Obituary: Eugene Guillevic

One of France's most distinguished contemporary poets hated his mother. "I had a really wicked mother," Eugene Guillevic said. Surely no poet could hope for a better introduction to chastened poetic style, without an ounce of sentimentalism.

The poet had a sturdy figure that made him resemble a walking menhir from his native Brittany. His head was square, on a rounded body, a real stubborn Breton face ringed with a trim white beard, a white halo of hair, thick, dark eyebrows and the hard mouth of an unloved child. A combination of features that became those of his poetry, with its mixture of toughness and tenderness, lightness and limpidity.

It started off with an almost painful simplicity that was to be refined and sculpted with increasing care throughout his life. His work has a pure unadorned openness concealing even in its most minimal forms a mysterious singing power. The simplicity was only on the surface; below the mask of the sullen schoolboy was the heart of all humanity.

Guillevic's first book, Requiem, was published rather late, in 1938, by Tschann - now the most wonderful bookshop in Paris, boulevard du Montparnasse. It contained poems typical of the pre-war avant-garde, mostly in unrhymed quatrains. It had taken him 30 years to reach that starting-point. Guillevic was educated at the College d'Altkirch in Alsace, where his sailor father's second career as a gendarme had taken the family from their beloved Brittany. Eugene learned La Fontaine's fables by heart at school, and their clear, singing style deeply influenced his own poetry.

Fifty years on, in 1989, Gallimard published his long poem of nearly 200 pages, Art Poetique, and it is dedicated to Jean La Fontaine. He was thankful he had been made to learn many other poets by heart - a most effective learning discipline now unfortunately regarded as old-fashioned. It was at school, too, that he first discovered the magic of writing poetry and the delights of imaginative composition. He rejected emotional confession, however true to life, saying quite firmly: "All good poems are works of the imagination." For years, his childhood had been filled with dreams in which he saw himself engraving poetry on the trunks of beech trees.

But he was no dreamy misfit. He was a brilliant, hard-working pupil, and passed with ease the difficult examination for entry into the Ministry of Finance, which led to his becoming, from 1946 to 1963, when he retired, Inspecteur d'Economie Nationale. This career, with all its legal and administrative rigour, had a decisive effect upon his poetry, enabling him to discard all "poeticality" and "rigmarole rhyming". He became a firm disciple of the Object, and disdained the Surrealists' new-fangled obsession with the Image. (He always refused to shake Andre Breton's hand, but became a lifelong admirer of Paul Eluard's verse and Aragon's lyrical gifts.) He dedicated his 1947 volume Executoire ("Writ of Execution") to Eluard. He dismissed as idiotic the prevalent theory of the avant-garde that "any readable (i.e. understandable) poem must be a reactionary poem".

Instead of joining the Surrealists, he formed a sort of family group with Jean Follain, Andre Frenaud, Raymond Queneau, Jean Tardieu and Jean Tortel (who wrote a good introduction to Guillevic's work, with a selection of his poems, in Pierre Seghers' "Poetes d'Aujourd'hui" series, new edition 1990). "We formed a true poetic fraternity," he said in a radio interview on the death of Jean Tardieu, lamenting the fact that today no such brotherhood exists among poets, "who would scratch each other's eyes out for an inch of space in some obscure magazine".

The poets of this group all loved painting as much as poetry, and many were the rare, exquisite works they produced in collaboration with fine printers and artists. Guillevic's art/ poetry editions are numerous, expensive (justly so) and much sought after by bibliophiles. The poems' "accompaniments" or "companionages" as he called them were by a wide variety of painters - Soulages, Manessier, Picasso, Yukata Sugita, the photographer Brassai and many others. It was all part of an ideal, yet real, fraternal association of like-minded societies of poets, though he had militated during the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the Communist Party and bravely tried to reconcile the irreconcilable - poetry and political engagement, even to the extent of composing a poem to the glory of Stalin. When the monster's barbaric crimes were made public, he rejected post-Stalinist communism and left the party in 1980, on the invasion of Afghanistan.

All this time, Eugene Guillevic was producing book after book. His second volume, Terraque ("Terraqueous") was issued by Gallimard in 1942, in which the later form of his poetry becomes evident, in brief lines with hints of refrain about everyday objects, as in Choses ("Things"): "The wardrobe was oak / And was not open. / Perhaps the dead might have tumbled out, / Perhaps bread might have tumbled out. / A lot of dead, / A lot of bread." In his notebooks, a great store of thoughts, drafts, letters from Max Jacob and others, we find the above poem, with an added line: "And it wasn't big." He had cut the line, deciding it was indeed too simple, to the point of total emptiness.

The works that followed often contained ever-shorter lines of ever-shorter poems, sometimes combined into narrative and visual sequences, as in Magnificat (1977), which has 52 brief sections, minimal in form, some of them fragments of only two or three lines - "Your lip - / the one / the other" - all significant individually, but attaining their highest intensity of musicality when read as a whole. His work will live on, crowned with a host of civic and literary honours, and with its own strange, taut, always surprising resonances.

Eugene Guillevic, poet: born Carnac, France 5 August 1907; twice married (one daughter and one daughter deceased); died Paris 19 March 1997.

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