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:
in out as dead
unseal the eye
till still again
no hint when to
It can be expected that when a novelist-playwright like Beckett, whose subject matter deals with lack of communication and absurdity, turns to poetry, his already intense style will seem exaggerated. We are not surprised when we find that Beckett has written only a handful of poems because we know the intensity of feeling each must contain when only one, sometimes two, are produced in a year. In the same way we should not be surprised by Beckett's somewhat exaggerated poetic style.
Beckett's poems in French reflect this same style, with a few modifications geared to linguistic subtleties. In any case, if there is a slight stylistic difference, the effect does not diminish the most important thing--the poignant quality we know so well in Beckett's English works. The following poem and its translation were written between the years of 1937 and 1938 after Beckett had made his home in France:
different and the same
with each it is different and the same
with each the absence of love is different
with each the absence of love is the same
These poems reveal a poet capable not only of subtle expression in two languages but a poet who has taken from each language and given to the other in his poems.
Finally, Beckett's translations of important French poets such as Eluard, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire are not only valuable literary pieces but works which provide a valuable insight into Beckett himself. Balanced and accurate, they are fine poems in their own right; his translation of Rimbaud's "Drunken Boat":
Downstream on impassive rivers suddenly
I felt the towline of the boatmen slacken
Redskins had taken them in a scream and
stripped them and
Skewered them to the slaving stakes for targets
Then, delivered from any straining boatmen
From the trivial racket of trivial crews and from
The freights of Flemish grain and English cotton
I made my own course down the passive views
These collected poems are consistent with Beckett's other works. The subject matter, though a bit more personal, is just as poignant and profound, and there is not much change reflected in "Thither" written in 1976 as compared to "Gnome" written in 1934. As Beckett said in Waiting for Godot, "Nothing ever changes, it's always the same."