Saturday, September 17, 2005
Alphonse Allais: Complete Poems
Few English or American poets seem to make it into French. A visit to the nearest large French bookshop will generally turn up only a handful of poets in translation. The last time I looked there was John Keats, W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. What is the basis for being translated? Do you have to be a great pillar of the literary establishment, or does your work simply have to be not too difficult to translate?
French poetry turns up in translation in Britain every now and then. There is a very good overview of 20th-Century French Poems edited by Stephen Romer which was published by Faber in 2002. A poet who didn't make it into this anthology, although he was still writing until 1905, was Alphonse Allais. Was he just not modern enough for the anthology? Or was he too difficult to translate? Well, I doubt if he was even considered, but that would have been an error, because he was an innovator, albeit an amusing one.
Allais is known, foremost, as a humorist, a writer of 'pensées' and 'anecdotes'. Here is a small selection that I have translated:
"He was Norman by his mother and Breton by a friend of his father."
"He's a well-raised boy", said the yokel, pointing to his son at the top of a poplar tree.
"Chexpire"... What an ugly name! Sounds like an Auvergnat who just died.
God has acted wisely in placing birth before death, otherwise, what would we know of life?
Coffee is a beverage that makes you sleep when you haven't had any.
Allais came from Hornfleur, a port on the Normandy coast, also home to the modernist composer Eric Satie (another eccentric and original character). There, you can visit the Musée Alphonse Allais, the smallest museum in France.
A new collection of Allais' poetry has recently been released in France by Gallimard. I think this is quite significant for Allais' reputation because the Gallimard list includes all of the foremost 20th Century poets such as Mallarmé, Eluard, Appolinaire and the like. The book is subtitled: Complete Poems, and entitled with two lines of verse as follows:
Par les bois du Djinn
Parle et bois du gin
This is one of Allais' 'holorime' poems. The title is in fact a shortening of a longer poem that goes as follows:
Par les bois de Djinn, où s'entasse de l'effroi,
Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de lait froid!
(By the wood of the Genie, where the terrors crowd,
talk and drink some gin or a hundred glasses of cold milk)
When spoken, of course, the lines of the French verse can be made to sound exactly the same. It is only with slight changes of intonation and phrasing that their correct meaning is revealed. This style of verse is completely original to me. I don't know of any equivalent in English. It goes without saying that it is untranslateable, as would be many of the other experiments in verse that he tested.
The different sections of the book come under headings such as: 'New Effects', 'Scientific Poetry', 'Poetry Under Hypnosis', 'Pastiches and Shapeless Poems', 'Ad hoc Poems', 'Songs', 'Fables' and 'Fables of Aesop the Younger'. The titles reflect his interest in experimenting, as he once did with chemicals in the back of his father's shop, and of telling humorous stories.
He was a prolific writer, penning his work for reviews of the day. The measure of his achievement was that he wrote nearly 1700 "tales, stories, fables, couplets and cocktail recipes".