It’s exciting to see that the current issue of Poetry magazine (the first with new editor Don Share at the helm) features four poems by the great French poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960). Closely tied to other “Cubist” poets like Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, and a forerunner and proponent of Surrealism, Reverdy wrote airy, limpid, haunting poems that are like no one else’s.
Not only is Reverdy a great poet, but the poems in Poetry are translated by Lydia Davis, which is another cause for celebration. Davis, of course, is both one of the best and most distinctive fiction writers of our time and one of the most well-respected translators of French literature (as can be seen in her celebrated versions of Proust and Flaubert), so the fact that she has turned her attention to Reverdy is an occasion worth noting.
Fans of the New York School tend to have a special fondness for Reverdy, especially because of the memorable final lines of one of Frank O’Hara’s most famous poems. At the end of “A Step Away From Them,” O’Hara swerves away from thoughts of lost friends and his own mortality with a sudden tonal shift and an unexpected allusion:
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
At the close of another wonderful poem, “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul,” O’Hara again utters the name of the French poet:
and surely we shall not continue to be unhappy
we shall be happy
but we shall continue to be ourselves everything continues to be possible
Rene Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
Readers of American poetry are probably more familiar with O’Hara’s references to Reverdy than they are with the French poet’s work itself. In part this is because it has been fairly hard to get ahold of — one of the more recent collections of his work in English, a Selected Poems published by Wake Forest, is out of print, for example.
That’s about to change, with the publication of a new edition of Reverdy’s poetry, which has just appeared from the New York Review of Books. The collection is edited by Mary Ann Caws, and features a great roster of translators including John Ashbery — whose own shimmering translations of Reverdy I’ve long admired — as well as Caws, Lydia Davis, Marilyn Hacker, Richard Howard, Geoffrey O’Brien, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth, Patricia Terry, and Rosanna Warren, among others.
The blurb reads:
The great Pierre Reverdy, comrade to Picasso and Braque, peer and contemporary of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, is among the most mysteriously satisfying of twentieth-century poets, his poems an uncanny mixture of the simple and the sublime. Reverdy’s poetry has exerted a special attraction on American poets, from Kenneth Rexroth to John Ashbery, and this new selection, featuring the work of fourteen distinguished translators, most of it appearing here for the first time, documents that ongoing relationship while offering readers the essential work of an extraordinary writer.
After Reverdy’s death in 1960, Ashbery (then living in Paris) was involved in putting together a special issue devoted to Reverdy for the journal Mercure de France. When he wrote to O’Hara to ask him to contribute some of his own poems that he felt showed Reverdy’s influence, O’Hara replied “I just couldn’t stand the amount of work it would seem to take, since the minute you mentioned it I decided that everything I’ve written except In Memory of My Feelings and Dig My Grave with a Silver Spoon has been under his influence.”
O’Hara did end up contributing a collaborative prose poem on Reverdy that he had written with Bill Berkson to the issue. The piece makes crystal clear just how highly the New York School poets felt about Reverdy:
In America there is only one other poet beside Reverdy: William Carlos Williams.*
Be sure to check out the new translations of Reverdy by Lydia Davis in the October issue of Poetry, and the brand-new collection of his work.
*Both the letter about Reverdy from O’Hara to Ashbery, and the O’Hara-Berkson collaboration, are discussed in Marjorie Perloff’s Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters (214-215). She notes that “a whole essay could be written about O’Hara’s allegiance to Reverdy, although the actual influence of the French poet is one of spirit rather than substance.”