Francis Ponge

1899–1988
Francis Ponge
Francis Ponge has been called “the poet of things” because simple objects like a plant, a shell, a cigarette, a pebble, or a piece of soap are the subjects of his prose poems. For Ponge, all objects “yearn to express themselves, and they mutely await the coming of the word so that they may reveal the hidden depths of their being,” as Richard Stamelman explained it in Books Abroad. David Gascoyne, a contributor to Reference Guide to World Literature, declared: “To transmute commonplace objects by a process of replacing inattention with contemplation was Ponge’s way of heeding Ezra Pound‘s edict: ‘Make it new.’ His ever-renewed attempts to celebrate objects of everyday experience in a language enlightened by puns and complex words, with onomatopoeia, and the calligrammatic, were not a restless search for novelty but rather a way of transcending ‘modernity’ and restoring a Wordsworthian appreciation of the simple things in life: slate, the Seine, asparagus, and tables.”

“What has an imperious fascination for [Ponge],” observed Betty Miller of the late poet, “is the essence of the interior life of the plant or shell, so that we feel in reading him almost as though it were the plant which spoke to express miraculously, without human intervention, its personality.” Robert Bly noted in the Georgia Review that Ponge’s prose poems also exposed the hidden relationship between the inner life of human beings and the world of objects. “It is as if,” Bly wrote, “the object itself, a stump or an orange, has links with the human psyche, and the unconscious provides material it would not give if asked directly. The unconscious passes into the object and returns.” Gascoyne called Ponge “An epicurean of language,” yet one who “resisted all accusations of elitism. He addressed himself to the common reader in the hope of persuading us that poetry is not merely a preoccupation of the idle and overeducated.”

Throughout his forty-five year writing career, Ponge was faithful to his unique approach to poetic subject. Speaking of the poet’s collected works, Sarah N. Lawall in Contemporary Literature found that “what Ponge has to say remains quite consistent, and his collected works juxtapose texts from 1921 to 1967 without any contradiction whatsoever. He still goes to the ‘mute world’ of things for his peculiar dialectic, and he still celebrates the creative power of speech.” Lawall found, too, that Ponge’s work served as an “example of systematically individual perception and expression in a world threatened by group morality and intellectual totalitarianism.”

Perhaps the most obsessive example of Ponge’s approach is to be found in his collection Le Savon, translated as Soap. In this collection, each prose poem considers a different aspect of the life of a bar of soap, detailing each one from the soap’s perspective. When used for washing, the soap becomes sudsy with joyous exuberance; when left alone, it grows hard, dry and cracked. In addition, Ponge makes clear to the reader that their shared experience in the text has been nothing more than a linguistic experience having nothing to do with the object ostensibly being discussed. As Lawall explained, Ponge “develops a series of comparisons to show how the reader’s pleasure has come from his sense of playing a game, that the extreme form of this game is ‘poetry, the purely verbal game which neither imitates nor represents “life,”‘ and that ‘words and figures of speech’ resemble other human concoctions like bread, soap, and electricity.”

Other critics also noted this close relationship between Ponge’s poems and the objects they discuss. Michael Benedikt, writing in The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, concluded that Ponge’s poems are “as ‘objective’ as objects in the world themselves.” Robert W. Greene, in his book Six French Poets of Our Time: A Critical and Historical Study, argued that in many of his poems, Ponge tries “to create a verbal machine that will have as much local intricacy as its counterpart in the world of objects.” Stamelman went even further in analyzing this relationship. “In Ponge’s poetry,” he wrote, “the text refers to itself and to itself alone… The only thing the text ‘represents’ is its own surging into being through language, its own act of expression. Ultimately, the text signifies itself.”

Ponge’s prose poems follow no set formula. They develop instead in a seemingly spontaneous manner, following a meandering path to their completion. “Ponge may be the first poet,” James Merrill wrote in the New York Review of Books, “ever to expose so openly the machinery of a poem, to present his revisions, blind alleys, critical asides, and accidental felicities as part of a text perfected, as it were, without ‘finish’”. Greene acknowledged that Ponge’s “texts hardly conform to most conceptions of what poems, even prose poems, are or should be. They contain puns, false starts, repetitions, agendas, recapitulations, syllogistic overtones, a heavy ideological content, and other features that one normally associates with prose—and the prose of argumentation at that—rather than with poetry.”

As Bly concluded that “Ponge doesn’t try to be cool, distant, or objective, nor does he ‘let the object speak for itself.’ His poems are funny, his vocabulary immense, his personality full of quirks, and yet the poem remains somewhere in the place where the senses join the object.” Benedikt noted that, “with Michaux, Ponge is regarded as one of the most significant mid-century French poets.”

Ponge spent the last thirty years of his life as a recluse at his country home, Mas des Vergers. He suffered from frequent bouts with nervous exhaustion and numerous psychosomatic illnesses. He continued to write, however, and the work he was involved with at the time of his death was published posthumously in 1991. Entitled La Table, it “reflects what was Ponge’s undying, and increasingly obsessional, quest for le mot juste,” mused Gascoyne. “Its final sentence reads: “O Table, ma console et ma consolatrice, table qui me console, ou je me consolide.” For Ponge, his final subject was his writing table, which had in fact by then become his entire world.”



Career

Poet and essayist. Editions Gallimard (publisher), Paris, France, secretary, 1923; Hachette (publisher), Paris, secretary, 1931-37; insurance salesman, 1937-39; Progress de Lyon (resistance publication), Bourg-en-Bresse, France, head of center, 1942; employed with National Committee of Journalists, 1942-44; L'Action (communist weekly), literary and artistic director, 1944-46; Alliance Francaise, Paris, professor, 1952-64. Virginia C. Gildersleeve Visiting Professor at Barnard College and Columbia University, 1966-67. Lecturer in France and abroad. Military service: Served in military, 1918-1919; member of French Resistance during World War II.

Bibliography

ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
  • Le Parti pris des choses (poetry), Gallimard (Paris), 1942, revised edition, 1949, translation by Beth Archer published as The Voice of Things, McGraw (New York City), 1972.
  • Le Savon (poetry), Gallimard, 1967, translation by Lane Dunlop published as Soap, J. Cape (London), 1969.
  • Two Prose Poems, translated from the French by Peter Hoy, Black Knight Press, 1968.
  • Rain: A Prose Poem, translated from the French by Peter Hoy, Poet & Printer, 1969.
  • Things, translation by Cid Corman, Grossman, 1971, published as Things: Selected Writings of Francis Ponge, White Pine (Buffalo, NY), 1986.
  • (With Pierre Descargues and Andre Malraux) G. Braque, de Draeger, Draeger, 1971, translation by Richard Howard and Lane Dunlop published as G. Braque, Abrams (New York City), 1971.
  • La Fabrique du “pre,” Albert Skira, 1971, translation by Lee Fahnestock published as The Making of the “Pre, “University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1979.
  • The Sun Placed in the Abyss and Other Texts, translation by Serge Gavronsky, SUN (New York City), 1977.
  • The Power of Language: Texts and Translations, translation by Serge Gavronsky, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1979.
  • Vegetation, translation by Lee Fahnestock, Red Dust (New York City), 1987.
  • Selected Poems, translated by C.K. Willams, John Montageu, and Margaret Guiton, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1994.
  • Ten Poems of Francis Ponge; and Ten Poems of Robert Bly, Inspired by the Poems of Francis Ponge, translated by Robert Bly, Owl’s Head Press (Riverview, New Brunswick, Canada), 1990.
OTHER
  • L’Oeillet, le guepe, le mimosa (poetry), Mermod, 1946.
  • Le Carnet du bois de pins,Mermod, 1947.
  • Liasse: Vignt-et-un Textes suivis d’une bibliographie,Ecrivains reunis, 1948.
  • Le Peintre a l’etude,Gallimard, 1948.
  • Proemes,Gallimard, 1948.
  • Germaine Richier,Adrien Maeght, 1948.
  • La Seine,Guilde du livre, 1950.
  • La Rage de l’expression,Mermod, 1952 , Schoenhofs Foreign Books (Cambridge, MA), 1976.
  • 1976-78 Le Grand Recueil, Volume I: Lyres, Volume II: Methodes, Volume III: Pieces,Gallimard, 1961; revised edition.
  • Francis Ponge ou la raison a plus haut prix(selections), edited by Philippe Sollers, P. Seghers, 1963.
  • De la nature morte et de Chardin,Hermann, 1964.
  • Pour un Malherbe,Gallimard, 1965, revised edition, 1977.
  • Tome premier,Gallimard, 1965.
  • Nouveau Recueil,Gallimard, 1967.
  • Ponge,edited by Jean Thibaudeau, Gallimard, 1967.
  • Le Parti pris des choses, precede de douze petits ecrits et suivi de proemes,Gallimard, 1967.
  • Entretiens de Francis Ponge avec Philippe Sollers,edited by Sollers, Gallimard, 1970.
  • Ici haute,R. G. Cadou, 1971.
  • (With Pierre Descargues and Edward Quinn) Picasso de Draeger,Draeger, 1974.
  • (Contributor) A Phillipe Jaccottet,La Revue de belles-lettres, 1976.
  • Abrege de l’aventure organique: Developpement d’un detail de celle-ci,R. Dirieux, 1976.
  • L’Atelier contemporain,Gallimard, 1977.
  • Ponge: Inventeur et classique,Union generale d’editions, 1977.
  • Comment une figue de paroles et pourquoi,Flammarion, 1977.
  • L’Ecrit Beaubourg,Centre Pompidou (Paris), 1977.
  • Nioque de l’avant-printemps,Gallimard, 1983.
  • Petite suite vivaraise,Fata Morgana, 1983.
  • Dix poemes,Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1983.
  • Pratiques d’ecriture; ou, L’Inachevement perpetuel, Hermann, 1984.
Also author of Douze Petits Ecrits, 1926; La Crevette dans tous ses etats, 1948; (with Eugene de Kermadec) Le Verre deau, 1949; Cinq sapates, 1950; L’Araignee, 1952; A la reveuse matiere, 1963; Nous mots francais, 1978; Souvenirs interrompus, 1979; Tombeaux et hommages divers 1980, 1981; (with Jean Paulhan) Correspondance, 1923-1968, 1984; La Table, 1983; La Facon de faner des tulipes, des etrangetes naturelles, 1983; Nouveau, nouveau recueil, 1992; Des cristaux naturels, P. Bettencourt. Contributor of poems and essays to literary journals.


Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Aspel, Alexander, and D. R. Justice, eds., Contemporary French Poetry: Fourteen Witnesses of Man's Fate,University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), 1965.
  • Benedikt, Michael, editor, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology,Dell (New York City), 1976.
  • Charles, D. Minahen, editor, Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in the Twentieth Century,French Forum (Lexington, KY), 1994.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Gale (Detroit), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 18, 1981.
  • Greene, Robert W., Six French Poets of Our Time: A Critical and Historical Study,Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1979.
  • Higgins, Ian, Ponge,Athlone Press, 1979.
  • Jordan, Shirley Ann, The Art Criticism of Francis Ponge,W. S. Maney (London), 1994.
  • Meadows, Patrick Francis Ponge and the Nature of Things: From Ancient Atomism to a Modern Poetics,Bucknell University Press (Lewisburg, PA), 1997.
  • Reference Guide to World Literature,St. James Press (Detroit), 1995.
  • Sorrell, Martin, Ponge,Twayne (Boston), 1981.
  • Willard, Nancy,Testimony of the Invisible Man: William Carlos Williams, Ponge, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, University of Missouri Press, 1970.
PERIODICALS
  • American Poetry Review,January, 1984, p. 40.
  • Bloomsbury Review,January, 1991, p. 13.
  • Booklist,April 1, 1972, p. 644; November 15, 1979, p. 477.
  • Books Abroad,autumn, 1974, pp. 688-694, 715-717.
  • Book World,November 26, 1972, p. 15; March 12, 1978, p. E5.
  • Choice,April, 1973, p. 296; March, 1978, p. 80; February, 1980, p. 1588; April, 1980, p. 227; March, 1995, p. 1125.
  • Contemporary Literature,winter, 1970, pp. 192-216.
  • Encounter,December, 1970.
  • Georgia Review,spring, 1980, pp. 105-109.
  • Hudson Review,spring, 1973, p. 192.
  • L'Esprit,summer, 1980, p. 84.
  • Library Journal,March 15, 1972, p. 1005; September 1, 1972, p. 2736; August, 1979, p. 1568.
  • Listener,August 28, 1969, p. 285.
  • Modern Language Review,April, 1981, p. 481.
  • National Observer,December 18, 1971.
  • New York Review of Books,November 30, 1972, pp. 31-34.
  • New York Times,October 28, 1971, p. 39; October 30, 1971, p. 39.
  • Nouvelle Revue Francaise,September, 1956.
  • Observer,June 8, 1969, p. 27.
  • Parnassus: Poetry in Review,spring/summer, 1973, pp. 60-68.
  • Prairie Schooner,spring, 1975, p. 90; winter, 1978, p. 425.
  • Publishers Weekly,September 18, 1972, p. 69.
  • Time,December 20, 1971, p. 90.
  • Times Literary Supplement,May 4, 1962; September 30, 1965, p. 866; May 18, 1967, p. 420; September 12, 1968, p. 1022; August 28, 1969, p. 959; August 5, 1983, p. 840; February 5, 1993, p. 10.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1974; spring, 1978, p. 256; autumn, 1978, p. 594; spring, 1980, p. 256.
OBITUARIES:PERIODICALS
  • Chicago Tribune,August 10, 1988.
  • New York Times,August 9, 1988.
  • Times(London), August 11, 1988.
  • Washington Post,August 10, 1988.
  • World Literature Today, spring, 1978, p. 256; autumn, 1978, p. 594.*

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION France

LIFE SPAN 1899–1988

Francis Ponge

Biography

Francis Ponge has been called “the poet of things” because simple objects like a plant, a shell, a cigarette, a pebble, or a piece of soap are the subjects of his prose poems. For Ponge, all objects “yearn to express themselves, and they mutely await the coming of the word so that they may reveal the hidden depths of their being,” as Richard Stamelman explained it in Books Abroad. David Gascoyne, a contributor to Reference Guide . . .

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