In a City Garden

In casting about for a poem to accompany the photographs on this post, I pulled Paroles, a slim book of poems by Jacques Prévert, from my book shelf. The photographs, by the way, are of the Central Park Conservatory garden in late March, with snow still on the ground, and late May.

The book, translated from the French by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was part of the City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series. I suspect, from its yellowed condition and $3.00 price tag, that I bought it at City Lights bookstore 30-odd years ago. It was soon submerged in piles of stuff, and I don’t think I ever read any of the poems.

I don’t know which came first, the book of poems or the poster, but I’ve also long owned a poster of drawings by Prévert. I don’t remember how I came into possession of it, and I’ve never known what it depicts. I chose it because its whimsy appealed to me, and still does. Only now, on looking into it, I’m suspecting the poster is a detail of the preliminary plan for his screenplay, Les Enfants du Paradis (a movie I’ve never seen).

So, decades later, I finally picked up the book and came across the poem Quartier Libre. [citation, p. 40] While the poem may have nothing whatever to do with a city garden, I can well imagine the speaker walking through Central Park:

Quartier Libre

I put my cap in the cage
and went out with the bird on my head
one no longer salutes
asked the commanding officer
one no longer salutes
replied the bird
Ah good
excuse me I thought one saluted
said the commanding officer
You are fully excused everybody makes mistakes
said the bird.

Paroles, first published in 1946 and generally considered Prévert’s best work, was [p]atched together by René Bertelé from forgotten newspapers and reviews, cabaret songs, and scribblings from the backs of envelopes and the paper tablecloths of cafés . . .”. [citation]

Ferlinghetti never met Prévert, but here’s how he found the poem (though, at the time, he didn’t know Prévert was the poet):

I was in the Normandy invasion in the navy. And then I was in Brittany, along the coast, after the invasion. I was in a few towns along the coast, like St. Brieuc and St. Malo. I was in Cherbourg. And I remember finding part of a Prévert poem on one of those paper tablecloths, the kind they always had in the cheap cafes? [Robert Dana, Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers, p. 96]

In the preface to his 1958 translation, Ferlinghetti wrote

the poem on the paper tablecloth is perhaps as typical of the way Prévert got around France in the mid-Forties as it is of his poetry itself—a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on. [citation, p. 3]

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Listening List

 Francis Poulenc, Eight Nocturnes, FP 56 (1930-1938)

  1. Sans trainer (pour Suzette) (C major)
  2. Bal des jeunes filles. Très animé (à Janine Salles) (F major)
  3. Les cloches de Malines. Modéré mais sans lenteur (à Paul Collaer)(F major)
  4. Bal fantôme. Lent, très las et piano (à Julien Green)(C minor)
  5. Phalènes. Presto misterioso (à Jean Michel Frank)(D minor)
  6. Très calme mais sans trainer (à Waldemar Strenger) (G major)
  7. Assez allant (à Fred Timar)(E♭ major)
  8. (pour servir de coda au cycle) Très modéré (G major)

[citation for titles and dedications]

From the Naxos liner notes:

The critic Jay Harrison once compared Poulenc to Paris. “He is gay like Paris, sad like Paris. And he bustles constantly. His hands wave, his eyebrows arch, he twitches, grins, makes faces. When his mouth talks, all of him talks too. If he is not Paris, he is at least French. Not even a deaf man could doubt that.” And certainly that is also true of Poulenc’s music. Poulenc’s eight nocturnes span about a decade (1929-1938). Although they are often played separately, Poulenc created a cycle when he composed the eighth nocturne and gave it the title Pour servir de Coda au Cycle (To serve as Coda for the Cycle). Unlike Chopin’s or Fauré’s, Poulenc’s nocturnes are not romantic tone-poems. They are instead night-scenes and sound-images of public and private events. [citation]

Nocturne No. 1, performed by Poulenc

8 Nocturnes, performed by Alexandre Tharaud


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, the photographs, here of the Central Park Conservatory in late March and late May, are mine.

15 thoughts on “In a City Garden

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: I would like to do both. I am, however, finding it hard to focus on pleasurable things these days, much as I try to.

      1. David N

        Kudos to your tireless campaigning, but anyway Les Enfants du Paradis is definitely one to see before one dies. On many people’s top films list, including J’s (I think it may be his number one. Mine, FWIW, is the full-length version of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, and I insist on your watching that too).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Laurent & now David, too: I have now, on inspiration from both of you, ordered up Les Enfants from the library. It’s definitely high time to catch up on great films and great reads. (Fanny and Alexander I have seen and enjoyed, though another viewing at some point would be a pleasure, I’m sure.)

          1. David N

            Especially if you only saw what’s known as the ‘theatrical’ version (the TV one, which I think is now standard on DVD, has too much amazing stuff to ignore).

            You’ll both love Les Enfants…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: You have always been, and continue to be, a comrade in arms in accidental discoveries. They are indeed the best of all.

  1. David N

    City Lights was a highlight of our visit to San Francisco. Among other things, I bought their edition of Goethe’s Tales for Transformation – published, I now realise, because of the trippy nature of his ‘Fairy Tale’. Wonderful pics as ever.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Love hearing of your own trip to City LightsQ Browsing in independent bookstores anywhere (even sometimes when I can’t read in the language) is one of my very favorite things, and, long ago as it was, my own trip to City Lights remains a wonderful memory.

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    Two points of contact this time:

    I just checked and, sure enough, my yellowing paperback of the French version of Paroles is still on the bookshelf where it belongs.

    My connection to City Lights Bookstore is that when I was in the Peace Corps in Tegucigalpa in 1968 I sent a Honduran check to them and they really did send me the books I ordered. How’s that for service?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: These are terrific points of contact–though of course your yellowing volume of Paroles is in French. Fascinating, also, about the exemplary customer service at City Lights!

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