Sunday, 20 September 2015

Guy Goffette's 'Elegy for a Friend': A Long Journey

Nicolas Vigier, Rain in Paris. Public domain

When I first read 'Elegy for a Friend', a sequence of thirteen-line poems by Guy Goffette written for his friend Paul de Roux, I was left overwhelmed and in tears. This reaction came from the pure beautiful power of the poem and its wonderful translation from French by Marilyn Hacker. It probably also had something to do with the fact that elegy has unfortunately been quite relevant in the lives of my family and friends in the past twelve months (not to speak of most of my life, it seems.) But when I started thinking about how I could write about the poem, it took me on a long and revealing journey of its own.

'Elegy for a Friend' has a certain focus on the cumulative effect of words, of events, and of simply living a life, which is perhaps also why it hit me so hard (a couple of years ago, a close friend and I were discussing the fact that 'cumulative' was one of the words of the year, and not in a good way.) Looking back on his relationship with his friend, the poet wishes that certain patterns could have been broken.

          Always, still, tomorrow, these paltry
          words, thrown off in passing, overflow us. 


          if we had known
          that, would we have stayed
          sitting so long in our afflicted bedrooms?


          It’s the same story always and we blame ourselves
          afterwards for having in the heat of words
          and wine allowed dark clouds to rise
          on the friend’s brow

Beyond this, on further readings I found myself quickly associating this poem with Ecclesiastes and re-reading it through that filter. The final stanza is, to me, overwhelmingly reminiscent of Ecclesiastes 12: "One day we must depart, no longer knowing/anything of what was at the source/of the fire...", alongside the vivid description of the decline of a human being with age: "before the silver cord is removed, and the golden bowl is crushed, and the jar at the spring is broken..." The conclusions are different: Ecclesiastes 12:13 says "Fear the true God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole obligation of man," whereas the poem is secular and contemplates the meaning of life and art ("written, read and reread/by a blind man dancing in the fire"), but it seems to me that both arise from a similar line of questioning.

I first read 'Elegy for a Friend' some months ago and have been thinking about it - and thinking about writing about it - for some time, whether actively or subconsciously. Recently, in relation to the Goffette poem, these lines by another poet came back to me: 

Do you know how it is when one wakes
at night suddenly and asks,
listening to the pounding heart: what more do you want,

I was so convinced that these lines were from Rilke that I leafed through my entire volume of his collected German poems and finally realised they weren't. The lines hadn't come back to me in an exact enough form to Google them accurately, but eventually I remembered enough key words to find them - in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, 'Farewell' (scroll down to find it).

The connection isn't entirely clear to me: I think there are some stylistic similarities (although the fact that one poem is originally French and the other originally Polish may cloud this somewhat, in translation.) There are echoes of imagery across the poems: the suddenly beating heart, the self-questioning about life, meaning and desire. Milosz also asks: "From life, from the apple cut by the flaming knife,/what grain will be saved", which seems to echo the final lines of Goffette's poem. (Very starkly, Milosz concludes: "Nothing remains.") Milosz's poem is, too, a kind of elegy, though it seems to me to mourn the loss of places, groups of people and moments in time, than a single person.

In the past week, when I re-read the first stanza of Goffette's poem, something started nagging at me, and I had a feeling it had to do with TS Eliot. Granted, when things nag at me and they involve poetry, it's not that uncommon for them to have something to do with TS Eliot. (Also, I had just been listening to Viggo Mortensen read The Waste Land at the British Library, and I met him afterwards, and it's safe to say all of that had a lasting effect.) But eventually, after digging around for a while in a) my mind, and b) the Internet, I finally figured it out. It wasn't The Waste Land: it was a poem I have never loved quite as much, 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'.

'Prufrock' opens with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno, which translates as:

If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.

I suppose I was reminded of this for two reasons, both of which are found in the first poem/stanza of 'Elegy for a Friend'. This section refers to the friends "slipping from the métro to Dante’s/hell without changing faces or/pace", and then moves on to imagery of flame and finally "that shadow/that burns all shadows while it waits for us". I don't know whether or not Goffette intended a direct reference. But I do know that by the time I had tracked down the 'Prufrock' epigraph, I felt as though I had travelled a long journey.


  1. Thank you, Clarissa. I had not known this poem before, though it is one that I will return to many times, I think. Such grief, especially, for me, in the accumulation of our repeated words into "this // silence that takes up all the space and screams." I do hear Ecclesiastes, if not in specific language, at least in the sustained, grieving tone of the poem. I can't help hearing an echo of Eliot in Milosz's poem, as well, "Children's laughter in the garden" summoning lines from "Burnt Norton" --- but, then, as you say, many things lead back to Eliot.

    1. Thanks for commenting, James! This poem hit me harder than most poems I've read in a long while. I have now read some of his poems in the original French, too, but need to track this one down as only the (beautiful) English translation was available.

      I am just fascinated by connections between different works in different places and times. I always wonder if the connections are direct influence or more down to the common experiences of our humanity. Either way they are fascinating.

    2. I've wondered the same thing about connections between poems and poets. My unscientific guess is that such connections are most often more organic than purely intentional allusion or common experience. Perhaps a poet responds to something in experience, and then decides to keep or even emphasize the line after realizing that it also makes a connection with another poet.