Francis Ponge’s Laboratory of Expression

Of course, I am sensitive to things… but I believe that  in order to be a writer, one has got to be sensitive to the means of expression… . It is in order to revitalize language that I place myself before something [that] is not yet poetical in itself.—Francis Ponge

Although I prefer to avoid polemics on this blog, I have to make an exception in the case of Francis Ponge. I justify this (at least to myself) because, while it’s clear that not many English-speaking critics have read his work, that hasn’t stopped them from filling their knowledge gap with the most unfounded and bizarre notions.

I have a theory regarding the source of this misapprehension: The name of Ponge’s most well-known book is Le parti pris des choses, Taking the Side of Things. “Things”: simply because of that one word, critics repeatedly associate Ponge with Mr. No Ideas But In Things himself, William Carlos Williams. Here’s a recent (and typical) example that appears at the beginning of a review of Lydia Davis’s book Can’t and Won’t. However, even a quick scan of their poems side-by-side reveals that the two poets have very little in common. Draw a venn diagram, and you’ll end up with just a tiny sliver of shade.

So that’s the myth: Ponge, thing-poet, returns us to things themselves, without rhetorical ornament. In actuality, the things of Ponge’s poems are simply lenses through which he views his primary subject matter: language itself. With each poem, Ponge relentlessly interrogates the perils and possibilities of “expression” (perhaps his favorite word), the complex, ever-shifting relationships between word, world, and poet. In some instances, a “thing” under consideration may also provide an alternative paradigm for the writing process, which Ponge then tries out.

These poems’ concern with their own workings may tempt us to call them “metapoems,” but that doesn’t quite cut it, because the reflexiveness of a metapoem, I’d argue, comes from a position of knowledge or at least control; the typical metapoem knows what it’s up to. Ponge’s reflexive moments are tentative and searching; they are the result of genuine self-scrutiny, not smug self-awareness. His poems are experiments in language that report and comment on their own results. As Ponge puts it, he’s “a man of the laboratory: the laboratory of expression.“ 

A couple examples will demonstrate Ponge’s complex ways of intertwining words and things:

Consider the first sentence of his poem “The Orange”: “Like the sponge, the orange, after undergoing the ordeal of expression, longs to recover its composure.” Through the pun on his name —it works both in French and English—“sponge/l’ésponge,” he suggests that both oranges and writers go through an “ordeal of expression.” This sort of clever wordplay hardly returns us to the unadorned thing itself; if anything, it foregrounds the poem’s language, and does so at the expense of the “real” orange.

In “Flora and Fauna,” Ponge describes plant growth in terms of an essay that’s already been published, and can only be “revised” by addenda:

The self-expression of vegetable life is a written thing, and once done it is done. No chance of going back and changing it, no possibility of revisions or repentances: in order to correct, one must append. Like correcting an essay already written, and which has already appeared, by means of appendices and so on. (trans. Paul Bowles) 

By the way, this description, from a relatively early poem, anticipates the “unmethodical method” of Ponge’s later book-length poems such as Soap, where he shows the entire process of composition, including repeated attempts to render his subject, comments on those attempts, revisions, notes, dead ends, second-guesses, digressions: “Consider the artist as researcher… . Hence an aesthetics of trial and error, repetitions, etc.” (trans. Serge Gavronsky).

This brings us to the threshold of Ponge’s laboratory of expression. Next post, we’ll enter it by reading his poem, “The Trees Delete Themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere.”

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