Jacques Prevert

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With the publication of his book Paroles in 1945, Jacques Prévert (1900–1977) became France's most popular poet of the twentieth century. He was also an innovative screenwriter who helped create some of the most influential French films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the beloved Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise). His satirical attacks on rigid French education and the Catholic Church and other institutions of authority expressed France's post-war disillusionment and defiant spirit.

Prévert was born on Feburary 4, 1900, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, near Paris. He grew up in a middle class family, the middle of three sons, and enjoyed a mostly happy childhood. His autobiographical prose poem, "Enfance" (Childhood), is filled with pleasant memories of street life in his hometown, including street performers such as singers and clowns. His father worked for the Office Central des Pauvres de Paris (Central Office for the Poor of Paris) and often took his son with him when his work took him to poorer sections of the city. Those experiences gave Prévert a lifelong sympathy with the poor and working class. His father also reviewed plays for local newspapers, and he often took his sons to the theater or the movie house, stimulating their imaginations. Prévert found school rigid and stifling, and he dropped out at 14. He was proud to say that the streets gave him his education.

In 1920 Prévert began his military service, required of all French men. While stationed at Lunéville in eastern France he befriended Yves Tanguy, who would later become a Surrealist painter. In 1921, while stationed in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), he met another friend, Marcel Duhamel. All three were eager to throw off the discipline of the military. Once their service was done, they moved to Paris and threw themselves into a rebellious, bohemian life. They moved to Rue du Château, a street in the artistic Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris. Duhamel got a job managing a hotel and supported himself, Prévert, Tanguy, and their girlfriends as they hung out in cafés, went to movies and threw parties full of games of charades.

The peak of Prévert's career came immediately after World War II. In 1945, the same year that Les Enfants du paradis was released, he published his collected poems, Paroles . The book sold more than 500,000 copies, almost unheard of for a book of poems in France. "Prévert spoke particularly to the French youth immediately after the War, especially to those who grew up during the Occupation and felt totally estranged from Church and State," wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the introduction to the 1990 edition of Paroles , which he translated into English in 1958. Looking back in 1960, prominent French critic Gaëton Picon called Prévert "the only genuine poet who, at present, has succeeded in reaching beyond the bounds of a more or less specialized public," according to Blakeway's book. The verses in Paroles became even more popular when Joseph Kosma, a Hungarian composer who worked with Carné on his films, set some of them to music. Perhaps the most famous was "Les Feuilles Morts" (Autumn Leaves), which was recorded by Yves Montand and Juliette Gréco, two famed French singers of the post-war era. Montand's version appeared in the 1946 film Les Portes de la nuit (The Doors of the Night), the last collaboration between Carné and Prévert. He also published Contes pour enfants pas sages (Stories for Children Who Aren't Very Well-Behaved) in 1947.

Prévert's career suffered twin setbacks in 1948. His partnership with Carné fell apart when the film La Fleur de l'âge was cancelled during production. Also, while at the office of Radiodiffusion Nationale in Paris, he fell and was severely injured, spending weeks in a coma. Once he recovered, he moved with his family—his second wife, Janine Loris, was an alumna of the Groupe Octobre—back to Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

In 1951 Prévert published Spectacle , a collection of poetry and dramatic works, followed by La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and Good Weather) in 1955. He also worked on films and books for children, such as Bim, le petit âne (Bim the Little Donkey). In 1955 he moved back to Paris. He had become so popular that strangers approached him on the street and quoted lines of his poems to greet him.

American poet Eve Merriam went to visit Prévert in 1959 and spent hours with him talking about poetry and art. Writing in the New Republic , she recalled him as "a short, white-haired man with blue eyes, blunt expressive fingers, cigarette dangling from his lips like a corny Apache dancer. Wearing a blue sweater the color of his eyes, dapper gray flannels, and black leather moccasins newly polished, he looked like a sportive dandy." In 1961, when Serge Gainsbourg, soon to become France's most revered songwriter, wrote the tribute song "La Chanson De Prévert," he went to Prévert's house to seek his blessing and ended up spending a morning drinking champagne with him.

Prévert produced several art collages during the late 1950s and early 1960s. "They were surreal, comic and beautiful, scathingly anti-church, anti-corporation, anti-hypocrisy," Merriam wrote in the New Republic . They were exhibited in Paris in 1957 and in Antibes in southern France in 1963. He continued to publish books, including Histoires et d'autres histoires (Stories and Other Stories) in 1963 and Choses et autres (Things and Other Things) in 1972.

After a long illness, Prévert died on April 11, 1977, at his home in Omonville-La-Petite, in Normandy, France. That day, Carné (as quoted in the New York Times ) called him "the one and only poet of French cinema," whose "humor and poetry succeeded in raising the banal to the summit of art" and whose style reflected "the soul of the people." Prévert wanted to be remembered as a people's poet. A few years before his death, in an interview quoted in Harriet Zinnes's introduction to her book Blood and Feathers , Prévert said, "I was popular even before being fashionable. That's how it was. What gave me pleasure was having readers…. They are the greatest literary critics…. These are the people who know the best literature, those who love it, not the connoisseurs."

Adapted from the Encyclopedia of World Biography =: http://www.notablebiographies.com/supp/Supplement-Mi-So/Pr-vert-Jacques.html

The barrel organ

Me, I play the piano
said one
me, I play the violin
said another
me the harp, me the banjo
me the cello
me the bagpipes, me the flute
and me, a rattle.
And they talked talked
talked about what they played.
No music was heard
everyone talked
talked talked
and no one played
but in a corner one man remained silent:
"And you, Sir, who remain silent and say nothing,
what instrument do you play?"
the musicians asked him.
"Me, I play the barrel organ
and I also play the knife,"
said the man who until now
had said absolutely nothing
and then he advanced knife in hand
and killed all the musicians
and played the barrel organ
and his music was so true
and so lively and so pretty
that the daughter of the house’s owner
came out from under the piano
where she lay bored to sleep
and said:
"Me, I played hoop
ball, chase
I played hopscotch
I played with a pail
I played with a shovel
I played house
I played tag
I played with my dolls
I played with a parasol
I played with my little brother
with my little sister
I played cops
and robbers
but that’s over over over
I want to play assassin
I want to play the barrel organ."
And the man took the little girl by the hand
and they went into towns
into houses, into gardens
and killed as many people as possible
after which they married
and had many children.
But
the oldest learned piano
the second, violin
the third, harp
the fourth, the rattle
the fifth, cello
and they all took to talking talking 
talking talking talking
so that no more music was heard
and all was set to begin again!