Reviews of Nobel Prize winner | Comments on all Shakespeare's plays | Poetry reviews | Multiple reviews of same author | Haiti books |


By Saint-John Perse
Edited by Mary Ann Caws
New York: New Directions Book, 1982
ISBN: 8112-0855-9 (pbk.)
143 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2014

Mary Ann Caws

Saint-John Perse was born in Guadeloupe in 1887. He became a diplomat under his born name and a poet with his non de plume, Saint-John Perse.

Mary Ann Caws claims his poetry has three distinct phases:

  1. The Antillean Stage (1904 – 1940) and it is mainly poems of nostalgia and memories of the island.
  2. The Diplomatic Years (1914 – 1940). These poems reflect his travels and poems of a timeless nomad.
  3. Poems of Exile (1940 – 1957). In these years he lived mainly in the U.S. In 1975 he died in France.

Bob Corbett’s comments along the way

The earlier poems in this collection are from his days in Guadeloupe and tend to be short clusters of sets of images, capturing his childhood memories.

I was especially drawn to a poem called “Praises.” It was only three pages long, but drew soft and lovely images of 15 difference scenes out of his childhood and youth which brought him special joys. His praise of a horse is a useful example:

“I loved a horse – who was he? – he looked me straight in the face, under his forelock.
The quivering holes of his nostrils were two beautiful things to see – with that quivering hole that swells over each eye.
When he had run, he sweated: which means to shine! – and under my child’s knees I pressed moons on his flanks . . .
I love a horse – who was he? – and sometime (for animals know better the forces that praise us)
Snorting, he would lift to his gods a head of bronze, covered with a petiole of veins.”

“Exile” is a quite amazing poem, seemingly autobiographical, telling of his life and travels, thoughts and deeds. It’s hard to believe that it is all actual deeds, but perhaps much of it recounts his thoughts on the possibilities of the experiences he speaks of. In any case, it is a very long poem with brilliant descriptions of quite esoteric concrete experiences. We read:

“Dedicated to no shores, imparted to no pages, the pure beginning of this song . . others in temples seize on the painted altar horns:
My fame is on the sands! My fame is on the sands . . . and it’s no error, O Peregrine.
To desire the barest place for assembling on the waters of exile a great poem of nothing, a great poem made from nothing . . .
I have built upon the sand-smoke. I shall lie down in cistern and hallow vessel,
In all stale places where lies the taste of greatness.”

It is us, humans, or at least the poet, who wanders in a world of meaninglessness.

“The wind tells us its age, the wind tells us its youth … Honor thine exile, O Prince
And all at once all is power and presence for me, here where the theme of nothingness rises still in smoke.”

A central theme which seems to run through much of his poetry is that language itself, even in the hands of the poet, obscures our contact with reality. In the poem “Rains” he sees rain as a cleansing symbol of our understanding, since the image of rain is erasing the errors caused by language.

Rain is like a god, cleansing the world, washing away sin and evil in human hearts. But these sins and evils are not the acts we call evil, rather they are our own cultural standards, those standards that put forward benevolence, seemliness, even our celebrated moments of history, the “beautiful sayings of man.”

If this “rain” succeeds there we can

“see us now delivered more naked to this smell of mold and benzoin where the black-virgin earth awakens.”

The result will be positive. If the rains do their “washing” then:

“And man, once more beset with new ideas from all sides, who surrenders to the upheaval of the great surges of mind.

. . . The beautiful song, the beautiful song, there above the vanishing waters!
And my poem, O Rains! Which was not written.”

“Snows” is a very similar theme to “O Rains.” Language, in general has obscured the real world from us humans and now we must re-discover reality beneath language. Yet he never shies from the irony that he can only tell us these things in language. But like in “O Rains” he has to annihilate the very poem which brings us this message. He ends the poem in the new world of wordless face to face with experience where we will find:

“There where the rivers are still fordable, there where snows are still fordable, we shall pass on, this night, an unfordable soul.”
Henceforth this page on which no more is written.”

“Winds” is a long poem that focusses on the symbol of great destructive winds being the driving force of human evolutionary history. He follows the rise and fall and westward movement in the history of us humans. He follows the rise and fall of civilizations and periods of human culture. These symbols are often quite esoteric and I wasn’t always able to identify the exact period, places or people of this disguised evolutionary history.

When I arrived at the poem “Seamarks” I knew I was be out of my depth. I’ve had very little experience of the sea. Most of my life has been spent in the inland city of St. Louis in the center of the U.S. And even though I lived two years on a small island in the Bahamas, and have made 25 or more visits to the country of Haiti, I rarely saw or visited the sea. In the Bahamas our house in a tiny community was about 3 miles from the sea, and I rarely visited it. In Haiti my visits to the sea were even rarer; I spent much my time in rural mountain villages far from the sea. The most significant experiences were half dozen visits to the Greek islands and there I did really feel the power and magnificence of the sea, most especially in the much less visited Sporades Islands which were so small I was face to face with the sea each and every day. Nonetheless, in reading this poem I knew I was a stranger in a strange land, and had to work especially hard to try to feel the power and insight of Perse’s insights and song.

In the last section of this collection were much later poems and I struggled mightily to grasp them and follow the difficult images as best I could. However, I didn’t succeed very well and just came away from the latter part of this collection feeling very inadequate as a reader. The earlier poems were a delight, but I just wasn’t up to the last quarter of the book.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett