Monday, July 6, 2020

Summer of France: Poems of Paris

Knopf’s Poems of Paris, from the publisher’s Everyman’s Library Pocket Series, was a nice companion to Mantel’s sometimes-overwhelming, dense, historical novel. It’s a lovely little book, in a pleasing size. Some other titles from the collection are “Christmas Poems,” “Love Songs and Sonnets,” “Persian Poets,” “Poems of Mourning,” etc., so you can see there is quite a range. Find the pocket series at

As for this collection of poems inspired by Paris, it was separated into the following sections: The City of Light, The Sights, The Streets, Parisians, The City of Love, Expatriates, Tourists, Food and Drink, The Arts, Homage to the Poet, Revolution, and War, Occupation, Resistance. This method worked well, and enriched the experience, I thought. And now, because talking of poetry is never as good as reading poetry, I’ll share a few of my favorites so that you, too, can have a taste of Paris.

Spring Evening on the Boulevards

Sitting on a bench one evening in spring on the great boulevards, near the Variétés. A café streaming with gas. A prostitute dressed all in red going from beer to beer. On the second floor, a room quite somber and quiet with a few lamps and tables over which heads were bent, a little study. On the third floor, adazzle with gas, all the windows open, flowers, perfumes, a dance in progress. One can’t hear the music for the din of the street swarming with cabs and people, with the corridors devouring and vomiting people incessantly, and the hawking of programs in from of the Variétés … But one can see, gliding past in front of these ten windows, men in black tails with white shirt fronts, revolving to the music, holding ladies, blue, pink, lilac, white, holding them ever so lightly, so correctly, one can see them pass, repass with serious, unsmiling faces (but one can’t hear the music they follow). Several pimps wander by; one says to the other: “She made ten francs, old boy…” From the Variétés a crowd swarms out during intermission; and the hell of the boulevard continues, the cabs, the cafés, the gas, the shopwindows, more and more pedestrians—more prostitutes filing by under the harsh lights of the café … Near me a newspaper stall and two women chatting; one says: “She certainly won’t last the night, that one, and my kid caught it from hers.” Busses filled with members of both sexes, each with his or her own feelings, troubles, vices.
                And above it all, the gentle, eternal stars.

Jules Laforgue (1860-87); translated by William Jay Smith

Bastille Day

The first time I saw Paris
I went to see where the Bastille
had been, and though
I saw the column there
I was too aware that
the Bastille was not there:
I did not know how
to see the emptiness.
People go to see
the missing Twin Towers
and seem to like feeling
the lack of something.
I do not like knowing
that my mother no longer
exists, or the feeling
of knowing. Excuse me
for comparing my mother
to large buildings. Also
for talking about absence.
The red and gray sky
above the rooftops
is darkening and the inhabitants
are hastening home for dinner.
I hope to see you later.

Ron Padgett (1942-)

In Memoriam

Today is Sunday.
I fear the crowd of my fellows with such faces of stone.
From my glass tower filled with headaches and
                Impatient Ancestors,
I contemplate the roofs and hilltops in the mist.
In the stillness—somber, naked chimneys.
Below them my dead are asleep and my dreams turn
                to ashes.
All my dreams, blood running freely down the streets
And mixing with blood from the butcher shops.
From this observatory like the outskirts of town
I contemplate my dreams lost along the streets,
Crouched at the foot of the hills like the guides of my
On the rivers of the Gambia and the Saloum
And now on the Seine at the foot of these hills.
Let me remember my dead!
Yesterday was All Saints’ Day, the solemn anniversary
                of the Sun,
And I had no dead to honor in any cemetery.
O Forefathers! You who have always refused to die,
Who knew how to resist Death from the Sine to the
And now in the fragile veins of my indomitable blood,
Guard my dreams as you did your thin-legged
                migrant sons!
O Ancestors! Defend the roofs of Paris in this
                dominical fog,
The roofs that protect my dead.
Let me leave this tower so dangerously secure
And descend to the streets, joining my brothers
Who have blue eyes and hard hands.

Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001); translated by Melvin Dixon

January in Paris

                Poems are never completed—they are
                only abandoned.  –Paul Valéry

That winter I had nothing to do
but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,

but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city
often turning from a wide boulevard
down a narrow side street
bearing the name of an obscure patriot.

I followed a few private rules,
never crossing a bridge without stopping
mid-point to lean my bike on the railing
and observe the flow of the river below
as I tried to better understand the French.

In my pale coat and my Basque cap
I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.

I would see beggars and street cleaners
in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
I would see the poems of Valéry,
the ones he never finished but abandoned,
wandering the streets of the city half-clothed.

Most of them needed only a final line
or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
but whenever I approached,
they would retreat from their makeshift fires
into the shadows—thin specters of incompletion,

forsaken for so many long decades
how could they ever trust another man with a pen?

I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
sitting with a glass of rosé at a café table—
beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache.

by Monsieur Paul Valéry himself,
big fish in the school of Symbolism
and for a long time, president of the Committee of Arts
                and Letters
of the League of Nations if you please.

Never mind how I got her out of the café,
past the concierge and up the flight of stairs—
remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.

And never mind the holding and the pressing.
It is enough to know that I moved my pen
in such a way as to bring her to completion,

a simple, final stanza, which ended,
as this poem will, with the image
of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
her large eyes closed,
a painting of cows in a valley over her head,

and off to the side, me in a window seat
blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.

Billy Collins (1941-)


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka