Nuit de la Lecture 2022: French poetry reading workshop

My constant fight with a college friend on how to properly pronounce Tous Les Jours is an indelible memory of my undergrad years. He insisted on saying it as “Too-wa la joo-wa” despite my arguing that tous is supposed to be a single syllable. The bakery, which is actually a South Korean brand, made me wish I had a proper knowledge of français. Never mind the names of big fashion houses that twist the tongue of non-French speakers. What intrigued me was the name of a boulangerie that sells bear-shaped cakes.

Last month, I attended the 2022 virtual Nuit de la Lecture (Reading Night) of Alliance Française de Manille (AFM)My French teacher from the same institution invited me and my classmates to join the event. However, he did not know I was already registered in the workshop even before he mentioned it. At the time, I was almost through with my Level A1.1 class with AFM, so the idea of mingling with fellow Francophiles no longer intimidated me. (or at least that’s what I thought, because I got iffy about my très amateur French skills as soon as I joined the session).

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Nuit de la Lecture is an annual celebration of the pleasure of reading. The event was launched in 2017 by the French Ministry of Culture “to encourage new readers and to reaffirm the essential place of books and reading in general.”

This year’s Nuit de la Lecture is a French poetry reading workshop organised by the Médiathéque Aurelio Montinola Jr.–the multimedia library of AFM that houses over 8000 French documents. Librarian Nicolas Frossard started the program by explaining the benefits and pleasure of reading French poetry in the original text.

On translation

French literature is close to my interest as a literary scholar. I have written a couple of essays on Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Albert Camus for graduate school. My access to their works, however, is limited to English translations. It is not necessarily a sorry situation to read French literature, or any non-English text, in translated form. Even in school, I have always valued more what is gained than what is lost in translation. This is a principle heavily influenced by Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson, who argued that each word carries a set of non-transferrable associations and connotations that make full equivalence through translation impossible. There is little incentive in obsessing over what is lost in translation because even the things we think are retained are not an accurate mirror of the original, anyhow. The reader will benefit more in appreciating the new form achieved after what Jakobson calls creative transposition. Such an idea holds great merit, but the more I become immersed in the French language, the more I understand the aesthetic experience of reading the original text.

Poetry, after all, is different from novels and short stories. It is a genre loyal to its medium and form. With translated novels, it is easy to serve the Kantian good; the fulfilment of its purpose is tied to the honest presentation of the plot. With poetry, one has to feel the melody of words to gain a full experience of it. And the said melody is part of the non-transferrable components of a poem. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a prime example to note in this case. Many English translations of the epic poem are considered ‘good’ by critics, but not a single translation is accurate enough to capture Dante’s terza rima, a rhyme scheme that is exclusively possible in Italian. By the same merit, French poetry has a unique flow and melody that are accessible only to those who speak and understand the language.

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Reading French poetry

AFM prepared seven poems for Nuit de la Lecture. Each participant was asked to choose one from the selection, which they will recite together with fellow participants who chose the same poem. Before exploring the meaning and rhythm of the poems, Nicolas gave us a brief lecture on the key elements of French poetry: le son (sound), la forme (form), et le ton (tone). Each component creates the general flow of the verses.

We were also introduced to the basic types of les vers, the most famous of which is l’alexandrin. Un alexandrin is made up of douze (12) syllabes per line. Hugo’s Demain dès l’aube est un exemple de poème alexandrin, with les rimes croisées as its rhyming scheme [ABAB, CDCD]:

As a fan of Les Misérables (both the brick-of-a-book novel and the spectacular musical) and Notre-Dame de Paris, it would not come as a surprise to those familiar with my proclivities that I chose the poem of Hugo to study and recite during the workshop. It is the most unique among all the poems because it interprets the workshop’s theme of “Aimons tou jours! Aimons encore!”, or simply l’amour, in a different way. While the other poems relate to the pleasure and perils of romantic love, Demain dès l’aube is a melancholic longing of a father to his dead child; an impressive image of paternal love. The words feel like a dialogue spoken to someone who exists only in the memories of the speaker. Published in 1856, Demain dès l’aube is an account of the author’s visit to the grave of her daughter, Léopoldine, four years after her death.

Nicolas stressed the importance of knowing how each word is pronounced to determine the poem’s syllable structure and appreciate its melody. This immediately reminded me of my friend and his controversial pronunciation of Tous les Jours. For the record, should you ever find yourself reading this mon cher ami, it’s “too-leh-joor”. One important thing I have learned in my French class so far is that the last letter in almost every French word is silencieux. 

AFM gave participants a lovely bookmark souvenir which has the name of the reader, as well as a QR code that directs to the reading of the poem. 

Écoutez ma lecture de Demain dès l’aube de Victor Hugo ici, ou scannez ce code:

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