In the poems of Jules Laforgue, Yvor Winters detects a strategy he describes as “romantic nostalgia (romantic because it has no discernible object, is a form of unmotivated feeling) canceled by an immature irony (immature because it depends upon the obviously but insignificantly ridiculous).” Winters discerns the same method in poems by one of Laforgue’s older contemporaries:
“A few years earlier than Laforgue, Tristan Corbière had employed the same procedure in a few poems, most vigorously in “Un Jeune Qui S’en Va,” but from his greatest work (`La Rapsode Foraine’ and `Cris D’aveugle,’ two poems which are probably superior to any French verse of the nineteenth save the best of Baudelaire), it is either absent or has lost itself amid an extremely complex cluster of feelings.”
This amounts to exultation from a poet-critic notoriously grudging with praise. You’ll find it in In Defense of Reason (Swallow Press, 1947). R.L. Barth reports on an anthology of French verse contemplated by Winters, and the three Corbière titles mentioned in the passage above are included, as well as thirteen by Baudelaire. In his Wry-Blue Love: `Les Amours jaunes’ and Other Poems (Anvil Press Poetry, 2005), Peter Dale translates the three poems as “A Youngster on the Way Out,” “The Wandering Minstrel” and “Blind Man’s Cries.” Death is everywhere in Corbière’s verse, accompanied by parodies, put-downs and relentless joking. One hears echoes of Villon and Baudelaire and prescient pre-echoes of Apollinaire and Beckett. Here are the concluding stanzas of “A Youngster on the Way Out,” which will sound a little confusing out of context but give a taste of Corbière’s characteristic tone:
“Some trade! The dying trade . . . Penned
Enough, my study is complete.
Some trade: rhyme oneself to the end! . . .
A matter of habits that repeat!
“No: poetry is: to live on, while
Time away still, and suffer breath
For you, love; for my book and style.
There, look, it sleeps.
--No: it’s death!
“To feel your last of kisses chafe
Itself on my impoverished lip,
Death in your arms cradling me safe. . .
Undressing me of life, to kip . . .”
In his notes, Dale says the poem concerns “contemporary French literary issues,” and he helpfully glosses the appropriate names and dates, but clearly the poem is about a poet dying much too young. At the front of the volume, Dale also supplies an “Outline of the Life of Corbière,” in which he writes: “This bare outline does not convey the underlying loneliness, the suicidal tendencies, the cross-dressing and other eccentricities among his dreadful practical jokes which filled the interstices between these salient dates.”
The late Philip Levine wrote flat prose he marketed as poetry, but in “28” (A Walk with Tom Jefferson, 1988) he recounts a visit with Winters, his teacher at Stanford. The title refers to Levine’s age when he studied at Palo Alto:
“All one winter afternoon
he chanted in Breton French the coarse poems of Tristan Corbière,
his voice reaching into unforeseen sweetness, both hands
rising toward the ceiling, the tears held back so long
still held back, for he was dying and he was ready.”
Corbière was born on this date, July 18, in 1845, and died March 1, 1875 at age twenty-nine.