Colin Browne talks to Ian Wallace

about the role of “Vancouver” in early 20th century French poetry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Colin Browne: How did you first become interested Apollinaire’s poem “Les fenêtres”? Was it the mention of Vancouver?

Ian Wallace: No, it was because I was first looking at visual poetry and the relationship to Mallarmé. I was trying to figure out why the early 20th century poets turned against Mallarmé when he was so obviously influential. It’s as if Mallarmé was excluded from the discussion of Modernism until the 1920s. It seemed as though it was, “Kill the father.”

CB: You have a copy here of the original poem as printed in the catalogue for Robert Delaunay’s 1913 exhibition. Have you compared this with the standard version?

IW: Not really, no. But one thing that I found interesting was that Apollinaire removed all punctuation from “Les fenêtres.” I have manuscripts of Alcools that show where he cancelled the punctuation.

CB: The absence of punctuation was significant when translating the poem.

IW: “Les fenêtres” was also one of the opening poems in Calligrammes, which was also without punctuation. Mallarmé had no punctuation in Un Coup de Dés. And this was one of the links that I was following through on. There was a discussion in December 1912, just before Apollinaire published Alcools, during which time he and Pierre Reverdy took a midnight walk from the Deux Magots to the river—Reverdy was a typesetter as well as a poet—and Apollinaire asked him about punctuation. They were talking about Mallarmé and Un Coup de Dés and its lack of punctuation. After that, Apollinaire went back and removed all the punctuation from Alcools. This is a thesis I’m working on. The absence of punctuation is a trope of Modernity in poetry. It’s like taking the framing away from a painting, or something like that. And, of course, classical French poetics was totally fixated on the twelve-syllable line—the Alexandrian line, punctuation, and a fixed form. The modernists threw all that out the window, broke the lines up and the punctuation. And I see Mallarmé as the first adventurer, even though Mallarmé as a prose writer was a “commaphiliac” who used a comma just about every three words. Comma, comma, comma. That was the rhythm of his speech.

CB: I can already see some interesting changes here between the original handwritten draft of December 1912 and the first printing in 1913. This was written about the same time as “Zone.”

IW: “Les fenêtres” was published in January 1913, so it would have just followed “Zone.”

CB: Do you know why it’s called “Zone”? In October 1912, Apollinaire joined Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp on a twelve-hour automobile trip to fetch Picabia’s wife Gabrielle Buffet from her mother’s house in the Jura. It was also meant as a little holiday, but the days were short and rainy and they were often stuck inside by the fire. Gabrielle’s mother persuaded Apollinaire to read some of his poems, including one that was still in an early draft, which everyone admired. She’d already let everyone know that the locals referred to the district as the zone. When she asked Apollinaire what he was going to call the new poem, he replied, “I will call it ‘Zone.’” This is the trip that resulted in Duchamp’s cryptic, prophetic text in which the five pistons/passengers in the car become five hearts that will give birth to a headlight child that will become a child god.

IW: Apollinaire was involved in another famous automobile trip in August of 1914, just before war broke out. They were in northern France and drove back to Paris overnight. The poem, entitled “La petite auto,” is drawn in the shape of a car and appears in Calligrammes.

CB: So, you first became interested in “Les fenêtres” because of Modernism, because of Delaunay, because of the lack of punctuation?

IW: Yes, just researching, and then I started wondering why Vancouver was mentioned in “Les fenêtres.” My big question is, why has Apollinaire mentioned Vancouver here, which goes on to another topic—I don’t know if you want to get into this now—about literary Cubism? Conversation poems?

CB: Well, what about Vancouver? . . .


For more, see TCR 3.23 (Spring 2014)


Image: Robert Delaunay, The Three Windows, the Tower and the Wheel, 1912,
oil on canvas, 130.2 x 195.6 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art
Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

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