Francis Jean Gaston Alfred Ponge (27 March 1899 – 6 August 1988) was a French essayist and poet. Influenced by surrealism, he developed a form of prose poem, minutely examining everyday objects. He was the inaugural recipient of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1974.
Ponge was born into a Protestant family in Montpellier in the South of France, the son of Armand Ponge, a banker, and his wife Juliette, née Saurel. He studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and the École de droit where he read law, In 1918–19 he served in the French army. In 1919 he joined the Socialist Party.
Ponge worked for the Parisian publishing companies Editions Gallimard (1923–31) and Hachette (1931–37), and before the outbreak of the Second World War he was briefly an insurance salesman. His earliest poems were published in 1923, and he established a reputation in French literary circles, principally for his contributions to the Nouvelle Revue Français. The editor of the publication, Jean Paulhan, became Ponge's mentor, and remained so for many years. Their correspondence continued until Paulhan's death in 1968. During the 1930s Ponge was for a short while associated with the Surrealist movement, influenced by which he joined the Communist Party in 1937.
During the Second World War, Ponge joined the French Resistance. He also worked for the National Committee of Journalists, 1942–44 and was literary and artistic director of the communist weekly L'Action 1944–46. He left the Communist Party in 1947. From 1952 to 1965 he held a professorship at the Alliance française in Paris. in 1966 and 1967 he was a visiting professor at Barnard College and Columbia University in the US.
Awards made to Ponge included the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1974), the Académie française's French National Poetry Prize (1981), and the Grand prix of the Société des gens de lettres (1985). He was a Commandeur of the Légion d'honneur (1983).
In his work, Le parti pris des choses (often translated The Voice of Things), he meticulously described common things such as oranges, potatoes and cigarettes in a poetic voice, but with a personal style and paragraph form (prose poem) much like an essay.
Ponge avoided appeals to emotion and symbolism, and instead sought to minutely recreate the world of experience of everyday objects. He described his own works as "a description-definition-literary artwork" which avoided both the drabness of a dictionary and the inadequacy of poetry. His principal aim was to avoid stereotypical thinking. In Le Grand Recueil (The Grand Collection), published in 1961 he explained his "concentration on simple objects – stones, grass, directed towards a restoration of the power and purity of language," according to his obituary in The Times.
In 1967 he published his best-known work, Le Savon, translated as Soap (1969), a long prose poem that, in the words of The Times "is unique precisely because, and often very humorously, it exhausts the topic of the word and the thing." An extract from the original and the English translation, published in 1969 illustrate this:
Si je m'en frotte les mains, le savon écume, jubile...
Plus il les rend complaisantes, souples,
liantes, ductiles, plus il bave, plus
sa rage devient volumineuse et nacrée...
Plus il forme avec l'air et l'eau
des grappes explosives de raisins
L'eau, l'air et le savon
se chevauchent, jouent
à saute-mouton, forment des
combinaisons moins chimiques que
physiques, gymnastiques, acrobatiques...
Translation by Lane Dunlop:
If I rub my hands with it, soap foams, exults...
The more complaisant it makes them, supple,
smooth, docile, the more it slobbers, the more
its rage becomes voluminous, pearly...
The more it forms with air and water
clusters of scented grapes
Water, air and soap
at leapfrog, form
combinations less chemical than
physical, gymnastical, acrobatical
- Le Parti pris des choses (1942)
- Proêmes (1948)
- La Rage de l'expression (1952)
- Le Grand Recueil (I. "Méthodes", 1961 ; II. "Lyres", 1961 ; III "Pièces", 1962)
- Pour un Malherbe (1965)
- Le Savon (1967) as Soap, Jonathan Cape, London
- Interviews with Philippe Sollers (1970)
- La Fabrique du Pré (1971)
- Comment une figue de paroles et pourquoi (1977)
- Pages d'atelier, 1917-1982 (2005) Gallimard, Paris
Commentaries on Ponge
- Jacques Derrida, in his essay, "Psyche: Inventions of the Other," minutely analyzes Ponge's poem, "Fable." 
- Jacques Derrida, in his book Signeponge-Signsponge, English translation by Richard Rand, Columbia University Press, 1984.
- Philippe Sollers, in his essay Francis Ponge, Seghers éditions, Paris, 2001.
- Annick Fritz-Smead, Francis Ponge: De l'Ecriture à l'Oeuvre, Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.
- Marco Nuti, Au Pays des Mots. Francis Ponge et l’inaperçu du réel, LED Edizioni Universitarie, Milano, 2009, ISBN 978-88-7916-417-7
- Jean-Paul Sartre, "L'homme et les choses", in Situations I, Paris, Gallimard, 1947, 251-252.
- "Francis Ponge", Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007, accessed 29 February 2012 (subscription required)
- "Francis Ponge", Green Integer, accessed 29 December 2011
- "Obituary – M. Francis Ponge", The Times, 11 August 1988
- Fawcett, Peter. "Greatness through method", The Times Literary Supplement, 26 December 1986, p. 1440
- Dunstan Martin, Graham "Ponge, Francis", The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, ed. Peter France. Oxford University Press 1995, Oxford Reference Online, accessed 29 February 2012 (subscription required)
- Ponge, Francis. Soap, trans. Lane Dunlop. London:Jonathan Cape (1969). ISBN 0-224-61658-7
|French literary history|