Francis Ponge: Things, Doodads, and Whatchamacallits

by Nicholas DiBenedetto

*Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Darcie Dennigan for introducing me to Francis Ponge and his poems, and Kerry Carnahan, Shannon Hearn, Emily Kraus, Erin Lynn, Eleanor Reeds, Matthew Ryan, and Brian Sneeden for engaging in an insightful discussion of selected works to help me form opinions on, and better understand the French poet.

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“But let’s break it off here: for bread in our mouths should be less an object of respect than of consumption.” Francis Ponge from “Le Pain” (Trans. C. K. Williams)

It was on this day in 1899 that Francis Ponge, French poet of the everyday object, was born. With titles like “The Crate,” “The Candle,” and “Bread,” Ponge navigated life by looking closely at the objects that littered the paths, the homes, and the sidewalks of every day. It is through the examination of these unremarkable objects that he was able to find the remarkability in life, the interconnectedness of the objects that form the landscapes around people.

The prose poem is an appropriate outlet for Ponge’s analyses. As the poet of the object, the essay-like format of the prose poem gives more focus and organization to Ponge’s descriptions than other forms would. The clear structure of the sentence unit, the extended paragraphs of some longer pieces like “The Pebble,” and his preference for prose brings his descriptions to the forefront of his work. Often Ponge halts himself at the end of his poems before going too far beyond some type of physical description of the object of a poem. “(O)n whose fate we shouldn’t dwell too heavily or too long” he states at the end of “The Crate,” translated by Margaret Guiton, cutting himself off from the disposable crate meant to hold bad produce; “let’s break it off here” he very punnily remarks at the end of “Bread,” translated by C. K. Williams. For Ponge, these moments of hesitation are more than just mental hiccups, he denies himself in further indulging in the subject of his poems in these cases.

The speakers of Ponge’s pieces may be realizing the hedonistic indulgence of their descriptions in these moments, returning to the space of their minds from the physical presence of their object(s). There is a certain disgusting joy in describing bread and its innards as “(a)n amorphous, belching mass,” “flabby,” and as “flowers… soldered together at every joint.” Perhaps, however, Ponge is refraining from taking away from the physicality of the object by moving to a higher, metaphorical description or scenario. Not to imply that Ponge’s poems are simply exercises in description, many of his poems do offer more than just the objects that title them, but perhaps there is an awareness of the poetic potential some of these objects offer, and a wink at his audience when he hits at the possibilities that exist in something like a loaf of bread. “(I)t doesn’t last even as long as its highly perishable contents” translates Margaret Guiton in “The Crate.” Such a charged statement, eager to be quoted by the English undergraduate!

Indeed, “The Crate” seems hardly sturdy enough to keep any contents. Ponge’s linguistic interpretation even brings to light how it is made up of half parts of other words: “(h)alfway between cage (cage) and cachot (prison cell) the French language has cageot, a simple, openwork container for transporting fruits that sicken at the least hint of suffocation.” The delicacy of the poem is why dwelling “too heavily or too long” is a danger, and why we end on this note: the crate is already bound for destruction, and ruminating on it, putting too much mental and poetic pressure on it, for Ponge, will only hasten the crate’s inevitable demise.

Ponge’s poems have a power in their staying that, when not ended by a speaker’s self-awareness, are often snuffed out either by the scope of the land around them or the objects themselves. “The Candle,” translated by C. K. Williams, inverts the source of light, “whose glow decomposes” rather than illuminates. The nature of the moon “which atomizes forests” suggests the piecemeal construction of the landscape, physical and lingual, around people; things are built out of other things. In “The Pebble,” translated by Margaret Guiton, one cannot be satisfied with the pebble as “a form or state of stone halfway between rocks and gravel,” as this definition requires one to know what a stone is, which goes on to require knowing how a stone is formed which eventually leads to, as Ponge puts it, “going back even further than the flood.” It seems absurd and cyclical that words are described using more words, and he is well aware of this. “The Pebble” is a tour de force, and for Ponge, to be able to describe something, one must be prepared to describe everything.

Things are enticing, provoking, a physical presence the mind can plant itself in to grow wild with ideas and theories. “(T)he candle-light flickering on the book encourages the reader – then, bending over its plate, it drowns in its own nutrients.”

Source:

Ponge, Francis, C. K. Williams, John Montague, and Margaret Guiton. Selected Poems. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1994. Print.

Nicholas DiBenedetto is a senior at the University of Connecticut double-majoring in EEB (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) and English. He is a member of the LRR 2016 poetry panel.

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