Though neither my French nor my understanding of poetry are good enough to honestly rate Poésies by Paul Verlaine, this book, the rhythm of Verlaine’s stanzas and lines, is fantastic and he has created some truly beautiful images. I have a decent enough comprehension of French that I was able to read the book aloud to myself and to capture Verlaine’s incredible cadences. I used his rhyme scheme to learn to pronounce some words I hadn’t encountered before.
Reading Like a Novice
I’m afraid of poetry. I don’t know the structures and the rules and I’m always certain it’s supposed to mean something that I’m missing. But reading poetry in French was freeing. Once I relaxed into the idea that I was not going to understand every word (I refuse to take a dictionary to bed), I was able to also relax into the idea that I would not understand every nuance and reference in the poems. There would be no essay at the end about the Panzer-man signifies.
Inventing a Language
What was most interesting for me is how carefully reading in French made me pay attention to language. Sometimes I made up my own interpretations based on cognates. “Quand le soleil…dorait la vie” does mean “When the sun…gilded life,” but it also made me think of the verb dormir (to sleep) and so I added layers of meaning to the sentence for myself. This made me think harder about the words I am using and their etymologies and homonyms and how all of that enriches the words and the sentences they inhabit.
I picked out the words I knew and fell in love with the sounds of others. I found myself responding to the simplest phrases like “Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et penetrant” (I have often this strange and penetrating dream) that I would be embarrassed to underline in English because they aren’t deep or new enough. Actually that sentence may be a bad example, because whether or not my translation is accurate, it is kind of beautiful. Sometimes I underlined things simply because of their sound as in “Des violons / De l’automne / Blessent mon coeur / D’une langueur / Monotone.”
I made it all the way through the book, reading each page aloud, and I haven’t picked up the dictionary yet, but I am happy with the meanings I brought to Verlaine and the meanings Verlaine brought to me. I am happy with the way looking at a language from the outside will help me look at my language from the inside.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Poésies from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.