Autobiography followed by Conrad Detrez

William Cliff

(La Table Ronde, 2009, 208 pages)


“William Cliff . . . joins Simon Leys, Liliane Wouters, and Albert Ayguesparse in the pantheon of Belgian letters. He’s a poet who reconnects with tradition, who tells stories, who gives poetry vigor, rhythm, dynamism, and emotion again . . . His books have been staggering successes, like his biography of Conrad Detrez or his Autobiography, both constructed . . . in a serpentine language, sometimes lofty, sometimes banal to the point of prosaicness, sometimes as dignified as Chauteaubriand, sometimes borrowed from rappers or graffiti artists. Cliff has an instrument all of his own, often imitated but never equaled, who has become a leader among the artists of his generation, in Francophone countries and beyond.”

Le Soir

William Cliff was born in Belgium in 1940, one of nine children, all often neglected and ignored. He was deeply afraid of his father, a dentist turned wartime doctor who was, in Cliff’s own words, “crushed by too much human anguish.” As a child he hated school, but discovered a love of literature through the works of René Chateaubriand, who also had a rocky relationship with his father. Cliff is openly homosexual, but recounts his loss of innocence, his clandestine love affairs, and romantic disillusionments without ever becoming a “homosexual poet.” He speaks to everyone. Autobiography is the story of Cliff’s childhood and youth, told in one hundred musing, honest, sonnets.

Cliff’s poetry, heavily influenced by Catalan poet Gabriel Ferrater—whom Cliff had met in Barcelona, and whose poetry he translated into French—weaves together classical, rigid poetic forms and strict rhymes with idiomatic, clear language. We hear echoes of the tradition of François Villon, Paul Verlaine, and Rimbaud, but his subject matter can be banal, quotidian, even vulgar; it’s this tension between the high and the low that made Cliff’s entrance onto the French poetry scene in the 1970s (propelled by the endorsement of Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau) so delightfully shocking.

The one hundred sonnets of Autobiography trail from one to the next, often leaving off in the middle of a thought and picking it up again in the next sonnet. The result is a concise collection of memories that work together as a coherent whole, giving the reader a glimpse into the mind of this brilliant Belgian poet. In this collection, Autobiography is followed by Conrad Detrez, one hundred ten-line poems written to and in memory of Cliff’s close friend Conrad Detrez, the Belgian novelist and winner of the Prix Renaudot in 1978, who died of AIDS in 1985.

William Cliff’s poems first caught the attention and praise of Raymond Queneau in 1973. Thanks to Queneau’s encouragement and endorsement, Cliffs’s first volume of poetry, Homo sum, was published by Gallimard. In the decades since, Cliff has published seventeen volumes of poetry as well as several plays, novels, and translations, for which he’s been awarded le Grand prix de poésie de l’Académie française (2007), le Prix Quinquennial de littérature (2010), and le Prix Goncourt de la poésie (2014).