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Authors: Samuel Beckett

Selected Poems 1930-1988 (2 page)

BOOK: Selected Poems 1930-1988
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The Unnamable, in the novel of that name, comes to believe that he is a tympanum, ‘the thing that divides the world in two', and increasingly the French poems master the turmoil of the earlier work by reaching for a state of quietist in-betweenness:

my way is in the sand flowing

between the shingle and the dune

the summer rain rains on my life

on me my life harrying fleeing

to its beginning to its end

The end is in the beginning and yet we go on, though after the mainly French poems of the 1940s Beckett took an extended hiatus from poetry, even if his fiction and plays
continued
to feature poems (e.g. ‘Song', from
Words and Music
). It is a notable feature of Beckett's later work that his fiction and drama begin to take on each other's characteristics (the
stage-direction
-style arrangement of the bodies in
The Lost Ones
and
Imagination Dead Imagine
, the fiction-like
A Piece of Monologue
, the appropriately named ‘neither', written as an opera libretto), and by the time we reach his last poems we are dealing with texts that could be in any, or all of his genres.

Many Beckett plays isolate and detach the act of speech, most strikingly in the disembodied mouth of
Not I
, and an element of narrative extortion is an undeniable presence in later Beckett. Another aspect of his later work is the harnessing of speech to carefully choreographed movement, as in ‘Roundelay' but also in late plays and prose texts such as
Footfalls
and ‘The Way'. Chief among the late poems, however, are the
mirlitonnades
. These are described in an earlier John Calder edition (
Collected Poems 1930–1978
(1984)) as ‘written spasmodically on scraps of paper. Nothing dated.' While some of these poems were
originally
written on café bills and hotel notepaper, this is not the whole story: Beckett carefully copied and arranged the poems in the
mirlitonnades ‘sottisier'
notebook now held by the Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading. If these poems are ‘breathtaking glimpses of being and nothingness', as Justin Quinn has called them, they often take less than a breath to read aloud. At a minimum of as few as seven words, they are as carefully weighed as a Webern bagatelle, and come as close as anything Beckett wrote to honouring the ambition outlined in his 1937 letter to Axel Kaun to ‘bore one hole after another in [language], until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing – begins to seep through'. The
mirlitonnades
rank high among Beckett's late achievements, and do much to usher in the style of his late prose narratives (
Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho
).

Beckett's poetic last word was ‘what is the word', translated from the preceding French text ‘
comment dire
' in the Tiers Temps nursing home in 1989. (The
Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett
reports that the poem was printed from Barbara Bray's computer, Beckett's ‘word' processed at last.) And what is the word? the reader may wonder, mentally overstepping the mark and supplying the question mark the poem so noticeably lacks:

folly –

folly for to –

for to –

what is the word –

folly from this –

all this –

folly from all this –

given –

folly given all this –

seeing –

folly seeing all this –

this –

what is the word –

We can of course collapse the quest for the elusive Logos at any moment by deciding that the word in question is ‘what', a
suspicion
licensed by the omission of the poem's otherwise
ubiquitous
, jabbing dash, in the final line, as though coming to rest at last: ‘what is the word'. With fitting symmetry the French version, ‘
comment dire
', contradicts any closure this reading threatens to provide by moving in the opposite direction, bogging down further and further away from the word it seeks (‘
comment dire – /comment dire
'). Dragged in both directions at once by the English and French texts, we are delivered to a final resting place of precisely nowhere: ‘unspeakable home' once more.

Where Beckett's publishing history is concerned, his post-war poetry publications are effectively a series of updated
Collecteds
with the unusual distinction of becoming less and less reliable as they go along, the multiply defective
Poems 1930–1989
(2002) marking a low point in the history of Beckett editing. The rationale to the present
Selected
has been to take a fresh look at the poetry without pretending to the scholarly exhaustiveness promised by John Pilling and Seán Lawlor's forthcoming new
Collected Poems in English and French
. Nevertheless, some effort has been made to address the many anomalies that surround
Beckett's uncollected and unpublished work. The
mirlitonnades ‘sottisier'
contains a number of striking short poems, in both French and English, which post-date the publication of that sequence in 1978, and while Beckett made no effort to collect them in book form it would be wrong to see them as rejected by him; rather, they represent a partial further evolution of the sequence. Other marginal zones of the poetic
œuvre
also yield unexpected rewards. Translations represent some of Beckett's finest poetic achievements. His version of Ernst Moerman's ‘Louis Armstrong' for the
Negro Anthology
follows to an uncanny degree the poetic grammar of
Echo's Bones
. Beckett the non-self-translator is another matter again, and where his French poems are concerned the
en face
translations are by Beckett alone, with prose versions of poems untranslated by Beckett supplied in an appendix.

Beckett is a writer whose fiction and drama effortlessly attain the condition of poetry, and some of whose great work happens to be in strictly, or not so strictly, poetic form. While his three coevals lauded in ‘Recent Irish Poetry' (Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin) are often cited as evidence of a shared aesthetic, Beckett's insistence,
contra
nationalist
canonisations
of Jack Yeats, that ‘the artist who stakes his being is from nowhere, has no kith' renders the concept of Irish poetic modernism as a shared front null and void. Beckett's poetry might just as fruitfully be compared to the Objectivist poetics of George Oppen or Lorine Niedecker and the later W. S. Graham. It is also important to keep a sense of French poets such as Éluard, Char and Michaux as no less Beckett's contemporaries, while his early translation of Montale hints at elective affinities further afield too. More recent writers as diverse as Susan Howe, Mahon and Trevor Joyce have also learned from Beckett's poetry; and if this trio of names suggests the Irish context is not as easily disposed of as I may have hinted, there is always
Watt
's chastening reminder that ‘for all the good that frequent departures out of Ireland had done him, he might just as well have stayed there'. Finally, though, admirers of Beckett's
poetry find themselves in the peculiar position of wishing to rescue this work from the casual neglect of literary history while having to acknowledge that the deepest instinct of these poems is not to belong, in literary history or anywhere else. Ireland, the home place, any place, the self, language itself: on all Beckett passes the same impartial verdict of ‘away dream all /away'. Yet will themselves away as they might, Beckett's poems cannot quite vanish as they go, but secrete themselves in their strange and compelling variety. Or as he writes in
Malone Dies
, ‘the forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness.'

Where unspecified, translations from French to English or vice versa are by Beckett. 

1906
 
13 April
Samuel Beckett [Samuel Barclay Beckett] born in ‘Cooldrinagh', a house in Foxrock, a village south of Dublin, on Good Friday, the second child of William Beckett and May Beckett, née Roe; he is preceded by a brother, Frank Edward, born 26 July 1902.
1911
 
 
Enters kindergarten at Ida and Pauline Elsner's private academy in Leopardstown.
1915
 
 
Attends larger Earlsfort House School in Dublin.
1920
 
 
Follows Frank to Portora Royal, a distinguished Protestant boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (soon to become part of Northern Ireland).
1923
 
October
Enrols at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) to study for an Arts degree.
1926
 
August
First visit to France, a month-long cycling tour of the Loire Valley.
1927
 
April–August
Travels through Florence and Venice, visiting museums, galleries, and churches.
December
Receives B.A. in Modern Languages (French and Italian) and graduates first in the First Class.
1928
 
Jan.–June
Teaches French and English at Campbell College, Belfast.
September
First trip to Germany to visit seventeen-
year-old
Peggy Sinclair, a cousin on his father's side, and her family in Kassel.
1 November
Arrives in Paris as an exchange
lecteur
at the École Normale Supérieure. Quickly becomes friends with his predecessor, Thomas McGreevy [after 1943, MacGreevy], who introduces Beckett to James Joyce and other influential anglophone writers and publishers.
December
Spends Christmas in Kassel (as also in 1929, 1930 and 1931).
1929
 
June
Publishes first critical essay (‘Dante … Bruno . Vico . . Joyce') and first story (‘Assumption') in
transition
magazine.
1930
 
July
Whoroscope
(Paris: Hours Press).
October
Returns to TCD to begin a two-year appointment as lecturer in French.
November
Introduced by MacGreevy to the painter and writer Jack B.Yeats in Dublin.
1931
 
March
Proust
(London: Chatto and Windus).
September
First Irish publication, the poem ‘Alba' in
Dublin Magazine.
1932
 
January
Resigns his lectureship via telegram from Kassel and moves to Paris.
Feb.–June
First serious attempt at a novel, the posthumously published
Dream of Fair to Middling Women.
December
Story ‘Dante and the Lobster' appears in
This Quarter
(Paris).
1933
 
3 May
Death of Peggy Sinclair from tuberculosis.
26 June
Death of William Beckett from a heart attack.
1934
 
January
Moves to London and begins psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic.
February
Negro Anthology
, edited by Nancy Cunard and with numerous translations by Beckett from the French (London: Wishart and Company).
May
More Pricks Than Kicks
(London: Chatto and Windus).
Aug.–Sept.
Contributes several stories and reviews to literary magazines in London and Dublin.
1935
 
November
Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates
, a cycle of thirteen poems (Paris: Europa Press).
1936
 
 
Returns to Dublin.
29 September
Leaves Ireland for a seven-month stay in Germany.
1937
 
Apr.–Aug.
First serious attempt at a play,
Human Wishes
, about Samuel Johnson and his household.
October
Settles in Paris.
1938
 
6/7 January
Stabbed by a street pimp in Montparnasse. Among his visitors at Hôpital Broussais is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, an acquaintance who is to become Beckett's companion for life.
March
Murphy
(London: Routledge).
April
Begins writing poetry directly in French.
1939
 
3 September
Great Britain and France declare war on Germany. Beckett abruptly ends a visit to Ireland and returns to Paris the next day.
1940
 
June
Travels south with Suzanne following the Fall of France, as part of the exodus from the capital.
September
Returns to Paris.
1941
 
13 January
Death of James Joyce in Zurich.
1 September
Joins the Resistance cell Gloria SMH.
1942
 
16 August
Goes into hiding with Suzanne after the arrest of close friend Alfred Péron.
6 October
Arrival at Roussillon, a small village in unoccupied southern France.
1944
 
24 August
Liberation of Paris.
1945
 
30 March
Awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Aug.–Dec.
Volunteers as a storekeeper and interpreter with the Irish Red Cross in Saint-Lô, Normandy.
1946
 
July
Publishes first fiction in French – a truncated version of the short story ‘Suite' (later to become ‘La Fin') in
Les Temps modernes
, owing to a misunderstanding by editors – as well as a critical essay on Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde in
Cahiers d'art
.
1947
 
Jan.–Feb.
Writes first play, in French,
Eleutheria
(published posthumously).
April
Murphy
, French translation (Paris: Bordas).
1948
 
 
Undertakes a number of translations commissioned by UNESCO and by Georges Duthuit.
1950
 
25 August
Death of May Beckett.
1951
 
March
Molloy
, in French (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit).
November
Malone meurt
(Paris: Minuit).
1952
 
 
Purchases land at Ussy-sur-Marne, subsequently Beckett's preferred location for writing.
September
En attendant Godot
(Paris: Minuit).
1953
 
5 January
Premiere of
Godot
at the Théâtre de Babylone in Montparnasse, directed by Roger Blin.
May
L'Innommable
(Paris: Minuit).
August
Watt
, in English (Paris: Olympia Press).
1954
 
8 September
Waiting for Godot
(New York: Grove Press).
13 September
Death of Frank Beckett from lung cancer.
1955
 
March
Molloy
, translated into English with Patrick Bowles (New York: Grove; Paris: Olympia).
3 August
First English production of
Godot
opens in London at the Arts Theatre.
November
Nouvelles et Textes pour rien
(Paris: Minuit).
1956
 
3 January
American
Godot
premiere in Miami.
February
First British publication of
Waiting for Godot
(London: Faber).
October
Malone Dies
(New York: Grove).
1957
 
January
First radio broadcast,
All That Fall
on the BBC Third Programme.
Fin de partie, suivi de Acte sans paroles
(Paris: Minuit).
28 March
Death of Jack B.Yeats.
August
All That Fall
(London: Faber).
October
Tous ceux qui tombent,
translation of
All That Fall
with Robert Pinget (Paris: Minuit).
1958
 
April
Endgame
, translation of
Fin de partie
(London: Faber).
From an Abandoned Work
(London: Faber).
July
Krapp's Last Tape
in Grove Press's literary magazine,
Evergreen Review
.
September
The Unnamable
(New York: Grove).
December
Anthology of Mexican Poetry
, translated by Beckett (Bloomington: Indiana University Press; later reprinted in London by Thames and Hudson).
1959
 
March
La Dernière bande,
translation of
Krapp's Last Tape
with Pierre Leyris, in the Parisian literary magazine
Les Lettres nouvelles.
2 July
Receives honorary D.Litt. degree from Trinity College Dublin.
November
Embers
in
Evergreen Review.
December
Cendres,
translation of
Embers
with Pinget, in
Les Lettres nouvelles.
Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
(New York: Grove; Paris: Olympia Press).
1961
 
January
Comment c'est
(Paris: Minuit).
24 March
Marries Suzanne at Folkestone, Kent.
May
Shares Prix International des Editeurs with Jorge Luis Borges.
August
Poems in English
(London: Calder).
September
Happy Days
(New York: Grove).
1963
 
February
Oh les beaux jours,
translation of
Happy Days
(Paris: Minuit).
May
Assists with the German production of
Play
(
Spiel,
translated by Elmar and Erika Tophoven) in Ulm.
22 May
Outline of
Film
sent to Grove Press.
Film
would be produced in 1964, starring Buster Keaton, and released at the Venice Film Festival the following year.
1964
 
March
Play and Two Short Pieces for Radio
(London: Faber).
April
How It Is,
translation of
Comment c'est
(London: Calder; New York: Grove).
June
Comédie,
translation of
Play,
in
Les Lettres nouvelles.
July–Aug.
First and only trip to the United States, to assist with the production of
Film
in New York.
1965
 
October
Imagination morte imaginez
(Paris: Minuit).
November
Imagination Dead Imagine
(London:
The Sunday Times
; Calder).
1966
 
January
Comédie et Actes divers,
including
Dis Joe
and
Va et vient
(Paris: Minuit).
February
Assez
(Paris: Minuit).
October
Bing
(Paris: Minuit).
1967
 
February
D'un ouvrage abandonné
(Paris: Minuit).
Têtes-mortes
(Paris: Minuit).
16 March
Death of Thomas MacGreevy.
June
Eh Joe and Other Writings,
including
Act Without Words II
and
Film
(London: Faber).
July
Come and Go,
English translation of
Va et vient
(London: Calder).
26 September
Directs first solo production,
Endspiel
(translation of
Endgame
by Elmar Tophoven) in Berlin.
November
No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose 1945–1966
(London: Calder).
December
Stories and Texts for Nothing,
illustrated with six ink line drawings by Avigdor Arikha (New York: Grove).
1968
 
BOOK: Selected Poems 1930-1988
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