Jules Laforgue and Phillipe Soupault are two poets with very little in common, particularly when the early period of the former is under consideration. Steeped in an unremitting metaphysical anguish (the poet himself would refer to his “poèmes philo”), Laforgue’s early work obsessively orbits around an irredeemable loss. It is perhaps a sort of bent continuation of the Romanticism of a Lamartine, with the difference that if in Lamartine nature, for all its richness, is a site of absence, for the young Laforgue it is patent that nature has already kicked the bucket, so there are no verdant dales through which one might wander while pondering the retreat of the absolute: no site of retreat and meditation remains. The lines from Hamlet that directly precede those Laforgue chose as epigraph to the present poem might be read as a summary: ‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ He would soon manage to sublate his black bile into a kind of sparkling manna which enabled him to sing and dance his way through the dead world in spite of his paralysing dread. This transition can be read even in his use of exclamation marks (prevalent throughout his work). Initially they function to sharpen a desperate, earnest plea, but later they’re transformed into a flashing, sardonic wink before the same situation; the former variety want both world and poem to grind to a halt, while the latter goad writer and reader alike on to more madness and more play: they affirm the vertiginous movement of the groundless.
The present poem is early Laforgue (he has just turned 19 when it is published in La Guèpe, a short-lived monthly put out by his former schoolmates, in 1879), but its appeal is due to the fact that it anticipates the irony and perpetual deferral that mobilises his mature work, while still bristling with a youthful defiance that is somewhat more subdued when he comes to produce his sequences. Here Laforgue is still far from arriving at his infamous vers libres: he writes in flexible rhyming alexandrine couplets, which I was not intrepid enough to try to reproduce. What struck me instead as the crucial aspect of the poem to try to capture in English was the teeming of lines and overblown imagery (on my reading, a sentence in the centre of the poem runs over thirteen lines, undaunted by a suite of exclamation marks), which contrast with abrupt halts and bursts. ‘Coppée’ refers to François Coppée (1842 – 1908), a Catholic patriot and populist author who wrote of everyday miseries and took a leading role against Dreyfus. Rimbaud and Verlaine wrote savage parodies of his work. The three footnotes to the poem are Laforgue’s own.
No such metaphysical obsessions lie behind Soupault’s work. His verse is resolutely subjective, is grounded in and seeks to defend and glorify the present as living present against any and all systems of order and norms. To this end his writing seeks speed in the prosaic, which he injects with the infectious energy of immediate consciousness, as though each and every unit of creative inscription were already as monumental as the creation of a world, and to write of whatever passed before him (whether percept or affect) were to pay tribute to the vital powers that secretly suffuse all our immediate surrounds. He has banished all punctuation as an obstruction, and lineates in a ruthless, sausage-factory style, producing line-units to which he hopes to render, even if they contain only a few familiar words, a kind of absolute autonomy, imploring the reader not to pass over them with the usual indifference. He stops short, however, of using line breaks as boundaries between fragmentary monads of sense and syntax, as Berrigan and many others have done since, which would be too disruptive to the teeming energy of the poem. His cosmopolitan interests are reflected in ‘Prague Friends’, a panegyric to the days of warm friendship he experienced there with a group of Czech poets in the late 1920s. The poem was first published in 1927 (just following his 1926 ‘expulsion’ from surrealism for prioritising literature over the revolution) as ‘Do Prahy’ (‘To Prague’) in Revue Devětsilu. It was directly followed by ‘Poème pour Phillipe Soupault’ by Czech surrealist Vítězslav Nezval. The pronoun ‘you’ (‘vous’) is plural, addressing the poet’s friends, up until ‘Now/I see your hands’, where ‘your’ (‘vos’) suggests an equivocation between the hands of the Prague Astronomical Clock just mentioned and those of the friends. The link is then further strengthened by the fact that the clock’s chiming, its ‘great music’ announces the ‘meeting of friends’, as well as referring back to the passing of time with which the poem opens, and within which any music and any friendship at all must take place.