René Ménil

Poetry, Jazz & Freedom

More than any critical reflection, it is the phenomenon of jazz—quite considerable for us—that has enabled us to realize the historic character of style and content in a work and even, at its limits, to grant them only (so to speak) “instantaneous” value.

The essence of jazz is improvisation.

An esthetic derived from jazz would be a technique to create beauty as one goes along. For jazz results from an approach consisting of the very somersaults of life, and its style is simply an immediate informing through music or in any other way—I realize that such an esthetic can apply to poetry in general—of feelings and images, progressively as they appear in the mind. Any crystallization, any lazy imitation of self, any petrification of life, threatens the validity of the fragile elaboration.

No detailed rhythm set beforehand.

No content concretely preconceived.

No rhythm, no content, other than in the form of a hunger for life—a life marked, let us say, by a passion demanding to be satisfied, substitutively, by the sublimation of “song.” The “player” does not know, must not know, his next note, his next phrase, his next adventure. Yet he goes forward, like an acrobat on the tightrope of circumstance.

A beautiful work is a work of circumstance.

But who will agree with Goethe that the only lasting works are the works of circumstance?

The time we live in is poisoned with eternity. Jazz has been one of the best means of purging us, and for re-creating in us the sense of the instant and the sense of transition. For our part, we shall not hesitate to see in actuality, however defined, the place to resolve all human problems that can be posed, in this or any other domain. . . . In actuality we find all the instants prior to a particular act of becoming—because, in any life, “that which has been superseded is at the same time something preserved which, in losing its merely immediate existence, is not thereby destroyed” (Hegel).

The actuality of a being is its present, but this present is that very being marked by the extreme temporal indication of its duration. Thus, for a living being, there is no irreconcilable contradiction between its present and its past except in the heads of the abstractors of its quintessence. Similarly, in a social setting, there is no antinomy between modern and ancient works, between new works (not yet consecrated) and culture. The latest work, although it may not be “qualified”—in other words, regarded as valuable at present—implies all the steps taken by the society under consideration.

A poet, therefore, is not modern because he is ignorant of the past or has abandoned it, but rather because of a dialectical supersession of the stages of that past—that is to say, a simultaneous living negation and living conservation of old cultural forms. This modernness, moreover, will be fuller and more valuable because it is totally informed of the past.

If cultural tradition is embodied in the poet, it cannot serve as a model—there is no model for what is yet unborn. But it will serve as a support of the past to situate the poet inflexibly in time, to make him a modern man in a specific period.

Such is poetic necessity: all of the past in oneself.

Such is poetic freedom: before oneself, the faceless future.


Tropiques, No. 11
(Martinique, 1944)
translated by Keith Holloman

SOURCE: Ménil, René. “Poetry, Jazz & Freedom,” translated by Keith Holloman, in Surrealism & Its Popular Accomplices, edited by Franklin Rosemont (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1980), p. 83. (Originally special issue of Cultural Correspondence, no. 10-11.) Original French publication: Tropiques, No. 11 (Martinique, 1944).

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