersed across the material realm) its original self-identity: an iden-
tity unconscious of itself, blind. Poetry, on the contrary, in rendering the speak-
ing being absolute—as illusory as that may be—could preserve the idea of a sec-
ond level of reality, though only sought and produced in social construction.
Presence, I have said, is at stake in poetry: its victory or defeat establishes or
undoes our relationship with ourselves. But poetry, poetry itself, is at stake in a
society that must know that its calling poetry into question questions its own will
to be. Its own future is at stake.