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The restless openwork of André du Bouchet.

By HOYT ROGERS.

I know a wind in purpose strong—
It spins against the way it drives.

—Melville

AN UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED giant of French literature—and obliquely, of several other literatures as well—André du Bouchet was one of the greatest innovators of twentieth-century letters. Trailblazing poet, maverick philosopher, multifarious critic, trenchant stylist, fearless anthologist, daring editor, prolific diarist, intrepid translator from three languages, tireless explorer of nature and the visual arts, he was an authentic iconoclast who has yet to receive his due, especially in the English-speaking world. This anomaly seems all the more inexplicable, given his dazzling renditions of Shakespeare, Joyce, and Faulkner into French, as well as his lifelong attachment to the classic authors of nineteenth-century America. A moving example of this is the epigraph from Melville quoted above, which du Bouchet placed at the head of one of his late works; and in most of his writings, the elliptical syntax and halting dashes of Dickinson inform every page.

The diversity of his ethnic background alone would make him a cosmopolitan figure, representative of our age of “translingualism” and immigration.

Admittedly, du Bouchet’s achievement far transcends all boundaries or allegiances, and the diversity of his ethnic background alone would make him a cosmopolitan figure, representative of our age of “translingualism” and immigration. In addition to his French versions of Anglophone writers, including authors as diverse as John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Laura Riding, he also enriched French literature with important translations from the German and Russian. All the same, affording du Bouchet the recognition he merits should be of particular concern to American readers, since his paternal family had ancestral ties to the United States, and he himself spent nearly eight years in New England at a formative stage of his development, befriending such key exponents of American poetry as James Merrill and Richard Wilbur.

openwork150covBy drawing the attention of the English-language public to du Bouchet’s work, we hope the Openwork anthology will help to rectify a glaring omission. With remarkable far-sightedness, Paul Auster made the first step in that direction in 1976, with the publication of The Uninhabited. In my view, those translations of du Bouchet’s poems from the sixties are still unsurpassed; somewhat emended, they are reprinted in Openwork. While later translators and omnibus anthologists of French verse have also tended to focus on his poetry from that decade, we have expanded the scope of Openwork to include pieces from the author’s entire trajectory, both “poetry” and “prose.” For du Bouchet, as for many French writers of the last two centuries, these modes of expression are intertwined and often indistinguishable.

A portfolio of poetry from ‘Openwork’ is here.

While English-speakers have special reasons to become acquainted with this author’s groundbreaking work, we are by no means alone in needing to catch up. Even in France—though du Bouchet was duly awarded the Critics’ Prize of 1961, the Grand Prize of the French Academy in 1975, and the National Poetry Prize of 1983—the full import of his oeuvre is only beginning to make itself felt. With little regard for the self-promoting mainstream of belles-lettres, he frequently favored small presses and artists’ editions, and many of his articles and essays in periodicals have yet to be collected. In verse, prose, and intermediate forms, he published more than seventy heterogeneous books in his lifetime, including twenty major translations from the English, German, and Russian. Though highly respected among celebrated writers and artists, the friend of Paul Celan, Yves Bonnefoy, Louis-René des Forêts, Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Dupin, Pierre Tal Coat, Alberto Giacometti and many others, he maintained a cautious reserve toward the intellectual trends of Paris.

As the epigraph from Melville implies, he was an inveterate contrarian. When Yves Bonnefoy introduced us in the autumn of 1970, du Bouchet wryly remarked: “With me you will learn to say no, no, no. Isn’t that why you came to France?”

A poet’s poet in the tradition of Mallarmé, wıth a dose of the master’s aloofness, du Bouchet never sought to attract a circle of younger disciples; nor did he try to advance his international reputation. According to his longtime American companion, Sarah Plimpton, though he returned to the United States briefly in 1970, he declined an interview with the Paris Review, which she had arranged through her brother, George Plimpton.

A poet’s poet in the tradition of Mallarmé…du Bouchet never sought to attract a circle of younger disciples.

With his son Gilles, du Bouchet made a trip to Crete, and in his last years he attended several short conferences in Turkey, Eastern Europe, and Mexico, but he never took advantage of his early links to the English-speaking world. Throughout his life, he spent the greater part of his time in the French countryside, devoting himself to the long walks—first in Normandy and then in the Drôme—which nourished the creation of his notebooks. The entries were often jotted down during his rambles, especially during the decade of the fifties, and they have emerged as signal works in their own right. Once the entire corpus of these journals appears in print, the challenging texts he published in his middle and later periods will come into focus as trees fully integral to the understory below. In retrospect, a decade after his death, du Bouchet towers among his contemporaries with gathering insistence.

— adapted from the introduction to Openwork.


Hoyt Rogers, a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, is the author of a collection of poetry, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish. His translations include the Selected Poems of Borges and three books by Yves Bonnefoy, The Curved Planks, Second Simplicity, and The Digamma. He lives in the Dominican Republic and Italy.

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