It has long been known that poets don’t know what they’re saying. They say one thing, then they say the opposite.
You can’t count on them, a fact that Socrates pointed out years ago, one that even school children know, and that I’ve been able to confirm by experience.
I practice a particularly artistic discipline, not really plastic, not really musical, although it has its similarities with music, yet also occasionally comprises visual and graphic investigations: it is poetry, a modest sector and, let’s be honest, somewhat neglected in the contemporary world of the LANGUAGE ARTS. On this account I’d like to relate the personal experience of a meeting between a practitioner of poetry, myself, and a class in a Parisian elementary school.
A few years ago, I wrote a little book of poems intended for public of all ages (but children in particular) called Everybody’s Animals (and published, with illustrations by Marie Borel and Jean-Yves Cousseau, by Seghers). Each poem was about a more or less familiar animal, one that pretty much everybody knew—the dormouse, the hedgehog, the otter, the duck, the (pink) elephant, the junebug, the giraffe, the snail—beginning with the cat (but without the dog).
A little later, once the book had made its way into bookstores and reached a few schools, I received a letter from a young man of 7 or 8 years of age, a third grade student, if my memory serves me right, which began something like this:
Hello Jacques Roubaud,
My name is Etienne and I’m learning some of your poems in my school. The teacher has already taught us: the poem of the cat, the rhinoceros, the dinosaurs, the snaile (an e, crossed out, I respect the spelling of the letter -J.R.), the marmot and that’s all.
Last week my dad told me that he went somewhere where you read some poems with your friend Pierre l’artigue (he’s his friend too). I didn’t believe him cause I thought you lived at the same time as Victor Hugo.
Having learned from his father that I was a living poet, an endangered species, as we know, one that he thought had disappeared from the face of the earth like the dinosaurs and dodos, young Etienne had an idea. His letter went on more or less like this: If you are (really) alive (in spite of his father’s affirmation to the contrary, he had a lingering doubt, which could only be dispelled, in accordance with the sound doctrine of the experimental sciences, in one way: by verification of fact), so if you are alive, Etienne L. wrote me, come to my school, my teacher, Miss S., says it’s OK. I’ll be waiting for you.
He added the address of his school and, as a precaution, already dubious of the practical abilities of poets, indicated that when I got to the school I was to press a button that would open the door, that I should cross the courtyard, go up two flights of stairs, take the corridor to the left, (or was it to the right, I don’t recall exactly) and go to the third class. That would be the one.
Having made an appointment with the teacher, I went to Etienne’s school, answered questions from the little girls and boys in the class, and read the poems they wanted to hear. One of the poems was about the pigeons of Paris, an unsavory bunch. I hesitated and asked them why they wanted me to read that particular poem; after a quick glance at Miss S., one boy said, “Because it has ‘bad words.’” The poem, which I read with the permission of Miss S. (who assured me that she was making an exception in my case) did in fact begin like this:
The pigeons that shit on Paris
Its trees, its benches, its automobiles
Can’t wait till the Hotel de Ville
Is clean so they can cover it with piss.
Later in our meeting I had, on reading a poem dedicated to the cow (and I shall reproduce it here in its entirety), a very interesting lexical and zoological discussion which will serve as the moral to this little experiment in the contact of two spheres: the didactic sphere, and the far removed sphere of the irresponsible inventor of poetry.
Having read the poem (it’s a sonnet), I sensed that something in the portrait of this particular animal bothered some of my listeners. It turned out to be the word “about.” We discussed (with the aid of Miss S.) the meaning of this word for a time, and when it was clear for everyone, their disapproval was unanimous: “Why do you say ‘about,’ Jacques?” they said to me (it didn’t take long for them to call me by my first name), “a cow’s got four legs!”
“Really?” I responded, “how do you know, have you counted them?”
Certain children had. I told them since I hadn’t counted the legs of each and every cow, I couldn’t be sure that they all had the same number of legs. Maybe somewhere, in Savoy for example, there were some with five, or even three legs. I told them that cows were big animals and that you couldn’t always see all their legs together at the same time and that, as a result, it was difficult to count them; that’s why, as a precaution, not to say something wrong, I had written “about.” They still couldn’t agree: a cow’s got four legs and that’s that! We discussed it further but couldn’t come to a conclusion. And finally, seeing my lack of precision, they turned to Miss S. and said: “How many legs does a cow have?”
“Four,” answered Miss S.
“Told you so!” they said.
Jacques Roubaud was born in 1932 in Caluire-et-Cuire, France. He has been a professor of mathematics at the University of Paris X and is one of the most accomplished members of the Oulipo (the Workshop for Potential Literature). He is the author of numerous books of prose, theater, and poetry, including Some Thing Black; The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart; The Great Fire of London, and Hortense in Exile. Jacques Roubaud will be reading along with many of his fellow Oulipans on April 1st at the New School and on April 3rd at the Pierogi Gallery.