Saint-John Perse–Dreamer, Poet, and Adventurer
There is something special about the tropics, and if RT has a soft spot for the Caribbean because he remembers it more clearly than his birthplace, Brazil, so be it. And, as it turns out, one of RT’s favorite poets, Saint-John Perse, was born on Guadeloupe in 1887. Perse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960 and has exercised a major influence on American poets. Why have you never heard of him, then? Because he was French, and though excellent translations of his work are available, his sensibility is governed by the distant, the ancient, the gorgeous–in short, by themes that are mostly alien to contemporary English poetry. If RT had to name one English-language poet who is like Perse, it would be Hart Crane.
Perse’s life was charmed–up to a point: born to a solicitor, SJP spent his earliest years on his family’s sugar and coffee plantations. But when he was 10, his family left Guadalupe under political/social pressure and settled in France. There Perse studied law and eventually joined the French diplomatic corps. He began writing poetry in his 20s and took his pen name, with its reference to Persia (He was born Alexis Leger) In 1940, he went into exile in the United States, where he met his wife. He did not return to France until 1967. While in the diplomatic corps, Perse served in China, where he wrote his masterpiece, Anabasis (The Expedition, named after Xenophon’s famous book).
RT will close with the opening of one of SJP’s poems, tender and transcendent:
**In those days, they bathed you in water-of-green-leaves;
and the water was of green sun too, and your mother’s maids
tall glistening girls, moved their warm legs near you who
**(I speak of a high condition, in those days, among the
dresses, in the dominion of revolving lights.)
(trans. Louise Varese)
Photo: Indian Papaya; WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.