L’École des Beaux-Arts

L’École des Beaux-Arts

lay-kull day bo-ZAAR. Click below to hear this.

School of Fine Arts

I think it’s time for another poem. And it’s by one of my go-to poets, Jacques Prévert. At first blush this one seems like a small, insignificant thing, a wispy throwaway. But read it:

L’école des beaux-arts

Dans une boîte de paille tressée
Le père choisit une petite boule de papier
Et il la jette
Dans la cuvette
Devant ses enfants intrigués
Surgit alors
Multicolore
La grande fleur japonaise
Le nénuphar instantané
Et les enfants se taisent
Émerveillés
Jamais plus tard dans leur souvenir
Cette fleur ne pourra se faner
Cette fleur subite
Faite pour eux
A la minute
Devant eux.

The poem is all about the magic of a specific moment, the moment when a brief rainy-day entertainment transforms itself into something much larger than any of the players. Like the tiny ball of paper that blooms and expands into a rainbow-colored water lily, there is amazing richness hidden in this moment.

In just a few lines, the children go from intrigués to émerveillés. The poet doesn’t need to tell us the age of the children; there is none of the bored, blasé attitude of the teenager, nor even the logical scepticism of a six-year-old who sees through every trick. These children are little, and the poet has captured a seminal moment in their young lives.

This is the second in which the children’s eyes are opened to wonder and beauty. It’s also the moment when the father’s ability to dazzle and teach his children is unquestioned. The simplicity of the gesture–he drops a tightly-wound ball of paper into a basin of water–contrasts sharply with the extravagant results: a giant, unforgettable flower.

We know from the title that the children have learned something important and durable from this little demonstration. It’s not the flower that will never fade, but rather the enchantment and the sense that this belongs exclusively to each of them. This “magic trick”, performed specifically for them as a group, is also an intensely private spectacle for each of them of powerful forces that will shape their world.

Here’s an English prose translation from The Penguin Book of French Verse, 4: The Twentieth Century, 1959 (yes, I’ve had the book that long):

“From a box of woven straw the father chooses a little paper ball, and before his curious children throws it in the wash-basin. Then arises in many colours the great Japanese flower, the instantaneous water-lily, and the children are silent with wonder. That flower can never fade later in their memory, that sudden flower made for them at a moment’s notice before their eyes.”

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