June 28, 2012

Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos [France]

Poet Robert Desnos was born in Paris on July 4th, 1900. His father was a grocer, featuring game and poultry at the famed Halles market.

     Desnos attended commercial college and, after graduating, began work as a clerk, later becoming a literary columnist for Paris-Soir.

     His first poems were published in La Tribune des Jeunes in 1917, followed, in 1919, by work in the avant-garde journal Le Trait d'union (Hyphen) and in the Dadaist magazine Litttérature. His early book, a collection of surrealistic aphorisms, was titled Rrose Sélavy after the psedonym of French artist Marcel Duchamp.

     In 1919, Desnos met the poet Benjamin Péret, who introduced him to the Paris Dada group and Surrealist head André Breton, and soon after, the poet became active in the Surrealist group, showing a particular talent for "automatic writing."

     Breton included two photographs of Desnos sleeping in his fiction, Nadja, and praised him in the 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme as a Surrealist "prophet." Desnos, however, disagreed with Surrealism's involvement with communism, and broke with Breton.

     He continued to write poetry and prose, composing his 1926 book, The Night of loveless nights in quatrains. That same year he fell in love with singer Yvonne George, writing the erotic fiction La Liberté ou l'amour! for her.

     In 1929 Desnos joined writer Georges Bataille in condemning Breton in Un Cadavre's "le boeuf Breton" (the ox Breton). And in the next year Desnos wrote several pieces on film.

     Throughout that decade he continued to write fiction, poetry, plays, and even a film script, L'Etoile de mer, directed in 1929 by photographer Man Ray.

      With the rise of World War II, Desnos joined the French Résistance (Réseau AGIR), publishing under several pseudonyms, and producting false identity papers. On Februry 22, 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz before being transported to Buchenwald and finally to Terezín in occupied Czechoslovakia, where he died of typhoid in the "Malá pevnost" cells for political prisoners. Only a few weeks later the camp was liberated.


Deil pour deuil (Paris: Editions du Sagittaire, 1924); C'est les bottes de 7 lieues cette phrase "Je me vois" (Paris: Editions de la Galerie Simon, 1926); The Night of lovelesss nights (Anvers, Belgium: privately printed, 1930); Youki 1930 Poésie (1930); Corps et biens (Paris: Gallimard, 1930); Corps et biens (Paris: Gallimard, 1930); Fortunes (Paris: Gallimard, 1942); Etat de veille (with Gaston-Louis Roux) (Paris: Robert-J. Godet, 1943); Le Vin est tiré (Paris: Gallimaard, 1943); Contrée (frontispiece by Pablo Picasso) (Paris: Robert-J. Godet, 1944);  Choix de poèmes (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1946); Les Trois solitaires (Paris: Editions Les 13 Epis, 1947); Les Regrets de Paris, poèmes posthumes (Brussels and Antibes: Collection de îles de Lérins/Cahiers du Journal des Poètes, 1947); Chantefables et chatefleurs (Paris: Gründ, 1952); Domaine Public (Paris: Gallimard, 1953); Mines de rien (Paris: Broder, 1957); Calixto, suivi de Contée (Paris: Gallimard, 1962); Destinée arbitraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975); Récits, nouvelles, et poèmes (Paris: Roblot, 1975); Robert Desnos: Un poéte (Paris: Gallimard, 1980); Le Livre secret pour Youki (Paris: Editions des Cendres, 1999); Œuvres: Desnos (Paris: Gallimard, 1999)


22 Poems: Robert Desnos, trans. by Michael Benedikt (Santa Cruz, California: Kayak Books, 1971); The Voice: Selected Poems, trans. by William Kulik and Carole Frankel (New York: Grossman, 1972); Night of Loveless Nights (The Ant's Forefoot, no. 10 / New York: Coach House Press, 1973); The Night of Loveless Nights, trans. by Fred Beake (Bristol: Xenia Press, 1974); The Selected Poems of Robert Desnos, trans by Carolyn Forché and William Kulik (New York: Ecco Press, 1991);  Mourning for Mourning, trans. by Terry Hale (London: Atlas, 1992); Contrée = Country: Twenty-Five Poems, trans. by William Kulick (Iowa City: Windover Press/University of Iowa, 1994); The Circle and the Star: Selected Poems of Robert Desnos, trans. by Todd Sanders (Pittsburgh: Air and Nothingness Press, 2000); The Secret Book for Youki: And Other Poems by Robert Desnos, trans. by Todd Sanders (Pittsburgh: Air and Nothingness Press, 2001); Essential Poems and Writings by Robert Desnos, ed. by Mary Ann Caws (Boston, Massachusetts: Black Window Press, 2007)

For a sampling of Desnos poems in English, click below:

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