A few weeks ago the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson eulogised the newly retired Sir Alex Ferguson as “the greatest living Briton”. “Most successful football manager of modern times” might seem a more accurate and less hyperbolic description. The truth is that most claims involving the double epithet “greatest living” are dubious.
But I think that few would deny the title of France’s greatest living poet to Yves Bonnefoy, who celebrates his 90th birthday later this month, and who says that “to call oneself a poet ... would be pretentious. Poet is a word one can use when speaking of others, if one admires them sufficiently.”
I caught Bonnefoy on a recent visit to London – he still travels energetically – speaking at the Institut Français (or, more precisely, at the Lycée next door, as demand for seats exceeded the institute’s capacity), and was struck by his combination of humility, simplicity and unapologetic metaphysical intensity. We have not had a poet of that stamp in Britain since the death of TS Eliot.
Bonnefoy is small and compact, with bushy white hair and an arrestingly intense aquiline gaze. Age has not dulled him, or weakened his compellingly resonant voice, but it has concentrated him, and concentrated the history that is inscribed in his body. His father’s parents were innkeepers in the valley of the Lot, his great-grandmother “an unmarried shepherdess who looked after pigs in the local oakwoods”.
Bonnefoy had come in particular to discuss his beautiful, mysterious, demanding 1972 prose work The Arrière-pays with its translator, poet Stephen Romer, and with poet and publisher Anthony Rudolf. The difficulty of talking about – let alone translating – this combination of reverie and spiritual autobiography is illustrated by the fact that the decision was made not to translate its title as, for instance, The Hinterland or The Back Country. The former, Bonnefoy explains, sounds too harsh and military to French ears, the latter too poor and rustic.
The arrière-pays for Bonnefoy is not somewhere you could find on a map, but a place that might have been, or might still be; it is the land that lurks around the corner, just beyond the end of the road, or down the road you did not take. In the opening chapter, the narrator gazes at such a road, as if “just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live, and which I have already lost.”
Certain signs point to the arrière-pays; some are paintings – or are in paintings: for instance, the gentle hills in the background of Piero della Francesca’s “Triumph of Battista Sforza” (Bonnefoy once spent a six-month sabbatical studying della Francesca’s work). It is somehow connected to photographs of Armenian churches, which appear in the new translation, and which Bonnefoy has never visited.
What I think is extraordinary is the tenaciousness with which Bonnefoy clings to and pursues his elusive and not-exactly-back country, this territory that is like a dream or a memory “that seems to spring from before we were born”. He insists on the crucial importance of a domain of experience, yearned-for, half-remembered, never fully grasped, which most people would dismiss as fanciful or chimerical.
If The Arrière-pays, as Romer explained, is related to quest literature and has something about it of the supernatural thriller, what is its Holy Grail? Bonnefoy is clear about what he is seeking: it is what he calls the “first, pre-conceptual experience of the world”. Not militant in many things (he says he was “rather a Trotskyite” in his youth in Paris in the 1930s, and his mature verse deals in metaphysics rather than politics), Bonnefoy is remorseless in his opposition to conceptual thinking. The reason the blue in Poussin’s “Bacchanal with Guitar Player” matters so much to him is that it possesses “that stormy immediacy, that non-conceptual clear-sightedness for which our whole consciousness craves”.
The craving can never be satisfied because we are inevitably caught up in language – “there’s a cool web of language winds us in”, as Robert Graves put it – which shuts us off from our blissful first experience. Here Bonnefoy comes close to Wordsworth in the “Immortality” ode, where he speaks of the visionary experience of childhood declining sadly into mundaneness.
The writer, or indeed the human being, seems caught in a terrible bind: “we are deprived through words of an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is,” Bonnefoy says. And what else does the writer have but words? But this is where poetry comes to save us. Because poetry is “sonorous reality”, it “silences the conceptual meaning of words; it is therefore the condition of the direct gaze upon the world”.
The best thing of all at the institute was hearing Bonnefoy speak and read, in his unforgettable clear voice, seeming to recharge the spent batteries of language, filling words once again with a heartfelt meaning they sometimes seem to have lost.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres