Today I am a stop on Serena’s National Poetry Month Blog Tour. Click on the link for the entire month’s schedule and to enjoy some fine poetry blog posts.
When someone from Penguin asked me if I would like a review copy of The Collected Poems of Marcel Proust I said sure! I’m stuck in the middle of Guermantes Way — truthfully stuck is not longer correct since it has been years since I last picked up the book — and I was curious what a poem by Proust could possibly be like. I mean, Swann’s Way starts like this:
For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.
I expected ruminations on time, memory, love. I expected long lines and lyricism.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the book to the first poem and see the title: “Pederasty.” One of the stanzas reads:
For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
There are a number of poems about sex and some of them are rather bawdy:
They say a Russian, may God preserve his soul,
Managed to rouse a flutter of sensation
In Ferdinand’s leathery, tanned, and well-worked hole
By slipping in up to the hilt his brave baton.
Thank goodness they all aren’t like that! There are indeed poems about memory and time:
Time erases all just as the waves
Efface the children’s castles on the beach
We’ll forget these words so precise, so vague
Still sensing the infinite behind each.
And there are some beautiful lines:
Trying to trump eternal anguish
Through nature, and woman, and eyes;
And the tenderness of blue’s pallor
Is a lie within the opal
And in the sky and in your eyes.
But then there are lines to make one groan:
Alas, when your triumph, broad as a palace,
Bursting over Salzburg like an aurora borealis
And that, my friends is not a bad translation. This is a dual-language edition and the French is on the facing page. While I don’t read French, I can read it well enough to know that it is all Proust in that rhyme:
Hélas quand ton triomphe, énorme, mondial,
Éclatant sur Salzbourg comme un feu boréal
Some of these poems Proust published in magazines. And a series of poems about painters Proust composed to go with music written by his friend Reynaldo Hahn. Most of the poems, however, were written for friends, sent in letters or scribbled hastily on envelopes and scraps of paper intended to flatter or tease. There are no rich, poetic flights that leave one gasping for breath. Instead, these are poems mostly meant to be shared among friends.
This does not mean they are bad. Heck, Proust was a competent poet in spite of some silly rhymes and the occasional clunker. What it does mean, however, is copious notes explaining the references that Prout’s friends would have gotten immediately but current readers will not. And when I say copious, I mean it. Proust’s poems are rarely more than one page long and most often fill only half to three-quarters of the page. The notes to some of these poems stretch to two and three pages. It is easy to get bogged down in them.
But don’t let that put you off. If you love Proust’s prose, you will very likely feel compelled to read the poetry. There are only 104 poems so it won’t take too long and you’ll get to see a different side of Proust, the flirty social butterfly side that seemed to know everyone. Plus, Penguin put together a really lovely edition with a pretty blue cover and creamy deckle-edged pages. A sensuous treat. Very Proust appropriate.