Remembering Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016), modern France’s most influential poet

‘At some point in the last of his tales / He began, in his fearful words, to run, / Seeing that a threat hung over him, / Looming larger with every word.’

Poet, critic and professor emeritus of comparative poetics at the Collège de France, Paris, Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016) was acknowledged as the most outstanding and influential contemporary poet in France. In addition to poetry and literary criticism, he published numerous works of art history and translated into French several of Shakespeare’s plays. In 2013, Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull Books – which has produced five of Bonnefoy’s works in English translation, with more to follow – asked Bonnefoy to contribute a piece for Seagull’s annual catalogue on the theme of “The Notebook”. Their correspondence, followed by Bonnefoy’s piece, punctutated with his poetry:

9 April 2013
Dear Yves,

I write to you in friendship and in hope. It is the time of the year when we plan our new catalogue for Frankfurt.

In the age of the new blank document, what happens to those of us who keep faith in the notebook? Do I dare ask this question of a writer? Notes that we keep for ourselves. Like thieving magpies. Notes that are full of love and loathing at the same time; notes that became stories long and short; notes of longing and of dreams shared; nightmares recorded to ward off evil perhaps; notes of disgust at the dark times and the elected hollow men who rule our daily lives; notes that we may have written under stress, even in anger; notes full of fear, jealousy, lies, deceit; furtive notes that under the cloak of friendship ease the stiletto into the shoulderblades; notes of gratification and hunger; introspective notes and those full of reflection at the fate of our species; notes of change and of regret; economic, intimate, transient and immortal notes that smell of sweat and human excreta; of forced intimacies and sexual fantasy; of failure and ageing before time; of death; notes that promise a future that is illusory; notes that are intimately bound up with our way of being; notes that are the language bearers of humanity; notes that you may scarcely glance over once you actually dip that pen into the inkpot or those that you would refer to again and again.

May I request you to find me a suitable offering?

With the warmest of regards,


A Poet

Did he want to be a torch
And toss it in the sea?
He went far in the puddles
Between over there and the sky.

Then he turned back to us,
But the wind had unwritten him
Though his hand still clutched
At the worlds of the smoke.

Sibyls’ scattered sheets,
Torn utterance extreme,
What’s he talking about? We never knew.

He believed in simpler words,
But over there is only still here.
And the water’s sheen is no sign.

— Yves Bonnefoy

Dear Naveen,

I have never kept a diary or a notebook. When I am beginning to prepare a book, it happens that I write some sentences or a brief synopsis upon a piece of paper, but as soon as possible I destroy all that, because it is only during the redaction of the actual text that my ideas become clear or even begin to appear. Writing as such is the invention. In other words, I live as far as possible from myself. Trying to reach in me the level of things constant, not transitory. This is what I could say in this occasion, but would I not be the trouble-fête who would spoil the day when all the others celebrate the notebook?

At the end of last month I have been far from Paris for a while, but since a few weeks now I am reading your Brief Rumination about Nothing. I had told you that I was to come back to the house of all my summers until the age of 14 and yes, indeed, we stayed for a week (my daugher and her husband with us) alone in this house for the first time in about 75 years. But not so much has changed and my memories were vivid. And it was a good introduction to my reading of these pages of yours, since they are, as I see them, an experience of time, of its truth, of its delusions. Also, I discover that your imaginations about Macbeth have a great deal of meaning for me. I am very impressed by your relationship with the theatre. I feel close to a lot of its aspects, having written my own imaginary mises en scènes of Hamlet or Othello. I would like to be more fluent in English. It could help me to try to say more. Nevertheless, thank you very much for having sent me these strange and very beautiful pages which I am still reading.

Looking forward to meeting you in a few weeks now.

Warmest regards,


The Tree on the Rue Descartes

Look at this tall tree, look through it,
It may suffice.

For even in tatters, soiled, a street tree,
It is all of nature, the whole sky,
Birds perch in it, in it wind moves, the sun
Speaks of the same hope, in spite of death.
What luck to have the tree in your street,
Your thoughts will be less arduous, your eyes
Freer, your hands more desirous of less night.

— Yves Bonnefoy

Ah dearest Yves,

I hear you…and respect what you say and, no, you can never be the “trouble-fête who would spoil the day”…for though you may not keep a physical notebook, is your mind not like the blank sheet of white that is visited in solitude or in restlessness with words? And language? You may live far from yourself but the farther you get the closer your precise and exact language reaches out to us, your readers, the ones who hunger for the words that you stitch together. I for one discovered you late in my life, so forgive me my greed. My urgent need to read more and more…Forgive me and reject what I say but I must try, for what would my catalogue be without your words? Write about the destruction of your notes…write about the visit to the house of your summers now haunted by the ghosts of your childhood…spirits that have waited these many years to welcome you back…how did they know of your second coming? But I speak too much…anything you send me will be a gift.

Warmest regards always,

The Invention of the Flute with Seven Pipes

At some point in the last of his tales
He began, in his fearful words, to run,
Seeing that a threat hung over him,
Looming larger with every word.

As if, from the colours that each thing’s
Impenetrable name dissociates
Or, from the sky the wind’s name
Opens, a wave broke over his life.

Poet, will music suffice to save you
From death with the help of this flute
Of seven pipes, that you invent?

Isn’t that just your voice running out of breath
So your dream will last? Night, nothing but night,
Those reeds rustling under the bank

— Yves Bonnefoy

An Hour in the Notebook I Don’t Keep

7 AM. I wake up. In my thoughts all is clear. Questions that seemed insoluble crowd my mind – but because of their answers, their solutions, now obvious, more than obvious: light itself that has taken a verbal form. The sequence of prime numbers, for example: Is it infinite? Of course, and I know why. I can demonstrate it easily. I have full access to that inner nature of numbers which has discouraged seekers of truth: and what clear weather there, under the wide-open sky!

Another thing. What did Mallarmé mean when he evoked his “great work”, “a book, quite simply, in many tomes”? When he tried to carry language to the infinite degree of the starry sky? He as well was searching in the hollow space of numbers. In fact, the word numbers was his, but he kept getting lost; and now I understand what he desired, better than himself. I accompany him in his project, which I live through again; but regrettably, I see that it is illusory, and so I take it apart, word by word…

Does god exist? Quick, I have to pick up that notebook I make out on the table, grey on grey, one darker than the other in the reddening flush of daybreak. Other discoveries are coming to the fore and I have to write all this down.

Though I still have to grope a bit, I take hold of the notebook; I open it and scribble some words. That reddening is from giant clouds that pass before my open windows; but now a ray of sun slips between them and spills the daylight on my table. The light touches my hand, seizes the pencil and fades its dream.

The few words I just wrote – what do they mean? Nothing we can grasp. And what about the inner links among prime numbers, that secret I had unveiled? My memory of it is but a shadow, like those that we retain when a nocturnal dream has ended, though we no longer know how to give them content or form. We think we can recover them, can give them a face; but they are only reflections on the glass of a door: it has already turned and everything has vanished. So I was dreaming, and yet awake. I was in those huge red clouds, as though in the sheets of another sleep.

And at present it is before me, round me, within me: the world as it is revealed when it shakes off dreams. Thing upon thing ebbs into itself, shrinking to its appearance, returning life to that other reality, the one and only: a rooster crowing, a dog barking on the road, the faraway noise of a passing car. As if the red clouds had been those big ink blots where fantastic figures lie dormant by the thousands. But if we look closer, if we consent to see more deeply, what emerges from those mists is the lovely lane in front of the house, with its large chestnut trees and the hedge that was planted a few months ago, though it’s still not growing well – the gardener will have to come back.

I dreamt of knowledge – now I have to give it up, and re-enter the divine ignorance. As silently as I can, in the house that is still asleep, I turn the key of the door to the garden. I go out. The redness of the sky still casts a few reflections on the flagstones of the terrace, overgrown by grass. Should it be weeded? No, it’s better like this: timeless.

I push open the gate to the lane; it creaks a bit. The admirable horizon of this spring, which has only begun, extends before me: slight undulations of the ground that the softest of colours have taken into their nurturing hands. I will walk to the point where the road and the horizon and the sky turn together – other trees, all of a sudden, but that same peace . . . And now I understand!

I understand. And how clear it is, how transparent! What was I thinking of? Was I still so deeply asleep, a few moments ago? Of course, those trees over there – more chestnuts, with at times some holm oaks and other oaks. And also those clouds which have ceased to be red – barely a pinkness on two shadows of white scarves, lingering against that hill. Where there are, so they say, circles of stones – tombs, perhaps. And also the grass I crush underfoot and the lark from under the hedge that flies away at my approach…

Of course, these lives, all these lives that disappear from the pale silt they seem to be: they are, and for a moment as yet they will be, not mere matter but signs in a text that an hour, the dawn, proposes to the mind each day – unfortunately in vain. Signs that are hardly simple, to be sure. The differences among the letters of this language – which, if we could read it, would allow us to be – are without number at the crux of their appearance; here they are under my eyes, in all the thicker and slimmer strokes of that invisible writing.

But between the words these letters spell we perceive a happiness, the joy of a calmly breathing reason. And what a phrasing they all display! No more of the formulae, equations and figments of the hour just past. I comprehend, I decipher, I am. And so I have the task of making these words understood by all those who still sleep: just as I, a second time – but this time in truth – have just torn myself away from the sleep of ordinary speech. Quick, I must fish from my pocket the notebook I take along whenever I go walking.

Here it is. But where is the pencil I always keep handy? I remember another pocket, and then another. I go on looking, as if I were turning towards the wall in my bed; but the light of the sky is on that side as well, in reflections. And I hear it again. What was it then? A rooster crowing, a bark, a car? I sit up, I listen. What comes to mind?

The beautiful poem by Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach. Those verses about the peaceful night, the tranquil sea, but also the noise of the shingle, roiled by the surf along the beach. And above all the final stanza, which has haunted me in the past – and still does, so often:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
And we are here as on a darkling plain,
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers

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