Friday, October 23, 2015

Francis Jammes: On the Life & Work of a Modern Master (Kathryn Nuernberger / Bruce Whiteman, editors)

This tribute volume to the turn-of-the-20th-Century rural poet Francis Jammes (1868-1938) is self-recommending to those interested in French literature of the period (or in the Pays Basque where the writer lived), and is perhaps most valuable for the Introduction and six essays that place Jammes in context and argue for his importance.

Much of this critical writing discusses Jammes’ relation to Modernism, which looks very slight from this distance (although it was also debated when he was alive). Simplicity is indeed a hallmark of one type of Modernism which we can associate with William Carlos Williams as an exemplar. Jammes does not seem so radically simple as Williams, partly because, as critic Christopher Howell points out, he relies a lot on conventional Romantic phraseology, as Williams certainly did not. The most apt comparison for Jammes in English-language poetry might actually be Thomas Hardy, although Jammes’ forms are freer.

Howell eventually absolves Jammes of conventionality on the grounds that he means his clichés; I’m not sure it’s a convincing argument. The danger with a simple poet is shading into the simplistic, and the language which Howell quotes, and which is on display elsewhere in this volume, does sometimes seem simplistic.

Kathryn Neuernberger, one of the book’s editors, makes a better case for the tougher, sharper, more acutely observant Jammes that emerges in the late Four Books of Quatrains, written in the poet’s 50s.

I was very glad to read this volume, but as a vehicle for getting to know Jammes better, it fails in two signal ways, both related to the presentation of his writing. The rather short selection of his poetry, offered in translations by different hands, does not include the original French on facing pages. In 2015, this is practically a deal-breaker. All translated volumes of poetry in the major European languages (at least) ought to contain the original texts. All it takes is a smattering of the original language (true of my French!) to be able to discern much better what the translators are up to.

The second failing is that the selection gives a very limited impression of Jammes’ writing. He was voluminous in prose as well as poetry, but apart from a three-page “Literary Manifesto,” none of his prose is here. Probably including some of it would have entailed commissioning and paying for new translations that would have been beyond the book’s budget; but without a fair array of Jammes’ output, which included fiction, memoir, and drama as well as lyric poetry, the volume falls short of representing him in the most rounded way. 

No comments:

Post a Comment