Poetry News

Bringing Francis Ponge Into an American English

By Harriet Staff


Joshua Corey's piece on translating Francis Ponge is up today at Poetry Society of America. Corey acknowledges he had much to overcome before co-translating (alongside Jean-Luc Garneau) Ponge's 1942 Le parti pris des choses (Partisan of Things, forthcoming from Kenning Editions): "I read [French] passably, speak abominably, and understand when it's spoken hardly at all." Eventually, he did "tackle Ponge's wry, dry, surprisingly sympathique prose poems, 'taking the side of things' as ordinary as an oyster, a snail, raw meat, or a wooden crate." We can't wait for this one.

...My task as I saw it was to bring Ponge into an American English, not to efface the work's historical particularity but to make its strangeness and strangely companionable qualities more palpable.

I knew that I could never do justice to Ponge's passionate love for the French language, which seems to have its mythic origin in his childhood obsession with the Littré dictionary in his father's library; indeed, many of the pieces in Partisan of Things read like a cross between a dictionary definition and a suavely compulsive researcher's field notes on the word-things that he has discovered, as it were, in the wild. Ponge's writing is filled with puns and plays on the smallest details of words and letters; to take the most well-known example, his poem on the oyster (l'huître) makes witty use of the circumflex (ˆ) covering the 'I' like the oyster's shell covers "the viscous green bag" of the organism itself. There can be no equivalent of this in English, and I didn't try to find one.

But when translated with conscious simplicity, Ponge speaks very well for himself about and along that tantalizing margin where the word seems to take on flesh. Ponge's oyster pearls "a little phrase" (shades of Proust's Vinteuil?), while human beings in their humanism express themselves in words the way snails express themselves with, and in, their shells...

At PSA, find two of Ponge's early poems, "Fire" and "Water," and more on Joshua Corey's translation work. And of course hop over to the July/August issue of Poetry for Corey's translations of "Crate," "Rain," and "Snails."