In Memoriam: Yves Bonnefoy

August 8, 2016 | By Rebecca Pittel

Yves Bonnefoy, the master of French poetry who was considered a leading contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, passed away on July 1st in Paris, at the age of 93. Bonnefoy was also the foremost French translator of Shakespeare, Yeats and others; a respected and wide-ranging art critic; a professor emeritus of the Collège de France and a guest professor at many U.S. colleges and universities. He was widely considered France's foremost postwar poetic voice.

Bonnefoy was born in 1923 in the industrial town of Tours, in western France, to working-class parents, and spent formative summers with his grandparents in the southern region of Lot, where he discovered the immediacy and transcendent beauty of nature that he would seek to capture as a poet. Bonnefoy came to Paris in 1944, studying math at the Sorbonne to please his parents and then teaching math and the natural sciences. He soon encountered the leading lights of the surrealist movement and became a particular follower of writer André Breton.

Though he broke with the surrealists in 1947, finding their work increasingly obscure and exclusionary, Bonnefoy often described the guiding principle that he discovered while among these artists: that poetry should move past the symbolism that cluttered modern life and speak directly to the emotional center of the human experience. “A poet’s job,” Bonnefoy once said, “is to show us a tree, before our mind tells us what a tree is.”

In 1954, Bonnefoy found immediate acclaim in France for his first collection of poetry, Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve (On the Motion and Inability of Douve). The book, which followed a mystical, shape-shifting female figure, attempted to reach what Bonnefoy called the “second degree of language,” deriving deep meanings beneath language’s expected significations, and was compared to the early-twentieth-century début of eminent poet Paul Valéry. (In 1981, Bonnefoy would become the first poet since Valéry to be elected to the faculty of the esteemed Collège de France, which counts each of its professors among the world’s foremost scholars in the humanities and sciences.)   

After authoring several more collections of verse and the acclaimed criticism collection  L’Improbable , in 1972 Bonnefoy released L’Arrière-pays, a philosophical memoir-essay combined with reflections on Renaissance paintings. The hybrid text served as an ode to the transcendent moments of great art, the glimmers that Bonnefoy perceived of ultimately-unattainable perfection.

He also began to translate Italian and English literature, including the works of Petrarch, Donne, Leopardi, Keats and Yeats. Most significantly, however, beginning in the 1950s, Bonnefoy rendered vibrantly much of the oeuvre of Shakespeare, and saw his translations of the Bard become the most popular in the language. “One must perform Shakesepeare in the dark,” Bonnefoy told Le Monde in 2014, expressing the supreme importance of sound in capturing Shakespeare’s essence.

Bonnefoy himself has been widely translated in English (one of 30 languages in which his work can be found) over several decades, including by the great poet Galway Kinnell and, most recently, by Hoyt Rogers and Stephen Romer. In his later years, Bonnefoy also taught frequently in the U.S., at colleges like Brandeis, the City University of New York, Princeton and Yale. His time at Williams College in western Massachusetts inspired several poetry collections in the 1990s which connected him to the legacy of nature-focused American poets Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.

This month, the American publisher Seagull Books will release Ursa Major, a selection of Bonnefoy’s late, multi-voiced prose poems, in translation by Beverley Bie Brahic. Like so much of Bonnefoy’s work, the collection calls upon the reader to inhabit fully the present moment, to dwell in the wonders of nature and the fullness of time. “On summer nights,” writes Bonnefoy, “we would lie down in the grass of the meadow, behind our houses, to go forth among the millions of stars with a feeling of falling.”

At the loss of this deeply perceptive and powerful artist, French president François Hollande remarked that Bonnefoy’s work “elevat[ed] our language to its supreme degree of precision and beauty.” The Book Department feels Bonnefoy’s loss particularly acutely, as the poet served as a generous early advisor to the collection of Albertine Books.

Shortly before his passing, Bonnefoy released in France the final of his 100-plus books, the memoir of childhood L’Echarpe rouge, to excellent reviews. As he reflects on the origins of his lifelong search to capture in words “le réel,”or life’s true essence, Bonnefoy makes an essential realization: it is not complex imagery or elaborate verse, but “silence” that “is the resource of those who recognize the nobleness of language.”

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