In Prague With Michel Deguy

Michel Deguy may not be one of the leading lights of contemporary French poetry, but he is an old friend with an important place in my personal geography. I was on the board of the paris writers’ house when he was its president and we worked together for many years.

We spoke on the same panel at the Prague Festival. I thought there wasn’t much left to talk about, but I was wrong.  Michel Deguy still had so much to say about poetry that I felt compelled to interview him for Skylife readers following lunch at the French Embassy.

Thought looms large in your poems. In a sense you question poetry. You try to understand and describe the way it works. How far can one take that attempt?

It’s not open-ended, of course. My poems arise out of my thoughts about poetry itself. Sentiment, not thought, weighs heavily in my understanding of poetry. With the exception of the Romantic movement and lyricism, it’s a matter of linguistic perception. At first I wrote lines that questioned the whole endeavor of poetry itself. Then I gradually turned to the end of the poetic act, the finishing point. I started concentrating on thought and seeking the poetic phenomenon there.

As a genre, poetry is being marginalized in our increasingly egocentric, globalizing world. A small area in the capital city of loneliness. Nevertheless you continue to write poetry.

Poetry causes pain even if it is marginalized. Poetry is evil and has been ever since Baudelaire especially. Poetry has passed through various phases since Homer. Since Mallarmé it has acquired an aura of incomprehensibility. My poems are somewhat different. I develop a discourse about poetry as I write the lines one below the other, as I line them up.

Mallarmé did say that poetry is written with thoughts, not with words.
Then the poet is a magician who plays with words, who lays them down and stands them up. I don’t agree with those who say that poetry is an elite pursuit. Playing polo might be a pastime of the elite, but poetry, as Lautréamont said, can be written not merely by one person but by anybody. Sometimes that anybody is society, which finds expression in the discourse of a poet, not within the framework of universal values but in the individual poet’s own persona.

Who is Michel Deguy?

Michel Deguy was born in Paris in 1930. He continues as Chief Editor of Po&esie magazine, where he started in 1972. Deguy, who studied humanities and philosophy in university, constructs his poems with thoughts rather than employing lyrical language. Preferring to call himself a writer of poems rather than a poet, Deguy describes himself in his recent poems as a traveler, a lover and a consumer of the mass media.