Pierre Reverdy, born on September 11, 1889 (September 13, 1889 according to the civil status) in Narbonne and died on June 17, 1960 in Solesmes, is a French poet associated with cubism and early surrealism. He had a notable influence on modern French-language poetry.
Declared “born of unknown father and mother” at the registry office in Narbonne, Pierre Reverdy had to wait until his twenty-second year to be recognized by his mother. The year of his birth, his mother was married but her husband was living in Argentina. It was not until 1897 that she was able to remarry Reverdy”s father, a winegrower in the Montagne Noire. Pierre Reverdy came from a family of sculptors and church stonecutters. His whole life was marked by a deep sense of religiosity. He continued his studies in Toulouse and Narbonne.
He arrived in Paris in October 1910. In Montmartre, at the famous Bateau-Lavoir, he met his first friends: Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Louis Aragon, André Breton, Philippe Soupault and Tristan Tzara.
For sixteen years, he lives to create books. His companions are Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse. All these years are closely or distantly linked to the rise of surrealism, of which he is one of the inspirers. His conception of the poetic image has, in particular, a great influence on the young André Breton and his theorization of the surrealist movement.
Pierre Reverdy is, with Apollinaire, the one who welcomed the surrealists when they arrived in Paris during the war. Aragon tells: ” He was, when we were twenty years old, Soupault, Breton, Eluard and me, all the purity for us of the world. Our immediate elder, the exemplary poet.”
During the war, he lived in great poverty, accentuated by the cold and the lack of coal. Louis Aragon recalls:
“I see him again on rue Cortot in that time of misery and violence, one winter when it was terribly cold at home, his wife sick, and in the apartment above him that devil Utrillo who was making a racket that was to kill. There was a fire of anger in Reverdy”s dark eyes that I had never seen anywhere, perhaps the burnt branches in the middle of the vines at night. I remember the day he had to sell to one of those rich men who love art so much a little Braque that was not just a painting to him, and as if at the last minute of stripping himself, he had fiercely seized the canvas and kissed it with his lips, to the amazement of the enlightened amateur.”
On March 15, 1917, the first issue of his magazine Nord-Sud was published, to which the poets of Dadaism and then Surrealism contributed. The title of the magazine came from the name of the metro company, which had opened the line linking Montmartre to Montparnasse in 1910. He thus signified his desire to “reunite these two centers of creation”. Pierre Reverdy conceived this project at the end of 1916, while artistic life was still anaesthetized by the Great War, to show the parallels between the poetic theories of Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and himself, thus marking the beginning of a new era for poetry and artistic reflection. Reverdy exposes his literary theories, as well as numerous reflections on cubism, notably on his friends Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Joan Miró represented the magazine in a painting that bore his name, Nord-Sud (1916-1917), in homage to the poet and the artists he admired.
In the 14 issues – which run from March 1917 to the end of 1918 – the names of André Breton, Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara, then leaders of the Dada movement, will appear. These last ones published in the same time in the review SIC but, according to Adrienne Monnier: “It is in Nord-Sud that began seriously André Breton, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault (in SIC, it was not very serious).
In the early 1920s, he was the lover of Coco Chanel to whom he dedicated many poems.
In 1926, at the age of 37, announcing that he was a “free thinker,” he withdrew to a meditative reclusion near the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes where he remained – although he had apparently lost his faith – until his death at the age of 70 in 1960. His most beautiful collections were born there, such as Sources du vent, Ferraille or Le Chant des morts.
In the last year of his life, he wrote Sable mouvant, a poetic testament in which he strips his verses and in which the voice remains in suspense (his last line does not have a final point). He wants that it remains of him only a symbolic portrait, stripped of the details of the existence, and brought back to the essential.
Pierre Reverdy”s style was part of the revival of poetic writing at the beginning of the 20th century. A fervent admirer of Mallarmé and his famous “throw of the dice”, Pierre Reverdy borrowed from Mallarmé his jagged form with a systematic return to the line on beveled lines. Using glued paper, a form borrowed from cubism to which he wanted to add written form very early on, he sought to get to the heart of things rather than their surface. The poem will be thus more an evocation of their consubstantial reality by the means of what the images suggest than a description or a textual narration. The use of the comparison and the metaphor is primordial there. As the poet himself says, in accordance with the conception of the “amazing image” and the analogy by André Breton, it is a question of bringing together two words with a meaning far from each other to make appear secret links between things, to create “unheard of relationships”, a kind of visual shock on the page and intellectual at the same time, which allows to create what Reverdy names “the poetry shock”. Picasso would say that Reverdy wrote like a painter in his eyes. He will never abandon this ideal of writing chosen in the cubist period and this bias will have had a decisive influence on all the great poets who will follow him, first of all those of surrealism.
According to Étienne-Alain Hubert, Reverdy elevates “poetry to the altitude where it becomes a mysterious and irreplaceable component of the human condition.” Poetry being for him “all the being tense”, it is less about writing with ink than with his blood; nevertheless, Reverdy has always been opposed to the “engaged literature” or “poetry of circumstance”, formulation in vogue in the years 1945-1946 that he turns into “Circumstances of poetry” – title of an essay of 1946 in which he refutes not without irony the proponents of activism: “That the poet goes to the barricade is fine, but he cannot go to the barricade and sing the barricade at the same time. He must sing it before or after. Beyond, the key word of his conception of the poetry is “emotion”, the poetry being neither in the things, nor in the words, being even “nowhere”, but it is the man who makes it happen, finds it in him, in his relation to the things, to the world, through the words :
“There are no words more poetic than others. For poetry is no more in the words than in the sunset or the splendid bloom of the dawn – no more in the sadness than in the joy. It is in what becomes of the words reaching the human soul, when they have transformed the sunset or the dawn, the sadness or the joy. It is in that transmutation wrought on things by the virtue of words and the reactions they have on each other in their arrangements – reverberating in the mind and on the sensibility.”
In his article on Reverdy”s death, Louis Aragon also wrote: “His greatness, what would I add to it by comparing it to the dead and the living? We still have Saint-John Perse and Marie Noël, there was Apollinaire, there was Eluard.
Many poets pay tribute to Pierre Reverdy, dedicating articles or poems to him, including André du Bouchet, Ricardo Paseyro. René Char said of him that it was “a poet without whip nor mirror”.
François Chapon, president of the Reverdy Committee and friend of the poet from 1955 to his death, relates that he led “a severe life”, in reclusion and poverty, with the greatest indifference and intransigence towards any publicity or notoriety: “The purity of his behavior answered the purity of his poems. He never talked about his work. I have met many writers. I have not seen any who cared so little about his manuscripts and his posterity.
On June 11, 2010, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the poet”s death, a round table discussion moderated by Emmanuel Vaslin brought together, at the homonymous municipal library of Sablé-sur-Sarthe, Antoine Emaz, president of the Poetry Commission at the National Book Center and author of a thesis on Pierre Reverdy”s notes, Claude Cailleau, author of a biography of the poet as well as Jean Riouffreyt, historian.
The author”s work frequently inspires the singer Mylène Farmer.