[Wgcp-whc] wgcp-minutes from J. Roubaud's visit

Jean-Jacques Poucel jean-jacques.poucel at yale.edu
Mon Apr 13 16:26:02 EDT 2009

														April 13, 2009

	Dear friends of poetry
	         and readers of the working group list-serv,

	Two weeks ago, on Friday, March 27 the Yale working group in  
contemporary poetics met to discuss select work by the French poet  
Jacques Roubaud. The following Monday afternoon, March 30, the group  
met in the Beinecke Library for a two hour, free ranging conversation  
with Mr. Roubaud himself. That special session was immediately  
followed by a public poetry reading and book signing at the Yale  
Bookstore. Here, in lieu of rational minutes, are a few variable (and  
distorted) recollections from those sessions, and a brief description  
of events that followed elsewhere.

	Focusing largely on the recent La Presse publication, Exchanges on  
Light (2009; translated by Eleni Sikelianos), our Friday afternoon  
discussion opened with questions about the 'Frenchness' of Roubaud's  
book (originally published in France in 1990 (after Quelque chose  
noir (1986) and before La Pluralité des mondes de Lewis (1991)).  
Though the question of national character--and a given predilection  
for pranks--was in part raised because of the book's texture, the  
names of the characters strongly suggest a salon held in an English  
manor. And, the materials upon which the text draws, the manner in  
which those materials are put into motion from the beginning, sets  
the six evenings of dialogue in an explicitly imaginative,  
purposefully anachronistic field--potentially bracketing the question  
of national character or, for that matter, historicity, all together.  
A brief mention was made of Roubaud's love of England, his  
appreciation of 'drabitude' on his reading stints in London, and his  
insatiable appetite for 'inoffensive prose' written in British  
English, preferably of the high victorian age, the Brontës or A.  
Trollope especially--though none of this really quelled suspicions  
that a tenuously French mind was at work in the various  
recombinations constituting the book.

	It was quickly noted that this particular text is entirely made up  
of a complex patchwork of citations variably cataloguing the moral  
and physical qualities of light (they are unidentified citations  
culled from philosophers and poets ranging from ancient to modern  
times), and that the modality of presentation is not far removed from  
the philosophical dialogues common during the European enlightenment  
(though perhaps a bit more idiosyncratic in its free movement between  
registers of discourse, its lack of historical reference, and lack of  
sustained methodical argumentation).  Some consternation (and glee)  
was announced at the confusion of prose and verse, and the abrupt  
shifts, from one voice to the next, between different types of  
printed presentation and different registers of discourse (from the  
scientific to amorous to the sacred); on the other hand, there was  
some degree of skepticism voiced about how well defined the  
individual voices are, and the extent to which there is a convincing  
contrast in their respective points of view. One group member  
pondered if the book is an elaboration or a condemnation of all that  
the Western tradition has brought to us regarding the nature of  
light, illumination, and our understanding of them.  While we did not  
discuss it at length, it was also remarked that the order in which  
the six characters intervene over the six chapters respects the same  
permutation that orders rhyme words in the sestina. It was also  
briefly mentioned that these Exchanges on Light are shared among the  
same six characters present in another Roubaud book, also a montage  
of citations, entitled Sphère de la mémoire--and there was some head  
scratching about the shadow relationship between the books.

	Three other 'shadowy moments' illuminated, in a connective way, the  
meandering threads of our conversations that day. First, while  
attempting to rehearse the basic argument of Roubaud's , La Veillesse  
d'Alexandre, his famous critical study of the advent of French free  
verse during the golden age of French Surrealism, I said 'free verse'  
was a 'shadow form' of the alexandrine,  condemned (at least in its  
early years) to follow the magnificent form around (like a shadow),  
imitating its basic tenets, but always missing its arrival into full- 
bodied effects (rhythmically dependent on its master).  The  
slavishness with which early free verse 'subverts' the alexandrine  
ironically makes that era of free verse a body of constrained  
lines...  that is, when compared to the form now often criticized by  
Mr. Roubaud, a verse form he calls International Free Verse or— 
punning in French on its vileness— the VIL, Vers International Libre.  
That easy form, that formless form--as Roubaud describes it in his  
2002 "A Defense of Poetry" (see link at bottom of page)--tends to  
lead away from the poetic and toward the performative, toward  
'performance poetry.' Or, so is his experience of international  
'poetry' festivals which are increasingly replete, says Roubaud, with  
events bearing a distant relation (at best) to his idea of a poem  
(namely interpretive dance, musical performance (e.g. Schwitter's  
"Ursonate"), or various new modalities of media presentations (which  
are not offensive in the slightest, says he, so long as they leave  
the name of poetry alone)).  'Poetry' (the word), in other words--and  
this is the second 'shadowy moment'--, has been exploited for the  
aura attached to it, for the "phantom effect" or the "ghost effect"  
it brings to other modalities of expression that are not, in effect,  
at all poetic. Exactly what the stakes are for Roubaud, however, in  
defending poetry against its various modalities of hybridity or  
disappearance (this coattail effect of performance is just one  
modality of its cultural erasure), promptly became a central focus in  
our discussion, which again turned to the intermingling of forms in  
Exchanges on Light and, in particular, sent us to a passage on  
beauty: "The beauty was in the negative not-light. It is there in  
what is not-other than light, but is not light itself, from which it  
proceeds" (third shadowy moment) and its recapitulation by Mr Goodman  
(a recursive persona in Roubaud's œuvre, partially based on Nelson  
Goodman (yes, the American logician of 'grue' fame); partially an  
invention, a theoretical fiction, sprung from Roubaud's comical- 
stoicism): "Pure beauty; there is no beauty purer than the repetition  
of light, which loses itself" (28).  The gesture of defining  
negatively, through multiple negatives, double or triple (or even  
more)--beauty is seen in the negative not-light, in what is not other  
than light and is not light itself--substantiates existence, or its  
expression in various forms of paradox, the movements of which take  
primacy over their static being (in discourse) (thus Mr. Goodman's  
praise for the successive repetition of coming into being (of light)  
and its (necessary?) loss). Speculating on what other problems are  
being circumnavigated in the exploration of light (or of memory in  
Sphères) as metaphoric field(s) through the devices (procedures) of  
montage and combinatorics, two pertinent angles of inquiry emerged:  
what work, in the case of Exchanges on Light (as well as elsewhere,  
since we postulated that any Roubaldian piece is representative  
Roubaud), is being accomplished by the poetic line, le vers (and,  
more generally, by the habit, the formal garb in which the poetic as  
nakedly poetic is dressed throughout JR's work; numbers)? And, to  
what extent is that formal armor, that ardor for the formal, well  
equipped enough to resist the various modes of denigration,  
cuteseyfication, marginalization, and erasure confronting the poetic  
in the contemporary world?

	We subsequently drew up a list of queries to ask the poet the  
following Monday, some of addressed the various (a)political stances  
of the Oulipo and/or Roubaud (their contrasts, connections) and  
others that probed how constraint based writing could be conceived as  
"radical" in the following two sense: as returning to the root of  
things ('anoulipism' is analytical, takes up the task of re- 
conceiving constraint from a zero degree concept of a form) and as  
being 'radicalized,' bent on effecting some form of change--and on  
this point our conversation only vaguely brushed up against the late  
60s and early 70s, the period at which Roubaud (and Jean-Pierre Faye)  
helped found the pluridisciplinary journal Change whose modality of  
research still stands in contrast to 'avant-garde' modes of  
theorizing exemplified in the writings of  TelQuel). (A full list of  
the questions actually submitted to the poet after white clam pizza  
and birch beer at Pepe's concludes these minutes).

	Very little was said about the place of Stein. Or about what her  
innovations in syntax bring to emergent models of poetics. We also  
hardly touched on the opening excerpt from The Loop (2009) or the  
translator's 'Afterword' which had also been sent to the list two  
weeks prior, along with the series 'Circles in Meditation' from The  
plurality of Worlds of Lewis.

	Our Monday afternoon session consisted of a sequence of excursions  
into Roubaud's various worlds, all of them described, in his own  
words, by Roubaud who, afterward, pondered over how well the  
complexity of these realms can be communicated in what he feels is  
his waning command of the English language.

	The problem of national identity ('Provençal') and personal  
signature ('Composer of mathematics and poetry') led Roubaud to talk  
about his childhood in the south, his early relationship to writing  
(he started very young), his subsequent move to Paris, and his  
initiation into the field of professional mathematics. Surprising  
many, Roubaud insisted that mathematics and poetry are completely  
separate, utterly unrelated discourses: the former is eminently  
paraphrasable, the latter is utterly un-paraphrasable (the poem 'says  
what it says while saying' it whereas proofs in maths can and should  
be rewritten in as many ways as imaginable). There was some leniency  
given to the notion of beauty in numbers, but that form of beauty was  
to be maintained as separate from, or different in nature from the  
notion of beauty in poetry. While he did not explain the function  
played in his writings, current and past, by his not-so-secret pet  
numbers--the numbers of Queneau (related to his mania for sestina  
forms and his admiration of prime numbers)--Roubaud did mention a  
website where anyone can enter a solution set and then discover all  
of the questions that lead to that answer (Roubaud's initial  
mathematical field was group theory (théorie d'ensembles) which is  
distinct from set theory in that it provides for open-ended answers,  
or solution sets, as opposed to fixed, or closed, proofs). He took  
visible interest and pleasure (which regaled us, undoubtedly) in  
noting that the series known as Queneau's numbers remains to this day  
the solution to an as-of-yet unknown problem/question (if anyone  
knows this website, please share the url).

	A similarly exuberant moment came to pass when, describing his poem  
Trente et un au cube (1973; Thirty One Cubed), Roubaud confessed a  
terrible discovery. In part  conceived as a means of overcoming any  
direct dependence on rhythmic structures underlying versified  
language in French, that book combines the syllabic structure of the  
Japanese tanka (5-7-5-7-7) and other fields of research dear to  
Roubaud at the time; it is a sequence of thirty-one poems, with  
thirty one lines, each line consisting of thirty one syllables, all  
of these units divided (at least visually) according the the  
distribution borrowed from the tanka (5-7-5-7-7). Several years ago,  
many years after having completed the book, Roubaud discovered a  
'plagiarist by anticipation' who had not only written a book obeying  
the same structural rules, but, worse, this medieval Japanese poet  
(Tamekane, who wrote it during his second exile, this time to Tosa,  
in the years after 1315) had added an additional constraint,  
composing a 32nd poem exclusively consisting of one acrostic line  
from the other 31 poems (if anyone knows this poem, please share);  
while not an exact relationship, the compilation of an ultimate,  
recapitulating poem consisting of elements present in the others,  
reminds us of a heroic crown of sonnets, though in Tamekane's case,  
the crowning poem itself remains hidden.

								[	*	 *	* 	]
	In the reading that followed, Roubaud mostly read from The Form of a  
City Changes Faster, Alas, than the Human Heart which is translated  
by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop (Dalkey Archive Press). But he also  
read a few translations that I have written (sonnets from a more  
recent book, the title of which was supposed to be New York and After  
but which was changed to Churchill 40 after September 11, 2001  
(reflecting, in part, Roubaud's admiration for the tenacity of the  
English leader during the second world war, and returning us to his  
reading vacations in London)).  And, one last poem at that reading  
was the tail end of a palindrome, the fizzle of a cosmology: Genesis  
in reverse, a recent poem Roubaud composed in English using a 15th c  
French translation of the Old Testament.

	In the days that followed, Roubaud was joined by his friend and  
collaborator Delay to speak about rewriting Arthurian tales for the  
modern stage. He then joined five other Oulipians in New York city  
for series of readings, roundtable discussion and book launches. I  
last saw Rouabud at Bard college where he also gave a lively reading  
and spoke to an engaged group about his early poetry, his current  
prose projects, his evolving protocols for writing in prose, his  
continued process of composing poems, always pursued first and  
foremost in the mind, in the mind's eye, as an exercise in memory  
(among other things), only thereafter to enter the (nether) world via  
some physical means of writing (on paper, on screen, for example).

	And such are the working minutes for the working group's last two  
sessions--shouldyou wish to add details, please do not hesitate to  
write to me and/or Richard and/or Nancy. As Richard has mentioned, we  
still have two more meetings before disbanding for the summer, the  
first next Friday, April 24, with Steve Evans, and the last on May  
1st, with Adelaide Russo.

	As ever, The Beinecke Library  Whitney Humanities Center Working  
Group in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics meets every other Friday at  
3:00pm in room 116 at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale  
University, 55 Wall Street (the corner of Church and Wall); our  
meetings are open to the public; for more information and list-serv  
inscription (unsubscribe) go to : http://beineckepoetry.wordpress.com/ 

	With gratitude,

	Jean-Jacques Poucel
	working group co-coordinator

ps- A few wepages, shadow effects of recent OULIPO events in NYC

     http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/blog/index.htm (see  

J. Roubaud - "A Defense of Poetry" - 2002

pps- Several opening Questions for a poetics discussion with Jacques  
Roubaud (April 2009)

In your writing you frequently identify yourself as a Provençal poet.  
But you currently live, and have spent the better part of your adult  
life writing in Paris. How is it that the south of France plays such  
a great role in your identity as a writer? What initial childhood  
experiences influenced your becoming a writer? Is your identification  
with Provence more directly related to childhood memory or to the  
study of texts rooted in the landscape / poetry of langue d'Oc (or  
Provençal)? Or, is your self-identification as Provençal a means of  
reacting against the increasingly radical immigration 'reforms'  
instituted in France?

Among the other ways you characterize your identity as an author is  
this simple signature: Jacques Roubaud, Compositeur de Mathématique  
et de Poésie. Can you please explain the ways in which mathematics  
informs your practice of writing. And, if it's useful, can you  
explain how your creative process as a poet has informed your work in  

One of the questions we perennially pose to the contemporary authors  
who visit our group addresses the manner in which they see themselves  
within or in opposition to tradition, or a particular literary  
lineage.  How do you see your work in relation to the history of  
modernist and avant-garde experimentation in France, or Europe  

How would you situate the Oulipo in or opposed to a modernist or  
avant-garde tradition?

Another very salient aspect of your various works is its frequent  
attraction to traditions removed from French literature. You have  
written translations for Troubadour and Japanese poetry, you have  
translated and assembled anthologies of American Indian chants, you  
are an avid reader of English prose and American contemporary poetry.  
How do these alternate traditions participate in your ambitions as a  

You have noted that there are four principle activities that  
characterize your primary activities: translation, anthologies, the  
composition of poems, and critical reflection on the writing of  
poetry--a poetics. How do you imagine the relation between these  
activities? Which of these activities is the most important to you?  
Why? Where, if anywhere, does mathematics figure into these areas of  

In several of your statement on poetics, you seem to be defending  
poetry against its own demise. You speak often about the tragedy of  
free verse, and you repeatedly criticize the conflagration of poetry  
and performance. What is at stake for you in defending difficult  
poetry and other form enhanced modes of writing?

In Exchanges on Light one remarks the interweaving of many voices,  
the inclusion of many perspectives about the physical and moral  
qualities of light, all intermixed according to the logic of the  
sestina. How is this book an example the extreme contemporary? Do you  
consider every incursion by your characters a statement spoken in /  
as poetry?

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