From Poetry to Thinking Ecologically
Congratulations on your book. For those who do not know anything about him, can you say a few words about Bonnefoy and why he is important.
Bonnefoy was one of the most important poets, if not the most important, in France from the 1950s until his death in 2016. What was apparent very early on in his career was his immense range as a writer. He alternates between verse and prose poems in his collections of poetry. He writes critical essays and books on literary figures like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé, and on artists like Picasso, Balthus, Giacometti, Mondrian, and Alechinsky. He’s also one of the foremost French translators of Shakespeare, Keats, and Leopardi. He always writes in dialogue with canonical figures, seeking to understand the tradition from which his poetry emerges but, equally, he’s deeply aware of the present moment. He never stops trying to understand what poetry is today and what role it can play in our lives. He wants to convince a modern audience that we need poetry to make sense of our lives, our relationships with one another, and our place in the physical world. Why might this be the case? Well, he believes that poetry resists the tendency we all have to perceive our existence in very conceptual terms as if it unfolds outside of the physical world. He argues that this tendency provokes endless existential anxieties or problems. And for him, poetry is the antidote to these problems. Poetry cultivates language’s material, corporeal, affective, and semantic properties in a way that reminds us that we are not separate, that we too emerge from an interplay of worldly forces. And so, Bonnefoy proposes that poetry changes how we think and how we position ourselves in the world. He suggests that poetry cultivates its own ethics, that it subtly reflects on social and environmental matters, and promotes coexistence, compassion, and cooperation.
What does contemporary philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s approach enable us to understand about Bonnefoy’s poetry?
Nancy enables us to understand Bonnefoy’s poetry because he too insists on the importance of thinking in ways that don’t set us apart from the physical world. Like Bonnefoy, Nancy affirms the ‘sense of existence’. He refuses to conceive of sense or meaningfulness in purely conceptual terms and argues instead that sense is present in any act of relation. Nancy thus seeks to convince us that our world always already makes sense – it is inherently meaningful – if we are prepared to restore value to the material processes that engender existence and to the dynamics of relation that place all things in a continual state of interaction. And this is where he and Bonnefoy align in mutually illuminating ways. Both Bonnefoy and Nancy see the act of writing as an exploration of the exchange between material, corporeal, sensual, and meaningful dynamics that bring any gesture into being. I describe this in my book as an ‘ontological performance’. Ontology is the strand of philosophy that explores how worldly existence is structured. For both Bonnefoy and Nancy, the act of writing does not describe or represent the generative dynamics that bring the world into being. For both the poet and the philosopher, the textual performance actively presents these dynamics. It exposes the creative force that brings the poem – and indeed all of us – into being.
Can you give us an example of a Bonnefoy poem in which ‘ontological performance’ can be perceived.
There’s a lovely poem in Bonnefoy’s collection Les Planches courbes in 2001 called ‘Passant, ce sont des mots…’, ‘Passerby, these are words…’. It presents itself as an inscription on a gravestone that addresses the passerby who chances upon this piece of text. What the poem repeatedly does, however, is urge the passerby not to read but to listen. If we listen closely, the voice tells us, we’ll hear the sound of grass slowly eating away engraved text. Listen more closely still and we’ll hear the murmur of all our shadows, the transient whisper of our lives as we pass through the universe. The whole poem draws our attention to its own enactment, insisting that it is not only an inscription or representation, but a sonorous and material performance. By urging us to listen to language, the poem encourages us to perceive the poem as a space of resonance, a place where linguistic, sensual, and material all reverberate together. It suggests that, if we allow our consciousness to be drawn into this space, we’ll perceive the world differently. We’ll perceive its resonant play from the inside, rather than the outside. We’ll feel the finite dynamics of worldly existence at work within us, opening us up, and actively bringing us into existence.
The cover illustration is the charcoal sketch of Matisse’s La Danse. Why this choice?
The image shows five human figures dancing, turning in a circle, their hands linking or nearly linking. I chose this sketch because it subtly suggests that we are all participants in a dance. It suggests that dynamism, rhythm, and relation are what make us who we are. We go forwards together and life is something that we all make, side by side, in ways that are utterly tentative and unpredictable. Unlike the finished painting, the sketch has a smudgy quality to it that blurs the distinction between bodies, or between the bodies and the physical world, foreground and background. For me, this smudginess conveys the collective energy of the dance. I’m very taken by the idea that Matisse – much like Bonnefoy and Nancy – is exploring a diffuse or relational kind of energy here, one that precedes all bodies but nonetheless brings them all into being.
Do you have any advice to anyone setting about to transform their doctoral thesis into a book?
It’s a tough question! I do remember some very good advice I was given. A good friend of mine told me to remember that this is just one project. It’s a limited exercise and it’s good to strip it down to a small set of goals. What are the few key points that you want to make in this book? What is going to be its contribution? We invest so much of ourselves in a doctoral thesis that we can feel that the book needs to reflect everything we have been thinking about or exploring over those years. I found it very liberating when I was told that I’d have the rest of my career to work on other projects and develop other ideas and that all of that thinking doesn’t have to be part of the book. Then I realised that I could let the book be what it was: one very discrete project with a few key aims.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new book project which is entitled Poetic Ecologies. My work on Bonnefoy and Nancy inspired this new project. The more I worked on their poetry and philosophy the more I felt that their writings provide a very good basis for ecological thought. And so, I started to investigate a series of other recent French and Francophone poets whose work actively challenges anthropocentric modes of thought: Eugène Guillevic, Marie-Claire Bancquart, Nicolas Pesquès, and Édouard Glissant. I’m working between poetry and philosophy, exploring how these poets’ writings anticipate very recent developments in ecological thought, or what’s often termed the ‘non-human turn’. I want to bring to light a diverse range of French and Francophone critical paradigms (aesthetic, affective, animist, metamorphic, feminist, post-colonial) for thinking about human identity and agency in ecological terms. I hope to demonstrate that French and Francophone poetry has, for some time now, furnished us very good models for thinking ecologically and for resisting our ingrained sense of human exceptionalism.