University and Poetry, today in France

An interview published in Zigzag poetry, an issue of the Review Autrement, published in April 2001. The latter was co-edited by Christophe Fauchon & Frank Smith

© Jean-Michel MAULPOIX, 2001
Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder

Read the original text in French

How far does contemporary French poetry play a part in the French university system?

One is compelled to realize that contemporary poetry is only very slowly given access to university which, very lukewarmly, grants up-to-date objects the status of new research fields. Due mainly to the heavy weight of tradition, of examinations and sophisticated essays: even in terms of “research”, one goes very rarely far beyond the 60’s … e.g. one had to wait till 1994 to witness the first Conference on Jacques Dupin’s work to be held in Lille University under the patronage of Dominique Viart. Both Yves Bonnefoy and Philippe Jaccottet were the only ones to be acknowledged earlier by seeing some of their works being put on the syllabuses of the competitions to be admitted in the famous French Grandes Ecoles. Among the latter authors born around the 30’s, only Michel Deguy and Jacques Reda were to have been the topic of important conferences. Acknowledgement is thus a slow process. Impregnation becomes chancy owing to such or such syllabus obligation but indeed one wouldn’t be able to say that a true continuous dialogue were ever to begin creeping between contemporary poets and university!

Yet the situation is getting gradually better and better, e.g. initiatives such as that of The Maison des Ecrivains which consists in organizing short or long visits of authors: i.e. minimal interventions and /or writing-workshops lasting over a period of quite a few weeks. But this remains rather in the fringe when compared to the very syllabuses of the students. We are indeed quite far from what takes place in the States where classes are held by poets themselves and where a relationship is built between creation and teaching. Of course, the university perspective is quite different there. They’d indeed rather promote every one’s singularity. In France, the horizon of an art student in literature remains first and foremost to pass either the Capes or the Agrégation which are indeed not meant to favour and promote the welcoming of poets in the universities! Invitations fall for the most part within the competence of personal initiatives.

Yet, there are indeed places where poets are present. E.g. I refer to what used to take place in Paris III University in the days when Mme Claude Debon used to organize regular meetings on contemporary poetry. At present, Michel Collot took over, Jean-Marie Gleize who succeeded me at the head of the Centre d’Etudes poétiques of Fontenay’s Ecole Normale Supérieure also follows the same track. Meetings of that kind do take place either in Pau University or Lyons II where Jean-Yves Debreuille contributed towards the first conference on Jacques Reda … Indeed it’s a whole environment which now favours such ventures: when quite a few university professors work hand in hand or when a university is next door to a dynamic institution, such as the Villa Gillet in Lyons. Were it left alone to itself, it would be more likely to shrivel up. A few important meetings thus do take place outside the traditional walls. e.g.. Dominique Rabanté, who teaches in Bordeaux III, recently organized a conference on “Poetry and Autobiography” in Marseilles at the International Centre for Poetry and there the major trends of contemporary poetry were all represented. Such overtures are indeed invaluable.

Indeed, however, there does exist in the very universities a few classes organized on the topic of XXth century poetry, but, according to the fact that a student may find himself in such or such a place, the latter course may well be extremely different: either it won’t go beyond the Surrealists or it might go further than the utmost contemporaries. Sometimes groups organize themselves and gather together according to “critical families” or local trends, e.g. in Metz, people work on spirituality, in Strasburg, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe or Jean-Luc Nancy have indeed influenced the new reflections on poetry towards more of a philosophical approach. But on the whole, when university refers to modernity, it means first a reference to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, then Apollinaire and the Surrealists, and may be a few pages of Yves Bonnefoy or Philippe Jaccottet … Quite often people never go any beyond! Even Michaux puzzles and when René Char’s Fureur & Mystère was put on the syllabus of the Agrégation, the jury found it extremely difficult to evaluate the oral critical analyses of the students during the vivas. Everything goes as if University did lack the essential tools needed to understand the contemporaries. Indeed, the deep down understanding of the “poetics” at stake is not practiced with sufficient depth. It is also partly due to some kind of passivity from the professors themselves who are seldom curious about today’s heart of the matter.

When I arrived in Nanterre, no one prevented me from organizing my B.A. class on “Poetry & reality between 1945 and 1995”. Consequently, a year later, I was to direct master degrees on Michel Deguy, Guy Goffette or Valère Novarina! The students are very willing to survey the unknown territory of the “extremely contemporary”. Of course, they collide with the difficulty of having to develop a research without the support of a critical apparatus. But that very defect leads them to be even more involved in the work itself. Another problem deals with the assessment processes sanctioning a year class on contemporary poetry with a two-hour essay is far from being adapted…

Do you believe there’s a true difference when people deal with novels or with poetry?

I believe the situation is almost the same but that the study of present day poetry implies a more acute knowledge of the field, of the trends, of the filiations, of inflexions and breaks, of the interplay of influences and groups. Surely, one may describe, analyse and study novelistic voices such as Annie Ernaux or Sylvie Germain much more easily than clearing the jungle scrub of today’s poetic works. Besides, poetry represents indeed this formal space where the most careful attention is paid to language and in which the concentration of- and over language is the acutest. Thus it is indeed the place where working both on form and content are joined in the most conclusive way. Hence its extreme importance in teaching since it both enables a close scrutiny of the contemporary and of our memory. It compels the students to work through into themselves, towards a deeper analysis of their own personal history and articulatory capacity. I am always struck to realize how so many of our students write, go on writing reviews, or, at least, want to do so, often with slightly naïve expectations, as is often the case when one is 20 years old, and, at the same time, mistaking poetry either with a cry or ornamentation. But one feels they wish to move towards complexity and strictness which it demands. They expect from poetry far more than from the novel that it should bring them both intensity and truth. They do have scores to settle with poetry…

Couldn’t we take a better advantage of such an expectation? One should think differently about the part played by contemporary literature at university, its living presence, the concrete circulation of authors, so that the literary fact may become truly embodied. In order to achieve this, the professor should agree to welcome the poet’s arrival in his class as he who will disrupt the discourse on knowledge and authority. He should thus welcome him as he with whom the question of language and knowledge will become more acute. Isn’t poetry indeed that very form of writing meant to come and stumble over the limits of language? Our university system remains very stamped by hierarchy and power relationships leading everyone to believe he or she is the owner of a specific field and the manager of a strictly limited territory! Since all that remains combined with the institutional burden, academic establishment does prevail in the end. One should brush away such cobwebs!

What do you feel are your students’ expectations?

The M.A. essays which I have recently directed to be defended in public all puzzled me quite a bit: quite a few students do write with an efficient and precise language, nay with some brilliance but without being in absolute conformity with the norms imposed by the institution. What else can we offer them but the traditional teaching competitions? A few will branch off towards a post-graduation in the editing fields, schools for journalists or the FEMIS. But doing so, they will withdraw from teaching literature and will soon forget all about it. And since I am personally writing on the contemporary, I see coming to me quite a few young people who do not have a traditional profile and to whom I cannot guarantee any specific future. Couldn’t we imagine that in an arts department one may be liable to expect less traditional forms of training opening to true jobs? Here, what is at stake is not just university, but the very organization of our whole society whose centralism is running out of steam. Trainings and channels are still organized according to those great referents which are both Agrégation and thesis. It is urgent that one should be able to ponder over some new logics that may be more in keeping with today’s realities.

I had already suffered from a similar gap between the compelling procedures and the real expectancies when I was teaching at the Fontenay’s Ecole Normale Supérieure. What do those who did join the school really want to do when they leave to be full professors in the end? In fact, they wish to enter the film industry, to study Chinese or the Arabic language, to enter the world of adverts, when they are not fully “obsessed by their career”! Anyhow, they don’t want to have anything to do with poetry. They suffered too much from the demands of the handling of the tool box in the previous years. Often they don’t even know where they are as far as literature is concerned and yet they had chosen it in the past from the start. Their own desire to write may be strong but after spending so much time and energy dissecting strategies of enunciation situations, they lost their meanings. If those brilliant young people had once decided to study literature, it was because they had expected from it something they believed it was ready to give them: were it meaning, beauty, emotion, intensity, what else, God knows. Now, they lost the stamina on the way. When they succeed in reaching “The” School, they no longer know what they are doing there. Since their relationship to the contemporary becomes so difficult, they sometimes withdraw to the Middle Ages or to linguistics, that is towards study objects that are indeed pretty far away from their sensitivity and their immediate experience.

How do you reconcile both your statuses of a poet and a university professor?

I always do my best never to talk about my own personal work during my classes and to try and present them the several tendencies of modern poetry as objectively as possible. If by chance a few students come and talk to me about my books, it will always be in the corridors, never during a class. Conversely, however, I am well aware that my own personal experience about writing does influence my own approach of the texts or the way I talk about poetry as such. I am extremely careful about the fate of that bent man called a writer, of his “ear-mouth” with the other person or of the articulation between poetry and contemporariness…
What worries me even more is the growing part played by my own research and critical work. Even if every one since Baudelaire is aware that the modern poet is necessarily also a critic, yet my position as a university professor does reduce the time I devote to creation, even if it is to the benefit of theorizing. Or maybe it would be more fair to underline how the exercise of criticism does strengthen and diffract such a crucial questioning on speech and signs that are part and parcel at the heart of my task as a writer.

Is it therefore some kind of painful splitting?

Such a splitting is indeed painful. For obvious deontological reasons, one should never mistake one part for another. The very institution compels one to separate them very clearly. Where I am a Civil Servant of the French State, i.e. identified as such, I do behave as a Professor. But let us not deceive ourselves: The act of publishing is rather badly thought of by the institution were it not simply ignored and despised. Sometimes it may also lead to some slower process career wise. How can one direct theses, be the prime mover of seminars when one wishes to be simultaneously a writer? One is not taken quite seriously when one writes poetry, whereas, at the same time, one is so close to the utmost heart of language. A few professors acknowledge us as being poets, whereas a few poets acknowledge us as being professors.

However, I do try to guarantee some kind of continuity between both gestures that are only apparently contradictory, i.e. the settling of a few landmarks by he who teaches whereas the writer moves them by fits and starts. If one is to lose a few landmarks, aren’t they meant to be recaptured, hence disfigured in order to be reconfigured? And doesn’t the very task of he who teaches consist in letting ready-made ideas fall apart in order to replace them by a more adequate measure of things? Teaching will never be for me a normative activity. Of course when I help preparing my students in taking the Agrégation, I am indeed compelled to go through strictly coded exercises but even within such a framework do I find it extremely necessary to listen to the vibrato of literature!
Besides, my own work as a writer does not belong to those who specifically harm language. The gap between the teaching position and writing is surely more acute for someone like Christian Prigent who, I think, teaches in Le Mans. His work, written as it is with a palette knife wanders away from landmarks and re-examines lyricism totally. As far as I am concerned, I have an articulatory and critical relationship with language which is far more peaceful.

Do you believe that it would be feasible and necessary to organize classes in poetic creation?

I don’t believe the institution is ready for that, there are far too many blocks and the career paths are far too inadequate. Yet, when all is said it is true that the living space of a seminar when entailing a true interest, enables one to let free a huge acquired experience through practice even if one never directly speaks of oneself… The seminar becomes the place where intellectual freedom can be spread out through a mixture of creativity and rigorousness. I distrust any “ism” linked with the term spontaneity which would let people believe that poets could be created in the universities. What is at stake is rather how to wonder how teaching, were it organized differently, might favour the strictly personal and unchangeable of every single being. Far too often does the professor give a class which someone else would be able to carry out exactly the same way. The hypothetical pattern hereby suggested by poetry would be that of some new teaching approach which would save its intensity, which would not work through official instructions but would thus be far more questioning than normative. Now I feel that in most secondary schools and lycées instructions and syllabuses take precedence over the teachers themselves … Such measures are meant to comfort the teachers, they pretend to enable them to face far more difficult audiences but teaching should not rest on instructions in the long run … but that may well be the future …

What do you think of the evolutions that are slowly taking place in the course of the organization of studies

In the literary field, we suffer from the import of the predominance of the scientific patterns, which are indeed sometimes fundamental in terms of assessment. Thus did we witness “new” theses, written over a much shorter period of 4 to five years. This forbids the student to tackle greater topics. A thesis on “The idea of happiness in the XVIIIth century” or “The idea of Nature in the XVIth” is no longer conceivable. Such a process leads to a frittering away and the making one’s post-graduate studies more profitable: the literary loses itself in what had remained the most free, the most weird, the most puzzling and the slowest too. Now the relationship to meaning seems to me to demand a new effort of unfolding, of care, a care that would indeed imply slow motion.