I recently got my hands on Ten Poems of Francis Ponge Translated by Robert Bly & Ten Poems of Robert Bly Inspired by the Poems of Francis Ponge. (Owl’s Head Press published it in 1990 on acid-free paper.) Bly is my current poet man, and I was happy to see this volume after reading a piece on another Ponge volume at Via Negativa not too long ago. Bly says that he began translating Ponge’s poetry twenty years before the volume’s publication. Ponge, then, was also an inspiration for Bly’s larger books of prose poems, The Morning Glory and This Body is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood, both published in the 1970’s. One can see Ponge’s influence more clearly in the poems of The Morning Glory, which, like Ponge’s poems in Ten Poems, are principally object poems.
The prose poems of both of these poets, where successful, permit the reader to see their objects in a light not exactly revealed by the poems’ words. Bly strives to get across some quality in an object or animal that he feels words cannot reach. Bly finds that this ineffable quality of things resonates in “the subconscious”; he is not, of course, the only poet who uses the term in that sense. His poems here generally end with a shift in perspective, while Ponge’s here, with a kind of overt modesty, generally send the reader back into the poem.
This distinction between the poems’ endings may be explained by the distinction Bly describes in the poets’ philosophies regarding objects and language. Bly says that he believes in the subconscious; he also says that Ponge does not. As Bly points out in “My Surprise,” a short note that takes the place of any preface or introduction, Ponge is no Romantic. Bly says that, for Ponge, “the hidden qualities of a thing inhere in the history of language, where one finds the different meanings a word has carried over centuries.” (I haven’t exactly gotten my head around that distinction, but it sent me scurrying around the web.) To experience Bly’s object poems, then, is to leave language and move into the ineffable. To experience Ponge’s object poems may be to understand better how language relates to the object.
There are other differences. Most of Ponge’s short prose poems here are playful either in their form or in their softer-than-tongue-in-cheek interaction with the reader, or both. Ponge’s narrator’s voice (at least the tone Bly’s translations find in him) is sometimes that of a documentary narrator, sometimes that of an instructor. Here is Ponge’s opening to “The Plate”:
During our consecration here let’s be careful not to make this thing that we use every day too pearly. No poetic leap, no matter how brilliant, can speak in a sufficiently flat way about the lowly interval that porcelain occupies between pure spirit and appetite.
Bly’s narrator, in contrast, exposes little of himself, except as a vehicle of what he sees and associates. Bly is playful in his choice of metaphors (as he always is, and as is Ponge in this volume), and in their gentle and unexpected reappearance throughout his poems. Here I underline three examples of Bly’s metaphorical language from the beginning of “Peeling an Orange”; the first two I consider a success and the third a thud:
The orange’s hide is soft and grainy; and it has two navels, as if it were born once into this world, and once into the next. When the mouth opens to bite it, the teeth lose their hold and slide, and we feel abashed, as if a horse had gotten loose.
The teeth turn the orange over to the ten clever ones. The thumbnail enters first, and the nine friends hover around, offering to help. The orange skin now reveals its frightened white underside, as when citizens on the boarder lift their faces as the tanks approach.
You see how the similes pile on unfairly. But “Peeling an Orange” is a rare miss.
I cannot speak for the accuracy of Bly’s translation, but Ponge’s poems stand up well in English here.