Thursday, November 26, 2015

`One Never Writes Alone'

Norm Sibum suggested I read Montreal Before Spring (trans. Donald McGrath, Biblioasis, 2015) by the Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon (b. 1947), whose voice is quiet, companionable and elegiac. He originally published L’Avant-printemps à Montréal in 1994. McGrath translates the revised edition published this year by Éditions du Noroît of Montreal. Norm told me: “It is worthy of attention.” Seldom have poems in translation so quickly won me over. Melançon addresses the reader like a trusted friend, without flattery. In the final lines of the book’s final poem, “Leave-Taking,” he writes:

“If you in turn have recognized yourself,
friend unknown to me, in a single verse,
my efforts were not wasted. Otherwise,
forget these pages that are nothing to you.” 

Melançon is a grateful poet, freely acknowledging his debts to precursors. More than most writers today, he recognizes himself as working in a literary tradition or, rather, traditions. Melançon draws generously on French- and English-language (and Spanish, and Greek) forebears and contemporaries, and is free of Canadian clannishness. In the poem quoted above, he includes a moving passage about his poetic debts: 

“One never writes alone. I’ve borrowed
from Baudelaire, Elizabeth Bishop,
from Borges, Cavafy and du Bellay,
from Saint-Denys Garneau, from Herrick, Grey [Thomas Gray?],
Johnston, Larkin, Jean-Aubert Loranger,
from Robert Marteau, Malherbe and Petrarch,
Jacques Réda, Virgil and Théophile,
And from others, too, whom I don’t forget,
Friends known and unknown, close and distant,
In whom I came to know myself while seeking
What meaning this adventure might assume,
This longing to persist in one’s being, which has
No explanation apart from the desire
To not wait quietly and leave
This dark world without uttering a peep.” 

With “One never writes alone,” Melançon brushes aside “Make-it-new” fetishism, the modern obsession with originality. A writer who repudiates the past, the lessons of those who honored the tradition before him, is the truest provincial. “Letter to George Johnston,” addressed to the English-language Canadian poet (1913-2004), is a fan letter to a friend and another example of Melançon’s solidarity with other “worthy” friends and fellow-poets. He apologizes for the quality of his English, asks for forgiveness from “the shades of Addison and Thoreau,” while trying to translate Johnston’s poems into French. To Johnston, “in whom Langland and Herrick live again,” he says: 

“I’m writing to tell you how much I admire
Your poetry, how fond I am of you,
In a letter in verse, in the manner
Of Pope, Boileau and du Bellay.” 

Poets are a jealous, inbred bunch, and any sign of generosity and collegiality deserves commendation. To use a word perhaps irredeemably debased in recent years, Melançon carries on a conversation with poets, poetry, Montreal, French and English, and most commendably with readers. In “The Reader,” Melançon writes of a woodcut (probably this one) by Félix Edouard Vallotton (1865-1925), the French-Swiss artist. The poem concludes: 

“The books alone emerge
out of the blackness poured
from a Japanese printmaker’s inkstand.
The man’s hand pulls out the book
In which he’ll soon lose himself
In the warmth of his lamp, the silence.”

No comments: