By SAM SACKS [The New Yorker] — Bonnefoy’s writing is made of these gentle disagreements—his lifelong project was the reconciliation of stubborn opposites. The child of a teacher and a railroad worker, he was born in Tours in 1923 and spent the war years studying mathematics and philosophy. With his celebrated début collection, in 1953 (“On the Motion and Immobility of Douve”), he began a truly polymathic literary career, publishing, along with free-verse poetry, short fiction, lyric essays, translations (notably of Shakespeare and Yeats), literary criticism, and art history. He devoted considerable attention to the visual arts. (His second marriage was to the American painter Lucy Vines; the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of his closest friends.) He travelled widely, and lectured in comparative literature both in France and abroad.
All this roving among forms, disciplines, and continents seemed to thrust him into a permanently ambassadorial role. In a 1958 article for the literary magazine Encounter, Bonnefoy explored the “cultural gulf” between French and Anglo-American poetic traditions. The differences, he suggested, were as diametric as darkness and light. In English-language literature, there was a preoccupation with “communicated meanings.” This was writing dedicated to saying something intelligible, exemplified by the ordered, almost mathematical poetry of John Donne and T. S. Eliot. You don’t simply read these writers: you analyze them.
But the French had become antagonistic to the supremacy of ideas. Bonnefoy wrote that “the influence of the great 19th-century poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, and more recently of surrealism, has profoundly regenerated the whole conception of poetry by emphasizing that its value is non-rational and subjective.” The goal was to harness a language that would annihilate meaning, moving poetry toward the purer plane of solitude and silence.
These are incompatible aims, yet Bonnefoy set out to unite them…
Yves Bonnefoy in The Fortnightly Review.