Friday, December 19, 2008


I’m winding up my séjour in Paris returning on the 20th to England. The last few days have been filled with memorable events—the Emil Nolde show at the Grand Palais, for example. Nolde wasn’t a painter I knew well, partly because so few of his works are found in the big collections. Most in the show were from the Nolde Stiftung in the small German town of Seebülle. He belongs to the ferment of that period one hundred years ago when German and Scandinavian artists were working to produce works with a Northern European sensibility, which can be eerie and dark. Think of Munch, of the Vienna and Berlin Secessions, and the Dresden group known as Die Brücke (The Bridge). Nolde was shaped by all three, a reciprocal impact, one assumes.

Speaking of bridges, I made a little detour to the Mirabeau Bridge, thinking it might add something to my sense of the meaning of Apollinaire’s poem. I’ve often wondered why he chose it as the site of his lyric, rather than one of the more central and better known bridges like the Pont Neuf. It is far from the center of things, to the southwest of the Paris known to visitors. You can say that the name itself is part of the charm, since the etymology suggests something like “looking at the beautiful.” But I think there’s more. Once you’re on the bridge, you’ll naturally move to its north side and gaze up toward the Eiffel Tower and a the center city. When you do, you’ll notice the Pont de Grenelle, about a quarter-mile to the north. Not a celebrated bridge, it has even so an interesting feature: just south of it on a little island is a smaller reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, which of course France donated to the United States in the 1880s. More than any other French poet of the 20th century, Apollinaire was influenced by American culture, the poetry of Whitman in particular. American inventions had been startling the French since the beginning of the latter part of the 20th century—electric light, the telephone, gramophone, automobile, cinema. American culture ca. 1900 was the culture of the new. And Apollinaire’s great poem “La Chanson du Mal Aimé” begins with the observation that the poet has grown tired of the Old World, except for that part of its culture enshrined in Catholicism, which the poet finds evergreen. You might say that religion is what is most Polish about Apollinaire, the only part of his maternal heritage that he made use of. As “La Chanson du Mal Aimé” is a lament based on his unrequited love for Annie Playden, “Le Pont Mirabeau” is an elegy for his love affair with Marie Laurencin. Transience is figured in the flow of the Seine and in the passage of hours, days, months and years. Apollinaire posits some sort of permanence, despite change, in the refrain’s repeated phrase, “je demeure.” Time passes, water flows, but the bridge and the poet remain.

It is a modern bridge of cast-iron construction and it includes on both sides two groups of heroic statuary made of iron. The presence of these figures, which look out over the water, would perhaps explain the lines “Tandis que sous/Le pont de nos bras passe/Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse.” The poet imagines that the water has grown weary of the eternal gaze of the statues, a trope symbolizing the inevitable antagonism between transience and immutability. Finally, the poem is a consideration of—a negotiation between—the claims of permanence and change. Each stanza of the poem is different, and yet the refrain concluding each is the same, repeating its observation that time passes and yet the speaker remains. And surely this view of things reflects the attitude of the city of Paris as well, always eager for new fashions, new architecture and design, new technologies, and aesthetic perspectives; yet still fiercely protecting its historical, artistic, and architectural legacy. Paris changes, as Baudelaire remarked in “Le Cygne,” even if his heart hasn’t changed. And yet a certain aspect of Paris remains the same, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever spent time here. A commitment to the classics, to a language that is correct (though enlivened by new idioms), to pleasure, and to reasoned reflection. Robert Lowell in “Beyond the Alps,” referred to Paris as “our black classic,” which is partly accurate. Yet, since his poem was written, all the old Gothic and neoclassical buildings (beginning with Notre Dame) have been steam-cleaned and made to look new again, including, now, the Pont Neuf (the New Bridge), which is the city’s oldest.

I had a chance to review this old-new Paris during a two-mile stroll two days ago, starting from Pont Alexandre III along the quais all the way to the Île de la Cité, then the Île St. Louis, and finally the Marais. The ultimate goal was Margo’s apartment, where I had tea with her, the American poet Ellen Hinsey, and her husband Mark Carlson. The latter have lived and worked in Paris for two decades. The venerable tradition of American artists living in Paris (Henry James, Edith Wharton, Julien Green, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Janet Flanner, James Jones, Edmund White, Diane Johnson—well, I could go on) is alive and well.

Marilyn Hacker also embodies this old Franco-American artistic alliance, having written many vivid poems with Parisian or French provincial settings. When I saw Marilyn again, she was in the company of Claire Malroux. Both poets have translated each other, as well as other poets in their reciprocal traditions. As such they constitute a fitting example of the cultural symbiosis I’ve spoken of. Not for nothing does Miss Liberty look down from the Pont de Grenelle toward the Mirabeau Bridge.


Danish dog said...

Jens Søndergaard and Wilhelm Heinesen are two painters I'd also associate with Nolde - with his strand of naive Nordic mythology.

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