Make it Active: "Action Poetique"
Kristin Prevallet
Une «Action Poetique» de 1950 á aujourd'hui
Edited by Pascal Boulanger
Flammarion, 1998


"The 'engaged' writer knows that words are action. He knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change."
Jean Paul Sartre, from "What Is Writing?"

In between writing dense philosophical treatises and maintaining a column in "Liberation," Sartre attempted to define exactly what writing "Is" by exposing what he thought was the essential difference between poetry and prose—that poetry "reveals" while prose "comments." And although this distinction becomes almost muted by his own prose, which often breaks down precise philosophical insight into revelatory poaesis, he did contribute something important to the development of French poetry after World War II. His insistence that writing, and therefore the writer, must be "engaged" has two main components: On the one hand, the writing itself must reveal, whether it be through evocation or silence, the true intentions of the writer. And on the other hand, the writer in order to reveal his or her true intentions, must be alive and attentive to the world around them. The synthesis of these two facets is what Sartre meant when he coined the term "La Litterature Engagée."

And yet in French, "Litterature engagée" connotes the idea that the writer is "committed" primarily to politics and social commentary. And like the term "political poetry" in English, "literature engagée" connotes a kind of writing whose artfulness is not very interesting, presumably because it uses language to comment on political events, forcing "the issues" using simple language that supposedly is accessible to "the people." The two terms, at this point in history, are watered down and are not often merged with contemporary debates concerning the social function of poetry—which in the 1990s became centralized around representation, and the demystification of connections between language and power.

However, the context for the term "Litterature engagée" (which appeared first in a manifesto written by Sartre in 1945 for the first issue of Le Temps Moderne) is worth revisiting. He argues that too often writers—particularly novelists—assume that they can create worlds in images and words that are exempt from social reality. He is disgruntled in particular by the economics of this assumption; these writers presume to exist in another reality and yet expect to get paid in this one. To Sartre, this one-sided exchange is irresponsible—to him the writer, no matter what, is firmly situated in his era. "Each word has an effect," he writes. "Each silence as well. Totally conditioned by his class, his salary, the nature of his work, conditioned all the way to his feelings, his thoughts, it is he who decides the meaning of his condition and of those of his comrades; it's he who, freely, gives to the proletariat a future of humiliation without truce or conquest and victory, according to if he chooses to resign, or be revolutionary. He does not have the freedom not to choose: He is engaged, he must take a chance, abstaining is also a choice." Sartre challenges writers to assume responsibility for, and assert their commitment to, being actively engaged with the events of their time. And he urges readers to be engaged as well, aware of how the reading of literature as an isolated art form reinforces oppressive power structures and legitimizes the status quo.

Perhaps through some diverted association with Sartre's sense of the "universal reader," the term "literature engagée" became watered down and essentially depoliticized when it became associated with the worst kind of political writing—in which an individual poet commits a series of lyric atrocities to assert genuine identification with the suffering of all peoples. Yet, Sartre was not arguing that Flaubert should have been writing watered down lyricism that spoke sentimentally to the masses. The trick is in the synthesis: Can writers find the language to simultaneously evoke and comment in a language that will actually manifest how "the experimenter is not outside of the system being experimented on."

It is also significant that even if many French writers in the late 20th century rejected "litterature engagée," it became a central philosophical foundation for African writers. Both Fanon and Senghor asked Sartre to write introductions for their books—for within Sartre's theory of "choice" is the insistence that all people are free, and that it is the responsibility of literature to always be aware of its own position in either maintaining or threatening that freedom. These sliding interpretations of Sartre's theory, once looked at outside the metropolis, are central to reading and comprehending the magnitude of the anthology Une «Action Poetique» de 1950 á aujourd'hui edited by Pascal Boulanger and published in 1998 by Flammarion. For an American readership, trying to contextualize the literary magazine "Action Poetique" is a daunting task, because questions of engagement—both political and theoretical—were debated off and on for nearly fifty years.

This is an anthology—a hefty 600 pages of poetry, letters, and commentary published in the French magazine "Action Poetique" from 1950-1998 (the magazine is still being published). The anthology is divided into two parts—a long introduction (150 pages) and a long section (540 pages) featuring samples of work from each issue of the magazine, spanning 1958-1998. The eclectic range of poets is vast and impressive; the only detriment is that there is no index listing the poets in alphabetical order. But reading it straight through chronologically is actually much more conducive to appreciating the expansive mindframe of this magazine, as we see it unfold through time.

Boulanger's introduction to this anthology is a helpful cartography—for in it he takes the aerial view and attempts to contextualize the poets published in "Action Poetique" within the intellectual, political, artistic, and aesthetic climate of post-War France. What is particularly striking about this anthology is that nothing like it exists in America—nowhere is there such a document which locates contemporary American poetry within an international perspective of concentrated diversity.

Beginning as a magazine with a singularly political agenda in the early 1950s, "Action Poetique" went through a series of changes in how it defined itself, what it published, and who it represented. It was conceived in Marseilles—a city that one of the largest ports in France. It opens onto the Mediterranean Sea into Africa, resulting in a diverse demographic of French, Northern African, Italian, Turkish, and Spanish peoples. In 1950 two poets, Gerald Nevev (who had served in the colonial infantry) and Jean Malrieu organized a group of writers to mobilize "poetry in the service of the people." That group disseminated information on poets who were being persecuted from around the world, and took part in local political and social issues. The poetry they were interested in reading and writing was political and realist—they began the magazine as a series of brochures called "la poésie a pour but la vérité pratique" that they handed out in the street and at political meetings. In 1953 these pamphlets grew into the first issue of "Action Poetique," and for five years the magazine remained loyal to its populist and political roots.

In 1958 a second series was initiated when the poet Henri Deluy—also from Marseilles—became editor. As Deluy brought with him an interest in current trends of contemporary French philosophy, "Action Poetique" gradually began to question its foundation. The magazine went through various cycles in which political commentary became subverted in favor of more theoretical frameworks. This mirrored in many ways what was taking place within larger intellectual circles in France, a climate which Boulanger defines as "post-Sartriasm" with the emergence of Debord, Lacan, Foucault, and Althusser. Very different from its original realist agenda, Deluy's series challenges language to actually reflect the surface of everyday life, and not simply to comment on it. As Boulanger summarizes, words are "liberated from having to represent the world in the system of language." This was manifest in the use of the white space of the page—over-inflated prosody was replaced with a concern for the material of language. (This dialogue sounds familiar to the correspondences taking place in the early 1970s in America ten years later. It is interesting that in most attempts to historicize and contextualize language poetry, the French connection—or the connection to anything outside America, including Canada—is rarely if ever mentioned as being a vital predecessor.)

The two oppositional poles—between political polemics on the one hand and theoretical philosophy on the other—established the groundwork for "Action Poetique" to fill in the territory between with a wide range of poetic and critical texts. Deluy remained committed to publishing and entering into dialogue with a wide range of influences and texts, even if he disagreed with them. Serious discussions took the form of reviews, essays and letters that ranged from concrete poet Pierre Garnier's assertion of the revolutionary potential of spatialism to Deluy's investigation into the extremes of Russian social realism and its effect on the avant-garde. From Liliane Giraudon's translations and eventual absorption into her own work of the troubadour tradition to Alain Lance's interest in the German agit-prop movement, "Action Poetique" resembled a vast laboratory of eclectic yet pertinent poetic inquiry and experiments. Oulipo, Surrealism, neo-surrealism, realism, lyricism, concrete and spatialism were all published, reviewed, and debated in the same magazine. And of course, all of the major French poets who have been well translated in the US—Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, Dominique Fourcade, Jean Daive, Emmanuel Hocquard, Joseph Guglielmi, etc.—have for the most part been publishing their work and letters in "Action Poetique" since the 1970s.

All of this research was always in context, always aware of poetry's relation to topical events happening in the world—the Algerian War and May 1968 presented a larger political reality that branched French dissent into an international arena. And although the magazine directly intervened in these larger historical realities—publishing a special issue on the Algerian war, for example—it kept an international perspective as a means of remaining engaged in larger issues of revolution and overhaul. Even if the social function of poetry had been questioned in the course of "Action Poetique's" development, the journal remained committed to presenting work from outside France—thus substantiating concerns surrounding decolonization and the opening up of French society to an international cultural exchange. Not a review focused on the metropolis of a select group of people, "Action Poetique" published work from Iran, Vietnam, Chile, Eastern Europe, United States, and Russia—not just one or two poems, but entire issues edited by French poets highlighting the work of these countries. And this came back to reflecting the cultural and ethnic hub of Marseilles, providing a map of the poetry world that Boulanger has drawn to spec.

It does not matter if poetry is used to articulate a platform for politics or to assert the materiality of language—the point is that poetry is not a mere reflection, commentary, or soothing solace to the intensity of current events. Poetry is engaged—with poets from other countries, with language, with theory, and with art. The arguments within the different parameters of engagement can be fierce and polemic, but ultimately these debates only strengthen the logic of poetry as a viable force that is not complacent with larger power structures, and it exists in accordance with its own sets of issues and terms. It is within such a solid intellectual and political context—words in action—that French poetry can finally be read. And, thank goodness, it provides a document that will debunk the myth of the "French-influenced short abstract lyric" that Ron Silliman complained was detrimentally influencing younger American writers.