The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry: From Nerval to Valery in English Translation (1958; 2000) ed. Angel Flores
"Finally!" I hear some of you say. "She's recommending poetry!"
Yes, and happily so. For several years during high school and college, I was a voracious reader of poetry, amassing several anthologies and many books by such favorites as Ferlinghetti, Eliot, Bishop, Reed, Plath, and Collins. For the past few years, though, I haven't read much in the genre, focusing instead on getting up to speed with contemporary literary fiction and the latest biographies and histories of late-19-century America (my favorite time-period).
And yet, this collection of French Symbolist poetry is one of my most cherished books. I bought it after spending a semester translating several of these poets for an independent study. As a lifelong Francophile, I had always wanted to become fluent in the language, but of course the best way to do that is to live in France, and that wasn't in the cards. However, I maintained my interest in French language and culture by reading a lot about that country's history as well as novels by its most famous authors.
When the opportunity arose to work with my Medieval Literature professor during my sophomore year of college, I jumped at the chance. She was all for leading my independent study in French Symbolist poetry, since she herself had a degree in Comparative Literature (focusing on French). I was all googly-eyed about what she also loved, so it was settled.
I spent many many many hours and shuffled through many many many pages of my French-to-English dictionary translating poems by Baudelaire, Laforgue, Gautier, and Valery. Such strange scenes those poets sketched, such bizarre comparisons and eerie contrasts! Baudelaire wrote about the streets of Paris just as dusk fell, and about the mixture of awe and repulsion upon coming across a dead animal carcass on the side of the road. Laforgue conjured up dream-like images of the sublimity of pure love. Gautier brought the monuments of Paris and Egypt to life.
Translating these poets was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done, and the beauty of their poems will last well beyond our lifetime. And by the way, this edition has an intro by Patti Smith, just in case you needed extra prodding.