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"Old man, old man / tree with the tough bark / how many buds are you still / capable of putting forth . . .?" These were the first words I noticed when I visited a richly documented exhibition in Paris dedicated to the multitudinous work of Jean T ardieu, one of France's most popular contemporary poets.

The poem was illustrated with drawings by his great friend Pierre Alechinsky. Several poems or parts of poems had been hung on the walls of the Centre Pompidou gallery, and I was just looking round for a chair so that I could sit down and enjoy them in comfort when I saw a familiar figure enter: a short, very plump old gentleman with a red face and and a little white moustache was toddling in, dressed in a long green loden overcoat with matching Kangol beret planted dead straight on his white hair. It was the old poet himself.

I followed him at a discreet distance to the reception desk, where two gallery attendants were arguing, as usual, about a change in working hours. They stopped to welcome Tardieu profusely, but the fuss they were making obscured the poet's timid request that he might be allowed a chair to sit down on and a glass of water. (As always in the Pompidou's poetry exhibitions, there were no chairs.) He was then nearly 90 but still spry and sprightly, like his gently mischievous verse with its sombre undercurrent of anxiety and disorientation. He was the anarchic acrobat of the alphabet, the funambulist of fun: a magician of mild madness.

Tardieu was an only child, destined to be his own enormous family. His father was a Post- Impressionist painter, his mother a harpist, and from an early age they read poetry to their receptive son. He started writing it at the age of eight. One of his first works was of a sublime simplicity. It bore the Dalian title "La mouche et l'ocean" ("The Fly on the Horizon") and inaugurated a lifelong marriage of art and words in his poetry, for he illustrated it with a straight line with a dot in the middle. He retained an only child's intensity of vision and appreciation of human experience. "I always see myself as a little dot in the immense infinity of the world, one that is mysterious, dumb, dark, my life just a flash of flame in an enormous obscurity, and then - nothingness - no longer able to observe the reality of our distracted lives . . . Naturally, I have no religious beliefs at all."

Poets often get stuck with a label by lazy reviewers. Jean Tardieu became known as "amusant" in 1950 when he had his first stage success with a little comedy Un mot pour un autre ("Word for Word") in which he plays one of his games with language. A maid enters and (this is a free translation) announces the arrival of the post: "Muddum, the pobble has just been eliminated in the pigswill." Madame replies: "Trunk! Jam on my eyebrow!" The whole sketch proceeds in this enigmatic manner. The dialogue is wacky, without rhyme or reason, a comical subversion of human speech, yet the situations are so banal that everything is crystal clear, and uproariously funny. The play got Tardieu pigeonholed by the press as an "entertainer" of the absurd drama school, something he resented (if mildly) all his life, for it blinded the public to his darker, more disturbing side. He described himself as "a pessimist, but in good health".

He was a mediocre pupil at the Lycee Condorcet, then took a degree in literature at the Faculte des Lettres in Paris. Through Roger Martin du Gard he was introduced to the publisher Gallimard, who published most of his books. With the help of a fellow poet, Francis Ponge, he brought out his first slim volume in 1938, Le Fleuve cache ("The Hidden Stream"). During the Nazi occupation he joined the distinguished ranks of resistance writers, and in 1944 joined the staff of French radio, where he founded France Musique, a classic music programme that is still one of broadcasting's saving graces. Tardieu remained with ORTF (Office de la Radiodiffusion et Television Francaises) until 1974.

Tardieu's true vocation was poetry. "For me, the definition of poetry is the attempt to define what can never be defined and is called into question precisely because of that attempt." Like his friends Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, his work is permeated by linguistic irreverence, formal experimentation and insults to logic. Yet he cannot be called a Surrealist or a member of later movements like Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle) or Cobra. Like all the best poets, he distrusted the "literary movement" trap; he was an entire movement all on his own. At France Musique, he had encouraged musicians and composers like Pierre Boulez and Marius Constant, as well as writers like Queneau and Francois Billetdoux. Camus wrote scripts for him. But heremained his own literary master: "I am a mass of contradictions. The objects of the concrete world hold me in thrall. I experience everything in a perpetual present, so that my whole life has been an alternation between rapture and revulsion."

The first work of Tardieu I read was Monsieur Monsieur (1951) and its poems were among the first I translated. Their apparent innocence and gaiety were not as simple as they looked. The words, so light and elegant in French, sounded heavy and clumsy in English and their capricious dialogues lost some of their sparkle. These childlike, inconsequential verses were as logical and deeply disturbing as frightening nursery rhymes or the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, with sudden alarming intrusions of unpleasant reality: "Monsieur that is matter / giving birth to itself / and giving birth to children / to make war on itself . . ."

Like so many other European (but not British) poets, Tardieu benefited from a thriving collector's market for expensive illustrated limited editions. He had many good artist friends, among them Alechinsky, Bazaine and Hans Hartung, all of whom collaborated with him on exquisitely produced books of poetry and prose.

Jean Tardieu was honoured by an exhibition of his work at the Bibliotheque Nationale, at which his texts were read by the poet himself and by celebrated actors and actresses. In 1994, his "poetry mural" was unveiled at the Palais Bourbon (the Assemblee Nationale) painted by Alechinsky with the words: "Les hommes cherchent la lumiere dans un jardin fragile ou frissonnent les couleurs" ("Men seek the light in a fragile garden quivering with colours"). It was the first mural commissioned there since Delacroix.

Tardieu was loaded with honours and hommages to his unique art. On his 90th birthday, he was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres at a grand ceremony in the Louvre. He always retained his childlike vision; the confirmed pessimist remained full of hope to the end.

James Kirkup

Jean Tardieu,writer: born Saint-Germain-de Joux (Ain) 1 November 1903; married 1932 Marie-Laure Blot (one son); died Creteil, Val-de-Marne 27 January 1995.