Stay in Heaven
Michael Rosen on the poetry of Jacques Prevert
translated by Sarah Lawson
I came across Prévert's poems while doing A-level French in 1962. I could hardly believe what I was reading. The French poetry we had read up until then had seemed so formal and dreary but here was a poetry that was like sequences of graffiti, bursts of easy-to-understand phrases and images, that seemed as if they had been pasted together, rather than linked by all the usual grammatical methods. As we read from line to line, it felt as if it was we the readers who had to make the final leap to make it make sense. This was exciting stuff and, I thought, it was the writing that I was looking for to link Magritte to Miles, to link those men in bowler hats raining down and 'Freddie Freeloader' from 'Kind of Blue'.If we had been looking at the American Beat Poets for English A-level, then I might have found that they might have made the connection. It so happens that it was one of them, Ferlinghetti, who turned out a good translation of Prévert's first collection, Paroles, made available in a little red edition published by the City Lights Bookshop of San Francisco. Paroles first appeared in France in 1946, though many of the poems had circulated in occupied and Vichy France. It was an instant and huge success, full of irreverence, joy, pacifism and surrealism. Over fifty years later, you can buy a postcard in Paris (I have it on my notice board) that says:
Notre père qui êtes aux cieux
Et nous nous resterons sur la terre
Qui est quelquefois si jolie...
It's the first four lines of 'Pater Noster' which Sarah Lawson translates in this new edition of Prévert's poems as:
Our Father who art in Heaven
And we will stay on Earth
Which is sometimes so lovely
Not all of Paroles is here, but poems and other writings from later collections are included and we meet more love, more animals (especially birds) including thousands that die crashing into the beam of a lighthouse, only for more to die on board a cargo ship loaded with birds because the lighthouse keeper had switched off his beam to save the lives of the thousands who were dying on his lighthouse
Sarah Lawson, a poet herself, has done a good job here. It deserves an abrasive, ironic reading, in a grimly absurd setting the Dome? Potters Bar Station? maybe by someone with the voice and brain of a Christopher Logue.
Jacques Prevert's Selected Poems are available from Amazon (UK).