Poetry, propaganda and Paris: who was Jacques Prévert?

You may have noticed that several poetry events have recently taken place around France to celebrate the works of the French poet Jacques Prévert (1900–1977) who died 40 years ago in April. Connexion journalist and poetry fan Victoria Horbach writes about his life and legacy...

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The French poet and scriptwriter Jacques Prévert became a prominent literary figure well before his death on April 11, 1977, and still continues to shape French culture today.

In the 1920s, he was a key figure in the Rue du Château group, a community of Surrealist painters and poets that lived together at 54 rue du Château in Paris in a house that Marcel Duhamel had bought. During this time, he became associated with various famous artists like Yves Tanguy, André Breton and Pablo Picasso.

Some of his poems, such as Les Feuilles Mortes, have been performed by Edith Piaf, Nat King Cole and other renowned singers, but his film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) and poetry collection Paroles (1946) remain known as some of his most acclaimed works.

Nowadays, hundreds of French state schools are named after Prévert, and he is widely studied at an elementary level due to his creative play on words and use of everyday language.

Jacques Prévert was born on February 4, 1900 in Neuilly-sur-Seine. He was the second of three sons and enjoyed a sheltered middle-class childhood. Nevertheless, he nurtured a deep empathy for those less fortunate than him and frequently visited poorer areas of Paris.

Since his early years, he showed an interest in the arts and often accompanied his father, a part-time cinematographic critic, to theatre productions.

Having lived in Paris from the age of seven, he developed a long-term love affair with the City of Lights and paid homage to it in many of his works, such as the autobiographical prose poem "Enfance" and poem-turned-movie project La Seine a rencontré Paris.

Despite his theatrical interest, Prévert was bored at school and dropped out when he was 15 years old and had received his school certificate. He pursued several jobs in the retail business before he was summoned to perform military service on March 25, 1920.

On his return from the war, he wrote anti-Communist propaganda texts for “The October group” an itinerant theater group which performed plays in factories that were on strike in response to the Soviet revolution of 1917.

Prévert repeatedly demonstrated his anarchistic political views through his works and even hid his Jewish friend Joseph Kosma and the decorator Alexandre Trauner from the Nazis during the Second World War. His texts for The October group addressed national and international news with wit and quickly became very popular.

Enjoying growing success as a writer, Prévert moved on to screenwriting. He produced scripts such as those for Drôle de drame, Quai des brumes, Le Jour se lève, Les Visiteurs du soir and the notable Les Enfants du Paradis in quick succession from 1937-45 and published his first signed volume of song poems, Paroles, in 1946.

To this day, many critics praise Prévert for his ability to interweave serious debate with moments of tenderness, and value him for inspiring the reader to think for himself.

He is thought to have mastered the art of subverting the reader’s expectations by deconstructing the familiar. He usually wrote in free verse to underline his strong belief in the defiance of order and often tricked his readers with neologisms, rhythm breaks and wordplay.

His talent for winkling out the ambiguity and sounds of words for comic effect often gave his predominantly simple and familiar language a refreshing twist.

Prévert never described himself as a poet, lyricist or screenwriter; instead he considered himself an artisan looking to entertain his audience.

He died from a long term illness in Omonville-la-Petite, Manche on April 11, 1977.