Samuel Beckett (via Wikipedia)

Confronting the new volume of The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett of nearly 500 pages in length (actually, only about half the book contains poems, the other half being devoted to “Commentary” “Appendix,” “Bibliography,” and “Index”), one might be tempted to proclaim — as many have of Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce — that his best poetry appeared in his fiction and, in Beckett’s case alone, in his dramatic works. A more sophisticated argument might be summarized by arguing that for Beckett — as for Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and others — all of the works represent, in one way or another, a kind of poetry in their attention to language above narrative and dramaturgical concerns. Yet this would hardly explain Beckett’s own “fondness” for his poetry, as the editors of this volume, Seán Lawlor and John Pilling, describe it. Beckett, objectively dramatizing himself, admitted “it was in poetry that he confronted himself most intimately, even if this confrontation was in conflict with his instinct to protect himself by way of ventriloquism, disguise or deviousness.”

It is certainly the case that many, if not most, readers have pounced upon Beckett’s poems as inferior forms of writing, just as he might have feared. Reviewing this book in The New York Times Book Review recently (December 14, 2014), Paul Muldoon cavalierly dove into the volume to argue not only that “Beckett has almost no sense of how a line functions in verse making,” but that his work was imitative of Irish modernist practice by the likes of Thomas MacGreevy. Muldoon makes his case through the choice of a “random” passage, mocking a line to suggest that it characterizes the poetry itself, which proves, evidently, his conclusion: “’Mad dumbells spare me,’ indeed!” He continues, “I think it’s fair to say that were Becektt’s name not hovering around in its vicinity, his poems would not be published by Grove Press or anyone else.” However, the poem Muldoon “sampled,” from Beckett’s uncollected early poems archived in the Leventhal Papers at the University of Texas, may have been one that he jettisoned from the George Reavey publication of Echo’s Bones.

Indeed, the poem, “For Future Reference,” is, nonetheless, a fascinating example of the dramatic energy of several of his early works. And despite the fact that Beckett often appeared not to truly care about line breaks, he actually used line placement to good effect in this work. I quote the full first stanza (with ‘dumb-bells,” as Beckett actually spelled it):

My cherished chemist friend
lured me aloofly
down from the cornice
into the basement
and there
drew tubs of acid and alkali out of his breast
to a rainbow sol-fa
mad dumb-bells spare me!
fiddling deft and expert
with the double-jointed nut-crackers of the hen’s ovaries.
But I stilled my cringing
I did
and I smote him
ah my strength!
peace my incisors!
braved him and flayed him
with a ready are-you-steady
But did I?


Based on a recurring dream that occurred, apparently, in his adolescence, Beckett explores the sexual fears of a young student. Biographer Deirdre Bair identifies the strange figure who lures the boy down into the laboratory as W. N. Tetley, the science and math teacher at Portora, where the young Beckett went to school. Although, it first appears that the teacher is simply attempting to show the boy chemical compounds, there is also clearly something of the horror-tale in this poem; the boy, through the “musical” images used throughout, is being led by the pied-piper-like chemist down into a dungeon for an encounter that may be for more than mere pedagogic purposes.

By bringing up Borodin, in the second line, the Russian composer, who was also a chemist, and spelling the name in a manner that might suggest the Russian pronunciation, Beckett transforms the man himself into a kind of painful and poisonous-like substance, akin to “iodine,” who lures him through the cornices (suggestive, so the notes explain, of Dante’s Purgatorio), into a strange basement world.

By drawing the “acid and alkali” — opposing substances, since alkalis neutralize acids — out of his breast, Beckett seems to be suggesting the contradictory emotions his teacher seems to be displaying come straight from the heart, so to speak. The “rainbow sol-fa” of the next line suggests not only a spectrum of reflections (again evoking a broad expression of emotions) but also as in continuation of the musical theme,  the so-fa-mi-re-do “spectrum” of the musical alphabet; yet, of course, the “sol-fa” — in the concocted language of the boy — calls up the word “sulfur, the explosive substance used in making matches and gunpowder, the source of a possibly terrifying “discharge” of emotional responses.

The boy’s sudden call for “mad dumb-bells” is not a declamation against the stupid, “mad” teacher, but rather a calling upon the tools that helped to make the young Beckett a successful boxer (Beckett wrote Barbara Bray that he was the champion boxer of the school). The teacher appears almost like an evil monster about to wrap his “double-jointed” fingers around the boy, notably like “hen’s ovaries,” containing the sexual connotations of the ova/egg Beckett calls up time and again in his 1930 poem Whoroscope.

Like a cartoon figure, Beckett, the boy, “stills” his cringing figure  (as in a movie) and comes to his own rescue, smiting the would-be predator, smashing, mashing, and biting—quite literally beating him off. But the question, of course, is everything: “Or did I?” Did the young boy escape or submit?

It hardly matters, for given the passage of time, upon the buoyancy of the waters, he is swept away, as if in a magical moment of existence, summarized in “click,” like a photograph that magically reveals another time in his and the would-be attacker’s life:

The hair shall be grey
above the left temple
the hair shall be grey there
Sweet wedge of birds faithless!

The “pitiful professor” is, in fact, actually trapped within a kind a photograph (which Becketts’ editors describe as being faithful to an actual photo of W. N. Tetley):

Well of all the..
that little bullet-headed bristle-cropped
cyanosed rat of a pure politician
that I thought was experimenting with barbed wire in the Punjab

It is an image from which, once again, the boy-poet nimbly swims away; yet he is left, at poem’s end, awakening to remember, that he is still repeating the lessons he has learned, through the process of the dream itself, with a bitter taste on his tongue:

So in the snowy floor of the parrot’s cell
burning at dawn
the palate of my strange mouth.

In short, this randomly chosen poem to-be-dismissed by Muldoon, one not even thought of as successful enough by Beckett to be included in a published volume, is, nonetheless, quite a fascinating and even, I’d argue, exciting narrative poem, much of it quite beautifully lyrical, as in the passage when the hero temporarily escapes his would-be “mutilation” through the passage of time:

And then the bright waters
beneath the broad board
the trembling blade of the streamlined divers
and down to our waiting
to our enforced buoyancy
come floating the words of
the Mutilator
and the work of his finger-joints
observe gen’l’men one of
the consequences of the displacement of

The alliteration of the b’s and d’s and the internal repetitions of the c’s and s’s, move the swimmer swiftly downstream, while the line breaks, suggesting the figure’s movement up and down in the water in the first 6 lines, and the listing of elements of the magical transformation in the last five lines, do certainly make clear to me that Beckett was very well aware of what a line of poetry meant and how to carry his words through it.

Particularly in his early poems, Beckett is often at his best in these kinds of short “narrative” sequences. In “Enueg I,” for example — one of the poems that did make it to publication in Beckett’s early collection, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates of 1935, and a poem which Beckett, in a 1932 to letter to his friend, Tom MacGreevy, represented as one of the poems that did not “give the impression” to him of being construits (constructions) — he interrupts his Joycean-like voyage through the city of Dublin with a seemingly logic-defying conversation with a young boy:

A child fidgeting at the gate called up:
‘Would we be let in Mister?’
‘Certainly’ I said ‘you would.’
But, afraid, he set off down the road.
‘Well” I called after him ‘why wouldn’t you go on in?’
‘Oh’ he said, knowingly.
‘I was in that field before and I got put out.’

In a poem dedicated, in the style of the Provençal genre, to a listing of vexations or annoyances — expressed in Beckett’s version more clearly as “laments”—the boy’s lament surely represents his feeling that he has been locked out of a kind of garden of Eden, to which, even if he might wish to reenter, he no longer is privy.

In “Sanies I,” of the same volume, wherein the poet undergoes another voyage, this time by bicycle on Easter Saturday 1933, where — after a series of “morbid discharges” (the Provençal equivalent of the “sanies” genre) in which the poet, 27 years of age, imagines himself being a decade older, like Dante, as the notes suggest, “halfway through the biblical span of three score years and ten” (in the poem, “seven pentades past”) — he encounters a woman to whom he is highly attracted, Ethna MacCarthy, with A. J. Leventhal (the man whom she would eventually marry):

I see main verb at last
her whom alone in the accusative
I have dismounted to love
gliding towards me dauntless nautch-girl on the face of the waters
get along with you now take the six the seven the eight or the
little single-decker
take a bus for all I care walk cadge a lift
home to the cog of your web in Holles Street
and let the tiger go on smiling
in our hearts that funds ways home

The bitterness of seeing his Indian dancing girl (“nautch-girl”) with another man is revealed in his sudden rejection of her, his command, almost as if he were an American cowboy speaking to a steer “get along … now,” dismissing her by insisting she take any manner of transportation she and her new lover might seek, “the six the seven the eight or the little single-decker / take a bus for all I care walk cadge a lift,” to return to her home on Holles Street. All of this is even more “morbidly” reiterated with his suggestion in the second to the last line of the famed limerick, “There Was a Young Lady from Niger” (“There was a young lady from Niger / Who smiled as she rode a tiger; / They returned from the ride / With the lady inside / And the smile on the face of the tiger”), sardonically wishing the couple well on their voyage home (“in our hearts that funds ways home”).

Although these narrative and dramatic passages certainly seem memorable in Beckett’s early work and clearly represent, quite early on, his ability to capsulize larger traumatizing situations into a few taut phrases, they only reiterate the fact that these early poems bear little in common with his later and recognizably greater fictions and dramas, particularly with regard to their radical poetic syntax. Works such as Whoroscope, “Enueg I,” the sanies poems, “Dortmunder” and “Serena I” and Serena II,” as Marjorie Perloff has argued “wear their learning rather ostentatiously, showing the poet’s cleverness, disgust, and morbidity” (Perloff, “Beckett the Poet” in S. E. Gontarski, ed., A Companion to Samuel Beckett [Chicheser, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2010]). If passages in these poems show his ability to wittily “dramatize” his scenes, they lack the stark abstraction of the work we have come to most identify with the mature writer.

Even in these early works, however, we can begin to see the enormous effects that translating and his shift to French had upon his writing. As Perloff observes, already in “Enueg I,” which was close to the time when Beckett translated Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone”:

The structure […] departs from the usual catalogue of dis-
connected items that characterizes the Provençal form, adopting
instead the promenade structure of Apollinaire’s “Zone.”

In fact, although I will not attempt to make a case for it in this essay, it would be useful to study of the effects of Beckett’s numerous translations of poets such as Rimbaud, Breton, Eluard, Michaux, Tzara, and others, as well as the influences of his very important translations from the Spanish in his Anthology of Mexican Poetry of 1958 (published by Indiana University Press) — and still an important anthology of early 20th century Mexican poetic writing today — only a fraction of which appears in this volume.

Consider, for example, his translation of Breton’s “The Free Union,” published in 1931 in Le Revolver à cheveux blancs. Here are just 10 lines, near the end of the poem:

My woman whose hips are skiff
Whose hips are candelabrum whose hips are arrow-feather
And stem of feather of white peacock
And numb balance
My woman whose rumps are sandstone and amianth
My woman whose rumps are shoulders of swan
My woman whose rumps are spring-time
Whose sex is iris
My woman whose sex is placer and ornithrynchus
My woman whose sex is mirror

It’s interesting, for example, to compare Beckett’s version with the acclaimed translation of the Breton poem published by my Sun & Moon Press (and my later Green Integer) by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow:

My woman with her rowboat hips
With her hips of a chandelier and arrow feathers
And stems of the white peacock plumes
Her hips an imperceptible pair of scales
My woman with her buttocks of sandstone and asbestos
My woman with her buttocks of springtime
With her gladiolus sex
My woman with her sex of placer and platypus
My woman with her sex of seaweed and old-fashioned candles
My woman with her mirror sex

I’m not interested in evaluating the translations (which, in any case, would demand that we also consider the French), but am simply fascinated by the way Beckett chose his metaphors in comparison with the vernacularly-oriented Americans. Certainly, there are numerous similarities, and, at other times, it is apparent that the Irish-born Beckett simply chose to Anglicize rather than use the American form (“amianth” instead of “asbestos,”) or to use scientific instead of popular terms (“ornithrynchus” instead of “platypus”); but more often than not his word choice differs in his preference for the simpler and more sonic of the two selections (“skiff” over “rowboat,” “feather of white peacock” over “white peacock plumes,” “rumps” over “buttocks,” “iris” over “gladiolus”).

In several cases, Beckett transforms the simile or metaphor into a verbal construction (“rumps are springtime” instead of “of springtime,” “is iris,” instead “With her gladiolus sex”), and, in one of the most significant of differences he seemingly clarifies, as in “My woman whose sex is mirror” instead of “My woman with her mirror sex,” which transforms the sex itself into a mirror instead of a woman mirroring her sex. In one case, in the second to last line of the Zavatsky-Rogow translation, Beckett, either intentionally or accidentally erases the line.

My point in all this, is that here most of the archaic, Biblical, and other more esoteric references (except in line 31 of the original, “And tryst in the bed yea the bed of the torrent”) that appear in some of his early translations and in most of his own early poetry are gone. It is almost as if, through the French, Beckett has discovered a new poetic vocabulary.

Little wonder that in the French language Poèmes 37-39, written before World War II, but not published until 1946, his language had completely changed. Perloff has argued that in these and others of his works written in French, the English translations, when he bothered to render them, were often very different from the French; but given my lack of expertise in French, I’ll only note one brief example through the author’s English version:

they come
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
elles viennent
autres et pareilles
avec chacune c’est autre et c’est pareil
avec chacune l’absence d’amour est autre
avec hacune l’absence d’amour est pareille

What begins as a vague notion of difference and sameness between the equally abstract “they,” and the place to which “they come,” is quickly transformed into a more specific notion (or two more specific notions) of whom they are (presumably lovers) and to where they are going (ideas in their minds) concerning the “absence of love.” The poem, which, given its vague references, particularly in the use of its pronoun, is itself an example of the absence of which it speaks. Here, finally, we have reached a voice somewhat closer to the Beckett we know from such postwar fictions as Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and his renowned play Waiting for Godot.

But, of course, there is another entire cache of Beckett poetry, uncollected in this volume — that, as Perloff quite convincingly argues, we can readjust our perceptions so that we might see  what are generally described as prose works — such as “Still,” “Enough,” “For to End Yet Again,” and “Ill Seen Ill Said” — as poems. Not only do I agree with Perloff’s cogent argument, but I might desire to expand that concept to many other Beckett works. I only wish that the editors of The Collected Poems had included some of these pieces so that we might have been fully able to comprehend Beckett’s remarkable poetic achievement. To exclude such works would be similar to determining that Stein’s Tender Buttons did not belong within a collection of her poetry (but then, even more sadly, there is no Collected Poems of Gertrude Stein, which would consist of several long volumes that might even help to transform the idea of American poetics!).

What the editors of this volume do offer us, instead, is a selection of  Beckett’s “Later Poems” — appearing in various volumes such as Collected Poems in English and French of 1977, Selected Poems of 1999,  Poems 1930-1989 of 2002, and Selected Poems 1930-1989 of 2009 — which reveal Beckett’s poetic maturity. What is perhaps the most significant of these, “what is the word,” Beckett’s last poem, has already been beautifully analyzed by Perloff, so I’ll refrain from repeating what has already been well said, although I will quote a few lines, to hopefully send the interested reader to the volume under review:

folly –
folly for to –
for to –
what is the word –
folly from this –
all this –
folly from all this –
seeing –
folly seeing all this –
this –
what is the word –
this this –
this this here –
all this this here –
folly given all this –

Another poem “dread nay” might serve as a lesser, but certainly artful example of Beckett’s later poetry:

head fast
in out as dead
till rending
long still
faint stir
unseal the eye
till still again
seal again
head sphere
ashen smooth
one eye
no hint when to
then glare
cyclop no
one side
on face
of out spread
vast in
the highmost
snow white
sheeting all
asylum head
sole blot

Somewhat like “Still,” “dread nay” is a poem about a body (in this case, focusing upon the head, its components, and the mind that lies within it) nearing cessation but, still, in almost constant motion. If the poem, in its primarily two and three syllabic lines, appears to be quite simple, something Beckett might have written (as he claims he composed Whoroscope) in a single night, in fact he suffered over its composition for several months, revealed in letters to Barbara Bray, beginning in March 1974. In April he described it as “Poem abandoned,” and finally finished it in early June. Moreover, Beckett had, before even beginning to write, outlined the eight-part structure of the poem:

A. Statement embracing all 4; B. Head alone; C. Without alone;
D. Position of head in without with ref to Inf. XXXII, XXXIII; E.
Stir alone; F. Eye alone; G. Inside of head normally / Inside of head
eye open; H. Restatement (varied) embracing all.

The author, evidently, found it particularly difficult to compose the penultimate stanza:

at ray
in latibule
long dark
stir of dread
till breach
long sealed
dark again
still again

Here again we are met with erudite references to Dante’s Inferno, Latinate constructions such as “latibule” (from the Latin latibulum, a hiding place) and, possibly, even Biblical allusions (the editors suggest his use of “latibule” may also have arisen from the Latin version of Psalm 74:20 (“replete sunt latibula terrae tentoriis violentiae”). Yet how different these subtle allusions are compared to the literary references of the early poems. Certainly, in this meditation on sleep and death, Beckett is not at all “wearing his learning ostentatiously.” Here, in the simplest of terms, the poem sets up a rhythm of a breathing being, falling momentarily into a seemingly near-comatose condition before coming back to life: turning white (“ashen smooth,” “snow white,” etc) and sinking into blackness (“nay to nought,” “dark again,” etc.) before coming back to life either with the sudden opening of a single eye, a flash of teeth, or a snore (“click chatter”) before sinking once more into the nothingness that resembles breath but which, at the same time, so clearly resembles death (“in out as dead,” the poem’s only line of four heavy beats, akin to meters of Old English poetry and Hopkins’ sprung rhythm, with which it ends).

While throughout the poem it may appear that the would-be sleeper is troubled in his attempts to fall to sleep, fearing its similarity to death, Beckett, by equating sleep with death, as does Hamlet, also makes it ordinary, something for which we daily prepare and practice, willingly laying ourselves out on our own winding sheets and closing our eyes as if sealing our own death certificates. Accordingly, what may first appear as a thing of dread, is, in fact, not, as the title declares, “dread nay,” and throughout the poem what might appear as horrific signs, are denied by the poet. The open eye might first appear to be a “cyclop,” but he immediately, answers “no”; it is not “nothingness” (“nay to nought”), the terrifying cessation (“ashen smooth / aghast / glittering rent”) becomes “smooth again” as if the “past” has “never been.” Through his adjectival description, “snow white,” the poet hints, that what appears dead can possibly be loved back into existence.

In a poem such as “dread nay” we encounter the poet at his essence, a writer who, although facing the most morbid of subjects (clearly something Beckett felt destined to confront from a very early age) expresses his vision in a work that seems necessary, as if the poem, rather than being cleverly constructed, was a kind of natural force, a necessity of expression that reveals universal truths about the human race.

The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett (2014) is published by Grove Press, and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press, and later...