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The poet as engineer of truth:
Pierre Jean Jouve

par Michael G. Kelly

Part One

   I. Delineating a poetic project  

   Entering into language, according to models of various provenance and vintage, is an entry into the world of disunity, of distance, of distress. Yahweh invented the curse of Babel to punish man’s pride – the bar of mutual incomprehension is the biblical answer to the mad notion of global intelligibility between human subjects. The history of the Bible itself, as a series of translation upon translation, points to the human drive to re-establish this intelligibility via the written text. It represents a myth of wholeness through language. In Lacan, developing Freud in the question of language, the entry of the child into the ordre symbolique initiates the demise of a subjective personal unity and with it the intelligibility to the subject of the ‘self’. Language in these and other versions is a necessary, tragic alienation for those who would live socially. As lived experience this alienation has classically been expressed as a descent from some, other, Reality: 

 Le poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

   Some poets never grow up. They never ‘heal’ from the discovery that in language, their medium, they encounter that which can be most hostile to themselves – that is, their most intimate form of raw material. In embracing this paradox, Baudelaire understood the dignity and triumph of poetry to lie in its own gift - that by speaking the abjection of its genesis the poet could emulate if not go one better than the Christ figure, and be both the first and the last.    

   Poetry, among all the forms of writing, is closest to the figure of a source – a mind, a voice or a hand – and yet, in a manner perhaps definitional to itself, aspires to life as language. Poems may be transformative – transforming the lived duration of poetic experience into the autonomous life of the poetic execution. They are, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, transfusional, in the sense that the poetic text is suffused with the poet’s effort to convey.  

   Bernard Noël, in a recently published text, articulates these features differently but to the same end. Poetry is valued here as redemptive of language, within a public discourse increasingly experienced as invidious and invasive:  

 […] la poésie est le foyer de résistance de la langue vivante contre la langue consommée, réduite, univoque. La poésie est cette vitalité de la langue sans avoir besoin de l’affirmer : elle l’est naturellement, en elle-même, par sa situation, car elle est sans cesse réactivée par ce qui l’anime, et qui est source, qui est originel.
(Où va la poésie?, K.K. 214)

   The claim exerted upon us by poetic language is understood to be founded, then, not by what it ‘says’ but by what it manages, atypically, to render. Language that is poetic manages to reconstitute the source within the social. It acts thereby against its fate, which was to imperceptibly displace the former with an (automatically) impoverished form of the latter.    

 Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
(The Circus Animals’ Desertion)

  Yeats’ ‘masterful images’ began in ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’ They are the culmination of a continuum of self, forging grandeur from misère, distinguishing both language and its source from their more nightmarish determinisms. And yet they are an aspect rather than the practical object of poetry. Insofar as mastery is important it is the master’s ability recognise and speak his truth, however unpalatable. 

   In the case of Pierre Jean Jouve, mutatis mutandis, the poetic search for this miracle alloy of self and language was also (re)begun in Yeatsian squalor and disenchantment. It too has its masterful images – devices which embody the power of Jouve’s poetic work because they succeed in holding together the multiple and often contradictory strands of his ‘self’. To an extent uncommon even among poets, Jouve infused his works with a persona he regarded as his true, all the more so for being complex and highly tormented, self. This self emerges in the wake of a ‘crise spirituelle’ of several years’ duration, undergone by Jouve in his early thirties. 

   That crisis has frequently been rounded down to the trauma of a religious conversion. As described by Jouve (in particular in the artistic memoirs En Miroir) it seems, in its various aspects, much more like the general onset of an awareness of inauthenticity. Unhappiness with a previous literary output which he had come to perceive as derivative, divorce and a second marriage (to a psychoanalyst) in the name of ‘passionate’ self-discovery and an enthused if not light-hearted engagement with the teachings of said psychoanalysis, in addition to a new (and self-proclaimedly non-aligned) religious sense are all factors of the mutation undergone by the poet – the event in which the ‘self’ of his acknowledged poetry, in addition to his subsequent poetics, came about.   

  Of Jouve, Yves Bonnefoy writes:

 En vérité, il y a dans la création un autre pôle que celui où s’engendrent à l’infini, hors du temps vécu, désinteressées du destin, les métonymies et les métaphores. Un pôle qui oriente non les significations mais le sens, lequel a sa beauté lui aussi, bien qu’aux limites de l’invisible … Né d’un désir qu’aucune richesse de proportions ou d’images ne peut combler, parce qu’il est mémoire de la présence, on peut dire ce pôle – ce désir encore – la poésie.
[Emphasis in original] (Bonnefoy 470)

   The desire for ‘sense’ as something not necessarily inherent in the linguistic order, the experience of an inarticulate pressure behind language’s strategies for holding things together, is the very scheme of Jouve’s crise. He states elsewhere that for those active within a culture but not blessed by ‘génie’ (i.e. ‘le plus grand nombre’), accession to the status of ‘Art’ is only possible by a process of ‘individuation énergique’. The completion of the human unit, the individu - at least in the sense of an autonomous creative judgment - is coextensive with the quality of distinctiveness. The individu in all its complexity is the socialised source from which sense is retrievable and as which sense is presentable, in and around language. Authenticity, in uncovering the ‘self’ discovers both ‘sense’ and specificity. Artistic merit consists in becoming distinguishable through the truth of selfhood.

  Art as the conveying of self is already, as his compatriots might say, tout un programme. In explicit affiliation (however) with his elective precursor Baudelaire, Jouve further underlines the special and persecuted quality of this sense-ful individuality:   

 Donner sans recevoir est le malheur des poètes. Leurs larmes vraies se perdent. […] Comme la Prostitution du cœur mis à nu, la poésie se livre à tous sans faire autre chose que se livrer, car le plaisir n’est point en elle, seule la force.
(M.C. 184)
De cet abîme où tout plonge, nature, angoisse, béatitude du sexe et crainte de la mort, désir qui lui-même s’écrase, un murmure se dégage, un souffle. Une voix s’élève, portant en grappes de douleur le nombre de ses mots. […] Bruit éternel, une fois conçu, opéra magique, chant à travers. Les ignares nomment poésie cet amer et merveilleux gémissement.
(ibid., 177)
Il [Baudelaire] est une référence pour tous les moments de pire douleur. […] Il est un réconfort partout, car s’il a pu, lui, en dépit de misère, vérole et humiliation publique, à travers le désert, pourquoi ne pourrait-on pas, même en un désert plus désert ?
(ibid., 217)

   This freely-given individual truth is then a matter of suffering. Larmes vraies are the bulwarks of poetry. Voice and the words it articulates are identifiable by their pain, becoming a merveilleux gémissement. The désert of inner distress is compounded by the travesty of pariah status. Disaster and dispossession are not only the stuff inside and around the valid poetic act – they are also its shape. The chant à travers and the bruit éternel – seeming to describe prosodic qualities become transcendent – are inseparable from a particular condition of the source. One is a poet, or is poetically, because one bears the stigmata of the poet’s condition born or reborn in the shape of one whose misery, whose humanity, can become chant. All of the factors above add up to a very strong presence of the normative, the idea that poetry and poets are recognisable as doing a ‘right’ set of things faced with the given that is their personal condition (even though to formulate it thus is stifling and diminishing).

   Poetry, moreover, unlike other ways of working ‘artistically’ in language such as the novels which Jouve produced up to 1935, is endowed as literary object by him, in its turn, with the defiant autonomy of ‘Art’ proper:   

Par le roman d’Hélène [Dans les années profondes] se produisit une chute en arrière assez vertigineuse pour que tout mouvement d’écriture fût condamné d’avance, s’il n’était voué à la seule libre Poésie qui, à aucun moment n’ayant été dans le jeu, ne devait rien à personne. (E.M. 78)

   Having no concessions to make, this textual actuation of the individuated source is subject only to the judgment of that source (the poet) within a relation of dialogue. A distinction is thus drawn between poetic act and poetic product. The poet is, in Jouve’s deceptively simple formulation (after Baudelaire), « un diseur de mots »:  

 Diseur de mots est celui qui sait établir entre ces mots le potentiel d’une charge nécessaire à l’étagement de mouvements compliqués et d’épaississements graves formant la matière mentale. (E.M.45)

   But this ‘doer’ confesses to later experiencing alienation from the evidence of his action (that is, reading his own work in the cold light of incomplete self-recognition). This ‘product’ is already in some way outside the space where poetry is intelligible to the poet as the conveying of self. One consequence of this is that the poet may then be defined as one who remains constantly present to him/herself – who, in effect, is held together – through the uncertainty and anxiety of creative work (as distinct from the entity named on the spine of a slim volume):   

 Le travail a toujours été d’une grande dureté. […] Au produit de ce travail je suis rapidement étranger. La page écrite, il ne reste que l’inquiétude, avec la faim de la page suivante. […]

Les divers recours tentés pour unifier et réconcilier par pleine conscience et espérance, le poète avec lui-même, ont constamment échoué. […]

Le seul recours efficace fut dans le travail

Emphasis in original] (E.M.46 – 47)

   To recapitulate: poetry and poets are distinguishable, on this view, from non-poetry and non-poets because of the choices made and evidenced in the text. Poetry is, however, an act that is free and autonomous. This act is a unifying act – it constitutes and validates the individual who has performed it for the space and duration of that activity. Thus, although at the time of crisis mentioned above it was possible to theorise language in disjunction from an ‘authentic’ subject, poetry also has a role in creating the poet – the subject whose sense it embodies. This latter position is at once similar and far-removed from that expounded by Michaux in the Postface to Plume (1938):

On veut trop être quelqu’un.

Il n’est pas un moi. Il n’est pas dix moi. Il n’est pas de moi. MOI n’est qu’une position d’équilibre. (Une entre mille autres continuellement possibles et toujours prêtes.) Une moyenne de « moi », un mouvement de foule. Au nom de beaucoup je signe ce livre. 

[Emphasis in original] (Plume, 217)

   Whereas this differentiation of the self calls the status of the work into question for Michaux, Jouve would seem to insist on the validity of the achieved unity – even though this is done by the most extraordinary feat (an act of individuation). Thus it is possible to discuss the importance of ‘Art’ for Jouve both in terms of its separating and unifying function. In one sense, this makes the work of art exemplary, the intelligible epitome of being.

   That this exemplarity originated in the unifying impulse of the human psyche was an idea which appealed both aesthetically and intellectually to Jouve. It is evident from some of his quasi-political writings, including these comments on the revolutionary Danton, that this unifying impulse was for him not only an identifiable force, but one capable of transcendent historical presence through individual action:

    L’objet de la foi de Danton est vivant; la grandeur qu’il chérit est celle de la vérité. Point de dogme ni de théorie dans son esprit: des choses, des êtres. […] Danton ne distingue pas entre la France et la Révolution, car tout cela c’est le Peuple, et il vit pour le peuple, il est peuple. [Emphasis in original] (De la Révolution comme sacrifice, n. p.)

   Unity is the analytical construct used most readily and comfortably by Jouve - and the very drive towards unity which he associates with the basis of his identity as poet leads him to idealise history (or rewrite it as religion), and give something approaching an aesthetic reading of a set of human actions:

 La France ne doit pas nécessairement faire les décapitations solennelles de la Révolution Française, mais il lui faut les accepter et les aimer en arrière, comme œuvres de son courage et de son absolutisme idéal. 
(Vivre libre ou mourir (1942); D.I. 26)

   Used as an analytical tool in relation to historical complexes, ‘unity’ is the common currency of metaphysical sense. The supreme abstraction, it founds a principle of outward organisation even as it strongly affirms the unifying consciousness. The practice of ‘unity’ unfolds, critically, through the formulation and operation of ‘symbols’. In writing, the created units of analysis are carried and afforded a first line of consistency by their names – irrespective of whether those names directly or indirectly lead to the locus of ‘meaning’, the analytical unit or the ‘symbol’. Thus above, the past is anatomised under terms unifying practically boundless funds of experience and sense; symbols – in many cases images – which irradiate and draw together, such as the revolutionary scaffold or the name ‘République’ itself (with its panoply of subsidiary symbolic supports). These terms import ‘sense’ into the political discourse fully appreciative of their richness, impart foundedness to statements built around them and access the sense-producing capacities of the appropriate audience. This fixity of belief in the truth of the constructed term is what Jouve saw as the key to an understanding of Danton’s character. It is also, I would argue, at the root of the system, the public establishment of the truth of the self in the potent medium of one’s own order of symbols, which he hoped to vindicate in his travail de poète:     

 […] au fond, un seul système de symboles traduit notre position dans notre univers, si cette position est sérieuse.
(E.M. 88)

    Translating (traduire) is the act of making sense for others. The ‘symbolic’ stage is thus that of established textual realities, the point at which the created self undergoes the test of the other, moving definitively beyond the inchoate or solipsistic closure of ongoing ‘poetic’ struggle. This socialising turn in the process of ‘individuation’ requires, as we have seen, that the individuating symbol fulfil a dual mandate of authenticity and intelligibility. The poet moves perilously close to being placed in a double bind: the subject and object of his act of self-creation, the speaker and his first listener, only he can say (but can he?) whether in the compromise reached he discerns a unity that he could recognise as his condition in the midst of things. What he does succeed in recognising as truth will be experienced, however, by others as ‘Art’:

Dans Sueur de Sang, dans Matière Céleste, je me plaçai sous le signe du symbole. […] Bien des pièces ne sont que des chaînes de symboles, qui doivent vous entrer dans le corps en passant par vos mémoires.
(E.M. 133)

   The achieved symbol is thus the inexhaustible food to a general and diversely-experienced hunger for unity. Symbols in this view are machines of apparent reconciliation become magical building blocks. Emerging as a response to the problem of unity (psychic, verbal, artistic or political) – coextensive with the problem of sense – they foreshadow a communicative utopia of delimited personal and verbal space. That space is open to other evaluative vocabularies, including those of the poet himself. Commenting years later on his poetic objectives upon emerging from the crise spirituelle Jouve wrote:   

J’étais orienté vers deux objectifs fixes: d’abord obtenir une langue de poésie qui se justifiât entièrement comme chant […]; et trouver dans l’acte poétique une perspective religieuse – seule réponse au néant du temps.
[Emphasis in original] (E.M. 29)

   When viewed against the language of individuation discussed above both of these aspirations might appear quite self-effacing - the poet playing the role of conduit or messenger before that of self-validating source. Both however, go to the heart of Jouve’s approach to the mediated self. The collection entitled Noces, in respect of which these objectives were stated, opens on an incantatory mode proper to the inspired convert:

Ecris sous la dictée.
Et tous les oiseaux chantèrent plusieurs fois sur le ciel.

 Et le poète était encore une fois illuminé

Il ramassait les morceaux du livre, il redevenait aveugle et invisible, il perdait sa famille, il écrivait le mot du premier mot du livre.

   This insistent writing might indeed be described as chant. It contains the rhapsodic urgency of one barely able to hold down the message. Rather than the poet being present in the words, the words are, suddenly, present to the poet, he is literally ‘inspired’ from something pre- or extra-linguistic. Two ways of being ‘inhabited’, or two modes for the conceptualisation of it, were central to Jouve’s reinvention as a poet – the languages of psychoanalysis and of Christianity. Each provides a theory and fund of symbols, on which Jouve variously made inroads of his own. He plays on the dual registers of intimate and canonical symbolisations, in varied states of purity. Thus, at the far end of Noces, comes the transfixed invocation of the primary Christian symbol:

Salut vrai corps de Dieu. Salut Resplendissant
Corps de la chair engagé par la tombe et qui naît
Corps, ô Ruisselant de bontés et de chairs
Salut corps tout de jour!
(ibid. 135)

   This interpellation of the body of Christ is both ‘chant’ and ‘proprement religieux’, but it is also, critically, constructed around an institutional symbol. In Vrai Corps (just cited) the religious song thus becomes the song of the symbol in a particularly accessible way as it can draw upon the reliable and glossed cultural power of the image of Christ’s crucified body. But the potency of the presented symbol – at whatever levels of particularity it is drawn – is placed by Jouve (in the celebrated Avant-propos to what was his next work, Sueur de Sang) at the door of a quite different interpretative practice:

 Dans son expérience actuelle, la poésie est en présence de multiples condensations à travers quoi elle arrive à toucher au symbole – non plus contrôlé par l’intellect, mais surgi, redoutable, et réel […] Et par le mode de sensibilité qui procède de la phrase au vers et du mot utilitaire au mot magique, la recherche de la forme adéquate devient inséparable de la recherche du fond. 
(N.S.S. 143)

The dominant energy of this unconscious is symbolic. Given such origins the symbol is reaffirmed for Jouve as partaking in the texture and status of the ‘real’. In this primordial terrain, symbol and poetic form conflate. Form, the main term under which the arrangement of words is discussed, is in its turn conferred with a mask, elevated to the grade of metaphysical actor:

   Dans l’inconscient il n’y a qu’une limite: elle est représentée par la mort. Ainsi, ce qui intéresse par la limite la forme, est incontestablement lié à la mort.

(E.M. 102)

   Yet Jouve immediately shows himself to be a metaphysician with a pragmatic edge. In a transformation reminiscent of the move from writing as actualisation of self to writing as the communicative ‘individuation’ of the poet, the fruits of the unconscious, bearing the impression of death, pass into the conscious mind of the poet and are there subjected to the conscious poetic intervention which is the representational moment:

    Le processus originel de la forme change du tout au tout en passant par les canaux de la représentation consciente. La logique veut l’utilisation pragmatique et le confort. La forme sera alors la condensation heureuse de la vie, la condensation dans le fragment d’une vie dont on peut jouir d’avantage. (ibid. 103)

   The act of bridging between source and text, of conveying sense as individuation, can thus be seen to play on all registers of the self and of the social. Marshalling the representational and formal strengths of what he names unconscious and conscious selves, Jouve sets out to entrap life – an intense mess – in writing. He becomes a symbolic engineer of the self and, via recognition in the act of reading, of the other - in what by that process becomes ‘poetic’ language.

End of Part One
Part Two

Jouve. Les Noces (1928) suivi de Sueur de Sang (1933). Poésie/Gallimard, 1966. [N.S.S.]

_____. Dans les années profondes (1961); Matière céleste (1964); Proses (1960). Poésie/Gallimard, 1995. [M.C.]

_____. Diadème (1949) suivi de Mélodrame. Poésie/Gallimard, 1970. [D.M.]

_____. En Miroir (Journal sans date). Mercure de France, 1954. [E.M.]

_____. Défense et Illustration. Charlot, 1946. [D.I.]

_____. De la Révolution comme sacrifice, 1944. L’Herne, 1971.

_____. Paulina 1880. Mercure de France, 1959.


Baudelaire. Les Fleurs du Mal. Poésie/Gallimard.

Michaux. Plume suivi de Lointain Intérieur. Poésie/Gallimard.

Yeats. Collected Poetry. Everyman.


Kelley and Khalfa (eds.): The New French Poetry. Bloodaxe, 1996. [K.K.]

Bonnefoy: ‘Pierre Jean Jouve’ in La Vérité de Parole (Essais), Mercure de France, folio essais, 1995. [Bonnefoy]

Eliade: Le sacré et le profane, Gallimard, Folio Essais, 1987
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Ce texte ©  Michael G. Kelly
Dernière mise à jour : 6 avril 2008
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