Readers of English new to Francis Ponge might want to start with Selected Poems , The Nature of Things, or Partisan of Things, all of which are in print and readily available (Partisan of Things is newest). I don’t own any of them* but that is only because the works they contain are included in other books (to be listed below). The Nature of Things and Partisan of Things are translations 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. It is unlikely anyone would want to compare so many translations; better to simply learn French.
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, including the remarkable Text on Electricity that Ponge originally wrote on commission by the French Electrical Company to accompany a technical brochure for architects. Of particular interest to me are the selections from Pour un Malherbe. This is a bilingual edition and Gavronsky’s lengthy introductory essay is outstanding.
Unfinished Ode to Mud, CB editions, 2008, translated by Beverlly Bie Brahic, contains a selection of Brahic’s versions of Le Parti Pris des Choses poems, as well as a selection from Pièces. About a dozen of the latter, as far as I can tell, have not been published in English elsewhere. The Electric Fire, not a prose text about a thing but a strange reminiscence similar to those in Rilke’s Malte Brigge, is unlike any of the other short pieces. This is a bilingual edition.
The Table, Wakefield Press, 2017, translated by Colombina Zamponi, is a very beautiful little book. The blurb (follow the link to the publisher’s website) is a masterpiece of blurbs and the whole package is thoughtfully designed. This is the text Ponge was working on when he died and whether for that reason or another, it feels like more of a work in progress than his other “notebook” works, such as Soap, Notebook of the Pine Woods or The Making of the Pré. Yet for that very reason it is instructive to compare it to the others. In her introduction Zamponi describes it as “a workshop, laboratory, and artist’s studio all at once.” Because it is the “least processed” of all Ponge’s published works, it is the most vivid expression of Ponge’s self-conscious exploratory method. And it is indeed poignant that this exploration should be undertaken on Ponge’s writing table.
Nioque of the Early-Spring, The Song Cave, 2018, translated by Jonathan Larson is a most welcome addition to the ensemble of Ponge works in English. Short for a book, long for a poem, but not really a poem, this is one of Ponge’s “notebook” works. “Nioque” is a neologism from the Latin and Greek root forms of Gnossos, or knowledge. Written in the first two weeks of April 1950 (with three brief notes added later), it is an attempt to “resay April” in the first glimmer of spring. This set of notes or diary record knowledge of this “liminal phase” (Larson’s phrase) as it is acquired as well as the knowledge that emerges from it and them. In that sense it is similar to Ashbery’s As We Know: it is a reflection on the process of recording what is known as that knowledge is acquired. It is a stunning text that bears many rereadings, as its author was well aware. It makes no apologies for its stuttering, “scrupling” progress; in fact Ponge sees this as necessary, and good, even the threat of decay or death. A section of this work–Declaration, Condition, and Fate of the Artist–has been translated before, by Serge Gavronsky in The Sun Placed in the Abyss. This is the first time the entire work has appeared in English.
*The only other book by Ponge in English I am aware of that I don’t own is Ten Poems of Francis Ponge Translated by Robert Bly.