Sunday, August 2, 2015

LIVING IN THE NOW WITH FRENCH POET JACQUES PRÉVERT

‘Sweet present of the present.’ Jacques Prévert.


Here's the 'secret' to living fully and mindfully. This is it---learn how to live in a 'small second of eternity'. That's the good advice from a certain Frenchman of yesteryear.

The greatest French poet of last century was Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) [pictured right and below]. His reputation in that regard was established with the publication of his book Paroles (a volume of his collected poems) in 1945.

Prévert was also a distinguished and innovative screenwriter (Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), Remorques (Stormy Waters))---a great exponent of French poetic realism---and a vehement anti-clericalist ('Our Father / Who art in heaven / Stay there / And we will stay on earth / Which is sometimes so pretty' [from his poem 'Pater Noster']). I have loved and enjoyed his poetry and fables for children for over 45 years. Actually, I first read a collaborated work of his, the whimsical children's book Bim (which was also made into a film written and directed by Albert Lamorisse of The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge) fame), when I was a child. 

What I particularly love about Prévert's poems is his ability to capture a single moment, or a succession of single moments, of the eternal now---for all time. Take, for example, his poem ‘Alicante’:

Une orange sur la table
Ta robe sur le tapis
Et toi dans mon lit.
Doux présent du présent
Fraîcheur de la nuit
Chaleur de ma vie.

An orange on the table
Your dress on the rug
And you in my bed.
Sweet present of the present
Cool of the night
Warmth of my life.

‘Sweet present of the present.’ How much truth there is in those five words (well, four in the original French)! The present moment is the only moment we truly have. Some call it the eternal now, because it is always the present moment which is ever-renewing itself as---the present moment! The eternal now is the portal through which we experience the present moment, indeed every moment---but only one moment at a time.


So many of Prévert’s poems are set in Paris, especially the Paris after World War II. Many concern love ('Love is so simple,' he wrote). One finds in almost all of his poems that typically French post-War existential angst and disillusionment but there is also an almost surreal touch to some of his writings. As respects the latter, there is no surprise there as Prévert was once (albeit only for a short period) a member of the Surrealist movement

Here is Prévert’s poem ‘Paris de nuit’ (‘Paris At Night’). As you read the six lines of this poem you can actually see and feel the present moment renew itself into the next present moment and so forth:

Trois allumettes une à une allumées dans la nuit
La premiére pour voir ton visage tout entier
La seconde pour voir tes yeux
La dernière pour voir ta bouche
Et l'obscuritè tout entière pour me rappeler tout cela
En te serrant dans mes bras.

Three matches one by one struck in the night
The first to see your face in its entirety
The second to see your eyes
The last to see your mouth
And the darkness all around to remind me of all these
As I hold you in my arms. 

Could you not see and perhaps hear the three matches being struck one after the other? Well, I could. And that imagery of light and dark. There is the light of the present moment---and the darkness of all around it (the enormity of eternity, the great unkown).

The author (IEJ) in Guérande, France in 2014

Next is Prévert’s poem ‘Les prodiges de la liberté’ (‘The Signs of Freedom’, but often cited as ‘The Wonders of Life’):

Entre les dents d'un piège
La patte d'un renard blanc
Et du sang sur la neige
Le sang du renard blanc
Et des traces dans la neige
Les traces du renard blanc
Qui s'enfuit sur trois pattes
Dans le soleil couchant
Avec entre les dents
Un lièvre encore vivant.

In the teeth of a trap
The paw of a white fox
And on the snow, blood
The blood of the white fox
And in the snow, tracks
The tracks of the white fox
Who escaped on three legs
As the sun was setting
A rabbit between his teeth
Still alive.

Parc de Belleville, Paris, France

That poem, along with many others of Prévert, reminds me of the haiku poetry of Japan, particularly the poems of Bashō. There is a directness and an immediacy about the words and their flow---a directness and immediacy that is the very essence of the living of these days. It is the practice of the presence of mindfulness from one moment to the next. Take, for example, Prévert's 'haikuesque' poem 'L'Autumne' ('Autumn'):

Un cheval s'écroule au milieu d'une allée 
Les feuilles tombent sur lui 
Notre amour frissonne 
Et le soleil aussi. 

A horse collapses in the middle of an alley
Leaves fall on him
Our love trembles
And the sun too.

You get the same directness and immediacy of the present moment--frozen in time and space---in the poem 'La Belle Saison' (English title: 'Summer'):

A jeun perdue glacée 
Toute seule sans un sou 
Une fille de seize ans 
Immobile debout 
Place de la Concorde 
A midi le Quinze Août.

Lost, starving, frozen
Alone, and penniless
A sixteen-year old girl
Standing motionless
Place de la Concorde
August fifteenth, noon, more or less.

Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, France (photo taken by the author)

I'll leave you to read offline Prévert's much longer poem 'Déjeuner du Matin' (English title: 'Breakfast'). (‘He poured the coffee / Into the cup / He put the milk / Into the cup of coffee / He put the sugar / Into the coffee with milk / With a small spoon / He churned / He drank the coffee … .’ It is Prévert at his very best.)

Now, here is his poem ‘Le jardin’ (‘The Garden’):

Des milliers et des milliers d'années
Ne sauraient suffire 
Pour dire 
La petite seconde d'éternité 
Où tu m'as embrassé 
Où je t'ai embrassèe 
Un matin dans la lumière de l'hiver 
Au parc Montsouris à Paris 
A Paris 
Sur la terre 
La terre qui est un astre.

Thousands and thousands of years
would not be enough
to tell of
that small second of eternity
when you held me
when I held you
one morning
in winter’s light,
in Montsouris Park
in Paris,
on earth,
this earth
that is a star.

‘That small second of eternity’ ('that tiny instant of all eternity', in another translation)---that is all we have. In the immensity of all eternity our whole life here on earth is, yes, one small second. That is a very sobering reflection but know this: if you want to live fully then you must live each second as if it were your last. (Not to put too fine a point on it, it may well be your last. Who knows?) 

But there's much more to those words 'that small second of eternity', for the only life we can truly know and experience is that ever-so-ephemeral present moment---but it is more than sufficient ... provided we use it wisely. Here's some good advice on the subject from Prévert: 'Life is a cherry / Death is the pit / Love the cherry tree.' And this: 'Eat on the grass / Hurry up / Sooner or later / The grass will eat on you.' Get the message?

Remember this, my friends---‘that small second of eternity’ is of enormous importance. Indeed, it is of infinite importance. It was William Blake who wrote:

TO see a world in a grain of sand,
  And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
  And eternity in an hour.

Just as the entire world is in a grain of sand, so the immensity and infinity of all eternity is in each and every second of life---your life!

I will let Jacques Prévert have the final word. It's about happiness. 'Even if happiness forgets you a little bit, never completely forget about it.'










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