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Francis Ponge and the Nature of Things: From Ancient Atomism to a Modern Poetics.

Francis Ponge and the Nature of Things: From Ancient Atomism to a Modern Poetics. By PATRICK MEADOWS. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1997. 172 pp. 28 [pounds sterling].

Arguing that Ponge criticism has been dominated by two opposite postulates ('the law of the thing' vs 'the law of the word' (p. 19), Patrick Meadows seeks their 'mutual resolution' in a study of analogy. He is doubtless right that such a resolution is 'embedded in the poet's work' (p. 19), but to say that 'its elucidation requires a focused definition of the link between Ponge and Lucretius' (p. 19, my italics) is going too far. His real aim is more modest, however: to 'focus on the sources of the poet's worldview as reflected in his understanding and use of the ancient Greek atomism of Epicurus and its expression in the poetry of Lucretius' (pp. 24-25). Nobody has done this in such a thoroughgoing fashion, and the study is full of stimulating comments on analogy in Ponge.

The first chapter contrasts Plato's model of a reconciliation between earth and heaven with Ponge's goal of an Epicurean reconciliation between humans, and between humans and nature. Chapter 2 looks at the demythologizing analogies Ponge draws between Christianity and French cultural history in the service of a materialist salvation. Chapter 3 examines the conflation of literature, music, and architecture with which Ponge aspires to 'build a timeless monument to cosmic harmony' (p. 60); like Plato and the Bible, the notion of music as a disembodied art is subverted and recycled to the ends of a materialist poetics. This chapter contains a particularly subtle analysis of 'L'araignee'. Chapter 4 explicates the analogy between the Lucretian clinamen and Ponge's 'original unoriginality': however unpredictable a phenomenon, it cannot be a creation ex nihilo, only derivation and rearrangement; this applies as much to the elementa of texts as to those of things outside texts. Chapter 5 illustrates these insights with analysis of, most notably, 'Le Carnet du bois de pins': central to life is carbon, and Meadows draws an analogy between the tetravalent carbon atom, the tetravalency of the odd line out in the permutations of couplets at the heart of the text, and the tetrahedral shape of cones and trees. The last two chapters look at the origins in Lucretius of the primordial analogy of world, texts and self as tissue, and at Ponge's notion of poetry as 'cleansing the tissues'.

It is surprising to see Ponge accused of having 'positivistic tendencies' (p. 113), because the study does energetically confirm the role of difference in analogy. In its admirably close attention to textual detail, it also confirms that if English-speaking readers are to see more in Ponge than an erudite, sometimes almost oulipien, punster, what they now need more urgently than anything else is adequate translations. One small correction may be in order: the erratum slip in the 1983 edition of Nioque de l'Avant-Printemps announces that 'inivrant' (analysed by Meadows on page 138) is a misprint for 'iniorant'.


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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Higgins, Ian
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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