New readers of Francis Ponge are advised to go first either to Selected Poems or The Nature of Things, both of which are in print and readily available. I say this even though they are two of the four* Ponge books in English I am aware of that I don’t own. The Nature of Things is Lee Fahnestock’s translation of Le Parti Pris des Choses, first published in 1942 and a landmark of 20th century prose poetry. The poems in this book have been translated and published more widely than those in Ponge’s other books. They are all included, for example, in Beth Archer’s translations, collected as The Voice of Things. Many of the poems from this seminal book appear throughout the other Ponge books in English translation, in anthologies and online. For the complete table of contents go to the “search inside” feature at Amazon.
Other readers of Ponge in English translation may want to explore further and may be wondering about the features of the books out there. This article is for those readers.
The Voice of Things, McGraw-Hill, 1972, translated by Beth Archer. This outstanding collection (190 pp) contains all of Le Parti Pris des Choses and a large selection from Le Grand Recueil. It contains essays on Giacometti, Braque and Picasso, a translation of the poem in Ponge’s journal La Fabrique du Pré, along with an introduction to the poem/journal, and a poem from 1961 entitled This Is Why I Have Lived. But what really makes this collection essential is the selection, over thirty pages, from Méthodes, first published in 1961. This prose text, translated as My Creative Method and The Silent World Is Our Only Homeland, is a journal dating from 1948 in which Ponge discusses his creative process.
Things, White Pine Press, 1986, translated by Cid Corman is a lovely paperback of 80 pages. I like Corman’s translations. In addition to a selection of the poems you’ll find in Archer’s collection, two wonderful poems appear here that I haven’t seen anywhere else: The Spider and The New Spider. One of Ponge’s most remarkable works, The Notebook of the Pine Woods, appears here as well and while Lee Fahnestock has also translated it I am attached to Corman’s version.
Vegetation, Red Dust, 1987, translated by Lee Fahnestock is a chapbook still in print. The Carnation is an extraordinary piece of writing. Fahnestock reworked her translation of it along with Mimosa in Mute Objects of Expression (see below).
Mute Objects of Expression, Archipelago Books, 2008, translated by Lee Fahnestock. If I am not mistaken, this is a complete translation of La Rage de l’expression, 1941-47 and as such is indispensible to get a sense of how Ponge constructed a book. As stated above, it contains Fahnestock’s reworked translation of The Carnation (one of my favorite Ponge texts) as well as the complete Mimosa. Her version of the Pine Woods Notebook is here as well as Banks of the Loire, an important statement on Ponge’s process.
The Making of the Pré, University of Missouri Press, 1979, translated by Lee Fahnestock. If you’re serious about Francis Ponge, you’re going to have to have this book. Not only is it the complete text of La Fabrique du Pré, but it reproduces on facing pages facsimiles of Ponge’s handwritten pages, along with reproductions of photos and paintings and other pictures chosen by Ponge himself. The book, whether soft or hardcover, is beautifully produced. Needless to say, I treasure this book.
Soap, Stanford University Press, 1998, translated by Lane Dunlop. As a student I xeroxed this whole book in the New York Public Library. The Cape edition has long been out of print but fortunately the 1998 edition can still be found and you will want to have it. It is one of Ponge’s most amazing and delightful books, and one of my most treasured books. What is it? It is a 100 page meditation-journal-poem/prose thing of words unlike anything you’ve ever read.
The Sun Placed in the Abyss, SUN Books, 1977, translated by Serge Gavronsky. The title text, a 25 page prose-poem-journal hybrid, is so potent, so powerful and so downright unusual that it seems more like the stuff of dreams than an actual work of literature. And yet here it is, it exists. Also included are shorter texts: The Station, The Nuptial Habits of Dogs and The Object is Poetics, along with an essay by Gavronsky and an essential interview with Ponge. With Francis Ponge quality is more important than quantity and this just might be the most potent book of 100 pages I’ve read.
The Power of Language, University of California Press, 1979, translated by Serge Gavronsky. The value of this book is in the selection of prose texts not to be found in English translation anywhere else, particularly the remarkable Text on Electricity that Ponge originally wrote on commission by the French Electrical Company to accompany a technical brochure for architects. This is a bilingual edition and Gavronsky’s lengthy introductory essay is outstanding.
*The other two are Unfinished Ode to Mud and Ten Poems of Francis Ponge Translated by Robert Bly.