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Saturday, 4 October 2008

Guest Review: Narayanan on Roubaud

Vivek Narayanan reviews
Poetry, Etcetera: Cleaning House
by Jacques Roubaud
translated from the French by Guy Bennett

It can’t always have been very easy to be Jacques Roubaud, though, now growing gently into an elder statesman of poetry, he likes to make it look that way— in practically every one of his sentences, one is at first reminded of his mentor, the great Raymond Queneau, founder, with Francois Le Lionnais, of OuLiPo. All of Queneau’s signature effects return, in some part, in traces, in Roubaud, and yet, he stops short of being as thrilling, entertaining and wildly inventive as his master. Roubaud’s real talents lie elsewhere, and are decidedly quieter, more measured and, one could maybe argue, more mathematical[1].

As a poet and as a writer (or as a “composer of poetry and mathematics” as he describes himself, with careful emphasis and syntax) he seems to be more interested, perhaps unfashionably, in the fundamentals of grammar and ultimately in logic. At its best, his language can be nearly without texture, almost without lyricism except in rare and sparing touches. This is not really a poetry of emotion, even in understatement. If he complains, in Poetry Etc.’s early, more “political” pages, of poetry having a hard time because it can’t be translated, can’t cross borders and negotiate literary immigration and “customs obstacles” (pg. 24), one still can’t help thinking that Roubaud’s poems might be easier to translate than most, as he himself shows, in “Life”, a “sonnet” (pg. 30) consisting entirely of ones and zeroes and thus not needing translation at all.

Poetry Etc., the book under review, translated by Guy Bennett, is another sturdy little volume in the ever heroic and reliable Green Integer series. It is a collection (or perhaps more accurately, an arrangement or a chain) of Roubaud’s essays, with only a very occasional poem running from the prose as a kind of quick demonstration or diagram; yet, the whole bears much family resemblance—Wittgenstein does come up—to his poetry; though clearer and not as full of contradictions and sleights of hand, it might even be read as one of his long poems. At any rate, these texts are odd even as essays, written wholly between quotes as a kind of ongoing Socratic dialogue between two voices, painstakingly constructing interlinked theories and theorems as if they were little LEGO chalets, nerdily, or perhaps playfully, indulging in acronyms[2], methodically working up from first principles, or “pseudo-axioms”, as he calls them. Like any mathematical treatise, the book plods slowly and self-evidently along at times, makes the reader restless, and then suddenly lands somewhere unexpected or refreshing, perhaps by some quick, nimble, obscure or violent large leap or gesture, some willful and stubborn contradiction. Here, for instance, is my own summation of one set of his “pseudo-axioms”. Note that the below is not quite or not necessarily a direct quote, but a paragraph assembled from my notes to pages 67-81:

Poetry says nothing. Poetry says something. Poetry can’t say everything. I forgot what the poem said. What was it I forgot? What this poem says is not really what the poem is saying. Poetry says nothing. Poetry says. Poetry does not say “something” because poetry is not paraphrasable. Poetry says what it says by saying it. Poetry does not say “something” but sump’n. Sump’n is the inner shadow of poetry caught in poems. Poetry is only a public silence. Poetry keeps nothing silent. Poetry cannot exist outside of objects of language.

Or, as a second example, I give below Roubaud’s lovely rumination on poetry as memory. Note that the following are direct quotations from the text of pages 108-110:

[A] poetic event provokes a process of memory… In the memory of poetry words dissolve, deconcentrate, decenter, their syllables diverge. The memory of poetry is light thrown on memories. Memory of poetry: black light of memory: diaphanous of the darkness, in us […] Poetry is external memory and internal memory […] Poetry cannot be reduced to its public aspect, to the text in the book, to the performance of voice, of gestures… Poetry is also private […] Poetry is double […] There is… an enormous distance between the memory effects of poetry, of one memory within another. For all other linguistic activity… these effects… must be reduced to a minimum… considered… as neglible and parasitic, or secondary; in the case of poetry this reduction is impossible.

I had to acquire a taste for this book as I read it; the early pages seemed obvious or pedantic, boring even, but quickly it begins to hold, being valuable and insightful, not to mention hard to figure out if you weren’t paying close attention to the formulations of the early pages. Roubaud is reaching for his own, irreverent, total vision. Although one can’t be absolutely sure who he’s read or seen or heard—the French edition came out in 1995, and goes in for that more allusive, winking French academic style of reference more often than any direct citation— he appears to be nodding, sometimes smirking, and, in his own way, being seemingly rather au courant with just about everything that’s been slowly coming into being or trendy in current poetry, whether it be “information management”, quotation and found poetry of various sorts, the innovative revisiting of translation procedures, multimedia or the new turn to performance. Or at least, one could easily read this book that way. But importantly, as a man after my own heart, Roubaud is engaged by the new without being, for the most part[3], like some ideologues, obsessively “neophilic”, school-oriented, dogmatic, or insistent that the current moment deserves / requires only one kind of response and no other. For instance (note again that the paragraphs below have been distilled and reassembled from pages 137-180):

Let us note that recourse to a new screenic [sic.], interactive and multimedia art does not protect against poetic “old-fashionedness”. It could even disguise it.

If you don’t mark your metrics, more generally your prosody, it will mark itself for you. Meter is arbitrary, but not unmotivated.

There are never exhausted poetic forms, just exhausted versions of forms.


If the formal conditions of a poetry are soft and blurry, poetic individualities are slow to emerge. The Surrealists are all interchangeable, as soon as we peek beneath violent surface variability. Later, the feeling of déjà vu predominates. The sonnet is a different story: the first superficial feeling is that of resemblance. Next, we realize deep actual variability.

The avant-garde gesture is a gesture of destruction / liberation. But the liberating gesture conceals the poverty of the Tabula Rasa gesture. The avant garde gesture is condemned to repeat itself. It quickly becomes parrotry. Because tradition is not actually destroyed. You can’t put a poetic tradition before the firing squad.

Amnesia was never a good thing, even and especially when it affected revolutionaries. Now, forms that were supposedly destroyed survive, especially in the poetry memory of the avant-gardist himself.

Exclusive positions omit one essential fact: the poetry of the past is also a present poetry.

Given that OuLiPo’s legacy has been taken up precisely by many Anglo-American avant-gardists who are more or less exclusive or dismissive in their programmes and clique formation, all of this might seem a little startling at first. Yet, it is perfectly consistent with Roubaud’s lineage. We seem to often forget one very relevant detail: that OULIPO was itself the avant garde of avant gardes (the Surrealists in literature and the Bourbakians in mathematics) that were locked into hierarchical, exclusivist and programmatic behavioral patterns, seeking to “make obsolete” the continued practice and decadence of all that came “before” them, and that the OULIPO manifesto was, above all, a response to this posturing, a deep parody of manifestoes, programmes, canons, dogmas, and pronouncements, one that with its naughty, appropriative idea of “plagiarism by anticipation” (!) wanted to be, in its own way, “neither modern, nor postmodern, but what [Roubaud] would call a traditional literature according to traditions” (pg. 215, emphasis his).

To properly absorb and understand OuLiPo’s investigation of constraints, Roubaud seems to be telling us, we need to reach back to the mysterious, antediluvian origins of poetry as much as forward to its distant and hopefully plural future. In theory at least, rhymes, lipograms or N+7s should all be treated as equally valid, on the same plane, as contemporary and contemporaneous, even if, as Roubaud also notes, some formal designs like the sonnet have been, for various reasons, thus far, historically, more robust and enduring than anything OuLiPo has invented (pg. 223). At the same time, while Queneau and Le Lionnais believed “that only mathematics could offer a path… between passéist tenacity to antiquated modes… and the intellectually feeble belief in the virtues of ‘absolute freedom’” (pg. 216), they also acknowledged that literary value would arise not from the banishment of intuitive approaches to writing or the belief that strict constraints would allow literature to somehow automatically write itself.

In truth, the OuLiPians spanned the entire continuum between Le Lionnais’s theoretical emphasis on generative form and Jean Queval’s intuitive approach that came alive at the moments when it chose to violate its constraints, in the seemingly absurd but quite profound concept of the clinamen (an intentional violation of the constraint for “aesthetic” reasons).

Roubaud’s discussion on OuLiPo (with some digressive, mocking attacks on the Tel Quel group, while praising the unique work of Dennis Roche) leads finally to a return to the allusive, in final passages that defend of the domain of poetry and of difficulty against that of the novel (another of Roubaud’s arch enemies) even while attacking some of the postures of poetry. It’s a strange book that he has written, by embracing his contradictions in this way, hovering between severe agnosticism and secret belief—strange, more persuasive at some times than at others, but deeply instructive.

[1] It must be qualified, though, that what we in the writing world sometimes proudly refer to as the “mathematical” aspects of poetry are usually treated as so much Muzak by real mathematicians.
[2] Roubaud’s three great stage villains of the current age are PROFECO – the “PROFit ECOnomy”, that “closes up languages like mine shafts”, TODINTRAN – “Totally Digital for INstant TRANsmission”, the information highway where poetry is “a cyclist, at best”, and IGLOVI – the “Idea of the GLObal VIllage”, where PROFECO runs for sheriff.
[3] Except for one slightly puerile, somewhat random attack on Rita Dove, which is actually meant to be an attack on Helen Vendler.

Narayanan has lived in India, Southern Africa and the United States. His short stories have appeared in Agni, Best New American Voices (Harcourt), and New Indian Stories (Harper Collins India). His poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Fulcrum, Rattapallax and the anthologies Reasons For Belonging: Fourteen contemporary Indian poets (Penguin India), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin India), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, and Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton). His debut collection is Universal Beach.
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