SAMUEL BECKETT HAS EARNED the reputation of one of the greatest novelists and playwrights of our time; but Beckett the poet has gone virtually unnoticed. Part of the reason is this--of Beckett's 26 literary publications only one is a collection of poetry.
Collected Poems is Beckett's second work of poetry, but it is actually three literary works in one. First, it represents all Beckett's poetry in English including what was published previously in the short volume Poems in English. Second, it represents a complete collection of Beckett's poems in French. A dozen of these, written in 1938 and 1939, comprise Beckett's first creative work in that language. (For three of these Beckett has provided English translations.) Finally, Collected Poems includes Beckett's translations from the French of such poets as Paul Eluard, Arthur Rimbaud, and Guillaume Apollinaire--also never published in the U.S. in the Beckett translations.
To a reader unfamiliar with Beckett's frame of mind and uninitiated to his subject matter reading his poetry would be akin to being hit over the head with a sledge hammer; that is, you wouldn't know what hit you but you'd know for damn sure it hit hard. The effect of Beckett's poems upon the first-time reader is one of power even if one doesn't understand what the subject matter is or what Beckett is trying to say.
To the poet this is a supreme compliment. It implies an ability to move the reader by sheer merits of style, by the sheer force of the words and their arrangement on the page. These two stanzas from the 1936 poem "Cascado" are forceful and by necessity, that is Beckett's necessity, sufficiently cryptic:
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you
unless they love you
Of course Beckett the absurdist, the existentialist does come through in his style. Many lines in "Echo's Bones" and "Malacoda" remind us of that airy, disjointed dialogue in Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Beckett's poems are filled with much of the same choppy, incomplete, grammarless phrases that characterize his prose and dialogues. Yet there is still that cryptic element: