Prose and The Poem
Max Jacob, The Dice Cup, (trans. By Ian Seed) Wakefield Press, 2022
In 1974, David Meltzer’s Tree Books published Andrei Codrescu’s à Max Jacob, a chapbook of original prose poems and a few visceral translations of Jacob’s own prose. Max Jacob’s prose poems were of great interest in certain corners of the US poetry world around that time. Ashbery had published some translations. Michael Brownstein’s versions were talked about. The prose poem was coming into its own as a viable alternative form, and some of the foremost examples were from French poets active half a century or more earlier, Jules LaForgue, Pierre Reverdy, and Max Jacob among them. In 1977, Michael Benedikt, then poetry editor for The Paris Review, published The Prose Poem, An International Anthology featuring two dozen Jacob translations by himself, Ashbery, and Jerome Rothenberg, and which set the stage for the subsequent embrace of the form by American poets who were looking to expend their energies on something other than stanzaic verse. The prose poem has undergone many transformations since then and has even spawned (in the artificial environment of the workshop) a dubious offspring, flash fiction. However, anyone familiar with Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry back then would have come across Jacob’s name as one of a coterie of famed Cubist poets. Those with the means and opportunity acquired a copy of the 1967 NRF paperback of Jacob’s Le cornet à dés and did their best with smatterings of French (schooled or native) and a French/English dictionary—no easy task as Jacob’s idiomatic French and inventive constructions left many scratching their heads and/or giving it an educated guess. By the late 70’s Michael Brownstein edited and introduced The Dice Cup—Selected Prose Poems (SUN, 1979), translated by himself and a few celebrity translators such as John Ashbery and Ron Padgett. The cover photo depicts Max Jacob in a leather trench coat cosplaying as the legendary villain, Fantomas. The SUN edition was a delight as well as a disappointment. It was a delight to have so many translations of Jacob’s prose poems available under one cover. The disappointment was that it barely scratched the surface of Max Jacob’s remarkable oeuvre, leaving out many of the more fascinating, intricate, and yes, obscure of the prose poems.
The Wakefield Press edition of The Dice Cup, translated and with an introduction by Ian Seed, delights and does not disappoint. Between the stylish covers with French flaps (of course!) reproducing the 1913 “Still Life With Guitar” by Cubist painter Juan Gris is everything anyone with a curiosity about this French poet’s groundbreaking prose poetry from the early years of the 20th Century might want. The Wakefield Press edition with Seed’s informative and thorough introductory narrative, the entirety of Le cornet à dés in translation, including sections added in later editions, and as a bonus, “A Short History of The Dice Cup” written by Max Jacob in 1943 for his friend Paul Bonet, has put together a remarkably well designed presentation. A year after Max penned the short history, he would die in a deportation camp in Drancy.
Max Jacob was born in Normandy in 1876 and was 41 when he self-published this selection of prose poems. His style, antagonistic to the conventions of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme in regard to the poéme en prose, the title pre-dating itself in parody of Mallarme’s Un coup de dés, inspired many a poet associated with the School of New York half a century later with a similar sense of audacity and rebellious élan. There was that generational coincidence and as well as due respect for the avant-garde French poets of that era. Jacob represented a large part of the modernist trend despite being marginalized by the subsequent generation of homophobic Surrealists, particularly Breton and Aragon. Jacob’s work was well received, nonetheless. His poetry and writing is well known in France, and not only for the prose selection of 1917. After his epiphanic vision of Christ, Max became possessed by the spirit, converted to Catholicism, and eventually left Paris to live in an abandoned monastery near St. Benoit sur Loire, supporting himself in marginal occupations and selling his drawings and gouaches. In another culture, in another time, perhaps, he would be considered a holy man, a saint, and sinner. He was all of those.
The appeal of Jacob’s prose poems is in their universality and agile unpretentiousness of delightfully bizarre fables and foibles, parodies and pastiche, the outrageous and the innocuous, the prophetic and the fated. In reading Jacob there is hyperbole and then there is exquisite hyperbole. There is also the darker wry distance of the skeptic, that the worm will predictably turn, confessional before the great self-inquisitor, the moans of regret from every cell in the monastery of self. “The abstract is impoverished and dull” proclaimed Max for whom the actualization of the poem comes from a voice deep in the belly, the physical center. The prose poem has to find its place, be situated in the niche of quantum literature, unique unto itself. In Jacob’s words, “The prose poem should be, despite the rules that shape it, a free and lively expression.”
Oddly, or maybe not, Jacob’s work flies under the radar or is paved over by the more intent and ambitious of contemporary prose poem practitioners who overlook the authority of unintentionality as a raison d’etre. Now would be the opportunity to critique what passes for the prose poem in the US but why dwell on the negative when something so positive as Jacob’s examples are at hand in Ian Seed’s thorough translation. It takes a comprehensive reappraisal such as Seed has done with The Dice Cup to be reminded of Max Jacob’s originality as a poet in prose. And finally for some, the Larousse can be given a rest.
Andrei Codrescu, Too Late For Nightmares, Black Widow Press, 2022
The breadth of erudition Codrescu brings to his astute observations is of someone who has seen much of it, if not all of it, and has managed to find the right words for it. The pairing with Max Jacob is not coincidental. Codrescu’s poetry is deeply rooted in the modernist French poets of the early 20th Century, and certainly the prose poetry of Max Jacob, whose poems he has translated and published as a chapbook in 1974 (à Max Jacob, Tree Books), in the legendary The World #35, The Translation Issue, edited by Daniel Krakauer (1981), Paul Auster’s The Random House Book of 20th Century French Poetry (1982), and a literary icon with whom he has expressed a deep kinship.
That little bit and bite of Jacob is present in Codrescu’s poetry in the guise of cosmopolitan critique. The same joy (glee) at surprise or piercing terrifying insight into the daily drudge and flow of ideas and possibilities as a physicist of the psyche can always be found at the chalkboard of multilingual equation. Steeped in the folk tales of his native Romania, he has an understanding of the darker conventions of such fables and their antiquity, as did Max Jacob. In Too Late For Nightmares Codrescu rewrites, in verse and in prose, these allegories by overlaying the pandemic and its quantum effect as the unalterable physics of life worthy of parsing. For Codrescu, it is up to the poet, in his own subtle way, to re-present the cognitive state as a running commentary. In Andrei’s case, he knows what he’s talking about.
Codrescu is the author of over fifty books of poetry, fiction, critical essays, commentary on art, life, and literature. Among them, The Posthuman Dada Guide consolidated his thinking about his modernist foundations, and The Poetry Lesson, his application of those particular revolutionary sensibilities as a feature of a coterie of New York poets, make the transatlantic connection to an historical coincidence. As founder and editor of Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Books and Ideas, a long running literary periodical, Codrescu acknowledged an esthetic affiliation to the Surrealists and their parlor games—after all if art isn’t play, why do it at all? As the editor of the notable poetry anthology, Up Late, American Poetry Since 1970 (1987), his selection reflected a range of poets with similar innovative cross cultural intent. This latest selection of his poems has not faltered or dulled a deep quotidian suspicion of authority, anyone’s, even his own.
In “I need a haircut”, Codrescu makes the apt chthonic connection: “a man with a map of poland on his bald head dissolved the soviet union/ a man with an orange wig is starting a civil war under the slogan ‘I need a haircut’” and establishes the underlying significance of the shape and size of one’s head on history. And perhaps what goes on inside them.
i ask of you my cloud:
where are the italics that once served irony and emphasis?
is this a copyediting problem or demonic glee
of an a.i. who’s writing books by a dead author
its primal directive to slip unobserved by the reader
For Codrescu some poems act as a kind of “journalism” at its most basic and poetic as either praise or lament, and as observations of observations of time in the passage of days, a record of a critical response, inventive language, and unflinching detail. He references Jacob in the starkly visionary “Any Habit”: “I am wearing a mask. jacob wore a habit./”I love to lift it as I walk up the stairs.” And of our similar fates: “we will always be murdered by nazis.” If you thought your nightmares were bad!
Codrescu’s is a poetry of the proletariat, after all, some part Zola, some part Jacob, among myriad influences and esoteric inclinations. In reflecting on the early days of the pandemic and the undercurrent of seeping horror and pessimism, Codrescu does not look away, attuned to the seismic shifts in the cosmic psyche. His well-honed instincts always find the right words to speak his mind.
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