Learning through Poetry: “Le Message” de Jacques Prévert Posted by Josh Dougherty on Dec 31, 2014 in Culture, Literature, Uncategorized, Vocabulary
Knowing une langue étrangère (a foreign language) has many aspects to it. Some people define their fluency in a language based on the fact that they grew up speaking it, even if they can’t read or write in it. It’s certainly not fair to take that away from them, but I’m an advocate for knowing how to read and write in the language, too. Reading something as simple as a short poem can get your brain moving and thinking in new ways. You get to analyze words and all their meanings. Est-ce un jeu de mot? Que signifie cette métaphore? (Is that word play? What does this metaphor mean?) You get to see another person’s perspective on something you may have lived — even if it was written 200 years ago, la condition humaine est intemporelle (the human condition is timeless). Reading, analyzing, and working with these words and feelings is great practice for your foreign language. Today we’re going to take a look at a poem by Jacques Prévert, poète et scénariste français (French poet and screenwriter) called Le Message. Read it below, and try to understand what you can first without reading an English translation. What are some things you notice?
La porte que quelqu’un a ouverte
La porte que quelqu’un a refermée
La chaise où quelqu’un s’est assis
Le chat que quelqu’un a caressé
Le fruit que quelqu’un a mordu
La lettre que quelqu’un a lue
La chaise que quelqu’un a renversée
La porte que quelqu’un a ouverte
La route où quelqu’un court encore
Le bois que quelqu’un traverse
La rivière où quelqu’un se jette
L’hôpital où quelqu’un est mort.
The door that somebody opened
The door that somebody shut
The seat somebody sat in
The cat somebody petted
The fruit somebody bit into
The letter somebody read
The chair that somebody knocked over
The door that somebody opened
The road that somebody is still running on
The woods that somebody is crossing
The river somebody jumped into
The hospital where somebody died.
To guide you, here are two different groups of questions you can ask yourself. First, we’ll focus on le contenu (the content), and then we’ll take a look at la langue (the language).
- Briefly summarize what happened in the poem.
- What’s the structure like? What does Prévert focus on?
- What is the rhythm of the poem like? Does it change anywhere?
- Who is in the poem? How do you imagine this person/these people?
- Are there any repetitions? What do they suggest?
- Where does this poem take place?
- What happened to the person who read the message?
- What do you think the message said?
We can see that the poem is pretty fast paced. An unknown person (quelqu’un – somebody, a very vague character) comes home. We are told how he opens and closes the door and eats an apple and pets his cat – things we can assume are part of the routine. Upon discovering the message, everything changes. The slow, everyday pace becomes rushed (où quelqu’un court) before it’s finally brought to a halt when quelqu’un est mort.
Another great thing about a text is interpretation. Even when a text is laid out, everyone’s interpretation of the text can be different. Check out these 3 videos and see how these people expressed their reading. Which is closest to yours?
After watching these videos, think about these questions:
- Which version was most faithful to Prévert’s text?
- Did you see any artistic liberties taken (any differences to the original text)? Why do you think they were made? What purpose do they serve, and do you think they change the original message of the poem?
- Are these a good representation of the poem? Why or why not?
- What effect does the music have on the poem?
Reading is a great way to make you question things about the language. Let’s take a look at what you can learn through this poem alone. Let’s look at the language in action.
If you’ve learned le passé composé, you know that le participe passé (the past participle)’s ending of -er verbs would be -é. When your auxiliary verb is avoir, the past participle does not need to agree with the subject. The same cannot be said for être – your past participle has to agree with the subject in gender and number. So then why do ouverte, refermée, and renversée have the feminine -e on the end when they’re conjugated with avoir? In French, even with avoir, the past participle has to agree with the direct object if it’s placed in front of the verb.
La porte que quelqu’un a ouverte.
La porte is feminine, and because it’s placed before the verb (a), the past participle needs that -e.
C’est à vous (it’s your turn): if we replace le fruit with la pomme in the line “Le fruit que quelqu’un a mordu,” what what the text become? La pomme que quelqu’un a mordue.
You can also learn about les pronoms relatifs (relative pronouns – quoi??: it’s a pronoun used to connect a phrase or clause to a noun or another pronoun. You use them all the time: who, which, whoever, that, etc.). [Sidenote about the word que. It’s not a relative pronoun in this next example, but it’s still a very important word in French: When I first started learning French, I was taken aback that I always needed que when I wanted to use two clauses beside each other. Why do I have to say “I think that it’s funny” instead of “I think it’s funny?” That’s just how French works. You get used to it, though, and it will become second nature.]
So que is a relative pronoun (along with qui, dont, lequel, and some others). In the poem, we see another. Do you recognize it? It’s où. So what’s the difference between the uses of que and où in the poem? Que is a direct object (keep that in mind for the avoir direct object agreements). Où is used to indicate a place or time: la chaise où quelqu’un s’est assis indicates where the person sat.
And finally, we can’t forget vocabulary. You can always find words you’re not familiar with, and reading is a great way to learn. There are tactics you can use to familiarize yourself with word families. For example, we see the word renverser in the poem. There’s another similar word in French: verser. Look up the definitions and see if you can see how they’re related. Let’s take the verb se jeter in the poem. Maybe you know jeter by itself. How does the se change its meaning?
If you like learning through poetry, I think Prévert is a good author to study from. Check out his poems “Le déjeuner du matin” and “Le cancre” for even more fun!