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by Bamber Gascoigne

Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016)


French poet, essayist, translator, and art historian, generally acknowledged as the most important poet of his generation. Central themes in Bonnefoy's work are existence, nature, death, and the role of poetry. Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve (1953, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve) is perhaps Bonnefoy's best-known collection of poems. He was been frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature.

The arm lifted and the arm turned
Are simultaneous only for our dull wits,
But these sheets of greenness and mud thrown back,
What is left is a fire in death's kingdom.
The dismantled leg which the high wind pierces
Driving heads of rain before it
Will only light you to the threshold of that kingdom,
Douve's hands, hands already slower, dark hands.

(from Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, translated by Galway Kinnell)

Yves Bonnefoy was born in Tours to a working-class family. Marius Elie Bonnefoy, his father, was a railroad worker, whose job involved assembling locomotives; he died in 1936. Bonnefoy's mother Hélène Maury was a teacher, as her own father had been, and looked after the education of her son. His summer vacations Bonnefoy spent at Toirac at the home of his grandparents, saying later that "Yes, I found this country beautiful; it even formed me in my deepest choices, with its great empty plateaus where the grey stone emerges and its rainstorms, sometimes several days long, above the closed-up châteaus." In a similar way, the Unites States has allways attracted him, "because of the immensity of the space that opens up before the traveler."

Bonnefoy started reading poetry in primary school; Alfred de Vigny impressed him most. His interest in mathematics, which he studied at the University of Poitiers and the Sorbonne, also left a lasting impression. He attended the Lycée Descartes in Tours, graduated with honors, and went in 1944 to the occupied Paris. There he first rushed to hear Paul Valéry’s lectures at the Collège de France ("he was not an interesting lecturer") and at attended Gaston Bachelard's courses at the Institute d'histoire des sciences. He also married. Bonnefoy's degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne was followed by a diploma for which he studied the work of Charles Baudelaire and Søren Kierkegaard. To support himself, he worked as a teacher and in the secretary's office of the university.

From 1949 to 1953 Bonnefoy traveled in Europe and the Unted States and studied art history. While in Italy, he became fascinated by the paintings of De Chirico. In Paris he was closely associated with the Surrealist circles, but refused to sign the surrealist manifesto Rupture inaugurale. However, under their influence he published his first literary works, 'Traité du pianiste' (1946) and 'Anti-Platon' (1947) in the Trotskyist magazine La Révolution la Nuit. " Like André Breton, he believed that dreaming plays a vital role in the creative process, arguing that "writing, and even speaking, in the most ordinary sense of the word, means dreaming . . . "

Bonnefoy's first important collection of poems, Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, about death and reincarnation, gained critical acclaim. It begins with intensive poem dealíng with the death of Douve, an allegorical character, who is simultaneously a woman loved, nature, the mind, and the poetry itself. The number 19, a prime number, has a special significance in the work, in which the three separate sections contain 19 poems. The four sections of Hier régnant désert (1958) and of Pierre écrite (1965) contain 13, 19, 13, 11 and 17, 17, 19, 9 poems respectively.

Hier régnant désert, Bonnefoy's second book of verse, received the Prix de l'Express. In 1967 Bonnefoy founded with André du Bouchet, Gaëtan Picon, and Louis-René des Forêts L'éphemère, a journal of art and literature. ". . . like Apollinaire's Bonnefoy's essays seem to flow directly out of his availability to the art he is discussing," noted Robert W. Greene in Searching for Presence (2004). From the 1960s onwards Bonnefoy published several works on art and art history, such as Miró (1964), Rome 1630: L'horizon du premier baroque (1970), Sur un Sculpteur et des peintres (1989), Giacometti (1991), and The Lure and the Truth of Painting (1995). Mythologies (1991), which Bonnefoy edited, explored myths and religious traditions. Translations of works by Shakespeare, Yeats, and Leopardi constitute an important part of his work. At school he had read Mark Antony's speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which had impressed him deeply and it was this play, along with Hamlet, he first translated in his thirties.

L'Arrière-pays (1972) was Bonnefoy's spiritual autobiography - "arrière-pays" is a compound that refers to the region situated beyond or behind a coastal region. Bonnefoy equated poetry with voyaging, whether it is spiritual in nature. It is this constant search that is apparent in his work, which acknowledges man's inability to grasp the immensity of existence. "We have being," Bonnefoy wrote in his book on Rimbaud, "only because of that desire in us which never obtains and which never gives up."   

A poet who did not see poems merely as verbal constructions, words had a transcendental meaning for Bonnefoy. He used simple images - house, stone, tree, desert, wind, fire, water - but they were part of the complex spiritual dimension beyond the present moment and the fleeting perception. "I think, and in fact I have always thought, that poetry is an experience of what goes beyond words," he once said. In 'The Words of Evening' he wrote: "Clarity of coming night and clarity of speech / - The mist that rises from all living things / And you, the glowing of my lamp in death." (from Poems, 1959-1975, translated by Richard Pevear, 1985) The landscape of New England inspired Début et fin de la neige (1991). Bonnefoy spent several months at Williamstown in 1985. "At nightfall I would watch the lights of the cars fleeing silently along a road on a distant hillside beyond the woods - they seemed to me to be headed for someplace beyond the world." (Bonnefoy in Ce qui fut sans lumière, translated by John T. Naughton, 1987)

Throughout his career Bonnefoy was been concerned with the relationship between reality and the task of poetry. Conceptional thinking is deceptive - permanence and immutable identity characterize abstract concepts that normally constitute our language, whereas existence is marked by finitude and death. The intention of poetry, Bonnefoy argued, is to give beings and things back their proper identity, Presence hidden.

By chance in the summer of 1963, Bonnefoy found a house at Valsaintes in Haute-Province in the south of France, a former monastery, which  has occupied a central place in his writings. After years of effort, he managed to restore the religious character of the building, bringing to life "the illusion that Valsaintes was the "true place," the one and only true place above the world." (Ce qui fut sans lumière, 1987)

In 1968 Bonnefoy married Lucy Vines, an American; they had one daughter, Mathilde, who became a film editor and director. Bonnefoy traveled widely, and taught literature at a number of universities, including Brandeis University (Waltham, MA ), Centre Universitaire (Vincennes), Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD), Princeton University (New Jersey), Yale University ( New Haven, Connecticut), University of Geneva, University of Nice, University of Provence (Aix), and Graduate School, City University of New York. Like Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald, John Updike and Bernard Malamud, he attended Lorge Luis Borges's lectures in Cambridge. Shortly before Borges’ death, Bonnefoy visited him at the City Hospital in Geneva. They briefly discussed Virgil and Verlaine.  From 1981 to 1993 Bonnefoy was a professor of comparative studies at the Collège de France, Paris. In 1981 he was named to the Collège de France after the death of Roland Barthes. His study in Montmartre was crowded with books, there were photographs of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and an oil painting depicting Verlaine, his wife Mathilde Mauté and Rimbaud.

Bonnefoy received the Prix des Critiques in 1971. His other awards include L'Express Prize for essays (1959), Cecil Hemley prize (1977), Montaigne-prize (1978), Académie Française grand poetry prize (1981), Sociéte des Gens de Lettres grand prize (1987), Prix Goncourt, Hudson Review's Bennett Award (1988), the Franz Kafka Prize awarded by the Prague-based Franz Kafka Society (2007). In 2011, Bonnefoy received the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award. Bonnefoy's translations of Shakespeare's plays, a part of his concern for the linguistic differences between English and French, are considered among the best that have ever appeared in French. In La communauté des traducteurs (2000) he asked the question of whether it is possible to translated poetry. Bonnefoy died on July 1, 2016,  in Paris.

For further reading: Yves Bonnefoy by J.E. Jackson (1976); Poétique d'Yves Bonnefoy by J. Thélot (1983); The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy by John T. Naughton (1984); Le concept de la réalité dans la poésie d'Yves Bonnefoy by R. Giguere (1985); Yves Bonnefoy: le simple et le sens by M. Finck (1989); La tentation du silence: essai sur l'oeuvre poétique d'Yves Bonnefoy, suivi d'entretiens avec l'auteur by Jean-François Poupart (1998); 'Bonnefoy, Yves' by Robert D. Cottrell in Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Searching for Presence: Yves Bonnefoy's Writings on Art by Robert W. Greene (2004); Shakespeare and the French Poet: With an Interview with Yves Bonnefoy, ed. John Naughton (2004)  

Selected works:

  • 'Traité du pianiste,' 1946 (in La Révolution la Nuit)
  • Une Chemise de nuit de flanelle, 1951 (translator)
  • Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, 1953 - On the Motion and Immobility of Douve (translated by Galway Kinnell, 1968)
  • Peintures murales de la France gothique, 1954
  • Henri IV, Jules César Hamlet, Le Conte d'hiver, Vénus et Adonis, Le Viol de Lucrèce by William Shakespeare, 1957-60 (translator)
  • Hier régnant désert, 1958
  • L'Improbable, 1959
  • Jules César, Hamlet, Le Roi Lear, Roméo et Juliette, Macbeth by William Shakespeare, 1960-83 (translator)
  • La Seconde Simplicité, 1961
  • Rimbaud par lui-même, 1961 - Rimbaud (translated by Paul Schmidt, 1973)
  • Anti-Platon, 1962
  • Miró, 1964 - Miró (trans. Judith Landry, 1967)
  • Pierre écrite, 1965 - Pierre écrite=Words in Stone (translated by Susanna Lang, 1976)
  • Un Rêve fait à Mantoue, 1967 (rev. ed., 1980)
  • La Poésie française et le principe d'identité, 1967
  • Selected Poems, 1968 (trans. Anthony Rudolf)
  • Rome 1630: L'horizon du premier baroque, 1970
  • L'Arrière-pays, 1972
  • Dans le Leurre du seuil, 1975 - Poems 1959-1975 (translated by Richard Pevear)
  • Garache, 1975
  • L'Ordalie, 1975 (illustrated by Claude Garache)
  • Terre seconde, 1976
  • Rue traversière, 1977
    - Rue traversière (translated by Beverley Bie Brahic, 2015) 
  • Le Nuage rouge, 1977
  • Mantegna, 1978
  • Poèmes, 1978
  • Gilbert Lely, 1979
  • Dictionnaire des mythologies et des religions des sociétés traditionnelles et du monde antique, 1981 (editor) - Mythologies (translated by Gerald Honigsblum et al., 1991)
  • Entretiens sur la poésie, 1981
  • Poésies, 1983 (editor)
  • La Présence et l'image, 1983
  • La Poésie et l'université, 1984
  • Things Dying Things Newborn: Selected Poems, 1985 (trans. Anthony Newton)
  • Poems, 1959-1975, 1985 (a translation by Richard Pevear of Pierre écrite and Dans le leurre du seuiltrans)
  • Ce qui fut sans lumière, 1987 - In the Shadow's Light (translated by John T. Naughton, 1991)
  • Récits en rêve, 1987
  • Là où retombe la flèche, 1988
  • Sur un Sculpteur et des peintres, 1989
  • The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Esays, 1989 (edited and with an introduction by John T. Naughton; foreword by Joseph Frank)
  • Quarante-cinq Poèmes de W.B. Yeats, 1989 (ed. and trans.)
  • Eduardo Chillida, 1990
  • Giacometti, 1991
  • Early Poems 1947-1959, 1991 (translated by Galway Kinnell and Richard Pevear)
  • Début et fin de la neige; Là où retombe la flèche, 1991 - Beginning and End of the Snow: followed by Where the Arrow Falls (translated by Emily Grosholz, 2012) 
  • L'Arrière-pays, 1992
  • Rimbaud: tradition et modernité, 1992
  • Ramarques sur le dessin, 1993
  • Delacroix et Hamlet, 1993
  • Une vie errante, 1993
  • La petite phrase et la longue phrase, 1994
  • Palézieu, 1994
  • La journée d'Alexandre Hollan, 1995
  • La vérite de parole, 1995
  • The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art, 1995 (edited, with an introduction and afterword by Richard Stamelman)
  • Dessin, couleur, lumière, 1995
  • New and Selected Poems, 1995 (ed. Anthony Rudolf & John Naughton)
  • Alberto Giacometti: biographie d'une oeuvre, 1996 - Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work (translated by Charles Penwarden)
  • Yves Bonnefoy: la poésie et les arts plastiques, 1996
  • Trois conférences, 1997 (with Jean Roudaut andJean Starobinski)
  • Théâtre et poésie: Shakespeare et Yeats, 1998 - Shakespeare & the French Poet: Including an Interview with Yves Bonnefoy (edited & with an introduction by John Naughton)
  • Lieux et destins de l'image: un cours de poétique au Collège de France, 1981-1993, 1999
  • La communauté des traducteurs, 2000
  • Baudelaire: la tentation de l'oubli, 2000
  • Yesterday's Wilderness Kingdom, 2000 (translated by Anthony Rudolf)
  • Le théâtre des enfants, 2001
  • Poésie et architecture, 2001
  • Le coeur-espace: 1945, 1961, 2001
  • Les planches courbes, 2001 - The Curved Planks (translated by Richard Howard, 2006)
  • Remarques sur le regard: Picasso, Giacometti, Morandi: l’art en France entre les deux guerres, 2002  
  • Sous l'horizon du langage, 2002
  • Le nom du roi d'Asiné, 2003
  • L’horizon = The Horizon, 2003 (translated by Michael Bishop)
  • Yves Bonnefoy: poésie et peinture, 1993-2005, 2005
  • Le secret de la pénultième, 2005
  • La stratégie de l’énigme: Piero della Francesca, la flagellation du christ, 2006
  • Goya, les peintures noires, 2006
  • La stratégie de l’énigme: Piero della Francesca, la Flagellation du Christ, 2006
  • La Poésie à voix haute, 2007
  • Ce qui alarma Paul Celan, 2007
  • Le grand espace, 2008
  • La Longue Chaine de l'Ancre, 2008 - The Anchor's Long Chain (translated by Beverley Bie Brahic, 2015) 
  • La beauté dès le premier jour, 2009
  • Deux scènes et notes conjointes, 2009 (with Gérard Titus-Carmel)
  • 'Three Recollections of Borges', April 2010 (The Yale Review, Volume 98, Issue 2)
  • L’inachevable: entretiens sur la poésie, 1990-2010, 2010
  • Le lieu d’herbes, le lac au loin; suivi de, Mes souvenirs d’Arménie, 2010
  • Pensées d'étoffe ou d'argile, 2010
  • Genève, 1993, 2010
  • Le siècle où la parole a été victime, 2010
  • Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011, 2011 (selected, translated, and with an introduction by Hoyt Rogers)
  • L’heure présente, 2011 - The Present Hour; and, In a Piece of Broken Mirror (translated and introduced by Beverley Bie Brahic, 2013)
  • Sous le signe de Baudelaire, 2011
  • L'Autre Langue à portée de voix, 2012
  • Le digamma, 2012 - The Digamma (translated and with a foreward by Hoyt Rogers, 2014)
  • L'Autre Langue à portée de voix: essais sur la traduction de la poésie, 2013
  • Portraits aux trois crayons, 2013
  • Le Graal sans la légende, 2013
  • Orlando furioso, guarito: de l'Arioste à Shakespeare: essais, 2013
  • Yves Bonnefoy. Poésie et dialogue, 2013
  • Le Siècle de Baudelaire, 2014
  • Chemins ouvrant, 2014 (with Gérard Titus-Carmel)
  • L'hésitation de Hamlet et la décision de Shakespeare, 2015
  • La Poésie et la gnose, 2016
  • L'écharpe rouge: suivi de, Deux scènes et notes conjointes, 2016

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