Char’s Refreshing Poetry

René Char

I value most the literature which I can retreat into when the “real” world becomes too severe. Some might term this an escapist preference, though I feel the descriptor is inappropriate, almost negatively bent; I’m not sure of a better term (transporting, perhaps), though I am sure the feeling I most desire is not escape from a situation, but rather the revaluation and refreshed perspective such literature provides. Semantics aside, the work that transports me most ably is usually written in the strangest, most surreal modes.

This week, the week of my GRE’s (or Graduate Record Examination for those blessed few oblivious), I sought desperately for respite from the terribly stringent pressure of standardized tests; I found the salve not in the normalized literature I’ve been reading for various classes, but rather in a strange, untouched book that stood on my shelf, of mysterious origin and questionable content.

The author of said book was René Char, famed French surrealist poet; the title is Furor And Mystery, Char’s response to the Second World War, and a poetic exploration unlike most others I’ve seen. Amidst the suffocating, paralyzing, terrible boredom of studying the circumference of circles and spotting the assumptions in fallacious arguments, Char’s book provided soft points of pause, moments in which I could breathe.

Furor And Mystery

Instead of a post of intense depth, utter genius, and impressive scope akin to my usual offerings, I’ve decided, in a show of dedication to Char—and in an effort to expand my readers’ understanding of strange poetry—to feature a few of my favorite poems of his here, briefly discussing them. The pieces of his I’ve decided upon are indicative, I think, of the holistic body of his work, and are whimsical, poetically potent, and confusing. If nothing else, I offer the only advice one can offer another who is troubled by absurdist fiction: Savor only the words, flavorful hints of a bizarre whole.

The first poem I admire, strange as it is, is called The Swift, and reads thusly:

I feel it best to search for a single element, a thread of consistency, which we might trace through the poem and use as a point of departure. The first lines are syntactically vague, though we certainly find a feeling of movement: “Swift…who spirals and cries out his / joy around the house.” It is this feeling, this swiftness of Char’s prose that I find most appealing throughout his work. Where a straightforward narrative is lost, we find words adjusting to a magic and velocity all their own, accelerating at surprising and unreasonable speeds, reveling in the torque of their own delivery.

Between the pronouns, obviously “he” and “she”, a relationship is formed, though we are not exactly sure what the pronouns themselves refer to. Who is it that “dries of thunder”? Is it the heart? “She” apparently refers to the swallow, though we are left to wonder how the swallow and the heart operate. The nature of their relationship, this operation, is the subject matter of the poem—simply, it is a poem about love’s intercourse, I believe, the tension two opposite, loving polls can experience.

In exploring this intercourse, we are given the essence of the heart. Rather than rigorously define the pronouns and what they reference, it is easier to consider them matrixes, systems of being that do not—similar to reality—have a singular, monolithic counterpart. “He” is prone to dramatic, fragile movements (“breaking,” “sowing”), while she, as his antithesis but also defining feature, espouses “domesticity,” almost oppressively so. One character cannot exist without the other; this is the single conclusion we can draw, and beyond that, we should not hazard any guesses, but rather just enjoy the words as they’ve been placed.

The second poem I like, quite short, I believe finely illustrates Char’s ability with brevity. Readers are often wary of short poems, worried that a lack of words suggests, pretentiously, an interpretive openness that suggests massive depth; the poet is sometimes, in his or her short works, suspected to be a fraud, lazy, or just manipulative. I do not believe such is the case with Char. Any gimmickry would only damage his artistic integrity, something, according to his translator and close friend Mary Ann Caws, that he cared deeply about. Anyway, you can decide for yourself:

Matthew Naquin

For its brevity, almost imagist, I admire this poem. The title suggests a place of industry, perhaps pastoral in a sense—depending on the type of mill—and quite static. We are given the swallow again, a symbol Char returns to continuously, and often means a sort of lively, quickening or vital presence, usually benevolent. “Grain that leaps, water that grinds” indicates, literally, the action of a mill, but it also highlights the energy of Char’s writing, of which I am so fond.

“Leap” and “grind” contrast each other powerfully, and it is upon these contrasts that Char founds his writing. The final two lines are of course the most beautiful, but could not function properly without the imagistic support of the previous verse. We are told: “love takes its chances, / Sparkles, and marks time.”  The operation of a mill is tied into a linear temporal scale—an unchanging length of time is required to mill grain—and this is repeated here.

Love becomes the functioning essence of the mill, sparkling like the water that runs it, timely like the grinding of grains. Love, Char seems to suggest, is a situation of contrasts; this ‘thesis’ is similar to that proposed in The Swift, though its portrayal here is so beautifully different, so strikingly underdetermined, that it is difficult for the reader to draw immediate parallels at all.

Char is a relief; compared to a poet who becomes stagnate in form, returning to the same styles and stanzas to convey poetic messages, Char’s work remains diverse and dynamic—already, in the brief excerpt I’ve provided we’ve been given two pieces (assumedly) similar in content but entirely diverse in style. In fact, these two previous poems are sort of a departure from his regular writing; often he writes prose poetry, or poetry of paragraphic dimension. For the final piece, then:

Immediately, we notice the title, “Unbending Prayer.” Char’s work often operates in a personal mode, appealing either to or with the reader to increase the dramatic effect of the poem, and also give the sense that his dramas implicate a real, rushing world. The first sentence, as the majority of the poem, can be considered a beseeching desire: “Preserve for us…” the speaker begins. We might wonder, why does the speaker seek preservation? What threatens him?

It is this instant introduction of urgency that informs so many of Char’s works. The reader is unsettled by an intimation of trouble that is never explicitly stated; we are driven by a tension (much as in reality) that we cannot specifically name or identify. The speaker desires “rebellion,” “lightning,” “illusory agreement,” “a laugh…” and even “the whole lengthy burden.” Though I do not exactly believe that we, as readers, should explain the purpose of each these things, a few things about them are clear: They are transient, quick, uncertain, and, in some cases, troubling.

Char, truly French. Oui?

We have nothing in this list to rely on, and it seems the speaker welcomes these unreliable elements. The final line, striking as the final lines from The Mill, does nothing of course to elucidate our tension—the line is simply a continuance of the initial prayer: “Preserve for us fate and primrose.” I can only guess, in the vaguest of terms, that “fate” refers to the severities of life, while “primrose” refers to its elegancies. If this is the case, then the speaker is simply asking for an existence of full experience. We cannot ever be sure with Char, but we walk away from this poem understanding a bit more about living than we otherwise might’ve.

René Char isn’t for everyone, clearly. It’s possible that these poems pique no interest in you. That’s entirely okay; Char, were he still around, would be the first to extend his understanding. For me, especially when I was caught amid a sober set of circumstances, these poems offered exactly what I sought: a vivid dialogue, a poetic exploration, and a renewed and refreshing sense of words and their energy.

I hope dearly that non-linear, enigmatic poetry still has a chance. In this overly defined world of precise technology, accurate phrasing, and severe governments, the gaps and fissures created by the nonsensical, the surreal, may be the final playhouse that remains for a fanciful imagination. We are human, trapped in an existence of an inscrutable nature—linear sense should be the farthest thing from our minds.

Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.