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Today I have been mostly (re)writing Apollinaire

Sometimes I come across a poem with such a distinct atmosphere that I have to set off in pursuit. It  just happened with Apollinaire’s ‘L’Avenir’ (I’d been reading Beverly Brie Bihac’s translations of Appolinaire, Little Auto).

To be frank most of the poems left me cold, either in French or in the (very faithful) translations, and then – Soulevons la paille/Regardons la neige/Ecrivons des letters – or in Bihac’s translation Let’s lift up the straw/let’s look at the snow/let’s write some letters.  A four quatrain poem of short lines, mainly commands (first person plural commands – awkward in English because we have to use the ‘Let us’ locution) with obscure associations, particularly in the second stanza where we find a pipe, love, gabions and a rose. The third stanza adds a fountain and a bee. These objects are presented simply – they are not doing anything, there are no adjectives, similes or metaphors. They are like objects in a fairytale, timeless and representative.

There are probably scholars who will tell us ‘what this means’ – but at first sight it is obscure – and I like it that way. The poem has an intense mystery which is embedded in familiar physical objects and heightened by the lack of embellishment. It was written in 1916, while Apollinaire was serving at the front as an infantryman, in the midst of complex personal change (ending his engagement, becoming a French citizen, getting wounded), more grist for our scholars. The commands in the first stanza, for example, could easily relate to the morning routine of a soldier (and a less literal, but more accurate, translation of la paille might be ‘mattress’?).

L’Avenir, the future, is the title and also the closing word – the last stanza begins with another command, Regardons nos mains, and then brings back the snow, the rose, the bee – again in Bihac’s translation: Let’s look at our hands/which are the snow/the rose and the bee/and also the future. There are all kinds of meanings we could put into this – isn’t the future mysterious, in our hands but not etc: but the hairs on the back of my neck tell me that, for me, all such glossing is hot air.

The only way to understand what is going on is to try to write my own versions – first fiddling with the translation a bit, then trying to break away to use the structure to good effect in English. The ‘Let’s….’ has to go, of course (I’m not saying I would not use that in a poem, but it seems all wrong for the effect here) which makes the commands slightly harsher (if we stick to commands). Nobody is going to write a letter these days, so the contemporary context demands email or status update (Let’s update our statuses! not a good mouthful). There’s also a kind of crossed pair of subcommands in the poem – while thinking of love (stanza 2) and ‘ don’t think of the future’ that I want to get in to my versions.

This is where I am so far for stanza 1. Put out the recycling/watch the rain/respond to our survey/like this page. And already the feeling has shifted, but in a way which seems interesting. On we go!