The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett

Anyone who is as interested in Beckett as I am will have to have a copy of The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, but those with a less intense interest would do better to buy the fourth volume of the Grove Centenary Edition of Beckett (both published by Grove Press), which contains not only a selection of poems but all of the short fiction, Proust and a few other texts. There are only a handful of poems in the former that aren’t included in the latter, and most of them are in French (Beckett resisted having some of his poems translated into English, and the editors of The Collected Poems have respected this wish). The best of them in English, in my opinion, is the brief poem I have read to you.

As indicated above, I doubt that The Collected Poems (TCP) will contribute anything to raising general awareness of Beckett’s poetry. As a book TCP is a monster. We have the poems, but some of them are in French. We also have a large selection of Beckett’s translations of the work of other poets. And then we have a large scholarly apparatus—very large, it comprises half of the book. The actual poems of Beckett amount to about one fifth of the book and most of these, including the best of them, have already been published in other volumes.

I would have gladly paid double for two separate volumes: one containing all of Beckett’s poems—and only those poems, and one containing the other material. While the editors respected Beckett’s wish not to have some of his French poems translated, they ignored Beckett’s opinion of his translations of other poets. Beckett took on these translations as employment opportunities. He did them solely for the money and always adamantly refused to be credited. Indications from his letters are that he was not proud of some of this work, and that he did not even like some of the poems. Reading these translations will be of interest to some Beckett fans, but they don’t belong in an edition of Beckett’s collected poems.

I would like to have seen the translations published in a separate volume, along with the scholarly apparatus which overwhelms TCP. True, some of Beckett’s early poems, such as Whoroscope, are nearly incomprehensible without this apparatus, but the addition of all of these meticulously researched references only reinforces the fact that the poems that require them are not major accomplishments on Beckett’s part. Beckett’s early poetry suffers from the same faults as his early fiction: it’s laborious and insufferable. Is it any wonder that he disowned much of it? It took Beckett years to mature, and while some readers will certainly be interested in how he matured, these poems are not served as objects of art to be suffocated by an encircling cloud of academicism, especially because their biggest fault is that the young Beckett was more intent on showing off his learning than in producing powerful art. Honestly, I think Beckett would have hated TCP. And it must be said: some of his early poems are terrible. Pin as many footnotes and references to it as you want—that butterfly’s going nowhere.

I don’t want this to be my last word on the matter, so let me add that for me Beckett the poet is to be found in all of his work. Begin reading his mature fiction anywhere and to my ears it’s poetry. Ditto the drama. I think Rockaby is great poetry (and yes I think it outdistances Godot by a long shot). More than that, it gets as close to music as any literature I’ve read/heard. Beckett’s best work transcends genre.

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3 Responses to The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett

  1. hedgewitch says:

    I also like the poem. It has the great virtue of informed simplicity.

    Thanks for all the information and commentary above–you were the one who brought to my attention the fact that Beckett was more than a playwright, and had written much outside that narrow boundary, and someday I hope to explore that a little more, because this poem is a fine teaser, trailed over the ground to lead the hound to the lair.

  2. ManicDdaily says:

    Thank you, Mark. I enjoyed the poem. I’ve always wanted to read Molloy and will try to get your words to act as an inspiration. (I remember a friend of mine reading bits–sososo many years ago.) I am even less intellectual now, but at least I’d like to try it. I saw the last Godot in New York with famous actors–Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart–Billy Crudup?–It was good but a little overly hyped because the actors were so famous– I don’t know how to describe what happens in those situations, but I’m sure you get what I mean–a bit too many side winks. So I found it rather disappointing–not the play–k.

  3. Pingback: What I’ve been reading | The Mockingbird Sings

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