French poet Jacques Prevert translated into English

This music video is Yves Montand – Les Feuilles Mortes, by Jacques Prevert.

From British daily The Morning Star:

What makes a poet great?

(Monday 17 March 2008)

POETRY: 21st Century Verse

Forget the Guardian‘s dull Anglophone poetry handouts and get hold of a copy of Jacques Prevert‘s Selected Poems. ANDY CROFT explains why.

READERS of The Guardian are currently being treated to a seven-part series of free booklets celebrating the “Great Poets of the 20th Century.”

It’s the usual dull and predictable little Anglophone list of course – Eliot, Sassoon, Auden, Larkin, Plath, Hughes and Heaney. Only one of the seven is a woman, all were educated at Oxbridge except Heaney – and he has since been Professor of Poetry at Oxford – and they all share the same publisher, TS Eliot.

It would be hard to put together a less exciting history of 20th century poetry. Fortunately, that history was a lot more interesting than The Guardian would have us believe.

The point is made with the welcome publication of Jacques Prevert: Selected Poems (Hearing Eye, £8.95).

Prevert (1900-77) is today a national institution in France. There are over 400 schools named after him, more than for any other literary figure.

Over three million copies of his books have been sold to date. Not bad for a writer who refused to describe himself as a poet.

In the 1920s, Prevert hung out with the Surrealists. Together with Raymond Queneau and Yves Tanguy, he invented the Surrealist game of “exquisite corpses.”

In the 1930s, he was active in the October Group of radical cabaret performers. The group won first prize at the 1935 International Workers’ Theatre Olympiad in Moscow for the premiere of his play The Battle of Fontenoy.

During the second world war, Prevert protected and hid several Jewish friends, including the composer Joseph Kosma, whose setting of Prevert’s Autumn Leaves was later recorded by Yves Montand and Edith Piaf.

After the war, he worked with Picasso, Ernst and Miro. He wrote for the ballet and for the stage, he wrote books for children and several classic screenplays, including Les Enfants du Paradis (1945).

Incredibly, Prevert’s work has been unavailable in Britain since Penguin brought out a slim selection in the 1960s.

Perhaps translators have been put off by his love of pun and word play. Perhaps Prevert’s work is too accessible, too popular for English readers who have been brought up on the “Great Poets of the 20th Century.”

If you have never read any of Prevert’s work, imagine a Left Bank combination of Ian McMillan, Stevie Smith, Adrian Mitchell and Ivor Cutler.

As the book’s translator Sarah Lawson says, Prevert was “committed, imaginative and entertaining” – a rare but necessary combination of virtues.

Jacques Prevert: Selected Poems brings together poems and short prose pieces from the best-selling Paroles (1946) to the posthumously published Le Cinquieme Saison.

His poetry is always playful, punning and unpredictable. But each of these whimsical, apparently childish little fables packs an extraordinary punch – irreverent and anti-intellectual, unpicking the logic of authority and war.

The book includes some of his most famous denunciations of “the sheer bloody stupidity of war“, notably A Family Matter, Song in the Blood, Barbara, The Wonders of Freedom, Procession and Days of Dregs and Thorns – “you’re not giving us that old patriotic crap any more.”

There are some wonderful poems about children and school, especially The Dunce, who “in spite of the teacher’s threats / to the jeers of the child prodigies / with multicoloured chalk / on the blackboard of misery … draws the face of happiness.”

Best of all is Prevert’s splendid rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer – “Our Father who art in Heaven / Stay there / And we will stay on Earth … With the pretty girls and with the bloody old fools / With the straw of misery rotting in the steel of the cannons.”

A truly great poet of the 20th century.


7 thoughts on “French poet Jacques Prevert translated into English

  1. Only just discovered Jacques Prevert. Please would you tell me where I can find a starter collection for me to read. I only have schoolboy French. Someone I met suggested a poem about a cup of coffee and a man putting on his coat and leaving a woman in tears.


  2. Pingback: A Prevert poem about workers | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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