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The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry

May 30, 2013

I'm not one of these people who can tell you what I'd take if I were to be stranded on a desert island (duh, a basketball named Wilson, maybe?). Nor am I a list-maker in the sense that I have a Top Ten of This or That. It's true that probably "The Haunting" (Robert Wise's version), "L.A. Story" and "Diary of a Country Priest" would rank up there on a favorite films list. And I can't imagine wanting to live in a house that didn't have copies of books by Edith Wharton, Dorothy Sayers and Wallace Stegner--and books by writers who are friends of mine.

But I can probably say with some certainty that, apart from Shakespeare, the best collection of poetry I know is The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, edited with great heart by Paul Auster on a shoestring budget in 1982.

It's just a great collection. It's got French and English on facing pages, so you have the pleasure of reading aloud the original language--and the opportunity to quibble with the translator's take on any given poem, if you're feeling sassy. (I have a little bone to pick with John Ashbery's translation of Pierre Riverdy's "Encore L'Amour.")

Who's here? Oh, everybody is here: The Rumanian, Tristan Tzara, is who fought in the Spanish Civil War and then later, in the Resistance. Another Resistance fighter, Robert Desnos,  is here (and you can visit his grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery if you happen to be in Paris). The big names are here: Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Andre Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jacques Prevert. The lesser-known ones are here, too, and rightly: Raymond Queneau, Jean Follain, Rene Char, Yves Bonnefoy, the marvelous Jean-Paul de Dadelsen. There are a bunch of others, as well. 
The whole thing is a treat for the ears and the word-painting is so vivid, it's a treat for the eyes of the imagination, as well.

I'll just leave you with a little sample. Here it is, by Tristian Tzara:


what is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hands of my thoughts
a flower is written at the end of each finger
and the end of the road is a flower that walks with you

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.