Orphic Paris by Henri Cole

That serendipitous book thingy’s been happening to me again. I was browsing the NYRB catalogue, and my eye was caught by the title of this one; and as someone who’s always been captivated by the thought of Paris, a look at the blurb was enough to convince me I should read it. Henri Cole is a poet, and a winner of numerous awards for his writing; he’s also taught widely and has been poetry editor of the New Republic. Yet in my ignorance I’d never heard of him (I’m *not* well-read in modern poetry if I’m honest); and the loss has been mine.

Poetry is a language that doesn’t shut us out; it should give the opposite experience.

“Orphic Paris” is Cole’s love-letter to a city he lived in, its denizens, and any number of poets; but so much more than that. I’ve seen it described as a kind of literary commonplace book, and it certainly combines a number of literary forms to paint its picture. It’s a beautiful collage of a book – photos, memories, stories, musings, poetic fragments, pieces of his own verse – all building up an image of the Paris Cole lived in and loved. The text is not limited to Paris alone, however; Cole explores his family background (his mother was a French Armenian, his father an American, and he was born in Japan) and the parts dealing with his relationship with his family are some of the most touching in the book. He also explores the connection that other authors have had with Paris and poetry, and the ghosts of Elizabeth Bishop, Baudelaire, Stein, Hemingway, Plath and Rilke, to name just a few, hover beautifully over the narrative. Baudelaire in particular is a regular touchstone, a writer connected to the heart of Paris.

I want to write poems that are X-rays of the soul in moments of being and seeing. This includes the ghastly, the insane, and the cruel, but also beauty, Eros, and wonder. In short, a poem is like a portrait. It is an artist’s most profound and expressive response to life.

The loose structure of the book allows Cole to meditate on all number of subjects; from his deep friendship with author James Lord to his thoughts on the art of writing poetry. The former are moving; the latter illuminating; they did much to enlighten me about the power I often feel poetry has over me and why I’ve responded so strongly to books, and also to people who use words well. The book ranges wide and free, stopping here and there on subjects such as AIDS, the introduction of same-sex marriages in France and the changes to values Cole has seen since he was a young man in the 1970s and 1980s. The latter aspects recur in the section dealing with the symbolism of roses as a flower and also their colour, tied in with sadness at the coming of HIV and its consequence.

Poetry is different from fiction. Poetry is not a lie that tells the truth. A poem must burn with a truth-seeking flame and be a small symphony of language, too.

Cole’s musings on Plath I found to be particularly thoughtful, and one section of the book focuses on bees, using their activity as an analogy for the work poets do. Plath, of course, drew heavily on beekeeping imagery, and I found myself pondering on the way some poets burn bright and then burn out. Of the seminal influence of Plath and the personal nature of her work, Cole comments perceptively:

I believed then, and I still do, that a poem is organized violence. Like Baudelaire, Plath extended the boundaries of the lyric, taking the reader deeper into the shadows of her sorrow during the final weeks and months of her life. Even today, in certain quarters, she is trivialized and dishonored because of the confessional nature of her poems.

Needless to say, the language is quite beautiful and evocative throughout; I suppose by definition, the prose of a poet will of course be poetic. The book is eminently readable, full of wisdom and wearing Cole’s love for the city on its sleeve. The small images, some taken by Cole and some from other sources, enhance the narrative – particularly when dealing with the poet’s family. And the Orphic connection? Well, for me Cocteau and his spellbinding film “Orphee” have always been inseparably linked to Paris; and both the classical Orpheus and Cocteau’s character were poets. I couldn’t helping thinking that Cole’s literary flaneuring was carrying on a great tradition…

To look inward and explore the darker corners of the soul is one of the functions of lyric poetry.

“Orphic Paris” is a gem of a book, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. The words are hypnotic; the pictures evocative; and the book invokes the spirit of Paris beautifully. Cole’s narrative builds to a beautiful, lyrical crescendo where he pours out what he loves about Paris and it’s extraordinarily moving. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the book is actually being released directly in the UK, as the NYRB catalogue states there are no UK rights. Fortunately, however, you can buy it from online sources (as I did!) and so you can get your own copy of this wonderful book, which I really urge you to do!

Photo by Nicolas Vigier, Public Domain

As for Henri Cole’s poetry, I’m going to make a point of going off to explore it; he has a website with some wonderful examples, and if his poetry speaks as strongly to me as this book did, I may have to end up with a dedicated shelf… 😀

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