TATTERS OF SONG
Selected Poems 1930-1989
Edited by David Wheatley
Faber and Faber, 2009
Faber’s new edition of Samuel Beckett’s poems, replacing the old Collected Poems in English and French on which most readers have depended since its first publication in 1977, is part of their program to reissue the Irish writer’s work following the closing down of his former publisher, Calder Publications. Although it calls itself only Selected, it is satisfyingly heftier than the old Collected, and Beckett’s readers will certainly want to have it, though having made the purchase they may be dismayed to read in David Wheatley’s introduction that there is already in the works a new Collected that promises “scholarly exhaustiveness”; in that case, why bother with a stopgap? Still, at least it’s possible to congratulate oneself on having missed “the multiply defective Poems 1930-1989 (2002),” which, according to Wheatley, marked “a low point in the history of Beckett editing,” though in truth reading that makes me want to go online and order one right away, in case what I missed was an entertaining car crash. In any case, even while we wait for the augured new Collected, an occasion to reread Beckett will not go amiss.
But why the poems anyway? Although they have always had their readers—and Beckett’s very first attempt, “Whoroscope,” was the prize winner it was written to be—their status has always been somehow uncertain. Beckett is thought of as a playwright and novelist; he is less often mentioned as a poet. Beckett scholars accord relatively little of their attention to his poetry, and critics of poetry accord relatively little attention to Beckett. In the general press, the recent publication of the first volume of his letters has probably drawn more column-inches, even in the era of the twilight of the newspaper, than his poems have in the last thirty years. One is tempted to assume Beckett’s poetry must be the minor work of a major writer.
But Beckett didn’t do minor. Or rather, and this was more and more true as his work went on, he was concerned to undo the distinction between major and minor: consider merely the titles of some later works: Texts for Nothing, Fizzles, Residua. Not to mention the fact that he’d reached his Endgame by 1957. In poetry, he’d already attained this almost-disappeared state some time before. An untitled French poem of the late 30s speaks of “des loques de chanson”—tatters of song. With Beckett, the leftovers are the meal. That might not be so problematic, considering that the work-as-fragment had been conceivable since Romanticism—except that in a manner even more radical than in his fiction or theater, Beckett’s poetry is distinctly and seemingly irreducibly strange and idiosyncratic. Alain Badiou could credibly claim to read a late Beckett prose work like Worstward Ho “as a short philosophical treatise, as a treatment in shorthand of the question of being,” which is to say, it might make sense to understand it in terms of an implicit claim to universality. By contrast, Beckett’s poems, early and late, do everything possible to undermine any possible universalization, and instead keep their own discourse mired in an individuality that is always trivial: thus, the Descartes ventriloquized in “Whoroscope” is concerned not with pure thought but with the egg he intends to eat, for as Beckett’s note informs us, he “liked his omelette made of eggs hatched”—he presumably means “laid”—“from eight to ten days; shorter or longer under the hen and the result, he says, is disgusting.” Beckett must have liked to sit on his texts for shorter or longer, for he is a connoisseur of disgust.
Chronologically, Beckett’s poetry can be roughly dived into three phases: the thirties, when he produced 25 to 27 poems (the dating of a few is ambiguous); the postwar years (6 to 8 poems dated 1946-48), and then the 70s and 80s, when in a few spurts he produced some 50 poems, notably the 37 brief French poems he called “mirlitonnades”. A mirliton is a kazoo, so these are, rather than Wallace Stevens’s “Asides on the Oboe,” asides on a kazoo. Vers de mirliton is doggerel but this sequence is among Beckett’s best work as a poet. But the big transition came in the gap between the first two periods—that is, with the war. In a conversation with the writer Charles Juliet he spoke of a sudden revelation experienced in 1946 on a trip to Ireland: “Until that moment I used to think I could trust knowledge, that I needed to be intellectually equipped. Then everything collapsed.” It was then that he began writing without the gaudy surfaces that had armored his early poetry.
In his early poems, Beckett uses a strategy of excessive concreteness allied with a taste for the most recherché diction. One notes the influence of Eliot as influenced by Laforgue, but also an exponentially higher degree of abstraction, an even more flagrant artificiality. Where else can you find lines like “quick quick the cavaletto supplejacks for mumbo-jumbo” (“Sanies II”) or “tires bleeding voiding zeep the highway” (“Sanies I”)? The poems’ very titles—“Enueg” (a troubadour complaint lyric), “Sanies” (discharge from an infection), “Ooftish” (“derives,” says Wheatley, “from a Yiddish expression, meaning to lay one’s cash on the table”)—demand to be looked at as quizzical verbal objects beyond their denotational pretexts. Idiomatically farfetched as they are, these poems could easily have subsided into gaudily erudite grousing—impressive enough as just that, perhaps—were it not for their underlying colloquial energy, auditory concreteness, and idiosyncrasy in even the most minute choices (example, from “Sanies I”: “all heaven in the sphincter / the sphincter”—how about that italicized “the”?).
The post-war and later poems are something else. Their artificiality is just as extreme as in the poems of the 30s, but it’s an artificiality of reduction rather than of excess. The vocabulary is mostly that of C.K. Ogden’s Basic English word list, but these simple words are not used as if transparently; they are defamiliarized, and seem to grope toward meaning with little or no syntactical assistance. Words are laid one next to another like bricks, with a thin mortar of silence between each of the words in a line and a notably thicker one between each line and the next. Here for example is the first stanza of “dread nay”:
in out as dead
unseal the eye
till still again
The rhymes, assonances, and repetitions are there, not to smooth and lighten the movement of the verse, but on the contrary to keep things sticky, to weigh on the words like mud. And yet it can’t be denied that Beckett is still, in a certain sense, indulging himself—luxuriating in the mud that burdens his words, rolling the tang of desolateness around on his tongue. The occasional inkhorn word still crops up, but now only ever in the interest of bluntness and concision, as in a later stanza from the same poem:
stir of dread
“Latibule” means “hiding place,” which even has the same number of syllables but is visually more diffuse; try making the substitution and you’ll see how mealy the line suddenly becomes by comparison. This is a constructivist poetry in which each word-unit has little aura of its own yet in which their juxtaposition is highly charged.
As always with Beckett, the question of translation is unavoidable in his poetry. As bluntly concrete as each syllable may be, the poem is something one always makes out through a distance. He miraculously turns this typical effect of translation—or rather, this typical defect—into the poignant burden of poetry as such. Beckett rendered some of his own French poems into English, sometimes with great liberty as when he turned “hors crane seul dedans” into “Something there.” Another poem, “Là,” comes into English twice, as “go where never before” and “Brief Dream.” His translations of some maxims of Chamfort—his versions are not just after but “Long after Chamfort,” as he headed them—turn the Frenchman’s sententious wit into rapid, shrugging English doggerel that seems more profound than the original prose. “La pensée console de tout et remédie à tout. Si quelquefois elle vous fait du male, demandez-lui le remède du mal qu’elle vous a fait, elle vous donnera. ” For Beckett, this can be encapsulated thus: “Ask of all-healing, all-consoling thought/Salve and solace for the woe it wrought.” As if the chorus from a Greek tragedy had taken the stage in an Irish music hall.
Beckett’s translations from Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Montale, and others are noteworthy, but unlike the Chamfort maxims he does not make them his own. It’s nice to have them here, but then where’s the anthology of Mexican poetry he translated for Octavio Paz? I know I shouldn’t complain; it’s churlish. But when you’ve just been immersed in an oeuvre that takes complaint to a transcendent pitch, it’s hard to resist.
BARRY SCHWABSKY is the art critic for the Nation. His recent collection of poems is Book Left Open in the Rain (Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail, 2009)