The Samuel Beckett we’re taught in America is solitary, dryly humorous, and existentially distressed: basically, he’s an absurdist playwright from a Charlie Kaufman movie. Beyond this, we may know him as a writer of unerringly spare and despairing prose — of the sort that literally gives Salman Rushdie a headache — or as James Joyce’s assistant, or as the guy who drove Andre the Giant to school each day. But we do not, generally speaking, appreciate him as poet. This is regrettable, not only because Beckett began his career as a poet in Paris — and continued writing poetry for the rest of his life — but also because his poetry strips down and by some means intensifies the qualities that imbue his drama and novels. And by this I mean that Samuel Beckett’s poetry wrests a negative infinity out of words without appearing to do much of anything at all.
The release of The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett this month by Grove Press is a godsend. Editors Seán Lawlor, who passed away four months after publication, and John Pilling have outdone themselves — and everyone else — with a totalizing project that brings together not only all of Beckett’s published poetry, but all of his unpublished poetry and translation projects, too. It comprises a compendium divided roughly into pre- and post-war work, one that, perhaps more realistically than his collected novels or dramas, opens the iris of history onto the great writer’s formal development.
If that wasn’t enough, Lawlor and Pilling have included a comprehensive commentary, with notes, observations, suggested allusions, and other thoughts on the volume’s every poem. Reading this commentary, I had the same feeling I had as a teenager reading the notes along with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” It occurred to me, too, that I will still be reading these definitive notes when I’m an old man teetering on the brink of death’s bottomless chasm.
Fortunately, Beckett’s poems retain none of the boarding school smugness or gloom of Eliot’s or Pound’s work. They are, however, appropriately bleak. And somehow they measure out equal doses of corporeality (decaying bodies, weird food words, scatology) and spiritual eternity (or, depending on you read it, nullity), often in the same line. One of my favorites, from Beckett’s “Uncollected Early Poems,” is called “Whoroscope”:
Art thou then ripe at last, my wan my svelte, my double-breasted turd? My! but she do smell prime She has aborted to a tee! I shall eat her with a fish-fork … her hands are dripping red with sunrise, Christine the Ripper.
Another surprise of this groundbreaking book is the range of Beckett’s translated work, which pretty much guarantees that anyone could pick up this collection and enjoy it. Born in Ireland, Beckett studied and lived in Paris, and it’s no exaggeration to call him a polyglot. The book contains especially beautiful translations of his fellow modernists, as well as surrealists and other vanguardists, in a range of languages including French, Spanish, and Italian. My particular favorite is his translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone”:
In the end you are weary of this ancient world This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd Weary of living in Roman antiquity and Greek Here even the motor-cars look antique Religion alone has stayed young religion Has stayed simple like the hangars at Port Aviation … Now you walk in Paris alone among the crowd Herds of bellowing buses hemming you about Anguish of love parching you within As though you were never to be loved again … You are your own mocker and like hellfire your laughter crackles Golden on your life’s hearth fall the sparks of your laughter
Reading these lines, I began to imagine Beckett walking among the Parisian crowds, solitary, yes, but not alone, laughing while he mocks himself, knowing that words held somewhere in his body would someday slide away.