“Yves Bonnefoy, who was generally regarded as France’s pre-eminent poet of the postwar era, as well as its leading translator of Shakespeare and a wide-ranging art critic in the spirit of Baudelaire, died on Friday in Paris. He was 93.” So begins the New York Times obituary. You can read the rest of it here. He published many major collections of verse, several books of tales, many studies of literature and art, and an extensive dictionary of mythology.
I think I prefer this comment from friend and poet Alfred Corn: “I had one meeting with him in New York, on the occasion of the U.S. publication of his monograph on Giacometti, in preparation for a review I did of it. A cool, self-possessed, silvery manner, his French speech elevated and polite. Any chummy effort at ingratiation was clearly not his intention, as it would have struck him as mere mauvaise foi. His surname in itself precluded that.”
In a statement, French President François Hollande called Bonnefoy “one of the greatest poets of the 20th century” and praised him for “elevating our language to its supreme degree of precision and beauty.”
He was a close friend of several of my friends. One of them, Canadian poet and translator Beverley Bie Brahic, was his translator as well, of his collection, The Present Hour. She’s also a poet in her own right: her poetry collection, White Sheets, was a finalist for the Forward Prize and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her other translations include Guillaume Apollinaire:The Little Auto, winner of the Scott Moncrieff Prize, and Francis Ponge: Unfinished Ode to Mud, a finalist for the Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation.
The Book Haven asked her to send us a few personal reflections on the great French poet. Here’s what she wrote:
I began translating Yves Bonnefoy, for my own enrichment, about ten years ago and, if I recall correctly, with what is still my favorite book, Début et fin de la neige. I was drawn by the haiku-like sequence of New England poems, such as this one:
And what to think
Of these yellow apples?
Yesterday, they astonished us, waiting so, naked
After the leaves fell.
Today they charm,
Their shoulders so
With a hem of snow.
Translating these poems from Snow (the collection is available in Emily Grosholz’s fine translation, Beginning and End of the Snow) with their simple but resonant images gave me intense pleasure and led me to other books, and eventually to Bonnefoy’s study on a hillside in Montmartre: I came with translations and a sheaf of questions, and left with more translations, enthusiastically published by Naveen Kishore and his marvelous international enterprise, Seagull Books.
However many times I made the journey to Montmartre I usually found Bonnefoy more interested in talking—about California, where he had taught, Provence, whose landscapes figure prominently in many of his poems, or Italy and its paintings—than in puzzling over the fine points of translation of books that were by then behind him. His confidence was empowering. The author of many essays on translation, he understood that something must always be sacrificed in a poem’s move from one language to another, and he supported the translator’s freedom to adapt the source text, though he could be a stickler for details. One kind of frog was not another kind of frog! He was less interested, it seemed to me—perhaps because the problem had arisen too often—in the translation of philosophical terms such as “evidence” (tricky) than in pinning down the precise kind of rock that figured in a poem set in Provence.
Bonnefoy was a philosophical poet, but one who could catch the present moment with all its sensuousness in a sonnet as limpid as this one from The Present Hour (Seagull Books, 2013):
Instant that wants to endure, but how
Wrest eternity from the branches
Protecting the table where light
And shade play on my white page of this morning?
Two trees, and around them the grass,
Then the house, then time, then tomorrow
Opening to oblivion, that already dissipates
Yesterday’s fruit fallen close to the table.
Over there is far. Though mostly
Here and now are what’s out of reach;
Easier to go into the future
Taking, for later, some pieces
Of this ripe fruit, by whose grace
Blue and green merge in the night of the grass.
Favorite quote from The Paris Review, 1994: “We are deprived through words of an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is. We need poetry, not to regain this intimacy, which is impossible, but to remember that we miss it and to prove to ourselves the value of those moments when we are able to encounter other people, or trees, or anything, beyond words, in silence.”