Poetry and Style, According to Jean Cocteau


I’d like to take a couple of posts to explore the non-fiction work of Cocteau, that early 20th-century artist who exercised his wit and creativity in several artistic fields.  He may be most famous today for his 1940-something movie La Belle et la Bete (Beauty And The Beast) [which I highly recommend for the visuals] or for his novel Les Enfants Terribles.

Today, I want to share some of Cocteau’s surprisingly down-to-earth advice for the “Poet”—the term Cocteau often uses to stand for all artists, believing as he did that artists in every medium are creating “poetry,” be it the physical poetry of sculpture, the kinetic poetry of dance, or (probably, though I don’t think he ever said this explicitly) the culinary poetry of a master chef.  As he said in the essay Professional Secrets:

“Music, painting, sculpture, architecture, dancing, poetry, the drama, and that muse I call ‘Cinema, the Tenth Muse’, are all so many traps in which man endeavors to capture poetry for our use.”

Poets, says Cocteau, should present the audience member “the things which his mind and eye pass over every day, but from such an angle, and at such a speed that he seems to be seeing them and experiencing them emotionally for the first time.”  We are surrounded by commonplace items that nevertheless would astound us if we could but be taught to experience them as if for the first time.  This is the job of the Poet:  to teach the blind to see… again.

I’ve read similar advice from everyone from Basho to Borges:  the Poet’s talent is two-sided:  First, he must be able to see what others merely look at.  This requires genius enough, but on top of this, he must secondly possess the skill to then communicate to others what he has experienced.   The event that the Poet has contemplated must be translated –with heart still beating—from one womb to another… like a mother communicating with her future daughter-in-law via the birth of a son.

Poems must arrive in the piercing language of vivid immediacy: the Poet must speak fangs upon the skin.  Even the most commonplace object should become, in the careful- reckless- tender- hard hands of the Poet, a newborn babe held aloft on baptismal day.

If you can pull off this magic trick (at one point, Cocteau calls poetry “a cardtrick of the soul”), if you can bring back to life what has become dead, if you can transport an audience to some bucolic or bloody scene, if you can send them sailing across time, trailing clouds of glory, to their youthful days of love and dream, if you can place songs pounding inside them until the eye breaks in tears or the chest bursts with enthusiasm— then, then!– Cocteau would agree that “you have done a poet’s work.”

Interestingly, Cocteau also states that “poetry ceases to be obvious to all as soon as it begins to mean something to a few.”  Though this is an outright contradiction to what he has just said above (where he makes poetry sound open, democratic, and accessible), this is not really a problem, since, of all endeavors, Poetry is probably the most capable of containing contradictions within itself.  Yes, there should be a universal aspect to the greatest poetry; in other words, it should have BREADTH.  But I think what Cocteau is also saying is that the greatest poetry will additionally possess DEPTH, and that depth may be such that not everyone is prepared, in the same instance, to fathom it.

For example, a poem concerning the death of a child may not have as much meaning to a young man who has never experienced the death of someone close to him as it would have to a grieving mother.  Such a poem has a particular set of audiences—yet this does not mean that the poem has lost its universality, for if that same young man is granted life enough, he too will experience the loss of someone he loves and the poem will then gain meaning for him.  The great poem is patient; it will wait until we are ready for it.

For someone who struck me (what little I really knew of his work) as someone so conscious of appearance, I was surprised to read what Cocteau had to say about Style.  “Style can never be a starting point,” he says in Professional Secrets, “it is a result.”

I’ve always been a bit put-out by the approach of many critics and publishers to Style.  They seem to demand that a writer find and establish “a voice”—going so far as to actually consider it a fault if an author writes one way for one work and a different way for a another work.  Myself, I’ve always felt that the greatest writer would have NO style; the piece would dictate the style.  It is nice to find a comrade-in-arms in my fight against this prejudice.

Says Cocteau:  “A Poet cannot have one style only.  Or rather, cannot always season every dish with the same sauce.” 

In Order Considered As Anarchy, Cocteau proposes what he calls “an absence of style” and suggests it is better for a Poet “to have style instead of a style.”  And it is better, he says, “to wear one’s style underneath.”

Another area I can count Cocteau on our side (that would be the side of me and Hemingway) is in the area of descriptors.  We all have a healthy horror of them.

“Poets should fear adjectives like the plague,” says Cocteau.

Hemingway particularly loathed the adverb, and I’ve always agreed with Papa that they are indeed the lazy way out when it comes to describing an action for a reader.  Adjectives I’m a little less wary of–  but best of all would be a work composed of perfectly chosen nouns perfectly verbing around.  As Cocteau says, “It is not passages of pathos that make us shed our best tears, but the miracle of a word in the right place.”

I once read that Hermann Hesse complained that one of the bad traits of the fiction of his day was that authors would include details merely for the sake of adding detail, whereas it would be so much better if each part was fashioned to serve the greater whole.  Cocteau shares a similar belief:

“It astonishes me to see how our modern author, instead of fitting every detail into its place with a view to creating an ensemble, makes do with a succession of detached figures of all sizes and scales, regardless of any considerations of balance.”

Cocteau does not suffer lazy writers gladly.  “Writing, especially writing poetry, is like perspiring,” he says.  “The poem or book is a kind of sweat.”  For Cocteau, the literature produced by a writer could almost be considered to be a side-effect produced during the laborious task of creating art.  He complains that people “like nothing better than to intoxicate themselves with sweat; but they take no interest in the exercise, or sport, itself.”

A Poet, even a great Poet—especially a great Poet— does not lie back and await inspiration.  Cocteau believes that waiting for voices is “a dangerous attitude.”  Instead, a Poet must “do what he should to make the voices speak to him.”

“Each of us has a spring inside him,” Cocteau says in Order Considered As Anarchy.  “We must not break it, but we must none the less wind it up as far as it will go.”  And yes, he realizes the drudgery that can be involved in a Poet’s preparation for inspiration, admitting that “winding up the spring as far as it will go involves a certain amount of repetition,” but this is the price the Poet must pay.  The seemingly abrupt eruption of a volcano has actually been brewing beneath the surface for vast, geological time.


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