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The non-poet of poetry

By Elizabeth Thompson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 7, 2005
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Michel Deguy is a writer of poems, not a poet. He is one of the foremost names in the world of modern French literature, the editor of the French journal Po&Sie and the author of more than 40 books of poetry and philosophy, including his recently released work "Recumbents." But he's not a poet.

Deguy, who will be reading his poems on campus Monday night, said being a "writer of poems" is a more accurate title for himself than "poet," because of the ability it gives him to write honestly.

"To call yourself a poet is too ambitious," Deguy said in a phone interview. "You cannot simply be a poet, you have to be a writer. Truly being a poet was possible in the 19th century, but the 20th century doesn't let the simple title of poet to allow one to expose themselves."

He said that after the 19th century, poetry took on a more forward-thinking attitude that questioned the human situation, a role he views as still developing as poetry begins to merge with new ways of thinking.

"Calling myself a 'writer of poems' refers to the past, when that title was possible, and also towards the future or a new way of writing."

The title "writer of poetry" might be what affords Deguy the space needed in his writing for his voice as a philosopher, thinker and creative writer to emerge. He said these are all roles that are inherent in the writing of poetry today.

Deguy is on the editorial advisory board of Les Temps Modernes, a journal founded by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and he has translated the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

"I doubt if poetry could ever have been developed without the intervention of philosophy," Deguy said, noting how philosophy allowed him to interpret poetic traditions, like Romanticism, in his writing. "When I learned to approach the Romantic mode through Heidegger, it was to both retain and change it. To accept the tradition and try to transform it into something else."

Deguy "transforms" the tradition himself by writing stylistic experiments like 1965's "Greater intimacy with the Stars," a seven-line poem with a voice that whispers in your ear with a low murmur, and "Earth, " his 2001 prose poem.

Deguy said he believes that a good writer of poetry is someone who can acknowledge and confront cultural influence, without losing sight of poetry as literature.

"A good poet is someone who can pay very accurate attention to social and political actions while being able to confront and receive them," Deguy said. "It's someone who's attentive to devastation, to the economy, to the Iraq war as well as to the sinking, speaking power of language. Someone who can think in their own language and the language of literature, because it can never just be a matter of language, it must be both. Literature must be in the language; they must know the writing, thinking people of the literature world as well as the events going on in the world around them."

Deguy, who has translated the poems of Dante and Sappho, said the act of translation doesn't imply a change in how the poem is read.

"The most important question translation raises is meaning," Deguy said. "I consider translation to use the same exterior, or form, as the original work as way to transport meaning between the translated version. I believe that a poem is a sort of shaking hands between itself and the reader, so, of course I like to be well-translated and have it be accurate. If I had to choose, though, the most important thing for me is what I had in mind for the poem being more or less in both versions."

Deguy will read poems from his new book "Recumbents," on Monday, at 7 p.m. in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Lab, Room S202, as part of the Poetry Center Reading Series. 626-3765. From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., he will lecture in French in the Tubac Room of the Student Union Memorial Center. Contact the department of French with questions, 621-7349.

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